Honey Bee Swarms

March 25, 2015 - I got my first bee swarm call of the year last week. With spring underway, this is the time for honey bee colonies to divide and multiply.

A swarm of honey bees can range in size from 4 to 5 thousand to 20 to 30 thousand. They hang together here in a cluster, their little legs hanging on to one another.
It is an incredible process that takes place every spring and is often repeated well into the summer.

And while it is an awesome sight, it may be a little scary if you don’t know what is happening.

A swarm of bees consists of roughly half the bees from a colony with their queen, looking for a new home. They leave behind the other half of the colony, who then raises a new queen in their old home.

Before half the hive leaves, they’re careful to make sure that there is plenty of brood to keep the hive functioning properly until another queen is raised.

They leave several queen cells in the hopes that one will emerge, live through the maiden flight, successfully mate in mid-air with drones (male bees), and return home safely to start her egg-laying

For some time before the bees leave the hive, they run the original queen around so she will lose weight and thus be able to fly. When the queen is in “egg laying” mode, she is too large to fly.

On the appointed day, that only the bees know, half the hive of worker bees, along with the queen, fly out from the hive to a nearby site to scout a new home. Often they stop on a branch, but they can choose a number of places such as mailboxes, the side of a building, under a birdbath, on the side of a car, and others.

Usually within 100 to 200 yards of the original hive, the bees alight on an object and form a cluster, which looks like a seething, fuzzy glob of insects. Sometimes bees fly from the cluster to collect water and food, but most workers leaving the cluster are scouts that search out potential new home sites for the swarm. When they return from a good site, they dance on the cluster to communicate the location of their find.
In a bee swarm, they are at their most docile state as a whole. They have no place to call home and therefore, no hive to protect.

A departing swarm looks like a grey-ish cloud that seems to drift along through the air. People not familiar with honey bees are generally frightened by such a sight, but unless a bee becomes tangled in someone’s hair, it isn’t likely to sting. The queen is in the group, but not leading it.

Beekeepers have a love/hate relationship with swarming. They love to catch a swarm as they can add another hive to their apiary. They hate it when one of their own hives swarm as they have lost half the workforce in that particular hive.

If you find a swarm outside your home, remember that they don’t plan on staying there. They have scouts out looking for their new home. Their time together as a swarm will range from a few hours to a couple of days. While they did gorge themselves with honey prior to leaving, they are eager to find a new home.

Additionally, remember that many beekeepers are quite happy to collect a swarm of bees. Our office keeps a list of “swarm chasers” that love to collect them and give them a new home. You can call (936)598-7744 and we will give you some names.
Lane Dunn is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Shelby County. His email address is jldunn@ag.tamu.edu.