Swarms – What are they and what should you do if you find one


Swarm season started about a week ago. As a beekeeper, this is always an exciting time. First, I’m trying to manage my hives so they don’t swarm. So far, I’m succeeding in that respect this spring. Second, I’m hoping to catch several swarms to increase my number of hives. We caught one swarm over the weekend and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we get a few more.

Before we talk about what to do if you find a swarm, we need to talk a little about honey bee biology and what a swarm is. Honey bees are highly social animals. Every individual bee has a job and no single honey bee can survive on its own. Honey bees are so social and so dependent on all the other bees in the hive that the hive itself functions as an organism in its own right. The technical term for this is a superorganism.

An uncapped queen cell on the side of a honey comb. Notice how much larger and elongated the queen cell is compared to the other cells of the honey comb. Photo credit: Maja Dumat

An uncapped queen cell on the side of a honey comb. Notice how much larger and elongated the queen cell is compared to the other cells of the honey comb. Photo credit: Maja Dumat

As a superorganism, the hive can reproduce through swarms. When the number of honey bees in the hive is rapidly growing and there is plenty of honey in the hive and the bees start to feel crowded, the swarm response is triggered. The worker bees will build cells in the honeycomb that are much larger than the normal honeycomb cells. Those large cells are called queen cells. The worker bees will get the queen to lay an egg in each of the queen cells.

When the egg in the queen cell hatches, the larva is fed royal jelly the entire time it is developing. Royal jelly is a special substance that the young worker bees serving as nurse bees produce. When the larva in the queen cell is fully developed, the worker bees create a wax cap over the cell that seals the larva inside so that it can pupate into an adult queen. When the new bee emerges, she will become the new queen for that hive.

Around the time that the queen cell is sealed, the original queen will leave the hive with about half of the worker bees. This is the swarm. A swarm is simply the hive’s way of reproducing itself. The hive reproduces by splitting itself in two. A hive may swarm once in a season or it may swarm multiple times in a season. Each time it divides itself in approximately half.

Last summer, one of our hives swarmed. I happened to be home and all I can say is – wow, it is an amazing sight and feeling to be in the middle of the start of a swarm. There were bees everywhere, all frantically buzzing and flying around as they tried to get the queen to leave the hive. When she left the hive, all the bees that only seconds before had been flying around in what looked like complete, disorganized, chaos suddenly grouped up much like you see the big flocks of starlings do in the fall. Then they all flew off as a single cluster of bees.

Bees in a swarm are just looking for a new home. Please leave them alone or let a local beekeeper remove them and give them a new home. Photo credit Barry Cowles, Meme credit: Laura Wamelink Haggarty

Bees in a swarm are just looking for a new home. Please leave them alone or let a local beekeeper remove them and give them a new home. Photo credit: Barry Cowles, Meme credit: Laura Wamelink Haggarty

After the bees leave the hive, they find some place for the swarm to land. Often times this is a tree branch, but it can be virtually anything including a clump of tall grass, a swing, the eaves of a house, or even the side of a parked car. The bees will hang out in that location for a few hours to a couple of days while scout bees go out and look for a new home. A couple of weeks ago, I learned that when a scout bee comes back after finding a potential new hive location it will describe the location to the other bees in the swarm. The bees will compare that description to the description of other potential sites found by other scout bees. Based on this information, they decide which site to go to and establish as their new hive.

Honey bees in a swarm are usually fairly gentle. Although a big cluster of bees may look scary, all they are interested in is finding a new home. If you find a swarm, please don’t kill it. You can ignore it and within a relatively short time the bees will leave because they’ve found where they want to establish their new hive. Or you can call your favorite local beekeeper. Often he or she will be very happy to collect your swarm, take them home, and establish a new hive of bees with them. If you don’t know any local beekeepers, call your county extension office. They will typically have a list of local beekeepers who are interested in collecting swarms.

With the onset of warm, sunny weather and the spring bloom coming on strong, beekeepers all across the state have been reporting that they are catching swarms. The major swarm season will probably last at least a couple of more weeks although swarms can occur pretty much anytime between spring and fall. If you find a swarm, please either leave it alone or let someone know who will come and relocate it.


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