“Bee” Aware for Bee Swarms

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bees swarming in tree tops

Honey bees are highly esteemed for providing honey, beeswax and other valuable hive products. Honey bees are important pollinators of almonds, apples, blackberries, blueberries, forage crops, cucurbits, (e.g., squash) and more. Although highly cherished, honey bees can be a nuisance and threatening for those who are allergic to bees.

Webster’s definition of a swarm reads; “a great number of honeybees emigrating together from a hive in company with a queen to start a new colony elsewhere.” Swarming is an advantage to the bees but is a disadvantage for beekeepers. As a result, beekeepers endeavor to manage their hives to reduce the incidence of “escapes” or swarming.

Swarming usually occurs in late spring and early summer and begins in the warmer hours of the day. Typically, swarms cluster on an object, such as a tree branch, while scout bees search for a permanent nest site. A hanging swarm may assume any shape, depending on the surface it lands. Most hanging swarms are dark brown, round or oval and about the size of a basketball or watermelon.

Although swarms may look threatening, most are not dangerous and are simply looking for a new home. Usually, honey bees feed prior to swarming, which reduces their ability to sting and when away from the locale of their nest, are less defensive and unlikely to sting unless provoked.

If a honey bee swarm lands on your property:

  • Avoid disturbing it. Keep children, pets and others away from the swarm.
  • If the swarm is located at a safe distance, then wait for it to fly away on its own. A swarm usually relocates to a permanent site, e.g., a hollow tree, abandoned beekeeper’s hive, or inside a hollow wall in about 24 hours.
  • If the swarm poses a real risk to people or animals, find a local beekeeper who will be happy to remove it. Your County Extension Agent can refer you to local beekeepers who collect swarms. Note – not all beekeepers collect swarms, and some may charge a fee for their service.

At times, swarms find their way into wall voids. To avoid this problem, seal openings such as holes, gaps in siding, and openings around plumbing or electric wires. If you discover a bee colony nesting inside a wall, consider working with a beekeeper and carpenter team specific for this work. Pest control companies tend to avoid handling swarms because they involve unusual skill and liability risks.

bees working in honey comb

Beekeepers willing to extract bees within a wall, typically wait until evening when all bees are inside the nest. First they will locate the nest cavity by listening and observing and then begin removing the siding or necessary timbers followed by vacuuming the bees off each comb layer. This process continues in succession until all the bees and combs are removed; followed by sealing off the void.

Afterward, it’s important to close up potential bee entry sites to avoid the risk of a new swarm quickly reoccupying the void. When the work is complete, it’s not uncommon to find a few disoriented worker bees on the outside surface where the nest entrance used to be. These lingering bees pose a minimal sting risk and typically die or relocate within a short period of time.

For more information on Bee Swarms contact Christy Bredenkamp at (828) 488-3848 or (828) 586-4009 or email clbreden@ncsu.edu.