A Bee Swarm is Thrilling
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. Why does a bee swarm happen?
Spring with its warmer temperatures and blooming flowers-who doesn’t love it. This is a time of growth and new beginnings.
This is true for the honey bee hive as well. As a beekeeper, I look forward to seeing my honey bee colonies grow. But with growth comes the risk of bee swarms.
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 is a Bee Swarm?
One definition of the word hive is a beehive. And a beehive is the home of a group of bees called a honey bee colony. Bees like most living things want to multiply.
In addition to making more individual bees to support the colony, bees want to produce new hives of bees.
What is the definition of a swarm? In terms of honey bees, a swarm involves the relocation of about half the bees in the colony.
A bee swarm is when a large mass of honey bees leave their home to create a new home somewhere else. A queen bee goes with them. The original beehive makes a new queen.
Why Colonies of Honey Bees Swarm
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 hives.
This results in 2 smaller colonies complete with a queen, workers, young etc. Both colonies must work hard to establish themselves before winter.
This is especially true for the bee swarm that leaves for a new location. These bees must build or draw comb and stock the hive with food for Winter.
Triggers of Swarming
There are several swarming triggers. These are the actual cues that initiate swarm preparations inside the colony.
- congestion or perceived congestion in the brood nest
- failing queen pheromones
While it may seem to be the case, bees do not swarm on an impulse. Plans begin weeks before the the swarm leaves.
A healthy bee colony can grow strong quickly during Spring. As food becomes available a good queen ramps up egg laying.
Before long, she may have trouble finding cells that are not in use.
As more and more bees are in the beehive, the queen pheromones that are distributed through the colony are diluted. Both of these conditions can signal the beginnings of a bee swarm.
We know that crowding or congestion in the hive increases swarming behavior. But, an older queen with failing egg laying ability and/or less pheromone production can trigger a swarm too.
When Do Bees Swarm?
A honey bee colony can “throw a swarm” at any time during the warm season. 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. Fall colonies are a great risk with little time to prepare for Winter.
Bees Prepare for the 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.
Scout Bees Search Out New Home Sites
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. Once swarm preparations begin to ramp up inside the beehive, scout bees invest time in looking for a new home.
Queen Cells are Constructed
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 constructed.
Nurse bees feed larva inside the queen cells rich food such as royal jelly so they will develop into sexually reproductive queens.
The Bee Swarm Leaves the Hive
When everything is right and all preparations completed, the bee swarm is ready to form and leave the hive.
On a warm day usually between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. the honey bee colony becomes very active. A strange roar can be heard inside the beehive.
Worker bees run around inside the hive in a frenzy. They chase the queen and keep her moving until she is willing to leave the hive.
Just before leaving the worker 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. This is a temporary resting place. 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.
Bee Swarms Face Risks
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.
The bee swarm that leaves the hive faces risks as well. Will the new home be suitable for long term occupation?
Will the swarm be strong enough to build honeycomb etc and maintain the colony?
Swarming Bees are Docile
Honey bees are not aggressive insects unless provoked. They are protective of their hive. Swarms are known to be very docile.
They have no resources (hive, honey, babies) to protect. For this reason, with a bee swarm you are less likely to experience a bee sting.
Proper safety should always be used to prevent stings – bees are wild insects. If threatened, they will defend themselves.
Beekeepers and Bee Swarms
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. A colony that swarms will usually produce less honey that season.
Swarm Prevention-Does it Work?
Many books have been written on swarming bees. You will hear of numerous methods for preventing bee swarms.
Some of the tactics 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 lures, 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.
Like many other beekeepers, I attempt to reduce the number of swarms in my beehives. Why? Well, because I want to produce honey.
Swarming or Bee Migration
A bee swarm is not evidence that bees migrate. When all of the bees in a colony leave for a new site, this is called absconding.
In a bee swarm event, roughly half of the honey bee populations stays in the original beehive.
What to do if You See a Bee 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.
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.