A swarm of bees.
“Cheeeep cheeeeeep.” That was an unusual noise to hear in a beehive. I had just begun beekeeping at the time, and it seemed that the bees were always doing something new. As I opened the hive I heard the sound again. It sounded like a mouse, but it was April, and I did not expect to see mice in the hive at that time.
During winter, bees will cluster in a tight ball around the combs to keep warm, and mice will often move in to make their nests. But the hive was overflowing with bees on this warm spring day, and it didn’t seem like a mouse would find any comfort in that environment.
As I removed the combs in search of the chirping noise, I saw something I had never seen before. On the side of a comb, the bees had built a one-and-a-half inch long cell, which was round and tapered. Something inside was eating its way out of the cell.
Suddenly the chirping noise began again from within the cell. “Help me out,” it seemed to say. Each time it chirped, worker bees on the comb would come running to the cell. Tearing at the cell, they soon opened it, and a bee much larger than all the others crawled out. It was a queen bee!
While I was still trying to determine what was happening, the bees within the hive seemed to get very excited. They began moving around very quickly. About a minute later, half the bees in the hive, together with the old queen, started flying into the air. For just a moment, they hovered over the hive as if to say, “Goodbye,” and then they flew over the trees and were gone. The bees had just swarmed.
Swarming is a honeybee colony’s natural way of producing new colonies. However, as beekeepers, we want to prevent swarming and keep as many bees in our hives as possible. When the hive swarms, it is the older bees that leave—the bees that were bringing in most of the honey. With only young bees left in the hive to take care of a new queen, honey production will decrease, as will your harvest of honey.
Before addressing several methods for swarm prevention, let’s discuss some of the reasons for swarming. This will help us to get a broader perspective on general hive activity and maintenance.
There are two main causes of swarming, both of which are related to the bees’ ability to build comb. First, they will swarm if they have run out of space to build new comb. Secondly, they will swarm if they cannot build comb quickly enough to store the incoming nectar.
In both conditions, the bees will prepare to swarm by building about 15 to 20 queen cells along the edges of the combs. Since the average life span of a queen is two to three years, the building of new queen cells is not a part of normal everyday hive activity. So if you see queen cells in a hive, it is a sure sign that either the queen has died or that the hive is preparing to swarm.
Queen Cells at Various Stages of Development
After the queen cells have been built, the queen will lay an egg in each cell, which will hatch three days later as larvae. Worker bees feed each larva a high protein substance called royal jelly, and after four days of feeding, the larva spins a cocoon.
Sixteen days after the eggs are laid, the new queens will start rubbing their wings together, which makes the chirping sound mentioned above, and that warns the mother queen that it’s time to leave the hive. The new queens will then chew their way out of the cells. At first the new queens will search through the hive for other queens. When they meet, the queens will fight to determine which one will dominate the hive, and the strongest queen will kill the other queens with a fatal sting.
As soon as the new queens start hatching, the mother queen and approximately half the bees will swarm out of the hive. Initially, they will search for a temporary landing site, such as under the eaves of a house, that offers some protection from wind and rain.
When they land, they will cluster into a ball and will usually spend three to four days at that site. Scout bees will then leave the cluster in search of a place to build a new hive. This could be any number of places, including a birdhouse, an old hot water heater, the eaves of a house or inside a hollow portion of a tree.
Once the scouts have found a suitable location, they will return to the cluster and signal the prospective new location to the other bees. The swarm of bees will then fly to the new location to decide whether it is suitable. If it is, they’ll begin building a new hive. If it’s not found to be suitable, the scouts will be sent out again to repeat the process.
As beekeepers, one of our jobs is to provide the bees with ample space in the hive. In the springtime, when flowers are producing the most nectar, it is especially important to check your hives at least once every two weeks to see how fast the bees are building comb. The bees can build one comb a night if there has been a substantial amount of rain, and if plenty of nectar-producing flowers are blossoming.
If the bees continue at this rate, they will soon run out of room to store the honey that they are bringing in. Then they will begin to make preparations to swarm. As I mentioned earlier, you can tell that a hive is preparing to swarm by the presence of queen cells. If I find queen cells when inspecting my hives, I will remove them by cutting them off of the comb. This will temporarily halt the swarming process, but then I also need to address the reason that they were preparing to swarm in the first place.
How to Prevent Swarming
When I find a hive that has begun preparing to swarm, I will monitor the hive and try to make sure the bees always have enough space to build at least three combs. If the bees start to run out of space in the hive, there are a couple of things I will do.
First, I will harvest the combs that are filled with honey. This immediately creates additional space in the hive. If at this time the bees are still building more queen cells, indicating that they will swarm, then I will remove two or three combs of brood from the thriving hive and place them in a weaker hive—a hive that contains fewer bees and proportionally fewer brood combs and honeycombs. This supplies the weaker hive with more bees and more honey, and can stimulate the queen in that weaker hive to lay more eggs each day, further strengthening the hive. At the same time, this frees up more space in the stronger hive for building comb.
If the bees still exhibit a tendency to swarm, I will next switch the location of the strong hive with that of a weaker hive. Being creatures of habit, bees that have left the hive to forage will return to the place their hive was when they left it. Bees that had been in the stronger hive, will end up in the weaker hive, thus strengthening it while reducing the bee population in the stronger hive.
Sometimes, despite my best efforts my bees have still swarmed. Beekeeping has its challenges. As a beekeeper, I continue to enjoy learning about and discovering the different happenings in the life of a hive.
This article was adapted from an article that originally appeared in volume 2, issue #1 of the SustainLife journal.