Don’t be alarmed. Those swarming bees are a sign of spring, and it’s necessary for survival

Stock image | Photo by Photografiero/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — With spring in full swing in Southern Utah, honeybees are busy gathering pollen and can be seen forming giant, somewhat alarming clusters which are often found on tree branches or on houses, and while this swarming behavior may seem alarming, it’s necessary for their survival.

Swarm of honeybees gather on fence post in Sevier County, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Alysha Jensen, St. George News

A post on social media recently sent to St. George News outlined that bees are swarming right now and these are “not killer bees, wasps or hornets,” but instead are honeybees, a population  that is “very vulnerable at this point,” Andrew Burgi said in the post.

Burgi told St. George News he is a newly established beekeeper in the area and posted the information to deter the public from spraying or harming the swarms, and to let them know there are beekeepers locally that will come out to remove them safely and provide them with a home.

St. George News then reached out to Casey Lofthouse, a commercial beekeeper and Washington County bee inspector, who said that swarming is a natural process in the life of a honeybee colony that takes place in the spring as the weather warms up when large groups of honey bees leave an established colony and fly off to establish a new one.

With widespread honeybee populations in decline, he said, allowing a beekeeper to capture the swarm alive is not only good for the beekeeper — it can help save struggling bees, too.

That is critical, he said, as concerns over protecting honeybee populations around the world has never been higher, adding that honeybees play a critical role in food production. In fact, he said, “without honeybees there is no food chain.”

Lofthouse used the example of the almond crop in California which required 2.4 million beehives to propagate the crop this year, he said, and considering that each hive can contain anywhere from 10,000 to 80,000 bees, that means that an army of 24 billion to 192 billion bees were needed to pollinate a single crop. It also goes to show the tremendous reproductive power of the beehive.

The most common type of swarm is a reproductive swarm, which happens when a colony of bees outgrows its nest or hive. At that point, a new queen will be hatched and about two-thirds of the worker bees will fly off together.

Swarm of honeybees gather in tall grass as they search for a new home, Sevier County, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Beekeeper Alysha Jensen, St. George News

While in search of a new home, 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, “which can be a tree, or on the side of a house, and so on.”

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, they can become trapped or stuck – at which point they can become alarmed and may sting. Even so, swarms are temporary and the bees will move on if they are allowed to do so.

He also said that another benefit of swarming is that it increases the overall number of honeybee hives since each hive that sends out a swarm creates a new one, thus creating two hives from one.

While these clusters may appear intimidating, residents are cautioned not to take matters into their own hands by spraying them with an insecticide to kill them, Lofthouse said. Not only is it ineffective, but it also removes any chance of them being picked up by a beekeeper so the problem remains and the colony is destroyed.

It can also lead to a larger problem since honeybee populations are less than half of what they were in the 1940s, a plight that has been caused by a complex set of factors, he said, including negative effects from pesticides, various diseases and parasites, and habitat degradation.

Instead, residents can call emergency dispatch or their local police department to report the swarm and a local beekeeper will be called out to remove the bees and provide them with a stable hive. This not only saves the bees, but also improves the genetic line for all bees.

He also said that even agressive Africanized bees, which arrived in Washington County in 2009 and are a hybrid of African and European bees, can be removed safely. Once the queen is killed, then the hive will be repopulated with European honeybees that are non-aggressive, replacing the population within a few months.

Honeybees – greatest pollinators on earth

Honeybees are easily among the most important insects on earth and more than a third of the world’s food production depends on bees. In other words — every third spoonful of food depends on this vulnerable population of super-pollinators.

Beekeeper Alysha Jensen managing swarm of honeybees on a fence post, location, Sevier County, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Alysha Jensen, St. George News

Honeybees play an important role in agricultural production through effective pollination which not only increases the amount of agricultural products produced, but also improves the quality of the plants and increases the crop’s resistance to pests.

An unprecedented study has shown that honeybees are the world’s most important single species of pollinator in natural ecosystems, according to an analysis led by biologists at the University of California, San Diego published in January 2018. 

The study also revealed that the bee is the single most frequent visitor to flowers of naturally occurring plants worldwide and were recorded in nearly 90% of the pollination networks across their native range and in more than 60% of the regions where honeybees have been introduced by humans.

Lofthouse said whether it’s a swarm of honeybees in search of a home or a colony of bees that have built a hive in an attic, a meter box or in a shed, do not disturb the swarm or nest. Just call a professional beekeeper or the local police department for help.


Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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