Recognizing and Avoiding Swarms - PerfectBee (2023)

Introduction

A swarm is one of the most dramatic and amazing shows of nature that anyone, beekeeper or not, can witness. Swarming is a natural process through which honeybees reproduce and pass along genes to the next generation. Though often viewed as counter-productive for the beekeeper, if honey is the goal, it is in fact a sign that the colony is healthy and flourishing. Getting to the pointwhere a swarm is necessary is costly for bees and weak colonies do not have the resources to cast swarms.

A colony prepares to swarm when it is running out of room in the hive, when there is an abundance of food contained within the hive and when the colony has a high number of workers. It is then that the colony divides and casts a swarm after preparing and capping new queen cells (referred to as swarm cells).

The beekeeper will find the swarm cells locatedalong the bottom of frames in a Langstroth hive. The portion of the colony that leaves the hive will contain the queen and about half of the workers from the original colony.

After leaving the hive, the bees will usually land nearby and form a cluster. It is this cluster that the casual observer often discovers as a swarm. The swarm can be located on anything from fire hydrants and light poles to benches and buildings, but is often found in trees where previous swarms have landed.

The bees that form the cluster are engorged with honey and usually docile. The cluster contains numerous workers of prime wax-producing age (12 to 18 days) to prepare for drawing comb at the new location.

After the cluster forms, scout bees search for a new home. When they return, they perform a dance on the cluster to communicate not only the direction of the new home but also details about the new residence itself.

Just what are scout bees looking for in a new home?

Research shows they are looking for a cavity approximately 1.5 cubic feet in size, give or take. Entrances of approximately one and a quarter inch are preferred.

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After a period of a few hours to a few days the bees decide which location appears to have the best qualitiesand the swarm leaves for its new home.

Absconding

Occasionally a new beekeeper might confuse a swarm with absconding. Under certain conditions, the entire colony will abandon its home. This is known as absconding and is distinct from swarming.

When this happens, brood and honey stores are often left behind and no new queens are produced to maintain a colony at the original site. It’s not always known why a colony absconds, but it normally relates to disturbances, disease or mites, poor ventilation, animals (skunks, bears, etc) or a combination of things that contribute to making it an undesirable site.

Swarm Preparation

A beekeeper inspecting his/her hive will learn to recognize the signsof a colony preparing to swarm. Often a rapid buildup of thepopulation is noted, including drones, and occurs about the same time as queen cups are constructed along the bottom of frames.

How does the queen prepare for a swarm?

The brood nest will have become constricted as the colony runs out of room for both brood and honey. A little later the queen’s egg-laying tapers off and she reduces weight so she can fly.

On the first calm and sunny day, after the new queen cells have been capped, the bees will assemble at the hive entrance and the swarm will be cast.

Swarm Management

Some beekeepers, under the guise of “natural beekeeping” allow their colonies to swarm simply because it is the natural thing for bees to do. Remember, a swarm is not a bad thing, in terms of nature and the survival of bees.Indeed, itisgenerallya "show of strength" andcertainlyanatural process.

Allowing bees to swarm from colonies in the countryside is one thing, but it does present issues the urban beekeeperwill want to keep in mind.

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The first thing to consider is that approximately just one in six swarms survive. If a person is trying to “help the bees” via backyard beekeeping, they may be better off to split the colony and increase to two hives.

Second, with the increased interest in beekeeping, the number of colonies being kept within city limits grows every year. Neighbors of urban beekeepers are not always pleased to find a cloud of bees flying through their backyards and sometimes call authorities to complain about the swarms!

Compounding the issue is where the swarm might make its new home. Bees searching for a place to set up housekeeping in town are likely to make their home in attics, walls, fireplaces or eves. Then the homeowner must pay for their removal and this again raises the likelihood of complaints and pressure from homeowners to shut down beekeeping in town.

Beekeepers are usually some of the nicest people you will encounter and want to be known as good neighborsas well. We also want to continue keeping bees in town as the bees often do well there. Keeping swarms under control in urban settings will go a long way towards being good neighbors and continuing to keep bees in town.

