Honey bee swarms and bees in walls
Update of circular 824 of the Cooperative Extension Service of The University of Georgia and Ft. Valley State College, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and cooperating counties of the state of Georgia, July, 1994.
Keith S. Delaplane, Professor, Dept. Entomology,
University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602 USA
This circular is for property owners who have unwanted honey bee swarms on their lands or colonies nesting inside walls. It explains these natural processes and gives options for dealing with them.
The Value of Honey Bees
Honey bees are one of the most beneficial of all insects. Honey is humanity's oldest sweet, and beeswax was the first plastic. Today, honey bees provide these and other valuable hive products. In addition, thousands of beekeepers in the United States keep bees for fun and profit.
Honey bees are important pollinators of almonds, apples, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, cranberries, cucumbers, forage crops, kiwifruit, squash and watermelons. The annual contribution of honey bees to U.S. food production is more than $9 million.
What Is a Honey Bee Swarm?
Honey bee colonies reproduce by a process called swarming. During mid-winter, the queen begins laying eggs and the colony population grows. By spring, the nest is congested with many new bees. The colony raises a new queen and the old queen flies away accompanied by more than half the bees.
This flying swarm temporarily clusters on an object, such as a tree branch (Fig. 1), while scout bees search for a permanent nest site. A hanging swarm may assume any shape, depending on the surface on which it is clustered. Most hanging swarms are round or oval, about the size of a basketball, and dark brown.
Swarms in the clustered stage are relatively gentle, and the risk of stings is low. Nevertheless, treat swarms with caution. A swarm usually relocates to a permanent nest -- a hollow tree, abandoned beekeeper's hive, or inside a hollow wall -- within 24 hours.
Options for Dealing with Swarms
If a honey bee swarm lands on your property:
- Do not disturb it. Keep pedestrians, children and pets away from the swarm.
- If the swarm is safely located away from animals and people, you may wait for it to fly away on its own.
- If the swarm poses a real risk to people or animals, you may find a local beekeeper who will remove it. However, not all beekeepers collect swarms, and some may charge a fee for this service. Your county Extension agent can refer you to local beekeepers who collect swarms.
- If Africanized bees are present in your area, do not ask a beekeeper to collect swarms. Instead, report honey bee swarms to your county Extension agent or state Department of Agriculture. Authorities may wish to collect the swarm for official testing. For more information, ask your county Extension agent for Leaflet 432, Africanized Honey Bees.
Options for Dealing with Bee Colonies Inside Walls
Wall voids are attractive to honey bee swarms seeking permanent nesting sites (Fig. 2). This is especially true if the cavity has had bees in it before. To avoid this problem, caulk potential entry sites such as knot holes, gaps in siding, and openings around plumbing or electric wires. If ventilation is necessary around the openings, cover them with window screen.
Bees in walls can be a problem:
- They pose a sting hazard if their entrance is near human or pet traffic.
- They may trouble people indoors with the sound of their buzzing.
- If the colony dies, its beeswax combs are no longer ventilated by fanning bees, and combs may melt and stain interior walls with honey and wax.
If you discover a bee colony nesting inside a wall, here are your options:
- Save money and labor with quick action. If the swarm moved inside the wall very recently (within a day or two), a qualified person can kill the colony by injecting an insecticide into the void. If you wait longer than this, bees will build combs and store honey.
- If a more established colony must be eliminated, it is a job for a specialized bee removal service. The entire nest, including bees and combs, must be removed (Fig. 3 & 4) because if you leave behind the unventilated combs, they may melt and stain interior walls. Many pest control companies avoid these jobs because they involve unusual expertise and liability. Fortunately, this work can be done humanely without killing the bees. Bee removal specialists locate the nest cavity by listening and observation. Next, they open the wall void to expose the nest and cut out and remove all combs, honey and dead bees. Specially-designed bee vacuums permit the operator to remove bees without injury, and the bees can be reunited with their combs later in a conventional hive. It is extremely important to close up all potential bee entry sites; otherwise, you run the risk of a new swarm quickly reoccupying the void. The operator may need to work either inside or outside depending on the nest's location.
- In some cases, bees and people cohabit with no problem for years. If the next entry site is remote from human and pet traffic, such as the peak of a roof, a leave-alone approach may be best.
Remember, honey bees are beneficial insects and are not aggressive. However, they will defend their nest if they perceive a threat. If you encounter flying honey bees, calmly walk away from them and never swat them. Swatting only threatens them and increases the chance of a sting. Your county Extension agent or local beekeeping association can help you with any questions about honey bees.