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Why Do Honey Bees Swarm?

Updated: May 24, 2021

Since there can only be one queen per hive, Swarming is the process bees use to create new colonies.

Bees inherently know when it's time to swarm, usually due to overcrowding in the hive or decreased pheromone production from the queen. In our area this usually occurs in April & May. If a hive is going to swarm the first order of business for the workers (all female) is to deprive the queen of food which will slim her down so she can fly. They will also keep her in an agitated state, literally chasing her around, which prevents her from laying too many eggs. One place the workers do encourage her to lay during this phase is in the newly formed queen cells, typically between 5 – 10 per hive. The queen cells, also known as swarm cells, are much larger than other brood cells and when complete hang vertically and look similar in size and shape to a child’s pinkie finger. While the queen cells are under construction young nurse bees (also female) will feed the larvae inside copious amounts of royal jelly which is a special secretion from their juvenile glands. After the cells are packed with the bee larvae and royal jelly they are eventually closed-up, or “capped”.

Okay, so we now have an overcrowded hive of 50,000 – 80,000 bees and too many queens, it’s time to go. The new queens will emerge from their capped cells in about seven days but before that happens the old queen will leave the hive taking typically %70 - %90 of the adult workers with her in a swarm. During this phase, the swarm is quite docile and they will form in a cluster usually not too far from their original hive. Bees will cluster around just about any object ranging from shrubs and trees to cars, bicycles and patio furniture. Once clustered, the swarm has two important jobs; one is to protect the queen from the elements within the heart of the cluster, the other is to send scout bees (yep, female) out to find a suitable new home. Scouts will typically identify their new home fairly quickly and the entire swarm cluster almost always relocates to that home within 24 – 48 hours.

Back at the old colony the new queens begin to emerge and when one does, she will immediately scan the entire hive for rival queens, emerged or still in their cells. Once she finds them, she will sting them to death on-sight so it truly is survival of the fittest and the hive will eventually end-up with one virgin queen. It should be noted that unlike the other female bees in the hive, queens do not have a barbed stinger which allows them to sting multiple times. Back to our virgin queen, she will make her mating flight within 5 - 10 days of emerging and during this flight she will travel some distance looking for drones (male bees). As you might have guessed, drones have only one job and this is their one big chance. One hopes that the virgin queen is promiscuous enough to hook-up with 10 – 20 drones because this is the only time in her life that she will mate. As for drones, they’re all destined for one of two fates:

1) Meet the woman of his dreams, get lucky then immediately die

2) Fail at the first option only to be eventually kicked out of the hive by his sisters and left as bird food

I would hate to be a drone…..

Remember that bee swarms are not dangerous and if you are fortunate enough to see a swarm or swarm cluster, please don’t call a pest control company. Call your local beekeeper😊.

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