Swarm Season

Keeping honey bee hives means you will likely encounter swarms – something people are usually terrified of! A natural reproduction process, swarming can happen to any beekeeper, so you should be prepared when it occurs. It is a sight to behold when the swarm is in full flight. The season of swarms is typically in April and May here in the Mid-Atlantic, when bees are building up quickly from all the available nectar. Swarms can appear from nowhere on your property and most people are concerned that they will be a menace. But they are on the move and usually won’t stay long, and move on to a permanent location.

This swarm has clustered on a low branch of an arborvitae tree
I have laid the arborvitae branch on top of the frames and shake the bees into the box
I  placed the arborvitae branch on top of the frames and shook the bees into the box
After shaking the bees into the box, the rest of the bees enter because the queen is in the box

Having hives on my property, in the spring, I am always attuned to listening for the dull roar of a swarm building up and flying away. Humming bees can be heard from about 100 feet away and they come out in a wave that bursts from the hive.

 

Extra Equipment On Hand

I have at least two hives, sometimes three, but an experienced beekeeper will always have additional hive boxes on hand when a swarm appears. This is your opportunity to increase your bee population free of charge! The problem is catching the swarm as it can be quite tricky, especially if it is over 10 feet off the ground.

A very large swarm forms a perfect teardrop on a nearby tree

Cost

Honey bee startup colonies are expensive to buy — roughly $150 – $180 a pop — so when a swarm emerges from a newly installed hive or an established one,  you see your honey harvest evaporate into thin air. The hive will decamp, taking at least a third of the population along with the queen and move elsewhere and your chances of getting a honey harvest evaporate.

This swarm was high in a tree, about 30 feet, and I ultimately had to give up hiving it

Close is Better

The swarm may settle close enough to capture, but more likely than not, they fly far away to a tree 60 feet high with no chance of hiving them up for a new colony. Their chances of surviving in the wild are around 20%. The remaining bees are a much smaller population and have little chance of producing excess honey for harvest.

Two bee swarms on a hockey net
Two bee swarms on a hockey net

Capturing the Queen

Once I had a swarm land on a nearby tree and I simply climbed a ladder and lopped the branch off and brought it down the ladder with all the bees attached and knocked them into the hive box. The key is to get the queen into the hive box and all the workers will automatically follow. For once, the whole procedure of moving the swarm into the hive went like clock work!

You can either cut off the branch and dump the bees in or just knock it down forcefully to dislodge the whole swarm into the hive body

Queen Cups

Before the swarm leaves the original hive, the queen lays eggs into queen cups, or larger cells that can accommodate the larger growing queen larvae. After the swarm leaves with the old queen, the new queens will emerge from the queen cups and if there are several that emerge, they will fight to the death, until the stronger one and usually the first one to emerge, is victorious.

Queen Cup
Queen Cup

Way Station Cluster

Queens are too heavy to fly long distances, so the swarm usually will form on a nearby structure or tree branch with the queen in the center, and scout bees will start to look for new homes. They cluster in the chosen spot for a few hours or a few days, until the scout bees determine where the final nest site will be. Since I am on the swarm contact list for my area, I get many frantic calls from concerned homeowners who have a swarm land on a nearby shrub, tree, or other structure. I usually ask them to send a picture of the swarm and give me a brief description of how accessible it will be before committing to capture it. But I have hived up some good swarms from homeowners who are just glad to get rid of them!

Large cluster of bees looking for a new home
Large cluster of bees looking for a new home

5 Replies to “Swarm Season”

  1. When I was a teenager, my father caught a swarm that flew into our yard. From that first hive, he built up a lucrative honey business. Honeybees certainly are fascinating creatures.

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