Updated: May 11
Spring brings gentle honeybees just looking for a new place to build their home. They have filled their bellies with honey from their previous hive and usually cluster on a tree branch until they send out scouts who find that special new place, they will call home.
Figure 1: Honeybee Swarm in a Tree
What Causes Honeybees to Swarm?
Honeybee colonies are considered superorganisms because they reproduce as a partial split of a larger colony to make a second colony in another location. The honeybees decided, usually when they start to run out of space, the collective decision is made to take roughly 60% of the colony numbers and swarm. They normally don't go far and usually into a tree. The scout bees will start to scout in every direction for a new suitable place for the colony to call home.
Does the Queen Decide to Swarm?
While most people would guess that the queen makes the decision to swarm and look for a new place to start a colony, that isn't actually the case. No one bee actually makes the decision, it is just a collective decision. Experienced Beekeepers can confirm this because they have seen honeybees swarm into a nearby tree, only to return back to the beehive and swarm the next day. The bees left without the queen and had to come back to get her. You can see a honeybee swarm that Hilltop Honey Co posted on their Instagram below:
This was a swarm they caught in a tree right next to the beehive they were originally in. The beekeeper took a 5-gallon bucket and placed it directly underneath and bumped. This causes the honeybees to fall into the bucket and the beekeeper poured them into the empty beehive. This post actually gives some additional details about the scout bees and how they communicate a potential new place to call home. The Waggle Dance is series of half circles with wiggles that communicate the distance and with each half circle the flight direction changes. It is a rare sight, even for beekeepers, because most of the time this happens inside the hive as the honeybees communicate where new nectar and pollen sources are located for the other honeybees.
Ideal Location for the Swarm's New Home?
The ideal location, according to Entomologist, it is an empty space with small entrance that is about the size of 40 liters. This is the equivalent to a little more than two 5-gallon buckets. They will also readily accept a place where honeybees have already been, this is often the result of old honeycomb that was abandoned. This could the result of a colony that didn't survive a brutal winter. Sometimes they will find a small opening in the outside of an old house and can actually build a hive inside the walls between the two studs. This is an unfortunate issue that a home owner will want to fix, maybe something we will cover in the future. We have been called to do a few removals.
Are Honeybee Swarms Mean?
No, European Honeybees in a swarm have gorged themselves on honey prior to leaving their former beehive. They also don't have a hive to defend. Both of these cause honeybees to be super docile and not really interested in anything around them, except waiting until the decision is made to move to their new location. It is always recommended that you keep your distance and call an experienced beekeeper to provide a new home for them. Do you know what a honeybee swarm trap is? Check out our other article on Swarm Traps.