WHEN YOU FIND A SWARM ON THE GROUND
Honey bee swarms can land anywhere. I’ve found them on everything from beach umbrellas to garbage cans. The most convenient swarms hang from low limbs like ripe fruit, almost as if they are waiting for a beekeeper to come along. Sometimes a swarm gathers at an unreachable height and only the most cavalier beekeepers among us attempt to retrieve them. Other times, though, you may find one on the ground. At first this seems like a good thing. It’s certainly easy to reach them, but a swarm on the ground may be an indication that something is wrong. Read on to find out what to look for when you encounter a grounded swarm and what it might mean.
Are They Poisoned?
When I am called out on a swarm rescue, I always ask ahead of time where exactly the bees are. If the answer is that they are spread out on the ground it is cause for concern. My first worry is that they may be poisoned. If that is the case, bees will be skipping around, struggling to fly and spinning in circles. There will also usually be dead bees scattered about. Unfortunately, if this is the case, it’s already too late to save these bees. In my experience, it is sometimes possible to save an established colony that has been exposed to poison through foraging, but when a swarm has been sprayed there isn’t a chance they can recover. If you suspect the swarm could be poisoned, ask for a video to confirm it and save yourself the trip. Keep in mind, the person calling you may not have been the one who sprayed them. When people spray bee swarms with poison, the bees don’t die immediately. They often fly to a new location and it can take several days for the colony to completely die.
Is The Queen Dead?
My next concern is that the swarm’s queen may have died. On several occasions I have come across as a swarm spread out on the ground with a dead queen in the center. Sometimes it’s not clear why the queen died, but twice I found her dead body tangled in a spider web. If you didn’t know to look for a dead queen in this situation, you might not have found her. In my experience grounded swarms are often desperate for shelter. You need only set your nuc box near them and they will immediately begin to march in as if the queen were already inside. Additionally, the queen’s body shrinks after death, making her look more similar to a worker bee. You might see her and think nothing of it, but on close inspection, you will find that even a dead queen still has a bald back and long orange legs. Also, the attendant bees are usually still gathered closely around her body. If you’re someone who has trouble recognizing queens, you may find my book Queenspotting helpful
Is The Queen Old Or Injured?
Once I rescued a colony that was flattened out across a parking space and I thought for sure the queen was dead, but then I spotted her as she rushed with the others into my nuc box. I would have bet money that their queen was dead based on the way they looked on the ground, like a bee pancake, but I was used to being proven wrong by the bees. There are always exceptions, of course. Nevertheless, I decided to keep a close eye on this swarm. One week later, I discovered queen cells in the nuc box. After laying one last round of eggs, the queen had died and new ones were being made. I’m not sure what her cause of death was, but it’s impressive that she managed to hang on long enough to lay the eggs that allowed her colony to raise a replacement. I watched the process in awe and am happy to report that the new queen was a success.
How To Help A Queenless Swarm
If you catch a swarm with a dead queen, they will have no way of raising a replacement. These colonies often seem agitated and unsettled. After you bring them back to the apiary, they can sometimes behave strangely. Once I had a colony leave it’s nuc box and try to join another colony on its own. Another time they pooled on the ground in front of their entrance. These experiences have taught me that immediate action needs to be taken with these types of swarms. They need a frame of open brood. The brood calms them down and gives them something to organize around. I give them time to settle (a few hours or a day) and then I combine them with another colony using the newspaper method.
As someone who rescues dozens of swarms each year, I have the unique opportunity to observe patterns in swarm behavior. There are always exceptions to these patterns, but I have found that this particular observation is particularly consistent. Have you encountered a grounded swarm? Share your experiences with them in the comments. Want to learn more about swarms? Check out my newest online class: Swarms & Splits.