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Is swarming a curse or a blessing?

What happens to an organism that fails to reproduce? Let’s think about that. If all rabbits stopped, um, amorous behavior, we would have no more rabbits, not even in Australia. If all cows failed to reproduce, the grocery shelves would be empty of moo juice, as they seem to be now. And what about honey bees? If colonies stopped dividing and swarming, they would circle the drain into oblivion.

Yet beekeepers are always complaining about swarming. “Why did my bees swarm?” they lament. “What did I do wrong?” they moan. “How can I make them stop?” That’s like asking teenagers to stop climbing into the backseat. It’s much easier said than done.

Swarming is reproduction

The thing beekeepers need to understand is that swarming is colony-wide reproduction. It is good, natural, and essential. It is what scientists sometimes call the biological imperative. It must happen if the species is to survive. The idea that only “unhappy” bees swarm is nonsense.

Beekeepers often think of queen mating as “reproduction” and swarming as unacceptable behavior. But with a superorganism, reproduction is a two-step process that includes both queen mating and swarming. Remember, a mated queen cannot produce a colony on her own. A queen needs a cadre of workers and nurses to do the brood rearing and housekeeping. After all, the queen doesn’t have just one or a few offspring, she will have thousands—great throngs of hungry mouths. Raising them is not something she can do on her own.

Controlling the impulse

Beekeepers frown upon those who lose a swarm, and plenty of excellent reasons exist for keeping swarms in check. To begin with, you don’t want to lose all those honey-producing bees. You also don’t want to intimidate neighbors or produce traffic jams when your swarm alights on a lamppost. So yes, you can say a good beekeeper will minimize swarming, but you can’t say the impulse to swarm is due to beekeeper failure.

In fact, I say the exact opposite. If a colony is growing large and becoming restless to swarm, the beekeeper has done very well indeed. Only colonies that are fat and healthy will have the energy and numbers needed to reproduce. Conversely, if you don’t want your bees to swarm, keep them sickly and weak. Fading colonies will obediently stay in place until they die.

The mind of the bee

We place way too much emphasis on hive conditions that have little to do with the urge to swarm. For example, you might hear that a colony swarmed because the beekeeper didn’t provide enough space. Well, maybe. A colony may delay swarming if you give it more space, and space may be one of many factors in the colony’s decision-making process.

Ironically, we’ve all seen colonies with tons of space swarm anyway. Providing more open nest space or more honey storage may delay swarming, but if a colony is hell-bent on swarming, it will backfill the brood nest and place a honey barrier above it, all in an effort to prepare the queen and the colony for the coming divide.

Regardless of what you do to the interior of a hive, the swarm instinct endures. It comes from genetic signals that we have little control over. We humans can read and interpret colony behavior, but we can’t control what goes on in the mind of the bee.

That said, experienced beekeepers become adept at reading the signs and controlling the number of swarms that leave. Many of the “cures” for swarming are not cures at all, but simply forms of controlling the timing of swarms. Splits, for example, provide a way of dividing the colony before the colony gets around to it. By properly reading the signs, a good beekeeper loses fewer bees.

Fixing our attitude

I don’t intend to parse the art of controlling swarms. Thousands of beekeepers will share their tried-and-true methods, some of which work and some not so much. The thing I question is not our response to swarming but our attitude toward it.

I think beekeepers would benefit by viewing a swarm not as a curse but a blessing. Swarming bees are doing what they were designed to do. A swarming colony is a healthy colony, a colony with the resources to divide itself in half or in thirds. A swarming colony is like a wolf with pups, producing offspring that spread genetic material from the parents into the world and form a new family which, with any luck, will also swarm.

Yes, as a beekeeper you must deal with swarms, but understanding their purpose and their value to the species will help you make better management choices, ultimately enabling you to work with the swarm instinct instead of against it.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Is swarming a curse? A mated queen can't build a colony without lots of help.
A mated queen cannot build a colony without lots of help. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Gary K
Reply

Always fun when you put things into “lay person” language. PS, We did a split just last week, BUT also have one of those cool “pot thingys” hanging where I hope, should the hive go rogue [I know wrong word] they’ll choose to harbor themselves. Bummer part however is if they do swarm and elect to choose a spot of their own, we have several HUGE standing dead white fir, where the tops snapped out years ago and the woodpeckers have created their own truly amazing hollowed out spots- FIFTY FEET in the air!

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

Yes, mine like to go waaaay up in the big leaf maples where I can barely see them.

Gary K
Reply

Oh sure, go ahead and burst one of the few bubbles a guy has. 🙂 PS, I’ve finally got goldenrod sprout, figwort sprouting, buckwheat sprouting and 30 of 300 Lemon Queen sunflowers in the ground with borage planted between the sunflowers. See people do pay attention!

Irwin Venick
Reply

I agree with your basic premise. My question is what happens to a give that does not swarm? Does it weaken?

Rusty
Reply

Irwin,

Sometimes, for whatever reason, a colony doesn’t swarm, especially if the queen has a nice strong scent, which tends to inhibit swarming at times. It’s possible it will swarm the following year.

claire jones
Reply

Love this post! I feel vindicated for all the swarms that my bees have produced over the years. Yes, it is a healthy, vigorous colony that swarms!!

