Swarm setting in tree.
It’s May in Western Massachusetts- and that means the start of honeybee swarm season! Swarm season is the time of year when honeybee colonies may feel the need to take off in search of a new home.
There are many reasons a honeybee colony decides to swarm- including overcrowding, underproductive queen bee and disease. Beekeepers work to manage hives throughout the year, adding new frames and boxes to allow space for bees to store honey, pollen and for the queen to lay eggs. Beekeepers manage pests and diseases in a variety of ways, both synthetic and organic to keep colonies healthy and to prevent swarms. If the colony feels there is not enough space to store their necessities- or if the queen no longer has space to lay eggs a hive may swarm. If the colony feels their queen is subpar, they may swarm. If the colony is overrun with parasites, they may swarm. Sometimes colonies swarm on their own secret agenda- leaving even the most experienced beekeepers scratching their heads as to why.
The image of a swarm of tens of thousands of bees flying through the air is one that can bring great terror- but- it does not have to. Honeybee swarms are generally docile, they are focussed on finding a suitable new home and keeping their queen safe and warm during the journey- they are not looking for a fight. Before swarming, honeybees gorge on honey to sustain themselves for the long flight and search for a new home. With their bellies full of honey, it is difficult for bees to curve their abdomen in order to sting- great news for us!
A swarm of honeybees will at first look like a cloud of bees in the air, all flying in what look like little circles. There is a distinct sound swarms make, like a roar of buzzing- it is a sound beekeepers become very familiar with, and if you have heard it before you will know exactly what I mean. The swarm will settle on a tree branch, fence or other surface and cluster around the queen to keep her safe and warm. While the swarm rests, scout bees will fly off in all directions searching for a suitable new home- possibly a hollow tree, an empty hive in another beekeeper’s yard, or (hopefully not, but it does happen) a hole in your siding, chimney or deck.
Capped queen cell.
Queen bees give off distinct pheromones so honeybees that go out and collect nectar or pollen will be able to discern their hive from others. Once a swarm lands in a tree, or on a fence post- a pheromone is left behind and can lead to additional swarms landing in the same spot repeatedly. We have an old apple tree on our farm where at least four swarms have landed- our own ‘bee tree.’
If a colony feels their queen is not performing up to standard, they will supersede her by raising a new queen, the current queen’s daughter. Worker bees, who are all female, will build a specially shaped cup using beeswax. The current queen will lay an egg inside this special cup and worker bees will feed the larva royal jelly so it develops into a queen. It takes sixteen days for the new queen to fully develop. The current queen has to leave the hive before her daughter hatches, or risk a battle to the death- so when she senses the new queen is about to emerge, she will take a portion of the colony, usually about half, and swarm away. There are occasions where more than one queen cell will be built within the same hive. This can lead to multiple swarms, or a battle royale between the young queens where the victor kills her sisters to win the throne.
Caged Queen attracting bees with pheramone.
Interesting honeybee sting facts- worker bees are all female, and can sting but have barbed stingers, meaning their stinger gets stuck in whatever or whomever they stung- killing them. Male bees are called drones and do not have stingers. Queen honeybees have retractable stingers, similar to a wasp or hornet, and can sting multiple times- but generally save their stinging only for other queens.
If a honeybee colony is overrun with parasites, or does not have space in the hive they may abscond in a swarm- meaning the entire colony will fly off leaving only an empty hive behind. This type of swarm is a beekeeper’s worst nightmare- and if the absconding swarm can not be caught it means you watch your assets fly away!
A few days before swarming, the queen bee will stop laying eggs so that she is light enough to fly, and so there are not baby bees left behind. A queen bee lays up to 2,000 eggs per day and because of her abdominal size can not typically fly long distances. In order to make the swarm flight she has to take a break from egg laying and size down.
Honeybee swarms are the ultimate form of procreation- not making single bees, but a whole colony at once. While dealing with swarms is extra work for beekeepers, it is also an excellent way to expand an apiary if the swarms can be caught. Capturing swarms saves money and can help in developing generations of bees that are acclimated to specific climates and conditions.
If you come across a swarm of honeybees- do not fear! Watch them from a safe distance, and listen to them roar. Contact a local beekeeper to collect the swarm, and if you are in Berkshire County, MA- look up Olsen Farm. We are always happy to help remove a swarm!
Kristen Tool is co-owner of Olsen Farm in Lanesborough, Mass., where she works with her husband to revive 28 acres of a four-generation family farm by keeping bees, growing fruit, vegetables and herbs without the use of pesticides, raising poultry, cultivating mushrooms, leading workshops, and preparing plant remedies. She is the Secretary of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association and manages a crew of incredible teens who run the local farmers market through a nonprofit program, Roots Rising. Connect with Kristen at Olsen Farm on Facebook, on Instagram @olsen_farm, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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