Prime Swarms & Afterswarms

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Swarming is a fascinating, natural activity of honey bees. There are two types of swarms that a beekeeper may observe: primary swarms and afterswarms (secondary swarms). Being able to understand the differences gives you information needed to make important hive management decisions. Let’s chat a bit about prime swarms and cast or secondary swarms in honey bees.

Large prime swarm of honey bees hanging in a tree near an apiary.

So much thought has been put into the why and how of bee swarms – you would think we know all there is to know! Alas, this is not so – the bees still leave us guessing in many instances.

What is a Prime Swarm?

The prime swarm is the first swarm to leave a hive during the swarming season. This typically occurs in Spring or early Summer. This happens when the colony population has grown strong and triggers the natural impulse to split the colony.

Characteristically, a prime swarm is headed by the current, mature queen bee. She may or may not truly be old in age – but she is most likely a queen from the previous season. She is joined by a large percentage of the worker bees from the hive.

They cluster together somewhere nearby on a tree limb or bush. During this time the scout bees continue to attempt to make a decision on where to go for a permanent home. Within a few hours or a day away they fly to build a new permanent home.

Single queen cells in a hive with worker bees.

Back in the Mother Hive

After the prime swarm leaves, the remaining colony bees care for the developing queens left behind in special queen cells. Shortly after the first of those cells is capped – the prime swarm is ready to go.

In general, the first virgin queen to emerge from her cell seeks out her rivals. This usually happens within 24-48 hours of the prime swarm leaving the hive.

Through a serious of queen piping and quacking sounds– she is able to find the other virgins and kill them by stinging them inside their cells. After eliminating her rivals, she becomes the new queen of the original colony.

Small secondary swarm of bees in a tree.

Afterswarms

However, if the colony population is very strong and multiple queen cells are left behind, the worker bees may prevent the first virgin from killing her rivals.

The hive may cast an afterswarm (or two or three). The size of afterswarms is normally much smaller than the first or prime swarm. Another difference, the afterswarm contains 1 or more virgin queens.

The traveling process continues in the same way. Worker bees, drones bees and the virgin queen candidates make their way to a new home.

After settling in, one of the virgin queens will become THE QUEEN. She will take her mating flights (how honeybees reproduce) and return to lay eggs and fulfill her role as queen bee.

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Challenges and Risks

Prime swarm and the first afterswarms are typically large (averaging 3+ pounds of bees). However, if the hive continues to throw swarms each one is likely to be smaller and smaller.

This is a dangerous situation for the mother colony ,as well as, the bees leaving in the swarm. It is possible for a colony to “swarm itself to death”. Depleting the work force to such an extent that recovery is not possible.

Also, small swarms are less likely to be successful in building a new home and surviving Winter. This is one reason that I, as a beekeeper, hate to see Fall bee swarms.

Managing Prime Swarms and Afterswarms

I always strive to catch a bee swarm – especially a large prime swarm. Having a good bee population and an experienced mated queen – this is a valuable resource to start a new hive.

Afterswarms too can be valuable. Some of them are quite large but their queen status is more precarious as they do not have a mated queen ready to produce.

For the beekeeper who wishes to produce honey, swarming is not always a good thing. The mother colony that swarms will suffer from a lack of production.

The amount of honey a hive produces in a season varies due to many factors. However, losing up to half the work force and needing to requeen itself – this has to cause a huge dent in hive production.

While swarm prevention plays a role in optimum honey production, reducing secondary or afterswarms is even more important.

Infographic chart comparing prime swarms vs afterswarms.

Best Practices for Beekeepers

In addition to monitoring hives for indications of swarming, a colony that has recently swarmed should be inspected for queen cells. Most beekeepers advise to never leave more than 2 good queen cells in a colony.

If the goal is maximum productivity of honey, strive to prevent swarming. In a hive that is very crowded (just before the honey flow) – temporary hive splitting can remove congestion.

Then, smaller colonies can be recombined to form a good work force to make honey during the time of abundant nectar.

FAQs

Why do prime swarms occur?

Prime swarms occur as part of the colony’s natural reproduction process. When the colony grows too large, it splits to form a new hive.

How can beekeepers manage prime swarms?

Beekeepers can manage prime swarms by monitoring hives for signs of swarming, such as queen cells, and capturing swarms when they occur.

How can you identify a prime swarm?

A prime swarm can be identified by its size and the presence of the current queen bee.

How soon do prime swarms leave the hive after queen cells are capped?

Prime swarms typically leave the hive shortly after the first queen cells are capped. This can happen within a day or two after the queen cells are sealed.

Final Thoughts

If you have the time and equipment, both prime swarms and afterswarms can be used in hive management. They can be used to grow hive numbers or to provide queens for production colonies in need. For maximum, honey production – healthy colonies with minimal swarming is best.

Resources:

Insectes Sociaux

The Hive and the Honeybee 2015 Edition