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Honey bees are true social insects (Eusocial), unlike hornets, wasp, and yellow jackets. Honey bees spend the spring and summer gathering and storing food to carry them through winter.
Since honey bee colonies survive from year to year and the amount of labor involved to collect the abundance of nectar and pollen their populations are very large. During the spring and summer a normal honey bee colony's population can range from 20,000 to 60,000 bees.
There are two species of honey bees that live in North America. The European Honey Bee, (EHB) and the Africanized Honey Bee, (AHB). The AHB is also commonly called the killer bee. There has only been 3 colonies of AHB found in Georgia. All were located in Albany, GA. The EHB is considered "tame", but in fact they can be just as defensive of their hives as any other bee, wasp, or hornet.
Caution should always be used when dealing with honey bees regardless of which species they belong to. It takes approximately 700 to 1,000 stings to kill the average adult person.
The honey bee is considered a cavity dwelling insect, preferring to build their nest inside hollow cavities such as trees. This is why they enjoy picking the hollow walls, floors, and overhangs of our homes for their home.
Prior to making their home in your home the honey bee colony had to come from somewhere. It all starts with what we beekeepers call a "parent" colony. It's nothing more than a typical honey bee colony. In the spring of each year every colony has two goals. One is to produce enough honey to make it through the coming winter, the other is to produce a swarm, which will go and start a new colony.
A queen honey bee can lay 1500 to 2000 eggs a day. I know that sounds like a lot, (and it is) but for the honey bee this isn't what they consider reproducing. At least not in the same sense that you and I consider reproducing. You see, honey bees do not see themselves as individuals. If their honey stores run out over the winter, bees will not horde a small portion of honey to the side for themselves or the queen. No, they will pass the food out until there is none left and then they all starve together. So it is the same with reproduction. They do not consider one egg as reproduction, their desire is to start a whole new colony.
This all starts in the early spring, actually most of you would consider it late winter. When the first flowering plants begin to open and the bees can start to forage again the queen is triggered to begin laying eggs. It really starts out slowly with her only laying a few dozen to 100 eggs every few days. The number mostly depends on the amount of food they have in reserve, the colony's population, and how much food is coming in. This "build up" of bees continues to grow and grow through the spring until the colony is literally overpopulated. At this point the parent colony can have a population ranging from 40,000 to 80,000+ bees.
A couple of weeks prior to the parent colony swarming the workers will begin to construct queen cells. Depending on the size of the colony they may build anywhere from 4 to 20 queen cells. These cells are very different than the honey comb that most of us are use to seeing. They are extremely large and will give the queen larva all the room it will need to feed and grow into a queen bee. Soon after the cells are complete the queen will come through and lay eggs into these queen cells. It takes 16 days from the time that the eggs is laid until a fully developed queen emerges.
A few days before the new queens emerge out of her cell the old queen and about 1/2 to 2/3 of the colony will swarm out of the hive. Remember the hive's population that I told you about before? We're talking about 20,000 to 40,000 bees leaving at one shot. Needless to say it's quite an impressive site. Odd thing is they don't know where they are going, so the first thing the swam does is settle on a limb, fence post, or any other object that seems convenient for them to use. There they will hang as they send out "scout" bees to find their new home.
A swarm of honey bees in a tree
This is about the time that people may begin to see the bees around their home. As the scout bees fly off from the hanging swarm they will look almost anywhere for a new home. Typically (or by the book) they are looking for a hollow cavity approximately 1 1/2 cubic feet in size with an entrance opening of about 1 to 1-1/2 inches, facing east to southeast somewhere around 10 to 12 feet off the ground. Now I would like to add that honey bees don't read and I'm sure no one has read the text book to them. I have found honey bee colonies in just about every location that you can imagine that goes against the text books.
Another note to remember is a swarm will chose a cavity where there has been a colony in the past over a cavity that has never had honey bees in it. Like I told you before they have two goals produce a swarm and gather enough food for winter. If a swarm moves into a never-been-used cavity they have to start from scratch. If they are lucky enough to find a cavity with some old comb or even a little honey still there this will increase their chance of survival. It takes 12 pounds of honey for the bees to produce one pound of bees wax. The scout bees can actually smell where old colonies have been, and nothing and I mean nothing can ever cover up the smell. What we do to keep honey bees from returning after we have removed them is to fill the cavity with insulation. The scout bees will quickly lose interest of a cavity that is filled in, a swarm can not afford the time and effort to clean the space out for a swarm to move in.
Honey bees that moved into the overhang of a house.
Most people never see the first scout bee. It's after the original scout bee decides that she likes the new cavity and goes to tell her sisters what she has found. Then a dozen come to see for themselves, and the dozen go back to tell some more, and then fifty come to see and that fifty become one hundred and one hundred become a thousand. This number can continue to climb until several thousand bees are checking your place out. This can continue for about a day or so, and there are times when you may see little activity prior to the swarm arriving. If you are lucky enough to see a swarm move in you are one of the few. Most people never see them coming although they can easily bee seen and heard, (most of us are at work when this happens).
I know at this point you're wondering if you are seeing scout bees or if you have an establish colony...well I have to admit it is hard to tell and even I have been fooled by their activity. I have also had people swear that there was no way the bees could have been living in their home for more than a week without them knowing it, only to find out later that the bees have been living there for years. My best advice is to assume you have an establish colony and DO NOT disturb them, from here on known as rule #1. While honey bees are bread to be gentle they can and will defend their home. Keep in mind that you're not dealing with a couple of hundred bees, you're dealing with tens of thousands of bees.
After a swarm has moved in they instantly become an established colony. Sometime people try to drive the bees out of their new home. More times than not this is unsuccessful. The colony has literally committed themselves to their new home. It's not like they can run down to Wal-Mart to pick up the supplies they need or go to the unemployment line. No they have set up shop, and even if they wanted to move somewhere else they can't. It would cost them so much time and effort at this point they their chance of survival would almost surly be zero. Once again I can't stress enough that you should never attempt to disturb a honey bee colony.
The next thing people think is the bees are causing damage to their home. In all actually the bees think it's their home and they take very good care of it. They keep it clean, dry, and defend it from any threat or invader. Even the amount of comb that they build has no effect on your home, (or our price). It's not until the bees are killed or die off naturally that home owners run into problems.
Honey bees have several predators and parasites that they must deal with constantly. The worst that can and will effect the average home owner is the small hive beetle, (SHB). This little black beetle seeks out honey bee colonies where they will lay their eggs. When their eggs hatch the larva will tunnel into the honey comb and honey. While they feast on the honey the larva uses the bathroom as they go along, this causes the honey to ferment in the comb. This nasty bubbling goo runs out of the comb and into your house. This goo can cause damage to sheetrock, plaster, and wooden ware. There isn't any type of paint or stain that can cover or stop the mold that will follow. The home owners only choice is to remove and replace what was contaminated.
It's not uncommon for homeowners to tell me that they had tried to spray or kill the colony. I guess it's natural for most people, and I try to consider that again most people don't understand what they are dealing with much less the actual size of the colony. If you have done this please refer to rule #1 and don't disturb them any more. Keep in mind that killing the colony will only expose it to the SHB and wax moths not to mention the large pile of dead bees produces a very rank odor. (The number of bees that make up a colony is often as large as a small dog or average cat) If you kill all of them they pile up and smell just like a dead dog or cat in your walls.