A look at the calendar reveals that it has been a year since we harvested our first swarm. And indeed, the swarm season is now upon us again. This can be a fun, busy time of year and one that brings a lot of questions about the swarming process. There's a lot to be explained about swarms, but we've settled on three main points that we'd like to convey to folks that may be confronted with a sudden mass of bees in their backyard.
1) Please don't fear swarms.
2) Please don't poison swarms.
3) If you see a swarm, please call your favorite beekeeper (our number is 859.312.2122).
1) Please don't fear swarms, they are typically docile, unlikely to sting, and will leave on their own within a few hours or days.
A swarm is a cluster of bees that has separated from its original colony in order to find a new home. A crude and imprecise comparison would be an amoeba splitting. The cluster parks in a temporary location for a while, anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and sends out scout bees to find a new home. Once the scouts have found a suitable location--often miles from their current location-- the swarm will leave. This process is actually highly sophisticated and democratic (if you are interested in learning about it, we highly recommend the book Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley).
Generally speaking, a honey bee is unlikely to sting you if you are not a threat to its home. Because honey bees die when they sting, they usually reserve the act to defend their hive. Now, they may defend themselves if you step on them or swat at them, but they don't typically look for trouble. Swarms don't have a home yet, and assumably this is why they have a reputation for being calm. Certainly every swarm we've interacted with so far has been mild mannered.
2) Please don't poison swarms.
When you see a swarm, rejoice! It means that a colony was healthy enough to reproduce. With the mounting disease, pest, and chemical pressures bees face, that is no small feat. Now, if you do see a swarm, it may mean that a colony lives nearby. A good check of the premises can help determine if this will be a yearly occurrence for you. This is where the aid of a local beekeeper can help.
3) If you see a swarm, please call us (859.312.2122), your favorite beekeeper, or the city.
There are several reasons why it is good for beekeepers, bees, and the general population to call a beekeeper when you see a swarm. Beekeepers like harvesting swarms because it is an efficient way of expanding their hives. During years of heavy losses the bees alone are welcome. Further, swarms come from colonies that are healthy enough to have reproduced, possibly indicating pest/disease-resistent genes.
Calling a beekeeper may also be the best thing for the sake of the swarm. Only about a third of "feral" swarms will survive on their own, well below the typical survival rate of hives in beekeepers' care.
Finally, when beekeepers harvest swarms, they keep them out of danger of inhabiting any cavities in homes, sheds, or trees where they may not be welcome. This is good for everyone.
Hopefully, this helps a bit with demystifying the swarming process. If you want to learn more about the hows of swarming, we wrote a bit about it last year. If you want to know even more, we (again) highly recommend reading Honeybee Democracy.