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Washington Voices

Figuring out the buzz about bee swarms

Sat., June 16, 2012

This has been an active year for honeybee swarms. Many beekeepers are reporting a lot of requests to retrieve swarms all over the Inland Northwest. They aren’t all out in the country either. There was one on a street tree in downtown Spokane near Nordstrom last week and another from the hive at the WSU Master Gardener Plant Clinic the week before. Both were retrieved by local beekeepers.

Honeybee swarming is the natural way bees reproduce to keep the colony strong and provide for a new queen. An active hive grows too large for its space and the bees run out of room for brood, honey and pollen so the hive splits.

When this happens, the queen begins laying larvae in special queen cells to create a new queen for the hive after the old one leaves with the swarm. Once the new queen larvae are in their final growth stages, the old queen stops laying and the worker bees stop feeding her so she can lose some weight. Otherwise she is too heavy to fly. Scout bees fly out to find a place for the swarm to land.

When it’s time, the old queen leaves the hive with about half the worker bees and flies to the spot picked by the scout bees. The cluster of bees surrounds the queen to protect her and keep her warm. The most experienced foraging workers then begin scouting for a final nesting spot.

The process can take a few hours or days depending on how long it takes to find the right place. The scout bees returning to the hive do a series of special dances that tells the swarm the direction and the distance to the proposed home. The more excited the scout bee dances, the better the spot. Once the scouts agree on a place the swarm is ready to move and takes off in a cloud of bees.

The new site needs to be large. Big enough to hold 4 or five gallon milk jugs in volume. It also needs to be well protected from predators and the elements but still receive some warmth from the sun. The hive then builds comb and lays in stores while the queen lays eggs.

In the old hive, the remaining workers continue to raise the newly designated queen larvae until she hatches, takes her mating flight and begins to lay new worker bees. Once the colony has produced enough workers, it returns to full strength and is able to lay in stores of honey and pollen for winter.

If you encounter a swarm, stay calm. They aren’t interested in you and will only attack if you disturb the cluster. They will however send out scouts to check you out so just stay back and stand still. Don’t try to spray the swarm with insecticide or water. We need to preserve honeybees. Call a beekeeper to collect the swarm. The WSU Spokane County Master Gardeners and the Inland Empire Beekeepers Association both keep lists of swarm catchers.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@

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