Swarm Season!

It’s swarm season! In our area it can start in April (sometimes the end of March) and continue until May or June.

So far I’ve had 30 swarm calls. My first one was on March 19th and I had two on March 20th. I heard of 6 swarm calls on the day of the eclipse and I got two of em’! My plan was to not do anything bee-related on that day but well, you know how that goes.

I get a lot of questions about honeybee swarms. Most people freak out when they see a swarm of bees. What I learned is that most folks don’t know a beekeeper! If you keep bees and want to collect swarms it’s a good idea for you to hand out your number to folks so they know who to call!

Why Do Bees Swarm?

Swarming is a critical behavior for the survival and propagation of honeybee colonies. Honeybees swarm as a natural part of their reproductive process and colony expansion.

How Do I Know My Hive Is Going to Swarm?

  1. Lots of bees! Generally the first of Spring when the nectar flow starts
  2. All the frames are drawn
  3. Brood frames are full of resources-food, pollen, honey, nectar, brood
  4. Bees have overwintered
  5. Not much vacant space in the hive
  6. High drone population
  7. Bees are bearding (need more room)
  8. Swarm cells!

Here are the primary reasons why honeybees swarm:

1. Reproductive Drive

Swarming is a method of colony reproduction. When a colony becomes too large or crowded, the bees sense the need to create a new colony. The original queen leaves the hive with a large portion of the worker bees to establish a new colony, while a new queen takes over the original hive.

2. Population Control

As the bee population grows, the hive can become overcrowded. Swarming helps to reduce the population density in the original hive, alleviating stress and making it easier to manage resources.

Bees Swarm To Strange Places!

3. Queen Replacement

When a colony decides to replace an aging or failing queen, the new queen’s presence can trigger swarming. The old queen leaves with part of the colony, making way for the new queen to take over.

4. Resource Management

Swarming can be triggered by the availability of abundant resources. In times of plenty, bees have the necessary resources to support the division of the colony and the establishment of a new hive. Environmental factors can trigger swarming as well. If bees swarm later in the season they are considered to have “absconded” and this is different than a swarm for reproduction.

Bees Want Bridges!

Process of Swarming:

  1. Preparation: The colony prepares for swarming by raising several new queen larvae in special queen cells. Worker bees will withhold food from the queen to maker “lighter” during flight.
  2. Scout Bees: Scout bees search for a suitable new location for the colony.
  3. Departure: The old queen and about half of the worker bees leave the hive in a large, buzzing mass.
  4. Temporary Cluster (Bivouac) : The swarm temporarily clusters on a nearby structure (e.g., tree branch) while scouts finalize the new hive location. The bees will move from that spot to their permanent home. Note that this initial cluster will move around 50-200ft from its parent colony.
  5. Relocation: Once a new site is chosen, the swarm moves to the new location to establish a new hive.

After Swarming:

  • The remaining bees in the original hive continue with their activities under the new queen.
  • Some of the scout bees will come back to the colony being gone so you should expect to see a small swarm of bees (as should the homeowner or whomever called about the swarm).
  • The swarm, with the old queen, works to establish a new hive, starting from scratch by building new comb and foraging for food.

Swarm Tips!

  1. Make sure you keep your gear in your vehicle so you are always ready when a swarm call comes in.
  2. Stay HYDRATED! Carry water in your vehicle. Bring snacks. Seriously. Sometimes swarm calls can last longer than expected.
  3. Ground Swarms-I find swarms on the ground normally do not have a queen.
  4. Bees like bridges! Make sure you have something you can use as a bridge-a piece of cardboard, an old piece of junk mail, tree bark.
  5. The “Sheet Method” can be a good way to find a queen. It’s a good way to keep the bees from getting lost in the grass
  6. Make sure to feed new swarms sugar syrup to help them with comb buildup. You can stop once they stop taking it.

Swarm Traps

Responsible beekeepers put out swarm traps! This can save a lot of strife on the part of the beekeeper, your neighbors, other beekeepers, and homeowners who may now have become beekeepers without knowing it-because a swarm moved in. You can buy one or make your own-but put one out!