The Thrill of Swarming Bees
A buzz that grows louder and louder. You look up to see thousands of honey bees flying about madly. They seem to have no direction or purpose-but they do. This is the majesty of swarming bees.
Spring with its warmer temperatures and blooming flowers-who doesn’t love it. As a beekeeper, I look forward to seeing my honey bee colonies grow. But with growth comes the risk of swarming bees.
Even though a bee swarm is a thing of beauty, beekeepers don’t always want their hive to swarm. This is because a colony that swarms will produce less honey for the season.
What Causes Swarming?
Swarming is reproduction on the colony level for honey bees. They make more bee colonies by growing a large family that then splits into 2. This results in 2 smaller colonies. They must work hard to establish themselves before winter.
There are several swarming triggers. These are the actual cues that initiate swarm preparations inside the colony. Bees do not swarm on an impulse. Plans begin weeks before the the swarm leaves.
We know that crowding or congestion in the hive increases swarming behavior. An older queen with failing egg laying ability and/or less pheromones can trigger swarm too.
Colony Preparations to Swarm
Several weeks before a swarm leaves the mother hive, worker bees will begin to plan for the journey. They will feed the queen bee less so she will slim down and be able to fly to the new home.
At any given time, a percentage of workers serve as scout bees. These bees work to find good food sources for the colony. They also have the task of seeking out possible nesting sites.
Every honey bee colony has to have a queen bee. Luckily for our bee colonies, they can produce a queen bee from any fertilized egg.
Preparations begin to produce a new queen bee because the old queen usually leaves with the swarming bees. Several queen cells, or swarm cells are in production.
What is a Bee Swarm?
On a warm day usually between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. the honey bee colony becomes very active. Worker bees run around inside the hive in a frenzy.
They chase the queen and keep her moving until she is ready to leave the hive. Just before leaving the bees fill their honey stomach with honey. This will keep them alive for a couple of days until a food source is found.
The queen bee and up to half the work force leaves the mother hive. The swarming bees include a queen (or several virgin queens), workers and drone bees.
Often, the swarm of bees will sit down somewhere near the hive. A tree or large bush is a common transition spot. The mass of bees will shortly leave for their new home.
Inside the mother colony, the remaining bees carefully tend capped queen cells. In a couple of days, a new queen will emerge. The strongest queen will kill her rival queens.
Swarming is risky for the mother hive. The new queen must go out to mate and make it back to the colony to lay eggs. The population of the hive must be rebuilt to a satisfactory level.
Swarming Bees are Docile
Honey bees are not aggressive insects unless provoked. They are protective of their hive. Swarms are know to be very docile. They have no resources (hive, honey, babies) to protect.
For this reason, a swarm is much less likely to sting. Proper safety should always be used to prevent stings – bees are wild insects. But a swarm is often a good opportunity to get a close-up view of bee life.
Beekeepers and Bee Swarming
Beekeepers love seeing swarms, as long as, they come out of someone else’s hive. Most beekeepers try to prevent swarming bees.
This is because half the work force leaves a colony with the queen. The mother colony is left without a mated queen and fewer workers. Honey production is lost during the weeks needed to rebuild population.
Swarm Prevention-Does it Work?
Many books have been written on swarming bees. You will hear of numerous methods for preventing swarms. Some of them work some of the time. None of them work all of the time.
Tips to Reduce Swarming
- keep productive young queens in your production colonies
- add boxes to growing colonies to give the bees room
- Making Splits with Crowded Colonies – Before the split themselves
- regular hive inspections can help you recognize colony conditions
If you are a beekeeper, you will experience honey bee swarms. That’s okay, you have not failed. Congratulations, you have a colony that is healthy enough to swarm and that’s not a bad thing!
Catching Honey Bee Swarms
Because swarming bees is a natural thing, just roll with it. Spend some time setting up a swarm trap. If you can catch the swarm, you are preventing it from getting away completely.
Using swarm lure, pieces of old honey comb or used beekeeping equipment for the trap is a good way of attracting a bee swarm.
Catching a honey bee swarm is actually a lot of fun. If your bait hives are not successful, perhaps you will find a swarm hanging in a transition spot.
Also, swarming is a risky time for the bees. The new colony must create a honey and build up enough bees and resources to survive Winter.
Like many other beekeepers, I attempt to reduce the number of swarms in my beehives. Why? Well, because I want to produce honey.
What to do if You See a Swarm
If you see swarming bees, do not panic. A swarm is unlikely to sting if you leave them alone. Don’t allow kids or pets to disturb the bee swarm.
If a few hours, or the next day, the swarm will most likely be gone to their new home. In the rare case that a swarm decides to stay, call a local beekeeper. Someone will be glad to come and get the bees.
The Complexity of Honey Bee Behavior
Every honey bee colony lives through various stages of development. The rules governing the colony are determined by instinct and natural conditions.
We beekeepers will be more successful when we try to work with the bees’ natural tendencies. Swarming is a reproductive dance that is a integral part of bee life.
Can you always stop honey bee swarming? No. You can’t fight nature but sometimes we do try to wrestle with it.
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