Swarming of the Bees

Yes! It is that time of year (Honey Flow) when the bees build up quickly. Before you know it you are looking at a huge moving bee mass perched on a tree branch like the one below when you come home from work. And you must do something quickly before they move on to roomier and more distant pastures! 

Honey Flow

Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance. For me in Maryland, honey flow happens when the black locust is in bloom, starting in mid May into June.  I can see the heavy creamy white hanging blossoms dangling from the trees lining the wooded roads around my house and I know that my bees will be in tip top form ferrying nectar to the hive and capping it with wax to make honey stores for the winter.

Black Locust blooms
Black Locust blooms

This is the beginning of the peak honey-producing season, when bees, taking advantage of the pollen available from spring blooms, make as much honey as they can to store for the cold days of winter ahead.

Bringing nectar and pollen into the hive
Bringing nectar and pollen into the hive

With the coming of spring a couple of weeks late this spring, I haven’t worried so much- but honey flow arrives quickly when I really busy with the garden and my landscape business that sometimes I am taken by surprise by swarming activity. If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get 10 different answers and opinions. Other non-beekeeper friends who don’t understand will ask me, ” Why don’t you want your bees to swarm?  You can increase your hives !”  The answer is really simple.  Say goodbye to any honey production for that year! And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm.  The bees have a mind of their own.

Swarm Production

As a beekeeper, I am sometimes called by a panicked home owner when a huge ball of noisy bees appears in their backyard. They are afraid of them stinging and just want the bees to go away or be killed. In fact, swarming bees are loaded up with honey and are very unlikely to sting. They are not dangerous and are just looking for a new home.

Peanut shaped swarm cell

Queen bee in the makingSwarming is a natural duplication process for honey bees to form a new colony.  When a colony is bursting at the seams in their home with little room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen on their own. The old queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 15,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance and cluster on a tree branch, shrub or other object to form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more.  The queen is usually centered in the cluster and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house! The swarms can stay in their temporary location for several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.

A swarm starting to form

The Big Event

I have observed a swarm in progress from my hives several times and it is very impressive and exciting.  One of the signs that precedes a swarm is the sound! The tone of the hive increases greatly in volume and the bees start to exit in a huge undulating wave from the hive body and head for some nearby structure- usually a tree, to land. The bees seem to have a unified purpose and know exactly what to do.

The Honey Bees have made a bee hive on the bra...The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony in the hive and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. But they are a much smaller population so won’t produce that honey surplus. Beekeepers try to avoid a swarm because it splits their population and reduces the likelihood of producing honey to harvest that season. The advantage to swarming is that now you have two hives instead of one but again you have to put off harvesting any honey because both colonies will need honey stores to get through the winter.

Capturing a swarm
Capturing a swarm

Capturing the Swarm

If the swarm is from a beekeepers own colony the beekeeper will try to capture it and put it in a new hive. But if it is a wild colony that swarms it can land in a unsuspecting homeowners yard and they start calling 911 in a panic. If a beekeeper gets the call, and the swarm is not that far off the ground, the beekeeper can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away. As bees can be expensive, about $125 for a laying queen and brood, beekeepers are usually delighted to take them off your hands. Sometimes beekeepers will charge the homeowner a fee, especially if the swarm is located in a difficult to access place. Go to http://thegardendiaries.blog/2011/11/09/hiving-a-swarm/ to see a slide show of me hiving a swarm.

Swarm high up in a tree
Swarm high up in a tree

I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars, and in the walls of houses.  If they are in your walls, the bees are almost impossible to extricate and should be euthanized. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest. If you discover a swarm in your yard, the best thing to do is call a local beekeeper by looking on the internet for the CMBA, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which keeps a database of beekeepers interested in capturing swarms. If you are not in MD, just look up Beekeepers in your area and someone will take them off your hands.

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Preventative Steps

Here are my pointers on avoiding this catastrophe:


I like to give the bees plenty of ventilation by not only having the entrance unimpeded with reducers but also by shimming my upper boxes open slightly to give the bees more openings for air flow.

To ventilate, I place matches between the inner cover and hive body
To ventilate, I place matches between the inner cover and hive body

Plenty of Room

 I have already added supers (extra honey boxes) on top of my brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs. I have stopped using a queen excluder to the horror of many beekeeper friends. I feel that this keeps the queen from going where she needs to go and if she feels restricted, swarm production will start.  When I harvest my honey, if there is brood in the supers, I just move it down to the brood boxes.

Give the bees lots of room
Give the bees lots of room

Young Queens 

Requeen when your queen is a couple of seasons old.  Some beekeepers say every year, but there is so much supersedure going on (bees making their own queen) that sometimes this isn’t necessary.

New queens come in small cages
New queens come in small cages


Split up your hive early in the season if it is going strong.  This simply means take a few frames of brood with some nurse bees and place them in a new hive.  You can add a new queen or let them make their own.  This can be a gamble because it takes time to make a new queen but by separating the hive you reduce the urge to swarm.

Removing Swarm Cells-Forget it!

Beekeepers recommend to go through your boxes frequently and remove the queen swarm cells that are ready to hatch out new queens.  I think at that point, it is too late. Bees are programmed to swarm and you are swimming against the tide by trying to stop the process. Also, I don’t think it is a good practice to open up your hives too frequently.  Leave them alone!

Sweet Rewards!

12 Replies to “Swarming of the Bees”

  1. Just fascinating, Claire! I have such an appreciation for all of the dedicated beekeepers. I would never be brave enough… but am so grateful for those who raise bees and earn such sweet rewards! ♡

  2. Nice post and great photos. First year beek and am still debating whether to use a queen excluder or not. I have two hives so I’m leaning towards using it on one and not the other to see if it makes a difference. There’s a few hives around in my area and I could probably capture a swarm fairly easily if I set out some empty hives. Maybe something to try next year. I even saw a swarm fly overhead the day I set my new hives out. Didn’t see where they ended up though.

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