Reflections on the swarm

Everyone has asked us lots questions about how and why and where and how often bees swarm. Is it good or bad? So I thought I would try to discuss some of these, with the implied, permanent caveat that many people have many opinions and that a lot of this is either hotly debated or widely disagreed upon in the beekeeping community.

what’s a swarm?

A swarm is not the angry cloud of bees that comes out of the hive and attacks that you see in the movies and cartoons. That is just a bunch of angry bees. A true swarm of bees is tens of thousands of bees following their queen (who is usually in the middle of the bee ball). They usually fly a short distance and settle into a tree or a fence. They are loud! Thousands of bees flying at once. It sounds like the hum of a freeway, although some people say it sounds like a freight train. Well, it sounds like a freight train if you are standing in the swirling middle of it, but you probably won’t be! Honey bee swarms are pretty gentle. They have no hive, stores or brood to protect. They are drawn to the queen, but they are not protective of her. They gorge themselves on honey before they leave the parent hive, so it’s physically very difficult for them to bend around to sting. Keep calm! No running and flailing your arms about!

If you think you see a swarm, try to identify them. Make sure they are honey bees (not wasps or yellow jackets or anything else), and find a local beekeeper to come capture them. I recommend creative googling like “your city/county” + “honey bee removal.” Bees need your help, and they are valuable – don’t call an exterminator or spray them with poison. If you live in Washington, click here. If you live in Olympia, call me.

thanks to the Washington State Beekeepers Association for this illustration

why the heck would they swarm??

Bees swarm to reproduce. Yes, they raise brood to replace individual bees, but this is about reproduction of the hive. Imagine that the cells in the body are analogous to individual bees. The hive is analogous to the body. Your body is creating new cells all the time to replace the old ones, but that doesn’t create a new person (well, not yet. maybe in the future with some better cloning technology). Just thinking about it reminds me of how awesome bees are.

Some of the main reasons bees decide to swarm:

1. Overcrowding
This can be either because there is not enough space, because there is too much honey or pollen in the brood nest and the queen is feeling’ cramped, because you don’t have enough boxes on the hive, because you have a queen excluder the bees don’t want to cross, because spring build up and nectar flow can catch you by surprise and a hive with a lot of room can become way too confined very quickly. Basically, the hive is constricted with no room for brood, honey or pollen, they think “we must be so successful!!” and they decide to split into two.

2. Low Approval Ratings for the Queen
Like any other despot, the queen has to keep enough of the people happy enough of the time to stay in power. Yes, we use a lot of political metaphors to talk about our bees, mostly because it’s an area of interest to our kid, and he makes it relevant. In any case, an aging or weak queen doesn’t produce enough pheromones to appease her subjects. They call for a coup d’état by creating supercedure cells. Or maybe she was mated badly and lays poorly. Coup d’etat. Or maybe she was injured when a hapless beekeeper bumped her. Coup d’etat.

3. Bad Weather followed by Good Weather
This is sort of related to Reason #1. Bad weather means the foragers can’t get out enough, and the hive feels extra-crowded. Have I complained about the weather this spring? It’s been terrible – cold, gray, rainy. Not very springlike. Occasionally, we’d have a good day or two. Swarming bees take advantage of temporary nice weather to bid au revoir.

our swarm

It’s possible that our hive was overcrowded, but upon checking the original hive, I discovered there are still a few frames with comb drawn on them and no honey, pollen or brood. They may have been a little confined, but there was still room to lay eggs and store nectar. It’s impossible to know exactly why they swarmed. I keep asking them, but they don’t answer me. The most likely answer I can come up with is the erratic, unreliable, crappy weather (Reason #3).

is swarming good or bad?

It depends. From the bees’ perspective, swarming is good and necessary. It’s how we get more/better bees!

In an urban setting in particular, it’s best to try to keep swarms to a minimum. A lot of people are afraid of bees, did you know that? Yeah. They are.

From the perspective of the beekeeper: we have two hives now, instead of one. I didn’t have to buy two packages of bees. That’s good. On the other hand, both colonies may not be strong enough to survive the winter on their own. The queen of the new hive has a long way to go before she’s a successful monarch, and if that doesn’t go well, we might have a restless, angry, queenless hive on our hands. Her breeding will result in unknowable genetics. We might not like the bees that we get. Swarming weakens the parent hive, since half their workforce is literally taking off at once. In short, we have to wait and see before we decide if this swarm was a good or bad event. If I have two hives in May 2011, then we’ll declare it a reasonably successful event.

Fortunately, it’s only June and I still have hope that we will have a summer. If so, both hives might be able to build up their numbers by winter. If not, I may need to kill one queen and re-combine the hives. But let’s not put that cart before the hypothetical horse, shall we.

The most important thing is, whether good or bad for you as a beekeeper, swarming is instinctual.

You may remember, I saw queen cups in the hive when we last inspected it on Memorial Day, but I had resolved not to worry about it. (read about it here) I don’t think there is anything I could have done to change the course of events. Bees have their own unknowable instincts. Once they have made up their minds to swarm, it is almost impossible to stop them. You might as well tell the rain to stop. (Actually, can you stop the rain? Please?) Old-school beekeeping methodology is to cut every queen cell you see. Nowadays, the advice is the exact opposite. Cutting queen cells is more likely to leave the hive queenless than stop a swarm. Everything I read and hear encourages beekeepers to manage, not control the hive. So, we’ll keep doing our best to be good stewards of the bees.

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5 Comments

Filed under bees, spring, urban farming

5 responses to “Reflections on the swarm

  1. Ehrrin

    super fascinating. and the anticipation for this post was fun with the cliffhangers!

  2. Karen D.

    I’ve been following this saga with bated breath. I actually thought a swarm was a really, really bad thing, but I’m glad I was wrong. Sending good vibes to you and your bees that you will have 2 strong hives this time next year.

    • jess s

      It’s one of those “six of one, half dozen of the other” sort of events, but definitely not bad for the reason that most people think! Thanks for following the saga. If the hives aren’t strong enough to make it through the winter, I will probably just combine them in the fall & hope for better luck next year! It does give me a better chance of getting 1 live hive in the spring, rather than 2 dead ones.

      What a crazy hobby…

  3. caitlin

    This was a really great post! I feel as though, if I had a hive and it swarmed, and I was freaked, that I would feel better now. I don’t have a hive, but still. If I can be more involved with the nonprofit bees here, I guess I would be better prepared now :)

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