Off They Go! The Anatomy of a Swarm

Sunday, June 30. Beekeeping, Year 1. The midday sun was strong, fueling the jet stream that pumped warm air into New England. I walked outdoors to set the hose trickling on the hydrangea, big leaves listless in the heavy air. Nestling it in to dribble on the roots, I heard a loud buzzing. Bees? Well, of course, since I have two hives tucked in at the edge of the woods. But all that buzzing? Were the hives fighting? After all each was essentially its own country, complete with queen and loyal subjects. The two hives never held summits, traded goods and services, or even argued amongst themselves, unless resources were scarce, and June is not a month of scarcity. But this buzzing sounded insistent. I looked around at eye level for signs of war. Nothing.

Then I turned my gaze upward to see a mass of bees the size of a basketball hugging a branch 50 feet in the air. Hey wait! You’re not supposed to swarm, my young colony! What are you doing up there? Come back down here this instant! It was an amazing, dismaying sight. The queen had abdicated her throne, taking about half of her loyal subjects and some honey with her, leaving the rest leaderless.
Leaving her former colony leaderless isn’t entirely true. The swarming process is complex and the colony had begun raising a new queen before the reigning queen even flew out the door. I consulted my dog-eared tome on beekeeping, The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. A good book to have, by the way. Nowhere did it describe the feeling of dismay that a beekeeper feels when a young queen strikes out on her own just two and a half months into her reign. It does say, however, that a swarm can be caught and set up in a new hive.
This gives me hope. But it also says that unless one has access to a bucket truck, this is almost an impossibility if the swarm is that high. It says to let it go. It’s almost like watching your kid run away, bandana on a stick carrying all her worldly possessions perched on her shoulder.

So, what happens in a swarm anyway?

For all their seeming chaos, swarms are carefully planned and timed. Swarming is natural colony reproduction, similar to any maturation process in nature. Bear cubs, fox kits, and fledgling songbirds all leave the nest as they grow and begin to bump elbows, moving out to establish a territory and raise future generations. The main difference with honey bees is that these departing bees take mom with them.
As any good mom provides for her brood, however, she also takes care of the ones she leaves behind. Planning begins weeks before the exodus, driven by the queen herself. She stops laying eggs and slims down, which allows her to fly, something she hasn’t done since her mating flight. The last eggs she lays as queen of this colony are moved to queen cells, built by the workers. These queen cells are much bigger and easily seen at the outside edges of the frames. Here, eggs are fed exclusively royal jelly and nurtured into potential queens . It takes 16 days for queen eggs to develop to maturity.

Meanwhile, other workers consume vast amounts of honey for their trip. Just before these queens hatch, the original queen and the bees that have been designated the adventurers exit the colony in a great buzzing rush, and gather on a nearby surface, with the queen safely in the middle of this mass of bees. And they wait. For up to 48 hours, scouts explore the area for potential nest sites. At some point, consensus is reached and the swarm takes off for its new home, looking more like a comet than a ball now, a graceful tail of bees bringing up the rear.
Back at the original colony the new queens emerge. Any more than one queen is always one too many. The first queen to emerge will kill the others and begin her reign, taking some time to mature, fly out on her mating venture, and then begin egg-laying. Three weeks after a swarm, the colony is back to humming in the key of B.

Swarm Prevention

This is a natural process, though beekeepers like to manage it mostly because they don’t like losing half their bees on a regular basis. Here are some tips to keep your bees happy homebodies.

• Make sure the colony always has enough room to grow. This means adding space to their home. Early. The queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. That’s a lot of kids filling up those frames. Give them room! And though spring the most likely time for swarms, it can happen anytime in the growing season, and later is usually riskier for the hive because they don’t have as much time to rebuild honey stores for the winter months. Bees always move up, so as the top hive boxes become filled with honey and brood, set another box on top to give them some breathing room. This is also where they will put excess honey, honey that may be yours at season’s end.

• Check often for evidence of queen cells, every 10-14 days or so. You’ll find these larger cells along the bottom of the

Photo credit: Southwest Cork Bees

frames, about the size (and appearance) of a half a peanut in its shell. You might even be able to see the queen larvae if the timing is right. Active queen cells can be removed, interrupting this chain of events.

• Split your colony. Making a split is essentially controlled swarming managed by beekeepers. The main difference here is that the original queen stays with colony and the new colony is given a new queen. As beekeepers, we like things tidy and organized so this is done on the beekeeper’s schedule, not the queen’s schedule.

Look soon for a post on how to split a hive.
Happy beekeeping!

It took two days for the swarm up in the trees to come to agreement on where they would make their new home. They took off in a buzzing rush, queen safely tucked in the middle, most likely for a hollow in a tree somewhere in the woods. All I could do was watch and wish them well.

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