This week marked consistently warm temperatures in Seattle (close to 70 degrees) after a long bout of cool rainy weather. For bees (and beekeepers) this means swarm season!
Swarming is a way for bees to propagate their species – by splitting one colony (with one queen) into two (or more) new colonies each with it’s own queen. This takes some careful preparation by the bees and is just another example of an amazing thing honey bees do.
In the spring, as a honey bee colony grows in population, the brood nest will become congested. This is a trigger for honey bees to swarm and to relieve this congestion.
To prepare, the bees will create a new queen (who will stay in the original nest) and she takes 16 days to mature from an egg laid by the existing queen. While this is happening they also prepare the existing queen for a flight to a new home – she stops laying eggs and gets chased around the hive to thin her down for the flight (she hasn’t been outside since she took her mating flight). Additionally, the scout bees are out scoping the neighborhood for possible new residences for the soon to be swarm.
A swarm will result in anywhere from 40-70% of the colony’s population leaving the original hive in search of a new home. They’ll gorge themselves with honey to have energy for the journey. Then, this swirling mass of bees will exit the hive. They will eventually alight onto tree or fence or other object that suits their fancy, hanging there in a humming mass until they’ve decided on the best new home. (Read more about this amazing decision process in Thomas Seeley’s book: Honey Bee Democracy.)
If you’ve seen a swarm – consider yourself lucky. Please take note that honey bee swarms are usually docile since they have no hive to defend and are simply looking for a new home. Do NOT disturb them or spray them with pesticides or even water. Call a beekeeper for help as they will happily retrieve the honey bees and give them a new hive to live in. Your local beekeepers association usually will provide a “Swarm List” of beekeepers offering this service.
In Seattle, Puget Sound Beekeepers offers such a list. Take note and tell your friends to help the bees by calling a beekeeper if you see a swarm!
Here’s a video of me catching a swarm a couple of years ago, with local media coverage.