Bees swarm the Museum!

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

On Tuesday, a swarm of bees took up residence in a tree just behind the Museum. Run for your lives!!!…(just kidding).

The bees weren’t there to stay, just passing through on their way to finding a suitable spot for a new hive. Can you spot the bees up in the tree?

A common misconception is that a bee swarm is dangerous and something to be scared of. And while it may be a little intimidating to see that many bees in one place, bee swarms are nothing to be frightened of. In fact, they’re pretty interesting.

Swarms are the natural way a honeybee colony reproduces, propagating the species by dividing the hive into two. Overcrowding and starvation are the main catalysts for swarming, and when a hive begins to run out of room, a swarm usually happens. Swarming also helps bees colonize a new area, and disperses the population so risks of infection and predation are less likely to affect all the bees in one region.

Throughout the year, worker bees create queen cups (special cells to rear queens in). When it’s time to swarm, the queen will lay eggs in the queen cups. By feeding the larvae that hatch out of those eggs royal jelly, the larvae turn into queens. The old queen will leave with approximately 60% of the worker bees, off  to find a site to build a new hive. The workers who stay behind will rear the next queen and continue the original hive. During a queen’s first year, it’s rare for a colony to swarm. However, by the second year the queen has laid enough eggs (thereby growing the colony’s population) that a swarm is very likely to happen.

Our swarm probably would have moved on in a day or two after scout bees found a new hive location. But since the swarm was clustered in an area of high pedestrian traffic, and we wanted to make sure the bees didn’t decide to build their hive inside our building (we’ve already had raccoons and bats get in, so I’m sure bees could find a way in), we called beekeeper Kris Holthaus to come and remove the swarm.

Here’s Kris sweeping the swarm into a bucket. Because the bees are relatively mellow when they swarm (no hive to defend and they’re lethargic because they’re full of honey), it’s not too hard to collect a swarm. However, Kris is professional beekeeper, so don’t try this at home. Check out that bucket full of bees.

This is the second swarm we’ve had in Library Park in as many weeks. Kris was surprised that the bees were already swarming – it’s still a little early for that much activity – and that the bees swarmed on such a cool and windy day. But swarm they did, and it probably won’t be the last one we see near the Museum this season. Hopefully, the next time a honeybee colony is ready to swarm nearby, they’ll take up residence in one of the three “swarm boxes” set up in Library Park. These swarm boxes are placed in spots scout bees are likely to find, and are a safe and attractive spot for a swarm to settle until a beekeeper can move the colony to a new location.

One of the swarm boxes in Library Park. This box is high in a tree, making it safe for both bees and people. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, see if you can spot this and the other two swarm boxes.

For more pictures of the bee swarm, visit our Facebook page and look under “Photos.”

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