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Honey Bee Swarming Mysteries Revealed

Honey bee swarming is a natural behavior of bee colonies. Spring with its warmer temperatures and blooming flowers-who doesn’t love it.  This is a time of growth and new beginnings. As a bee colony grows in strength the interior of the hive becomes crowded. Soon a large part of the hive will leave to start a new colony.

Why do Honey Bee Colonies Swarm?

Large swarm of honey bees hanging in a tree image.

Swarms are so impressive – you will never forget the first one that you see. In fact, the sight can be frightening to those who are not familiar with the behavior.

Perhaps we have seen too many cartoons of people being chased by bees? Actuallu, these mobile bee groups are generally non-aggressive – as long as you give them their space.

Swarming is reproduction on the colony level. The goal of these insects is to produce more colonies. This is accomplished by growing a large family in the hive that then splits into 2 hives.

The large mass of individuals who leave their home to create a new hive-represent about half of the colony population. The current queen usually goes with them. Several queen cells are left behind to become a new queen for the mother colony.

When Do Bees Swarm?

A colony can “throw a swarm” at any time during the warm season. When is it most likely to happen? Most swarming events will occur in the Spring as this is the natural time of growth.

However, it is not unusual to find swarming colonies during Summer or even Fall. It is often difficult for the beekeeper to understand why hives swarm in Fall.

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It seems a risky move. The mother colony is faced with the need to requeen. The new swarm hive is at risk of not being ready for Winter. Nectar and pollen must be gathered. Many sheets of new comb must be built and this requires a lot of energy.

Honey bees are social insects that thrive on working together but sometimes there is just not enough time. Many late season swarms fail.

Swarms Are Not Migration

A bee swarm is not evidence of migration. In a swarm event, roughly half of the population stays in the original beehive. There is no back and forth traveling between the old home and the new one.

When all members of the colony leave for a new site, this is called absconding. Absconding is most often the result of disease, pests or too much beekeeper interference. In this case, they do not return to the original location at a later date-as would be the case in migration.

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Swarm Preparations Begin

Though it may seem to be so, swarms don’t just happen. The colony begins preparations weeks before issuing a swarm. This is a risky event for the colony and several things must be done before the swarm can occur.

  • scouting for new homes
  • preparing the queen
  • queen cells

Scouts Search Out New Home Sites

At any given time, a percentage of workers serve as scout bees. Their task involves finding food sources for the colony.

They also have the task of seeking out possible nesting sites. Several scouts will check out new locations while preparations continue inside the hive.

Slimming the Queen

The queen goes on a diet. Worker bees feed her less so she can slim down in preparation for flight. Her egg laying will slow down right before leaving.

Colony Builds Several Queen Cells

As the colony prepares to swarm, special cells are formed and cleaned – queen cups. The cells are often along the bottom of frames but they can be on the face of the comb too. The queen lays fertilized eggs in these prepared cells and now they are called “queen cells“.

Larger than regular brood cells, peanut shaped queen cells hold the future queen for the mother hive. Several queen cells are constructed with developing queens in each.

Queen cells in a recent swarmed colony one of the cells is open image.

Swarm Leaves the Hive

In the week prior to swarming, Workers have fed their queen less food. She is slimmer and able to fly. When everything is right and all preparations completed, the colony is ready to swarm.

On a warm day usually between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. the hive becomes very active. A strange roar can be heard inside.

Worker run around inside the hive in a frenzy. They chase the queen and keep her moving until she is willing to leave the hive. Thousands of bees pour out of the hive entrance.

Temporary Swarm Transition Spots

Often, the swarm will sit down somewhere near the hive. Honey bees often find a near by tree or other natural structure for their temporary stop. But, sometimes their choice can be very surprising such as a mail box, a fence or a car! Urban beekeepers must be extra vigilant about swarm control.

The cluster remains in this temporary resting place for a brief time. This gives the beekeeper a chance to capture the swarm – hurry! Eventually, the swarm will move on to their new home.

