Honeybee Swarming Explained

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Honeybee swarming season typically is at its peak in the Spring, but late swarms can occur. I have been receiving calls from residents in the County telling me that they have a massive clump of honeybees on their property and they want it removed. So, what exactly is this swarming behavior and why do honeybees do it?

I have been keeping bees for a number of years now and even have a colony at our Extension office we use for youth programming and education. One of my first colonies I kept while in high school was a swarm that I removed off a neighbor’s property. Honeybees swarm because they have run out of space in their existing home and the congestion in the colony interrupts the queen bee’s pheromone reach. This signals to the worker bees that it is time to swarm so they start constructing what are called “swarm cells”. Swarms from beehives often mean the beekeeper didn’t add more space to the hive quickly enough. It’s a bittersweet feeling when your hive swarms as a beekeeper. On one hand, you’re losing a colony of bees but on the other hand you should be proud your honeybees felt strong enough to swarm.

Two distinct groups of bees will be created when a colony swarms. One group of bees will leave the hive along with the existing queen and the other group will stay behind without a queen. Once the existing queen flies out of the colony a massive cloud of bees, called a swarm, will leave with her. The queen will land in a tree or another surface and emit pheromones that attract the worker bees to form a large clump. While this clump of bees hangs out, a small amount of scout bees will go and look for new suitable cavities for the group to nest in. Once the scout bees have found a location the colony will move to the new location. Normally, they will find themselves a new location to nest within a day, but it may take them several days. Sometimes they end up taking residence in a tree cavity, the eve of someone’s house, or even vacant beehives.

As far as the bees left behind in the existing colony, they will rely on the swarm cells for their new queen. If multiple swarm cells hatch multiple queens will fight each other with the strongest surviving queen taking over. She will become the old colony’s new queen. Since the bees that stay behind have to make it for an extended period of time without much help swarming often takes place during a time of year when nectar is in great abundance. Swarming is a natural occurrence in domesticated bee and feral bee colonies.

So, what should you do if you see a swarm of bees on your property? Call the Extension service and I will be happy to connect you to a beekeeper that removes swarms. You can find a page on our Extension website that lists the names and phone numbers of beekeepers that are a part of the Rowan County Beekeeper’s Association that remove swarms. Keep in mind that if provoked the swarm may sting you but outside of their hive, they are typically less defensive. Usually, the swarm will vacate the area within a few days as the scout bees lead them to a new home. It is not advisable to spray the swarm with insecticides since this can increase your chances of being stung and contribute to the loss of bee colonies at a time when bees face heavy disease and pest pressure. If the beehive is in a concerning area like a playground entrance to a building, please keep people and pets away and contact us in Extension so we can get you in touch with a local beekeeper that can remove the swarm promptly.