Honeybee Swarms

| 6/5/2014 8:43:00 AM

Swarm on box

In spite of our best efforts to prevent it, one of our hives swarmed this afternoon. Here are some thoughts and information about swarming I hope you find helpful. 

I have mixed feelings about swarming. On the one hand, this is how honeybees in the wild expand their population. When a colony of bees is doing so well that they are growing too big for their current location they start to raise a new queen. After gorging themselves on honey for the journey, and having one or more capped queen cells in the hive, more than half the colony and the original queen leave and go in search of a new home. As great of an idea as this sounds, it has been determined that many swarms do not survive their first year in a new home. And, if it is MY honeybees that are doing the swarming, I’m really not happy. What was once a busy, productive hive has just lost more than half of its population. We probably will not get much, if any, honey from that hive this year. The best we can hope for is that a productive queen hatches from the remaining queen cells, leading to a strong hive that will overwinter well and produce plenty of honey next season.

Low swarm

Even though we try to prevent swarming, it is a pretty cool thing to witness. The first thing we notice is the noise. The normal background noise of the beeyard suddenly gets intensely louder – similar to the sound a jet makes upon take off. When we identified which hive was swarming what we saw is best described as a tornado of bees. Large numbers of bees are swirling out of the hive, spinning upwards. This goes on for about 5 or 10 minutes before the entire group settles on a branch or other location not too far from the hive. In a few days the “scout” bees will have found a location for a new home, and the swarm will move on. Scout bees do just that. They search for a good location for their colony to live. Many scouts explore the surrounding area for a shelter then go back to the swarm and try to recruit other scouts to the home they have chosen. If enough agree, off they go.  Even though it can look intimidating, honeybees in a swarm are extremely docile. Because they are not in a hive, they do not have any honey or brood to defend. I have never been stung by bees in a swarm.

It’s All About Where They Land

If the beekeeper is lucky, the swarm will settle on a branch, fence, or other object that is fairly low off the ground. We once got a call about a swarm that had landed on a trellis in a garden – about 2 feet off of the ground. We gathered an extra hive body, put pieces of plywood on the top and bottom, and went to pick up the start of a new hive of bees.

Twenty Foot Swarm

Sometimes swarms settle a bit higher than that – 20 feet or so off of the ground. It is a bit more difficult, but it is still possible to collect these swarms. Another call we received was from a neighboring beekeeper who had a swarm in a tree. We helped him to tie off the branch that the swarm was on, cut the branch, and gently lower it to the ground. The swarm could then be placed in a new hive. This was a little trickier, and I would recommend having at least one other beekeeper with you to help.

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