By Mark Anthony Powers, Master GardenerSM Volunteer and NCSBA Certified Master Beekeeper
Spring is for dogwood blossoms, fresh-picked strawberries, and…honey bee swarms. If you’re lucky you may have the opportunity to witness one of these amazing sights. Thousands of these fascinating creatures may hang from a tree branch or a garden sculpture in your own backyard.
Please don’t call pest control or spray insecticide on these hard-working homeless insects. There are beekeepers just waiting to hear about valuable free bees for their hives. Your county beekeeping association should have someone available on a swarm patrol who will happily scoop them up or shake them into a box and give them a home (Click here for local resources in Durham County and Orange County).
A large swarm captured in a box at a business in Durham. Once the queen is inside, the workers follow. (Image credit: M.A. Powers)
Honey bees in a swarm have bellies full of honey and are in their gentlest of states. The hanging mass of bees has bivouacked and may stay for an hour or a couple of days while specialized scout bees search for a suitable site to settle and create a new home. If you look closely, you can see these scouts dancing in straight lines while rapidly shaking their abdomens. This is called a waggle dance and tells other scouts how far away and in what direction a potential home exists. After more scouts visit these sites, a consensus is reached, and they all do the same dance. In 2019, I filmed a swarm at the Briggs Avenue apiary and you can watch it on YouTubeTM. Soon after consensus is reached, this vagabond colony will lift off in an impressive honey bee tornado and make a beeline for their new home which could be a hollow tree, a baited swarm trap strategically located by a clever beekeeper, or your neighbor’s attic.
Preventing a swarm colony from setting up housekeeping in someone’s home is just one reason to have a beekeeper expeditiously relocate them. The other is that, left on their own as a feral colony, they will likely succumb to parasitic varroa mites, an imported scourge that needs to be vigilantly managed with interval testing and treatments. Honey bees are actually livestock and need to be taken care of to survive.
Why do honey bees swarm? Spring is when they have ample food sources, and the colony (as a superorganism) is rapidly expanding. There is one queen, and she secretes a pheromone, “queen substance,” from tarsal glands on her feet. Her worker bee retinue spreads it around the hive where it suppresses the ‘urge’ (please excuse my being anthropomorphic) to initiate the cascade of events that leads to swarming. If there is crowding and the bottoms of frames don’t get enough of this pheromone, workers will create several wax queen cells that look like peanuts.
After the queen drops an egg in each of them, and the egg becomes a larva, nurse bees feed the larva a steady diet of a high-protein substance called royal jelly until they seal the cell. The larva becomes a pupa, then an adult queen. The transformation from fresh egg to adult queen takes about 16 days. The first virgin queen out makes a piping sound and the other virgins, still in their cells, quack in response. The first queen then locates them and kills them, trying to ensure her place as hive monarch. Sometimes, if the colony is quite large to start with, workers will protect a few of these virgin queens, and they can accompany one or more subsequent smaller swarms, called afterswarms.
Each swarm event takes about half of the workers from the original hive. It takes a week or longer for a virgin queen to mature and complete her mating flights, then another 21 days before her eggs become adult worker bees. This combination of loss of bees and delay making new workers weakens the hive and drastically reduces its productivity, especially its honey production.
So, what can beekeepers do to prevent swarming? The first action is to try to stay ahead of crowding and to add space when brood, pollen, and nectar/honey fill more than three quarters of the hive frames. If beekeepers find swarm cells, then the bees are already committed to swarm. If a beekeeper can get to it before the colony swarms, the best strategy is to trick this superorganism into ‘thinking’ that it’s already swarmed. To do this, one has to find the original queen among the 60,000 or so bees (think Where’s Waldo on steroids) and to place her along with brood, food, and enough bees to keep house in a new hive, called a split. This epic step usually works, and beekeepers get to keep all their bees in the two colonies. Two colonies was the bees’ goal to start with. And that’s why a superorganism of honey bees are programmed to swarm.
Resources and Additional Information
North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology and Insect Biology and Management’s site offers a wealth of resources about honeybees and beekeeping. To find links to The Wolfpack’s Waggle, a newsletter about apiculture, plus extensive articles on honey bee biology and management, visit their website.
To learn more about becoming a beekeeper and for local chapters and programs on apiculture, visit NC Beekeeper’s Association’s informative website.
Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center has a great factsheet on swarm FAQs. For more information, see the link below
For gardeners interested in doing their part to support bee habitats, NC Cooperative Extension agent Debbie Roos’s site on pollinator conservation offers advice on the best pollinator-friendly plants and much more.
Visit the author’s website to learn more about beekeeping through his fiction which features the world of bees.
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