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Why do Bees Swarm?
This is a question we get asked often when called for swarm control. It’s a good question to ask especially when you see a swarm and are trying to save those bees.
Bees swarm for a few different reasons.
What time of year bees swarm? Spring. This is swarm season, as the weather starts to get better, the days longer and the flowers start to wake up from a long winter and so do the bees.
As the activity starts to increase in the hive so does the drama, I say drama because we are unsure how these decisions are made within the hive.
Are the bees making a collective call on whats happening in their home or is their a master controller ?
Bees communicate in several ways. One of the most mysterious and one likely explanation to why bees swarm (we only know a little) is via pheromones. The bees access the strength of the pheromone within the hive environment this is submitted via the queen. This is how the colony knows where she is and or if she makes a break for it. With this constant reassessment comes the risk of the colony making a judgement call.
They could be thinking
• I can’t sense the pheromone as strongly maybe she is under performing and we need to make another queen. (Colony survival instinct CSI) - Bee density could be effecting this.
• I think she should be laying more lava, maybe she is getting on or we can make a better Queen. (The hive create queens cells and rear another Queen)
If another Queen appears in the hive it’s a fight to the death, that or one queen leaves the hive, sometimes followed by most of the hive.
Bees also swarm if the hive management isn’t maintained well via splitting of the hive. (still no guarantee, but improves the risk of the hive swarming)
Swarms are also a very good way for bees to increase genetic diversity. The old queen leaves the hive taking with her a portion of the hive and she leaves behind a virgin queen who will mate with several drones from other hives.
Natural disease control
Also known as shook swarming. By swarming, the hive leaves its environment to start a new home, they also leave behind many of the varroa mites (mostly) giving them a better chance to create a strong new home with less disease.
It is important to note that swarms can be AFB (American Foul-brood disease) infected, so while collecting a swarm is a good way to get started in beekeeping and a good way to increase the apiary size, we would encourage responsible beekeeping processes. Keep the collected swarm in a quarantine type approach to the collected swarm and let the bees go through at least one brood cycle to be able to check for the presence of AFB. This is because AFB is a brood decease and can only be identified when brood is present in the hive. This is not the case (no brood present) when collecting a swarm as they are brood-less until a new home is populated and the virgin queen has been mated.
Disease control is It is even more important for Bee beekeepers looking to collect swarms for sale. At the very minimum detailed recording of the exchange off bees as part of your process and as a recipient asking for that detail forms part of your annual reporting back to Assure Quality and a is a legal requirement for all bee keepers.
Where do they come from?
Do you know of a beekeeper or hives in the area? It’s most likely they are from a local hive in your area.
Encountering a bee swarm for the first time can be alarming. Bees tend to swarm near their hives or honeycombs, so if a swarm is visible then a nest hive is nearby. Swarms are usually not aggressive unless provoked, so it is important to keep a good distance from the swarm unless collecting it (to minimise provocation). Most beekeepers will remove a honeybee swarm for a small fee or maybe even free if they are near by. If the bees feel threatened, they will use their stingers and release a pheromone to alert the other bees of the threat resulting in a large bee attack.
Generally, a weak bee colony will not swarm until the colony has produced a larger population of bees. Weak bee colonies can be caused by low food supply, disease such as Foulbrood Disease, or from by a queen that produces low quantities of eggs.
Usually a beekeeper or bee removal company will use a bee vacuum to capture the bees in a caged container so they can transport to a bee observation hive or quarantine hive. While capturing the bees, smoke is used to calm the bees which makes it safer and easier to remove the colony.
Bee swarms can almost always be collected alive and relocated by a competent beekeeper or bee removal company. It is a common belief that a bee swarm should always be exterminated for safety reasons, but this is rarely necessary and is discouraged if bee removal is possible.
The worker bees create queen cups throughout the year. When the hive gets ready to swarm the queen lays eggs into the queen cups. New queens are raised and the hive may swarm as soon as the queen cells are capped and before the new virgin queens emerge from their queen cells. 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. During the swarm preparation, scout bees will simply find a nearby location for the swarm to cluster. This intermediate stop is not for permanent habitation and will normally leavenormally be left within three days to for a more suitable location. It is from this temporary location that the cluster will determine the final nest site based on the level of excitement of the dances of the scout bees.
A swarm of bees sometimes frightens people, though the bees are usually not aggressive at this stage of their life cycle. This lack of aggression is principally due to the swarming bees' lack of brood (developing bees) to defend and their interest in finding a new nesting location for their queen. This does not mean that bees from a swarm will not attack if they perceive a threat; however, most bees only attack in response to intrusions against their colony. Additionally, bees seldom swarm except when the position of the sun is direct and impressive. So-called "killer bees" (NOT FOUND IN NZ) swarm far more often than regular honeybees. Swarm clusters, hanging off of a tree branch, will move on and find a suitable nesting location in a day or two. Beekeepers are sometimes called to capture swarms that are cast by feral honey bees or from the hives of domestic beekeepers.