This is the season now for honey bee swarms, and if you’ve ever seen one, it can be an impressive sight. What to do with a swarm depends upon who you are:
First of all, don’t panic.
Swarming is a natural phenomenon for honey bees and is part of the natural process. Swarms are, contrary to popular myth, generally quite gentle and aren’t about to harm you if left alone. It is usually not necessary to kill a hive, and you DON’T have to call a pest removal company. (They often simply kill the hive.) Swarms can often easily be rehoused by a beekeeper and in fact can become another productive hive.
What’s happened is that the home hive the bees have come from has filled to capacity and the hive has made a collective decision to split in half. They’ve created a new queen and are in the process of looking for a new home. The ball of bees that leave with the old queen can be in the few hundreds, but more likely in the few thousands.
Bees are different from wasps, which don’t swarm in the same way. People often confuse wasps with honey bees: see this page for how to identify them.
Honey bees usually depart their old home midday on a nice day. The sound is unmistakable; beekeepers have described it akin to the sound of a jet engine. The swarm often makes a transitory stop in a nearby tree, on a fence, the side of a house or anywhere that makes a “safe” resting spot. The ball is created because the worker bees want to surround the queen bee, who emits pheremones.
Last year a beekeeping colleague, Allen Garr, retreived a swarm from the wing tip of a small jet at Vancouver International Airport! The photo in this blog is from another swarm captured after it landed on a Delta Airlines jet last year.
Within a day or two scouts usually have located a permanent new home and the swarm will depart for it. That’s usually the end of the story, unless the home they move into is in the walls of a house or building. Then it’s a bit more complicated to retrieve them, but still necessary.
It can be quite alarming to see a mass of bees out in the open hanging on a branch but they generally don’t present a danger. Swarmed bees have gorged themselves on honey before leaving home – in order to produce new wax comb in their new home – and as such are generally sluggish.
In Canada we don’t have to worry about Africanized Honey Bees, although we sometimes run into bees that are a bit aggressive or protective.
Beekeepers will happily take swarms away for you, especially in May and June, the prime swarming months, when a honey crop can still be developed. Later swarms may not to be economical for beekeepers to recover, and they may sometimes charge a fee for the service.
What to do if you see a swarm:
You can contact your municipality, which usually keeps a “swarm list”, a list of local beekeepers who will retrieve the bees for you. The municipality can call the beekeeper for you, or you can call the number directly. Have the following information available, if possible: address and location of the hive (in a tree, on a fence, in a house, etc.); when the hive first arrived; and whether special equipment might be required (ie, a ladder).
Make sure you’ve already created a “swarm list” of beekeepers you can rely upon. Contact your local beekeeping club for names. In Metro Vancouver there is the Richmond Beekeepers Association, Langley Bee Club, Maple Ridge Beekeepers and North Vancouver club.
You can also contact the B.C. Honey Producers Association, the industry and club representative, which can put you in touch with your nearest beekeeper.
It is generally unnecessary to call a commercial pest removal company, which usually will kill the hive for a fee.
Make sure your name is on “swarm lists” in any municipality in which you are willing to retrieve bees.
Maintain your own list of beekeepers you can call upon if you can’t help the caller.
Respond to calls for help promptly – during swarm season we add our cell phone number and a special message to our answering service.
Carry a minimum “swarm kit” in your vehicle: we carry a hat and veil, gloves, cardboard box with lid, hive tool, knife, rope, duct tape and small stepladder. This week we’re adding a collapsable pole and modified plastic drinking water bottle in which to retrieve swarms higher up in trees.
We’re happy to collect swarms and assist homeowners, business owners, municipalities and first responders faced with dealing with honey bees. We can be reached at 604-777-5430 evenings, or 604-328-5028 days.