Your Guide to Bee Swarms

Swarms are one way bees propagate and build resilience into the species. Natural beekeeping encourages the swarming of bees as in this process they can express their ‘bee-ness’, a critical facet of bee-centric or api-centric beekeeping around which natural beekeeping is based.

If you see a swarm of bees hanging on a tree or bush, they are actually waiting for scout bees to report back with news of a permanent home and will often leave within a few hours or a couple of days outside. They are extremely unlikely to be aggressive and particularly so, if left undisturbed. This is the most passive time for bees as they are full of honey and just looking for a new home. Any assistance we can provide to them is always appreciated by the bees. In the wild, only 30% of swarms make it!

It is important to understand that the queen bee does not run the hive. She is more the “mother” bee as opposed to a Queen. The decision to swarm is not taken by the queen but by the hive itself which has already put into place the conditions for doing so.

This includes ensuring that sufficient numbers of queen cells with queen larvae are in place to replace the old queen. For supersedure purposes, one finds these along the bottom of the honeycomb. What we are dealing with in a bee colony is a super-organism par excellence.

Why are they swarming?

Maybe not so normal, but in town if there is nothing else available they will attach themselves to anything.

Swarms are a normal and natural part of a hive’s life that is, as mentioned, planned and organised by the bees ahead of time. They just look scary.  Because it’s an organised event, the bees are actually very calm; they have a plan and they know what they’re doing. They’re not angry or upset – just remember this. They are just congregating while searching for a new home.

Bees swarm for various reasons including:

  • their current home is too full or honey-bound
  • Honey flows are good
  • The hive has made a decision that they require a new queen

When the swarm takes place, around 10,000, often up to 60% of the total number of bees depending upon the size of the hive, constitute what is called the primary swarm The remainder of the bees (maybe 20,000 odd) will stay in the hive and await the birth of the queen from the queen cells located along the bottom of a comb.

Secondary and tertiary swarms, or cast swarms, are always possible with subsequently emerging queens, but three is usually the maximum as the bees know when the hive becomes too weak to be sustainable.

This occurs for various reasons but often because the colony has not allowed the new queen to kill the other queens in their cells or following their emergence. The queen really does not have much of a say in what is happening in the hive.

Swarm traps are a great way to obtain a hive of bees

The best thing to do when you see a swarm is take a picture and leave them alone. They know what they’re doing and their mission is not to sting or hurt anyone. They are house hunting! Certainly, they do not want to sting anyone when in this situation  flying around on a full stomach. Actually they never want to sting anyone and stinging is only a defensive mechanism.

A swarm is a good thing. It’s a sign of a healthy, resilient bees and a growing hive. Swarms usually occur between September and January but can occur later. My latest swarm catch was in April this year.

When the Queen leaves the hive with the 10,000 plus odd workers and drones, they will find a branch in close proximity to the hive and wait there until the scout bees come back and agree (they do this by consensus) on the location of a new home.

The swarm

Prior to swarming, the bees ingest as much honey as they can which they store in their honey stomach. This is why they are very passive when they are in the swarming process and hanging from a branch of a nearby tree.

Think about how you feel on a full stomach. Racing around the place and being aggressive is usually the last thing on your minds – well, most of us anyway!

The Swarm after leaving the hive

Scout bees will search in a radius of up to 2-3 kilometres normally, but up to 7-10 kilometres if no good sites are available , for a suitable home. The scouts carefully examine a potential home and when satisfied they’ll return to the waiting swarm and advise them of the location via the waggle dance.

Waggle Dance

If the location is regarded as excellent in terms of aspect and size, the more enthusiastic the dance by the scout in order to convince the other scouts.  If convinced, other scouts will also go and investigate the site in bee swarms.

If they agree with the first scout/s opinion, they will return and also provide a convincing waggle dance display.  The bees will then decide which location to go based on the agreement/consensus of the scouts. Sometimes it can be majority rules but consensus is the favoured method.

When they have decided on the new home, the scouts will initiate piping sounds to let the swarm know they need to warm up as they will soon be departing. When ready to do this, the scout bees literally race around the swarm almost bouncing off bees and this is called a buzz run. This causes the entire swarm to take off simultaneously to their new location.

Once in the new home, the workers will immediately begin to build a comb from wax secreted by them. These stores also bring them from their previous home. The queen then uses this comb for laying up to 1000-1500 eggs per day during good honey flows.

Usually by this time, all honey stores have been fully utilised by the swarm and new collections of nectar and pollen begin with a view to having honey and bee bread stores available to feed the new brood that is then being laid down by the queen. Within three days of the queen laying, feeding of the larvae will be required by the worker bees in the hive.

Unfortunately, the scout bees can sometimes decide that a good new home is in a house cavity. For this reason we would request you contact us in order to collect and re-house the swarm before it moves into this sort of new home.

What To Do If You See Bee Swarms

Don’t panic! In fact, just enjoy the awesome experience of bee swarms.

Please, do NOT call a pest control person/company. If you do, it usually means the swarm will be killed. Bees are precious to our environment and we need them for the food crops we grow.

A couple of things that you can do to help our bees stay healthy:

Support organic farmers and shop at local farmer’s markets as often as possible. You can “vote with your fork” three times a day. (When you buy organic, you are making a statement by saying “no” to GMOs and toxic pesticides.);

Cut the use of toxic chemicals in your house and on your lawn, and use only organic, all-natural forms of pest control. Never use neonicotinoids (see below);

Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant a garden or other natural habitat to encourage bee swarms. Lawns offer very little benefit for the environment. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide excellent natural honey bee habitats.

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