Swarming! Now I’ll bet that word conjures some strong emotions. huh? When you hear the word “swarm,” it’s likely you picture killer bees descending from the heavens to punish the wicked, or the sky darkening with locust before they eat every leaf and stem in sight. Unless, that is, you’re keyed into the world of beekeeping. To those in the know, swarming is a natural and harmless part of honey bees’ macro-reproduction. For people who aren’t as familiar with bee behaviors, strap in as I go over what swarming is and what it means for you, either as a beekeeper or observer.
The word swarm can mean a bunch of things. At its most basic level, a swarm is a group of creatures moving together. More specifically, it’s often used to refer to flying insects, and to be even more precise, it means a group of bees splitting off from their home hive to start a new one. That last definition, while the most correct, is probably the least used in common conversation. But most importantly, it’s the definition that applies to beekeeping, and so it’s the one we’re going to be using as we go forward. So how bout we break that definition down and see what it’s all about?
A swarm is a group of bees that leave their hive with the old queen to found a new colony. We call this swarming. Swarming is the natural progression of a healthy hive. Taking a look at our definition, you’ll see that any big group of bees moving from one location to another doesn’t quite qualify as swarming. If a whole colony uproots from their hive and flies away, that’s not a swarm. Those are just some seriously confused ladies. Classically, swarming is when about half the hive splits off from the rest and goes to make their own, separate hive. It’s how bee populations increase. One hive becomes two.
Swarming is a big process, and honestly really exciting! A massed contingent of bees burst forth from the hive and elope to a surface where they can rest. It is a sight to see when tens of thousands of bees streak through the air in one group before settling down. Honey bees can spend the middle part of their swarm almost anywhere. This is probably where swarming gets some of its fearsome reputation from. Having a mass of bees set up shop in your Jeep’s undercarriage can be quite the shock, after all. More commonly though, the swarm will alight somewhere out of the way like a fruit tree or somewhere else where resources are prevalent for their short stay.
After a while the swarm will move again, moving into a final location to set up a new hive. You’ll get the same visual as before when the thousands of bees take off as a single group. Once they find their forever home, honey bees will dig right in and get started turning whatever locale they’ve chosen into a livable home. The process for that is complex but straightforward. They’ll build up their comb, slap some propolis over everything, and start excavating their beeswax into the spaces they need. When the first part of construction is done, the new beehive should look pretty much like the one they just left, albeit with whatever adjustments their specific location needs.
So that’s what’s happening on the outside. But the bees aren’t just buzzing around willy-nilly. What’s going on within the hive is as cool as watching them all fly in unison. To start, let’s get into the makeup of the swarm. The most important member of the swarm is, of course, the queen. Swarming will probably be the queen’s first (and maybe last!) trip out of the hive that’s not for mating, so the scout bees set the course and guide their mother/sovereign to someplace to set down pretty quickly. The problem is that the queen just isn’t used to flying. They do feed her a little less to help her get skinny before the sojourn, but the rest of the swarm still makes accommodations for their slower queen. That’s why they seem to hang out in the open for a while before settling on their new nesting spot.
Once they settle down after their short initial flight, the scouts head out. As their name suggests, they scout locations for where the new hive should be. This looks like a bunch of bees going solo and spreading out for miles to find the best spot to settle down. When they find the sweet spot (lots of flowers around, near enough to a water source, sheltered from the elements, etc.) they go back to the group and argue for their pick. They waggle their little stingers off (not literally, but they do give it their all!) to try and convince their swarm-mates to choose the spot they found. Tom Seeley spent ten years studying this process and, whether or not you buy his opinions on human democracy, found that it works pretty well. Scouts don’t need to convince a majority of their comrades, just enough to get the ball rolling.
I mentioned earlier that swarming is part of the honey bee “macro-reproduction” cycle. Like I said before, it’s how their population grows. Half the hive goes somewhere else to make a new hive, and the rest stay back and get to refilling their losses. Over time the two half-hives make it back to full strength and you’ve got two whole hives. So there’s one answer to why they swarm: it’s how honey bees grow and spread. But that’s all big picture. On the individual hive level, the answer is actually a lot simpler: space.
A queen bee can lay up to 2000 eggs a day. Even with a high mortality rate from foragers and other hard-working ladies that leave the hive, that’s a lot of new bees. Eventually, a prosperous colony is going to run out of space. Now, honey bees don’t shy away from physical contact, but at some point enough is enough. Sometimes there’s no more room to expand the hive. When too many bees are crowding the beehive halls, or when the amount of honey they can store just can’t feed all the new mouths, some of the new faces have to go. The workers get the queen ready to fly and start feeding royal jelly to her replacement. Once the new potential heirs are sealed in their cells, the hive splits. Then the new queen comes out, does her bloody work, and it’s back to business for the old hive.
Now you know the what and whys of swarming, let’s move on to what you should do about it. At the tippy top of that list is a pretty simple piece of advice that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise by now: Don’t freak out. Seeing a thousand bees just vibing can be a little disconcerting, but you’re in no danger if you see a swarm. Please don’t try to run them off or worse, kill them. They’re minding their own business after all, why don’t you, too? Of course, it isn’t always that easy. I did talk about them shacking up in your engine compartment earlier, and when it comes down to it, sometimes a swarm is in the way. In that case, call around professional beekeepers in your area.
As a beekeeper, swarming is probably most important for you because it could mean losing half your bees overnight! Well fear not, there are some simple steps you can take to keep your honey bees from swarming. First off, keep a close eye on your hive. That’s good advice all the time. If you notice the signs that your hive is getting to swarm, separate the queen and a good chunk of the workers into a separate hive. This will solve the same problems that swarming would have, without a good chunk of your bees doing a runner. Then, instead of losing half your crew, you’re looking at doubling your number of bees. Not bad.
That’s swarming. I hope this post helped clear up some of the mysteries about this totally normal beehavior. Swarming bees aren’t getting ready to pounce on unexpected joggers, they’re just looking for a new home. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the negative connotations associated with the term. If you see a swarm in the wild, give us a call at 608-728-8233, or email us at [email protected].