Help save our honey bees: swarming time is upon us

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Debbie Griffith
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As springtime temperatures encourage the blooming of fruit trees and wildflowers, so too are the warmer days of April and May a time for honey bees to perform their amazing and sometimes terrifying habit of swarming.

If you’ve ever witnessed a basketball-sized cluster of loudly buzzing bees, you may have been tempted to call the exterminator. Please don’t. Instead, call your friendly neighborhood beekeeper, who will usually be happy to capture the swarm and “re-home” it back in his or her apiary for no charge. Several members of the Toe Cane Beekeepers Association will answer swarm calls in Avery, Yancey and Mitchell counties. The list of “swarm catchers” is on the club website toecanebeekeepers.net.

So why in the world do honeybees swarm? It’s a very normal and predictable process of reproducing – making more colonies. Here’s what happens: In the spring, a well-tended bee colony becomes very crowded. It’s a population explosion as the queen bee, mother of all the bees, speeds up her egg-laying. The bees sense that it’s time to find a more spacious abode – usually a hollow tree, but sometimes, unfortunately, the soffit of a house, or a crack in someone’s foundation.

Before swarming, the queen mother will lay eggs in oversized, peanut-shaped cells called “swarm cells.” There may be several of these swarm cells in the colony. In those cells new, virgin queens will begin developing and are fed a special food called royal jelly. But before the new queens “hatch,” the bees begin preparations to find a new home for about half of their number. The older queen is then put on a diet to make her flight-worthy in preparation for her departure with the swarm and about half of the bees.  

On the day of the big event, usually a warm, calm and sunny day, the bees begin an excited “whir” dance, zigzagging throughout the hive and engorging on honey to fuel their departure.

Scout bees are sent out to find a perfect new home. In the meantime, about half of the bees in the hive and the old queen will leave the hive en masse and alight on a nearby branch of a tree where they will rest for a time and wait for the scout bees to return with ideas for a potential new home. The scout bees convey information to the swarm of bees by “dancing” precise patterns that give coordinates of the new home based on the position of the sun in relation to the new address. 

When most of the scouts are providing the same coordinates, a consensus is reached. This may take some time so that the swarm may stay on the resting tree or branch or fence post for up to an hour or more. 

That’s why calling your friendly neighborhood beekeeper right away is essential. At this point, the swarm is relatively docile, since they have no home to defend and also because they have stuffed themselves with honey before leaving the old hive.  

If you are lucky enough to watch a beekeeper capture a swarm at this point, you’ll find that some don’t even wear much sting protection – only a veil is needed. 

The ball of bees is shaken or scooped into a box, and the beekeeper and his “free” bees are on their way home.

If the swarm is not captured at this point, eventually, the swarm will depart in a frenzy for their permanent new address. They enter and set up housekeeping right away, building wax combs to store honey and pollen, and give the old queen room to begin laying eggs again. A new colony is born.

Meanwhile, back at the old colony, it’s no longer crowded. One or more new, virgin queens emerge from their swarm cells. 

They fight with one another until a single victor kills all the rival queens. A few days later, the virgin queen takes a series of three or four mating flights, mating with as many of 12-15 male bees (drones) from another colony. She then returns and begins laying eggs (up to 1,200 per day) to continue the life of the old colony. She never again leaves the colony unless it is to swarm.

Beekeepers consider captured swarms “free bees” because they can re-home the bees and care for them without the expense of purchasing starter hives, which can cost more than $100 for the bees alone. Many swarms that invade sheds or the eve of your house can become a nuisance, or they can succumb to bee diseases when not adequately managed by an expert keeper. 

So, if in the coming months you hear a frantic buzzing and see a large cluster of bees on a tree branch or fence post or even the bumper of a car, call a beekeeper with Toe Cane Beekeepers Association (toecanebeekeepers.net) who can capture the swarm and give it a new home.                                       

Debbie Griffith is a certified “Journeyman Beekeeper” and secretary of the Toe Cane Beekeepers Association. She lives in Ingalls in Avery County, where she runs Whippoorwill Hill Apiary and Orchard. She may be reached by email at djgriff2@gmail.com.