What to Do if You See a Swarm

honey bee swarm
 

Swarming season is upon us. As the overwintering period ends, chances for swarming behavior in honey bee colonies increase between spring and early summer. Are you prepared for what to do if you encounter a swarm this year?

First, let’s clear up some confusion on what exactly a swarm is. Rather than simply being a plural term to describe any group of bees, a “swarm of bees” refers to a natural behavior that honey bee colonies use for reproduction. A swarm occurs when a colony splits as the old queen is replaced. The first queen leaves the hive with roughly half of the worker bees and as much honey as they can carry, and they reestablish themselves on a structure nearby to their original hive. While scout bees leave in search of a new hive location, the worker bees in the swarm cluster around the queen (called festooning) and link to each other’s bodies, hanging onto their arms and legs to create a form that keeps the swarm together.

Swarms can often be found in places such as tree branches, small clumps of vegetation, fences, mailboxes, walls or even simply on the ground. They are often reported to local pest control agencies or fire departments. This is where beekeepers’ expertise certainly comes in handy, as they can safely capture swarms and transfer the bees to a colony of their own.

If you do come across a swarm, don’t fret! When they are swarming, honey bees are typically very docile, as they’ve gobbled up full honey stores and are full and happy. They also don’t have hives with honey stores and brood to protect. If they are swarming, you can also count on the fact that the honey bees are most likely local and carry strong genetics. Swarming is a behavior that only healthy bees that survived the winter and were well-equipped in preparation to leave the hive tend to exhibit. As a beekeeper, in terms of building up your current hives, capturing local swarms is often as a great method to incorporate new bees into your colonies that have strong genetics and will fare well.

So, let’s say you’re ready to capture a swarm, and you want to know how to best prepare in case you do happen upon one this year. Below are some helpful steps to keep in mind:

  1. Get the word out. If you know you’ll have interest in capturing a swarm this season, reach out to local pest control agencies, fire departments and neighbors to let them know you’re available to help should they encounter one. Then, keep your swarm gear in your vehicle in preparation for quick action, should you get a call. What type of gear is that, exactly? Read on…
  2. Brush up on best practices, common questions and tools you’ll need to have on hand. Some references we’d recommend are Bee Built’s How to Catch a Swarm and Install It in a Beehive article and Beekeeping Like a Girl’s How to Catch a Swarm of Bees guide. In these two links, you’ll find information on:
    • which types of materials you should purchase
    • steps to follow when you arrive at the swarm site (as well as what NOT to do)
    • helpful tricks for luring the bees into your temporary hive box
    • how long you should wait before transferring the swarm to a more permanent hive location

    It’s particularly important that you wear protective gear and exercise caution when encountering the swarm – and bring backup, if necessary.

  3. As with many experiences one may have as a beekeeper, especially if you are a new beekeeper, it’s best to seek assistance and advice from a more experienced apiarist in your community. The best way to find a trusted mentor for situations like this is to reach out to your local beekeeping association(s) to find someone who is willing to offer guidance or even in-person assistance. Knowledge is power, and the best way to learn is hands-on. A seasoned beekeeper is often available and more than happy to provide guidance to make your first attempt at capturing a swarm a success.

There you have it. Brush up on the helpful tips and tricks outlined above (and feel free to do some further reading of the many resources available online, such as in industry publications like Bee Culture or American Bee Journal), and you’re bound to be swarm-ready this year!

bees

Sources: How to Catch a Swarm and Install It in a Beehive (Bee Built) and How to Catch a Swarm of Bees (Beekeeping Like a Girl)