Why Honey Bees Swarm, and who to call when they do
We had an unseasonably hot spell over Easter, and there have been reports of bees swarming already. Once you understand a bit about why honey bees swarm, it makes it less worrying when it happens. And it's also helpful to know what to do.
This will be our second year keeping bees. I don't mind admitting that prior to finding out more about these amazing creatures, a swarm of bees would have put the fear of God into me. I think I'd watched too many horror films and assumed they were in attack mode when they swarmed. I'm happy to report, they definitely are not.
When do Honey Bees Swarm?
Honey bees typically swarm from May to July, though it can happen outside those months. I had a call from a relative last weekend (April) who came home from shopping to find honey bees in going in and out of his airbrick.
Why do they swarm?
There are two things that are useful to remember about honey bees:
- think of an entire bee colony as an animal which is programmed to reproduce, and
- understand the honey bee's top priorities which are: looking after their queen, and building up enough stores of honey to survive next winter.
A colony typically contains around 50,000 bees and one queen. The queen is usually the only bee laying eggs in the hive. She will have been laying eggs since the temperatures started to rise when Spring arrived. Her eggs will hatch into bees, and the colony will grow.
Honey Bees are programmed to swarm. It is simply nature taking its course. Even if beekeepers create more space in their hives to allow for growth, swarming is the way honey bees truly reproduce on any kind of scale. So it is inevitable that, at some stage, the bees will decide to produce a new queen. Queen cells are much bigger than anything else the bees produce, and they stand out a mile in a beehive. They are often the bee keeper's first indication that the bees are thinking about swarming.
There usually isn't enough room in a hive for more than one Queen (think: this hive ain't big enough for the both of us). So a large number of bees will plan to swarm either before the new Queen hatches, or immediately afterwards.
Or: they just decide to. It really is that simple. Sometimes beekeepers heed the warning signs and do things in the hope that they can persuade the bees not to swarm. But very often, once they decide to go, they will. And you may never know quite why they made that decision.
What happens when Honey Bees Swarm?
The old queen will leave the hive, along with several thousand workers. A swarm is an impressive, scary (and loud) sight when they go. But the bees are not aggressive at this point in the cycle. They don't want to hurt anyone. Their aim is simply to find a new home, start building comb and get the cycle going again at their new premises. And the bees' mission is to do all this so that they can build up enough stores for next winter. Hence they're more likely to warm in May and June than later in the year.
The upshot of this is that several thousand bees may settle in a tree or bush in your garden. It will be more difficult to deal with if they have chosen an inconvenient place to settle. But that group of bees may only stay for a couple of hours whilst they make their plan. And they are not interested in people whilst they do this. In fact, the bees will be positively docile at this stage. The workers are focused on protecting their queen in the middle of the cluster. Meanwhile scout bees are out searching for suitable new accommodation. The colony's plan will be to fly on to their final destination in quick time. They will not survive if they take too long to find their final home.
How do you know you have a Honey Bee Swarm?
In the UK there are over 250 types of bees but there is only one European honey bee (apis mellifera).
So how do you know you're dealing with honeybees?
Honey bees are small and vary in colour from golden brown to almost black. You will find a swarm of them in a clump, rather like the shape of a rugby ball.
I believe I have a swarm of Honey Bees. What can I do?
So a honey bee swarm has landed on or near your property, and you now need to decide what to do. You can leave the bees to sort themselves out, as eventually they're likely to leave. But sometimes things go wrong. They can't find somewhere suitable and don't seem to be going anywhere. Or their chosen landing point is causing you problems - like you have a house full of bees because they've chosen an airbrick, for example. Or they've decided that this place (eg your roof) is, in fact, their final destination.
If you are confident that your bees are honey bees, you can contact your local swarm collector via the British Bee Keepers Association Website.
Remember that a swarm collector can't deal with any other bees except honey bees. Because of this, he/she may ask you to send a photograph of the bees, or even a video, so that they can see what you see. This will save you wasting time with the wrong person, and save your local swarm collector a wasted journey. Though they can still help identify and advise on other species if your bees are not honey bees after all.
Remember that the window for bee swarms is quite small. Your local collector may be extremely busy with swarms in your area, all at the same time. They offer a collection service on a voluntary basis and at no cost to you (they might appreciate a small donation for their mileage and time but it is absolutely not expected), so the more help you can give them the better. They cannot remove any bees other than honey bees.
The BBKA Website also offers advice if it turns out your bees are not honey bees after all.
What happens to the Honey Bee Swarm after it is collected?
Assuming your bees are honey bees and the collector arrives before they have moved on, the swarm collector may pop the bees in a hive of their own. Or they might pass them on to another beekeeper who is looking to start a new hive.
Wherever the swarm's final destination, the workers will build comb and the queen will start laying eggs and the cycle starts again.
Meanwhile that is not the end of they story back at the old hive. The new queen will hatch, and the cycle continues there too with the workers that are left behind and their new queen.
So if you find a swarm of honey bees, don't panic and please don't attempt to destroy them. Contact your friendly local swarm collector instead.
Here is a testimony taken from the BBKA website:
"On Monday July 2nd at 4.30pm a swarm of honey bees had gathered on a small tree branch that was on the border with my neighbour. He thought they were wasps and was in a panic. I confirmed they were bees with the help of your website, used your search to find and call a coordinator, who phoned back to say a bee keeper had been found. He called me immediately and arrived about an hour later with all the kit and removed the bees to a new home. It was fascinating to watch as he talked through each step. He even gave me a jar of his own splendid honey but would take no payment for this or his time and expenses. So I am about to make a donation to you for your excellent website and the service it provided. Thank you so much and lets hope those bees are happy in their new home."
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