Swarm Prevention

The time for swarm prevention is during your spring inspections. At this time you will want to provide additional room , as required, to make sure the colony does not get congested. You can do this by adding new frames (or bars in a top bar) to enlarge the brood chamber and provide more storage space for the growing colony. In a Langstroth hive, you can add an extra box to create more space.

You may also want to increase ventilation by opening your screened bottom board (just a bit, if night time temperatures remain cool) or propping up the inner cover slightly. Relieving the feeling of congestion by creating more space and improving ventilation will go a long way towards preventing the colony from swarming.

Another manipulation that will assist the beekeeper in controlling the swarm impulse is reversing. Over the course of the winter, the colony and its queen tend tomove upward through the hive. In the spring the beekeeper is likely to find his/her bees living in the upper hive body. The queen willbe inclined to stay there and not move down, confining the brood space to the upper part of the hive.

The reversing process is simple. Take an extra bottom board with you to the bee yard and place it next to the hive. If the hive is made up of three hive bodies, take the uppermost hive body and place it on the spare bottom board. Then remove the second hive body and place it on top of the first hive body you justplaced on the spare bottom board. Now remove what was the bottom hive body of the original hive and place it on the top of the reversed hive bodies.

You have just reversed the hive and created a lot more space while doing so.

If the hive only comprises two boxes, simply reverse them by placing the top hive body onto the spare bottom board, followed by the bottom hive body.

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If you have more than one hive, clean off the bottom board left over from the first hive and move on to your next colony.

If the colony is large and has filled out seven or eight frames in the bottom hive body, you can also “prime” the hive body above it by pulling a couple of frames of brood from the outside edges of the brood nest and moving them to the box above. You should only do this if temperatures are mild, as cold night-time temperatures will cause the bees to tightly cluster which may cause the nurse bees to abandon the brood you pulled up into the next box. That brood will then likely be lost in the cold temperatures.

Splitting a Hive

Sometimes a beekeeper won’t notice a colony is preparing to swarm until it’s too late. It happens to all of us at some point. You will read in various places that removing the queen cells can help stop a colony from swarming, but once a colony has decided to swarm there is little a beekeeping can do.

So what’s the answer?

Create an artificial swarm.

Find the queen, remove the frame (or comb in a top bar hive) she is on and place her in a new hive. Then add a frame of brood and a frame of stores to the new hive.

Bingo! You now have a new hive, through a "split". Depending on the age of the queen you may need to replace her at a later date, but for now, you have stopped the original hive from swarming.

The colony will soon recognize that is is queenless. Later, when the new queens emerge, the colony will be more than happy to have a queen back in their midst and will not swarm. You, the beekeeper, have just prevented your colony from swarming and you’ve added a new colony to your apiary.

It also provides a brood break, which helps to control mites. If you do not want the additional colony, there will always be plenty of folks happy to buy it from you. Just be sure to advise them that the new, smaller hive contains an older queen.

A Valuable Tool

It’s perfectly natural for bees to swarm and an amazing site to behold. However, the urban beekeeper will want to keep in mind the potential for nearby citizens to complain to authorities about ending beekeeping in town.

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An accomplished beekeeper will learn the skills necessary to prevent swarming, by increasing ventilation and making sure the colony does not become congested. Learning how to make a split is also useful for managing hives for swarm prevention and for making new hives.

Swarming does not have to become a problem for the beekeeper and ultimately it is a sign of a very healthy colony.

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FAQs

How do you identify a swarm cell? ›

The primary difference used to determine if you have a swarm or supercedure cell is the location. Cells hanging in the middle of the frame are usually supercedure cells while cells hanging on the bottom of the frame are usually swarm cells.

How do you prevent swarms? ›

How to prevent swarming
  1. The most common and easiest practice for delaying a colony split is adding another box to the hive. ...
  2. Rotation (replacement with new, empty frames) of a few brood frames so the bees have to draw new comb can also help. ...
  3. Harvesting honey is an easy and delicious method to create room in the hive.

