How to tell if you actually have a honey bee swarm or hive on your property

Since becoming a beekeeper, I've found myself being tagged in Facebook posts from homeowners who believe they have a "swarm" of honey bees needing to be removed. As any beekeeper could tell you, we jump at the chance to save and take them away, but so far, 100% of my calls have neither been a swarm or honey bees at all. I'm hoping this post will help change that! 

Help! I think I have a swarm of bees in my yard! 

My very first call came from a post on Facebook - a homeowner took a photo of a very large tree in her yard and said she heard tons of buzzing and could see a lot of honey bees flying around it. Despite being allergic, she was able to get close enough to take some photos of individual bees and they were, in fact, honey bees! I excitedly left work early to get some supplies and head to her house, prepared to catch my very first swarm.

Unfortunately, what she thought was a swarm was just a lot of active honey bees gathering pollen from her newly blooming (and very large) American Dogwood Tree. Standing under the tree, you could absoluetely hear the buzzing and humming of those hardworking little ladies, and it was easy for anyone not familiar with bees to mistake that as swarming. Disappointment aside, it was an awesome opportunity to educate the caring homeowners about bees in general and what a swarm actually looks like. 

So what is a swarm? Swarming is the process by which a new honey bee colony is formed when the queen bee leaves the original colony with a large group of worker bees. They do this when they feel they have outgrown the hive or for other various reasons. During this time, the bees are most vulnerable and mostly non-aggressive, as their main focus is keeping their queen safe and finding a new location. 

While the scout bees go out to find a new home, the bees often cluster around the queen on a tree branch or on a random object, and is very easy to spot. This cluster is what beekeepers think of when someone tells us they have a "swarm of bees," and we will often come out for a small fee (or a lot of the times for free) to capture them.

The following photos (grabbed from Google) show what a honey bee swarm looks like on various objects:

 hollandbees.org

hollandbees.org

bee-swarm.jpg
 honeybeeswarmremoval.com

honeybeeswarmremoval.com

Swarms, depending on their location, are usually a quick job for a beekeeper and a win/win for everyone involved.  


There's a honey bee nest on my house! 

The other few calls I have received this summer ended up not being honey bees at all, but instead wasps or hornets - a common mistake people make.

While beekeepers are glad to come out and take care of honey bees, there isn't anything they can really do to help you with a wasp or hornet nest and will often refer you to an exterminator. Unlike honey bees, wasps and hornets are nasty buggers that can be exterminated guilt-free. They will attack you unprovoked and aren't responsible for anything useful except some pest control (they eat other bugs).

Here are a few differentiating factors to help you identify what kind of "bee" you actually have so you can make the appropriate call.     

APPEARANCE 

This image from Google is a great little guide that covers the most common "bees" you'll find, and is also a great visual representation of their differences. 

Bee-or-Not-a-Bee.jpg

As you can see, honey and bumble bees are adorably fuzzy with a much less threatening look to go along with their generally sweet temperament. Wasps and hornets don't have much (if any) fur, are usually all black or some variation of a bright yellow or white, and have narrow, scary looking wings to go with their long abdomens.

If you are able to get close enough to take legible pictures, a beekeeper will be able to identify what you have, based on these appearances, before even having to come out.  

NESTS

One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between honey bees and wasps or hornets would be their nests! If you have one of those gray, circular paper-looking balls hanging from your roof or some other structure/object on your property, that belongs to some type of wasp or hornet, and a beekeeper won't be of much help with that.   

 Early stages of a wasp nest where you can see the comb

Early stages of a wasp nest where you can see the comb

 Later stage of a hornet nest where the comb is enclosed 

Later stage of a hornet nest where the comb is enclosed 

Honey bees, however, will make their hives within cavities that are protected from the elements like hollow trees, wall voids, or attics. They make comb in sheet-like layers instead of in ball shapes like wasps and hornets, and are a much more intensive process to remove.     

DSC_02891.jpg

What you can do to help

While I was happy to help save the previously mentioned homeowners the $300+ exterminator fee and spray the wasp/hornets nests for free, it does cost beekeepers time and gas money to make these kind of house calls only to return with no honey bees in tow. 

Having the following information available when contacting a local beekeeper can help them gauge the job and help both of you save time:

  • Help determine if they are honey bees (verify using the graphic above)
  • Take photos of the nest and bee if possible  
  • Where are they? (up in a tree (how high), in a bush, on a fence, in a house, etc)
  • How big is the cluster? (size of a basketball, volleyball, trash can, etc)
  • How long have they been there?
  • Are there still lots of bees flying around in the air?
  • Is it in a public place or private (your) property?

Beekeepers are passionate about bees and saving these keystone pollinators, so don't ever hesitate to get in touch to ask questions or chat about these incredible creatures!