Bee season: Balls of bees in trees, swarms; what you need to know

ST. GEORGE – With spring in full swing in Southern Utah, bees are busy gathering pollen, and, occasionally forming giant, somewhat alarming clusters which are often found on tree branches. This swarming behavior can be frightening, but is not necessarily dangerous to people.

With the recent incident at an Elk’s Field baseball game in St. George, which sent one man to the hospital, many are asking about bee swarms.

A swarm of bees in a tree, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse, St. George News
A swarm of bees in a tree, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse, St. George News

There are two types of bee swarms, said Casey Lofthouse, a commercial beekeeper and Washington County bee inspector.

The most common type is a reproductive swarm, which happens when a colony of bees outgrows its nest or hive. A new queen will be hatched, and the original queen and about two-thirds of the worker bees will fly off together. The bees will cluster together for a time, and this mass of bees is what is commonly found hanging on a tree limb or other structure in a large ball.

“What they’re doing in a cluster is waiting for the scout bees to find a place for them to call home,” Lofthouse said, “like in a tree, in a house ….”

Reproductive swarms are usually quite docile, and will not attack. However, swarms consist of thousands of bees, and if the swarm is in a populated area, the flying insects can get tangled in people’s hair or clothing. If bees get trapped or stuck, they can become alarmed and may sting.

“It’s kind of intimidating, because there are thousands of bees flying,” Lofthouse said. “It can be overwhelming to have 13,000 to 20,000 bees rolling through your neighborhood,” Lofthouse said. “In those situations, that’s just a reproductive swarm, and they’re generally nonaggressive.”

Bee attacks

A swarm of bees flying, undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse, St. George News
A swarm of bees flying, undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse, St. George News

The other type of swarm happens when an established bee colony is disturbed or threatened. When this occurs, guard bees will attack anything they perceive as a threat to a hive.

“I would call that a bee attack, not a bee swarm,” Lofthouse said.

A bee attack is what  happened at Elks Field in late March, when one man was seriously injured and several other people received minor injuries. The incident occurred after an established underground beehive at the baseball field was disturbed, and bees swarmed from the hive, stinging several people.

Whether Africanized or European, all bees will attack if their home is disturbed or threatened. The main difference is that the Africanized bees are more aggressive, and will chase you farther.

Bees where they don’t belong

Sometimes, bees will build a hive in an attic or walls of a home, water meter boxes or sheds. If this happens, do not disturb the nest, just call a professional beekeeper for help and advice.

Bees can get agitated by loud noises such as weed cutting machinery and lawn mowers, St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker said, so sometimes residents doing yardwork will disturb a nest of bees.

A colony of bees underneath a shed, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse
A colony of bees underneath a shed, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse

Sometimes the colony can be collected, but other times the bees will need to be destroyed. When this is the case, Lofthouse said the hive should not just be sprayed with pesticide.

“… the problem with honeybees is, if you have a colony of honeybees living in your gable, and you have a pest control company come and spray those bees with pesticide, all those bees are dead. But the problem is,” Lofthouse said, “then you have the exposed wax and honey and resources that are in that colony.”

Bees from neighboring colonies will come in and take the pesticide-laden honey back to their hive, and then it kills that colony as well.

“If they do spray them with pesticides, they need to make sure that they seal it up so other bees in the area can’t access it,” Lofthouse said.

If bees have built a hive in the walls of your home, it will cost time and money to tear out the walls and remove them.

 African influence?

Africanized bees are a hybrid of African and European bees, and Africanized honeybees look just like the more gentle European honeybees. According to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, an Africanized bee sting is not more powerful, but the danger comes from their increased aggression and the number of stings a disturbed hive will inflict.

Africanized bees arrived in Washington County in 2009, Lofthouse said. Feral swarms now have a good chance of being Africanized, and should be treated with caution.

Stoker said St. George Fire Department started receiving a lot of calls concerning bees when Africanized bees arrived in the area.

“People were nervous, and they had a right to be that way,” the fire chief said.

People with existing bee colonies in their yards became concerned about the possibility of  living next to “killer bees.” However, Stoker said, as time passed the number of calls dropped; St. George Fire Department currently receives between five and 10 bee calls each year.

According to the Department of Agriculture website, Africanized honeybees are present in Washington, Kane, Iron, and San Juan counties.

New and inexperienced beekeepers need to be aware of the hazards of collecting a wild swarm, Lofthouse said, because while the bees are free, there are definite risks involved. A beekeeper could unwittingly end up with an Africanized hive, which will become more dangerous as it grows in numbers.

Beekeeper Casey Lofthouse captures a swarm of bees, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse, St. George News
Beekeeper Casey Lofthouse captures a swarm of bees, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Casey Lofthouse, St. George News

Lofthouse said he can’t count the number of calls he has gotten from beekeepers who have captured wild hives, and then had to call for help when the bees turn out to be Africanized and become problematic because they are aggressive and hard to handle, especially in a neighborhood setting.

“When (the hives) start getting big, they can get dang aggressive,” Lofthouse said.

As the colony grows in numbers, there are more guard bees and the hive can get an attitude, he said.

“When (the hives) get big, they get cocky,” Lofthouse said.

An experienced beekeeper can take the swarm, put it in a hive and “requeen” it. This involves removing the old queen and drones and replacing them with European bees to create a gentle hive. The queen and drones represent the entire genetic makeup of the hive, Lofthouse said, and the worker bees will be replaced by the gentler genetic line of the new queen within about 45 days.

What to do if you see a bee swarm

First of all, don’t panic. Reproductive swarms are usually quite gentle, and a lot of times the swarms will move on within a day or two, Stoker said. If in doubt, call 911 or your local fire department.

“It is a valid concern that people have,” Stoker said. “We advise them if they have any questions or concerns to please give us a call and we’ll come out and see if we need to take immediate action.”

If the bees are not an imminent threat, the fire department will call a beekeeper to come help or advise.

Stoker said the Fire Department only kills bees if they are actually attacking people. Otherwise it uses nonlethal methods. Some swarms can be bagged and released, or calmed with a water spray, or removed by a professional.

“The local beekeepers have been great about coming out and taking care of them for us,” Stoker said, “or advising the people whose property they are on.”

The best thing to do is to stay away from them and not agitate them, he said.

What to do if you’re attacked by bees

According to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, here’s what to do if you accidentally disturb a colony of bees and are attacked:

  • Run away as fast as you can; get to the shelter of a house, or car as quickly as possible
  • Because the bees target your head and eyes, try to cover your head as much as you can, without slowing your progress
  • Do not flail or attempt to swat the bees, just get away fast
  • If you are far from shelter, try to run through tall brush; this will confuse and slow the bees while you make your way out of the area
  • Entering water is not recommended
  • If you see someone being attacked by bees, encourage them to run away or seek shelter; do not attempt to rescue them yourself unless you have a bee suit and proper training
  • Call 911 for emergency help
  • Once you are away from the bees, examine yourself for stingers; when a honeybee stings, it leaves its stinger and venom sac behind in the skin, which kills the bee
  • Do not compress the stinger by trying to pull it out with tweezers or your fingers, as this will only squeeze more venom into the wound; scrape them out using your finger nails, the edge of a credit card, or a dull knife
  • If you are feeling ill, or if you have any reason to believe you may be allergic to bee stings, seek medical attention immediately

So what is the best treatment for a bee sting? Lofthouse said he doesn’t know, although he has been stung hundreds of times.

“I just pop a Benadryl and go about my business,” he said.

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Email: japplegate@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • Bender April 16, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    Well written, interesting and informative article Julie.

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