Swarms are an excellent way to upset a beekeeper. Much of the summer is spent trying to prevent them, but occasionally efforts are too late. The best course of action is to then pour a stiff drink and reflect on the failure.
So, what exactly is a swarm? It’s a collection of honey bees (i.e., workers, drones, and a queen) that leave their mother hive to establish a new colony elsewhere. The swarm can contain approximately 60% of the original colony – upwards of 10,000 bees!
The impulse to swarm and leave the hive occurs primarily when a colony has inadequate space to expand. The limited space hinders the bees from storing honey, and prevents the queen from being able to lay eggs. Additional factors, such as high temperatures, high humidity, and poor ventilation accentuate the crowded conditions and accelerate the colony’s desire for space.
After a swarm impulse is initiated, the colony begins to make queen cells, which harbor developing queen larvae. Once the larvae are almost fully developed, the old queen leaves the hive with a large collection of bees (i.e., the swarm). Before leaving, the bees in the swarm gorge themselves on honey, which they store in their guts until they arrive at their new home. The bees that stay behind are left with the soon-to-hatch queen cells. The first queen to hatch destroys the other developing cells: there can only be one queen!
For the beekeeper, the agony of a swarm is two-fold; not only do half the bees leave, but they take a large portion of the honey with them! To add insult to injury, it is often the strongest and fastest reproducing colonies that swarm. These bees would have otherwise produced a great honey crop.
After leaving the hive, the swarm will rest in a nearby location (often a tree) while scout bees search for a new home. Although the giant ball of resting bees may look intimidating, the bees are incredibly docile and very unlikely to sting in this state; they do not have any brood or honey stores to protect and the large amount of honey being stored in their bodies makes it difficult for them to fly. Once a new location is scouted, the swarm leaves its temporary resting place and moves into its new home.
The good news is that, with proper management, there are several ways to prevent a swarm. Regular inspections are most important, as they allow the beekeeper to look for crowding and queen cells. Queen cells should be destroyed because a swarm will not occur if there are no queen cells remaining in the hive. If the hive seems crowded, an empty box is added to the top of the hive to provide space for expansion. Providing proper ventilation for the bees will also reduce their need to swarm. Nonetheless, some colonies have a genetic predisposition to swarm and may leave regardless of what prevention measures are used.
Unfortunately, swarms are in danger of being exterminated due to their intimidating appearance. Many people don’t realize that services exist to rehome honey bees, often for free. Although Koha Apiaries is working to expand public knowledge about swarm biology and available rehoming services, we appreciate all the help we can get. Please take a minute to share this blog so others may learn that the extermination of swarms is unnecessary.