Updated: Mar 9
Swarming is the way that honeybees reproduce in nature. If the queen runs out of space to lay eggs and the hive becomes too crowded with bees, the queen will leave with half of the colony to start a new colony somewhere else. The swarm will leave the hive in a swirling cloud of bees and land in a ball to rest on a nearby tree. They are looking for a new home - perhaps a hollow tree - or a beehive that we beekeepers provide for them.
How a swarm starts
In Ontario, 'swarm season' typically starts around the middle-to-end of May and lasts until the end of June. This is the period of time when a beehive is most likely to swarm. But the process actually starts about 10 days earlier, inside the the hive.
In May, the honeybee population inside the hive is growing rapidly. The queen has been laying eggs for weeks, gearing up the beehive for the first honey flow of the season - the dandelion bloom. The bees start packing the honeycomb full of nectar that they will turn into honey. The queen is also running out of space to lay eggs, and the hive is very full of newly hatched bees.
When the hive gets too crowded, the honeybees will start preparing to swarm. The first thing the bees do is they start building queen cells - honeycomb cells designed for honeybee royalty (shown below). The queen will lay regular female eggs in these cells, one of which will become this colony's new queen. The nurse bees start feeding these larva royal jelly that they secrete from their heads, which turns on the queen's reproductive system. The queen bee larva grow bigger and the bees cap the queen cells - they look like peanuts! Inside the capped queen cell, the queen bee larva pupates into an adult queen bee. To watch a queen hatch, check out our blog all about the birth, life and death of the queen.
As the new queens are developing, the worker bees stop feeding the current queen bee. They put her on a diet to get ready for flight. You see, the queen bee is larger than the workers and being bigger, she is a clumsy flier. She needs to slim down so that she can fly with the swarm to its new home. The worker bees, on the other hand, will gorge on honey so that they have lots of energy for the flight.
Here is a video where we actually managed to catch the queen bee during a swarm:
The honeybee swarm
The swarm itself is a sight to behold. The bees simultaneously march out of the hive and take flight - the sound is a loud roar and the bees form a swirling cloud of bees. There are so many bees in the air, flying around in a circle. The cloud of bees starts to fly together in one direction and the bees start to land, building up into a bigger and bigger ball of bees. The swarm can be anywhere from the size of a football to the size of a large beachball, sometimes bigger. To start, the queen will land about 100 metres from the original beehive, where the swarm will gather and rest. They may stay here for an hour or longer, or sometimes they fly off right away in search for a new home. Then, they may fly up to 1 km before landing again in a ball.
Searching for a new home.
Once the bees land all together and cluster into a ball, scouts will fly off in all directions looking for a good potential site for a new hive. If a bee finds a potential spot, she will fly back to the swarm and communicate the location by 'waggle dancing'. She will convince a few of her sisters to check out the site, and if they agree, they too will go back and waggle. Once enough of the bees agree that the site will work, the bees take off together and move into the new home, usually a nearby hollow tree.
If you see a swarm of bees, call a beekeeper
Instead of moving into a hollow tree, or worse the side of house or building, we beekeepers can provide the honeybees with a beehive. When we catch swarms of bees, we can shake the swarm right into the beehive. Because the bees have eaten so much honey before flight and because they don't have a home to defend, swarming honeybees are remarkably gentle and less likely to sting. Here is a video that shows how we catch swarms. As long as the queen goes into the hive, the rest of the bees will follow. And now, we have a new honeybee colony.
Here's another swarm we caught...this one was soooo big! Watch and see how we move this ball of bees into a new beehive.
Back at the original beehive
After the swarm leaves, the bees that are left behind continue to work, as they wait for the new queen to hatch. When the queen bee hatches, she will take a mating flight - she will leave the hive and mate (in mid flight) with about a dozen 'drones' (the term for male bees) who die in the process. She then returns to the hive and takes over laying eggs, ensuring the continuation of the colony. And now, the hive is renewed with a younger queen and the older queen has started a new colony somewhere else. This is how honeybee colonies reproduce.