Help honey bee swarms find a home

With spring flowers come swarming bees, and Montana beekeepers are glad to help remove them if people find swarms clinging to trees, fences or some other surface.

“A swarm is bees at their most harmless,” says Cam Lay, state entomologist with the Montana Department of Agriculture. “Bees sting only in defense of the hive, to protect their home and children, if you will. A swarm has no brood and no home, so they have no reason to sting you.”

Lay acknowledges that a swarm can be an intimidating sight. “All of a sudden you’ve got ten thousand bees sitting on your fence, or on the side of the house. They buzz, and they fly around, and that’s outside the experience of most people.”

The process begins as new queen bees emerge in a hive, says Diana DeYoung of the department’s Glasgow field office. The old queen quits laying eggs and her abdomen gets smaller so she can fly. When the new queens are ready to emerge, the old queen takes part of the colony and flies away.

Swarming bees alight in a temporary location while their “scout bees” search for a more permanent home. That’s usually a cavity in a tree or building, Lay says. Once the scout bees find a good spot, they communicate the distance and direction to the rest of the swarm with a “waggle dance,” and lead them off to their new home.

“We still don’t know how they decide which group of scout bees to follow,” Lay says. “But somehow they make a decision and off they go.”

Unless a local beekeeper can get there first. A swarm of bees is a good start to a new colony, says Ian Foley, entomology program manager at the department. There are certainly times when homeless bees are nothing but a pest, such as when they take up residence in exterior walls of a home, but most of the time they are a valuable resource.

Foley has already picked up one swarm this year, he said. “I brushed most of them into a cardboard box,” he said, “and then put it on the ground nearby. The rest of them trooped right on in, and I took them home.”

The Department of Agriculture maintains a statewide list of beekeepers who are interested in being contacted to recover swarms. Look for the live link on a copy of this article on the department’s website: or use the detailed address at Readers can also contact the Apiary Program at the Montana Department of Agriculture at 406-444-3144.

–Montana Department of Agriculture