Bees at Watts Bar

Beekeepers work to remove a swarm of bees outside of a maintenance building at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant

When Mark Porter, TVA Nuclear online scheduler, saw a swarm of 25,000 bees outside the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant maintenance building, he was uniquely equipped to not panic.

 “As a beekeeper, I knew the swarm was a queen and half her colony split off to find a new home,” Porter said. “Most people’s first instinct is to spray them dead, but these pollinators are crucial to our food supply and need to be saved. “

Creating a hive that can thrive

To prevent injuries, especially for workers with allergies, the Watts Bar team first roped off the area. Then, Porter was able to educate curious — and some fearful — employees on bee behaviors.

 “Bees in a swarm are less likely to sting because there’s no hive to protect,” Porter said. “They are also too full from gorging on honey before making the long trip to an unknown destination to bend their bodies enough to sting.”

Watts Bar halted any kind of work that could potentially release pesticide or herbicide into the air. They then reached out to Billy Thedford, a local beekeeper who brought in a special swarm box to relocate the bees to a new home.

Together, Thedford and Porter gently brushed the bees into the special box using a turkey feather.

Once captured, Thedford relocated the swarm to a new hive at his home in Spring City, Tennessee, about 8.5 miles upriver from the plant.

“The Watts Bar team responded beautifully,” said Jerri Dolan, TVA environmental scientist. “They made the area safe, while also looking out for the wellbeing of these important pollinators. It’s a perfect example of properly handling both safety and environmental factors.”

Today, the rescued bees are thriving. Thedford expects to split the Watts Bar bee colony into additional hives before the fall. Within a few years, the goal is for the bees to multiply into dozens of stable colonies that can be positioned in different locations across Rhea County — benefitting the entire community.

 “If we treat these bees right, the benefits of this one hive could go on forever,” Thedford said.

The case for bees

Diana Pace, President of the Rhea County Beekeepers Association agreed: “Honeybee numbers are declining. Last year, we experienced a 40 percent loss nationally due to parasites and other diseases. This is intolerable. Imagine if 40 percent of America’s beef cattle were wiped out in a year. It is essential to try to save and replenish as many of these bee swarms as possible. Bees play a critical role in pollinating our nation’s food.”

Pace says if you see a swarm, you should leave them alone and call your county extension agent or a local beekeeper immediately. If swarms are not captured by nightfall, they will likely move on and the opportunity to bring them into a controlled environment and replenish their numbers will be lost forever.

“Bees are really sensitive to chemicals and disease, which is why they’re nearly endangered,” Porter said. “They have a higher chance of survival if beekeepers take them.”

One-third of the global food supply is made by pollinators — that’s one in every three bites you take.

“The worst-case scenario is already a reality in other countries,” Dolan said. “For example, in China, they are having to hand-pollinate to maintain their food supply.”

Join the “Bee-Team”

In addition to the pollination factor, consuming local honey is also a natural anti-histamine. According to Pace, bees from a single hive travel up to eight miles looking for forage. If consumers live within this circular zone surrounding the hive where the honey is extracted, then they get an allergy immunity benefit from the golden goodness.

 “It’s like an allergy shot,” Pace said. “The honey has small amounts of pollen and local allergens in it that the bees carry back to the hive.”

So, the next time you see a giant swarm of honeybees or decide to spray the garden for bugs, take Porter’s advice.

 “The best thing you can do when you see a swarm is to not kill them,” Porter said. “Try to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, and only spray in the evening when bees are safely in the hive for the night.”

For more information about beekeeping and local honey sold in your area, visit your state’s beekeepers association’s webpage. Each association keeps an online directory listing the names and numbers of beekeepers near you.