Butterfly and Bee Garden

Butterfly Bee Garden

Swarming Bees – Why do Honey Bees Swarm?

Thousands of Swarming bees can be unnerving and tremendously fascinating at the same time. If you’ve encountered a swarm, you’re probably asking yourself what’s the occasion and why do they do it.

Well, honeybees have long been marvels of coordinated behavior. When a honey bee colony becomes too crowded, the worker bees will leave the original colony, searching for a new home.

Bee Swarm

That’s when you’ll encounter a swarm. The swarm consists of one queen, several thousand worker bees, and a few drones. Within a few hours or days, the swarm will set out to a new nest.

There is a lot to know about swarming bees. Let’s get into the details of this captivating phenomenon. If you’re a beekeeper, you’ll learn the causes and how to control swarming, so you don’t lose honey-producing bees.

What Is a Bee Swarm?

A bee swarm consists of a massive cloud of bees that fly briefly and cluster on a shrub, branch, or nearby object. The swarming queen will fly to the swarming location and emit pheromones to signal the worker bees to cluster around her forming a bulbous inverted cone.

A bee swarm surrounds and protects its queen since she cannot fly far without needing rest. Generally, a swarm is docile and less inclined to sting since its resting. Meanwhile, the scouts set out in search of a new nest. Although they are resting, the bees may attack if disturbed. Thus, it’s best to steer clear and watch the bees from afar. Be sure to take a photo or two while at it.

What Happens During a Swarm?

The swarming process starts before the queen set outs with her crew. The worker bees start to build new swarm cells for new queen bees. Once the swarm cells are ready, the queen will lay eggs in them. Shortly after, the worker bees reduce foraging activities like searching for food and establishing new food sources. At the same time, the queen stops producing eggs. In addition, the worker bees reduce the amount of food given to the queen to get her ready to fly.

When the queen is ready, she will take half of the workforce, hence the thousands of bees buzzing in sync, guided by her pheromones. The swarm usually settles a few yards from the established hive. It’s rare to see a bee swarm in a temporary location for more than a few days. This is because their food provisions are the honey or nectar in their stomachs. It’s a vulnerable time for bees, therefore the docile swarm mode.

The Swarm Leaving the Hive

Swarming Bees in basket

If a swarm leaves its hive on a warm day followed by a cold or rainy day, that swarm is less likely to survive. It’s usually a race to find a new nest and food sources before the weather turns. That’s why bees swarm in spring when the weather is favorable.

Once a new nest is found, the swarm will fly to the new home. The bees will start to brood, build comb, and gather pollen and nectar. The virgin queens in the old nest are tended to by the workers that did not leave the hive.

The first queen to emerge stings the other queens in their swarm cells to kill them. She then assumes the role of queen and takes drones to mate and begin brooding. With the process of egg-laying underway, the colony can quickly get a workforce to take care of the thousands of bees in her colony.

Why Do Bees Swarm?

It’s quite disappointing for a beekeeper when bees swarm. While it’s a natural need to divide the colony and multiply, they will likely settle far away from the original hive. So, it’s better to understand why bees swarm to control this occurrence.

7 Reasons for Swarming Bees

1/ Crowded Living Space in the Hive

Worker bees are usually busy taking care of the brood while honey is being made to fill the honeycomb. Meanwhile, the queen is laying eggs to sustain the workforce. Soon enough, the hive becomes too crowded that the bees don’t have access to the queen’s pheromone. These bees will encourage the colony to swarm.

2/ Lack of Enough Room for Honey Stores

Bees are likely to swarm if the hive is not crowded but the frames are almost drawn out with wax. In addition, if you have seven out of ten frames on a lower deep full of wax and don’t add another deep, the bees are likely to swarm.

3/ Lack of Ventilation in the Hive

When it’s hot in summer, bees will feel like the hive is crowded because of a lack of enough ventilation. Without room for cooling down, bees will move out of the hive.

4/ High Humidity

Apart from ventilation, high humidity can send the bees out of the hive since they find high humidity unbearable.

5/ Queen Variety

Some bee varieties like the Carniola are more likely to swarm than pure and yellow Italian bees.

6/ Age of the Queen Bee

Old queens don’t produce enough eggs to sustain the workforce in times of high honey production. Worker bees will start creating new queen bees, and swarming will follow.

7/ Absconding Reasons

Honeybees also swarm when they leave the old hive entirely due to disease, pest infestation, or lack of food. They can also abscond due to frequent disturbances by humans or animals.

What Race of Bees, Swarm?

Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera carnica) are well known to swarm frequently. They are gray/brown and originated from the Austrian Alps, Danube valley, and northern Yugoslavia. In addition, Carniolan bees are extremely gentle. They conserve their winter food stores well and build up quickly in spring.

Africanized honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) also swarm frequently. These bees originated in East Africa and were imported to Brazil in the 1950s. In addition, Africanized honey bees and their hybrids form smaller nests and are extremely defensive. They have been colonizing the southwest regions of the US since the 1990s.

Are Swarms Dangerous?

