Do I Hear Buzzing?
by David Peterson, Marin County Beekeeper
Honeybees are social insects. Unlike the four to five thousand other species of solitary bees, honey bees store resources, in the form of honey, that allow the hive to survive the winter. A beehive is like a single organism. If it does not grow and divide, it will eventually die off. Swarming is a natural occurrence, and the only way a beehive can propagate. Without swarming, the species would go extinct in short order.
When a honeybee hive successfully survives the winter, the queen begins to expand her brood nest in anticipation of the coming spring bloom with its pollen and nectar flow. The number of bees in the hive increases rapidly and dramatically. When a hive is very successful, the queen and her workers feel crowded and begin to make plans to swarm. Specialized nurse bees respond by raising several new queen cells to replace the old queen, who will leave the hive with the swarm taking half or more of the hive's bees with her. Only one of the newly raised queens will be allowed to survive, mate and take charge of the remaining hive.
A swarm will form just outside the hive mid-day in the spring, primarily in March, April and May. The outgoing bees will circle around the old hive until they are organized to depart – usually landing in a nearby tree, a bush, on the side of a building or tree. There they form a tight cluster around the queen. A swarm can be as small as a softball or as large as a basketball, containing from 10,000 to 50,000 individual bees. From this cluster the swarm sends out scouts to look for a good location for the bees to make their new home – a hollow in a tree, a utility box, a hole in the side of a house or outbuilding, etc. Often the swarm will move on shortly after the first cluster is formed in an effort to find a new home.
What Should I Do if I See a Swarm?
- Don't panic, bees in a swarm are at their most docile. They've gorged on honey before leaving the hive and have no resources or home to defend.
- Don't spray the swarm with pesticides or water, and don't try to shoo them off by knocking the cluster from their temporary landing spot.
- Do not call an exterminator – it is illegal to exterminate honeybees in California except under special circumstances.
- Do contact a knowledgeable beekeeper to capture the swarm if necessary. Contact your local beekeeping club and they will be able to put you in touch with someone who can capture the swarm or make other recommendations, often at no charge. Visit Marin Beekeepers and leave a message regarding a swarm by clicking on the "Contact Us" box. Other clubs in the area provide similar services.
When reporting a swarm, be sure to confirm you are seeing honeybees and not wasps or yellow jackets. Honeybees are soft and fuzzy looking. Wasps and yellow jackets are shiny and their outer layer is not at all fuzzy. Wasps usually make hanging paper nests, yellow jackets most often make their nests in the ground.
You should also note the size of the cluster, how high above the ground it is, and whether the bees are in a tree or bush or on the side of a structure, etc. If the swarm is on someone else's property, the property owner will need to give permission to capture the swarm.
The most suitable locations for a swarm to take up residence in an urban area are spaces in walls and attics of structures. Honeybees live in cavities, and fill the cavities up with the wax comb in which they raise their young and store pollen and nectar for food. Bees that don't find a new hive may create an open hive in a tree or bush. Open hives seldom survive.
If the bees are coming and going from an opening in a tree or a structure, this is no longer considered a swarm, but rather an established hive. Extracting a hive from a tree or structure is more involved than just capturing a swarm, but still very possible. Structural extractions can be complicated and time-consuming, a fee may be requested.
If you see a buzzing insect going in and out of a hole in the ground or among debris, it most likely is a yellow jacket or a wasp of some kind.
"Bee" Kind to Our Honeybees, We Need Them
The real challenges facing our honeybees are recently imported viruses and the Varoa mite, a parasite from Southeast Asia. Other major stresses on our bees are monocrops and pesticides. Some hives are lost directly to agricultural spraying, others from long-term exposure to pesticides and genetically altered crops.
Some of our bees have been able to survive without the use of strong medications and human intervention. It is these bees that we hope will develop the genetics to survive on their own.
Swarm colonies are considered to have survivor genetics. They have survived the various viruses and parasites that are stressing other bee colonies. Some beekeepers consider these naturally-occurring swarms to be a more desirable way to replace our losses and increase hive numbers than to purchase packaged bees from commercial beekeepers.
Honeybees are beneficial insects that support agriculture and pollinate our garden flowers, fruits and vegetables. In general, beekeepers are always very interested in collecting swarms – especially in the spring. Swarms that occur after June are often small, and it is too late in the season for them to build up sufficiently to successfully over-winter. Even so, we are still interested in collecting the swarm, even if it is just to combine it with one of our weaker colonies.
David Peterson keeps hives at his home in Ross and at a commercial building in Corte Madera. He contributed hives to the roof of the California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, and continues to mentor their gardener in managing these hives. He is active in the Marin County Beekeepers organization and teaches a beginning beekeeping class, NewBees 101, in the spring. He maintains observation hives for use when giving bee talks at local schools and events.