What should I do if I find a swarm of bees?
Contact a local beekeeper if you find a swarm of honey bees.
What is a swarm of honey bees?
Honey bee colonies reproduce by swarming, a process where about one-third to one-half of the workers in a colony leave in a swarm with the queen to set up a hive in a new location. The original hive is left with a developing queen, worker bees and brood. A swarm of honey bees is typically composed of one queen and thousands of worker bees and can range from softball sized to larger than a basketball, depending on the number of bees.
Swarming can happen throughout the active bee season (spring through fall) but is most common in Michigan during May and June. When the colony determines conditions are right, the swarm leaves the hive. Before flying to its final destination, it will first gather close to the hive, often on a tree branch, fence post or other nearby spot. The swarm typically stays in this temporary location from a couple hours to several days, which is when they are often spotted by passers-by. While the swarm is in this temporary location, scout bees are out searching for a suitable location for the colony to take up more permanent residence. Once the new location is identified, the swarm will depart and fly as a group to the new location.
Why should you contact a beekeeper if you find a swarm?
Because a swarm is a fully functioning colony, many beekeepers are prepared and willing to collect swarms into hive equipment to expand their beekeeping operations. Swarms that are not collected by beekeepers unfortunately usually do not survive. Beekeepers have to manage honey bee colonies for parasites and disease, so unmanaged colonies have a high likelihood of dying due to unmanaged disease and parasite pressure. Even worse, as these unmanaged colonies die, they can risk spreading parasites and diseases to managed colonies.
The scouts of a honey bee swarm will search for a cavity to establish a permanent hive location, and while they may sometimes find a tree cavity, it’s also possible that they find a cavity in a building or structure. Colonies that establish themselves within structures or near highly populated areas can be a nuisance or hazard. It can be difficult and often very expensive to remove honey bee colonies from structures, so having a beekeeper capture the swarm before it has the chance to take up residence is good preventative practice. It is important for the sake of the honey bees and your neighbors to call a beekeeper if you see a swarm.
How can you find a beekeeper in Michigan?
The Michigan Beekeepers Association maintains a list of beekeepers who are interested in collecting swarms. If you aren’t able to find a beekeeper using the list, then you can try reaching out to a local beekeeping club.
Note: Swarm removal is different from removing bees from houses or other structures. If the colony has already set up a hive in a building, you need a person who is willing to do a “cut out,” which you may find on the list of beekeepers who do building cut outs. You can read more about the difference on the problem and unwanted bees webpage.
Beekeepers who are interested in collecting swarms can find information on the Michigan Beekeepers Associations swarm removal webpage about how to be added to the list.
What information can you provide to the beekeeper about the swarm?
The beekeeper will want information about the swarm’s location. What is the address or GPS coordinates of the swarm? Is the swarm gathered on a tree branch, fence post or somewhere else? How high off the ground is it? Is there anything surrounding the swarm that would make it difficult or dangerous to collect the swarm? Sometimes beekeepers will travel long distances to collect swarms, so it is important to let them know if you have contacted other individuals or if the swarm flies away before they arrive.
Many people confuse honey bees with other insects like bumble bees, yellow jacket wasps, and paper wasps. The beekeeper may want to confirm that the insects are honey bees before traveling to collect the swarm. Here are a couple of resources to help you figure out if you have a swarm of honey bees:
- Problem and unwanted bees webpage from Michigan Beekeepers Association
- Bee, wasp or hornet nest: Which one is it? from Michigan State University Extension
If you can take photos safely from a distance, the photos may help the beekeeper determine if the insects are in fact honey bees. Photos can also help provide context about the swarm’s location.
If you find a swarm of bees, is it a sign that you should become a beekeeper?
Remember that honey bees are animals that require a lot of specialized care to thrive, so before you plan on keeping a swarm, consider if you have the time and resources to care for them. If you find yourself fascinated by a swarm of honey bees and want to learn to keep bees, the MSU apiculture team suggests you take a year to learn about beekeeping before you get started. You can start by reading a short article called Should You Keep Bees?
If you think beekeeping is a good fit for you, you can join a local beekeeping club in Michigan, many of which hold regular meetings to provide educational information. The Michigan Beekeepers Association and MSU Extension host beekeeping conferences in the spring and fall.
You can find lots of information about beekeeping on the Michigan Pollinator Initiative’s list of resources for beekeepers, and you should review Starting and Keeping Bees in Michigan: Rules and Regulations before getting started.
Where can I ask additional questions about honey bees and beekeeping?
You can submit questions about honey bees through the Michigan Beekeeping Ask Extension form.