Season of the Swarm – Part 1: What the…?!?!

By William Rowe1 & Geoff Williams2
1The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Fairhope
2Department of Entomology & Plant Pathology, Auburn University, Auburn
So far 2017 is full of Earliness. Early Spring, early blooming, early bee colony build-up, early mite populations, and definitely early swarming. Reports of swarms in late January and early February across southern Alabama were surprising. They provoked us to write about what you should expect from your colonies during this time of year, as they start to experience nectar- and pollen-collecting opportunities.
Swarming is honey bee colony reproduction – each departing swarm is a young animal (or super-organism) venturing off to find its start in life. Ain’t Nature grand?
Now that Spring is in the air and a young, uh, colony’s thoughts turn to love (ok, bluntly, reproduction), you as a beekeeper must turn your thoughts to its management. It’s kind of like you parent’s out there trying your best to manage your spirited teenage children. Sometimes you get it right! Sometimes you don’t! You just try your best.
The first swarms of Spring will cost each colony its queen and a large proportion of its worker population – anywhere from 40 to 80% (Fig. 1). Coupled with the departing bees is a drop in stored honey because the departing workers consume and store it in their honey-crop to use it as fuel to start anew. Furthermore, there will be a break in the brood cycle because the new queen needs time to get up and running!
Figure 1. Departing swarm
Figure 1. Upon departing the hive, bees participating in the swarming event may take a few minutes to cluster together. This view looks upwards towards the sky next to a colony that just swarmed. Photo by G. Williams.
New beekeepers tend to regard honeybee swarming as something to worry about. Sure enough, even a wise beekeeper needs to consider swarming.
As you might imagine, the loss of so many bees from a colony sets back its ability to collect and store honey and pollen, which of course also affects its ability to pollinate. Also, the colony will be busy raising brood to rebuild the population, further consuming resources. This diminishes the potential pounds of honey you can take from the colony during the spring season!
Another problem of swarming, particularly for hobby beekeepers maintaining bees in populated areas, is how fear inducing they are to the general populace. Although swarms are by nature gentle (they don’t have a nest to defend), they can set up shop in many places. The most natural space we all think of is a hollow tree trunk (Figs. 2 and 3).
Figure 2. A worker at a nest cavity
Figure 2. A worker honey bee guards her nest in a tree cavity. Photo by G. Williams.
Figure 3. A feral honey bee colony within a tree cavity
Figure 3. Peeking through a hole in a tree can reveal a cavity occupied by a feral honey bee colony. Photo by G. Williams.
But, they can also set up just as easily in the walls of buildings, attic spaces, out buildings, utility boxes, and so on, so long as the space is acceptable to them. Colonies in our buildings and structures cause many problems, not the least of which is the expense of tearing the structure apart to get the bees and their comb out. You don’t want to be the person responsible for someone having to pay to have a wall torn out (Fig. 4).
Figure 4. An Apis dorsata nest
Figure 4. Honey bees of all species can set up shop in precarious places. This Giant honey bee Apis dorsata colony built its nest on a hotel balcony in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by G. Williams.
If you are not working to control your swarms, you are also potentially promoting honey bee parasites and diseases. Feral honey bee colonies are not usually successful these days. In fact, they tend to be local sources for Varroa mites, small hive beetle, foulbroods, Nosema, and other disease-causing organisms to bees.
Keeping hives on your suburban or urban lot is fine, as long as you adhere to your municipality’s bylaws, follow proper beekeeping practices, and are considerate of others. Not managing your bees to reduce swarming is, plain and simple, negligent. Good beekeepers manage their swarms as much as they can. That doesn’t mean you have to get every last swarm. But, you owe it to your bees, yourself, and everyone around you to try your best.
If for nothing else, do it to avoid potentially awkward encounters with your neighbors (Fig. 5)…
Figure 5. An awkward honey bee swarm
Figure. 5. Honey bee swarms can land in inconvenient places. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Stay tuned for why and how our colonies swarm in Part 2.

Further resources
  • Seeley, T.D. 2010. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton University Press, 280 pp. Public lecture available @ (Accessed 9 April 2017).
  • Graham, J.M. (Ed.) The hive & the honey bee. Dadant & Sons, Inc., Hamilton IL. 1057 pp.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s