Every spring, there's something in the air. Birds build nests, squirrels chase each other through the trees, and, yes, the bees are getting busy too.
For honey bees, swarms are the reproductive stage of a colony's life cycle. Just like every other living thing, honey bees want to create more of their species, and they do this through what we call a swarm. In short, half of the colony leaves with the old queen to go found a new home, while the other half of the colony stays behind and raises a new queen.
After leaving the hive, the swarm will fly to a nearby tree (or human built shelter) and hang in a cluster for anywhere from a few hours to a few days, while scouts go out to find a new home. Once that new home is found, the bees will move again, traveling from their temporary shelter into the new permanent home that the scouts have chosen.
While a huge cloud of bees flying past can be scary, swarming is actually one of the most docile times of a honey bee's life. Why is that? Honey bees sting to defend themselves or the hive. In the case of a swarm, they have essentially nothing to defend. They are fully focused on finding a new home. Additionally, the bees gorge themselves on honey immediately before leaving the hive, since they don't know when their next meal will be and they have a lot of work to do to build their new home. For honey bees, stinging during a swarm is like picking a fight right after Thanksgiving dinner for you. They just don't want to do it.
So, swarming is a natural and fairly safe occurrence. If you see a swarm, it means that you have healthy honey bee colonies in the area, and that's a good thing! But that doesn't mean that swarms aren't inconvenient. If left to their own devices, the new home that they choose may be even more inconvenient than the swarm itself. It could be inside a house's walls, or in a tree near a playground. The best thing to do if you see a swarm of honey bees is to call a beekeeper. Rainy Day Bees offers free swarm collection in North Seattle, Shoreline, and the surrounding areas. You can reach Peter at 206.519.8505. The Puget Sound Beekeeper's Association also maintains a swarm list of beekeepers that are available to come and pick up swarms in the larger metropolitan area (Click here).
Finally, a couple videos of happy swarms moving into their new homes. Which just happened to be empty hives that I had left out last summer.