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by Jon Zawislak - April 17, 2017
Honey bee populations increase rapidly in the spring, with an abundance of flowers
everywhere. When the bees' hive becomes crowded, they respond by rearing a new queen
bee. The old queen will leave the hive, accompanied by around one-half to two-thirds
of her workers, as well as a few drones. This phenomenon is known as a swarm.
The swarm leaves the hive and usually lands nearby in a temporary location. Scout bees will
investigate the area, looking for a suitable cavity to move into. A scout bee will
return to the hive and report the location of a potential home site to her nest-mates.
Some of these bees may go and investigate the site as well, and return to give their
opinion of it. If multiple scout bees have found more than one suitable site, they
will have to make a decision about which site to move into. This whole fascinating
and complex decision-making process is eloquently discussed in detail by the brilliant
author Tom Seeley in his book Honey Bee Democracy.
Honey bee swarms are generally very docile and sedentary. The majority of bees are
just waiting, and conserving their energy, while keeping their queen protected. Because
they have no home, no brood and no food to protect, they are usually easy for a beekeeper
to handle, and rarely pose any danger to nearby people. As soon as the bees decide
on where to live, the whole swarm of bees will take to the air and quickly fly away.
Within a few minutes, up to 30,000 honey bees can relocate up to a mile away or farther.
In nature, the bees will find a hollow tree, but in urban areas, old hollow trees
may be hard to find. But urban areas are full of houses and other structures with
hollow spaces inside. Sometimes bee colonies will take up residence inside of a wall
or under a porch, or in any other protected space they can find.
Collecting swarms is usually easy, and many beekeepers will be happy to help relocate
swarms and put them into a new hive. For a list of beekeepers who will take away
swarms in your area, visit statewide swarm removal list or contact your local County Extension Office. Tell the beekeeper where the bees are located, and if they will need a ladder to
collect them. Also, indicate how long the swarm has been there. Swarming bees are
usually gentle, and pose little danger to people, and are easy to relocate to a new
hive. However, once the bees find a way inside of a wall, the situation is very different.
Once bees move inside of a structure, removing them can be very difficult and costly.
Honey bee swarms will immediately begin building wax honeycombs as soon as they set
up housekeeping. They do this because they cannot store food or raise new broods
until they have combs to put them. Within a few days, they can build a considerable
amount of honeycomb, and will begin to be more defensive about their home and the
proximity of others to it. The longer the hive remains in the wall, the larger it
will grow, with more bees and more stored food.
Having a hive of honey bees in a wall presents several problems. The first and most
obvious may be the constant presence of flying bees, which could potentially sting
nearby people or animals if they become upset. As walls fill with bees, they may
continue to expand and explore. As they are attracted by light, they may find a way
into the interior of a home around alight fixture or crack around a window or door
frame. Once out into ta room, bees will probably head toward a window, often banging
into it until they die. Finally, if the hive of bees begins to decline and die out
on its own, the combs full of honey and pollen become a very attractive source of
food for many other pests if there are no bees guarding it. An abandoned bee net
could attract ants, flies, wasps, and even rodents.
A relatively new species of exotic beetles has been introduced here from Africa. The
small hive beetle is a destructive pest that inhabits nearly all hives in our area. Strong colonies,
crowded with bees, usually keep the beetles form causing too much damage. But if
the colony becomes weak, and there are not sufficient bees to keep them under control,
the small hive beetles will begin to feed on the unprotected honey. As the beetles feed, they introduce
a yeast into the honey that causes it to ferment, bubbling and oozing out of the comb,
and making a sticky mess. If the colony is located in a wall or ceiling, the mess
that drips down inside will ruin wall boards and can cause other potential problems
with wiring and sub-floors.