Swarm behavior in Honey Bees means they are looking for a new home. While the experience of watching a swarm on the move can be a little overwhelming, honey bees are less defensive and less likely to sting during the move.
There are two primary reasons why a colony of honey bees is on the lookout for a new home. The first reason is bee colony reproduction and the second is that their current hive has become inhospitable.
Bee Colony Reproduction
A couple of honey bees can’t just run off and start a new colony of their own. A successful colony needs a mated queen along with a healthy group of workers to support her. This requires a strong colony of bees and lots of preparation.
Honey bee colonies tend to reproduce in the mid to late spring. When the weather warms up and the flowers start to bloom, honey bees get to work. The queen starts to lay eggs more actively to build up the number of workers in the colony. The workers, in turn, get busy gathering nectar and pollen to feed the growing colony.
As the colony build up in the spring, they eventually start to get crowded. If the queen is healthy and actively laying eggs, the hive will soon be full of worker bees. They will soon fill up all the available comb with pollen and nectar and reach the limits of what their existing hive can hold. When this happens, it’s time for the colony to split.
The workers will begin preparing special queen cells on the brood comb where the queen will lay the eggs that will grow to be new queens.
Next, the existing queen (it is usually the existing queen who leaves) and about half of the workers will move out to start a new colony. The process begins with a group of scout bees flying out to look for potential new homes. The workers who are moving out will gorge themselves on honey and build up their energy reserves. The queen will do the opposite and slim down so that she will be able to fly.
Next the queen and the well fed workers will leave the hive. They will fly out to a location close by and cluster together with the queen protected in the middle. They will often cluster in the branches of a tree, but can end up in unusual places. Scouts will continue to zero in on the best new location to move into.
This cluster of bees outside the hive is only temporary. They will stay for a few hours, or a few days depending on the weather and how quickly they locate an acceptable new home. That process is fascinating. The scouts will search around and inspect a potential home. Then, they fly back to the group and communicate what they found through something called the ‘waggle dance.’ The more aggressively they waggle, the better the place they found for a new home. Other scouts will follow them back to this potential home and inspect it for themselves before reporting back to the group.
When a persuasive enough group of scouts convinces the group to move, they leave in a giant swarm and head to their new home.
Back at the old hive, the new queen is born, runs around killing all her rivals, and then heads of on a mating flight to find some drones. Once she has successfully mated she heads back into the hive and carries on the work of the former queen.
Bee Hive Abandonment
When bees abandon a hive the process is called absconding. Absconding is similar to swarming, but every bee leaves the hive. This means any honey, pollen, or comb in the hive is lost and the colony has to start over. The only reason honey bees do this is because they feel threatened.
One reason a colony might feel threatened is if their hive is overwhelmed by pests or predators like ants, hive beetles, yellow jackets, or wax moths. When the place gets over run, they start fresh.
Another big reason they leave is harassment. Sometimes large animals (or neighborhood miscreants) mess with the hive. Bad beekeeping is another source of harassment. If you spend too much time opening the hive and inspecting the bees, or cause lots of damage to the hive during inspections, they might just get sick of you and move on.
That Time I Drove Away A Hive Of Bees
I’ve caused a colony to abscond before. I did a swarm removal for a family where the bees had gotten up in the walls of the house but not built out any comb yet. I was able to capture a large number of workers, but couldn’t get the queen to come out. So, I took a frame of brood and eggs from another hive and placed it, and the workers I captured, into a new hive.
The bees got to work right away building emergency queen cells to replace their missing queen. They also started building up the hive and tending to the rest of the brood on frame of comb I took from a strong hive.
As the new queens grew and hatched, the workers started building all sorts of crazy comb in the hive (why that happened is a long story.) I should have left them alone until the new queen was laying eggs and the had built up some stores, but I got impatient. Once that transplanted frame was clear of brood I wanted to get it out before they started using it again (it didn’t fit properly in the box.) So, I opened up the hive, pulled out the frame, and messed up some of that new comb the girls had been building.
The bees did not like my intervention one bit.
That evening the bees started clustering up outside the hive and sending out scouts. The next day they were gone.
Unlike most livestock that people tend, bees can leave if they don’t like how they’re being treated. That is one of the things about beekeeping that I find very satisfying.
I’ve made a number of changes to the way I manage my bees because of that experience.
What To Do If You See A Swarm?
Step one, don’t panic! Remember, bees are not aggressive when they are swarming. They are gorged on honey and have no resources to protect except their queen. They also won’t be staying long (unless they’ve moved into a wall cavity.) The main thing you need to do is leave them alone.
Watch For Scouts
The one caveat to leaving the bees alone is to watch for scouts. If you see a handful of bees inspecting structures around your property, take action. Seal up any holes you see them entering. You can also spray some cheap almond extract into the opening first (bees don’t like the smell) to keep them from choosing that spot for their new home. Once bees move into a wall or soffit and start building a hive, you’ll have a major project involved in removing them properly.
Capture the Swarm
If you are ready to start beekeeping and have an empty hive, get out there and capture the swarm. Put on your bee suit, grab a cardboard box and a brush, and shake or brush the bees into the box.
Once the bees are in the box, close the lid and take them to your hive. Open up the hive and shake the bees into it. Close the hive and leave the box in front so any remaining bees can find their way into the hive.
If you got the queen, the bees will settle in pretty quickly and start building comb and gathering pollen, nectar, and propolis. Congratulations, you are a beekeeper!
Contact A Beekeeper
If you aren’t ready to become a beekeeper just yet, contact a local beekeeper and alert them of the swarm. Most areas have beekeeper associations and lots of Facebook pages for active beekeepers. They also offer swarm capture services on websites like Craigslist.
Most beekeepers will capture a swarm for free. If they have to remove bees from a structure, expect to pay for their time and effort. Structural removals are hard work (ask me how I know!)