All about swarming

Since I shared the fact that our bees swarmed, there has been a lot of interest amongst my friends, so I wanted to take a minute to explain exactly what swarmimg is and why it happens.

Now this is a PG blog, but I trust you all know about ‘the birds and the bees’, right? Good, because today we need to talk about just the bees. On an organism level the bee life cycle is pretty straightforward. Bees start out as eggs, then grow to become larva, are capped over and then hatch out as adult bees.

an adult bee hatches out of the cell in the middle of the photo above. 

The queen does all of the egg laying. Individual female bees cannot mate or reproduce. Male bees (drones) can mate with queens, that happens once in the queen’s lifetime, after she has a supply of fertilized eggs she goes on her way laying eggs for the colony. A queen can lay thousands of eggs a day, and in the middle of summer, like now, individual bees live only around 45 days. 

So while the queen can produce more baby bees, how do we get more bee colonies? This is where swarming comes in. In the spring, along with the rest of nature, bees also try to reproduce. The colony rapidly builds up the number of bees with thousands of new ones hatching each day. Very quickly the bees begin to run out of space. The queen has a particular smell to her and all the bees need to smell her all the time. When there are so many bees the queen phermone (smell) is weak the bees get the idea that they should swarm, and go off and start a new colony where there’s more space. The bees then begin building swarm cells.  These are special much bigger honeycombs where a queen will be raised. 

A swarm cell in the middle right of the photo (note frame is rotated in photo, it’s really on the bottom!)

The bees will go nuts with swarm cells, we counted almost 20 in one hive! The queen will lay an egg in the swarm cells and the bees will feed these larva royal jelly. This is what makes the egg a queen instead of a normal bee. It takes 16 days from when the eggs are laid for a queen to be ready to hatch. 

The new queens make a noise when they get ready to hatch called ‘piping’. ( Once the old queen hears this noise, she knows her days are numbered – the competition is on the move!
The old queen then gets ready to leave the hive. The bees have known this day was coming and eat lots of honey to get ready. They cluster on the outside of the hive getting ready to swarm.  Here’s some bees on the outside of The Honey Exchange in Portland, ME as they got ready to swarm yesterday. (note, this is an observation hive so the building is the ‘outside’ of the hive. In a normal hive they would be on the front of the hive)
bees cluster at the entrance of the Honey Exchange observation hive, deciding whether to swarm.
Then the bees fly off and land somewhere relatively nearby, like the lilac bush. This is a good time for us to spot them and catch them! 
Our second swarm landed high in a maple tree, not such a good place for us to catch them!
They then send scout bees out to look for a permanent home. A hollow tree, a crevice,  or if we are lucky, one of the swarm traps we set for them.  How they decide where to move is absolutely fascinating. If you are interested I would recommend the book Honeybee Democracy by Tim Seeley. It describes all about how the bees make collective decisions. At any rate, when they have decided where to move, that’s it. The whole cloud of bees flys off in a big orb, as much as 20ft in diameter (this is what I saw through my sunroom roof last night as I was relaxing) 
Remember only the original queen and some of the bees left with this swarm. The original hive still has the new queens, which are about to hatch out, as well as some of the bees. (can you picture the foragers coming home ‘hey guys, I’m home, I brought pollen!…guys….guys… where’d you go?”) Whichever new queen hatches first will go around and sting her competitors to death. Then she will fly off and mate with the local drones and return to the hive to start laying more eggs. 
Bottom line is swarming is a natural way of dividing a hive. It only happens with strong hives, so it’s a good thing. The bad thing as a beekeeper is we loose half of our bees as they fly away and this decreases the honey crop since there are not as many extra bees to make honey. 

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