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Bees and Swarms

Have you got a swarm of bees?

Do you need help and advice?

Please read this page before trying to call a beekeeper

Please read the information that has been put here to help solve your problem, or what you may see as a problem. It should help both beekeepers and non-beekeepers deal with bees. There might appear to be a lot to read, but it will probably be quicker to do so than to spend time contacting people who are unable to help you.

During the summer, many beekeepers are called out to deal with situations they are unable to deal with, or are outside their sphere of knowledge. This results in frustration and annoyance to all parties, with the "problem" often still not being solved.

Before expecting an instant solution by calling someone, it may help you to understand a bit more about bees and other insects that may look like bees. If you have discovered bees please don't panic, but take time to read the information below. A websearch will give a lot of information with images that will help with identification.

This page has been written because the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) receive a huge number of calls from members of the general public they are ill equipped to deal with. The vast majority are not about honey bees that are the type that beekeepers keep, but bumble bees, solitary bees or wasps. The BBKA is a registered charity and don't have the resources to deal with individual situations which can be better dealt with locally.

I have kept bees for over 50 years and I have dealt with many hundreds, if not thousands, of calls from the general public who have "bees" or "swarms". Many of these aren't honey bees, but other bees and wasps or sometimes neither, being "mimics" that are harmless flies that have evolved to look like bees or wasps. I am a beekeeper with an interest in natural history, so I have a little knowledge of both. Many beekeepers don't have this knowledge, so may be unable to help you.

Beekeepers in the U.K. are largely amateurs and Beekeeping Association (BKA) officers are volunteers. They may not be able to respond to a call in the same way as a fully trained ambulance crew can. Many calls aren't about honey bees anyway and you may be asking a beekeeper to do something they are not trained or equipped to do.

Beekeepers and BKAs receive many calls during the summer and are willing to remove swarms of honey bees that are in a position or state where is is practical and safe to do so. It is unhelpful to everyone to call out a beekeeper to something they are unable to deal with, so please assess the situation as best as you can from the information set out below.

We are all much more aware of the value of pollinating insects than we were, so people are more caring and want to deal with them without destroying them. This is commendable and I think we should all work to avoid killing something there is often no need to. Very often the "bees" or "swarm" can be left where it is. Identification and a little knowledge can help immensely.

Identification. What do you have?

With a little thought, understanding and research you are likely to be able to identify the species you have, so helping you and others to deal with your situation. I have set out the following based on the large number of situations I have dealt with over a long time.

Where are they and how many are there?

In general beekeepers are most likely to help if the bees are a swarm that is out in the open. If hanging from a tree branch they will probably be rugby ball shape and size. If they are on something vertical such as a fence post they will spread out considerably and be much longer than wide. Occasionally swarms can be spread out on the ground. Their location and shape may vary considerably, but you will be able to see several thousand of them.

Swarms fly in a mass from their nest and may settle in the familiar swarm that you may be able to recognise by searching online for images of "bee swarms". They may also fly directly into a new home that could be a hollow tree or a building. If you see a swarm, either in the air or in a cluster they must be honey bees because no other bees or wasps swarm.

If you have a swarm of bees in a reasonably accessible place, a beekeeper will be able to remove them if it is safe to do so. It becomes more difficult if they are at a great height or are difficult to reach. Ask yourself the question - would you be prepared to get to where they are? Beekeepers are ordinary people who may not have the skills to climb high ladders.

Once honey bees have established a nest it is very difficult to remove them without dismantling whatever they are in. If they have been there more than a few hours they are often difficult to remove, so if you see a swarm of bees arrive please contact a beekeeper immediately. Don't leave it until the morning as it will be too late. Once bees have selected their new home they very rarely change their minds, so don't leave it to "see if they will go away".

The removal of honey bees from a building needs to be done by someone who is experienced. Cavity walls and chimneys are particularly difficult, if not impossible. Don't be disappointed if beekeepers decline to remove these. Those that are in wooden structures can often be removed, but it needs to be done by a practical beekeeper who will dismantle the building carefully, although you must expect some minor damage. Bees like to make a home where bees have been before, so even if they have been removed, there is a fair chance that another swarm will take up residence in the future.

