Thursday, April 14, 2016

Honey Bee Swarm Season is Here! By Rebecca Anderson

Bee swarm, photo by Beckie Anderson
Spring means honey bee swarm season.  A swarm occurs when an existing hive gets too full and the bees are feeling crowded.  The queen bee produces a couple of princess bees as her replacement.  Then the queen gathers half of the worker bees to move out of the hive with her.  This results in a ball of bees hanging from a tree branch, eave or fence, peacefully humming to themselves.  

Generally bees in a swarm are docile because they filled their bellies with honey before leaving their hive.  They are also quiet because they don't have a hive to defend yet.  The swarm will hang on the branch or fence anywhere from a few hours to a few days waiting for scout bees to return with a report of a favorable new home.  Once the new home has been located and approved by the swarm (the bees actually vote on the new spot), the bees will leave to establish their new hive. 

If you see a swarm of bees, don't spray them with chemicals!  If you know a beekeeper, give him or her a call.  Most beekeepers either have an available hive box for a swarm or know someone who does.  If you don't know a beekeeper, call the Colorado Beekeeping Association swarm hotline at 1-844-779-2337 and they will help find a beekeeper near you to re-home the swarm.  A swarm is usually more cooperative when they have just left their original hive.  After two or three days they will have used up most of their honey reserves and will be getting hungry.  Humans aren't the only organisms who get testy when they're hungry!   

Bee swarm in the Stapleton community, photo by Beckie Anderson

Before calling your beekeeping friend or the hotline, there are a couple of things you should note about the swarm.  First, observe the cluster of "bees" closely.  The insects' bodies should appear fuzzy.  If they are smooth and shiny, they are wasps or hornets and beekeepers won't be as interested in relocating them for you.  Also note the size of the swarm.  An average swarm is volleyball sized.  A baseball sized swarm may not have enough individuals for successful hive establishment.  A basketball sized swarm (or larger) is the beekeeper's jackpot.  Such a large population will have a better chance of surviving the swarming process.  

The beekeeper will also like to know how high the bees are above the ground.  That way he or she can plan for the equipment needed to reach the swarm.  Some beekeepers use a bee vacuum to capture hard to reach swarms.  In those cases it is good to know if there is a source of electricity nearby.  If you are talking to a beekeeper from the hotline, make sure to get contact information before hanging up.  The swarm may fly away suddenly and the beekeeper may not be needed to make the complete trip to your location. 

Seeing a swarm of bees is very exciting and as a beekeeper, collecting a swarm is quite a rush.  If you are lucky enough to have a swarm visit you, don't be surprised if you see more swarms in the same location.  Bees leave pheromone signals where they have landed, so other swarms may pause in the same place.  Also, new swarms from the original hive may continue to light in the same place year after year.  Keep the beekeeper's number somewhere you can find it.  You might need it again!

Visit the Colorado State Beekeeper Association website to learn more about beekeeping in Colorado and the swarm hotline. The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service also has an interesting article about honey bee swarms.  We should all do our part to "bee" informed so these important insects have a successful season.