Qualifying Swarms

by Steve McDaniel
With a little luck, you may get a call to come and pick up a swarm this spring. It’s tempting to take off after that hundred-dollar bill hanging on a bush, if you have priced a three-pound package lately. Do you rush right over to the caller’s home, only to find that the “bees” are really yellow jackets, or the “swarm” is a crew of worker bees foraging on a flowering bush, or the cluster is fifty feet up in a tree? To avoid disappointment, ask a few questions first.

1. Are they on your property? If not, you need to talk to the owner. Don’t trespass.
2. Have they been sprayed? If so, I usually end the conversation there or offer to remove them for a fee. I can’t use bees that have been poisoned.
3. How many insects do you see? To some people, ten bees are a swarm. Correct answer: ”Thousands.”
4. What do they look like? “Shiny yellow and black” means yellow jackets, not bees. “Fuzzy yellow and black” may mean bumblebees or carpenter bees. Correct answer: “Brown or golden and fuzzy.”
5. Have they formed a cluster, and where is it? If not, how can you collect them?
6. How big is the cluster? If it is only softball-sized, it may not be worth getting. Correct answer: Basketball or at least football-sized.
7. Is there a nest with a hole that the “bees” are flying in and out of? If so, they are hornets or other wasps, not honey bees. Correct answer: “a solid mass of insects.”
8. How high are they? Most people’s estimates in feet are way off. Instead, ask if they are head high, within reach, within reach with a stepladder, and so on. Take your own ladder if you think you will need one.
9. Did you hear them arrive? If yes, it is a fresh swarm.
10. How long have they been there? If more than a day, they may be hungry and tend to sting, so take a sugar-syrup sprayer to feed them.
11. Are they still there now? Please go and look. Often, they will have left before the caller found you.
12. Have you called any other beekeepers? You don’t want to get there as the other guy pulls away with the bees in his truck.

Emphasize to the caller that bees are valuable and should not be sprayed or hosed down, and that they are harmless if left alone but will sting if attacked, as by children throwing stones. Tell the caller to keep people away from the bees until you get there.

I usually remove swarms for free, but if there is a charge, now is the time to say so. I do charge for removing bees from walls or for false alarms, when I get there and find a pile of dead bees or a bit of wax on a branch and no stragglers, meaning they left hours ago. If the distance is too great for me, I will find a beekeeper in the area to take the swarm and tell the caller not to keep calling around.

Be sure to get an address, directions, and a phone number, and ask if anyone will be there when you arrive. Give an accurate estimate of your arrival time and stick to it. Now get your favorite swarm-catching gear together, call in sick, and go!