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Help with Swarms - About Swarms
Swarm List | About Swarms
Honeybee swarm.

Nature is a wonderful thing, although it sometimes operates contrary to what people want, or feel they need. Take swarming, for example. It is natural for a hive of honeybees to swarm when the conditions are just right, but many people see a swarm as a threat. Beekeepers, in particular, see a swarm as unproductive.

A honeybee hive can swarm for a number of reasons. One reason might be that the hive is too crowded. When the queen is laying her normal number of eggs each day from late April to late June (somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000-1500 eggs per day), and if the hive is healthy and therefore bringing in adequate supplies of nectar and pollen, space becomes a premium. If a hive is too crowded, the bees will make changes to rectify the situation. They might, for example, make new cells either for the relocation of the honey stores, freeing up existing cells for the queen to lay eggs. A savvy beekeeper will understand this and try to accommodate the honeybees by putting extra hive boxes with empty frames. This relocated honey and any new honey the bees bring into the hive from their foraging will be taken by the beekeeper later in the season.

Sometimes the timing is not just right and the bees are too crowded and need new space. A feral hive of honeybees, living in a tree hollow, would not have the luxury of the assistance of a beekeeper adding more space and must fend for itself. In this case, the worker bees will collectively make a move to swarm.

First the worker bees will build a swarm cell, perhaps several, if there are not already some in the hive. A swarm cell looks very different from all other cells in the hive. It is an inch or so long and looks much like the outer shell of a peanut. It tends to hang down, allowing an emerging queen to exit from the bottom. The worker bees will then select a fresh egg and place it in the furthest end of the cell. I indicated earlier that they might make several queen cells and therefore several queens. This would be done because there is safety in numbers. If the worker bees were to create only one new queen and she proved to be inadequate, the hive would be in jeopardy. It might not survive.

At this point, the worker bees will not tend to the every needs of the queen bee, as they normally would do. They might be down right rude to her and even rough her up a bit, making it obvious that she is not wanted. Tired, bothered, and hungry, the queen will move to the entrance of the hive. A large number of worker bees and drones will move with her, perhaps a third to a half of the population of the hive. Keep in mind that, at this time, a healthy hive might have as many as sixty to eighty thousand honeybees. The old queen, leaving with a third of this number can greatly weaken the hive. A further weakening comes from the fact that all the bees will fill their honey stomachs before leaving with the queen. This tends to deplete the honey supply in the remaining hive. It also frees up cells so the new queen, when she is able, can have space to begin laying her eggs.

The queen honeybee is shaker, not a mover. She is designed perfectly as an egg-laying machine. She is not designed for flying great distances, and has, perhaps, not been out of the hive for as long as a couple of years. When she leaves, it would be a safe bet that she won’t be going any great distance from the hive right away. She will probably land somewhere within a hundred yard radius. And to the frustration of every beekeeper who would like to capture a swarm, she will probably land on the end of a branch, thirty feet in the air.

When the queen leaves the hive, so do the rest of the bees in the swarm. The air fills with bees, each flying around randomly, but collectively making a sound that would make you take notice, a sound similar to the delicate blending of the whine of a vacuum cleaner and the roar of a freight train. This sound, along with the visual experience of twenty-five thousand honeybees milling about in the air, is quite unforgettable.

When the queen tires and lands, the rest of the bees land around her. She is now quite well protected. She is, after all, the keystone of the new hive. This cluster of bees might be as small as a softball, or as large as a basketball, depending on how many bees left with the queen. They might move again, perhaps several times. They might just stay there for several days. While they are in this cluster, life goes on as usual. Worker-bees leave, not only to forage for nectar, but, to look for a new home. When a new and adequate space is located, the cluster will break and fly off to their new home. They begin making wax comb and filling it with nectar, pollen and eggs. Life continues as it has for millions of years.

Occasionally a new hive-space in not located and the cluster begins making wax comb right on the branch. They begin to store the nectar they bring in and the queen begins to lay eggs. If this happens in the New England area, the cluster will surely die with the coming of winter.

What, you might ask, is happening back in the old hive? A new queen emerges from her cell. She wants to be the queen with no pretenders. Her first task is to locate all, if any, of the other queen cells and kill the occupants of those cells. She does this by stinging right through the wax cell. When she is satisfied that all other queens are dead, she makes ready for her maiden flight. Some articles I have read say the queen makes only one maiden flight. Recently, I have heard that she might make a number of them. Which ever is the case, she makes at least one, and this is how it goes. The queen will fly a great distance from the hive, perhaps as many as five miles, before she begins emitting her "Here I am, boys" scent. She flies this distance so as to not attract any drones (males) from her own hive. She likes the gene pool as deep as possible. She will fly in circles, above the treetops at perhaps ten miles per hour, waiting for the drones to arrive. If they can catch her, they can mate with her. If they mate with her, they die.

The new queen will mate with as many drones as possible and return to the hive. She will remain there, laying eggs, day after day, perhaps for the rest of her life, unless the hive swarms again in the future.

Related Link:
Swarming, Bee Culture, May 4, 2001
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