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The Honeybee Swarm: Amazing Pollinator Population Growth

sign that says national honeybee month

If you’re a gardener, honeybees entering and exiting a nearby hollow tree are a welcome sight. If it weren’t for honeybees pollinating the world’s food crops, two-thirds of what we eat would not exist. But what should you do if you come across a swarm of thousands of bees clinging to a tree in your yard? Are they making a new hive there?

Are they dangerous? Why are they swarming and how long will it last? Actually, these bees are just resting and awaiting the completion of an amazing process that will end with a democratic vote. Once that is done, they’ll move to a new home.

Why do bees swarm?

It’s about living space and population growth. When a healthy hive occupies a limited area like a hollow tree limb, the hive will eventually outgrow the available space. The bee population and honeycomb they produce will make it necessary for a significant segment of the colony to find a new home. This is a necessary component of bee population growth which is critically important given their role as the primary pollinators of the world’s food supply.

The swarm, or home search, will occur in springtime when an abundant food supply like blooming flowers becomes available. Quite a bit of prep work is, however, necessary before the move to a new home can be made.

The queen’s duties and preparation

The hive’s current queen will accompany the swarm and be the queen of the new hive. This means that, before the swarm can occur, the queen must produce a successor that will take her place at the existing hive. She begins laying eggs known as queen or swarm cells from which a new queen will emerge. Once a new successor queen hatches, the other queen cells are destroyed to ensure that there is but one new queen left for the existing colony.

Having been relatively sedentary while living in her current home, the elder queen is a bit out of shape. After she has done her duty of laying the special queen eggs, she is put on a diet to get back into flying condition. She needs to be prepared to make a trip of what could be several miles once the swarm occurs and a new home site is selected.

The swarm begins

All of the preparations have been made for the honeybee colony to split and for thousands of bees, accompanied by their queen, to begin the search for a new place to live. The elder queen has been on her flying diet for about a week and is ready to make the trip. It’s time for the swarm to begin.

Thousands of honeybees consisting of about three quarters of the existing hive’s worker bee population, a few dozen male drones, and the queen leave their old home. The queen will select a temporary hangout, usually within a few yards of the old hive, where she and the majority of the swarm will await news from scouts sent out to find the perfect place for their new home.

The queen and her swarm will usually select a tree limb or some similar place to congregate and wait. It’s an incredible site - thousands of bees clinging to one another in a single mass with their queen hidden somewhere inside.

The incredible democratic site selection process

This is, without doubt, the most amazing part of the swarm’s story. Scout bees are sent out to find a new home. This can take a few hours or a few days. Scouts check new sites and report back to other members of the colony that are part of a site selection committee. Those members will then check and evaluate the sites found by the scouts.

The honeybees actually have what amounts to a voting system. All scouts and other members of the selection committee must agree unanimously on the new home site before the swarm will move there and start their new hive.

How long does a swarm last?

The entire process of leaving their old hive and moving into a new home may take only a few hours or could take a day or more. If you’re keeping watch on a resting swarm, you’ll definitely know when the selection committee has agreed on a new hive site.

There will be a mass departure of a cloud of honeybees. They don’t leave gradually. They know when it’s time to go. You may see a few that have been left behind and will hang around the resting site for some time, but they, too, will eventually be gone.

What if no new home is found?

Sometimes it takes longer than expected to find a new home for the swarm. Honeybees prefer to build their homes inside of enclosed areas like hollow trees or the inside of a building’s walls. If, however, the search doesn’t produce a new home site within a reasonable amount of time, the swarming bees may begin to build an open-air hive.

If you observe a swarm of bees beginning construction of an open-air hive that is too near your home or located where people congregate, consider contacting a bee removal service. These services will relocate the bees to box hives where they, and the human population, will be safer.

Swarming bees are not aggressive

It is important to note that resting swarms of honeybees typically will not attack even if approached. They have no homes, eggs, or honey to protect when they are waiting to fly to their new hive location. Even so, approaching them is not recommended.

If you find yourself in close proximity to a resting swarm, just move away slowly and refrain from making any quick motions that could provoke them and you should be fine. Simply leave them alone, give them their space, and wait the short time it typically takes before they fly away.

For a number of reasons including your personal safety, never try to spray a swarm with an insecticide or cause them to leave by somehow disturbing their resting spot.

Final thoughts...

Honeybees are both critical to our food supply production and fascinating to observe. The system they use to grow their population and democratically select new hive locations is amazing.

Honeybees need human support to continue providing the indispensable services required to maintain our food supply. The good news is that the support consists primarily of merely leaving them alone and using only bee-friendly pesticides.

Powdery pesticides cling to bees while they’re out doing their jobs as pollinators. They then inadvertently deliver these toxins to their hives where they can devastate the colony. If you need to apply pesticides, you’ll be doing bees and other pollinators a service by using liquid or granular varieties or switching to organic methods of pest control.


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