“The Swarm” was a 1978 movie with an all-star cast about a swarm of killer bees out to destroy humanity. This classic B-movie is the epitome of most peoples understanding of honey bee behavior and swarming.
I have heard countless tales of people scared silly over a swarm of bees, when actually a swarm is “one of the most beautiful sights” as L.L. Langstroth in “The Hive and the Honey-Bee” The Classic Beekeeper’s Manual.
Swarming is merely a natural tendency for multiplication. I try to manipulate the bees hive as much as possible to discourage swarming for my own benefit of splitting (which is merely artificial swarming), however, on occasion I will let a swarm exist and fly off. I believe it is somewhat my duty to help to restore the feral bee populations here in my area.
The Basics of Swarming:
As the days begin to lengthen (longer photoperiod), the weather warms (Higher GDD Accumulation), and flowers start to bloom producing nectar and pollen, the queen kicks reproduction into high gear. She can lay as many as 2,000 eggs per day! Over time, the population in the hive begins to grow.
Homeostasis in the hive is maintained by the queen producing queen substance as a mandibular gland secretion. This queen substance has many functions, but the main one is to let the other bees in the colony know the queen is alive and doing fine. She transmits this substance throughout the hive via attendant bees. The attendant bees groom the queen, and in the process have the queen substance pheromone rubbed on their bodies. Then they move through the hive interacting with other bees, and the scent continues to get transmitted.
As long as this scent is resident in the hive, the instinct to initiate rearing another queen is inhibited. however, once the population of the hive increases, the pheromone is “diluted” down by the mere quantity of bees. Once the bees notice there is not as much pheromone, they begin to construct queen cells. The queen, upon noticing the diminishing scent and the addition of queen cups will lay fertilized eggs in the cups.
At this point, the hive is typically over populated. Once the new queens (they will start several. I have seen 12 before in a large hive!) are in capped cells, the bees get ready for the move. The bees will feed the queen less and she will begin to loose weight. She may loose 1/3 of her body weight. She will also reduce her egg laying rate.
The worker bees begin to fatten up by gorging on honey to get ready to move. They will need the honey to produce wax and rear young. The swarm can contain up to 70% of the hive. There is no specific age joining the swarm, it is a mix of bees from 4 days to 23 days old. Drones will join in the swarm as well.
The swarm will fly off to a temporary site like a tree branch. Here the swarm will wait while scout bees look for a suitable housing location. The worker pheromone keeps the group together. The cluster has older bees on the outside and the younger bees on the inside. Once all the scout bees have decided on a location, the cluster flies off to that spot to begin building comb. After comb building, the queen returns to laying and the hive gets back to normal.
After the primary swarm, there may be afterswarms. These are smaller swarms that may leave with a virgin queen, but typically the first queen to emerge from the queen cells kills the other queens before they hatch.
After the remaining queen is properly mated, the parent hive begins to get back to its normal routine.
Remember, swarming is a different behavior than absconding. While swarming is a natural reproductive process of the hive, absconding is where the bees find the current hive unsuitable, and leave to find another nesting site.
First off, the type of bee has a lot to do with it. Carniolan bees also have a much high tendency to swarm than Italian bees. Russian bees are swarm crazy. They always keep a queen in the incubator. I have heard that Russian bees will swarm in the rain! Then there are African bees. They swarm a lot (not that any of us are keeping African bees in our backyard).
A popular technique is called checkerboarding. This is in advance of swarming. You go into the honey super above the brood nest, and take out every other frame of honey, and replace them with empty frames for brood rearing. This tricks the bees into thinking they do not have enough reserves to swarm, and it also tells the queen there is plenty of brood space available.
I like to use swarm season as a time of increase. You can split the hives easily during this time. Split up the frames of brood, honey, and pollen between the parent box, and a new box. Then shake about half of the bees into the box (if you do this during the middle of the day, you will get primarily nurse bees). Make sure you have located and caged the queen before you start. You will want to move the old queen with the new box. Be sure to remove any queen cells in the new box. Now you can take the old box, and leave the queen cells intact to let it increase naturally, or you can remove the queen cells and add a queen if you have purchased one or raised some yourself.
Another management technique is just to catch the swarm. I put out 5-frame nuc boxes filled with drawn comb, and I rub a little lemongrass oil on them. This is a very effective technique. I catch a lot of swarms from my other hives this way.
You can also build swarm traps to catch other “feral” swarms. There are a multitude of swarm trap plans on the internet. I have tried about all of them. Here is a picture of one I tried out of cow pots. It works, but I prefer to make them out of 5 frame nuc boxes with entrance discs on the front so they are easy to close up when I am ready to move it after catching the swarm.
Swarms are typically feedback that you are doing everything correctly.
Also, bees in a swarm are typically docile (even African bees). They do not want to take a chance on loosing a single bee, so they typically will not sting. This makes them easy to catch, however, they are hard to hold onto sometimes.