By Nancy W. Oglesby
A swarm of honey bees in your yard may look alarming, but don’t worry! This is the natural way in which honey bee colonies reproduce and there are local beekeepers who can rehome them for you.
Between about March to June in central North Carolina, honey bee colonies rapidly increase in size and then split themselves. To do this, the queen and about half of the bees in a colony leave their hive in a cohesive group called a swarm. First, they ‘hang out’ in a clump about the size of anything from a grapefruit to a basketball and cling to an object such as a tree branch while scouts fly in and out in search of their next home.
After a few hours to a few days, the whole swarm flies together to the newly selected location. Meanwhile, the bees left behind in the old hive raise a new queen. Not only is swarming a completely natural phenomenon, but during the swarm event, honey bees tend to be less likely to sting than usual.
If you see a honey bee swarm, there is no need to spray them with pesticides or call an exterminator. Instead, you can call a beekeeper to come and get them. In Orange County, we have the Orange County Beekeepers Swarm Patrol, which you can contact by calling or texting Chris Richmond at (919) 932-1335. Chris will connect you with a beekeeper who will remove the swarm.
It is even better to call the Swarm Patrol than it is to just leave the bees alone. If left in the wild, honey bees are unlikely to survive the year. Unfortunately, there are essentially no long-lived wild honey bee colonies in the US any more, because of a surge in honey bee parasites and diseases over the last few decades. The only way to save these honey bees is if a beekeeper relocates them to a managed hive.
Another way that honey bees sometimes cause alarm is if they make a nest inside the walls of a home or other building. This can be a problem because there may be a lot of bees flying in and out near where people want to be. Even if an exterminator kills the bees, if they leave the wax comb inside the wall, it attracts other insects and animals who want to eat the honey, wax, and dead bees. Also, if there is a hive structure and honey left inside the wall, other swarms of bees will think this is a great place for them as well, and you are likely to get new bees moving in.
Removing a hive of bees from a building is called a ‘cut out’. The Orange County Beekeepers Association also has members who do this kind of work. They rehome the bees and remove the comb. This service is not free, but neither is an exterminator, and unlike an exterminator, they will remove the nest, reducing the chances of more bees or other animals moving in. There is also the added benefit of saving the bees!
Modern honey bees (scientific name, Apis Mellifera) are not native to North America. They were introduced by settlers from Europe in the seventeenth century. However, our current agricultural system is heavily dependent on honey bees, as they are uniquely suited to fertilizing large acreages of crops, and honey bee colonies can be transported from place to place to fertilize different crops as they come into bloom.
About one-third of the food we eat comes from crops pollinated by honey bees, including apples, melons, cherries, cranberries, pumpkins, squash, broccoli, almonds, and many more. Almonds, for example, require about two colonies of bees to fertilize one acre of trees, and there are about 1.2 million acres of almond trees grown in California, according to the University of California, Davis. That’s a lot of bees! During the peak of almond blooming season, about 90% of all honey bees in America are moved to California to pollinate almonds.
So the next time you snack on some almonds or fresh cherries, bite into a juicy apple, or drink some almond milk, think of the honey bees that helped to feed you. In return, you can help them by pulling out your phone and calling a beekeeper instead of pulling out the bug spray if you see a swarm.
Additional information on honey bee swarm removal resources in our area can be found at the following links:
Orange County: https://theocba.org/resources/swarm-patrol/
Durham County: https://www.durhambeekeepers.org/swarms/
Chatham County: https://www.chatham-beekeepers.org/swarm-alert/
Alamance County: https://www.alamancebeekeepers.org/swarm-and-bee-removal/
Person County: https://pcba2020.wildapricot.org/
Granville County: https://granvillecountybeekeepers.org/swarm-patrol