Understanding Swarms: Part of a Bee Colony’s Life

By Jeff McMullan
Fort Bend Beekeepers Association

A “swarm” of bees clustered on a limb is a colony of insects in search of a new home.  Most of us think kindly of honey bees because of their role as pollinators and their difficult struggle with pests and disease.  Nonetheless, we don’t want bees to move in with us!

Types of Swarms

There are two kinds of swarms:  reproductive swarms and absconding swarms.  Reproductive swarms appear most often during the spring while absconding swarms can be at almost any time of the year.  Absconding swarms have been driven from their home by overcrowding, pests or disease or some other condition that has made their home uninhabitable for them.  Because it contains an entire honey bee colony, an absconding swarm is often larger than a typical reproductive swarm.  Reproductive swarms are an important part of the honey bee colony’s life cycle since it is the way new colonies are created by honey bees.

Honey bees multiply by dividing.  In the spring when the colony is strong and nectar and pollen are plentiful, the honey bees may begin preparations for a reproductive swarm.  The old queen slows down her egg laying and trims down for her upcoming move.  The colony begins feeding a number of larvae that will develop into a single replacement for the departed queen.

Grave Risks for New and Old Colonies

Producing a new colony is a risky process for the honey bees.  The old queen leaves with about half the workers in search of a new home.  The existing colony’s population will be much smaller and they must successfully defend their home.  They also must replace the departed queen with one that is accepted by the colony after she emerges from her cocoon.  She must kill her rivals (there can be only one queen) and successfully return to the colony from a dangerous mating flight.  Only then can she begin laying eggs and emitting the scents (pheromones) that regulate honey bee colony unity.

The swarm is at grave risk too. Since a queen is not a strong flyer, the reproductive swarm usually settles in a cluster that is not too distant from the hive.   They must find a suitable place to live and begin foraging for food and raising new bees in order to survive.  Because their queen is old, they may even be faced with raising a new one within a few weeks.

Keep the Colony Safe—and Away

As the swarm cluster waits, scout bees search for a new home.  It is bad advice to kill a swarm of bees that can be easily captured by a beekeeper.  It is equally bad advice to expect them to just go away since they could move into the wall of your home!  Contact your Extension agent or search the internet for a beekeeper organization that is nearby.  Unfortunately, if bees move into a new home that conflicts with humans, they become a costly pest control problem instead of a beekeeping problem.

Also be aware that bees prefer a home that has been occupied by bees before.  They often move right back in to a vacant cavity that is available for them.  If you have had bees before, a liberal spray of insect repellant (like Off!) at the entrance will discourage new tenants.   This is especially important if you see scout bees investigating a potential new home.  The swarm awaits nearby, but Off! will encourage them to move elsewhere, or a beekeeper can offer them a vacant hive to move into instead!


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