If your "bees" are in the ground, in a compost bin, under a shed, etc, they are likely to be solitary bees or bumble bees. Search online for images of "Solitary bees" or "Bumble bees" for identification. Some solitary bees look remarkably like honey bees, but their lifestyle is different. They don't live in large colonies like honey bees and vacate their nests in the autumn. Solitary bees are harmless, but bumble bees will sting if disturbed or provoked.

Solitary bees are often found in holes in walls, where they may have nested for some years. Contrary to popular opinion they don't damage structures, so won't cause your wall to fall down.

Bumble bees like to nest in disused mouse and bird nests that are dry, so may nest in such places as sheds, buildings and bird boxes. The queens are the only ones that overwinter. They start building the nest in the spring, then the worker bees take over. The nest is usually well established when it is noticed. They can be removed and relocated, but if they can be left alone for a few months it would be better.

If you have bees in a bird box it is most likely to be what are known as Tree Bumble bees Bombus hypnorum. These are an alien species that have recently arrived and can be quite aggressive. Don't get too close to them. They can be identified by their orange/light tan thorax and white tail. View them through binoculars. To reduce the number of bumble bees nesting in bird boxes it is advisable to remove the bird nest before February.

Wasps and hornets are often confused with bees, but they are yellow and black. They are likely to sting and are also probably best viewed through binoculars. Some honey bees are referred to as being "yellow", but are more of an orange colour.

What can you do?

If you have a genuine swarm of honey bees where you can see a large cluster about the size and shape of a rugby ball or balloon, then call a beekeeper. Search online for "bees" and your county. Look for the county or local BKA. In my case it is West Sussex, but there are four divisions with mine being Wisborough Green, so you can refine it.

By trying to identify the insects you have you will go some way to solving your "problem". In many cases if the insects aren't honey bees a beekeeper is unable to help, so please don't contact one. Solitary bees are delightful and interesting creatures, individually being amongst the most efficient pollinators. They can be left alone.

Unless in a very inconvenient place, bumble bees can usually be left, as they will vacate their nest in the autumn and are very unlikely to return in the following spring. There are a few beekeepers who may be prepared to remove and relocate bumble bees, but don't expect them all to.

Wasps are useful insects, especially in the spring, where they eat other creatures such as aphids. There is only need to remove or destroy them if they are a nuisance. Like bumble bees, they will vacate their nest in the autumn and won't reuse it in the spring. You need to get a pest controller to deal with wasps, not a beekeeper.

What not to do.

Please DON'T call a national BKA - BBKA, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. They will probably be unable to help you and you will be preventing them from doing other valuable work. At best all they will be able to do is refer you to a local contact and you can easily do that yourself. Your situation is likely to be best dealt with at a local level anyway. National BKA websites may provide details of local BKAs.

Don't try to destroy a nest of honey bees yourself. Any chemicals you use may be removed by bees robbing out the honey that is in the nest. THIS IS AN OFFENCE.

In general.

Beekeepers are usually amateurs who have employment or other things that occupy their time. Beekeeping is a hobby and the collection of swarms is usually provided as a service to the public. BKAs very often have information on their websites to help non-beekeepers deal with swarms of honey bees. Many beekeepers are unable to deal with insects that are not honey bees.

During the summer, beekeepers receive many calls to deal with "bees" that aren't honey bees. Two days before writing this page I had 5 phone calls and 3 emails about "bees". By asking some simple questions and emailing a few photo's I was able to determine they were all bumble bees. That probably took an hour or so out of my day, but if I had visited each one it would probably have been a day of my time I can ill afford to lose, as well as using fuel that few callers would have wanted to pay for and of course polluting the atmosphere!

I was once called out to what a caller was insistant was a swarm of bees. When I questioned them they said something like "Do you think I don't know what a swarm looks like?". When I got there I found two bumble bees in a conservatory! It is noticeable at beekeeping meetings towards the end of May that beekeepers are getting a bit annoyed at the number of wasted calls they get. In many cases the callers can do a lot to help themselves and this page should help them to do that.

Please be assured that beekeepers are usually happy to collect swarms of honey bees. It is the wasted calls and visits that are sometimes resented.

It is hoped this page can be linked to BKAs, local councils, police forces and pest controllers as a help to everyone. If you read this, then please alert those you think may benefit from a link. It could save a lot of time and help those who actually need it.

Roger Patterson.