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Swarming is the colony-level reproduction of honeybees. Its differences with individual bee reproduction are many, with the major one being that swarming results in two honeybee colonies. In individual bee reproduction, the result is the production of more bees in the colony. Swarming is a normal occurrence in a strong and productive honeybee colony. Beekeepers have several options to choose from when addressing swarming. They may allow natural swarming to occur, some prefer to control it , so that it happens when and in the way they want, and others opt to prevent swarming from occurring altogether. This guide aims to empower you with information and methods for best swarm control and management of honeybee colonies.
The main advantage of swarming is that it results in the formation of a new colony of honeybees. It is good for honeybee conservation and the presence of honeybees in the environment. Swarming causes gene exchange and potential bettering of the parent colony where a new queen bee is raised. She has to mate with drones from other honeybee colonies in the area.
Despite its benefits, beekeepers often prefer to prevent swarming or control it to avoid its negative effects. Honeybee colonies that have had swarming taking place are left with a greatly reduced population of honeybees. Usually, the swarm leaves with 60-70% of the adult bees in the parent colony. This causes foraging activity to reduce substantially. Production and accumulation of honey in the parent colony also slow down. Brood rearing experiences interruption until the new queen emerges, mates and starts laying eggs in the hive. Additionally, swarming bees in the neighborhood may become a nuisance or a threat to people and animals.
How Does Swarming Occur in Honeybee Colonies?
Honeybee colonies of European bees and their subspecies tend to swarm during early spring season. This is before, and also during the main nectar flow of the year. European bees are the common type of bees in US beekeeping operations. Swarming in early spring gives the departing swarm high chances of success. They are able to find enough nutritional resources for building new comb. Additionally, the departed swarm is able to stock cells in the new hive with nectar and pollen. The swarm consumes enough food for the energy that they need for raising new brood.
African honeybees can swarm long after the typical swarming season for European honeybees ends. They also swarm more frequently than European honeybees. Swarms of African bees are typically smaller than swarms of European honeybees. The swarms of the African honeybees are docile like swarms of European bees. Defensive characteristics for which African bees are famous manifest after the new colony has established its new nest, built honeycomb and started growing its honeybee population.
How Honeybees Prepare for Swarming
Various changes occur in the colony that is preparing to swarm. They include the queen losing some of her body weight, honeybees making queen cells, reduction in foraging activity, and the queen bee reducing her egg-laying activity among others. Worker bees put the queen bee on a diet so that she can lose body weight and, therefore, be able to fly to the location of a new hive.
On the day of swarming, worker bees in the parent colony crowd the next and gorge themselves on honey. Foraging ceases temporarily. The worker bees develop an audible pitch that is louder than the beehive hum in a colony that is not ready to swarm.
How Actual Swarming Happens
During swarming, 50-70% of the worker bees in the colony get out of the beehive. They herd the queen bee to leave the beehive with them. The old queen bee flies to a nearby structure and the worker bees land on the structure in a circle around her. This behavior results in the formation of a honeybee cluster on the structure that varies in size depending on how many worker bees leave the beehive to swarm away with the old queen bee.
The cluster of honeybees stays on the structure and sends out scout bees to look for a suitable cavity in which they will build a new nest. Once the scout bees find a suitable cavity, the cluster flies to the new location as one circling mass.
Once a swarm has found a new cavity for its hive, it embarks on cleaning it and setting it up. It draws comb for brood and storing nectar and pollen. If there are any unwanted openings, the colony seals them up. The size of the cavity’s entrance may also undergo reduction to the size that the honeybees will be able to guard adequately. Worker bees start foraging as soon as they can and also the queen bee starts laying eggs to build new brood for the colony’s continuity. In the span of 3 days to a week, the colony draws enough honeycombs for its immediate needs and finishes setting up the hive for habitation.
The Parent Colony after Swarming Occurs
After swarming takes place, the parent hive remains with about 30-50% of the initial honeybee population. It also remains with all the brood and one or more queen bees developing in their respective queen cells. The young queen bees develop and each emerges when it matures.
