The honey bee swarms are one of the most exciting and interesting parts of beekeeping for me. It can be quite frightening when a swarm flies and settles on something close to you. I was sitting at my desk recently and heard noise outside. Looking out the window I saw a cloud of bees clustering round a trash can which held some old honeycomb waiting to be melted down.
I jumped up and got a hive box, positioned it on top of the trash can and shook the cluster of bees off the lid into the box. Within quite a short time the swarm had moved into the hive. It was a big swarm and seemed pretty docile, although most bees are well behaved when they swarm. I was very tempted to keep it, but a friend of mine was in need of a swarm so I called him and the honey bee swarm had a new home.
Most people have heard of honey bee swarms, often they call it a nest or a hive. However a bee swarm is something transient and quite specific. It’s actually how bees procreate, it’s probably more appropriate to think of it as the colony’s ‘child’. In order for the species to prosper it isn’t enough for the colony just to prosper. It has to produce new colonies in the same way humans produce children.
If you have seen a swarm, or have an interesting, exciting or funny bee story to tell please go to The Bee Story Page and tell us about your experience. The best entries get published in this website.
Below is a video showing the collection of a small honey bee swarm from a tree. They had been there a few days and the homeowner was worried that they might take up residence in her house or barn. There are many ways to collect a swarm, this is my favorite. I like to shake the swarm of their branch into a box or bucket and then dump them onto a ramp which leads up to an empty hive box.
Bees don’t always stay in their new home, sometimes they decide there’s something they don’t like about it and they move on. Over the years I have found that if I use this method, rather than dumping the swarm directly into the hive, they seem more inclined to stay.
Of course new individual bees are being created all the time, but the colony itself usually stays in one place. When the colony becomes overcrowded it’s necessary to make more room and therefore the workers select an egg or several eggs to become new queens.
Just before the new queen is ready to emerge from their elongated cell, approximately half the work force gorge themselves on honey and old queen leaves the hive followed by the well fed workers. This is what we know as a honey bee swarm.
They alight on a tree or perhaps a wall. Often there can be more than 15,000 individuals, and is about the size of a football. Most of the bees stay clustered around the queen, some go out to scout for a new permanent home. There is an interesting article on the National Geographic site about swarm theory.
Sometimes honey bee swarms remain like this for a few hours, sometimes days. Very occasionally the bees decide to stay where they are and build combs, exposed to the elements, there in the tree.
I used to wonder what happens to the bees that are out scouting when a swarm decides to move. When they return to the empty branch, do they wonder where the swarm went, as far as I knew they had no way to follow so probably went back to their original hive. I recently observed some interesting behavior which I think might answer the question, I think some bees come back and tell them with a waggle dance, which I caught on video.
Because the bees fill themselves with honey to sustain themselves until they find a new home, before they leave their parent colony, they are usually in a good mood. There’s an old saying, “Swarming bees never sting.”, IT ISN’T TRUE! Bees should always be treated with respect and removed by a beekeeper as soon as possible after they are noticed.
Since the world honey bee population is in crisis, I believe they should never be killed. In many places it is illegal to kill a colony of bees, unless a beekeeper has first tried to capture it, and then only by a licensed pest control professional.
If they are not removed they may decide that their new home is in the roof of your house or a cavity in the wall. If bees are allowed to remain in such a location they will build comb and fill it with honey.
They maintain the temperature and humidity of their hive. If they subsequently die or are killed, the combs may melt in the summer heat and the honey will absorb water and begin to ferment. I’m sure you can imagine what happens when fermenting honey starts to drip down your wall or through your ceiling.
I have seen a motel where two colonies of bees had taken up residence in the roof for quite a while. An exterminator had killed both hives by spraying something into the cavities. When they called me the temperature was 100°F (38°C). There was honey dripping out of the end of the eaves into two five gallon buckets!
A swarm trap or two is good insurance against swarms setting up a hive in the wrong place.