It’s swarm season

A bee swar.
A bee swarm

It’s that time of year again, spring. Wonderful warm spring after another long cold winter. A few warm days and the bees are hard at work again. It’s that time of year when beekeepers all over the country, (well those from cold climates anyway) dust off their bee suits and light up their smokers – ready for another beekeeping season.

With the weather warming up the spring build-up in beehives is well underway. The Spring buildup is where the hive gets back into the swing of things after a long winter rest. The colony is trying to build bee numbers as quickly as it can to get back to full production in an effort to start gathering stores in preparation for the next long winter spell. This spring build-up can result in the production of swarms. Swarms are usually a result of the colony running out of space in their existing location resulting in the hive splitting.

Swarming is the process by which a new honey bee colony is formed. Usually occurring in spring, the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees. In the prime or initial swarm, about 60% of the worker bees leave the hive with the old queen.

A nice healthy swarm settled on a shrub.
A nice healthy swarm settled on a shrub.

This prime swarm can contain thousands to tens of thousands of bees. 

Secondary or cast swarms are those that occur after the initial swarm. Cast swarms are usually smaller and are accompanied by a virgin queen ( a queen that has not yet mated).

Once the swarm has left the hive it usually settles on a tree, shrub, car or whatever takes it’s fancy. They will settle here for anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. Scout bees search for suitable cavities in which to construct the home. Successful scouts will then come back and report the location of suitable nesting sites to the other bees. A kind of bee vote takes places and the scout bee that has the most convincing argument wins. At this point, the successful scout bee and his supporters rally the swarm into action and guide them to the new hive location. 

Once there the worker bees immediately start building new wax comb so the queen can start laying eggs and the workers can start storing food. This is the start of a new Colony and its a success will depend on a whole range of factors including the availability of food, how late in the season it is, exposure to disease and exposure to pesticides to name a few.

Putting a swarm in a hive for relocation.
Putting a swarm in a hive for relocation.

As a beekeeper, I try to prevent my hives from swarming. Although this is a natural event for honey bees in the wild, European Honey Bees are not native to Australia and should be managed so they have minimal impact on the native ecosystems. Feral honey bees will take residence in tree hollows that a lot of our native fauna also use for nesting sites. It also helps control the spread of disease which is vitally important to the health of honey bees. As an urban beekeeper, I have a responsibility to make sure my bees have minimal impact on the community, you can become pretty unpopular pretty quickly if your bees swarm and take up residence in someone’s house.

Splitting hives is a common practice to manage swarming. This practice is essentially where the beekeeper carries out an artificial or controlled swarm by taking some of the frames and bees from a hive and relocating them to another hive to start a new colony. There are various ways that beekeepers do this but that is basically how it is done. There are other ways to manage swarming but I won’t go into that here.

Removing a swarm from a garage ceiling.
Removing a swarm from a garage ceiling.

Contrary to what a lot of people think honey bee swarms are pretty harmless. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone.

So what should you do if you see a swarm?

Call a beekeeper, we are always keen to collect a swarm. You can contact me on 0404 621 289 if you come across a swarm.

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