HONEY BEE SWARMING
When the population of a bee colony reaches a critical number and overcrowding occurs in a hive, honeybees prepare to swarm. That is, they get ready to leave the hive with the resident queen, taking up to half the population of the colony out into the wild in search of a new home. Honeybee swarming is a natural means of colony reproduction. It allows a single, heavily populated colony to split into two or more distinct colonies.
The bees left behind in the natal hive will raise a new queen by feeding an already fertilized egg or young larva--laid by the former resident queen–with royal jelly. Natural conditions and good beekeeping practices permitting, the newly emerged queen bee flies out of the hive to mate, returns with a full abdomen of semen, and begins laying eggs, which allows the natal colony to rebuild its population and return to functioning again as a thriving hive within just a few months.
Swarming usually occurs within a two or three-week period just before a major nectar flow, most often during the spring. However, here in Hawaii, with its year-round tropical weather, swarming can happen at any time of the year, especially following abrupt weather changes. When a hive swarms, the reproduction colony initially settles about 20–30 yards away from the natal nest for a few days. With no brood (eggs, larvae, or pupae) or honeycomb to protect, these swarms of about 20,000 bees are very gentle–as long as nothing or no one threatens their queen.
With bellies full of honey as food for the journey and to help keep their bodies warm once away from the hive, the swarming honeybees huddle together tightly, forming a big mass of bees on a nearby tree or bush with the queen bee protected in the center of the cluster. Scout bees will then search for suitable cavities (in nature or on people's property) in which to construct the swarm's new home. The scouts return to the huddle and report to the other bees about their findings of an ideal location for the new nest. This prompts the bee cluster to depart with their queen and settle into the new site, where they will re-populate and once again return their numbers to a full-blown hive status of 60,000-80,000 honeybees.
People who live in urban and suburban areas–and even in rural areas–commonly witness swarming bees crawling into cracks or holes in the wall, ceiling, or floorboards of a house, shed, or abandoned structures and establishing their new nest in these dark, warm, and protected spaces. Bees also can find comfortable new homes in the cozy interiors of compost bins or garbage cans. If left in the new nesting site long enough, these unmanaged hives can grow enormous, building intricate and beautiful comb structures that are amazing to see. Although honeybees do not cause significant structural damage and may live with humans indefinitely, they can pose a sting hazard if their hive entrance is near human or pet traffic; scare people with the sound of their buzzing; and, if the colony dies, the unventilated beeswax combs may melt and stain interior walls with honey and wax.
HOW TO BEHAVE AROUND SWARMING BEES
If a honey bee swarm lands on your property, with tens of thousands of bees buzzing around on a bright, sunny day, try to stay calm and do not be afraid! Instead, count yourself lucky to be witnessing one of the great wonders in nature. Most importantly, remember that honeybees are beneficial insects and are not aggressive. However, they will defend their nest if they perceive a threat, so if you encounter flying honeybees on your property, calmly walk away from them and especially do not swat at them, which only threatens the bees and increases the likelihood of getting stung.
There are a number of options in dealing with swarming bees. Most importantly, do not disturb them. Keep pedestrians, children, and pets away from the swarm. If the swarm is located a safe distance away from people and pets, just wait for the bees to fly away on their own, which usually occurs within 24 hours. If the location of the swarm poses a real risk to people (e.g. in a playground) or animals (e.g. near a pen or corral), consider calling a local beekeeper who will remove the huddle of swarming bees. If Africanized bees are present in your area, do not ask a beekeeper to collect swarms. Rather, report the honeybee swarms to your county Extension agent or state Department of Agriculture. They may wish to collect the swarm for official testing.
SO WHAT TO DO ABOUT A SWARM NEST?
DO NOT EXTERMINATE THEM! Honeybees help pollinate many of the food resources that humans and animals rely upon for their survival. Most homeowners think immediately of calling the exterminator or spraying poison onto new nests to kill the bees, which is illegal in some states! While poisoning will kill the bees (a horrible thought!!), it will not necessarily stop other swarms from returning to the same spot. Without removing the comb structure with its hexagon-shaped cells filled with capped honey reserves, bee pollen, and the smell of the hive, other swarms are likely to pick up on the scent and move right in! When this happens, the newly settled colony will just keep building upon the older comb structure, eventually expanding the hive to immense proportions if left alone.
For example, this past summer, when asked to remove a swarm from the ceiling of a house that was about to get renovated, we discovered a very old and large comb structure. Over many years, the house remained unoccupied. So the nest likely had seen multiple generations of swarms and colonies moving in and out, with the latest resident swarm building new comb upon the remains of an older structure. The comb structure now contained both older capped honeycomb as well as new comb, a new brood, and freshly capped honey reserves. In all of its artistic glory, the whole nest expanded the length of a 2' x 6 ' bay of the ceiling. After carefully removing the bees and cutting out and scraping off the comb from the ceiling, we were able to extract almost 100 pounds of feral bee honey and relocate the swarm to Pualani Bee Farm.
When discovering a nested swarm on your property, we advise owners to call a local agricultural extension office or local beekeeper to properly and humanely remove the swarming bees, carefully cut out the comb structure in its entirety, scrape away any remaining wax residue, and plug up the access point to the original cavity. It is especially important to close up all other potential entry points to the void, without which new swarms may quickly reoccupy the space. When a new (or well established) nest is properly removed, new swarms will not be so easily tempted to take up residence in a pre-fabricated bee home,
Local beekeepers usually are happy to remove swarms at a nominal fee or even gratis, since, at the end of the day, they will gain brood, adult bees, and a laying queen with which they can start a new managed hive. Moreover, they can extract feral bee honey from the carefully removed honeycomb. Typically, beekeepers will give the homeowner or tenants some of the extracted honey as a courtesy. However, large-scale beekeepers or professional bee removal services will charge a fee for their services. Often a carpenter will also need to be called into open access to the nesting site (e.g. cut into drywall or open up walls or ceilings) and to repair, close up, and seal off the void after the nest is removed.
The morning after a honeybee nest is removed from a structure, there may be a small number of straggler bees huddling on the outside surface of the former nest entrance. These are late returning foraging honey bees that are disoriented by the displacement of their home. They pose a low sting risk and most likely will die or relocate (find another hive to join up with) within a day or so. Some beekeepers (such as those at Pualani Bee Farm) will return early the next morning to gather up these remaining bees and reunite them with their relocated colony.
If a nest's entry point is far away from human and pet traffic (such as the peak of a roof), some property owners consider a leave-alone approach, as bees and people can cohabit with no problem for years.