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Why you shouldn’t freak out about swarming honeybees — and how to save bees from those who do

Swarming honeybees are seen at the J&P Apiary and Gentzel’s Bees, Honey and Pollination Co. on May 19 in Homestead, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

For many people, the late-spring onset of warm weather conjures up images of barbecues, beach trips and long afternoons spent out in the sun. But if you’re a beekeeper, the changing seasons may have an extra significance: It’s the start of honeybee swarm season.

To many, a swarm of honeybees — which can number well above 10,000 bees and take the form of a living, buzzing, basketball-sized clump of insects — is the stuff of nightmares. But both scientists and beekeepers (who manage hives of honeybees either for fun or to sell honey commercially) encourage citizens not to kill or molest the bees if they happen upon a swarm. In fact, as the nation continues to experience widespread honeybee declines, allowing a beekeeper to capture the swarm alive is not only good for the beekeeper — it can help save struggling bees, too.

And that’s critical: Concern over protecting honeybees has never been higher.

Honeybees have been declining for several decades, largely thanks to a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which causes bees to suddenly abandon their hives. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honeybee populations are less than half what they were in the 1940s.

Most scientists believe the honeybee’s plight has been caused by a complex set of factors, including negative effects from pesticides, various diseases and parasites, and habitat degradation. One of the most recent honeybee studies found that beekeepers lost about 40 percent of their commercial colonies in the past year — a worrisome statistic because honeybees play a crucial role in pollinating crops. In fact, many experts are afraid that their continued decline could have a major impact on human food supplies.

Policy-makers are taking the problem seriously. Last week, the Obama administration released its National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, which aims to put honeybees on the upturn by reviewing and placing restrictions on certain pesticides and restoring land for use by pollinators. Still, honeybees are not protected under the Endangered Species Act, and there are no federal laws to prohibit people from killing them, although state-level regulations may vary. This can be unfortunate for honeybee swarms, which tend to appear more menacing than they actually are.

Swarming is a particular behavior that honeybees exhibit in the late spring or early summer as a way of propagating the species, says Andrew Coté, a New York-based beekeeper and founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association. When a colony gets big enough, it splits in two and the queen bee flies off, usually taking a third to a half of the colony with her, in search of a new home. (Back at the home base, a new queen will take her place and continue on with the old colony.)

While they’re looking for a suitable new home, these swarms sometimes make brief stopovers on tree branches, walls, road signs or other objects. Their appearance — a dripping ball of stinging insects — can be menacing, but neurobiologist and bee expert Thomas Seeley says honeybees are at their safest when exhibiting swarming behavior.

“The reality is that a swarm of bees is not defensive,” says Seeley, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University, where he specializes in the behavior and social life of honeybees. Swarming bees are still en route to a new home, meaning they have no nest and no stores of honey to defend, and they tend to be at their most docile.

Swarms rarely stay in one place for more than a day or so, says Seeley, so chances are the bees will take off on their own if left alone. “A lot of people think that cluster of bees is a bunch of bees building a nest, and it’s not,” he says. “It’s just a temporary assemblage.” But some business or homeowners might get antsy about having a huge blob of bees hanging around, particularly if there are children in the area. In these cases, experts encourage citizens to call a local beekeeper, a person who has experience managing honeybee hives, to come and safely remove the swarm, rather than attempting to spray it with insecticide or hire an exterminator.

Beekeeper Toni Burnham, founder of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance and president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association, Inc., says some exterminators will refuse to destroy honeybees. But even in these cases, some citizens may take matters into their own hands by spraying the swarm with insecticide or other chemicals.

Seeley says it would be hard to put a number on the population-level effects of destroying honeybee swarms. “I don’t know if it’s contributing much to the pressure on the population of honeybee colonies, but every time one is killed it does have some effect for sure,” he says. “I guess the main thing is there’s really no need to [destroy them].”

And even swarms that are left alone by humans are homeless and vulnerable to environmental disturbances. Many don’t make it to their next hive, says Burnham. But she adds that allowing beekeepers to collect swarms can have other benefits besides just saving the bees.

Burnham says collecting swarms can help beekeepers by bolstering the genetic pool on their bee farms. A swarm that’s found in an urban setting, where there aren’t too many bee farms around, likely came from a feral colony — a colony that isn’t being managed by beekeepers and essentially lives in the wild. In order to survive long enough to produce a swarm in the first place, a feral bee colony must be pretty hardy, she says.

“We’re in a day and age where we’re trying to find bees that know how to cope with pests and disease, that know how to cope with profound changes in climate. The genes really, really matter,” Burnham says. “When you have a swarm, you have bees of an unknown background. One thing you do know is that they came from a strong colony, a colony that had existed for a long time.”

Seeley, the neurobiologist, agrees that collecting swarms can be an advantage for beekeepers. “If you’re not in a suburban area or something like that, chances are that the swarm is coming out of a wild colony,” he says. “They’ve been tested. They’ve had to be living somewhere on their own.”

Coté, the New York City beekeeper, cautions that honeybees can sometimes be confused with other insects, such as yellowjackets, so he encourages citizens to make sure they’ve properly identified the insect they’re looking at when they call their local beekeeper for help. He recommends taking a photo of the insects and comparing them with photos of honeybees to make sure. Some beekeepers may be willing to move wasp nests or other insect colonies, but some will only be willing to work with honeybees.

“My thoughts are that any sort of pollinator has value,” says Coté. “However, I am partial to the Apis mellifera — the honeybee — and I do believe that everyone who enjoys food owes a debt to the honeybee, and we all need to be good stewards of them.”