How do you tell if a beehive is going to swarm? ›

Check the bottom of frames between boxes for queen cells (a favourite spot they build them). REDUCTION IN ACTIVITY OR LETHARGIC. If your bees seem to have slowed down, they may be getting ready to swarm. Reduced activity can be a sign of swarming since they are not bringing as much into the hive to expand it.

What is the best way to know if a colony is ready to swarm? ›

In order of increasing significance, signs your colony is about to swarm are as follows: An abundance of food stored in the hive, with little space for more. A lack of comb space for brood rearing. A high worker and drone population and/or 'idle' worker bees.

How do you catch a swarm? ›

Generally, the best way to get a swarm in your box is to lower them in. This scenario is usually possible when the bees are hanging from a small branch. You simply clip (cut) the branch and lower it into your brood box. Make sure to leave the frames in and place the swarm on top of them.

When should you inspect a swarm? ›

(Editors Note: The Beekeepers Handbook recommends that you wait at least 7 – 10 days before checking on a new swarm. Harry Vanderpool recommends extending that to 2 weeks. Until the queen starts laying eggs, there is a danger that the swarm will abscond particularly if they are disturbed.

What are the two main reasons a colony swarms? ›

Causes of Swarming

The population has grown too large and the hive is too small to accommodate all the bees. There's not enough room to build more honey stores. The temperature is too hot.

How do you handle a swarm of bees? ›

Swarm Management
  1. Make an early spring split. Make sure there are eggs in both sides of the new split and the old colony if they need to raise their own queen.
  2. Add additional supers, providing more room for the colony to expand. ...
  3. Apply a technique called checkerboarding which expands the brood nest area.

What does a swarm look like? ›

What is a honey bee swarm? What does a swarm look like ... - YouTube

Does bearding mean swarming? ›

Bearding is when bees hang outside the hive, typically in the late afternoon or at night. They do this to reduce the number of bees inside and help cool down their hive. Swarming typically happens as a natural means of reproduction and occurs when the colony has outgrown the hive.

How do bees act before they swarm? ›

In the week prior to swarming, Workers have fed their queen less food. She is slimmer and able to fly. When everything is right and all preparations completed, the colony is ready to swarm. On a warm day usually between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. the hive becomes very active.

Will adding a super prevent swarming? ›

Adding a super of comb gives your bees instant room to deposit nectar outside of the brood nest. If they don't have a super or two, all that nectar crowds the cells in the brood nest and the queen doesn't find any empty cells to lay eggs in. This is considered one of the main causes of swarming.

How can you tell a bee swarm? ›

How To Tell If Bees Are Ready To Swarm - YouTube

What to do when you find swarm cells? ›

What to do if you find swarm cells in your hive and do not want to make a split? Yes, you can cut out the swarm cells – as long as you know the old queen is still present. However, this is only a stopgap measure and is labor intensive. If you miss even 1 cell, the colony can still swarm.

Will a queen excluder prevent swarming? ›

“Can I use the queen excluder to prevent swarming?” For the reasons listed above, a queen excluder cannot be used as a long-term solution to swarming. You may be able to forestall swarming for a few days, but if the colony is determined to swarm, it will.

How long will a swarm stay in one place? ›

Typically, swarms only stay in one place for a few hours or maybe a day, but some swarms may remain for several days.

Should you smoke a swarm? ›

Swarms have bee bellies full of honey and bees with nothing to defend so the use of smoke for settling seems pointless as they are likely to be very docile (unless caught out in the rain for a good while).

How do you collect a swarm on the ground? ›

Hold the box directly under the swarm and give a strong shake to the object on which the bees are congregated. This should dislodge the majority of the bees into the box; then quickly sweep the remaining bees into the box before setting the box on the sheet directly below the location of the swarm.

How often should I check for swarm cells? ›

Since finding swarm cells on the frame edges doesn't give you much advance warning, you must do these checks repeatedly, on short intervals. A five-day interval is a good target, leaving you a little margin for weather delays.

Will a swarm return to the hive? ›

If the queen for some reason does not join them, then they will all return to the hive from whence they came. This is unusual however. The queen usually emerges with the swarm and lands on the tree or bush along with the rest of the bees.

What happens to bees left behind after a swarm? ›

Sometimes Bees Get Left Behind After A Swarm

Confused, these straggler bees cluster on the branch or support where the swarm had located itself, where the scent of the queen is the strongest. Unfortunately they will likely die within a few days.

What is the main cause of swarming? ›

The main purpose behind the swarming is reproduction. Whenever a colony becomes too overcrowded in a nest, they have the natural instinct to swarm. The worker and drone bees are drawn to a pheromone that the queen bee releases and the colony seeks out a new place to nest that will better suit the growing population.

What is called swarming? ›

: to move or assemble in a crowd : throng. : to hover about in the manner of a bee in a swarm. 3. : to contain a swarm : teem. swarming with bugs.

Does splitting a hive prevent swarming? ›

Splitting one colony into two (or more) is a great way to increase your hive numbers, and also a good way to prevent swarming. Splitting in spring helps satisfy your bees' instinct to swarm while giving you control over the fates and locations of both the old and new colonies.

How far will a swarm of bees travel? ›

Up to six miles away.

How late in the year will bees swarm? ›

Swarm season is usually expected during late Spring, this is between April and May. This is the time of the year when bees reproduce and discover new places to build their hives. You will notice it a swarm when you see thousands of bees hovering on trees and houses looking for a new place to start fresh.

How do commercial beekeepers stop swarming? ›

A nuc is essentially a controlled swarm, and it is the technique most often used by commercial beekeepers to control swarming. The idea is simple: 2–4 frames of bees and brood can be removed from strong colonies and used to create new colonies.

What time of day do bees come out? ›

What Time of Day Are Bees Most Active? So generally speaking honey bees most active time a day is going to be in the early afternoon, with activity starting somewhere in the morning, and stopping a bit before sunset. In warmer months the amount of time they're out of the hive will be longer than in colder months.

How long does it take a swarm to start laying? ›

But don't wait beyond that time to look for the eggs (finding eggs signifies the presence of a queen). After the swarm, it took 6 to 8 days for the queen cell to open and a new queen to emerge. Then allow about 3 days for her to mate. When she returns, she will start laying eggs in about 3 days.

How do you tell if bees are swarming or bearding? ›

Swarming usually occurs from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, while bearding may occur late in the afternoon into the evening. Generally, bearding bees don't do back inside until the temperature drops—which may be quite late in the day.

Do bees swarm at night? ›

A swarm of bees at night is very unlikely. Honey bees are diurnal, meaning they only actively forage during daylight. Most bees can't fly at night. They can crawl!

How long do bees swarm for? ›

Once they find suitable lodging, the swarm will leave. This is usually in less than two days and sometimes in just a few hours. If you happen to come across a honeybee swarm in garden sites or other area near the home, stay away from the swarm. While honeybees are not normally aggressive, they may sting when swarming.

Will bees swarm in the rain? ›

Most swarming activity takes place from April through May. Bees don't swarm during the rain, so this year we will most likely see the timeframe pushed back a few weeks. Honey bees, Apis mellifera, swarm for one of two reasons.

What is the difference between swarming and absconding? ›

B)

Absconding is the term used when a colony of honey bees leaves its home in search of another. It is not the same as swarming. When a colony absconds, however, the entire colony leaves together and finds a new home.

Why do bees randomly swarm? ›

Honey bees, Apis mellifera, swarm for one of two reasons. Either the hive has become too crowded so they split into two groups (or more), with one group remaining in the existing hive. Or they abscond.

What to do after a hive has swarmed? ›

One of the best strategies in this situation is to select a few frames with cells and make up one or more nucs with them. Make sure there are enough bees to get these little splits off to a good start. If needed, you can add some frames from another hive to make sure the nuc is strong enough.

