When most folks think of a "Swarm of Bees", their immediate response is fear. Hollywood has capitalized on triggering our survival and panic instincts for many years. The slow creep of Africanized honeybees into our southern states has also contributed greatly to these negative reactions. Beekeepers typically fear swarms as well, but for different reasons; we don't want to lose our bees! Here is some information that everyone should keep in mind this swarm season. If you are not a beekeeper and you see a swarm, please contact a beekeeper. If you don't know any, most local police/fire departments have one they can call to retrieve a swarm. PLEASE never spray them, or harm them in any way! Note* If you are unsure, please remember; If you see that they're building a grey paper nest, they are NOT Honeybees.
Swarming in Honeybees is a reproductive function. It is not a group of rogue bees that has decided it wants to kill and eat people! (Yes, I have heard them referred to as such....) When a colony of Honeybees grows healthy and strong, they will fill up their cavity and then divide themselves into two or more colonies. In a strong colony, as the Queen bee moves about through the brood nest laying eggs, she will start to run out of room. A good queen can lay up to 3,000 eggs in one day, but will only lay as many eggs as the colony can keep warm enough to be viable. In the early spring and summer, colony numbers build progressively. The more worker bees that hatch, the larger the mass of the cluster, and the higher the numbers of eggs the queen can lay. At some point, the brood nest area of the colony becomes overcrowded. The queen with her tiny bee brain is a calculator of all sorts of information as she strolls through the brood nest. "How many eggs am I laying a day? How fast are the previous eggs going to hatch? How many open cells are present? How large is the colony as a whole? Are there drones present for mating purposes? Do we have plenty of nectar and pollen coming in?" Her most important calculation in reference to swarming is "When will we be too crowded? Incredibly, the queen makes this decision several weeks ahead of time. "We will run out of room in the next few weeks". When the queen comes to this decision, she will send out a pheromone to the rest of the colony to announce that it is time to prepare to swarm. Worker bees respond to this pheromone by building queen cups, which are the cells specifically designed to hatch new queens. (Workers and drones develop horizontally, queens vertically). A colony prepping for a swarm typically puts on a dozen or more queen cells as insurance against possible failures. The queen will lay fertilized eggs in these cups, and the workers will ensure that these larvae get the specific diet necessary to develop into healthy queens (Royal Jelly!) These larvae are meticulously cared for, as one of them will be the future queen of this colony. As the new queens mature, the original queen continues to calculate. "How far along are the new queens? Is the weather cooperative? What is my body mass?" She will go on an all-out egg-laying spree, to ensure that colony numbers will be at their highest possible before her departure. A full-on egg laying queen has a very large and heavy abdomen, rendering her flightless. A few days before the first new queen is ready to hatch out, the original queen will stop laying eggs completely, allowing her abdomen to shrink down enough that she is able to fly. As the new queens get close to hatching, they will begin to make a sound called "Piping" It is almost a whistling sound, which signals the original queen that it is time for her to leave the hive, A percentage of the workers fill their stomachs with honey to sustain the swarm for a short period of time while they locate a new home, and exit the hive with the original queen. This Swarm of bees will fly a short distance from the parent colony and cluster together around the queen. Depending on the original size of the colony, a swarm can range in size from a grapefruit to the size of a large watermelon, but is typically football to basketball sized. You can see them hanging off of a tree branch or fence post, even the eave of your home or the kids swing set! They settle in calmly, while a number of the workers set about looking for a new cavity to occupy. They are incredibly docile in this state, as they have no hive (comb, stores, eggs, etc.) to defend. They are calm and happy, as they feel "prosperous". They quite simply "hang out" in a cluster. You can walk right up to them, and even touch or pet the clustered swarm. The length of time that they remain in this spot depends entirely upon what the foragers find for a suitable cavity, and can range from just a few minutes to several days. Workers that are "foraging" for a new space will check out all kinds of things, from hollow trees or abandoned appliances, to the wall of a shed or your attic. They look for a space that is relatively well protected from weather and predators, and large enough to accommodate a full size colony. When a worker has found a space that they feel is compatible to their needs, they will return to the clustered swarm, and relay the coordinates of this space to other workers, who will then go inspect the potential new site. Once a general consensus for a spot has been reached, the entire swarm will leave as a group and move to the newly chosen space. A swarm moving is quite a sight to behold, and the noise is incredible! Once they all arrive at the new hive site, they set to work cleaning up the space and rapidly building new comb for the queen to lay eggs in.
Meanwhile, back at the original hive - The first new queen emerges. She has some decisions to make immediately. "Is it still very crowded? Are there plenty of stores? Is there empty comb ready to be filled with eggs? She may decide to leave with another (typically smaller) swarm and repeat the above process. If she decides to stay, she will spend the next few days going through the hive to locate and kill any remaining queens before they have a chance to hatch out. During this time, her wings stretch out and dry, and her exoskeleton hardens, in preparation to go on mating flights. Once she is well mated, she will return to the hive and begin laying eggs, never to leave the hive again until the next swarm season.