What to Do If You Find a Beehive on Your Property
Hardworking honeybees may not be your favorite houseguests, but their threatened populations and critical environmental role in pollinating crops mean you should never exterminate a thriving colony. "Honeybees, as with all bee species, are on the decline," says Robyn Underwood, an assistant research professor at the Penn State Center for Pollinator Research. But if they go from sweetly buzzing around your garden to parading in and out of your home on a regular basis, you might have a colony that needs a relocation. "If you have plants in bloom, there will certainly be bees around and it's usually nothing to worry about," says Don Shump, owner of the Philadelphia Bee Company. "However, should you suddenly see bees inside your house or flying in and out of a gap in the exterior, it may be time to call a beekeeper."
Identify Your Insects
"If you think you have a honeybee colony on your property, the first thing to do is make a positive identification," says Underwood. "Lots of people think they have honeybees, but end up having other insects, which are not of interest to a beekeeper." Wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, bumblebees, and carpenter bees require different treatment approaches, so it's important to know what you're dealing with. Underwood recommends taking a photo that you can zoom in on to see close-up details of the insects' markings and body, then using Honeybees 911 to reference images and fact sheets. Next, call a professional to verify, says Shump. "Beekeepers who specialize in removals can come out to take a look at the property and confirm whether they are, in fact, honeybees."
Determine If You Have a Swarm
When a colony of honeybees moves from its parent hive, it settles—as a group—on an outdoor structure, like a telephone pole, branch, fence post, or even playground equipment, where they'll stay for less than a day while looking for a new cavity to call home. "It is the easiest type of colony to remove from a property—a beekeeper can come and collect them in minutes," says Underwood. "A swarm is collected by simply shaking or brushing the bees into hive equipment, a cardboard box, a trash can, or anything that can securely hold all of the bees until they get to their new home with the beekeeper." Though a swarm may look nightmarish, the bees are well-fed and distracted, so they're generally not dangerous. "Many swarms will leave on their own if you give them the time," says Underwood. "However, swarms are of value to a beekeeper, so call one to come and collect it."
Or a Hive
If your colony has made its home in a more secluded space—like inside your walls, attic, or eaves—the removal presents a much bigger challenge. "Using the [bees'] entrance as a reference point, we will check the wall for warmth or a buzzing sound," says Shump; then beekeepers drill small holes for camera access so they can locate the hive and cut the wall around it. "A bee vacuum is used to gently siphon the bees off of the exposed comb and contain them," says Shump. "The comb is removed from the wall and tied into frames." Expect this to take about a day with costs starting around $600, depending on how difficult the hive is to access and how many bees need to be relocated.
Call a Professional
Removing a colony is a specialized process that you should leave to expert beekeepers—not amateurs (or exterminators). "We recommend that you find a professional apiarist rather than a hobbyist beekeeper to handle a cut out," says Shump. "Do your due diligence—look for businesses that are incorporated and ask if they carry general liability insurance. Oftentimes, removals require cutting through walls or siding; ask if the apiarist handles the repairs or if you'll need to hire a general contractor."
Underwood recommends asking the companies about their process, too, as a safeguard against those that might not truly intend to relocate the bees. "As long as they describe being careful, trying to get the queen, carefully removing honeycomb and placing it in hive equipment, you can be assured that the bees will be well kept afterwards," she says. "If, instead, they discuss quickly cutting out the comb and throwing it in a bin, or spraying it with insecticide, they are not planning to keep those bees alive."
Seal the Space
After the keeper removes the bees, "bee-proof" their former home to prevent any other colonies from moving in. "The cavity will have a smell from the bees that were removed that is very attractive to other bees," says Underwood. "Thus, another swarm will readily move into that space if they are able." Block the entrance and pack the cavity to make the space inaccessible to other bees. "When the hive is out," says Shump, "the space is filled with insulation to discourage any future hives from getting established.
Wait for the professionals to move the bees, says Shump—if you attempt to deal with them on your own, you risk much bigger problems. "Do not spray poison or seal the entrance!" he says. "Honeybee colonies average about 60,000 bees strong, and they can end up inside your home if trapped." Allow the colony to survive until a beekeeper can get them to a more appropriate spot, says Underwood (though you should take proper safety precautions if someone in your home is allergic). "Even though honeybees can sting, it is something they do as a last resort and only if they feel threatened," she says. "If you stand back and watch them, you will see that they are flying to and from the area without paying you any attention. I highly recommend this, as it is quite peaceful and fascinating. So, my advice is, enjoy them while they are there."