Hey, we all need our space, right? Personal bubbles are more important today than they ever have been. Bees are like us. They need their space, too. It has to be suitable to build a hive, store pollen and honey, breed, raise the brood, and much more! Bees swarm because they run out of room. Usually.
Bees Swarm for Two Reasons
During the spring and summer, the size of colonies can explode in number. Which means they’ll need more space. It’s a problem.
The answer to that problem is to swarm.
You’re probably thinking: There’s gotta’ be more to it than that.
You’d be right. There’s another reason for bees to swarm.
Let’s Think About Bee Production
We think about the queen laying eggs, then the eggs hatch and you eventually have adult bees. This is an accurate representation of reproduction at the single bee level.
But how about this? When bees swarm they become two colonies. This results in actual colony reproduction. See there? And it is this colony reproduction of how and what bees need to live, survive, and thrive.
Swarming for More Space
The easiest guess and most likely reason that bees swarm is for that of space.
This happens in nature as well; when the colony has outgrown the size of the space that it has chosen to hive, then it needs more space.
It is more common, however, when the colony has been specifically “homed” in our small, pre-built, purposeful things that we call beehives.
In all actuality, we do all that we can by using the beehives that expand rapidly and adequately to conform to a growing colony. It’s not always the case, though, that a beekeeper will be able to anticipate or foresee when a colony may act to swarm and go on it’s own!
Here’s how that works:
• The colony decides the need to swarm is here (for whatever reason).
• There are future queens being prepared in queen cups.
• Prior to any new queens emerging, the existing queen and half of the colony’s bees will leave the hive and search for a new home and space.
• Then the first queen emerges from the queen cups and ensure her reign as the ONLY queen to emerge alive.
• That queen is now considered THE Queen and takes over the duty.
• Now, there are two colonies, about half the size of the original and living in two different locations.
There are other minor and major nuances and tendencies as to why and how bees choose to swarm but that is a nice, quick explanation.
You can see the possibility of growth, though. Each colony will then grow again and you have two normal size hives that will (granted health and such) will need to swarm as they grow.
Swarming for Reproduction
Colonies act as a living organism. No one bee is ever as safe, productive, or knowledgeable on its own. It takes all the bees of the hive working in unison for them to be anything near their best. Just like any organism.
Any organism yearns and has instinctual on-going effort to survive. To survive as a group, that group must reproduce.
So, the process of a colony swarming and splitting into two is a natural, positive process that is in-tune with any species survival instincts. Two queens, for two hives allows greater brood-rearing efforts and a more functional hive.
The Honey Bee Swarming: A Breakdown of What Happens
Decision Made to Swarm
There will be a trigger to initiate the swarm. Let’s just say, for the sake of this article that the colony in our hive is beginning to run out of room and is filling frames with brood and honey fast! The decision to swarm is made.
Preparing for the Swarm
Worker bees are regularly making queen cups during normal hive activities and cycles. But the queen will not usually lay eggs in those cups unless it’s been decided to swarm.
Once the queen lays in a queen cup, it lays a large amount of planning and execution in motion. She plans on leaving with half the hive and has just laid the egg of her successor in the current hive.
At this point, the queen who has been constantly laying is fattened and unable to fly. After the queen cups are filled, the workers will stop reduce her feedings and she will stop laying eggs.
After all the prep work has been done, the queen and between 50% and 60% of the current hive will leave.
One of the most beautiful and dramatic of natures wonder to see is that off thousands of bees pouring out of a hive together. They will, together, stop very close by and use it as temporary spot as the queen isn’t in the best “flying shape” yet.
Scout bees then go out and start checking the nearby areas for a few suitable spots to choose as a final location. The great part is that there is some “debate” and “communication bickering” that goes on between the scouts that decides the next location of the hive. Read about it here.
With the decision made, the swarm then leaves the temporary spot and flies to the location where they will build their new home together.
What Happens Back at the Hive When Bees Swarm?
When bees leave the hive with original queen, that is called the prime swarm. Back at the hive, though, things get dicey!
The first queen that emerges from a queen cup will hunt down her yet-unborn, sister queens and kill them while still in their cups. She gets help from worker bees who clear away the wax capping over the queen caps and gives her easy access to kill.
But Not Always…
In some cases, the colony decides to take another route. The new queen and workers may also form a swarm and find a different location for themselves. Rarely, though it does happen, this can happen again and again until there is no original hive left.
For Beginner Beekeepers
To try and anticipate a swarm, attention to detail and closely monitoring your colony and the hive is important. If your bees are storing huge loads of honey, if they’re just in full-blown rearing mode, and are expanding rapidly, then it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on the frames in the hive.
Also, swarming isn’t bad. It’s a great source of bees to establish a new hive or even to sell other beekeepers who are looking to expand.
We don’t recommend that new beekeepers start off by trying to capture a swarm but with experience comes wisdom and down the road we’re sure that you’ll find honeybee swarms a great source of new bees.
Lots of beekeepers offer services of “swarm catching”. They either take the bees for a new hive or take some money for profit. Often, they do both!
Good luck and Happy Hiving!
Raise Bees. Know Bees. Bee Cool. Save the Earth.