What's that noise overhead? Is it a bird, a plane, or Superman? This buzz could very well be a swirling and airborne mass of thousands of honey bees. This is a common and predictable occurrence, as May and June is the typical time period for what beekeepers call "swarming season." It's a natural phenomenon whereby the older queen, along with approximately one half of the worker honey bees leave the old hive to take up residence at a new location. This natural instinct is nature's way of reproducing more colonies. Considering it's an innate process, along with the fact that honey bees pollinate about one third of our food resources and produce honey, truly a wonder food in and of itself, they are best left alone without human interference so that nature can take its course. Harming them would only add to the problem of the reported and drastic decline in their population numbers.
After leaving the old hive, a swarm of honey bees will congregate and form a dense cluster on a tree limb, bush, fence post, log, or even on the side of a building somewhat near the original hive. They may remain there for less than hour or up to a few days. Unless directly threatened and provoked, they are not aggressive at this time because they have no brood or honey stores to defend. They are simply waiting for the "scout" bees to return to the swarm and "report" back on possible and promising locations for the new hive to establish itself.
When this occurs, the honey bee cluster breaks up and flies to the new location. It is then that new comb is built, the queen begins to lay more eggs, brood is nurtured by the nurse bees, and most importantly, the honey bees can go about their business of pollinating the countryside.
A cluster of swarming honey bees typically has several thousand bees.
Along with the buzz of the swarm can come the buzzing excitement of a beekeeper because a swarm presents him or her with the opportunity to capture it and add another managed hive to his or her "bee-yard." There are many beekeepers across the United States, who due to an interest in agriculture, the environment, and the abundant goodness of honey maintain as few as one or two hives and move up from there in various quantities from amateur to commercial operations. Chautauqua County has its own Beekeeping Association that meets once a month at the Frank Bratt Agriculture Center in Jamestown. Some recent and initial research shows that the county had an active association as far back as the 1870s and it currently has about 60 members. These beekeepers will most often try to prevent swarming of their own hives because it's a loss of their investment and for them can be compared to a rancher losing his cattle or a farmer losing his crops. These beekeepers try to anticipate swarming and can intervene in a variety of methods, one of which is to remove the queen from the crowded hive along with two or three frames of brood and worker bees and move them to a new "starter" colony, thus alleviating the swarming instinct. The original hive is left to produce a new queen in which the worker bees are able to do by feeding some brood royal jelly or the beekeeper can introduce a queen purchased elsewhere. This process is commonly referred to as "splitting hives."
If a swarm is found, it is an amazing, entertaining and educational sight to see, but best admired from a safe distance and just waiting patiently for the bees to leave. Because this is the typical swarming time of year, the following "Dos and Don'ts" may be helpful and are offered on behalf of your local Chautauqua County Bee Association and was initially a suggested "news release" from "Gleanings in Bee Culture" a few years ago.
1) Honey bee swarms are generally gentle and non-aggressive. Caution is always suggested, however, as it depends on how long they have been there.
2) Contact a beekeeper or your county association for someone who will remove the swarm for you (if in an inconvenient location or of interest to a beekeeper).
3) Although en route to a new home, they will occasionally build an exposed honeycomb nest. They never build nests of paper or mud.
4) Honey bees are brown or yellow with black markings. They are also fuzzy; never shiny.
5) Don't spray the swarm with insecticides to remove it. This is a violation of pesticide labels.
6) Don't spray the swarm with a hose to remove it. This rarely works and makes removal more difficult for the beekeeper.
7) Don't panic or be afraid of the swarm. An undisturbed swarm rarely causes problems.
8) Don't assume a local beekeeper is responsible for the swarm in your yard. It may have come from a colony of managed bees or a wild colony.
Make it a good week and for the latest "buzz on bees," stay tuned for more intriguing news in future columns. Consider taking advantage of what local experts have to offer on many hobbies, including beekeeping. It's been a year since the last columns were published about this topic and with the help available from such experts, this novice beekeeper has moved from two hives to four.
Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org