By: Nancy Ham, Master Gardener and Advanced Bee Keeper
During spring and early summer in Florida, homeowners may experience a fascinating phenomenon that can intrigue or alarm them. They will suddenly notice a large cluster of insects in a tree or object near their home that wasn’t in this locate earlier. Upon further investigation they will discover the insects are honey bees. These large clusters of bees are called swarms.
Why do bees swarm?
Honey bees are social insects that live in colonies of up to or more than 80,000 individuals. Within their colonies the queen lays over 1,000 eggs each day during the spring build up, which allows the colony to dramatically increase in size. The colony therefore is a society made up of thousands of individuals, of which each has a role and function within the colony.
However, the colony is more than just a collection of thousands of individuals. It is also a single entity that acts as a whole for the survival of the colony. This is called a superorganism. One of the functions of a superorganism is reproduction and the way the colony reproduces is by swarming and establishing a new colony separate from the parent colony.
What is a swarm?
When the colony begins preparing to swarm, the workers within the colony select several fertilized eggs and feed these larvae a special diet to create new queens. They usually create multiple new queens to ensure the survival of the parent colony. The older worker bees are the individuals that will leave with the old queen leaving behind the younger nurse bees to care for the brood and the new queen in the colony. In the preparation, the bees may withhold food from the old queen so she loses weight and will be able to fly. Just before they leave the colony, the workers will gorge on food from the colony as they may be without food for a few days.
Then, at the right moment, the old queen and the older workers will exit the parent colony in a large mass. They usually do not fly a long distance at this time but will land on a structure within a short distance from their parent colony. This is the cluster of bees that suddenly appears in the home owners yard.
While the swarm is hanging out at their first landing area, scout bees are flying in all directions looking for suitable locations to establish a permanent home. This process can take only a few hours or can last a few days. Once a location is selected, the entire swarm will leave for that location.
Swarms usually occur in the spring and early summer as the bees instinctively know they are in a race against time and the availability of food is high. The new swarm must select a new home site, build enough comb to rear the next generations and store food for the coming winter. Not unsurprisingly, it is estimated that most new feral hives do not survive the following winter.
Can swarms be prevented?
Beekeepers with managed hives in an apiary obviously want to prevent swarms but they are working against mother nature. Losing half or more of the bees from any hive greatly reduces the strength and productivity of the hive. Likely, the beekeeper will not be able to harvest any products from that hive until at least the next fall when the population in the hive has recovered. This has negative economic impact for the beekeeper.
There are a number of things conscientious beekeepers will do to attempt to prevent swarms. One commonly used technique is to split any overcrowded hives. These “splits” are made by literally making two hives from one. This technique simulates an artificial swarm and each hive will have a much smaller populations than the original hive making it less likely to swarm.
An empty super can also be added to the hive creating more space. Bees tend to prefer empty spaces above them and will move into the extra space provided them.
Another swarm management trick is to remove frames of brood from a strong hive and place them in a weaker hive. This may reduce swarming tendencies in the larger hive and help shore up the population of a weaker hive.
One swarm control practice that is also a best management practice (BMP) and provides multiple benefits to the hive is requeening the hive. A young, strong queen will produce more pheromones and lay larger numbers of eggs which tends to discourage swarming.
Other techniques include clipping one of the queens wings so she cannot fly, placing a grid over the hive entrance that prevents the larger body of the queen from exiting the hive, cutting open swarm cells that are found in the hive and even setting up swarm traps around the apiary in an attempt to capture your own swarms.
All of the above only work on hives that are being actively managed by a beekeeper in an apiary. Feral hives have no such oversight and can swarm at will.
Are swarms dangerous?
Anytime there is a cluster of insects that can sting, caution should be taken. However, new swarms usually do not exhibit defensive behavior, as they have nothing to defend. They have left their home behind and have not yet begun to build a new home.
But most homeowners will not be able to tell the difference between a swarm and a feral hive. Once the bees start building new comb, they have established a new hive location and will defend the new location.
Although many homeowners express delight in having feral colonies on their property for the increased pollination activity and the joy in watching them, safety of humans and pets must be considered. When bees sting, the victim is injected with venom. Bee stings are uncomfortable and a very small percentage of humans have an allergy to bee venom, which can cause respiratory problems. Sometimes it’s the location of the feral hive that is the concern. If located near human or pet activity, the homeowner should consider removal.
Are they Africanized bees?
All honey bees are programmed to swarm regardless of their genetic makeup. The Africanized honey bees (AHB) does swarm much more often than the gentle European honey bee but that does not mean the swarm in your backyard is Africanized. Although behavioral characteristics can give an indication, identification of the AHB can only be made from lab analysis. The best recommendation for the homeowner is to limit contact with the swarm until it leaves quickly or to contact a registered beekeeper for removal or a licensed pest control operator for eradication.
How are bees removed?
The method of removal is up to the homeowner. Many homeowners are very aware of the value of honey bees and the challenges beekeepers face in keeping them healthy. Destruction of the swarm or colony is not their first choice. In this case, the homeowner can contact a registered beekeeper that is experienced in bee removal. It is important to select a registered and experienced beekeeper to reduce the chance of human or property damage. A registered beekeeper will have the personal protective equipment to safely handle the bees. This will include a veil, possibly gloves and a jacket, a smoker and some type of container to safely transport the bees. As a homeowner, it would be foolhardy to allow someone without the necessary experience and equipment to attempt to remove the bees.
Do not use wasp or hornet spray on the bees. If the bees are sprayed, most beekeepers will not attempt a capture as the likelihood of survival is low and the beekeeper will not be willing to introduce bees carrying pesticides into their apiary.
To find a registered beekeeper trained in bee removal, consult the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Bee Removal or Eradication List available on their website. Beekeepers on this list are not only registered but have received training in AHB issues. Many of the registered beekeepers on this list offer removal services as part of their business and charge a fee. This should be discussed with the beekeeper to avoid any surprise. If the bees are located inside a wall or in a location not easily accessed, discuss the method of removal before the removal is attempted. Most beekeepers are not licensed contractors and will not be responsible for building repairs.
In the event the homeowner has already sprayed the bees or simply wishes the bees be eradicated quickly, FDACS also lists licensed pest control operators (PCO) on the same list previously mentioned. These operators have received special training in bee eradication and responding to AHB. They are verified as having a valid license and will have the proper personal protective equipment. Only a licensed PCO can use chemicals to eradicate the bees. The PCO has been trained in the use of these chemicals and a registered beekeeper cannot use chemicals to eradicate the bees.
References and more information:
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bee Removal or Eradication List
UF/IFAS Extension African Honey Bee Extension and Education Program:
Swarm Control for Managed Beehives
For questions, please contact our office. The Hillsborough County Extension Service is located at 5339 County Road 579, Seffner, Florida 33584. Our office hours are Monday – Friday from 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM.