Swarm Basics, Part 1 - American Bee Journal (2023)

Swarm Basics, Part 1 - American Bee Journal (1)

If you have been a beekeeper for even a couple of seasons you will recognize swarming is a frequent topic discussed in the bee magazines. Much has been written about swarming. Despite all the information, swarming remains one of the big challenges to beekeepers.

Swarming means different things to different people. L.L. Langstroth called swarming a “most beautiful sight.” The general public often finds a swarm a terrifying sight. For beekeepers, swarms represent potential new colonies. In our culture of bees, swarms at one time were welcomed as a means to replace harvested hives. Today they can be considered a means of natural mite control by the bees and also a return to more “natural” beekeeping.

The appearance of a bee swarm has been expressed in history as a portent of both good and bad news. Bees that swarm excessively, such as the Africanized bees, represent a stinging hazard to be avoided by the general public and individuals far from medical assistance. Such swarms on the other hand however are a valuable resource for rural subsistence farmers, who capture swarms, or note where swarms establish nests, to return later to rob honey.

Bee swarms have halted airplane departures and auto traffic, delayed sporting events, and terrorized the United States in the book and movie “The Swarm” (1978). Although misunderstood, swarms are only temporary, usually gentle, and not a threat if simply left alone, even in the defensive Africanized bee.

Replacing the colony queen

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Bee colonies normally have a single queen with lots of worker bees to do all the work. With just one female reproductive in a bee colony, there is a special procedure to replace the mated queen when it becomes necessary. Replacement of a queen by another queen is a process termed supersedure. Replacement of the queen with colony division and creation of another colony is swarming. The behaviors start similarly but their outcome is quite different.

A third means of replacing a queen, emergency queen rearing, is practiced if the queen dies suddenly, is removed by a beekeeper or is somehow injured or lost from her colony (such as being dropped from a frame being examined). More directly, beekeepers rear replacement queens under emergency conditions. The best reared queens, whatever the process, swarm less even in colonies with a densely crowded population in the brood-rearing area and colony conditions of food abundance, both as stored reserves and daily availability to foragers (or for colonies being fed by the beekeeper).

Note: Wyatt Mangum in December’s American Bee Journal suggests a fourth method of replacement of a colony queen via the process of usurpation. More common in Africanized bees, he has documented it in his Virginia apiary. Thelytoky, as seen most commonly in Cape honey bee. populations, could be listed as a fifth, albeit uncommon, method as well.

https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/cape_honey_bee.htm

Communication of swarming

Each worker bee needs to receive a certain level of queen substance. This social cohesive pheromone is distributed through food transmission. We might consider queen failure as a reduction in egg laying but queen inadequacy is apparently measured by the workers through chemical pheromones. Worker bees become restless in as little as one hour after removal of their queen. Replacement behaviors are seen within four hours.

A failing queen may be unable to produce sufficient amounts of queen substance or the pheromone is not distributed to enough workers. Either condition results in too little of the pheromone being fed back to the queen by the bees of her retinue. This feedback system of queen pheromone distribution is a vital communication that begins the behavior of swarming and supersedure.

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The first behavior change observable to the beekeeper is the laying of a fertilized egg in a queen cup. .Queen cups are special cup-like, vertically-opening beeswax precursors of queen cells. They are always present in a bee colony, though their numbers are greatest, and the workers maintain them in prime condition, in the spring months. If queen cups are removed, bees replace them more quickly during the spring than at other times of the year.

Queen cups are often lighter in color than surrounding drawn comb, indicating new beeswax is used to build them. They are normally built at the lower margin of beeswax comb along the bottom bar of frames in a beekeeper’s hive, or in spaces where the beeswax comb terminates, as when comb is damaged.

The queen herself places a fertilized egg in a queen cup. Worker bees can remove eggs from queen cups (as well as from horizontal worker and drone cells). It is controversial as to whether workers can transfer eggs into queen cups or transfer eggs from one worker cell to another. Workers regularly cannibalize eggs laid by the queen.

The vertical orientation of a queen cell stimulates the bees to feed royal jelly to the larva that develops from the fertilized egg. The larva is in no danger of falling out as surface tension of the royal jelly holds it in place. Queens can, in fact, develop normally in a horizontal orientation (or workers in a vertical position) if experimentally reared outside a colony. Orientation is yet another of the critical communications in the dark, smelly beehive.

An occupied queen cup is called a queen cell. Queen cells are repeatedly aborted in a bee colony. Many more cells are started than are successfully completed. Why eggs might be removed from cups once laid by the queen is unknown. Once developed and the cell is elongated into the more familiar-appearing queen cell, the chances of cell abortion are reduced. By chewing a hole in the side of the cell, and perhaps stinging the occupant of the cell, the queen causes the workers to remove a developing queen pupa. Why bees start and then stop raising queens and the extent of such behavior is not known.

Swarm basics

Swarming begins with communication. Bees prepare to leave and scouts look for a new home before we are able to detect their preparations. The final result, bees clustered at a bivouac, is called the swarm ; the behaviors of preparation and final departure are termed swarming.

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The first swarm is termed the prime swarm. A swarming colony may produce more than one swarm. The others are termed afterswarms. Sometimes, despite all the preparations, swarming is not successful and the departed population returns, often to try to swarm again. Eventually the swarming colony stops rearing queens, one virgin queen becomes the monarch and the swarming colony returns to a normal queenright existence.

A swarm issuing from a hive contains 41-80% of the adult workers of the swarming colony (average 66%). The first swarm to leave (primary swarm) usually contains only the old mated queen but it may also contain virgin queens if weather conditions delay initial swarm departure. Afterswarms often contain several virgin queens (up to 20 in one instance) with fewer worker bees. Virgins coexist in afterswarms without fighting, until they reach their new homesite, when they almost immediately fight until one remains.

Swarms as small as 2,400 bees to as large as 41,000 individuals have been reported. Mean populations were 11,800 bees in one study and calculated at 14,000 bees in another.

Events leading to swarming

Swarming is not a random happenstance. It is difficult but possible to observe and measure some of the events that occur before the bees depart their colony. We assume that swarming preparations begin when the queen lays fertilized eggs in the vertically-oriented queen cups. However, this change in the queen’s behavior is done only in response to stimuli. Factors we can observe include presence of drones, a growing colony and resources being brought in. The queen lays eggs in queen cups over more than one day, selecting queen cups scattered at various locations in the brood area.

Worker bees do not ‘”force” the queen to lay eggs in cups, nor do they later protect the queen cells from her destruction. As in supersedure, the same egg-laying queen can return later to developing queen cells to halt queen rearing.

As queen cells develop, it is possible to observe several additional events in preparation for swarming. The queen begins to lose weight in her abdomen. Workers begin to treat the queen more roughly, including the behavior of vibrating the queen. A queen needs to lose one-third to as much as half of her body weight if she is going to be successful in departing in the swarm. The queen continues egg-laying behavior but at a reduced rate during her forced weight loss, which sometimes is evident by carefully looking in the brood frames.

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Worker bees meanwhile are gaining weight because they tend to gorge with honey when preparing to swarm. This behavior starts up to ten days before the swarm issues. Engorgement helps ensure a food reserve for the swarm in transit to a new home since there is little foraging by the bees from the cluster location. As swarming day comes closer, scout bees begin to leave the parent colony to scout for a new nest site.

Swarm emergence

There is a definite spring seasonality to swarming based on local environment conditions. The vast majority (~75%) of colonies swarm within a six-week period of time in mid-spring. Swarms usually emerge in the middle of the day (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) on days suitable for flight. Emergence may appear to occur in waves but if you check weather data you will likely see a period of cold, windy, rainy weather without emergence and then a number of swarms emerging once the weather returns to dry, sunny days. Swarms may leave as soon as developing queen cells are capped but usually the primary swarm leaves a day or so ahead of virgin queen emergence.

The process of leaving home is rapid, lasting only 10-15 minutes from emergence to when the bee swarm is fully clustered at a temporary bivouac site. Prior to emergence, bees become quiet in the hive and foraging is reduced. The signal to leave is the buzz run or breaking dance. The queen, who by this time has lost considerable weight, may be pushed toward the entrance by her worker bees.

There is no apparent determination of which bees will exit with a swarm or of those that will stay. Bees of all ages join a swarm. The leaving bees pile out the entrance and join in a circular flight motion, keeping this formation as they move away from the parent hive.

The majority of swarms cluster within three meters (ten feet) of the ground; a few cluster on the ground itself while others may form at higher locations. Those that go to the highest cluster sites are most often the ….

FAQs

Will a queen excluder prevent swarming? ›

Will a queen excluder prevent swarming? Like removing queen cells, placing a queen excluder at the bottom of the brood box or along the entrance won't prevent, nor stop, a colony's urge to swarm, but can similarly give you some time to perform a split soon.

What is the shook swarm method? ›

Shook swarms are artificial swarms made by shaking all of the adult bees in a colony into a newly cleaned hive that is filled with frames of foundation and, ideally, some clean (Sterilised), drawn comb.

Does bee swarm have drones? ›

Nothing signals the approach of swarm season more reliably than the appearance of drones in the apiary. The drones are the males in the hive and a colony won't swarm if the new queen has no way to mate, but once drones are abundant, mating can occur and a populous colony may decide to split and form a swarm.

How do you shake a swarm into a box? ›

Dislodge the bees.

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.

Why you shouldn't use a queen excluder? ›

Excluders are expensive and can be easily damaged. Bees tend to build burr comb on excluders resulting in reduced airflow and overheating in hot weather. Badly overheated colonies can die. Drones can become trapped above queen excluders if brood is lifted up into the honey super.

Are metal or plastic queen excluders better? ›

Metal queen excluders are the industry standard and have been in use for a long time. Quality made wire queen excluders last for years. Some will have a wooden frame and others do not. However, plastic ones are inexpensive and a good option if you have a lot of hives or want to have some extras on hand.

How do you make a fake swarm? ›

Create An Artificial Swarm
  1. Smoke Hive A.
  2. Move Hive A and replace with Hive B. ...
  3. Remove 2-3 frames from the centre of Hive B.
  4. Open Hive A and find the Queen (take your time)
  5. Take the frame with the Queen and place it in Hive B.
  6. Find 2-3 frames with sealed brood and bees and place in Hive B.
  7. Cut out any Queen cells from Hive B.

What is a Bailey comb change? ›

A Bailey Comb Change is one way of putting your bees on new comb at the start of the season once the colony starts to build up. By changing all the frames, you will remove all the pathogens that are present in the old wax.

Why are my bees killing the drones? ›

The bees may begin bearding on the outside of the hive in order to keep the brood nest cool enough. And since drones are a burden on colony resources, taking up space and eating honey, the workers just dispose of them.

What gender are bees? ›

The worker bees are female, but they do not breed. The queen bee is female and creates all the babies for the hive. The drone bees are male and do not have a sting. Bees communicate with each other about food sources using dances.

Do drones ever leave the hive? ›

Drones will leave the hive and fly in mating swarms where they release pheromones as a group to attract queen bees looking to mate. Drones who don't die in mating are evicted from the hive in the fall and left to starve and freeze. Why do Drones Equate Healthy Hive? Drones are a sign of a successful hive.

How long can I keep a swarm in a nuc box? ›

How long can bees stay in a nuc box? Bees can stay in a standard five-frame nuc typically between two to three weeks before filling it up. If the nucleus is made out of cardboard, is closed-off, and the weather temperature is high, they shouldn't stay in there for more than a few hours, as they can die from the heat.

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).

Can you put a swarm back in the same hive? ›

You can stack both the hive and the swarm side by side with queen excluder on top of each one. Then stack up the supers centered over both. You'll be able to keep both hives and get good honey for yourself as well.

Will bees draw out comb above a queen excluder? ›

Once you get them working on the other side of the excluder, yes, they will draw comb there. But if you give them no drawn comb above the excluder to start with, they often won't cross the excluder.

Do you leave supers on over winter? ›

Yes, you can leave a honey super or several on the hive over Winter. In fact, most beekeepers do have a super or two designated for use by the bees. The size of the box designated as the “food super” for the bees varies from one beekeeper to another and from one region to another.

How many brood boxes Should a hive have? ›

How many brood boxes should you have? The general consensus in most regions of the world is to use either one or two brood boxes. Using three or more means that you are probably doing your bees a disservice. In this case you would be better off splitting the large hive so you can get back to one or two brood boxes.

When should I put in the queen excluder? ›

The queen excluder should be placed in the hive above the first honey super. This should happen in the early Spring. The queen will begin to migrate to the bottom brood box once it begins to warm up. Before placing the queen excluder in the hive, be sure to find the queen and make sure she is below the queen excluder.

Do commercial beekeepers use queen excluders? ›

Many – perhaps most – commercial beekeepers do not use queen excluders, believing that by restricting the movement of the honeybees, the queen excluder inhibits the maximum production of honey. Old-timer beekeepers laughingly refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders”.

When should I add a honey super? ›

When the bee colony reaches a point when a 10 frame hive reaches 8 frames full of bees, that is when you will add another super. Use the 80% rule in adding each super. After the second super is full drawn out of comb, that is when you can end supplemental sugar water feeding.

Can bees fake swarm? ›

The artificial swarm

This is achieved by a couple of simple colony manipulations. These exploit the tendency of flying bees to return to the location of the hive they were reared in, or more accurately, the location of the hive from which they took their orientation flights. If you remember this it all makes sense.

What is a walk away split? ›

"Walk away split" is an American term for splitting a colony and leaving it to raise its own queen.

How do you split a swarm control? ›

Swarm Control Splits
  1. Prepare your “new” hive box.
  2. Find the queen in your parent hive.
  3. Clip or cage the queen temporarily.
  4. Divide resources as fairly as possible between the “new” and “original” box, leaving all swarm cells in the “original” hive box. (
25 May 2017

When should I replace my brood frame? ›

Towards the end of the bee keeping season frames that you wish to replace are moved to the ends of the brood chamber. During winter these frames become free of brood so in early spring, before the colony is expanding rapidly, they can be removed and replaced with drawn combs.

What do I do with old brood frames? ›

Rotating brood frames is considered good beekeeping practice for the health of the colony – it's recommended to cycle them out in a 2 to 5-year cycle. The start of spring is a great opportunity to swap out old brood frames with fresh ones, which can be easily done during a brood box inspection.

How do you deal with chalk brood? ›

Management practices which may reduce the effects of chalkbrood disease are:
  1. removing 'mummies' from bottom boards and around the entrance.
  2. destroying combs containing large numbers of 'mummies'
  3. supplying new combs.
  4. providing good ventilation in hives.
  5. adding young adult bees to hives.
28 Aug 2017

Do queens mate with their own drones? ›

Drones don't necessarily mate with their own queen, but instead, they gather outside the hive with other drones from neighboring colonies. It's like a mating meeting place. Drones collect in mating swarms up to a mile away from the hive. They swarm about 200 to 300 feet in the air.

Do drones mate with worker bees? ›

Drones are male bees and their sole purpose is to mate with the queen: they don't work, don't make honey and can't sting. Since a queen only needs to mate once, most of the drones won't even get the chance to fulfil their role. But worker bees keep them around, just in case a new queen needs mating.

Why do bees kick out the males? ›

They also don't do much in the hive as they wait to mate with a queen bee from another colony. That means they are eating resources and taking up space. When the colony starts getting ready for winter, the worker bees, all female, kick the drones out.

Do bees have 3 sexes? ›

There are three types of honey bee within every hive: workers, drones, and a queen. The workers and the queen are female. Queens are reproductive and are larger than the workers. The drones are male, have much larger compound eyes, and do not have stingers.

Why do bees follow me? ›

If a single bee is following you, it's probably because they're attracted to your clothes, scent or something sugary you are eating. They will eventually leave you alone if you don't try to hurt them. However, if there is more than one bee following you, it could because they view you as a threat to their hive.

Is royal jelly real? ›

Royal jelly is a milky secretion made by worker honeybees (Apis mellifera). It's rich in carbs, protein, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Royal jelly gets its name because it is used as food for the queen bee. Its composition varies depending on geography and climate.

Should I destroy drone brood? ›

It is usually best not to remove the drone frames completely (unless you are doing it for mite control) because the colony will just expend more energy in an effort to replace it. One thing to remember is that most drone brood is raised in early spring just before and during swarm season.

Should you remove drone brood? ›

It is important that the drone brood is removed on time, before the drones hatch at the end of their 24 day development period, or you will be increasing the rate of mite population growth!

Why is my beehive full of drones? ›

Too many drones in the hive means that your queen wasn't mated properly and is only laying unfertilized eggs. Drone cells are easy to recognize. They are domed and larger than worker bee cells. Typically, they are grouped together on the outer edge of a frame.

How do you stop swarms from leaving? ›

Give Them Comb or Brood

An even better incentive is to add a frame of open brood from another colony. Although this can sometimes be a logistical challenge, it is a surefire way to keep a swarm in your box.

Do commercial beekeepers use queen excluders? ›

Many – perhaps most – commercial beekeepers do not use queen excluders, believing that by restricting the movement of the honeybees, the queen excluder inhibits the maximum production of honey. Old-timer beekeepers laughingly refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders”.

Will bees build comb above a queen excluder? ›

A beekeeper should make sure drawn comb is directly above the queen excluder with any foundation above that. Better for comb. Use of a queen excluder will almost certainly mean less honey production, but the main benefit of it is that the combs will remain light colored, because no young bees are reared in them.

Can drones get through a queen excluder? ›

Drones bees are larger than queen bees and can get stuck in the excluders.

Can you put a swarm back in the same hive? ›

You can stack both the hive and the swarm side by side with queen excluder on top of each one. Then stack up the supers centered over both. You'll be able to keep both hives and get good honey for yourself as well.

How long will a bee 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.

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 many brood boxes Should a hive have? ›

How many brood boxes should you have? The general consensus in most regions of the world is to use either one or two brood boxes. Using three or more means that you are probably doing your bees a disservice. In this case you would be better off splitting the large hive so you can get back to one or two brood boxes.

Do you leave supers on over winter? ›

Yes, you can leave a honey super or several on the hive over Winter. In fact, most beekeepers do have a super or two designated for use by the bees. The size of the box designated as the “food super” for the bees varies from one beekeeper to another and from one region to another.

How many honey supers do I need per hive? ›

One Flow Super per hive is the simple answer, as you can keep harvesting the honey whenever it is ready, giving the bees room to keep working and making more honey.

When should I remove my queen excluder? ›

The next rule to follow is when do we take off the queen excluder? Under normal conditions, the excluder will be taken off when you harvest your honey in the period of July to August time frame. This will allow the queen to migrate to the top of the hive and stay warm during the cold months.

What to do if there is brood in the honey super? ›

The queen got into the honey super

Or if she's still in there, you can relocate her to the hive boxes on the bottom and let the brood hatch out and move down into the lower boxes. The worker bees will clean out the brood comb and use it to house more honey.

When should I add a honey super? ›

When the bee colony reaches a point when a 10 frame hive reaches 8 frames full of bees, that is when you will add another super. Use the 80% rule in adding each super. After the second super is full drawn out of comb, that is when you can end supplemental sugar water feeding.

How long can you keep bees in a nuc? ›

How long can bees stay in a nuc box? Bees can stay in a standard five-frame nuc typically between two to three weeks before filling it up. If the nucleus is made out of cardboard, is closed-off, and the weather temperature is high, they shouldn't stay in there for more than a few hours, as they can die from the heat.

When should I add another brood box to the hive? ›

But the big question is how long should you wait until you add the second box. This applies whether you are using deep hive bodies for the brood area or medium sized boxes. Add your next box once the bees have drawn out 5-7 combs in their first box.

How do you get Queen out of supers? ›

Beekeeping | How To Get Your Queen Out Of Your Honey Super - YouTube

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