David Childers
Reply

Finally someone says it like it is. We spend more time concerned over the very natural act of swarming than we should. Thank you Rusty for giving the other side of the story. We as beekeepers hate to see our bees swarm, yet on the other hand, we are always there to snag that beautiful swarm that emits itself from who knows where. I cannot resist attempting to capture a swarm no matter the size. Even place ads in the local papers suggesting free swarm removal. It sounds funny after reading your article that we place such emphasis on stopping a swarm, but can’t wait to catch them. Honeybees are masters at trapping us into their mysterious world all the while making us believe we know about them than we really do.

Bill S
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Last year I had a swarm take up residence in an empty hive I had out. Free bees are the best bees!

On a more worrisome note, I read an article in The NY Times that stated Giant Asian Hornets were found in Washington state.

Spokexx
Reply

I’ll tell ya what, Rusty. Thanks to swarming we’ve added two more colonies to our apiary this year. One came as a cast swarm from a friend in the city (her one hive had a primary swarm and 2 cast swarms, we took the second) and I’m proud to say that I finally caught a “feral” swarm in a trap set up miles away from my apiary (not my own bees, probably somebody else’s).

Rusty
Reply

That’s great. I love catching swarms. I’m like a little kid when I manage to snag one.

Ingrid
Reply

What is that “pot thingy” that you have a picture of? Is it suppose to entice swarms? How do you make one?

Rusty
Reply

Ingrid,

The pot thingy is called a swarm trap and you can buy them from most beekeeping supply houses. You could make one out of a flower pot, I suspect.

James Craig
Reply

So true, but what about your suburban neighbors?

Jeanette Schandelmeier
Reply

Totally off-subject. What do you know about the “murder hornets” from Asia – in NW Washington, so far, that I’m hearing about? Supposedly they attack honey bee hives, decapitate the bees, etc. Living in northern Idaho, I’m concerned.

Colin lyne
Reply

I enjoyed reading this piece, as I keep bees mainly because “ I like bees!” The honey that I get off them is a bonus, and not the reason for keeping them. However, this piece did make me think more about swarming, and makes me feel a little easier, if they “go” as they did last year. I had no honey from them last year, but hope that I may in 2020. I do however, like the idea that “my” bees gave it to me!

I love reading your pieces, thank you.

peter murless
Reply

You have got to trick them into believing that they have swarmed when they really haven’t. Shook swarms work well. Sometimes…

Granny Roberta in nw CT USA
Reply

I KNOW swarming is a sign that a hive is doing well, but I STILL feel guilty about it.  A GOOD beekeeper would have done a better job preventing that.  Plus, we’re also told that all the wild colonies die here, so I have that to feel guilty about as well.
 
On the other hand, it is so very amazing to stand in a cloud of swarming bees as they swirl around the bee yard before heading up into the 60-foot trees all around.  

Beautiful weather here yesterday, with pollen going great guns into my two overwinter hives. I was able to split into my two deadouts, so now I just have to wait and see if those took.  

Three bees did not respect “social distancing” and stung me. So that makes up for the bee venom immunotherapy shot that got postponed last month.

vince poulin
Reply

In Thailand A. cerana, the Asiatic honey bee behaves considerably differently than A. mellifera – it is difficult to impossible for bee keepers to “manage” their native bee. A. cerana reproduces by swarming. Multiple queens are produced. The hive divides and queens abscond. Seasonal fluctuations in nectar flow are dramatic with vast areas in dearth for months at a time. This is exacerbated by a lack of floral diversity due to ubiquitous rubber and palm oil plantations. Sitting out in early morning and hearing bees “return” is an amazing experience. The intensity of sound is crazy. It hits you immediately “they are back!”. Often flying directly to an old hive box or a nearby tree. They either stay or move on. You hope the swarm stays. After all it is not easy plant and nurture “bee-friendly” flowers and shrubs in a country where the dry-season extends 5-months.

ET Ash
Reply

another great thread Rusty..

1) a dead hive never swarms but a healthy one almost always does. 2) I seem to recall Seally and others have done basic research on the survival rate of swarms (seems like the numbers are from 12 to 24%) < which is a good reason to install swarm traps.

There is a long list of reasons a hive swarms but often overlooked is the slowly decreasing level of GMP in older queens. GMP is fundamentally the glue that keeps the worker population together. Once a hive outgrows the GMP footprint the hive invariable goes into swarm mode. GMP is initially thought to be associated with how successful the queen was in mating and can be casually estimated by the size of her retinue. The bigger the retinue the more GMP she is producing.

Gene in Central Texas…

Jaxx
Reply

Great post. Made me feel a bit better about the gigantic swarm that came from my hive last year after I’d split it. As a suburban beekeeper I was really worried about where they would go and they ended up being collected by another local beekeeper as I was at work. I’m trying to pre empt swarming this year by splitting early – my hive hasn’t got queen cells or cups yet but I think it’s getting busy so going to split this week. Had a very warm spring here in the UK (Cornwall) so need to be on top of things if I can. Problem is bees are always way ahead!

Marilyn
Reply

Great post Rusty. For me, swarming was a blessing. I wrote to you in January to ask about my bees that had disappeared suddenly. I figured I would wait till nicer weather to dismantle the hive and store it for next spring when I planned to start over. Well, yesterday was a beautiful day, but when I went out to take it down, I discovered it was bustling with activity. Yeah!

Rusty
Reply

I love surprises like that!

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