By their nature, honey bee swarms can be alarming and potentially traumatizing experiences for the first-time beekeeper. But they need not put you off of the hobby altogether.
Equipped with the right knowledge, and outfitted with the right beekeeping equipment, you’ll be able to weather honey bee swarms.
Let’s get into the ins and outs of honey bee swarms, what triggers them, what you should do when one occurs, and how to protect yourself when you inevitably encounter one.
What is a swarm and why do honey bees swarm?
Like human settlers journeying to new lands, honey bee swarms occur due to overcrowding and overpopulation in a hive.
When the population grows beyond the capacity of the current hive, which often happens in the springtime, the colony will spawn a new queen.
Of course, there can only be one queen per hive. The new queen will stake out her claim to the pre-existing hive, while the old queen will set out (along with about half of the hive population) for greener pastures, so to speak, to start a new hive.
Departing bees fill their bellies with nutritious honey for the journey ahead and set out with their queen for the Great Unknown.
Because the queen is unable to traverse expansive distances, she and her cadre of underlings will hang out on vegetation such as tree branches or on man-made structures like park benches while scout bees identify a suitable location for a new settlement. The new hive, as determined by the scouts, will usually only be about 20 to 30 meters (60 to 100 feet) from the location of the original hive (called the “natal hive”).
Almost all honey bee swarms occur in the spring in a 2-3 week window.
Given the precipitous decline in honey bee populations worldwide in recent years, honey bee swarms should be rightly regarded as a welcome sight.
What should beekeepers do when their honey bees swarm? (Hint: don’t panic)
As with most anxiety-inducing stressful situations, the best course of action is to remain calm, not panic, and act rationally.
In the context of honey bee swarms, acting rationally includes allowing them to do what they do – find a new home:
“If you leave the bees alone, they will leave you alone. It only takes a few hours, or at most a day or two, for them to find and settle into their new home.”
– Dr. Elina L. Niño, a honey bee expert at UC Davis.
Don’t spray the swarm with insecticide to attempt to disperse it – that will only serve to possibly harm and/or anger them, which in turn is liable to increase the possibility of getting stung yourself.
Are swarms dangerous?
It’s important to remember that honey bee swarms are common and not dangerous. They’re a natural phenomenon that tends to last, at most, a few days. Many only occur over the span of a few hours while scouts determine a suitable new hive location.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, swarming bees out in the open are more relaxed and less prone to attack than bees in a hive. This is because they don’t have developing brood to safeguard or a laboriously-constructed structure to protect.
In fact, many beekeepers, rather than running away, chase down honey bee swarms to collect them for a new project. Imagine that!
Steps to protect yourself during honey bee swarms
Even though swarming honey bees are more docile than bees with a hive to guard, they will attack from a cluster position if provoked.
Accordingly, step #1, which can’t be overemphasized, is to not panic. Keeping your cool keeps the bees’ tempers cool. Take a deep breath.
If you’re going in to try to catch or move a swarm – which may or may not be advisable – then outfit yourself with a ventilated beekeeping suit just in case they become agitated.
And, of course, if any of your family or friends nearby are allergic – or if you are yourself – keep a decent distance to stay on the safe side.
How to prevent swarms
Beekeepers, for a variety of reasons, may not want their honey bees to swarm and establish new hives. Here are a few ways to control and prevent swarms:
- Replace the queen. Some beekeepers compulsively replace the queen anyway each spring, while others let nature runs its course. The queen’s direction is key; the hive won’t swarm without her green-lighting the project. New queens are less likely to swarm as they are still getting situated in the hive.
- Proactively split the hive. Before spring rolls around, or right at the beginning of the season, proactively splitting the hive before their numbers begin to uptick will prevent a swarm. It’ll also give you the power to pre-select where your bees’ new home will be located, instead of leaving that decision up to the scouts.
- Reverse the brood boxes. Throughout the winter, honey bees move up in the hive. By the time spring rolls around, much of the honey bees and brood are concentrated in the upper box. Reversing their respective positions allows your honey bees space to move up and store honey. This disincentivizes them from swarming.
Check out this helpful explainer video on when and how to reverse brood boxes:
- Drill cork-sized holes into your upper deep and in the honey supers. This provides the dual benefit of more entrances and more ventilation, both of which discourage swarming.
- Know your species. Certain species are more prone to swarm than others. Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) are less likely than others, like Africanized honey bees, to swarm.
- Monitor the weather. When the sun’s out and the temperatures are warmer in the spring, your bees are likely to be foraging in the fields. When it’s rainy, especially for days or weeks on end, they’re more likely to be busy bees building out the hive. This increases crowding, limits room for growth, and makes swarming more likely. If it’s been a particularly wet or cold spring, you might want to consider taking proactive steps to prevent a swarm.
Keep in mind that none of the swarm prevention methods above is failproof; sometimes, no matter what you do, your honey bees will swarm.
Reach out to Dadant & Sons for more information on honey bee swarms
Don’t worry; we’re here to hold your hand through your first honey bee swarm encounter so you make it out the other side a little bit wiser, ideally sting-free.
If you encounter a honey bee swarm and need help, or if you want to prepare for the inevitable day you encounter one, please feel free to contact us. Educating new beekeepers is a critical part of our mission.
For a helpful go-to resource for all things beekeeping, including how to manage honey bee swarms, check out our seminal piece of literature (a beekeeper’s Bible of sorts) on the topic based on our own Charles P. Dadant’s 1917 first classic edition: First Lessons in Beekeeping.