Swarming is a natural form of reproduction of honey bee colonies, but modern beekeepers try to avoid it.
Why do Bees Swarm?
In May and June, especially around midday, in some places, usually near beehives the air can be suddenly full of bees – first scattered and then gathered in a large cloud near a beehive. This is a swarm of bees that has left its original colony. The colony has divided and the swarm has swarmed out with its old queen.
The fact that bees swarm and the bee colony divides is the result of their natural instinct to reproduce. In early summer, when the bees find plenty of nectar and pollen and the weather is mostly warm and dry, a bee colony reaches its maximum size. During this time, the queen lays 1,000 to 2,000 eggs a day. The number of young bees per larva is increasing, so that many of them remain unemployed.
It quickly becomes too tight in the hive, and the colony of bees begins preparing for swarming.
The worker bees create queen cells in which the queen lays eggs.
Queen cells are special cells in which queen bees are raised. The queen cells are larger than the other honeycomb cells and, they are arranged vertically instead of horizontally. The queen lays one egg in each cell. This egg and later larva is being fed exclusively with the royal jelly.
New young queens hatch after 16 days.
But shortly before the first young queen hatches, her mother, the old queen, moves out with part of the bee colony and leaves the beehive to her successor. Up to thousands of bees swarm out in a search for a new habitat.
Not far from their old hive, the bees gather on some tree branch or bush to form a swarm. From there, scout bees start their mission in a search for a new home. After the explorations, scout bees return to their swarm and perform the waggle dance on the surface of the swarm cluster. With this form of communication, the information about the possible new housing is passed on. The decision for a new dwelling is made as soon as other tracker bees give the swarm the same information.
The entire colony of bees follow them to the new home in which the colony can resettle. The entire swarm of bees, including the queen, move in the new dwelling and immediately start building the honeycomb.
How long does the swarming last?
A swarm of bees moves out of the hive in a matter of minutes. However, it can sometimes take an hour for the swarm bees to form a swarm cluster on a branch, for example. From there, the so-called scout bees start to look for a new suitable shelter. In poor conditions, it can take a few days for the bees to move into a new location. If necessary, they also build a new nest freely in the branches of trees. However, these colonies will not survive the following winter.
How to prevent swarming
Swarming of the bees is the result of their natural instinct to reproduce. Nevertheless, most beekeepers try to avoid a swarming, because not every swarm of bees can be recaptured. In addition, a swarm that has flown off means a loss of bees and honey yield. Problems can also arise – for example with neighbors or other people in the area if swarms of bees settle on third-party or public property. Some beekeepers therefore try to reduce the swarming instinct of their colonies at an early stage. Others, however, allow it and form an artificial swarm just before the actual swarm would leave. There are various ways to prevent swarms, which beekeepers use in different ways and intensities.
The most important thing is not to let the beehive become too tight in order to develop the urge to swarm.
In concrete terms, this means always to give the bees enough space – either in the brood chamber or by providing honey supers in good time. In addition, in the phase in which the bee colony is multiplying the most, it is important to carry out regular checks.
Through regular checks – usually weekly or every nine days – a beekeeper can tell whether a bee colony has created new queen cells and is preparing for swarming. These queen cells are also called swarm cells and are usually found on the lower edges of the honeycomb. If the bees place them in the middle of the comb, they are usually so-called replacement cells. These are found when the colony has lost its queen, or when the bees are no longer satisfied with the old queen.