CH bee inspector explains swarms—and why not to panic
To some, a nearby swarm of honeybees can set off alarms, and send them running back indoors. Understanding why honeybees swarm can lower anxiety levels and provide the tools to protect these essential, beneficial, and critically threatened insects.
The Green Team reached out to Cleveland Heights resident Patrick McGuigan, who is the Geauga and Monroe County Apiary Inspector for Ohio’s Department of Agriculture, to ask what one should do when a swarm of bees settles on a front porch eave, or outside a kitchen window, to rest and recharge.
According to McGuigan, who holds degrees in horticulture from both The Ohio State and North Carolina State universities, “The queen bee in Northeast Ohio typically starts laying eggs in January and February, and as the days get longer and warmer, a queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a single day. This results in a hive that has become uncomfortably overcrowded by the Summer Solstice, when egg production reaches its peak.
“During this time of growth, usually May and June, the colony raises a second queen, and the old queen bee flies off, usually taking a third to a half of the colony with her, in search of a new home.” In other words, when 10,000-plus bees take the form of a living, buzzing, basketball-sized clump of insects, they are in search of the perfect location to build their new hive.
While bee “scouts” are looking for a suitable new home, swarms sometimes make brief stopovers on tree branches, walls, eaves—anywhere they can hang on. They can appear menacing; they are not. McGuigan explained, “Since they are not defending a colony, they are typically not aggressive. Waiting in swarms while moving is the only way they feel protected. In fact, since they do not have a nest or stores of honey to defend, they tend to be at their most docile.”
Too often, frightened homeowners reach for a can of insecticide, or call the exterminator, thus contributing to the decline of the bee population. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honeybee populations are less than half what they were in the 1940s, mostly driven by a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which causes bees to suddenly abandon their hives. Unfortunately for the bees, there are no federal laws to prohibit people from killing them.
“Swarms rarely stay in one place for more than a day or so,” McGuigan noted, “so chances are the bees will take off on their own if left alone.” His advice—be patient and don’t panic.
A cluster of bees does not mean that they are building a nest; it’s just a temporary assemblage. However, it is understandable why businesses or homeowners might get nervous about having a huge blob of bees hanging around, particularly if there are children in the area. In some cases bees can become a nuisance if they take up residence where they should not—in the walls of a home, garden shed, or water meter, for example.
In such cases, McGuigan encourages people to call a local beekeeper, the Cuyahoga County Bee Inspector, or someone else who has experience managing honeybee hives, to safely remove the bees to a more suitable home. “The last thing we want people to do is to attempt to spray [them] with insecticide or other chemicals, or hire an exterminator,” said McGuigan. “If you leave the bees alone, they will leave you alone.”
Bees are among the many beneficial insects that are struggling to survive. “Our tendency to develop land and our extensive use of harmful chemicals are wiping out their natural habitat. We can truly make a difference by ceasing to use pesticides and by planting an array of native pollinator plants,” explained McGuigan.
If you need to have a swarm or a hive removed, contact Philip Bartosh, Cuyahoga County Apiary Inspector, at 216-470-0934; or visit www.agri.ohio.gov for more information about Ohio’s Apiary program.
Remember, if you see a swarm of honeybees, do not freak out; instead, be glad. The best way to protect bees and other pollinators is by creating safe and nurturing spaces in yards and gardens, with native plants that support them.
Catalina Wagers is a resident of Cleveland Heights' Fairfax neighborhood. She is co-founder of Cleveland Heights Green Team.