By Margo Buckles and Ellen Miller
A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.
When initially contemplating the topic for an article on beekeeping, we thought we would start as we do with our beginning beekeepers – why keep bees? However, on the first Sunday in June, Huckleberry Press’s editors made an “emergency” call to a more experienced beekeeper. Their hive had swarmed! Later that same day, the same experienced beekeeper received a call about a second swarm. So, we decided that our first article about keeping bees would be about swarms.
As the quote above suggests, swarms early in the season are better than those that occur late in the season, but we will get to that later. The first questions the reader may have is “why do bees swarm” and “if I see a swarm, what should I do”?
Why do bees swarm?
Swarms occur naturally when a healthy colony of bees is strong enough to split itself and form a second colony. The original queen with approximately half of the adult bees will leave the hive to establish a new home.
When they are getting ready to swarm, the queen and workers, all of which are female, communicate with one another using pheromones (another article), and the workers begin to make swarm cells, which are special, large honeycomb cells shaped like a peanut in which the queen will lay an egg that the bees will raise to be a new queen by providing her special food called royal jelly. The next step is to put the old queen on a “diet,” since she is too heavy to fly. The queen stops laying eggs and just before they swarm, the workers gorge themselves on honey so they have nourishment available during their house hunt. After this preparation, the fun begins.
Swarms emerging from hives are a sight to see and a sound to hear. The queen and thousands of bees exit the hive at the same time. They all rise above the hive like a tornado, and the accompanying sound is an amplified buzz. Even if you have never seen a swarm before, you will know it is happening just by the sight and sound of up to 20,000 bees in flight.
The bees that have left the hive will land nearby and gather tightly around the old queen. Generally, they first come to rest within about 50-100 feet of the hive. 70-100 scout bees leave the swarm and take off to look for a new location. Upon their return, they communicate with their sisters by “dancing” on the exterior of the swarm. Once the scout bees settle on their site, they all take off with the queen in the center for protection. As a rule, the bees select locations about two miles away from the old location in order to limit competition for flowers, nectar and pollen. In the new location, they begin the process of building comb so that they can store honey and pollen for food and raise new bees.
Back in the old hive, the new queen emerges and flies off on her mating flight to an area in which only drones (male bees) congregate. She mates with 5-7 drones, who die after they mate. Because the drones are usually from different hives, they add new genetic material to the bee colony when they mate with the new queen. This helps the new colony stay strong and resistant to diseases and pests. The new queen returns to the original hive with this new genetic material and begins to lay eggs at the rate of up to 2,000/day.
If all this occurs early in the bee year, which is May or June, as the saying goes, both colonies have a good chance at survival especially if the new colony is able to locate a site that will provide them adequate protection through the winter. The bees accompanying the old queen will have time to draw comb, collect nectar and pollen to eat during the winter, and raise more brood to replenish the number of worker bees. However, even with everything going right for the new colony, in our area the survival rate of a swarm is approximately 15% unless appropriately captured and tended. The hive that was left behind has a head start in all of this, but the new queen needs to get up to speed quickly and replenish the hive population after the mass migration during the swarm.
Finally, what should you do if you see a swarm? Don’t get too close, and call a beekeeper! Do not call an exterminator! These are strong, healthy bees multiplying by attempting to create a new colony. The bees that left the hive are unlikely to sting. Their guts are full of honey, which makes it difficult for them to extend their stinger. And, frankly, they are more interested in protecting the queen and finding a new place to live than they are in stinging you. An experienced beekeeper with the appropriate gear can remove the queen and the bees, put them in a hive, provide appropriate care and significantly increase their odds of surviving the winter. And, if you find the bees as fascinating as we do, consider taking a beginning beekeeping class.
Margo Buckles and Ellen Miller are former education chairs for the West Plains Beekeepers Association. You can find out more about beekeeping and about the West Plains Beekeepers Association at www.wpbeekeepers.org or by check out the Association’s Facebook page.
Editors note: This is the first of a 3 part series by the West Plains Beekeepers Association as presented in the print copy of the Huckleberry Press. Thank you WPBA!