What Is Bee “Swarming” Exactly?
Amy Grisak and her husband, Grant, live in Montana with their boys and often share stories with us about their adventures as beekeepers.
A Swarm of Bees?
A “swarm of bees” sounds scary, and is enough to send shivers down the spine of many people, but there’s no need to panic. These traveling honey bees are simply finding a new home.
Why Do Bees Swarm?
Swarming is a completely natural phenomenon that most often occurs in the spring. After surviving the winter by maintaining a viable cluster of bees feeding off of their honey reserves, activity in the hive picks up as soon as the days grow longer and warmer. Before long, the queen will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day, which take a mere 3 weeks to form into adult bees. By early to mid-spring there are tens of thousands of new bees, making the hive a bit cramped.
When the bees feel the hive is too crowded (or is less desirable, depending on any number of circumstances), they create larger cells in the brood chamber (the beehive nest) where they will feed the larvae a special substance called royal jelly to produce a new queen.
This is when it can become tricky for a beekeeper. Unless you keep a keen eye on a very robust hive, recognizing possible signs of swarming, such as bees spilling out of the entrance or the presence of queen cells, you can wake up one day to find half of your hive has flown the coop. Yet, even when you are watchful, the bees don’t let always you know what they have on their agenda.
I experienced my first swarm two decades ago. I thought something was amiss because the bees’ buzzing seemed extraordinarily loud. Imagine my surprise when I saw a group of them clustered on a small lodgepole pine tree. Thankfully, this was an easy retrieval, as I only had to snip the tree below the cluster and shake them into a new hive body (wearing protective gear, of course!).
Others aren’t so lucky. A couple of summers ago, a woman who lives near the alfalfa fields where we have some of our bees, called to let me know the bees were behaving very oddly. My husband Grant went out to investigate only to find half the hive gone, and bees robbing the hundreds of pounds of stores. Our strongest hive took off and took most of their honey with them. Despite looking in cottonwoods and any place bees might like, he never could find them.
See Swarming? Try To Save The Colony!
Honey bees are precious these days, which is why it’s important to try to save a colony if you see one swarming, or if you have one in a spot where you don’t want it. During a swarm, bees will typically cluster onto a tree or branch for a short amount of time, this might be a few minutes or a couple of days, so the “scout” bees can find a new place. The good news is honey bees are relatively docile when they’re swarming because they are carrying honey, and don’t have a hive to defend. This doesn’t mean you can poke them with a stick, but it’s a nice time to stand back and observe them (always use caution).
The best way to help out the honey bees is to call a beekeeper in your area to capture the swarm. You can find one by searching for local beekeeping organizations, or contact your local Extension office, as many offer beekeeping classes and might have the information of who keeps bees in your town. Contacting any of these organizations is a good step in finding a beekeeper who is more than happy to rescue a colony. Typically, a beekeeper will not charge for a removal, unless there is an additional cost for equipment rental, as the bees are valuable enough.
How the bees are captured completely depends on where they’re located. I was fortunate early on because we were surrounded by tiny lodgepole pines, making it easy to handle. But when the cluster of bees is higher in the branches, it might require a ladder or a cherry picker to reach them to either shake the bees into the box or snip off the branch to bring down and shake.
Sometimes, the bees end up in odd places. Like on the roof of a hot dog cart in Times Square. One time, Grant captured a swarm that nestled itself within the wheel well of a parked vehicle. With a hive tool, he gently scooped the bees from the wheel well onto a frame, being particularly careful to gather the queen who is protected by the workers in the middle of the cluster, and then slid the frame into an empty hive body.
In another instance, there was a feral hive established in the soffit of a barn, which was converted to a guest house. When bees are within a structure, it’s far more challenging. You can’t simply seal them up or kill them since the smell of tens of thousands of rotting bees and larvae would be terrible. Thankfully, the owners wanted these bees saved, so Grant went up in a cherry picker and removed enough of the soffit to reach the hive. He carefully sliced off the honeycomb and placed it in an empty hive body. It was a textbook removal, and those bees made up one of the best hives we had.
How Can You Help?
Swarming bees might look intimidating, but they’re not. You can help them by keeping an eye on them, especially if they leave their initial cluster area, and call a beekeeper who will give them a safe new home.