Why bees swarm
We take a look at why bees swarm, and why there's nothing to worry about when they do.
Swarming is a natural phenomenon. It's the method that bees use to reproduce and create new colonies.
In Spring, as the weather warms up and plants start to flower, bees start to emerge from their winter state and start reproducing. Rapidly. They're building up their workforce in order to collect and store as much nectar as possible while it's available. This is their next winter's food.
If the population in the hive gets too large for the space available an amazing thing happens. The bees choose a few larvae that were originally destined to become worker bees and feed them solely on a substance known as "royal jelly". These larvae, in only a matter of days, become queen bees.
Once the colony has started its swarming preparation, if not managed by the beekeeper, the existing queen will leave the hive along with approximately half of the existing worker bees to find a new home (Feral colonies, which are unmanaged, swarm too).
Once out of the hive the queen finds a place nearby to settle and rest. This is often on a branch or fence. The remaining bees land on and around her forming a cluster. There they remain while some of the workers, the scout bees, fly off looking for a suitable cavity for the new colony to build their hive. The cluster remains in position until a home has been found which can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a day or more.
When the colony has decided on its new home the queen and workers fly into their new hive and cluster again. This time though, they're clustering to keep warm and build honeycomb. This honeycomb is where the queen will lay eggs to build the population in the new colony and where the workers will store nectar, honey and pollen.
Meanwhile in the original hive, the population has been reduced to a comfortable level for the space available and the new queens start to emerge from their queen cells (which are like cocoons). If there was more than one queen cell, the first to emerge generally kills the other queen cells using her stinger. If more than one queen emerges, they fight until only one survives or in some cases a secondary swarm could take place.
The sole remaining queen eventually leaves the hive on a mating flight where she will mate with a number of male bees, called drones. Once mated, she will return to the hive and start laying eggs. The queen will only mate once in her life.
The process is complete. The bees have successfully reduced the population in the original crowded hive and created a brand new colony.
What should you do if you see a swarm? Bees that have swarmed are generally very docile. Even so, you should stay well clear and call a registered beekeeper who will come and collect the bees safely. Please don't spray them! Bees are very important to us all, and it'll make them angry!
If left alone the swarm will eventually move on once they've found a cavity to live in. This could be a hollow tree, a bin, or a wall. Once the bees have decided on a home and started building their hive it's a bigger and more costly job to remove them, so make sure you call a beekeeper for help immediately if you find a swarm.
Bumpstead Family Apiaries provides swarm and hive removal services in Victoria, Australia. If you have a swarm or hive that you need removed, please contact us for obligation free advice.