Honey Bee Swarming Behavior
A buzz that grows louder and louder. You look up to see thousands of honey bees flying about madly. This is the beauty of honey bee swarming. A natural behavior of honey bee colonies. But for those of us involved in keeping honey bees, swarms can be a challenge.
Spring with its warmer temperatures and blooming flowers-who doesn’t love it. This is a time of growth and new beginnings.
As a colony grows in strength another event may soon occur. With population growth comes the risk of honey bee swarming.
Honey bee 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 bee behavior.
This leads to many excited and sometimes anxious questions about bee swarms.
Why Honey Bee Colonies 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.
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.
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.
It is often difficult for the beekeeper to understand why the bees swarm in Fall. It often leaves both the mother colony that needs to requeen and the new swarm hive at risk.
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 bees.
Absconding is most often the result of disease, pests or too much beekeeper interference.
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.
The Bee Swarm Leaves
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 swarm transition spot.
Honey bees often find a near by tree or other natural structure for their temporary stop but sometimes their choice can be very surprising!
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!
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 bees that leave the hive faces risks as well. 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.
Beekeepers do have some techniques that we use to reduce and hopefully prevent swarming. We must remember that we are fighting a natural impulse.
Bringing in the Swarm
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. 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. It never hurts to encourage swarming bees.
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. –
Catching a honey bee swarm involves more than just getting 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.
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.
Final Thoughts on Honey Bee Swarming
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 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.