Springtime is a busy time for honey bees and beekeepers alike. As more and more flowers and trees begin to bloom, the amount of nectar and pollen available for the bees increases. The queen is also busy laying eggs and the population of bees in the hive is rapidly expanding from its winter low.
As the number of bees increases, the amount of queen pheromone that is passed to the individual bees decreases. The queen also begins to have trouble finding a place to lay eggs because so many of the honeycomb cells are taken up with the abundant pollen and nectar that is being gathered and brought into the hive. Beekeepers can add empty comb and do other things to give the bees more space, but if that doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen in the right time frame then the hive will begin to make swarm preparations. Even if the beekeeper does everything right, a hive will still sometimes swarm, and 9 out of 10 feral hives are estimated to swarm every year.
Swarms are part of the natural reproductive process for honey bees. Honey bees are highly social and no individual honey bee can survive by itself for more than a few days. Because the honey bees are so social, the hive is often considered a superorganism. Each of the individual bees in the hive are part of the superorganism much in the same way our bodies are made up of lots of individual cells. A swarm is simply the superorganism’s way of reproducing.
When a hive swarms, the queen and approximately half the bees in the hive leave. The swarm of bees will land somewhere until a location for a new hive can be found. They can land anywhere – a tree branch, a swing set, the side of a propane tank, under a porch roof, etc. A swarm can also vary in size – some are small, about the size of a baseball, while others are larger, closer to the size of a basketball. If you aren’t used to being around bees, seeing a swarm can be a bit scary because there are so many bees in one place. However, swarms tend to be very gentle unless they are provoked. All they are interested in is finding a new home.
While most of the bees are grouped up wherever they landed, a few scout bees are off house hunting. When one of them finds a possible location, it comes back and does a little dance on the surface of the swarm to tell other bees where the possible site is located. Other bees go check it out and eventually the swarm will come to a consensus as to the best location and everyone will fly to the new location. The process can take a couple of hours to a couple of days. If you want to know more about how a swarm picks a new hive location, Tom Seeley has a great book about it titled Honey Bee Democracy.
If you find a swarm and don’t want to wait until they decided to leave on their own, local beekeepers are often willing to collect swarms for free and give them a new home. If you are in the general Barren, Metcalfe, or Warren county areas of Kentucky, you can contact my husband and I at 270-202-2298. If we don’t answer, please leave a message. If you are somewhere else, you can call your local extension office, local fire department, or local police department. They will often have lists of local beekeepers willing to collect swarms.