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Here's what you can do to help honeybees if you spot a swarm

May 22, 2019

Credit freeimages.com/Caroline Kjall

This time of year, you might be startled by the sight of a huge swarm of honeybees. It can happen not only in agricultural areas, but also in your neighbor's backyard or even in the middle of a city.

"It can be kind of scary thing to see a big, buzzing ball of thousands of honeybees, right?" Emma Mullen asked. "That's a lot of people's worst nightmares." 

But Mullen, senior honeybee extension associate at Cornell University, says those bees are typically harmless.

They're just taking a cue from the warm weather and the flowering plants that it's time to reproduce.

"And they do this by swarming," she explained. "Half of the colony remains in the old nest or the old hive, and then the other half goes out in search for a new home. When people are actually seeing those clusters of thousands of bees sitting on a tree branch -- we call that the swarm -- that's what they're seeing, are those colonies that are in the midst of reproducing and deciding on a new home site."

When you see this kind of roaming colony, Mullen urges you to contact a beekeeper so it can be safely moved. Whatever you do, she said, don't spray the bees or otherwise try to kill them.

Honeybees play a vital role in our life by pollinating fruit-bearing plants, and they have enough enemies right now. In addition to pesticides, parasites and viruses are taking their toll. Each year over the past 10 years, New York state has lost between 42 and 68 percent of its honeybee colonies.

"And that's another great reason why people should call a beekeeper," Mullen said."If a beekeeper is able to take a honeybee swarm, they can care for them and manage them if they need it, instead of having these colonies kind of inhabit people's homes or other cavities out in the wild where they can spread these diseases if they happen to get them."

Cornell has a list of swarm-catching beekeepers in New York state. Mullen said it's helpful to let them know roughly how large the swarm is, whether you found it at a high elevation in case they need to bring a ladder, and to make sure that it was honeybees you saw and not hornets or wasps.  Honey bees are hairy or fuzzy compared to wasps and hornets, which usually have a smooth and shiny exterior.

Here's a list of Rochester-area honey bee swarm catchers.  Pat Bono , founder and president of NY Bee Wellness, Inc., says most beekpeers listed will capture a swarm free of charge as a community service.