Honey bee swarm, May 20, 2016
“The Magic of the Swarm” by Annie Watson
It’s bee swarm season. Our photo this month is of a swarm which has left its hive and is temporarily clustered on our birch tree – site of many swarms over the years.
Swarming is the bees’ natural way to reproduce the colony. In the spring when the honey flow is on, in a healthy hive the queen is laying up to 2,000 eggs a day. The numbers of bees increase very quickly – 21 days after an egg is laid it is an adult bee. Although there are many reasons a colony may swarm, usually it is because they have run out of room. There are no more empty cells for the queen to lay eggs in, because all the cells are full of either nectar or eggs. The queen takes off with about half the colony to find a new home, leaving the remaining bees to raise a new queen. Beekeepers try to artificially divide the colony before it swarms, so that they won’t lose the bees — but many times, this happens regardless of their best efforts.
There’s something magical about a swarm of honey bees. If you have the good fortune to witness the moment when the swarm leaves the hive, you are truly blessed. It starts with many bees clustered on the outside of the hive. All of a sudden the entire cluster is airborne. The air is filled with thousands of bees flying around and around in circles, the atmosphere alive with the humming of their wings. I have lain down on my back in the grass to watch this incredible phenomenon.
Bees are not aggressive when they are swarming. They have filled up on honey to sustain them until they are in a new home, and also they do not have a hive to defend.
Once the bees have left the hive, usually they find a spot to cluster while scouts go out to locate a new home. There’s a birch tree in my yard which has been the temporary resting place for many a swarm over the years. Once the swarm’s in the tree, out go the scout bees to locate a suitable new home. Until the colony decides where to go, the bees literally hang out in the tree. At the center of the cluster is the queen. They stay a few minutes or a few hours, less often overnight. Then suddenly they take to the air again and as a group, fly off – unless the beekeeper has shaken them into an empty beehive in the hopes that they will take to it.
If you see a swarm on a building, a car, or in a tree, don’t panic! Call your local beekeeping group to find a beekeeper who’s willing to come get it. Enjoy the magnificence of this phenomenon.