THE HONEYBEE SWARM
It was a warm June afternoon, I was stood gazing out of the lounge window, just admiring my handiwork. I’d spent the morning cutting the lawn and I was feeling quite pleased with my efforts when suddenly, and without warning, the sky went black, or so it seemed. My first thoughts were that is was some sort of eclipse of the sun but after the initial shock had subsided, it became obvious that it was in fact, a swarm of bees. I watched from the safety of my lounge as after swirling around for some time, they finally alighted in my plum tree. Within moments they had formed some sort of bunch and I watched as the last stragglers joined them. With a sense of relief that some sort of normality had returned to my little garden and the lives of my family were no longer at risk, I reached for the ‘phone directory.
This is not a factual conversation but more a compilation of conversations that I’ve had, usually over the ‘phone, since taking the role of Swarm Collector. What all conversations have in common are firstly, the feelings of amazement or incredulity at the sheer numbers of flying bees. “I had no idea there were that many bees in existence, let alone in one colony” is so often the opening sentence, and secondly, a genuine concern that these hundreds of bees are in fact all miniature excocet missiles all intent on retribution. And lastly, a feeling of relief seeing me or one of my fellow Swarm Collectors getting out of their car and making their way to the front door where we are usually welcomed with open arms and an opening sentence along the lines of the following. “Thank goodness you’ve come, do you think you’ll be able to sort them out, I’ve been afraid to venture outside the door since they arrived and the kids will be home from school soon.”
In an effort to allay their obvious concerns, I usually spend the next ten minutes explaining that swarming honeybees seldom if ever sting and that the spot they’ve chosen to gather is only a temporary measure and that if left to their own devices, they will soon de-camp to a more suitable location. I also explain that swarming is a perfectly normal occurrence in the lives of honeybees and that it’s been going on for millions of years, so, there really is nothing to worry about. After a moment’s consideration the next question is usually along the lines of, “well, why do they do it”?
SO, WHY DO HONEYBEES SWARM ?
To find the answer to this age old question we first need to look more closely at this diminutive little creature, to try to understand a little of it’s life and exactly what motivates to behave in the way it does. The answers to these questions can be found in the way honeybees reproduce. Totally unlike most other creatures the honeybee reproduces at two levels, that is to say, sexually, in that a newly hatched virgin queen will, after a few days, leave the colony to mate, on the wing, with several males, DRONES. A week or so after returning, she will commence laying, effectively taking over the colony. The second way that honeybees reproduce, and it is this which sets them apart from other creatures, is at colony level, and it is this requirement which causes honeybees to SWARM.
So, what could possibly persuade thousands of honeybees to suddenly leave the security of their home and take off into the unknown? The answer to this is in the way honeybees communicate with one another which is, by touch and probably more importantly, the emission of pheromones.It is this emission of pheromones which is the key to the question of WHY HONEYBEES SWARM.
All living creatures will at various times produce pheromones, and for different reasons. In the case of the honeybee, when the colony feel threatened, the guard bees will emit a “call to arms” pheromone to which all capable worker bees will respond, similarly, when bees sting, a pheromone is emitted advising the rest of the bees that there is an intruder in their midst. However, the pheromones which concern us most, in relationship to why honeybees swarm, are those emitted by the queen bee and their effect on the colony are twofold. Firstly, they reassure the colony that their queen is in good health, assuring them that their future is secure and secondly, they inhibit the production of ovaries in the worker bees. It is the first of these which is of prime importance in relationship to swarming and it is imperative that her pheromones are present in all areas of the colony. The fact that a healthy queen is on the move all of the time, fulfilling her egg laying duties, and the fact that the worker bees feed her and lick her clean as she passes ensures that they are evenly distributed
It is when the worker bees detect a drop in the queen pheromone level that they will begin preparations for swarming. So, what would cause the level to drop and why should this be cause for alarm to the rest of the colony. Well, it is generally agreed that the reasons are twofold and they are, an ageing or sickening queen obviously producing less pheromones and, colony overcrowding which has the effect of inhibiting the distribution of the queen’s pheromones. Whatever the reason, the worker bees are very quick to pick up on this drop in pheromone level and will immediately begin their preparations for swarming, and these will always take the same form.
It will be the incumbent queen which will head the swarm but because in her present heavily pregnant state she is unable to fly, so in order to slim her down, the workers will restrict the amount of food they provide her, secondly, they will begin constructing queen cells into which she will be instructed to lay an egg. From the moment these eggs hatch, the larvae will be fed on royal jelly and it is this high protein diet which will ensure that each cell will produce a queen bee.
EACH OF THESE WAX CELLS WILL CONTAIN A VIRGIN QUEEN
There are often in excess of twenty of these queen cells the reason being, that the bees aren’t swarming at the expense of the old colony, instead, they are multiplying at colony level. The worker bees continue to pump royal jelly into each cell until the larvae’s pupate by which time construction of the queen cells will be finished and the cells will be sealed. It is at this time that the SWARM will issue and this brings us to the point where we came in. The bees will, for a short while, cluster in a convenient spot, convenient for them, that is. This to enable scout bees to fly off in all directions in order to find a permanent location, which incidentally can be a hollow tree, a disused bird box or if fact anywhere safe, dark and dry. Returning scouts once having convinced the swarm of the suitability of their find, will lead them en-masse to their new home.
Within moments of issuing, a swarm will seek temporary refuge. As you can see from the above, this can be almost anywhere that the bees find convenient. The most common sites will be an adjacent hedge or tree, as in these pic’s. The queen will land and the flying bees will cluster around her, as though waiting to catch their breath whilst scout bees fly off in search of a permanent home.
HERE A SWARM HAS TAKEN UP TEMPORARY RESIDENCE UNDER GARDEN FURNITURE
THIS PICTURE SHOWS A COLONY OF BEES WHICH HAVE ACTUALLY SET UP PERMANENT RESIDENCE UNDER A OVERHANGING BRANCH. THE ODD SHAPES COVERED WITH BEES ARE ACTUALLY WAX HONEYCOMBS WHICH UPON INSPECTION WERE SHOWN TO BE FILLED WITH HONEY AND BROOD SUGGESTING THE RESIDENTS HAD OCCUPIED THE SPOT FOR QUITE A LONG TIME. A MOST UNUSUAL OCCURENCE.
HERE BEES HAVE SET UP HOME IN AN OLD BIRD TABLE
AND HERE IN A HOLLOW TREE
Meanwhile, a new queen will have emerged to head the old colony which, because only half of the flying bees will have left with the swarm, will still comprise some thirty thousand bees. After dispatching her sisters which she achieves by stinging them through the walls of the remaining queen cells, the new queen will leave the hive on her mating flight which is incidentally, the only time she will leave the colony unless they decide it’s time to swarm.
Stinging her sisters is, incidentally, the only time a queen bee uses her sting and necessary because the colony will only tolerate one queen in residence. In the event that two or more queens emerge together they will fight to the death the result of which, will hopefully leave the strongest sister to head the colony.
So, there we have it, a brief description of how and why honeybees swarm. Whilst this might give you some idea of what goes on in a swarm, you will have to see one for yourself to fully appreciate the numbers involved and the complexity of the operation. The main thing to keep in mind, is that swarming honeybees are not out to harm or alarm you, they have been doing this for millions of years and hopefully, if left alone, will continue to do so.