Honeybee Swarms

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Ford
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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.

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.

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.

Today, we were not so lucky. This swarm landed about 50 or 60 feet off the ground on the branches of a beech tree. Maybe a braver beekeeper could try and get them down, but we decided to err on the side of caution. We did the only thing we could do in this situation and put out some “bait hives” around the area. A bait hive is a small box – usually half the size of a single hive body, which beekeepers use to start hives. We take an empty bait hive, add a few empty frames that once held brood, and some “bee charm”. Bee charm is a product sold by many beekeeping supply companies that has a smell that attracts bees – to me it smells sort of lemony. We rub a little inside near the entrance. We then put these up in trees around our property. The hope is that the swarm will decide that this is a great place to live, and move in! We can then bring them back to the apiary to start a new hive.

How to Prevent Swarming

There are some things you can do to try to keep your hives from swarming. It does take a little time, and a lot of vigilance, but it may turn out to be the difference between losing a colony and keeping it!

1. In the spring, when you notice hives that seem to be building up extremely quickly, you can try “splitting” the hive to create a second hive. You will need to add a queen to the second hive if you do not want to wait for them to raise a queen. Taking some bees from the existing hive will open more space up to the bees and make it seem less crowded.

2. Make sure the hive does not get overcrowded. Add more supers prior to a honey flow to prevent overcrowding. You can also remove frames of honey and brood to create nucleus colonies, and replace those frames with empty frames. This method is also known as “checkerboarding”. It is important to not let them get to the point of overcrowding before taking these measures – if they begin raising another queen to swarm before you add more space for them, it will be too late, and they will swarm anyway.

3. Check for swarm cells! Swarm cells look something like a peanut, and hang from the bottom of the frames. A swarm cell means the colony is raising a new queen, and getting ready to swarm. You can remove the frames with the cells on them, and use them to start new hives. Unfortunately, the presence of swarm cells means the bees have already started preparing to swarm.

4. Tying in with the above step, you can also create an artificial swarm. To do this you would find the queen and remove her from the hive with a few frames of eggs, brood, honey, and of course bees, and put them into a new hive. Shake a few frames of bees in the new hive as well. By doing this you are making the bees think they have swarmed. Just make sure to leave any swarm cells in the existing hive, as these will be the new queen for the colony.

Further Reading

If you would like to read more about swarming, why bees swarm, and swarm prevention, there are many great books out there. A few I would recommend are:

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

Swarm Traps and Bait Hives: The Easy Way to Get Bees for Free by McCartney M. Taylor

Increase Essentials by Lawrence John Connor

Swarming: Biology, Prevention, Control and Collecting. From The Best Of Bee Culture, 1997

    I hope that this helps you to be able to better understand and prevent swarming. And, if your hives do swarm, I hope they land in a very low place for you!

    Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith. You can visit them at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com.