Swarming Bees

If you were to encounter swarming bees, you have nothing to worry about. While thousands of bees buzzing can be frightening, it’s because they have just left their hive. Swarming bees are quite gentle as long as they don’t feel the queen is threatened. They have filled their stomachs with honey, so they are less likely to attack. In addition, they are intent on finding a new hive, not attacking humans.

Nonetheless, if the scouts take to long to find a new home, the bees are forced to use some of their honey reserves. Therefore, they become agitated. To this end, it’s best to keep your distance when bees cluster at a temporary location.

What to Do If There are Swarming Bees?

If you encounter a bee swarm and you’re not a beekeeper, it’s best to leave them alone. Especially when they are not in an inconvenient place, your job is to keep calm and observe them from afar.

You’ll want to keep pets and children away from the swarm in any case. The swarm will likely move to its new nest in a day or two. However, suppose the swarm is in an inconvenient place like a wall in your house or the chimney. In that case, you’ll benefit from calling a beekeeper through beekeeping associations or on Facebook pages. You can also post on beekeeping forums about any beekeepers interested in removing a swarm.

Call the authorities if you can’t contact a beekeeper, if you suspect that the bees have taken up permanent residence in your home. They can contact specialists to help in such a scenario.

Note that some beekeepers may charge a fee for swarm removal while others do it for free. It’s good to confirm in advance.

What Not to Do When You Encounter Swarming Bees

  • Do not spray pesticides or chemicals. It could agitate the bees and provoke them into attacking. Keep in mind that bees pollinate 80% of the food-producing plants we eat. It’s best to have them relocated rather than killing them. Besides, they already face many perils from diseases, pests, and environmental stresses. Therefore, it’s more important to protect them to prevent the further decline of bee colonies.
  • Do not throw stones, sticks, and objects in a bid to drive the swarm away. Again, doing this will aggravate the bees.
  • Do not use smoke and other methods of bee swarm removal.

Is It Illegal to destroy a bee swarm?

No, it is not illegal to destroy a bee swarm. However, the process can be unsuccessful or backfire if you don’t have the right protective gear.

Impact of Swarming on Beekeepers

Swarming may be a natural way for bees to reproduce. Nevertheless, you want to keep as many bees as possible in your hive. When bees swarm, they take half the population of bees from the mother colony. There’s no guarantee that the bees that remain will survive winter. Besides, it affects honey production, and you may struggle to get to the original amounts of honey you collect.

How to Prevent Swarming If You Are a Beekeeper

Unfortunately, swarming interferes with the goals of a beekeeper. Good colony management can prevent activities that lead to swarming.

5  Things you can do to prevent bees from Swarming

1/ Avoid Congestion in the Beehive

Bees need plenty of room to brood, make honey and draw out honeycombs. Anticipate these needs and provide them with more space when they need it. These include adding a queen excluder and honey supers. We always advise adding another frame once you notice that seven out of 10 frames are drawn out with wax.

2/ Improve Ventilation of the Beehive

Always keep the ventilation hole at the front of the inner cover open. Additionally, glue a piece of popsicle stick to the corners of the inner covers, especially if you live in a warm climate. You can also keep the boxes open, so the bees have plenty of room to move.

3/ Inspect for Queen Cells Thoroughly

Lookout for giant peanut-shaped cells that tend to cluster on the frame’s edges. If you spot these queen cells, split the hive as soon as possible or remove the cells to prevent a swarm.

4/ Choose A Bee Variety Less Likely to Swarm

Yellow Italian bees are the least likely to swarm. You’re better off keeping them than Carniola or Africanized bees.

5/ Manage Your Queens

A colony is less likely to swarm if it does not have a viable queen. These are queens over one year old. You can re-queen in autumn so that the queens are only six months old by spring, making swarms less likely to occur. Always get ready to re-queen when you notice signs of queen cells.

How to Control a Swarm

There are proven methods for swarm control if you do not wish to have more active hives.

Clip one wing of the queen – When the bees start to swarm, the queen bee will walk out of the hive, but since she’s unable to fly, the bees will swarm around her giving you time to catch the swarm.

Use the Demaree method – The old queen is removed in a frame of capped brood. She is put in a separate hive box in the frame along with the foundation and empty drawn frames at the old hive. Also, add a honey super topped by a queen excluder.

This setup allows the forager bees to return to the lower box, thereby reducing the population of the upper box. After 10 – 14 days, inspect both parts and destroy any subsequent queen cells. Continue the separation until the swarming drive is extinguished.

Checker-boarding – Rearrange frames above the expanding brood nest in late winter. Then, alternate between empty drawn-out frames and full honey frames. It gives the perception of having enough reserves, so the bees are less inclined to swarm.

Keep the brood nest open – When you open the brood nest, the nurses will continue feeding the queen and redirect the sequence of events that lead to swarming. Rather than having the nurses stop feeding the queen in preparation for swarming, empty frames cause the expansion of the brood nest.

Swarm vs. Colony

Honeybees Swarm

A swarm is a transient group of bees split from a mother colony in a bid to form a new colony. The swarm consists of worker bees, one queen, and a few drones. The swarm settles at a temporary location for a few days. It ranges in size from a baseball to a basketball. A swarm is in a docile state and poses little to no threat to humans.

