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.
Honey Bee Suite