Identifying Bees and Swarms

Before contacting a swarm collector or a member of the committee, please read this page first.

Honey bees usually swarm during the months of May, June and July.  If you discover a swarm and need help and advice, Aberdeen and District Beekeepers’ Association may be able to assist – but before contacting a member please read this page.

Beekeepers are unable to assist in the removal of bumble bees or wasps.  Therefore, it is helpful if you can distinguish between them.  Please read the identification guide below before contacting a beekeeper.

A beekeeper may be able to remove a swarm or settled colony of bees.  If access is difficult, success may not be guaranteed.  A pest controller will often require a beekeeper to have been consulted before they will act in respect of honey bees.

What is a swarm?

2011 Swarm 001
Honey bee swarm (Photo: Ian Mackley)

Swarming is the natural reproductive mechanism of a colony of honey bees.  About half the colony and the queen bee leave the hive and set up a new home elsewhere.  The remaining bees raise a new queen.

Swarming takes place in two stages. In the first stage the swarm flies away en masse from the hive and clusters – typically on a tree branch or fence post. The cluster may be anything in size from that of a grapefruit to that of a football or even larger. The bees may stay there for anything from a few hours to a day or two whilst scout bees find a new nest site.

A flying swarm or a cluster looks scary – a mass of buzzing insects – but it is not dangerous. Honey bees are not normally aggressive and the swarm, with no home or honey to defend, is focused on finding a new home. If you don’t disturb them, they should not bother you.

Wild honey bee nest (photo Colin Devine)

Their ideal new home will be large enough for them to build combs to rear brood and store honey.  This photo of a wild honey-bee nest in a tree gives an idea of the space they need – roughly the size of a wastepaper basket, or larger.  A hollow tree, a chimney, or a cavity wall might be ideal.  Occasionally, and very rarely, honey bees do not find a suitable home in time and build their new nest in the open, as in this photo.

What to do if you find a swarm?

If you find a cluster of honey bees:

  • Keep people, children and pets or other animals away from the swarm cluster.
  • If possible, alert passers-by and direct them away so that they do not accidentally disturb the swarm.
  • Do not disturb the swarm, try to get it to move on, or attempt to spray it with insecticide.  The swarm will leave when it is ready.
  • If you have to move around near the swarm, do so calmly and without making any sudden movements or loud noises.

Contacting a beekeeper

Before contacting a beekeeper from the swarm collectors’ list, please try to confirm that the insects are honey bees, using the guide below.  Beekeepers only deal with honey bees.

Please be prepared to provide the following information:

  • a description of the insect (size, colour, markings) if you can see them clearly enough;
  • a description of the location of the insects, especially the size and height above the ground if in a cluster, and any other potential access issues;
  • how long the insects have been there (if known);
  • your name and contact details;
  • clear directions to locate the swarm site (postcode, local directions, grid reference, or, most accurately, what3words);
  • photographs to send to the beekeeper may help, but do not take any risks to take them.

If you do find a cluster, or actually see a swarm arriving, and decide to call a beekeeper, do so promptly; the swarm cluster may move on, and the longer honey bees are in a new permanent home, the more difficult they may become to remove.


Honey bees
Honey bee – Apis mellifera

Honey bees are quite small (about 18-20 mm long), slightly hairy and are muted in colour, varying from orange-brown to very dark brown or black.  You may see brightly coloured balls of pollen on their hind legs.

Honey bees are usually only defensive when defending their nest site and are not aggressive when foraging.

Bumble bees
Bumble bee – Bombus terristris

Bumble bees are bigger and bulkier than honey bees, and are noticeably furry.  There are more than twenty species of native bumble bee, all of which vary in size and colour.  For more information about bumble bees go to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website.

Bumble bees usually nest in small holes. These are commonly located below ground level, especially in dry locations such as under sheds or garden furniture, or at the base of trees, or in compost bins.

Like honey bees, bumble bees are not normally aggressive and only become defensive when they, or their nest, are disturbed.

Bumble bees are important pollinators that rarely sting or attack people or animals. Their nests should ideally be left alone. The bumble-bee colony, apart from the queen (who will find a new nest site), will die out at the end of summer and will cause no further problems.

Common wasp, Vespa vulgaris isolated on white background
Wasp – Vespula vulgaris

Unlike honey bees and bumble bees, wasps are not hairy. Their smooth bodies are brightly coloured black and yellow. They are a little bigger than honey bees.

Wasps are more aggressive than bees, especially in the late summer when they are looking for sweet sustenance.

Wasp Nest
Wasp Nest

Wasps typically build a characteristic ‘papier-mâché’ nest (a ‘bike’) hanging in sheltered spots – for example, underneath the eaves of roofs, in attics or in sheds.

If a wasp nest is not a nuisance it can be left until the autumn when the colony will naturally die out apart from the queen who will find a new nesting site to overwinter. The nest will not be reoccupied. If it is a problem, then contact a pest controller.

Solitary Bees
Female Andrena Mining-bee
Mining bee – Andrena species

There are many species of solitary bees that will usually be seen in spring and early summer. It can be quite difficult to distinguish some species of solitary bee from honey bees.  One clue is that there is a kink in honey-bee antennae, whereas solitary bees’ antennae are straight.

  • They make their nests in small holes in walls or trees, or burrow in the ground or banks of earth. Although they make individual nests, there may be aggregations of such nests at particularly good nesting sites.

Like all bees and wasps, solitary bees are beneficial to the environment.  They pose no risk to humans, and are likely to be only active for a few weeks.  Leave them alone if at all possible.

See also Friends of the Earth’s bee identification guide.