BY GREG PRYOR

Modern Homesteading

I have kept honey bees in hives on my homestead for years. I collect honey and wax from them, and my gardens benefit from their pollination services.

The sight of a swarm of bees in spring brings a big smile to my face, because I can likely capture them and add a new hive to my property. However, for many people, a swarm is terrifying.

Swarms are clusters of thousands of bees in a basketball-sized, buzzing clump. They’re usually in a tree or bush, but they can settle on cars, picnic tables, satellite dishes and other structures.

Swarming usually occurs in spring but can happen any time throughout the warmer months. It’s a natural, normally occurring phenomenon, and there’s no need to panic if you see one. Keep your distance and they will leave within a few days, or contact a local beekeeper to come collect the swarm.

What is a swarm of bees all about?

Honey bees live in colonies containing tens of thousands of worker bees tending to one queen bee. The queen bee can lay more than a thousand eggs per day. As the hive grows in size, and as the queen ages, some of the workers start nurturing a bee larva (or several) into a new queen. Exactly how they do that remains a mystery, but royal jelly, other chemical compounds and gene activation are involved in the process.

When the new queen (or queens) emerges, there are several possible outcomes. One possibility is that the queens fight to the death, and the survivor stays with the colony. Or the surviving queen leaves with the worker bees, leaving an empty hive behind. Typically, a new queen and some worker bees fly a short distance from the colony, leaving the old queen with about half of her workers in the original colony.

A swarm is a cluster of worker bees away from a hive, surrounding and protecting a queen. Desperate for a new home, they are vulnerable to bad weather, predators, starving and other threats.

While most of the swarm of bees rests and waits, some worker bees, called scouts, fly around, searching for a good place to start a new colony. A large cavity in a tree or a hollow space in a protected structure is ideal. The balled-up swarm of bees can wait for as long as several days for the scouts to find a suitable location, but they often find a home within a day.

Once the scouts return with the good news, the swarm flies to the new site and starts building up a new colony. The new queen will mate and start laying eggs once some waxy comb structure is built.

Most beekeepers will eagerly come to retrieve a swarm before the bees settle into a new location. This can be done in several ways, but should not be attempted by amateurs.

One approach is to spray the bees with sugar water, which reduces the likelihood of them flying away as they consume the sweet solution on their bodies. The bees are then gently brushed, scooped or shaken into an empty box or hive body. The container, which must have small ventilation holes, is then shut and transported away.

Another technique to collect a swarm is to cut the branch that the swarm is on, and carefully lower it into a waiting, empty container. A swarm of bees can be surprisingly heavy; I once underestimated the weight of a swarm and as I was cutting the branch, the entire ball of bees crashed to the ground and the agitated bees swirled into a loud, black tornado around me!

The least practical way to retrieve them, in my experience, is to lure the swarm into a waiting, empty hive. Some beekeepers swear by the practice of banging pots and pans, or using certain essential oils to coax them into a hive or box, but that hasn’t worked for me yet.

Low-hanging swarms are easy to retrieve, but swarms that are high up in trees can be a challenge to collect. I’ve climbed extension ladders, used pole saws, and even lifted myself in a tractor bucket to get me high enough to capture the swarm. Beekeepers will go to great lengths (or heights) to catch a swarm.

If you find a swarm on your property, and would like it relocated, please contact a local beekeeper right away. For swarms in the Pee Dee area, you can call or text me (731-7681), my buddy Nick (409-1089), Kevin (373-2003), or Phil (360-0113), using the 843 area code.

Greg Pryor, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at Francis Marion University and enjoys a self-sufficient lifestyle on his 100-acre homestead. Email him at gpryor@fmarion.edu.

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