Honey bees actually have two types of reproduction. The first type is the kind we normally think of—the queen mates, lays eggs, and new bees are born. The second type is whole-colony reproduction. This occurs when the colony splits into two parts. One part—comprising perhaps 40 to 70 percent of the hive population—leaves with the old queen and takes up residence in a new location. This activity is called “swarming” and is a natural part of the honey bee life cycle.
Preparations are made in advance of swarming so that both the new and the old hive have a chance of surviving. The old queen lays eggs in special cells that the workers will raise to be new queens. When new queen cells are close to hatching, the swarm occurs. One or more of the queen cells will hatch and go about destroying the remaining cells. If more than one queen manages to emerge, the strongest one will vanquish the others and become the new queen. She must mature a bit, and successfully mate, before she can begin laying eggs.
Swarming is a complex subject which I will say more about later. But the really sad thing here is that most of the swarms that manage to escape into the wild do not survive. North America used to be brimming with wild colonies of bees. They lived in old trees, abandoned buildings, barns—wherever they could find reasonably dry shelter and a food source. Sometimes honey could be collected from these wild hives year after year.
But in recent times—say the last 20 to 30 years—wild hives have almost completely disappeared from the continent. Bees still swarm and some of those swarms make it into the wild, but they are highly unlikely to survive on their own. Even if they escape pesticides, freeways, and pollution, without intervention by beekeepers, very few hives can survive the onslaught of pathogens and parasites that plague today’s honey bee populations.
Beekeepers try to prevent swarming, of course, because a hive that has swarmed isn’t nearly as productive as one that hasn’t. Fewer bees mean less pollination and less honey. But while it is sad for the beekeeper to lose a swarm, it’s even sadder for the bees. We have provided a no-win situation for a creature that provides us with many fine things in life. They pollinate our crops and provide us with wax, honey, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly. We gladly take all these things, but what are we doing for them? It’s time we take a hard look at ourselves and at the pollinators who serve us so well.