Before keeping bees, we didn’t understand the magic of honey bee swarms – or really anything about them. What does a swarm look like, why do honey bees swarm, why do beekeepers care?
Some beekeepers care about swarms more than others. If you’re into controlling the genetics in your beeyard, swarms aren’t for you. But for fledgling beekeepers simply interested in learning bees and expanding our apiaries, swarms are…
Honey bee swarms happen when a hive creates a new queen, which happens when the colony feels crowded or because of a host of other factors, some of which humans don’t fully understand even after 10,000 years of exploiting bees. In any case, there can usually only be one queen per hive, so the extra queen gathers helpers and they swarm to find another place to live.
Note that there’s something called absconding. That’ when an entire colony just leaves, usually because the hive’s in a bad location or something is threatening it. We’ve mostly seen swarms, so that’s what I’ll discuss in this post, though absconded colonies may act similarly.
A swarm leaves a hive in a glorious, buzzing cloud, usually between 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. on a sunny day. It looks frightening, but swarming bees are too busy to worry about stinging anyone. They’re on a mission.
The swarm quickly chooses a spot near their former hive to congregate in a ball for 20 minutes to 2 days, sending scouts to determine where their permanent home should be. That’s stage 1. Stage 2 happens when a suitable home is identified (frequently a hollow tree; hopefully not inside the wall of a building), and the swarm goes from ball to cloud again and buzzes to their new home.
If you find the bees in stage 1, at their first stop, and you can successfully drop the ball of bees into a hive box, the bees will often say, “Good enough. No need for stage 2. We’re home.” And you’ve caught a new colony.
Sometimes, swarms do stage 1 in convenient spots, like our eye-level pear tree.
In this case, we found something to keep the bee box almost at the swarm’s level, then gently bent the tree to the box and gave it a good shake.
Sometimes, it’s less convenient. We didn’t catch this one:
Here we are, looking for the queen from a swarm in a neighbor’s cherry orchard. If the queen isn’t in that big ball of bees that we dropped into the hive box, the swarm will circle back to its congregation spot and ball up within 10 minutes.
Sometimes even if you catch the queen, the swarm will leave your hive box. But in this case, the queen was in the box, and they decided to stay.
We covered the box to make them feel cozy but left extra entrance space so all the swarmers could find their way in.
At dark, when the greatest number of bees were in the hive box, we sealed it and drove it to the apiary. Here I am carrying a box of 10,000 bees over rocky soil, with my path lit by the headlights of the car.
And boom, free bees, instead of paying a couple hundred dollars for a new colony or forcing a colony to split using fancy beekeeping moves. Some call captured swarms “rescue bees” because there’s a belief that honey bees, who aren’t native to North America, don’t fare well in the wild.
In the below photo, the newest swarm has the most leaves in front of it. Shrubbery is supposed to make bees slow down and orient themselves before flying out, so they remember where they’re living now.
Ebb and Flow
Swarms occur in any warm month, but are typically smaller as the year progresses. Small swarms are harder to catch and care for, since the queen doesn’t have as many helpers, so many beekeepers only worry with swarms earlier in the year, letting others fly away to fend for themselves. Our biggest swarms happen smack dab in the middle of spring, Tax Day to mid-May: swarm season!
We added 3 new hives in 2021, all from swarms. A negligible number for some beekeepers, but we were thrilled. This gave us 6 total hives through summer. Two of the swarms came from our very own Swarmolina, that first swarm from our colonies back in 2020. Swarmolina swarmed so often in 2021 that the hive collapsed in early July. RIP, Swarmolina. This was our first hive loss.
She gave us many valuable swarm-learning experiences and a ton of honey from a colony she threw in April 2021. Sadly, we suspect that colony absconded or collapsed due to mites in the end of September 2021. It was our 2nd hive loss.
If that colony did abscond, hopefully it found a good home in a tree nearby on the mountain. The colony had swarmy but productive genes, and we wouldn’t mind if they wanted to swarm back our way some day.
Swarms that aren’t caught by beekeepers have to go find new homes on their own. It’s usually a hollow tree. A few years ago, we noticed that a grizzled sassafras on top of the long field was full of bees. After finally figuring out they were honey bees, and not the yellow jackets that kept chasing Chris down, we were extra proud of our bee tree. So we were sad to find the colony had disappeared in spring 2021, most likely our fault for bringing more honey bees to their range, and with them, more Varroa mites. Mites are a huge threat to honey bees.
We treat hives for mites to keep our bees strong, able to fight diseases, and less likely to spread problems to native pollinators. Most people leave bee trees to fend for themselves. However, after witnessing a mite on one of the bee-tree worker bees, a sign their infestation was advanced, I asked our mentor to help me work out a way to treat the bee tree.
We tried a vapor treatment that apparently failed. The tree was empty and quiet in the early months of 2021, but soon another colony moved into the tree! A swarm that eluded us in a poplar in late April evidently decided the bee tree was good real estate.
Later in swarm season, on a May evening, I heard buzzing. You get “swarm ear,” where any buzzing has you running to the apiaries to check for swarms. On the way across the field, a cloud of bees passed overhead. These bees weren’t ours. They were in the 2nd stage of the swarm process, moving from the first stop to their new home, in this case, a sassafras on the edge of the lower field. Notice how the colony moves in a counter-clockwise spiral into the hole. Fascinating!
The rule they taught in beekeeping class was that feral colonies don’t live closer than 1/2 a mile apart, but this tree is only 1/10 mile from bee tree in the upper field. Neighbors 1/3 mile away also have a feral colony in a big poplar.
The density of feral bee trees may mean there’s an abundance of bee food around here. It certainly seemed this was the case when it was time to harvest honey, as we pulled one heavy honey frame after another from the hives.
Check out part 3 of our beekeeping update to see how our 2021 honey harvest went.