When the first queen bee emerges, she may bite or sting through the other queen cells. This prompts worker bees to kill the developing queen bees and remove them from the beehive. It is a measure against having more than one queen bee in the same honeybee colony.
Killing the developing queen bees, however, does not always occur. Multiple queens, therefore, emerge in the beehive and form swarms from the parent colony. This is called a secondary swarm. Subsequent swarms are called tertiary swarms. The formation of multiple swarms from one parent colony, leaves the parent colony greatly weakened due to a very low population of honeybees in the colony.
One of the new queen bees eventually stays in the parent colony and becomes the queen bee of that colony. She begins going on her orientation flights a few days after she emerges. Later, she flies to a drone congregation area and mates with drones in successive mating flights. Once she is adequately mated, she returns to the beehive and begins laying eggs. The colony population of honeybees in the parent colony is then able to resurge to proper colony strength.
Swarm Prevention Methods
Good honeybee colony management incorporates swarm prevention in the management practices. You must take proactive actions to alter colonies and their behavior during the swarming season. Such actions should be regular, especially if you notice potential swarming behavior in a colony. Proper management maintains colonies that are strong and enables continuous production of honey at a high rate. It also gives you the continuous potential to split honeybee colonies and thus increase the number of colonies that you have in your beekeeping operation. Sustained high production of beehive products and the controlled splitting of colonies make your beekeeping more profitable.
1. Providing More Brood Space to Prevent Overcrowding
Overcrowding is a major cause of honeybee swarming. Preventing the feeling of overcrowding in the beehive is one way to prevent swarming. Honeybees move through beehive resources from the bottom of the beehive to the top. They are sometimes hesitant to move downwards even when there is space in the lower beehive boxes. Congestion and crowding can, therefor, happen in the upper beehive boxes.
Additionally, having little brood space makes bees feel overcrowded and triggers swarming. Adding brood space is one easy and effective way to prevent swarming. To do this, you need to check if the queen bee is laying eggs in the hive and the brood pattern she is laying in. If the brood is in a wide circle on beehive frames, it is time to add more brood space.
Place empty beehive frames between the frames with brood in the beehive. This is called checkerboarding. It makes the queen bee go back to laying eggs in the empty beehive frames. The honeybees in the colony detect the new space and rear the brood on the new frames. Honeybees do not swarm when the brood area is not full. By checkerboarding, you postpone swarming by the honeybee colony.
When honeybees are crowded in upper beehive boxes, point them to additional space in the beehive by removing lower brood boxes and place them at the top of the beehive arrangement. The bees detect space at the top and move to it. This relieves crowding in the boxes that are now at the bottom of the beehive stack. You should remove the queen excluder when you do this to allow the queen bee to lay eggs in the brood boxes that are now at the top of the beehive.
2. Colony Equalization – Removing Brood Frames
Equalize used frames in beehives to prevent swarming. When honeybees have full frames of stored honey and brood, they may want to swarm. Remove some brood frames and honey frames from the beehive and replace them with unused frames. The replacement frames may have drawn comb or not. Use the frames that you remove from strong hives to strengthen weak honeybee colonies. Empty frames that you put in the brood and super boxes provide space for the queen to lay eggs and for worker bees to store honey. This method works best when you use it before the main nectar flow of the year in spring season.
3. Creating Nucleus Colonies from Strong Colonies
A nucleus hive is basically a controlled swarm. By creating a nucleus hive, you relieve crowding in the parent colony. Commercial beekeepers use this method quite often in their beekeeping operations to control swarming. To apply the method correctly, remove 2-4 frames of honeybees and brood from the strong colony that is at risk of swarming. Use the frames to create a new colony of honeybees. You may remove the old queen bee from the colony and allow it to raise a new queen bee.
4. Requeening Colonies
Minimize swarming tendencies by requeening honeybee colonies. Young queen bees produce pheromones in larger amounts than old queen bees. Requeening ensures that the colony has enough pheromones to keep it together. Entering the main nectar flow period with a young queen bee in the colony also ensures that you have optimal laying rate in the colony. It enables for a robust population of honeybees and production of beehive products.
