When I took my trail group of students to Irvine’s meadow to sweep for insects, we found crickets, grasshoppers and leaf hoppers. It’s pretty typical that we find these insects, but what happened next didn’t seem so typical; a swarm of honey bees flew through our group! Several students and a volunteer were quickly surrounded by countless honey bees. We told the students to hold still. They did, but they were noticeably scared. The swarm moved on as quickly as it came.
Naturally, the students asked why the honey bees were swarming and if it was normal. Honey bee swarms are normal, and they typically occur from May toJuly. One main reason honey bees swarm is because when there are too many worker bees in a colony, they don’t have contact with the queen anymore. They need a new queen since it’s she that releases chemical scents that help unify the colony and lays eggs.
So, a new queen arises (thanks to being fed some royal jelly as a larva) and the old queen joins part of the colony to go make a new one. This is when bees swarm because the worker bees surround the queen while other bees look for a new cavity to live in. The honey bees are usually pretty calm during this time and aren’t really interested in going after people to sting them. Once they find a new home, they go right in and return to performing their roles.
Understandably, being caught up in a honey bee swarm can feel pretty frightening if you don’t know what’s going on. A honey bee swarm is just a time of transition for a colony, not a sign of an attack. If you see a swarm, step back and enjoy the amazing sight. If you find yourself a part of a swarm, hold still until they pass. Once they’ve moved through, they’ll get back to work, enabling us to have beautiful flowers, fruits, vegetables, honey, and more!
– By Irvine Naturalist, Valerie Barbare