Why Bees Swarm and Tips to Prevent It
Swarm prevention in honey bee colonies is often a goal of beekeepers. But, is it possible to control swarming? No, you can not always keep a hive from swarming. To increase your chances of success, it is necessary to understand swarming behavior in bees. This helps create some techniques that may help you move towards your goal.
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 in population.
Now, we must start to think about possible swarming in our beehives. A bee swarm is a marvelous site to behold but it is not always something we beekeepers want to see.
Yes, catching a swarm gives you a new colony. Having more bee colonies is great but a colony that “throws” a swarm – does so at a cost. Colonies that swarm often produce less honey for the season.
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 or swarm.
Honey Bees Swarm to Reproduce
It is very exhilarating to watch a bee swarm move through the air. Though I must admit that every beekeeper watches while mumbling under his/her breath…. ” sit down… sit down on a low branch” so I can catch you.
Swarming is reproduction on the colony level. More colonies of honey bees spread out over a larger area-this is the natural life of bees.
In just this way, the honey bee spread across the landscape of America after being brought over by early settlers.
Beekeepers Strive to Control Swarming
This is where the goals of the beekeeper and the goals of the honey bees often clash. Swarming reduces the honey production of most bee colonies.
When half the work force flies away to form a new home, there are fewer bees to make honey. Most beekeepers keep hives with hopes to make a good honey harvest. Swarming can devastate the yearly honey production for the hive.
What Is a Honey Bee Swarm?
First, lets discuss what we mean by the term: Honey Bee Swarm. A bee swarm is a mass of bees that leave the mother hive to make a new home elsewhere.
About half the bees in the hive fly away -accompanied by a queen honey bee (usually the old queen) in hopes of making a new nest.
Ideally, the swarm goes to a new home that has been selected by “scout honey bees“ and deemed the best local option.
The original (mother) hive is left with queen cells that will develop into a new queen for them.
Unfortunately, most swarms do not go on to live happily ever after. A large percentage of wild swarms will die before the end of the year.
The Honey Bee Swarm Issues From the Hive
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 do 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 not too far from the mother hive. They usually sit down in a tree or bush, but they can choose some strange places for their transition spot.
This small swarm set down on a wooden hay rack about 2 feet off the ground. I am not usually that lucky.
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) is 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.
Catching The 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 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.
When Do Bees Swarm?
The honey bee colony can swarm at any time during the warm months. You will have swarm that issue from hives during Summer and into late Fall. However, Spring is the time that most swarms happen.
Why do Bees Swarm in Spring?
Spring is a normal season for growth and renewal. The colony population builds quickly on fresh incoming nectar from available Spring flowers.
Also, a Spring bee swarm has all the months of Summer and Fall to prepare for Winter. That’s a good thing because establishing a new nest with food stored for Winter is a big task.
As the days grow warmer and longer during Spring, colony population grows by the thousands each day. New bees are emerging faster than old bees are dying.
With more and more bees being produced , it gets crowded in the there. The queen finds fewer places to lay, swarm preparations may begin.
It seems as if the honey bee colony knows – now is the time. Swarm preparations begin weeks before the colony leaves. This is not a spur of the moment decision.
How to Tell if a Hive is Going to Swarm
Beekeepers are often surprised to see a swarm leaving one of their hives. And yes, while they can surprise us there are often swarming signs to look for.
Any strong Spring colony is a candidate for a swarm. It is a good idea to keep beehive inspections as short as possible. However, the Spring beehive needs a closer look for any signs of queen cells or queen cups with larvae.
The presence of multiple queen cells in the hive – especially along the bottoms of the frames is a sure sign of swarming preparation in honey bees.
Bee Swarming Signs
There are some things to look for other than queen cells but they are often difficult for a new beekeeper to identify.
- presence of queen cells in the hive
- queen is slimmer and laying fewer eggs
- crowded population with bees covering every inch of comb in brood nest
Swarm Prevention Techniques for Beekeepers
There are many techniques used by beekeepers to attempt preventing or controlling swarming behavior in beehives. They do not always work.
- 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 (but not stop) a bee swarm
- understand that it wont always work – bees will swarm
Reduce Congestion – a Swarming Trigger
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 have a natural urge to produce more colonies.
The most common condition that triggers swarming in honey bees is congestion. (or perceived congestion.) I am talking about crowded conditions in the brood nest or young 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.
Give the Bees Ample Space Inside the Hive
Even though it does not always work, remove this congestion trigger. Well before the colony becomes over-populous, a beekeeper adds another super box.
This must be done before the bees feel crowded and, as mentioned before, the sometimes 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.
It gives the the queen more room to lay and also spreads rest of the bee population out.
This honey bee swarm prevention technique relies on action by the beekeeper before the bee population grows crowded. 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 weekly for signs of crowding or queen cell development. It is not enough to simply add more boxes and think the situation is handled.
Opening Up The Brood Nest for Swarm Control
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. Even a couple of frames can make a difference.
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.
This method can be successful, however there are risks involved – especially if the weather turns cool.
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.
Reduce Swarming With Young Queens
Another reason why bees swarm is the presence of an older, or 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.
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.
Cutting Out Queen Cells to Prevent Swarming
A couple of weeks before a honey bee colony swarms, they will begin the process of making a new queen bee. Several large peanut shaped cells called – queen cells contain a developing queen candidate.
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 cut out queen cells to prevent swarming.
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 – unless you KNOW the old queen is still there!
Splitting a Hive to Prevent Swarming
One of the most useful techniques for prevention of swarms is splitting a hive. There are several reasons that beekeepers make employ hive splitting in the apiary but swarm control is a common one.
In this process, the beekeeper splits a large colony into 2 smaller hives. Using all the extra equipment needed, the resources of the colony are divided between 2 boxes.
Each new hive gets bees, brood, honey, pollen, drawn comb – almost everything needed to sustain life.
One hive will get the old queen and the other half will get a new purchased queen, or several of the queen cells from the crowded hive. This gives them the opportunity to have a queen for their family.
Final Thoughts on Swarm Prevention in Bee Colonies
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. Swarm prevention does not always work.