Due to rumors that many swarms go unreported and uncaught because they will “go away” on their own, we felt it important to explain why ignoring them may not be wise.
What is a swarm?
In spring and early summer honey bees swarm with the old queen or virgin queens and thousands of bees. Overwintered healthy colonies swarm to manage population size and to spread their genetics. Beekeepers do their best to prevent and manage swarming, but bees have a mind of their own and will sometimes swarm anyways despite the beekeeper’s best efforts. There are also plenty of swarms from feral colonies, colonies living in trees, houses, etc. that beekeepers can do nothing about to control. Once a swarm has left the apiary there is little way of knowing who or where it came from. Swarms typically land on a tree, bush, rock, or other surface as a big clump of bees while scout bees look for a suitable cavity for the bees to move into. As soon as the bees have found a cavity they like, the swarm will leave and move in.
Unfortunately, a “cavity” bees see as ideal doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good place for bees and people. While they may be lucky to move into empty hive equipment (which may be set up deliberately by beekeepers to catch swarms), other locations they like include tree cavities, spaces between walls in houses, eaves of homes, chimneys, floorboards, pillars, etc. Once they’ve moved in, they are a “hive“, not a “swarm“. Sometimes they can go undetected for years.
A swarm is easy to catch and install in a beehive. As a club service to the community, we have a team of swarm catchers who can quickly respond to a swarm call and remove them for free, the swarm catcher considers the bees as payment for their time. It may take only minutes to a few hours to remove them depending on the surface they’ve chosen to rest on and what equipment is needed to reach them.
Time is of the essence with swarms, we do not know how close they are to deciding on a new home and leaving, it could be minutes, it could be a few hours, occasionally they could hang out for a few days, so prompt calls and response is called for.
Removing a hive is a very different matter. Honey bee behavior changes once they have a home and brood (young bees) to defend. Removing bees from structures typically requires a skillset that only a handful of people in the valley have. These individuals will have to schedule a time or times with the homeowner to do the removal, it could be a few weeks before they have a time available to help. Due to the additional skills needed, the time investment, the limited number of people who can do it, etc, expect a hive removal to cost several hundred dollars, or more.
Hive removal is not a service that we can offer as a club.
This is why we feel strongly about catching swarms. Swarms are easy to catch, we’d much rather send someone to catch them than get a call later in the year about bees in someone’s home.
Options for dealing with a Hive
To poison, or to remove?
We’re beekeepers, and we hate to see bees die, but we also respect you need to decide what is best for you. We also do not want pesticides anywhere near our equipment, so if you choose to this option you’d better be ready to finish the job.
There are plenty of pesticide companies to choose from, and some may be willing to do it, but if you do get them poisoned, please note that poisoning is only a temporary fix. It leaves the smell of propolis and old wax (enticing another swarm to move in), so during swarm season (April – June in the Salt Lake valley) you could have multiple swarms try to move into the cavity after the other is poisoned. We’ve witnessed a soffit in downtown Salt Lake City that had 3 successive swarms try to move in within a week or so after the previous swarm had been poisoned, and there wasn’t anything we could do. Bees can chew through foam to get into a cavity that smells like home, and they were doing just that.
Poisoning also has unsavory potential consequences: any honey left can trigger robbing activity where wasps, bees, squirrels, and other critters all try to get some in a big feeding frenzy, and they can become mean and dangerous to anyone nearby. There is a far higher likelihood of being stung when there is robbing than there is with a healthy colony occupying the location.
If not consumed by critters, the honey could melt, leak, and seep through the walls, damaging them.
If you use poison, you are on your own if it goes sour.
This removal technique typically requires a beekeeper with construction experience. Do your homework, you want someone who can get the bees out and repair the structure afterwards. It is rare to find one who has construction experience and is a licensed contractor. A cutout may take a few days to complete. The costs vary depending on the individual, credentials, the structure the bees are in, how easy is it to repair afterwards, any hazards for accessing it, travel expenses, etc.
The cut out is one of the fastest ways to get bees out of a structure, and if done right the bees won’t be able to return. A good cut out will include removing the propolis, wax, and covering any other smells that alert the bees to the fact that bees have lived there before, and once such smells are addressed foam or other sealants can be successfully used to keep the bees from rediscovering the structure and moving in again.
There are limits to what can be “cut out”, i.e. if the bees move into a chimney, a “trap out” may be more appropriate.
A Trap Out generally requires less skill, and there are more beekeepers who can do this, it is much less invasive to the structure (no cutting), and usually costs much less than a “Cut out”, however it can take a month or so to complete the process of trapping the bees outside and enticing them into a new hive. The queen is often left inside the structure, so the colony’s genetics are often sacrificed. A Trap Out is not permanent, the propolis, old wax, and honey are left behind, and if the cavity is not well sealed honey bees may try to move in again later because it will still smell like home to them, so the choice of sealant matters more for a Trap Out than a Cut Out. Because this can be a very slow method of removal, it may not be complete until after swarm season has ended, so unlike poisoning there is not a high likelihood of a new swarm moving in the same year.
Unfortunately a trap out may result in unguarded honey which can attract nuisances such as other bees, wasps, squirrels, pests, etc. as they have a robbing spree, or if it goes undetected it can leak and damage the walls of the house. To prevent that outcome the beekeeper doing the trap out may offer to bring a big strong colony temporarily on site, smear the outside entrance of the hive with honey to get them interested, and deliberately start a controlled and temporary robbing event for a day or two. If there are sufficient numbers of honey bees robbing the cavity, wasps and other unsavory creatures will not have a chance to get in. Once the honey is gone from the cavity, the entrances can be sealed and the colony moved away.
So why catch swarms?
While we can’t catch every swarm that ever happens, we can do our part to minimize how many move into unsafe locations and cost someone time, effort, money, and put their safety at risk, by catching and hiving as many as we can.
If you see a swarm, please don’t wait for them to move on, get a beekeeper out there ASAP.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.