Is it OK to let your bees swarm? ›

Swarm Management

Some beekeepers, under the guise of “natural beekeeping” allow their colonies to swarm simply because it is the natural thing for bees to do. Remember, a swarm is not a bad thing, in terms of nature and the survival of bees.

How do you manage a hive after it has swarmed? ›

Remove frames that are full of honey and replace them with empty frames so that your bees can continue drawing comb and your queen can continue laying eggs. Position your hive near natural shade and a water supply so that they have a reprieve from the summer heat. Remove swarm cells.

What to do if you find a swarm cell? ›

What to do if you find swarm cells in your hive and do not want to make a split? Yes, you can cut out the swarm cells – as long as you know the old queen is still present. However, this is only a stopgap measure and is labor intensive. If you miss even 1 cell, the colony can still swarm.

What is the difference between a swarm cell and a Supersedure cell? ›

If two brood boxes are used, swarm cells will generally be found hanging from the lower edges of the upper brood box frames, hanging down between the two boxes. Swarm cells are produced to create an additional queen, whereas supersedure cells are created to replace a dead or failing queen.

What is the difference between a queen cell and a swarm cell? ›

Now, as I mentioned above, a cell hanging off the middle (or face) of a comb is usually a supersedure or “emergency” queen cell. A cell hanging off the bottom or side of a comb is usually a swarm cell.

What is swarm cells in biology? ›

Definition of 'swarm cell'

1. an asexual spore of some algae and fungi that moves by means of flagella. 2. one of several spores produced in a saclike body (sporocyst) by some parasitic protozoans.

How often should I check for swarm cells? ›

Since finding swarm cells on the frame edges doesn't give you much advance warning, you must do these checks repeatedly, on short intervals. A five-day interval is a good target, leaving you a little margin for weather delays.

How long will a swarm stay in a tree? ›

A swarm of bees stays in a tree for anything from a few hours up to 24 hours. When they come to rest on a tree, they will eventually go away on their own. While the queen is resting, scout bees explore the area to find a new home.

Will a swarm return to the hive? ›

If the queen for some reason does not join them, then they will all return to the hive from whence they came. This is unusual however. The queen usually emerges with the swarm and lands on the tree or bush along with the rest of the bees.

How do you separate a hive from a swarm cell? ›

Using swarm cells to split a bee hive. - YouTube

Do swarm cells make good queens? ›

By contrast, swarm cells produce a new queen to take the place of the one preparing to leave the hive. Typically, the bees produce many swarm cells and the strongest of these new queens take over the production of new brood for the colony.

How long does a swarm cell take to hatch? ›

The queens developing in the swarm cells in the old hive are attended by half of the workers that did not leave with the swarm. After 16 days, the new queens begin to emerge.

Does a queen bee stop laying before swarming? ›

A laying queen is too heavy to fly long distances. Therefore, the workers will stop feeding her before the anticipated swarm date and the queen will stop laying eggs. Swarming creates an interruption in the brood cycle of the original colony.

Will a hive swarm without a queen? ›

Will bees swarm without a queen? The short answer is no, a swarm contains thousands or even tens of thousands of worker bees and one queen. But on very rare occasions it is possible to come across a queenless swarm, or what appears to be a swarm without a queen.

How do you find the queen bee in a swarm? ›

Move as much of the swarm cluster into the box as you can. The queen will be near the center of the cluster.

What does swarming mean in microbiology? ›

Many bacteria simultaneously grow and spread rapidly over a surface that supplies them with nutrient. Called 'swarming', this pattern of movement directs new cells to the edge of the colony. Swarming reduces competition between cells for nutrients, speeding growth.

How do bacteria swarm? ›

Figure 1: Bacteria move by a range of mechanisms.

Swarming is the multicellular movement of bacteria across a surface and is powered by rotating helical flagella. Swimming is the movement of individual bacteria in liquid, also powered by rotating flagella.

What is swarming motility test? ›

Swarming motility is the coordinated group movement of bacterial cells that are propelled by their flagella through thin liquid films on surfaces1. It is typically studied in laboratories using semi-solid plate assays containing 0.4%-0.8% (wt/vol) agar1.

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