For beekeepers, a bee swarm can be a welcome opportunity to buy bees for a new hive. However, for most of us, coming across hordes of bees can be overwhelming. For some, a single bee at a distance can be downright scary, but a swarm can have thousands of bees! While beekeepers have the skills and expertise to navigate swarming bees, most people need help to understand this natural phenomenon.
For starters, catching a swarm is not meant for casual recreation. It is not an adventure activity and can have serious repercussions— so please leave this to the experienced beekeeper.
However, many seasoned beekeepers also do not believe in catching the swarm to procure bees, while some vouch for it despite some risks involved. A bee swarm is more enjoyable when you know some of its interesting aspects and stay out of harm’s way.
Why Do Bees Swarm?
Swarming leads to expansion of bee colonies. Despite being an awe-inspiring visual experience that looks like a fleet headed to war, it is a positive event and is not the result of the confrontation. The beehive is like huge accommodation for a massive colony. Thriving with activity, the hive hosts a queen, hundreds of drones and thousands of worker bees apart from pupae, larvae, honey reserves, and developing eggs.
As the hive grows, the numbers multiply. Soon, there is a crunch for space. This is when bees need a new place to raise their brood. The lack of space emerges in another way.
This is when the second queen is about to emerge. It is not natural for two queens to inhabit the same hive, so the existing queen must vacate the premises. Not just for reproduction and ensuring the survival of their progeny, bees need a new hive to ensure that the warehousing of more pollen and honey for the tough winter months is done properly.
There Is Nothing Unplanned About Swarming
Some honey harvesting specialists refer to swarming as a means of a bee colony or hive to become two. The entire scenario can be dramatic, but what seems like a crazy frenzy is actually a reasonably planned activity. There are months in the year that have a higher incidence of growing hives undertaking to swarm, such as spring. A reproduction of bees at the colony level, swarming can have many other patterns. Usually, bees go into honey-storing overdrive during the period leading up to the swarm.
Interesting Facts: There Is A Lot Of Science At Play!
Did you know the Arizona bee swarm is not meant for the curious onlooker to explore? Such swarms can have a high density of aggressive Africanized honeybees. There is another aspect of bee swarming behavior that few people realize. These bees are constantly communicating via chemical messengers that are referred to as pheromones.
The Honey Bee or Apis mellifera uses this complex communication system, often using up to 15 or more glands to produce the biochemical compound. It does not restrict bee pheromones to the queen. They are produced by the worker bees and drones, too. There is a further classification of the type of hormone produced, and queen pheromone is rather powerful, attracting worker bees. Not just swarming, this pheromone-driven communication helps the worker bees to perform a number of activities, from foraging and combing to tending the brood.
Beekeepers & Swarming: Experience Counts!
There is no standard for swarming numbers. In many places, beehives are found in small wooden boxes put up by bee enthusiasts. Here, the numbers can quickly exceed the available space, and the small colony might swarm rather quickly. A seasoned beekeeper has a basic understanding of how much and for how long the hive structure can safely accommodate the hive before the bees swarm. Beekeepers and bee enthusiasts typically use bee hive stands when gathering honey.
Observing these patterns and making predictions for the next swarm is a sure sign of a beekeeper being extensively experienced at his craft. Such wisdom can highlight many swarming-related theories like bees filling up on nectar before they leave their original colony forever.
Interesting Events That Make Up a Bee Swarm
The swarming numbers can be large with the queen and nearly 50%–60% of her offspring stepping out of the hive. The relocation might not happen immediately. Exiting the hive and finding a new hive might come with a gap and an interim site being chosen.
The lead-up to the actual event is actually quite interesting. The queen who rarely lays eggs in the queen cups will change her egg-laying pattern. Repeatedly filling queen cups with an egg shows that swarming is now around the corner. An egg filled queen cup suggests that the new queen is now a certainty and the existing queen must vacate. They also feed the soon-to-exit queen less.
The worker bees reduce the feeding to ensure the queen is lighter when the time to swarm is near. This means the existing hive will have a new queen without conflicts—a brilliant way to ensure that there is sufficient living space for all members of a big, expanding family!
This process is almost simultaneously matched by the emergence of the new queen in the old hive. At this stage, the new queen is rather aggressive, killing unborn sister queens in their cups. Even during this seemingly cruel activity, the new queen has the services of worker bees who ensure the queen takes charge of the primary hive. They also call swarming clumping because the bees swarm with the workers closely surrounding the queen, creating a bundle-like formation.
As thousands of bees exit with the queen, it seems that it will be a long distance before their pause. However, the queen might not be able to fly far away. The first halt might be at a very short distance. Located a few feet away from the original hive, the swarming crowd scouts the area for better places to hive.
Some beekeeping professionals talk about “scouting” or scout bees that fly in all directions during this period. These are worker bees trying to find the best place to resettle. Scouting bees use what is commonly called waggling or the waggle dance to show the direction leading to the chosen site. The process of scouting locations, sharing it with fellow bees, and reaching a consensus is almost like a business meeting in motion. The group soon settles for a new destination.
The first bee swarm is also called the prime swarm. Sometimes, multiple swarms or a single after swarm might follow the original swarm. The after swarm happens when the new queen leaves the hive with more bees from the colony, but these exciting numbers are usually less when compared to the prime swarm.
Be Curious, But Stay Away From a Bee Swarm
Bees that swarm focus on finding a new hiving site. They are not in the same agitated state that is associated with a hive under attack. In fact, some clusters of bees here are docile. This is why beekeepers try to capture bees from the swarm. Still, bees can sting if they feel threatened. You cannot assume that today’s swarming locations won’t witness busy bee activity tomorrow. The swarming routes and frequency might spread across a couple of days until they complete the new hive’s location.
While some people have allergies to honeybees, it does not mean that others can safely withstand a swarm. From respiratory distress to inflammation, pain, swelling, and welting, there are many threats associated with a bee attack. Often, medical aids for such bee stings are not immediately available, and the outcomes can be horrible.
Among people with diagnosed allergies to bee stings, the complication can turn almost fatal. This is why some local experts tip travelers about not undertaking certain routes during the swarming season. These are times when the swarms are really moving, and it can be a risk to step outdoors without protective gear.
Sometimes, bee stings are the result of unfortunate coincidences like a hiker or biker crossing paths with feral honey bees. Again, rather than the bee sting, it is often the fear factor that makes people panic and lose control. This could be in the form of steering the car away from the road or losing balance and falling when trying to move out of the path of the swarm. There have been cases of people drowning as they tried to stay underwater, assuming the swarm will quickly pass over! For more information on bee stings, click here.
There are some basic precautions you should undertake when venturing into bee swarm locations. For instance, try not to wear dark clothing, particularly apparel that fits loosely. Wear light-colored clothing. Bees have now evolved to recognize threats from several predators such as honey badgers, bears, and other dark-furred mammals.
Strong colognes or scents are known to invite a bee attack. It is not a good idea to spray the swarms with insecticides. This directly raises the risk of getting stung. Most swarms will pass over and try being patient. Even if you encounter a swarm, don’t panic. Don’t swat at the bees as this can make them hostile and dangerous! Your best bet is to stay calm and allow the bees to continue on their path.