If you were ever lucky enough to see the incredible sight of hundreds of bees flying frantically above your head in a cloud reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds,’ you have witnessed the birth of a bee swarm.
Intimidating at first, the cloud of bees disappears after a few minutes as if nothing happened, leaving witnesses scratching their heads. The grist (a collective noun that means a lot of small things but has long been used for bees), has now settled nearby and is in the process of looking for a new hive.
It’s called swarming, which is a stage in the bees’ reproductive cycle.
Time to Split
While there might be several reasons for a hive to swarm, often, it’s when a healthy colony is full of honeycomb and bees (50,000 to 70,000 of them!), and the queen’s pheromone might not reach all the nooks and crannies of the hive, leaving some bees confused.
In our apiary, we have two Top Bar hives, which are easy to inspect as the comb is built naturally and cross-combing (when the bees decide not to build in the frames they’ve been given) rarely occurs.
We also have a National hive, which is used by traditional beekeepers with the help of a foundation sheet: old wax melted into printed hexagons, which guides the bees’ comb-building.
Since we let our bees build as they please in the National, they decided to ignore the frames and create a magnificent structure that made them happy. Unfortunately, we could not inspect the hive without damaging any of the combs.
This structure limited the pheromone spread and also signaled the need to reproduce and divide the hive so it can host a good number of bees. The bees leaving the colony can find a suitable home somewhere else.
Often, beekeepers of such crowded hives won’t know if the hive has swarmed, as the new queen takes over swiftly, and the colony lives on.
In a hive that’s ready to swarm, the ‘old’ queen will lay eggs in queen cells, which, unlike the worker bee cells, are larger and often at the bottom of the comb. She then has a quick three-day diet to lose some weight to be able to fly, summons half the bees in the hive, and takes off in search of a new home. This is the time when you might see the ‘bee storm’ in the air.
As the queen is the most important figure in the hierarchy, the rest of the bees must protect her at all costs. She will settle not far from the old hive, most likely on a tree branch or anything that has some space below. All the other bees will surround her like a cocoon, making sure she is safe in the middle.
This incredible natural structure is a fantastic sight, as they hold each other just by body-to-body contact. Before leaving the hive, they would have filled their stomachs with honey, which allows them to survive this homeless state for up to three days without having to forage.
It is important to note that swarms are rarely aggressive, as the bees are sedated due to their full bellies; their sole purpose at this time is to survive until they’re safe in their new home.
While most bees protect the queen, a few guards do their duty and patrol the area looking for danger, and several scout bees search tirelessly for a new hive.
They must find a suitable home soon, as the swarm is extremely vulnerable during this time. Lack of proper guard service, honey stores enough only for a few days, and the danger of the weather changing for the worse put a lot of pressure on the scout bees.
Every time they find a place that may be suitable, they return to the swarm and describe it through the waggle dance. The better the site seems to be, the more excitedly the bee dances.
Another incredible fact: the scout bees hold a quorum between themselves on the suitability of the new site, where 80% of them have to agree to the move!
Their decision making seems to be remarkably successful, and the rest of the bees will follow the scouts to their new home. The new digs may be in a hollow tree stump, an empty hive (left by beekeepers to attract swarms), or sometimes, a space in somebody’s attic or shed.
To be continued.