In the event that you cannot get a queen bee for requeening in spring, carry out the requeening in summer. Queen bees are more available in summer season. Ensure that you requeen your honeybee colonies with a queen bee of the right type; usually a European queen bee. If you cannot raise one in your beekeeping operation, buy the queen bee from reliable suppliers. It helps in making sure that you do not introduce African bee genetics into your colonies.
5. Clipping The Queen Bee’s Wing
Swarming honeybees usually take the old queen bee of the colony with them. Clipping one of the queen bee’s wings makes her unable to fly. Even if she gets out of the beehive, she cannot go far from the beehive. She will often climb up some structure or plant near the beehive and the swarm will cluster around her. You can then easily see the swarm and capture it to install it in a new beehive. Some frustrated swarms kill the queen bee when she cannot fly and try to raise a new queen bee. This gives you time to identify swarming preparations and prevent swarming from occurring.
To clip the queen bee’s wing, hold the queen bee between your thumb and pointing finger. Use a pair of small scissors and cut off half (½) of one forewing of the queen bee. The forewing is the wing at the front of the queen’s body.
Clipping the queen bee’s wing is a temporary measure in preventing swarming. It is effective when you use it in addition to other methods of preventing swarming.
Honeybees with a queen bee whose wing you have clipped, may return to the beehive after the failed attempt to swarm away. If they do not, and you capture the swarm, do not return the swarm yourself to the old beehive. Put them into a new beehive and allow them to form a nucleus colony. You may also apply other methods in the parent colony to prevent swarming because a colony that has already tried swarming will continue doing so if the swarming tendencies are not addressed.
6. Removing Queen Cells
Removing queen bee cells from colonies is also called cutting queen cells. It is a useful method for suppressing swarming behavior. The colony does not swarm if there is no new queen bee being reared for the parent colony.
It takes 7-10 days for capped brood in queen cells to mature and emerge. You should, therefore, inspect the beehive and remove queen cells on a weekly basis. During the inspection, check all frames so that you do not miss even a single queen cell. If you miss one cell and it develops a mature queen bee, the colony will swarm. This frequency required for inspection to ensure that this method is effective makes the method time-consuming. It is usually practiced by hobbyist beekeepers and those with small beekeeping operations.
7. Harvesting Honey from the Beehive
Abundance of honey stored in the beehive can trigger swarming behavior in honeybee colonies. Bees will only swarm when there is enough honey to gorge on before they leave the beehive. There should also be enough honey left in the beehive for the parent colony after the swarm leaves. Removing some frames with honey from the beehive reduces the amount of food that the bees have. It causes the colony to refocus efforts towards storing up more honey instead of swarming.
You may remove a few frames at a time or an entire super box of honey. When you do this repeatedly, you should be able to successfully prevent swarming. You may put the frames of honey you remove from the beehive into another weak beehive or extract the honey from the beehive frames.
8. Increasing Ventilation Using a Screened Bottom Board
This method is a simple preventive technique you can use when temperatures allow it. Honeybees in a beehive may feel crowded due to high temperatures in the beehive. By ventilating the beehive, you reduce the feeling of overcrowding and make the bees feel like there is a lot of space in the beehive. Use a screened bottom board to increase ventilation during the warm months of the year. It gives the bees work to do warming the hive and reducing the comfort levels in the beehive. Honeybees that are not very comfortable in the beehive, hesitate to swarm until they are more comfortable. You should use this method of preventing swarming in combination with other more effective methods.
Causes and Triggers of Honeybee Colony Swarming
Beekeepers have noted several causes and triggers of swarming in their honeybee colonies. Swarming occurs when one or more of the causes are present in the beehive. Some causes may arise as a result of other possible causes of swarming. It is, therefore, important that you address each cause or trigger for swarming as soon as you notice it.
