Watts Bar “Bee-Team” Saves Swarming Hive

When a swarm of bees descended on Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, one beekeeping employee knew just what to do. Thanks to his know-how and connections, these important pollinators are surviving and thriving today.

SPRING CITY, Tenn. — More than 650,000 homes enjoy the 1,150 megawatts of milk and honey that flows from Watts Bar Nuclear plant and illuminates the bulbs above the kitchen table. But now, the Tennessee Valley Authority plant is helping pollinate Rhea County with a giant swarm of 25,000 honey bees that was rescued from its 1,700-acre reservation in June.

Today, the bees are thriving in a hive positioned by a small garden about 8.5 miles north of the plant. The hive is being cared for by beekeeper Billy Thedford, who is a member of the Rhea County Beekeepers Association (RCBA). 

Thedford is preparing to split the Watts Bar bee colony into multiple hives in hopes of gradually repopulating the bee numbers in Rhea County over time. With the help of other beekeepers, he plans to position each stable hive in different locations across the county — creating lasting value for the entire community.

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

Creating a Hive that Can Thrive

The event happened when a TVA employee, Mark Porter — who happens to be a beekeeper — spotted a colony of honeybees at work.

A queen had split off and led half her colony of worker bees across the site in search of a new home. Assembled on a concrete structure outside the plant’s maintenance building, the swarm was waiting for the colony’s “scout bees” to return.

“Most people’s first instinct is to spray them dead, but these pollinators are crucial to our food supply and need to be saved,” Porter says — not to mention it’s illegal to kill honeybees in the state of Tennessee.

After a few phone calls, the Rhea County Beekeepers Association dispatched Thedford, who specializes in relocating wild bee swarms.

Together, Thedford and Porter used a turkey feather (shown above) to gently swipe the bees into a swarm box (shown below) for transport.

“The site responded beautifully,” says Jerri Dolan, TVA environmental scientist. “Our employees 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.” 

The Case for Bees

It’s no secret. Honeybee numbers are declining.

This year the nation saw a 38 percent loss in managed colonies — one of the highest on record, according to Bee Informed Partnership. Last year, Tennessee’s 65 percent winter loss was the second highest state, while Arizona’s devastating die-off topped the chart at 72 percent.

With one-third of the global food supply made by pollinators, this is a big problem. That’s one in every three bites you take.

“The losses we’re experiencing due to parasites and other diseases is intolerable. Imagine if 40 percent of America’s beef cattle were wiped out in a year,” RCBA President Diana Pace says. “That’s what’s at stake here. We’re talking about our food, and it’s essential to try to save and replenish as many of these bee swarms as possible.”

TVA’s Dolan agrees. “The worst case scenario is already a reality in other countries,” she says. “In China, they are having to hand-pollinate just to maintain their food supply.”

In addition to the pollinating food factor, consuming local honey is believed to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. According to Pace, bees from a single hive can forage up to eight miles, bringing pollens and other allergens back to the hive to be mixed with the golden goodness.

“By introducing small amounts of local allergens into our system, honey can help boost our immunity,” Pace says. 

It’s still going to be a few years before the Watts Bar bees will be able to produce enough honey for consumption, but RCBA honey is currently being sold at the Piggly Wiggly and other locations throughout the county. Pace says if you are looking to buy local honey near you, read the labels closely.

The words “distributed by” or “produced by” are telltale indicators that the jar’s contents is  likely an imposter — regardless of other claims on the label. The honey may even be from overseas — mostly imported corn syrup from China.

Join the “Bee-Team” 

So the next time you see a giant swarm of honeybees, think about how your actions could affect the big picture. Leave the bees 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.

“The best thing you can do when you see a swarm is to not kill them,” Porter said. “They have a higher chance of survival if beekeepers take them.” 

Porter encourages everyone to reduce their use of pesticides and herbicides, and only spray in the evening when bees are safely in the hive for the night. Bees are sensitive to both chemicals and disease, which is why they’re nearly endangered.

The Tennessee Beekeepers Association keeps an online directory of each association near you. The directory keeps a listing of names and numbers of your local beekeepers. Other state associations may not have an online directory, but gladly arrange for swarm collections.