Swarming is an instinct that bees inherit and keeps the bee population viable which preserves the species. It is nature’s way of splitting a colony and providing enough bees of different classes to set up a new hive that will survive and proliferate. The different races of honeybee (Apis Mellifera) have varying intensities of the swarming instinct but given the conditions swarming will occur. Swarming mostly occurs in the last few days of spring or the first few days of summer. The three major causes of swarming are:
Overcrowding within the hive. During the build-up in preparation for the honey flow, the population increases tenfold within a few weeks and requires ample free space in which to expand. If there is not the room the brood colony will become overcrowded and the queen will feel uncomfortable. This has the effect of unbalancing the population and will start the swarming process.
Overcrowding can also be caused by bad weather at the end of spring, as the worker bees are unable to get out to the field for food gathering. Externally an overcrowded hive can be identified by many bees hanging to the front of the hive or clustering near the hive entrance or on the alighting board. Internally it will be evident by an irregular comb; comb constructed in any spare space such as the top of frames or in corners and comb will also be seen hanging from the lid of the hive.
Lack of ventilation. Often found in conjunction with overcrowding but also a problem in itself. The bees try to reduce the excessive heat by fanning their wings at the entrance to the hive. One cause could be that the entrance still has the wintering blocks in place, which reduces the ability of the hive to breathe.
Aging queens. Queens can live up to three years, whereas worker bees during the honey flow generally have a life expectancy of about six weeks. The egg-laying viability of queens reduces with age and by the age of two years, the brood being laid is spotty and irregular. The workers notice poor brood laying and will start to construct queen cells for the supersedure process. In appearance, the cells look like a peanut shell and are found in damaged sections of the comb or hanging from the bottom of a frame.
Once the egg has been laid inside the cell the nurse bees will feed the grub with the concentrated bee food – royal jelly. The hormones within the royal jelly will change the ordinary worker larvae so that on emergence from the cell the queen is larger and has a fully developed reproductive system. This will be the queen left behind to continue the hive population. When the queen cell is capped the hive will then swarm otherwise the queens will fight for precedence.
In the preparation to swarm the bees will gorge themselves on honey as it could take up to a week to find a suitable location for the new hive. The first bees will emerge between mid-morning and mid-afternoon. After swirling around the hive in ever-increasing numbers the queen will join the swarm. Once this happens the swarm will fly away in a dark, deeply buzzing cloud. In-flight the swarm varies in size from that of a small car to that of a truck.
The swarm generally only flies a short way before temporarily settling, usually on a tree branch within a kilometer from the original hive. Once settled they will gather into a tight ball between the size of a football and a large cushion. Having then found a temporary resting-place the swarm will send out scouts to find a suitable home for the hive. This can be a hollow tree but in a built-up area, it will more likely be in the eaves or roof of a nearby house. It is at this stage that the swarm can be gathered and re-hived.
Capturing the swarm
Locating the swarm can be tricky if you didn’t see it emerge or the direction that it went but if you keep your eyes open for stray bees and likely locations for the swarm you’ll have a good chance of finding it. Places to look are trees or shrubs that are sheltered and with few branches or a sunny wall. More often than not they’ll have settled within 5 feet from the ground. As the bees are full of honey they are lethargic and easy to handle. This means that they are unlikely to sting. The best time to gather the bees is during the late afternoon as by this time they are designed to weathering the night and are less active.
- A good-sized cardboard box with a separate tight-fitting lid, also tape over any holes that the box may have.
- A pair of secateurs.
- Bee veil (nice to have)
- Light-colored overalls
- A hive on a solid foundation and 2 supers filled with 16 frames of foundation comb.
Gathering the swarm
Once the swarm is located and you have your cardboard box, secateurs, bee veil, and gloves handy you are ready to start. Firstly clear the area underneath the swarm. Then very carefully start trimming any leaves, branches, and extraneous shrubbery away from the branches the bees are suspended. This is a tricky, delicate job because the aim is not to dislodge any bees.
If the branch is clear of all protuberances place the box directly under the bees holding as close to the bottom of the swarm as possible. At this stage it is helpful to have a brave volunteer to assist as a swarm of bees is quite heavy and having a tight, two-handed grip will save accidentally pouring the bees on the ground or worse – down your gumboots. Give the branch a sharp shake and all the bees will fall into the box as a gluey lump.
If done correctly you will have managed to get 95% of the bees into the box. Quickly place the top on the box, ensuring that the lid is on snugly. You are now ready to transport the swarm to your prepared hive. If, due to difficulties, some of the swarm is missed don’t worry, as they will congregate on the same branch again shortly, thereby giving you the opportunity to gather them later.
If a second swarm box is available, use it now. If not, you can use the original box, but be careful as the bees inside will have spread over the interior of the box making it awkward to reopen. If the swarm has managed to settle on a wall and not a branch try sweeping them smoothly and gently into the box, you might have to do it more than once to get most of the bees.
Hiving the swarm
Having successfully boxed your swarm and transported it to the hive (carefully ensuring a tight fit of the lid if moving it by car!), you are now ready for the transfer. This is best performed late in the afternoon when the heat of the day has dissipated.
Place a sack in front of the hive with one edge on the alighting board, the idea is to make it as easy as possible for the bees to enter the hive. Pour the bees gently on the sack. If poured close to the entrance the bees will start to troop into the hive immediately. On occasion, I have poured the bees directly into the hive but have needed to place an empty super on the top.
The danger with this is that swarm bees will start adding wax to foundation immediately (drawing comb) and if the empty super is not removed the next morning, the bees will start making wild comb, hanging it from the roof. This causes a difficult cleanup job later on.
Other points of interest
Main swarms happen just prior to the honey flow, which means that there is no brood to support and nurse as the nectar comes on stream. The advantage of this is that just about the entire colony can commit their energy to nectar and pollen gathering and large swarms can produce a sizeable honey crop during their first season if properly managed.
Hives sometimes produce smaller swarms later in the season, but this exits the hive with virgin queens and therefore have a lesser chance of survival. The best way to treat these swarms is to amalgamate them with an existing hive. One method is to add another super to a healthy hive but separating it with a sheet of newspaper.
Insert four frames, two on either side of the super, and pour the swarm in. Very gently insert the other four frames and replace the lid. It will take the bees 2 or 3 days to chew through the paper by which time the bees will be used to the odor of each other and the only fighting will be between the queens. Generally, the existing resident queen will win unless it is too old. The hive will benefit from the influx of extra workers.
One more point to remember about swarms is that they’re not thousands of dangerous bees looking to sting someone and something to be feared but a wonderful act of nature and to be admired.
Often the way many hobbyists first enter beekeeping is by being given a swarm or gathering one themselves, so if you’re keen keep your eyes open.