On the other hand, a colony is a settlement of bees in a nest. The nest can be a hollow tree, abandoned cars, cavities between walls, etc. A colony consists of thousands of bees and generally builds wax combs to store honey and rear brood. Since a colony has a home to defend, the bees are in defense mode and are ready to attack at the slightest provocation.

How to Find a Swarm of Bees

Any beekeeper who wants more bees can take advantage of a swarm. Swarm season is usually in spring and early summer. When you see a swarm, those bees have survived winter in that climate and are ready to repopulate. Therefore, they are more likely to reproduce successfully than bees shipped for the same purpose.

You can find a swarm by being connected to your local beekeeping community. If a colony splits, it will come from a beekeeper’s hive. Furthermore, you can give your contacts to pest control agencies and the local fire department so they can call you when they are called to remove a swarm.

Pro Tip: Keep swarm-catching gear in your trunk in spring and early summer so you can be ready immediately after you’re called.

How Much Does It Cost to Have a Bee Swarm Removed?

Swarms are quite cheap to remove. Some beekeepers will catch the swarm without charges, while others will ask for a maximum of $150. Since a honeybee swarm has no home to defend, it’s easy to control. Moreover, it’s often located in the open, requiring less time and minimal equipment to remove.

Why Are There Bees Remaining After the Swarm Has Been Removed?

These are scout bees that come back to find the swarm removed. They congregate where the queen’s pheromones are the strongest. These bees will either die or return to the mother colony.

Can A Beehive Swarm More Than Once?

Yes, bees can swarm a beehive more than once. They can do so in a matter of days, depending on the season, food supply, availability of a queen, and drones. Nonetheless, it is less likely for a beehive to swarm more than thrice. Since each swarm is created by half the number of bees in the original colony, any after swarm will have fewer numbers and are less likely to survive.

Why do Honeybees Swarm in Fall?

Fall swarms are likely because of a lack of enough food supplies or a pest infestation in the hive. It spells disaster for the bees since they may not survive winter. The parent and new colony could die due to starvation over the winter.

Frequently Asked Questions About Swarming Bees

What attracts bees to swarm?

The queen’s pheromone is the most powerful attractant to a bee swarm. Nonetheless, lemongrass or lemongrass essence is also an attractant that can be used to lure a bee swarm.

Do bee swarms go away?

Yes, bee swarms go away in a few hours or up to a few days. It depends on the weather and how fast the bee scouts take to find a new home.

What time of day do bees swarm?

Bees generally swarm between mid-morning and mid-afternoon. They like to do it in the warm hours so the weather will affect the time. Although swarming happens in the morning, secondary swarms can occur in the afternoon.

Will bees swarm into an empty hive?

Yes, bees can smell old beeswax. If you want to lure a swarm into an empty hive, you will want to apply a lure like a lemongrass essence to attract bees to the hive.

What months do bees swarm?

Bees swarm in the spring months between March and May. The swarming activity is encouraged by nectar flow since many plants are in bloom. It’s a time when making pollen resources and nectar are bountiful. As such, bees can replenish their honey reserves and reproduce because there’s lots of time and resources to build new combs.

Will bees swarm without a queen?

No, a swarm without a queen will serve no purpose. If you suspect you have a swarm without a queen, you may be looking at an after swarm with a virgin queen. In a few days, she will start mating, and you will witness brood laying.

Why does my hive keep swarming?

Swarming is a natural behavior. If you witness swarming more than twice, it means you’ve raised a populous colony. When the bees run out of space, they decide to swarm to continue reproduction at a new location.

Do swarm traps work?

Yes, but it takes a few tries and several seasons to find the right spot. Once you find the ideal location, preserve its environment from year to year to allow scout bees to find it.

What does seeing a swarm of bees mean?

A bee swarm encounter is a sign of growth and prosperity of the immediate environment and reflects one’s personal growth. Moreover, it reminds us to tend to ourselves and nurture the growth we want.

Do swarms ever return to the hive?

Scout bees that come back to find a beekeeper has removed the swarm will return to the hive to survive.

How many times will a hive swarm?

The size of the colony influences the number of swarms. If a hive swarms, leaving behind many queen cells, it can result in the colony swarming two or three more times.

Can you put a swarm back in the same hive?

As discussed above, you can put a swarm back in the same hive using the Demaree method.

How do you stop a swarm in progress?

If you spot the signs of an imminent swarm, the quickest way to stop it is by splitting the hive. Move one hive away, at least 50 ft from the other hive to stop the swarm. You can also use double screen boards if you want to keep both splits in the same base.

Swarming Bees in Conclusion

Swarming is a natural process in the bee world. As a beekeeper, watching out for signs of swarming can help you control it. You can catch the swarm to avoid losing half the honey-making bees.

At the same time, if you encounter swarming bees, don’t fret because they are out looking for a new home. Be sure to call on local beekeepers to collect the swarm. Remember that bees are less likely to survive in the wild. They are better off in the hands of a beekeeper.

Now that you know the mystery of swarming bees, it’s time to reconsider the idea that swarming bees are dangerous.