Understanding Why Bees Swarm and Prevention Tips
Beekeepers often to wish to prevent swarming because it reduces their honey crop. The key to prevention is understanding why do bees swarm. Here are some tips to help.
As Spring approaches, we beekeepers are very excited and looking forward to a new season. Flowers begin to bloom and honey bee colonies that have lived through Winter start to grow.
However, we must start to think about swarms. And how to prevent them if that is your beekeeping goal.
A bee swarm is a marvelous site to behold but it is not always something we beekeepers want to see. Yes, a catch swarm gives you a new colony. Having more bee colonies is great but a colony that “throws” a swarm – does so at a cost.
You see, the life’s goal of the honey bee colony is not to produce honey for me and you. Not by a long shot!
A honey bee colony works to make enough honey for next winter’s survival and to reproduce.
Bees Swarm for Reproduction
That’s what swarming is for honey bees. A bee swarm is reproduction on the colony level. This is why bees swarm – to produce another colony.
This is where the goals of the beekeeper and the goals of the honey bees often clash. Bee colonies want to make more colonies. But swarming reduces the honey production of most bee colonies.
What Is a Honey Bee Swarm?
First, lets discuss what we mean by the term: Honey Bee Swarm- and when they are most likely to occur.
A bee swarm is a mass of bees accompanied by a queen (usually the old queen) that leaves the hive to make a new home somewhere else. It is very exhilarating to watch a bee swarm move through the air.
Bee Swarm Prevention Tips
These are the techniques we will discuss in our quest to prevent a bee swarm from developing in our hives. They are related to understand why bees swarm in the first place.
- to prevent bee swarms – provide the colony with sufficient space BEFORE they feel crowded
- use young well-mated queens for less swarming in your bee colonies
- try to delay swarming until the urge passes
- cutting out queen cells can delay a bee swarm
- understand that it wont always work – bees will swarm
When Do Bees Swarm?
Spring is the time that most swarms happen but you can have a bee swarm anytime during the warm season. As the days grow warmer and longer during Spring, the colony start preparations to swarm.
New bees are emerging faster than old bees are dying. Colony population grows by the thousands each day. With more and more bees being produced , it gets crowded in the there.
The queen finds fewer places to lay, swarm preparations begin. It seems as if the honey bee colony knows – now is the time.
The swarm will have a lot of work to do before cold arrives. Early Spring bee swarms have a better chance than late Summer ones.
It’s Swarm Day
On a fair, warm day you hear a very loud buzz overhead. Actually, you are hearing thousands of little buzzes combined. Looking up, you see a large mass of flying bees.
It looks like a bee tornado are the bees whirl in the air. How to they keep from flying into each other?
After a few minutes you notice a ball of bees gathering on a nearby tree limb. More and more of the flying bees join them until most of the bee swarm is hanging in the tree.
This is a transition location for the swarm. The bees hang together in a mass near the hive. Usually in a tree or bush, but they can choose some strange places for their transition spot.
The honey bee swarm will hang here for 30 minutes, several hours or even overnight. They are taking this time to get organized and make sure the queen (or a queen) left with them.
If the swarm is low down you may be able to see activity on the outside of the clump. And some bees will be leaving and returning to the cluster.
These are the scout bees making a final decision on the location of their new home. When they agree, the swarm will leave.
In my experience if the swarm does not leave the temporary location by 5 PM, it will stay until morning.
Catch That Bee Swarm
If the swarm is low enough to safely collect, this is your opportunity ! Get out there and get those bees.
Yes, they might go into a nearby swarm trap that you have but they may also take off over the hills never to be seen again. A swarm in the box is worth 2 in the bush. – Literally!
With no obvious trigger to my human eyes, the bee swarm will take flight and leave for their new home. A lucky beekeeper will be able to catch the honey bee swarm while it is in the transition location.
Sometimes, the bee swarm will choose a transition spot high in a tree top. I have lost many swarms that were 30 ft up in a Sweet Gum tree. But, sometimes I get lucky and the swarm of bees will sit down in an easily accessible location.
A successful program for honey bee swarm prevention can help us reduce those “out of reach” swarms by keeping them in the hive.
Why Honey Bee Swarm Control is Difficult?
Why Do Bees Swarm In Crowded Colonies?
A Swarming Trigger – Congestion
Swarm control in honey bee colonies is difficult because we are working against the natural tendencies of the bees. This is especially true in early Spring.
The bees need to collect enough food for Winter survival. And, they have a natural urge to produce more colonies. We beekeepers want to keep colonies in our bee yard and often to produce honey.
The most common condition that triggers swarming in honey bees is congestion. (or perceived congestion.) I am talking about crowded conditions in the brood rearing area of the hive.
Perceived congestion occurs when the bees fail to spread out and make use of all room in the hive. The bees react to a congested brood area by beginning swarm preparations.
The colony may have any empty super of drawn comb on the hive. Yet, the bees feel crowded if they fail to extend the brood area. That is why adding boxes does not always aid in honey bee swarm prevention.
Ample Space for The Bees May Help With Swarm Prevention
Even though it does not always work, one method of swarm control is to remove this congestion trigger. Well before the colony becomes over-populous, a beekeeper adds another super box.
