Bee swarms

We are offering free swarm collections in Bungendore and surrounding areas for the 2019/20 bee season.

What are they and why do they occur

Almost everyone has seen a single bee hanging out on a flower, gathering nectar or pollen. But have you ever seen a swarm of bees? Swarms are an amazing sight and this blog will explain what they are and why they occur.

What are swarms

A swarm is usually a queen bee and about half of the bees in the colony. Swarming bees are about as docile as bees get. Just prior to leaving the hive the bees take a large amount of honey with them knowing their new home won’t have any food stores.  Not having a home to defend also limits their aggression. They are too busy trying to survive to get angry and aggressive without first being provoked. When flying from their original hive to their first stop they are a swirling mass of bees flying around and around and a loud hum or buzz is often audible.

Swarms will settle in a temporary location, their first stop, for anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. While here they cluster into a tight group around the queen to keep her warm and safe while scouts are sent out to look for a suitable new home. While the scouts may find several sites, the bees as a collective decide which is the best and will then fly there. Once they arrive at their new accommodation they quickly begin to build comb using beeswax. The wax is used for the queen to lay eggs to increase the size of the colony and to store food, just like in a regular hive.

Bee swarm in a tree

What happens to the bees left behind in the hive

Often the bees that plan to swarm start thinking about swarming several days or weeks in advance. They begin to build queen cells – special cells designed to host eggs that are destined to become queens. It is common for them to build five to ten queen cells. If this does not occur prior to the swarm leaving, the remaining bees quickly sense the queen has left the hive because the pheromones she was emitting rapidly disappear. At this point the bees begin to convert eggs at the right stage of growth into emergency queen cells. Again the bees produce multiple queen cells to maximise their chances of successfully raising a new queen.

Whichever way queen cells are produce the next stages are identical. The first queen to emerge from her cell will find all the other cells and kill her would-be rival queens before they emerge from their cells. Survival of the quickest in this instance! If everything goes to plan the queen will take a mating flight after about a week after she’s born and come back to the hive where she begins laying eggs to boost the size of the colony.

Why do bees swarm

There are two main reasons bees swarm, species survival is the first. Swarming ensures more bee colonies are created which ensures the survival of the species. This is a pretty straightforward goal and self-explanatory. A colony preparing to swarm is usually an indication the colony is strong and in good health.

The second reason is lack of room in their current hive. Lack of room in the hive can be caused by several factors. If the bees are wild and in a non man-made hive the cavity may be quite small and they are able to fill it very quickly. As a result they may swarm several times during swarm season.

In man-made hives it is up to beekeepers to monitor their hives for signs of impending swarming. Queen cells being built during swarming season (October through to December in Australia) while the current queen is still healthy and productive is usually a good indication. Bees will swarm if they feel there isn’t enough space left in the hive. A beekeeper can manage this by adding supers (or bars in a top bar hive). A good rule of thumb is when the hive is approximately 70% full of drawn comb (wax), add another super or more bars to the hive.

What to do if you see a swarm of bees

Please don’t call a pest inspector/exterminator unless you absolutely have to. This should be your last resort. Call a local beekeeper and ask them to come and remove the swarm. If possible (and safe), take a photo of the swarm and send it to the beekeeper to allow the beekeeper to assess the best way to access the swarm and to confirm the swarm are bees and not wasps (it is a common occurrence to be called to ‘swarms’ that are wasp nests). Most experienced beekeepers will catch swarms and provide them with a new home, giving them a very high chance of survival. Let’s all work together to save these amazing pollinators!

Thanks for reading, enjoy your journey!

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