News: From Swarm to Safe & Sound
It’s swarm season, a busy time for bees! They’ve been working hard to rapidly increase their population so that they have enough foragers to collect as much nectar as possible during the spring and summer flows. A “flow” is beekeeping lingo for a period of time when an abundance of flowers are in bloom, providing ample nectar sources for the bees. As their population grows, the bees have to work together to actively manage their space. The wax comb the bees build is used for everything (raising brood, storing honey and pollen, etc.) so they have to decide how much comb to use for each task. As their population expands, some hives start running out of space. Their solution to this problem is to swarm. The queen will leave the hive with 40-70% of the worker bees to start a new colony, leaving behind the remaining workers to raise a new queen and continue in the original hive.
Note that, because both groups have a queen when the hive splits, they can both function as healthy hives. Thus there is a broader reason for bees to swarm, beyond needing a little more elbow room. When we think about bee reproduction we might think about the queen laying eggs that hatch and grow into adults. But this is just reproduction at the individual level; and as eusocial animals, honeybees cannot survive as individuals. When honey bees swarm, a single colony becomes two; it is reproduction at the colony level. Thus swarming is a vital behavior in honey bee reproduction and a sign that a hive is healthy.
Attentive beekeepers can see the signs of swarming before it happens, and try to move the old queen and some bees into a new hive box before they leave on their own. However, even once a swarm leaves, they can still be caught and housed in a new box. When a swarm leaves their hive, they tend to choose a location close by to cluster and rest. While the queen and most of the workers wait, some bees leave the cluster to scout out possible locations for their new colony. If you can reach them before they choose a new location and all take off together to go there, the bees are usually more than happy to accept a hive box you introduce them to; especially one that has some frames of wax comb and already smells like bees.
Collecting a swarm and getting them to take up residence in a hive box you have is what we call “swarm capture.” It is a great way for beekeepers to increase the number of hives they have (for free), and a great way to help ensure the health and survival of the new colony. All too often, swarms are killed by people who confuse them for wasps or hornets and think they are a dangerous nuisance. But helping beekeepers locate and capture swarms is a great way to support local honey bees and local beekeepers. If you find a swarm of honey bees or have any questions about bees and how to keep them, contact us at Fox Haven or reach out to the Frederick County Beekeepers Association (https://www.frederickbees.org/swarms/)
Depending on the location of a swarm (particularly how high they are off the ground), swarm capture can be a laborious task that involves ladders and other equipment to safely reach the bees and bring them back down in a hive box. Fortunately, the swarm in this video chose a nice low branch on a young tree, allowing us to walk right up to them for easy collection.