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The Honey Bee Swarm
Every beekeeper appreciates the beauty of honey bee swarming. A buzz that grows louder and louder. You look up to see thousands of honey bees flying about madly. This is a natural behavior of honey bee colonies-though it can seem a bit frightening. But for those of us involved in beekeeping, swarms can be a challenge and are not always a welcomed occurrence.
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, another event may soon occur. With population growth, the interior of the hive becomes crowded. This increases the risk of honey bee swarming.
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.
Perhaps we have seen too many cartoons of people being chased by bees? In fact, swarms are generally non-aggressive – as long as you give the bees their space.
Why do Honey Bee Colonies Swarm?
Swarming is reproduction on the colony level for honey bees. The goal of this 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 honey bees 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 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. It is often difficult for the beekeeper to understand why the bees swarm in Fall.
The mother colony is faced with the need to requeen and the new swarm hive is at risk of not being ready for Winter. Many late season swarms fail.
Bee Swarming Is Not Migration
A bee swarm is not evidence that bees migrate. 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 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.
In this case, the bees do not return to the original location at a later date as would be the case in migration.
Honey Bee Colony Swarm Preparations
Though it may seem to be so, bee 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.
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. Several scouts will check out new locations while preparations continue inside the hive.
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 bee 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.
Swarm Leaves the Hive
In the week prior to swarming, Worker bees feed their queen less food so she will slim down and be 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 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.
Temporary Swarm Transition Spots
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!
The cluster of bees remain 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.
Swarming Bees are Docile
Honey bees are not aggressive insects 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 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.
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 a natural impulse.
Catching a Bee Swarm
Because swarming bees is a natural thing, sometimes you just have to 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 to attract swarms. 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. –
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.
FAQS About Swarming Honey Bees
No, in general honey bee swarms are very docile.
The bees do not have any stored food or baby bees to guard. There are in a transition phase with all of their thoughts on getting to their new home.
In most cases the bees 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 beekeeper would love to come collect the bees.
When you see a large clump of bees hanging in a tree. This is a temporary transition spot.
If the bees can agree, they will soon move on to their new home.
Basically, no. A swarm would serve no purpose with having a queen. However, the swarm may contain a virgin queen who has not mated yet.
That’s an easy one – run. A true swarm of honey bees 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.
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 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.