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by Jon Zawislak - March 24, 2020
It's spring time in Arkansas again. We have warm days and lots of new flowers. That
means it's also time for honey bee swarms! As soon as the weather is warm enough to permit flying (about 55oF or above) bees begin their daily search for fresh flowers for food. They collect
both nectar and pollen to feed their hungry hive. The nectar, of course is what bees
turn into delicious golden honey. But nectar contains very few nutrients. Honey
is mostly sugars, which bees use as metabolic fuel. Its the pollen that contain proteins
and amino acids, lipids, vitamins, and all the other nutrients growing bees need.
Once fresh pollen begins coming into the hive, worker bees can increase the diet of
royal jelly they can feed to their queen. The queen responds to this increased nutrition
by producing more eggs. These eggs hatch into hungry larvae that must now be fed
- with more royal jelly and fresh pollen. In a couple of weeks, the larvae emerge
as mature adult bees, which soon go out and begin foraging for more food for the hive.
The whole process results in exponential growth in bee colony population. That can
lead to overcrowding in a hive with limited space. All those extra bees contribute
to the impulse for the colony to swarm.
There are many factors that influence swarming decisions. But the queen will ultimately
initiate the process by placing an egg in a shallow, downward-facing cell called a
queen cup. These cups are common at the edges and bottom of wax combs, where the
honeycombs round over to the other side, but can be found anywhere the comb is poorly
drawn or has a hole in it. If the queen places an egg in of these cells, the workers
respond by elongating the cell and provisioning it with ample royal jelly. The occupied
cup is now called a queen cell. The rich diet fed to the larva in this cell begins
it's transformation into a new queen bee.
A bee colony preparing to swarm usually creates multiple queen cells over the course
of several days. As the new queens are nearing maturity, the old queen will leave
the hive. She typically usually followed by up to 2/3 of the colony's population.
This is a honey bee swarm, and it can consist of anywhere from 3,000 to 30,000 individuals.
The group of bees will usually fly only a short distance from their hive, and will
settle again in a large mass. They are often seen hanging on a tree limb or fence
post, or on the side of a building.
The queen bee will remain safely somewhere inside this cluster, often wandering around.
Sometimes she can be seen, popping out briefly, then disappearing back inside the
group. Most of the bees in this swarm are fairly inactive, conserving their energy
and using their bodies to keep their queen safe and protected. A small number of
the bees become scouts, who fly off in all direction looking for a suitable cavity
(such as a hollow tree) for the swarm to move into. For a fascinating exploration
on how these scout bees find, report, and then debate the merits of multiple potential
home sites, check out "Honey Bee Democracy" by Dr. Tom Seeley.
Bees in a swarm are not necessarily something to fear, but rather admired from a safe
distance. These bees have only landed to regroup temporarily, before moving on to
a permanent home. Since leaving their hive, they have no brood or food or nest to
protect, and are usually quite docile if left undisturbed. However, in cold, wet
weather, their attitude may deteriorate, and they will become more defensive the longer
they are homeless in the open.
When we have long periods of cool wet conditions, like this spring, the bee population
is growing, and the hive is getting crowded, but the weather doesn't permit them to
swarm. Suddenly when we have a bright, sunny day, hives all over the area seem to
swarm at once. Sometimes there are multiple mature queens that have developed in
the hive while they were waiting for that good weather. Once the old queen leaves
with her cohort of workers, one or more virgin queens will emerge with a smaller group of
followers, known as an afterswarm. Sometimes multiple afterswarms emerge at once,
or over several days. Below is a photo of three simultaneous swarms near one my hives
The larger swarm, lower down, was probably the main swarm with the mated queen. The
smaller ones above were likely afterswarms that left the hive at the same time. Had
these virgin queen stayed behind, they would have had to fight to the death with any
others remaining, to determine who would inherit the hive.
Each of these swarms were easily collected. I simply held the tree branch just above
the swarm, and clipped it off the tree. As long as they are handled gently these
bees will stay put, and the whole swarm can be placed into it's own hive, tree branch
and all, with some frames. The frames with drawn comb will attract eh bees, and allow
them to immediately store nectar and pollen, and the queen can lay eggs. In a day
or two, the branch can be removed, and extra frames can be added to fill in the spaces.
Hopefully each will grow quickly and become productive. The virgin queens will fly
off to mate over the next few days, and then return to begin their egg-laying careers.
If the queen begins producing brood, the rest of the colony is sure to stay. Occasionally,
however, a captured swarm still decides to leave, and the beekeeper returns to find
the hive empty.
Swarming is a natural and normal process that keeps colonies at a manageable size
for both bees and beekeepers, and ensures the survival of their species. If you see
a bee swarm, don't panic! They are not out to get you. Just leave them alone to
do their thing. Snap a photo to share with your friends, and call a beekeeper to
come and relocate them to a place where they will be welcome.
If you don't know any beekeepers, contact your Extension honey bee specialist at 501-671-2222,
or your local County Extension office. The Arkansas Beekeepers Association also have
a public list on their website to help you locate a beekeeper near you that can take care of the swarm.
If you can't contact a beekeeper, you still don't need to panic and don't try to kill
them. They will likely move away peacefully in a few hours to a few days, as soon
as they find a suitable home.