Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







The Swarm

The miniature denizens of the alien society spew forth from the honeycombed labyrinth of their darkened domicile.  Armed warriors, in blind obedience to some prehistoric imperative, swarm about their deposed leader.  Humans, mere mortals, tremble at the sight and sound of frightening frenzy.

An advertisement for the latest horror movie?   No, just one of the rites of spring – the swarming of honey bees.  This process, which occurs primarily in the months of May and June, allows honey bees to establish new colonies.

The honey bee swarm is one of the true wonders of nature.  First, a new queen is produced in the colony.  The presence of the young queen causes the old queen and her loyal workers to leave.  Before they leave, the workers fill their crops with honey – the insect equivalent to packing lunch.

The first flight of the swarm normally takes it to some temporary resting place.  The bees cluster around the queen while scout bees search for a permanent abode.  The cluster may be on a fence post, a tree limb or a street light.  If the swarm happens to land in a populated area, it is sure to create a sensation.  The fear of being stung by a swarm of bees is, however, mostly unfounded.  Swarming bees are quite docile and seldom sting.

The amount of time the swarm spends as its first landing site is normally limited.  Consequently, the best action when confronted with a cluster of bees is to do nothing; they are not dangerous and will soon leave.  Once the scout bees have found a permanent site, the cluster of bees takes wing, and the queen is escorted to the new location.  At the new site, the bees immediately get down to business and set up housekeeping.

Beekeepers collect swarms and put them in hives as a method of increasing the number in their apiaries.  It's easy to do.  Once the queen is in the hive the dutiful workers follow.  However, for a new colony to be successful, it must get established in time to gather enough honey to sustain it over the winter.  This idea is incorporated in an old folk saying relative to collecting a swarm of bees.  One version is:

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay,
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,
A swarm in July, just let them go by!  

If in the future you happen to encounter a swarm of bees, don't panic.  Just take the opportunity to enjoy one of the natural wonders of the world.  Seeing is bee-lieving!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew