Bees swarming in Auckland suburbia are completely 'natural', says beekeeper

Thousands of bees were seen swarming in Ponsonby, Tāmaki Makaurau earlier this week.
Thousands of bees were seen swarming in Ponsonby, Tāmaki Makaurau earlier this week. Photo credit: Twitter / @Morgandonocoro.

This article was first published in October 2023.

Onlookers in Auckland's Ponsonby were stunned this week as thousands of bees swarmed in the skies - but a beekeeper says it's perfectly normal.

"The bees are angry and have taken to the streets in huge numbers," said X (formerly Twitter) user @morgandonocoro in his video caption.

"Never seen anything like it," he wrote.

The bees were buzzing around Ponsonby Rd's skies, near the Three Lamps landmark, on Monday afternoon.

But Steve Leslie, coordinator for the Auckland Beekeepers Club, said swarms like the one in Ponsonby are completely normal - and the bees aren't angry.

"Swarming is a hive's natural means of reproduction," he told Newshub. 

He said before a swarm leaves the hive, they'll eat a lot of food since they don't know when they'll next get a meal.

"The bees have full tummies. They are docile."

As spring turns to summer, the longer days, warmer temperatures, blooming flowers and abundant nectar and pollen mean there's a lot more bees flying around, Leslie said.

And since there's so much kai for bees at the moment, the queens in each hive are "laying up massively" to produce brood (bee larvae).

During warmer months hives raise new queens - and just before they hatch the old queen and about half the hive leave, Leslie told Newshub.

"They swirl around in the sky" he said. "It's absolutely stunning."

The worker bees exit the hive and wait for the queen - normally last to emerge. The queen "flies from 5 to 20 metres and lands on a branch or tree, then all the other bees collect around and form a swarm".

Scouter bees then search for a suitable new home to move into, such as a hollow tree trunk with plenty of space.

"Unfortunately, we tend to cut down old, dead trees," Leslie said.

The lack of naturally occurring homes for bees in a city like Tāmaki Makaurau means they take shelter in odd locations like people's roofs.

Aotearoa has 28 native bee species but they are smaller than exotic (introduced) honeybees and aren't social insects - so they don't tend to swarm.

That compares to about 50,000 honeybees on average in a colony.

Leslie said Auckland Beekeepers Club has swarm coordinators who can collect new honeybee swarms as they appear.

"People phone me up, say they have a swarm in their garden or roof and I organise a beekeeper to come and collect it."

An entire beehive will abscond (completely abandon the hive) if conditions are poor, including if the hive is infected with pests like varroa mite, wax moth, or American foulbrood.

Foulbrood-infected hives must be burnt.

"By law it must be destroyed," Leslie said.

"A weakened hive can't defend itself against other pests."

Bees in urban environments aren't unusual in Aotearoa New Zealand. They "survive perfectly well in an urban jungle", said Leslie.

According to Auckland Council, there are hives on top of the city's Town Hall and Aotea Centre.

Those hives give early warnings if exotic diseases or pests arrive through the port.

"Not only are they an essential part of the ecosystem, they are endlessly fascinating with their quirks, intelligence and ability to survive," the council said.

Beekeepers bottle the honey, some of which is presented as gifts or sold to fund the ongoing health of the bees or building maintenance.

For the Love of Bees is a council-backed project to bring bees and other pollinators like flies back to the heart of Tāmaki Makaurau.

Plus, beginners can get stuck into Auckland's Natural Bee School, which meets monthly to teach natural beekeeping techniques.

The public can report bee swarms to Auckland Beekeepers Club here, and for tips for adding bee-friendly plants to your garden or farm can be found here.

The Griffiths Garden also hosts classes for bee-friendly gardening. 

Other educational and activities can be found here