This year has been crazy in our area for the honey bees. This month alone I’ve had more swarms than ever before and some of my hives have split twice. Truly, this is one of those seasons when man may try to calculate all the right answers but in reality, they’re only good guesses. We are forced to submit to the fact that we don’t know all the how’s and why’s of the bee world.
But, we do have some substantial information that may be helpful to beekeepers at this time of year. If nothing else, it may help you make a good guess!
In the beekeeping business, spring is the notorious time of year for hives to swarm. Approximately half the hive of worker bees, along with the queen, leave the hive and look for new housing. I found this swarm hanging from one of the branches of a nectarine tree in the orchard.
Why is it that bees swarm at all? Is it because they grow tired of their dwelling place or that they never liked it all ? Do they hear the call of nature and heed to the voice? Perhaps they think the grass and flowers are better on the other side of the fence, or yard, or field.
Actually, it’s none of these.
To understand swarming we need to understand honey bee biology. Honey bees live in a colony and are eusocial (the highest social order). This means that the bees do not see themselves as individuals. This can easily be demonstrated by observing a colony of honey bees that run low of food. The bees do not divide into groups to fight over the food, nor will you see a group separate from the rest trying to preserve the queen. No, eusocial insects will continue to divide out the food till it is gone and together they will all die. It is the colony as a whole that is considered the actual organism. In short, honey bees define synergy.
With the above in mind, a queen bee can lay thousands of eggs a day. However, a colony does not see this as reproducing. Since the colony is, the actual “organism” it is the act of actually producing another colony that’s considered reproducing.
Bees live for two purposes: to reproduce themselves (produce a new colony) and to store honey in order to provide food during the winter months.
In GA, in the Piedmont area, our nectar flow starts in late February, early March. The incoming nectar signals the queen to start laying eggs – lots of them! At peak time, the queen will lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.
That means that 21 days later, 2,000 new bees emerge to join the work force. In a week’s time, approximately 14,000 bees are added to the hive. It doesn’t take long for those living quarters in the hive to get a little cramped. During the day, they’re not all home at once. Thousands of bees are out foraging, coming back to the hive full of nectar and pollen.
But from dusk to dawn, everyone is home!
There are multiple factors that can give a colony the urge to divide. One of the most common is when there isn’t any room left for the queen to lay new eggs. This can be either she has already filled all the available cells with eggs or the workers have filled most of the cells with large amounts of nectar.
Once the living situation is full to capacity, someone signals that it’s time to split – literally.
Before half the hive leaves, they’re careful to make sure that there is plenty of brood to keep the hive functioning properly until another queen is raised.
They leave several queen cells in the hopes that one will emerge, live through the maiden flight, successfully mate in mid-air with a drone (male bee), and will return home safely to start her egg-laying calling in life.
For some time before the bees leave the hive, they run the original queen around so she will lose weight and be able to fly. When the queen is in “egg laying” mode, she is too large to fly.
On the appointed day, and only the bees know, half the hive of worker bees, along with the queen, fly out from the hive to a nearby branch. . A swarm of honey bees can range in size from 4 to 5 thousand to 20 to 30 thousand. Immediately after leaving the hive the swarm will gather often on a tree limb. They hang together here in a cluster, their little legs hanging on to one another.
The queen is somewhere in that ball of bees, being protected by the worker bees. Often she is on the outer edges of the swarm. Without the queen in the new hive, their future looks bleak. They need her to sustain the workforce needed in the new hive.
The scout bees are flying about looking for a suitable cavity to call home.
When bees swarm, they are at their most docile state as a whole. They have no place to call home and no protection and no hive to protect. They’re eager to find some place to go.
That’s why finding a swarm hanging in a tree is so wonderful! Those bees are incredibly grateful when someone is able to provide a space for them, preferably one with wax foundation – even better if it’s pulled comb!
Once the queen is inside, all those thousands of bees become obedient little soldiers and march into the new hive with their little tails straight up in the air.
It’s an amazing sight.
These honey bees have accomplished their purpose – to reproduce themselves and to make honey. And the cycle will begin again in this new hive.