The Story 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. 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.
As a colony grows in strength another event may soon occur. With population growth comes the risk of bee swarms.
A swarm is a thing of beauty, but not always good news for beekeepers. This is because a colony that swarms will produce less honey for the season. And, some risk is involved in swarming – for both the original colony and the new hive.
The Beehive and the Swarm
One definition of the word hive refers to a beehive. A beehive is the term used to describe the home of honey bees. A honey bee colony lives together inside the hive.
Thousands of individuals make up a strong colony. And, bees like most living things want to multiply. This is a simple design of nature – to increase.
In addition to making more individual bees to support the colony, bees want to produce new hives. This is a natural part of honey bee behavior.
What is a Swarm?
What is the definition of a swarm?
A bee swarm is a large mass of honey bees who leave their home to create a new hive. About half of the colony population transport to the new location.
Workers bees, drones and a queen bee go along on the journey. The original hive retains half the population and 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.
Both halves will be weaker than before the split. And, they must work hard to establish themselves before winter.
This is especially true for the new bee family that leaves for another location. These bees must build or draw comb and stock the hive with food for Winter.
Triggers of Swarming
A honey bee colony does everything for a reason. Bees do not swarm on an impulse. Plans begin weeks before the the swarm leaves.
There are several swarming triggers. These 2 cues most often initiate swarm preparations inside the colony.
- congestion or perceived congestion in the brood nest
- failing queen pheromones
A healthy bee colony grows strong quickly during Spring. As food becomes available, the queen bee increases egg laying. Before long, she may have trouble finding cells that are not in use.
One of the most vital jobs of the Queen Bee is pheromone production. These chemical messengers (similar to hormones) are very important to colony life.
As more and more bees are in the hive, the queen’s pheromones become diluted as they are spread throughout the hive.
Both brood nest congestion and lower queen pheromones can signal the beginnings of a swarm.
Another situation that prompts swarms is having an older queen bee. Once past her prime, 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. 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. Fall colonies are a great risk with little time to prepare for Winter.
The Colony Prepares for the Swarm
Several weeks before a swarm leaves the mother hive, worker bees begin to plan for the journey. The queen bee is fed less so she will slim down. This is necessary for her to 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 additional time looking for a suitable location.
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.
Nurse bees feed larva inside the queen cells rich food such as royal jelly so they will develop into sexually reproductive queens. Several queen cells, or swarm cells are constructed.
The Bee Swarm Leaves the Hive
When everything is right and all preparations completed, the colony prepares for the big event.
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 bees in the swarm will sit down somewhere near the hive. A tree or large bush is a common transition spot.
This cluster of bees remain in this temporary resting place for a brief time. This gives the bee keeper a chance to capture the swarm – hurry!
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 bees that leave 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 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 swarm behavior.
Some of the tactics work some of the time. None of them work all of the time.
4 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 swarms. That’s okay, you have not failed. 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 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 Is Not Migration
A bee swarm is not evidence that bees migrate. In a swarm event, roughly half of the honey bee populations stays in the original beehive.
When all of the bees in a colony leave for a new site, this is called absconding. Absconding is most often the result of disease, pests or too much beekeeper interference.
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.