Common causes and triggers of honeybee colony swarming are:
1. Overcrowding in the Beehive
An overcrowded beehive is a major cause of swarming in honeybees. Having a large population of bees in a colony is important for colony strength and production of beehive products. It can, however, turn negative if there are too many honeybees in the colony. Overcrowding occurs when the honeybee population in the colony exceeds the available space for the bees. You should allow for a beehive stack to have a full box that is empty of honeybees even when all bees are in the beehive.
Sometimes, there is artificial overcrowding during cold or wet days. The bees do not go out to forage during cold or wet weather. By remaining in the beehive, the population of forager bees of the colony causes the number of bees in the hive to rise. This can cause a feeling of overcrowding in the beehive. When this happens alongside other causes or triggers, swarming can take place.
2. Inadequate Storage Space for Honey
Honey stored in the beehive is an important factor in the life of honeybees. Having a lot of it in the beehive with no additional space for storing more honey triggers the honeybees to feel comfortable and can swarm. When worker bees detect no additional space in the beehive to store honey, they divert resources to raising a new queen bee and swarming. Having a few frames without stored honey or having an empty super box at the top of the beehive stack provides space for honey storage.
3. Inadequate Brooding Space
Queen bees lay eggs in concentric circular rings on beehive frames. As the brood in one circle develops the queen bee moves to lay eggs in the next circle of cells. The cells from which brood has emerged may be used by bees to store some honey or are left empty. If there is enough brood space, the queen keeps moving to new cells and laying eggs in them. When cells in the brood area are used by the bees to store honey, they are unavailable for rearing brood. The queen exhausts all the cells that she can lay eggs in and then has no more space in which to lay eggs. Honeybees detect that the queen bee is not laying eggs due to the lack of empty cells and starts making preparations for swarming.
4. Diminished Pheromones Levels
Old queen bees do not produce as many pheromones as young queen bees. The pheromones are chemical hormones that trigger the honeybee colony to stay together. When the queen cannot produce enough pheromones to bind the colony together, some worker bees start raising a new queen in the beehive. This eventually triggers swarming in the colony.
5. A Failing Queen Bee
In addition to producing low amounts of pheromones, a queen bee may fail in other ways in a honeybee colony. She may start laying low amounts of eggs or none at all. The occurrence of such behavior is a signal to honeybees that they need a new queen bee. Since honeybees do not often kill old queen bees, they are triggered to swarm with the old queen bee and leave the parent colony with a young queen bee. The young queen bee will lays eggs in large numbers and can maintain optimum colony strength.
6. Queen Bee Genetics
There are several sub-species of honeybees. Some have better genetics than others in relation to specific behaviors. Carniolan bees and African bees swarm more readily than Italian bees. The queen bee is the major influencer of the genetics of the honeybee colony. If she is of a subspecies that swarms readily, her genetics cause your honeybee colony to form swarms. You should, therefore, always make sure that you have queen bees of the right subspecies in your honeybee colonies if you want to avoid frequent swarming behavior in the colonies.
7. Problems in the Beehive
Beehives are the only habitat that a honeybee colony uses at a time in beekeeping operations. If the beehive becomes unsuitable for habitation, the bees may swarm or abscond from the beehive. Common causes of beehives becoming unsuitable for habitation are poor integrity of the beehive boxes, diseases, pests and parasite infestations. Additionally, frequent disturbances to the beehive can cause honeybees to feel insecure and swarm away. Other causes include changes in the apiary affecting the use of the beehive, weather changes, poor ventilation, predator attacks on the beehive, animals disturbing the beehive and attacks by robber bees among others.
How to Identify Preparations for Swarming
Start monitoring your honeybee colonies for signs of swarming in early spring, about 2-4 weeks before nectar flow begins. Identifying preparations for swarming is crucial for timely prevention of swarming. Diligent monitoring of your honeybee colonies from early spring through the nectar flow is necessary so you are not caught unawares.
The major signs of swarming you can identify include the following:
1. Queen Cells in the Beehive
Queen cells are large cells on honeycomb. They are usually formed on the edges of brood comb frames. Queen cells start as queen cups. When an egg is laid in the queen cup and worker bees start extending the size of the cup, it becomes a queen cell. Formation of queen cells can be a sign of imminent swarming. The presence of queen cups in the beehive, on the other hand, is not a sign that swarming is imminent. Numerous queen cells with larvae in them along the outer edges of beehive frames in a queenright honeybee colony, are a sure sign that preparations for swarming are taking place. Once the queen cells are capped, it is difficult for you to stop the instinctual behavior of the honeybee colony to swarm.
