Springtime swarm

Here is a beautiful swarm, newly exited from the colony. After the queen is satisfied that her full retinue has joined her, she follows her scouts to new digs.

Nature follows a cycle. And about this time each year, the honey bee population naturally divides and looks for new digs by swarming. Swarming is a natural part of the honeybee reproduction cycle. Healthy colonies that have weathered the winter and outgrown their quarter begin developing new queens in queen cells–long, downward-pointing cells with a generous lining of royal jelly, the food required to grow an ordinary worker egg into a new queen.

When the new queens are about to emerge from their sealed cells, the old queen and about half of the workers gorge themselves on honey. The old queen then flies out of the hive, settling on a post, tree limb, car bumper–anything convenient–and waits for half of the colony to join her. The remaining bees will continue on with their new, young queen.

If you know what to look for, a swarm can be anticipated. One of our colonies had been so successful over the winter and spring as to completely run out of space for honey and brood. It built several queen cells along the bottom of some frames, and in that location they’re called “swarm cells”. Sometimes a swarm can be circumvented by splitting the hive into two, but this queen was so successful, we wanted to preserve her genes to start new hives. We added two new supers, giving them lots of extra room. And the day before the swarm, I also extracted three frames with queen cells to start two nucs and re-queen weak hive that may have lost its queen. Would it be enough to keep the queen happy? Apparently not. A routine (and fortunate!) visit to the bee yard yielded this lovely sight.

As the empty nucs had been occupied the day before, there was no more woodenware hanging around. I dug around in a pile of wood and struck gold: a bottom board and a cover. Then, I stole one of the “empty” supers (no brood, just some honey) to make a single-super hive. Propping the makeshift hive up to the swarm, the swarm found it promising enough for a look-see. Bee house hunting!

The scout bees begin to investigate the empty box. The queen–a beautiful golden Carniolan–remained on the post with her entourage.

The queen accepts the hive and enters, leaving the rest of the swarm to make their way in.

Success! The queen accepts the new hive and enters the hive, leaving only the stragglers to enter. Once the lid was on, bees began appearing at the front entrance, raising their bums and fanning pheromone signals to the bee yard: this is OUR house, and only family may enter!

A note: A lot of people panic when they find a swarm in their yard, thinking the bees are about to invade. But really, they’re just waiting for the whole gang to arrive before they move on. Additionally, the bees are pretty well sated on honey, and they have no home to protect, so they are less likely to sting you. This swarm was so gentle, they didn’t deliver a single sting in the entire process of hiving and moving them to their new location. If you find a swarm in your yard, don’t bother to call the exterminator: just wait. It’ll most likely depart within a few hours. Better yet, make a bee keeper’s day and call him to collect them for his bee yard! It’s fascinating to watch, and a great lesson in nature for the kids.

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