This is the season for swarming. There are some things you should know about swarms and what to do if you happen upon one.
Swarming is a natural thing that honey bees do. It’s reproduction on a colony level. Only a healthy, strong colony can swarm. While we as beekeepers do everything we can to prevent swarming because it decreases the size of the colony and, thus, honey production, it does happen. One of my colonies just swarmed. I was fortunate enough to retrieve the swarm and they are now inhabiting the third hive in my apiary. So, my apiary has grown because the bees swarmed. This is also good.
A swarm happens when the bees think that they need more room for the queen to lay eggs and to store honey. There is preparation within the colony for the swarm–after all, this is splitting the colony into two.
Each colony must have a queen–i.e. in bee-speak, be queenright. The queen who was with the colony is going to fly away with the swarm. That would leave the colony remaining in the hive without a queen–and that would spell the death of the colony but before the swarm leaves, the worker bees have started rearing a new queen for themselves: they will build special “queen cups” into which the queen will lay eggs before she starts getting ready to lead the swarm out of the hive. The workers remaining in the hive will feed those larvae in the queen cells appropriately so that they grow up to be queens.
Once these preparations are in progress, the queen will lead the swarm out of the hive, Once out of the hive, the bees will make a temporary stop somewhere not too far away while the process of selecting a new home goes on. That’s when you see the bunches of bees in some truly strange places. There’s a complicated process going on with the swarm: scout bees are going out and looking for potential new homes. Scouts return and report, other scouts check out the possibilities, and finally, there is agreement on a suitable site. At that point, the swarm leaves their temporary resting place and moves to the new home–with their queen, to establish a new colony and begin drawing comb for the queen to lay eggs in, and in which to store honey. It’s a fascinating and complicated process, wonderfully described by Thomas Seeley in Honeybee Democracy. It’s a collective, democratic process by this swarm bees.
Things that you should know about swarms: first and most importantly, they are not dangerous. The honey bees making up the swarm are very docile. They have gorged on honey before leaving the hive so that they can survive the search for a new home. They don’t have a home to protect–they out looking for a new home. They are not going to attack. Extermination is not necessary (except in very rare circumstances). What you want to do is to contact your local beekeepers’ association–or a local beekeeper. Someone will come with appropriate gear and take the swarm away to a new home; they are highly prized as a way to get started in beekeeping or to increase the size of an apiary.
Should the swarm not be collected by a beekeeper who will provide a hive, or find a suitable cavity you will occasionally see comb built in the open air–not the best in terms of long-term survival.
Meanwhile, back in the hive of origin, the workers are busily raising new queens. Yes, the plural is intentional. Having a queen is necessary for the survival of the hive so the workers will raise several queens to be sure of success. However, a colony will have only a single queen–it’s not a shared job. The first of the queens to emerge from the queen cell is going to wipe out the other rivals–it can be brutal in the hive at times. This hive will now have a virgin queen, who will leave the hive to mate (with multiple drones) in a drone congregation area, return to the hive, and begin her egg-laying duties.
My second hive (the GA girls) and now in the process of requeening the colony. I can only hope that the workers rear a good queen to replace the one that left with the swarm, and hope that she will be well-mated. There are a lot of things that can interfere with this process–cold, rainy weather, a predator needing a meal while this virgin queen is on her mating flight, or getting splatted by a huge raindrop on her way home.
With fingers crossed, I’m hoping for a good, new queen for replacement. If the normal sequence of events doesn’t work, then it is possible to purchase a new queen from professional breeders but since this was a successfully overwintered, productive colony, I would like to keep these genetics going by allowing them to produce their own new queen.
Now it’s more anxious, not likely patient, waiting for the new queen.