Swarms of Bees


Bees are kind of a big topic for some of us here at ODU.  Over the weekend, I had a swarm of bees in the oak tree in my front yard!  The other people in my household were… less thrilled than was.  Actually, I was thrilled.

To me, when a bunch of honeybees swarm, it’s a good thing: it means that you have a queen that’s looking for a new home.  Well, okay, *she* isn’t looking for the new home, but her nest-site scouts are!   When a hive of bees becomes large enough, or you have a situation with an extra queen bee, a group will go off and look for a new home.  That’s what swarming is all about.  According to Dr. David Tarpy of North Carolina State University, 30-45% of bee colonies died during the 2013 winter (1).  That’s harsh.  Bees are pretty important, agriculturally, so that’s a loss rate that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

This goes beyond just making honey and royal jelly for us to consume.  Honeybees pollinate a LOT of our crops–and with the populations of honeybees in decline, we’ve been having to round up bees and haul them in a truck from place to place to pollinate our crops. That’s stressful for the bees, according to (2) and may be affecting their development (3), which aren’t going to help us solve the problem.  Even large-scale companies such as Haagen-Dazs have become active in efforts to support the honeybees, selling products with a small percentage of the proceeds being sent to research efforts.

Generally, bees aren’t aggressive when they’re swarming–and I’ve observed that personally, but it’s pretty well documented.  This is good, because I’m actually quite allergic to bee stings.  I like breathing.  It was still somewhat concerning or scary for the others in my household, even though I assured them that the bees weren’t likely be nesting in our oak tree.  “But how do you know that?”  There has been a lot of interesting research on bees’ preferences for their homes, but 30 feet up in the air and dangling over my driveway didn’t seem to be an ideal location to build a nest.  If you want to learn a little more about how honeybees find a new home, I strongly recommend the interview that David Krulwich did with Thomas Seeley (4).  It’s amusing and enchanting and I actually use it as part of the homework in my Evolution course.

As I promised, the bees didn’t attack us.  They didn’t even stay long: about 2 hours until they moved on to wherever else they chose to nest.

What should you do if you see a honeybee swarm?  Feel kinda happy that they’re doing well.  Steer clear-they’re just house-hunting.  Call a local beekeeper if they’re accessible–swarms can be caught and taken to hives, which means better control for the humans and a good living space for the bees!  A quick Google search will probably help you find someone to come out and capture them.  Mine were too far above the ground, but I do know I have a beekeeper in the neighborhood, so I’m hoping they found a great home!


(1) Steinhauer, N., K. Rennich, M. E. Wilson, D. M. Caron, E. J. Lengerich, J. Pettis, R. Rose, J. A. Skinner, D. R. Tarpy, J. T. Wilkes, and D. vanEngelsdorp. (2014). A national survey of managed honey bee 2012-2013 annual colony losses in the USA: results from the Bee Informed Partnership. Journal of Apicultural Research, 53: 1-18.

(2) Migratory management and environmental conditions affect lifespan and oxidative stress in honey bees

(3) Effects of long-distance transportation on honey bee physiology

(4) Nature’s Secret: Why Honey Bees Are Better Politicians Than Humans


Dr. Lisa Horth is probably our in-house expert on honeybees!

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