Supersedure queen cells are formed in the beehive in emergency situations. Such situations include the queen failing, having decreased pheromone output, or the queen bee dying. Swarming is not an emergency situation in the beehive. The presence of supersedure queen cells in a hive does not, therefore, signal imminent swarming in the honeybee colony. In supersedure situations, worker bees in the colony try to raise a queen bee from young larva that is already in the development process to become worker bees. If it happens at an early enough stage of the larva’s development, the resulting queen bee develops normally. The resulting queen can, however, be inferior if the change in the development path of the larva comes late in the larva’s development. Supersedure cells typically appear at the perimeter of brood areas because that is where the youngest worker bee larvae are usually found.
2. Queen Bee is Present but not Laying Eggs
You may have the queen bee present in the beehive, but she is not laying eggs. She may also be laying just a few eggs per day. This is a sign that there is a problem in the beehive or that the honeybees are preparing to swarm. During swarming preparations, the queen bee of the parent colony is put on a diet by nurse bees. The change in the diet makes her reduce egg laying among other changes.
3. Queen Losing Body Weight
Noticing a queen bee that is losing her body weight should warn you of imminent swarming. She loses some body weight before swarming so that she can fly easier. Nurse bees in the honeybee colony put her on a changed diet before swarming to ensure that she can fly to the new location which they will use for the next hive.
4. Reduced Foraging Activity
Just before swarming, honeybees gorge on honey in the beehive. They also reduce foraging trips out of the beehive as preparations for swarming take place in the beehive. A sudden reduction in foraging behavior with no other credible explanation, is a sign that the honeybee colony is preparing to swarm. Opening up the beehive to inspect it may reveal honeybees gorging on honey instead of going out to forage for beehive resources.
5. Population Buildup Including Drones
Honeybees build up the population of bees in the hive before they swarm. This is typically an increase in the number of worker bees as well as drone bees. The drone bees are increased in number so that they can contribute to the drone pool in the area that mates with queen bees. While they are not for mating with the queen bee from their parent colony, the colony feels the need to contribute drones to the area’s population of drones. The colony does this since it knows that it will soon require some drones from other colonies to mate with its new queen bee.
Effects of Swarming
Beekeeping operations and honeybee colonies are impacted by swarming. The effects of swarming vary from colony to colony and also from one beekeeping operation to the next one. Beekeepers in commercial operations control swarming or prevent it to avoid the impact of these effects on their honeybee colonies and beekeeping operations.
Major effects of honeybee swarming are:
1. Interruption of the Colony’s Brood Cycle
There is interruption of the brooding cycle in the parent colony. This is as a result of various events including the queen bee reducing her egg-laying frequency. In some cases, the queen bee in the parent colony may stop laying eggs. Additionally, the reduced population of honeybees in the colony after swarming affects the ability of the colony to rear brood.
2. Interruption of Beehive Products Production
Colonies in which swarming takes place undergo a period of reduced production of beehive products. This is usually a result of reduced beehive population of honeybees. Many old bees that are foragers may leave with the swarm and further affect the ability of the parent colony to collect beehive resources such as pollen and nectar.
Beekeeping operations benefit the most when the beekeeper prevents swarming. Controlling the swarming process to take place under your stewardship is also beneficial in many ways to the beekeeping process. Natural uncontrolled swarming causes loss of colony strength among other negative effects in beekeeping. During beehive inspections, look out for signs that the colony is preparing for swarming and address the problem. Additionally, take steps to diffuse the triggers of swarming such as crowding and lack of egg-laying space for the queen bee. You should also keep available beehive resources, especially honey, at levels at which they do not contribute to triggering swarming. Use the methods in this guide to implement great swarm control and management of honeybee colonies in your beekeeping operation.
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