It can look like something out of a B-movie — tens of thousands of honeybees flying in a giant whirling cloud before landing on a tree branch or other object and forming a massive, buzzing ball. But it’s perfectly natural, according to experts.
What you are seeing is a swarm. This is a large number of honeybees who, along with their queen, have left their hive in search of a new home. This is how bee colonies expand, according to Amy Nickerson, president of the Penobscot County chapter of the Maine Beekeepers Association. She works around her own honey bees on a daily basis and has experienced many swarms over the years.
Bees are at their most unaggressive and least likely to sting while swarming, though to the untrained eye it can look quite different, Nickerson said.
“It can be a bit loud and scary but swarms are super common,” Nickerson said. “There is nothing to be afraid of and you can literally scoop the bees up with your bare hands.”
According to Nickerson and Jennifer Lund, state apiarist and bee inspector, the queen is in the middle of the swarming bees. The entire swarm is waiting while special scout bees fly out to look for a new home.
When a scout bee thinks she has found the perfect spot, she comes back and does what is known as a “waggle dance” that demonstrates the location and selling points of that spot. She also convinces other bees to go check it out with her. If those bees also like it, they come back and do their own waggle dance of approval.
Whichever spot gets the most support from the swarm will become the new hive location. Once that is determined, all the bees will take off at once and head for their new home.
If you do see a swarm and you have no experience with honeybees, you are going to want to call in a swarm catcher like Nickerson. Swarm catchers have the expertise and proper equipment to capture and remove a swarm from just about any place. There is no need to have professional exterminators come and kill the bees.
Lund recommends going to the DACF’s honey bee program web page. The page has contact information for swarm catchers all over the state. That same information is also available online through the Maine State Beekeepers Association. You can also call the honeybee swarm hotline 207-619-4BEE and a swarm catcher will contact you.
When called out to capture a swarm, Nickerson brings a bee hive box filled with frames on which the new bees will build wax combs. She also will have a brush to gently remove them from a surface. To protect herself from any possible stings she will also wear a protective bee suit.
Once at the swarm, Nickerson will try to set the hive box as close to the bees as possible. If they are on a limb close enough to the ground she can put the box below the bees and shake the limb with just enough force that the bees will fall down into it.
The key, she said, is making sure the queen is captured because wherever she is, is where all the other bees want to be.
It typically takes under an hour for Nickerson to complete a swarm capture. Once she has them safely in the box and covered up so they can’t escape, Nickerson will take them to a waiting beekeeper.
“These are free hives and I have a list of beekeepers who will take them,” Nickerson said. “Who doesn’t like free bees?”
However, sometimes the situation is more severe, such as when a swarm relocates to inside a wall of a house. When that happens, Lund said it moves from a simple capture to a removal situation. In that case, a specially equipped swarm catcher will be necessary.
“That is often a paid service where someone comes in with a special vacuum to gently suck the bees out,” Lund said. “If someone needs that, they can call me at DACF and I will find them somebody who can deal with it.”