What would you do if you looked up in your yard and saw hundreds of swarming bees? What if those bees set up camp in a tree very close to your house?

Would you run? Grab a stick? Resort to poison?

bee swarmI found myself in this exact position yesterday as my family and I were playing in the backyard. We suddenly found ourselves amid hundreds — if not thousands — of bees. And after making a dash indoors, we watched as the bees gathered in a tree (see photo) very close to both our house and the kids' play area. All I could think of was how I was going to safely get these bees out of my yard.

But, as it turns out, my family and I were witness to an extraordinary event: bee swarming. And contrary to what you might think, bee swarming is nothing to be afraid of.

Bees usually swarm because their hive has grown too big and they need to split off to form another. Before swarming, bees tidy everything up to leave things ready to go for the old hive to thrive, then they fill up on honey and head off in search of a new home.

To conserve energy, the swarm must quickly find a place to cluster. This is why they often end up in peoples' houses, barbecues and doghouses, etc. They gather into a cluster and send out scout bees to search for their new home. Bee swarms stay in this cluster for a few hours to a few days. Sadly, many people (myself included) assume the bees have set up shop permanently at this stage and reach for a stick, hose or poison to get rid of them.

Yet bees are actually not likely to sting anyone while they're swarming, since they're too gorged with honey and too preoccupied with finding a new home.

Jacqueline Freeman of Venersborg, Washington, teaches students about swarming and other bee behavior at Friendly Haven Rise Farm. I asked her for advice on dealing with the swarm in my own backyard. Here’s what she had to say:

  • Leave it alone: The scouts will find a home soon enough, and likely within a few hours the whole swarm will be gone.
  • Call the neighbors: A bee swarm is an amazing, rarely seen occurrence. And as bees continue to suffer from colony collapse disorder, many experts worry spectacles like this will only become rarer and rarer.
  • Call a local beekeeping group: If the bees need to be moved (they don't in my case) you should contact your local county extension service and ask if a local beekeeper will come and remove them.
  • Do NOT harm the bees: Stay 10 feet away and just watch. Or stand farther away and use binoculars. It’s an amazing thing to see.

Photo by Don Savedge

The buzz on bee swarms
Why bees swarm — and what to do if they swarm in your backyard.