Don’t Fear the Swarm

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It begins this time of year in early spring.  You may glance over your shoulder or try to peer around hedge.  Could one be over there?  Nope.  Just a grouping of brown leaves.  Wait… what’s that noise?  The hum of a motor?  An overhead light buzzing? You ponder staying indoors for the next month or longer.  Surely those late-night science fiction movies on this very topic you’ve watched in the dark are based on science, right?   But before your fear inhibits your enjoyment of the outdoors, just breathe deeply and repeat after me, “Don’t fear the swarm”.

One of the most mesmerizing images in nature is a honey bee swarm.  It is a ball of living, breathing bees all tightly clustered together.  Often in odd locations.  Hanging off the side mirror of a car.  From the bottom of a mailbox.  A branch of a dead tree.  Perhaps even the gutter of a house?  Forget the horror films that vilify a swarm, in reality, it is truly a sight to behold.

honey bee swarm

honey bee swarm

Just what is a swarm you ask?  It is a natural event in which a colony of bees creates a new colony.  Overcrowding is what kicks off this event.  There just simply isn’t enough room in the colony (hive) for the growing number of honey bees.  At this point, some of the workers begin to create queen cells or cups (in which new queens will grow).  These cells are quite distinct… they are typically hang vertically from the lower portion of the honeycomb and are much larger than the cells from which a worker bee will emerge.  And if the large cells aren’t enough of a clue, they have another distinguishing feature…. these cells look like peanut shells, dimples and all.

As the queen cells are being made, other bees begin scouting flights… searching for a potential new home.

Prior to swarming, the departing bees will gorge themselves on honey.  Think of it as one-for-the-road.  It may be a day or two (after they leave the colony) before they settle into a new home.

When a swarm happens, approximately 50% of the bees (workers as well as drones) leave the colony with the old queen.  The air is filled with bees as they exit their home… whether it is a hollow tree or a beekeeper’s hive.  This mass of bees travels together like a cloud.  Generally a short distance from their old home, the bees cluster together, hanging off of an object such as a tree branch.  Within this cluster, the queen is in the middle… protected.  Scout bees leave the cluster in search of a new home.

honey bee swarm on tree branch

honey bee swarm on tree branch

Some people are terrified when they see the cluster.  They believe that the bees are just waiting for them.   But unless you start swatting or poking at the swarm, they are content to leave you alone.  They are ‘homeless’ for the time being and therefore not defensive about their location.  Remember those scouting bees?  The cluster is waiting for them to return and do their dance to indicate potential new locations.

What are the scout bees looking for?  Specifically a place that will provide protection from the elements.  Also… the new location must have not only enough space for the swarm, but also for the new bees that will be hatched from this homeless colony.  And once a place is found, the cluster will break apart and travel as a cloud of bees to their new home.  (Finding a new location may only take about an hour upwards to a day).

So friends, don’t fear the swarm.  It is a natural event that begins in spring.  These bees are simply looking for a new place they can call home.

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4 responses »

  1. The old saying here (in southern Virginia) is “A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay. A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon. But a swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.” Someone recently told me they have the same saying in Nova Scotia so it must have traveled over from Europe along with honeybees. I’m hoping to catch a swarm this year, but it’s easier said than done.

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