Spring is upon us and the bees are buzzing – sometimes in places we don’t expect.
Encountering an unexpected swarm of bees can be a scary experience, but it doesn’t have to be a dangerous one. Simply by giving the bees the space they need and knowing who to call, you can avoid needless harm to both people and bees when discovering a swarm.
Bees swarm as part of their normal reproductive cycle, which is at its peak during April and May, said NCDA&CS Apiary Inspection Supervisor Don Hopkins.
“In order for a colony to reproduce, it needs to have a reproductive queen raise more reproductive daughters.,” he said. “When the colony gets too crowded, the queen will leave the hive with most of her daughters to start a new colony, and that’s when you get a swarm.”
The daughters are the ones who choose the location for the new hive, marking the area with pheromones to signal to the rest of the colony that they have found a suitable spot. Hollow logs, open spaces in buildings or even old, abandoned beehives are just some of the locations they may choose, and once a consensus is built among the bees, they set off for their new locale.
Once the bees arrive at their new location, they will group up into a ball which Hopkins likened to a cluster of grapes. If you come across a swarm in an outdoor area like a forest, the right thing to do is simply leave them alone, Hopkins said.
“That would definitely be the best thing to do,” he said. “Once a swarm is settled like that in a cluster, they’re pretty calm unless they’re what we call a ‘dry swarm.’ That happens when the swarm has clustered but has not found a nest site. The swarm will produce honeycomb at that spot and defend it as if it is its new nest site.”
Of course, sometimes bee swarms crop up in places where they cannot be simply left to their own devices. Swarms have been known to nest in homes, commercial buildings and even inside vehicles, so it’s a good idea to know who to call just in case you happen upon a group of busy bees in an inconvenient spot.
“In that case, you would want to call people like myself,” Hopkins said. “Most extensions will have contacts with beekeepers, especially here in North Carolina where just about every county has a beekeepers association. I usually refer people to the secretary of their local beekeepers association, and then he or she can let someone in the association know about the swarm, where it is and how high off the ground it is.”
Bees are a valuable part of the ecosystem, so beekeepers take care to keep them as safe as possible while removing hives. If the hive is close enough to the ground, the beekeeper can simply shake them into a prepared hive box, one which has ideally been used before so that it carries some of the pheromones which attract the bees. Once the swarm has been collected into the hive, the beekeeper will look to relocate it to a preferred nest site where the bees can exist safely without disrupting or being disrupted by humans.
Hopkins reiterated that swarms are largely benign, and leaving them alone is the easiest way to avoid any kind of injury they could cause. When left on their own, they can even be fun to watch, he said.
“A swarm that hasn’t yet settled is a pretty dramatic thing to watch. You’ll have several thousand individuals in essentially a cloud,” he said. “They’ll fly around and then eventually shadow on a tree and gather into that cluster. It’s a pretty neat thing to see.”
To learn more about the NCDA&CS Apiary program, visit https://www.ncagr.gov/plantindustry/plant/apiary/index.htm.