Scouts fly to and fro from the hanging cluster to possible new locations. They return to the cluster and perform dances on the outside – trying to recruit others to vote for the location they have found. When most of the scouts come to a consensus or agreement – it will be time to go.

Urban bee swarm hanging on city building image.

Swarming Bees are Docile

These insects are not aggressive unless provoked. They are protective of their hive but most swarms are known to be very docile.

They have no resources (hive, honey, babies) to protect. For this reason, with a swarm you are less likely to experience a bee sting.

However, proper safety should always be used to prevent stings – bees are wild insects. If threatened, they will defend themselves.

Honey Bee Swarm Prevention

Beekeepers love seeing swarms, as long as, they come out of someone else’s hive. Most beekeepers try to prevent swarms.

Honey production is lost during the weeks needed to rebuild population. A colony that swarms will usually produce less honey that season.

Many books have been written on bee management and swarming bees.  You will hear of numerous methods for preventing swarm behavior.

Some of the tactics work some of the time. None of them work all of the time. Beekeepers do have some techniques that we use to reduce and hopefully prevent swarming .

When managing beehives for honey production, swarm control is very important. However, we must remember that we are fighting natural bee behavior.

Catch a Honey Bee Swarm

Because swarming is a natural thing, sometimes you just have to roll with it. Spend some time setting up a swarm trap. If you can catch it, you are preventing them from getting away completely.

Traps should be check regularly to make sure they are in good condition. The best swarm trap in the world is worthless if the bees fail to go in it.

Beekeepers employ different methods of swarm lures and bait to attract swarms. It never hurts to encourage a swarm to come into a box.

Artificial swarm lures, pieces of old honey comb or used beekeeping equipment for the trap have all been used by beekeepers. Anytime a popular location stops working, you have to try to decide if the problem is the location or the catch box.

Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your honey bee swarm trap or location. Don’t be overly focused on what the books say. You never can tell what bees will do.

If you are lucky, bees will eventually move in! Once you have lured the swarm into your trap, it will be time to plan on a permanent box for them.

Small bee swarm moving into a bait hive or swarm trap box image.

Learning how to catch a honey bee swarm involves more than just watching, attracting and trapping. After you get the bees in the trap, you have to get them out again..LOL

You will never forget your first big swarm catch. I remember my biggest swarm catch like it was yesterday.

The good news is that in most cases, a colony that swarms is strong and productive enough to want to increase. Sickly colonies are not likely to have the resources needed for reproduction on this level.

Perhaps we beekeepers spend too much time trying to prevent swarms. Honey bee swarming is a vital part of bee survival. It is important to understand that we work with our bees, we do not control them.

Our best hope is to work with the natural tendencies of the colony. And, take a moment to appreciate the majesty of the process. May your bee swarm season be a blessing.

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FAQS About Swarming Honey Bees

Are Swarms Dangerous?

No, in general honey bee swarms are very docile.

The bees do not have any stored food or baby bees to guard. They are in a transition phase with all of their thoughts on getting to their new home.
bee swarm on fence

What Should You do If You See a Swarm of Bees?

In most cases the swarm will move on in a few hours or the next day. If the bees remain in place, do not try to kill them.

Call a local agricultural office or local beekeeping club – some local beekeeper would love to come collect it.

Why do Bees Swarm in a Tree?

When you see a large clump of bees hanging in a tree. This is a temporary transition spot.
If they can agree, they will soon move on to their new home.

large bee swarm hanging in a tree

Will Bees Swarm Without a Queen?

Basically, no. A swarm would serve no purpose with having a queen bee. However, the swarm may contain a virgin queen who has not mated yet.

What to do if a Swarm of Bees Attacks You?

That’s an easy one – run. A true swarm is very unlikely to attack anyone unless they have been provoked.

However, if you are ever in a situation where a swarm of honey bees decides you need to go – go.

Walk away quickly and get to an interior space – inside a house or even in a car. It is better to be in the car with 10 bees than outside with 10,000.