This doesn’t always work because sometimes, as mentioned before, the bees just don’t spread out like we want. But in some cases, giving a little extra space will relieve some of the crowding.
The idea is that his extra space gives more “elbow room” for the bees. Thereby giving the queen more room to lay and spreading the population out –especially the brood nest .
This honey bee swarm prevention technique relies on action by the beekeeper before the bee population grows. Once the swarming impulse is initiated, this method will not work.
Especially frustrating for a new beekeeper, a super box with foundation is not as effective as drawn comb. But, you have to use what you have so get that extra space on there before the bees need it.
You will still need to inspect the brood nest for signs of crowding or queen cell development. It is not enough to simply add more boxes and think the situation is handled.
Bee Swarm Control: Opening Up The Brood Nest
A more advanced method is to manipulate frames in the brood section within the existing colony. The beekeeper spreads out the frames containing young – making the “nursery area” larger.
The brood area is “opened” by adding a frame of drawn comb between frames of brood. The removed frames are placed in another box of the same size. If the colony is building fast, you may add more than one frame.
You may end up killing brood because the bees can not cover them during the cool nights. New beekeepers should use this method of moving brood frames with care.
A beekeeper using this method should be experienced to prevent causing bigger problems. This method requires proper timing and enough nurse bees to keep all the young warm and fed.
I have used a similar method where I will equalize my colonies. Moving a couple of frames of capped brood from a crowded colony and replacing them with empty drawn comb.
The removed frames of capped brood are sprayed with a little sugar water and given to a weaker colony. This method has worked well for me – if it is done early-before the bees are in swarm mode.B
Bee Swarm – Prevention With Young Queens
Another reason why bees swarm is the having an older, failing queen in the hive. Queen honey bees can live for several years. However, all beekeepers know that it is unusual to see a queen in a production colony that is over 2 years old (or much less).
Research studies have shown that a colony with a queen 2 years old is much more likely to swarm– than a colony with a young queen.
For this reason, many beekeepers re-queen their colonies each Spring. The odds of preventing a honey bee swarm improves with a young queen in charge.
Why? Most likely this is due to the diminishing pheromone (chemical messenger) levels in old queens and reduced egg laying. A well-mated young queen will have good pheromones to stabilize the colony.
If a colony with an aging queen swarms, the old queen normally leaves with the swarm. The original colony will produce a new queen. But, the beekeeper needs to check in a few weeks to ensure they were successful.
The swarm itself often replaces the old queen soon after reaching its new home. In this way, both colonies are productive and ready to grow.
Cutting Out Swarm Cells For Swarm Control
A couple of weeks before a honey bee colony swarms, they will begin the process of making a new queen bee. This new queen will develop inside an easily recognized peanut shaped cell called a queen cell.
Before it is time for the new queen to emerge. The swarm (and the old queen) will leave the hive. It is a popular technique among beekeepers to remove these queen cells.
The queen cells are moved to another hive (that needs a queen) or put with other bees into a new box. Or the beekeeper can simply cut out the queen cells and discard them.
This is only a delay tactic and is often a very poor honey bee swarm prevention plan. Queen cells are not all large and easy to find. If you miss even 1, the hive will still swarm.
And if you do cut out all the queen cells ? The colony will select more young larva and begin the process again. The beekeeper has not changed the mind of the colony-just slowed down the process.
It does work sometimes. This tactic may keep a colony from swarming until their reproduction urge subsides. Once Spring passes, (or your build-up time of year), bee colonies will have less of an urge to swarm.
However, you must get every queen cell, if you miss one your colony will still swarm. And, NEVER cut out queen cells to prevent a bee swarm – unless you KNOW the old queen is still there!
How a Bee Swarm Affects the Beekeeper
When a honey bee colony expends energy on producing swarms, it affects the size of the honey harvest. Loosing half of the workforce has a negative effect on honey production.
Perhaps you live in an area with so much natural nectar that swarming doesn’t affect honey production. You may have an abundance of nectar producing flowers all Summer.
However in my region of the US, a swarm results in a major reduction in my honey harvest. Yes, swarming will give you more colonies.
But, if you keep bees to produce honey – you may not want more colonies. This means more equipment to buy and more work to manage the hives. More honey, rather than more bees could be your goal.
Also, the requeening process is a critical period of time for the old colony. If the mother colony is unable to replace the queen and get her properly mated, the colony will die.
It is possible to lose both parts of the original colony. Small fall swarms have little chance of survival.
Sometimes you can wrestle nature but you can never beat her. Many volumes of books have been written on honey bee swarm prevention.
The numerous strategies are well beyond the scope of this post. Some of them work – some of the time. None of them work – all of the time.
If your bees swarm (and you did not want them to), you have not failed. Laugh it off and move on – they are being – well Bees!
Devise a swarm control plan, work your plan and then accept the fact that honey bees are wild animals (ok insects). You can not completely control them.
Bee Swarms Are Natural
The honey bees have plans of their own. Sometimes, you can not stop this natural process of a bee swarm.
When swarm prevention does not work and you are unable to keep the honey bees from swarming. What can you do ? Catch’em if you can.
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