It’s Swarm Season

Contributed by C. Cottingham

Spring is in full swing in Ripley County. Flowers are blooming, birds are singing and bees are buzzing. Some of those buzzing bees may actually be swarming! The Southeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association would like to let the public know that we are here to help with all your bee-related issues throughout the year! Honeybees start
swarming in our area usually around the beginning of May, and often continue well into June, with occasional swarms issuing even later into July or August. So what’s going on when honeybees swarm? And why should you care?

Honeybees reproduce on two levels: on the individual level, by laying eggs which hatch out into more bees, and on the colony level by producing swarms. When a colony grows to a point that it becomes crowded in its hive, it produces a swarm. A few weeks beforethe swarm issues, the bees begin to raise several new queen bees. The old queen slows down her egg production, and just before the new queens emerge from their cells, she leaves the hive, taking about half of the population with her. The remaining bees stay behind and as the new queens begin to emerge, they battle for control of the old hive. Meanwhile, the old queen with the swarm is out and about looking for a new home. The swarm will fly some distance from the hive (a few feet or up to mile) and then they will find a place to cluster, usually on a tree branch, but really any surface (fence post, fire hydrant, mailbox, you name it) will work. The cluster remains in this location and scout bees fly off in different directions to scope out possible sites to build their new home. The new home site may be inside a hollow tree or some less desirable site, like inside the walls of a people house, in the engine compartment of a speed boat, or inside a compost barrel.

This is the part about why you should care! Most people know that honeybees are friendly, desirable insects. Humans rely on their pollination service to supply the great diversity we enjoy in our diets. From alfalfa to zucchini, the number of crops that benefit from honeybee pollination is staggering. So when you see a homeless ball of bees hanging on a tree branch, the first thing you should want to do is protect them. This means making sure they build their home in a safe place, where they won’t be doing damage to people’s property and won’t find themselves in jeopardy of being destroyed.

So what can you do about this? First, be on the lookout for honeybee swarms. Some people confuse bees working a flowering tree or hedge for a swarm. Lots of bees visiting the flowers means there is nectar flowing, and the bees are gathering it to take back to their hive. An actual swarm of bees in the air is an amazing site. You will probably hear them before you see them. It will be like a big black cloud of bees flying through the air. When they have found a place to land, you will see a cluster of bees, perhaps as large as a watermelon, but maybe as small as a softball.

A large swarm will contain tens of thousands of honeybees. You don’t need to be afraid of a swarm; they have no reason to be aggressive as they have no home to protect. If you spot a swarm of bees, contact a local beekeeper who can come to the location. The best time for a beekeeper to pick up a swarm is before it finds that new home. The beekeeper will collect the swarm into a proper hive, and then move them to his or her apiary after dark, when all the scouts have returned. When you contact a beekeeper to report a swarm, it’s helpful to give them as much information as possible, including how long the swarm has been where it is, what it is clustered on and how high up it is.

If you see honeybees entering and leaving a location where you would prefer not to see them, like through a hole in your siding, a tree beside your child’s swing set or the vent of fido’s old doghouse, this is again a good time to contact a local beekeeper. In this case, the bees have likely already made their new home inside the building (or other location). Collecting an established colony may require someone with more specialized skills, as they will most likely have to cut into the side of the building to access the colony. Be sure you understand what the beekeeper plans to do, and be clear about who will repair any damage to the structure after the honeybee colony has been removed.

So how does one find a local beekeeper to contact? Well, remember that jar of local honey you bought at the farmer’s market last year? Look for a phone number on the label of that. Don’t have any local honey in the house? Your local law enforcement agency probably has a list of “swarm catchers” and can provide you contact information. To get directly to the source, though, you can use the website for the Southeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association. Access the SIBA map to find local beekeepers. Some are available for swarm catching, others are also willing to do “cut outs” of bees in undesirable locations. The database is growing, and also lists beekeepers with honey for sale. If you are beekeeper and would like to put your contact information on the map, please visit the site and click “submit a location.” You can also sign up for our mailing list and get information about upcoming beekeeper’s meetings.

Remember, honeybees are said to be directly responsible for one of every three bites of food you take. If you like food, help protect the honeybees!

Check out this nice presentation about swarming by Dr. James E. Tew at the Ohio University Bee Lab

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