May marks the start of the swarming season for honeybees. Swarming is the natural process by which honeybee colonies propagate and move beyond an existing colony location. The exact mechanisms for swarming aren’t fully understood but it’s thought to be primarily about available space as the colony expands though there’s also a strong genetic component to swarming with some queens being more prone to swarm than others. What happens is that the workers will start to construct ‘queen cells’ – especially elongated cells into which the queen will deposit an egg which is subsequently raised to be a queen by feeding it so called ‘royal jelly’ (a protein-rich substance that stimulates the growth of the ovaries). Meanwhile, other workers will rush about the colony ‘stirring up’ the other workers until the whole colony is fizzing. At the same time, workers will withhold food from the queen and start to drag her around to get her to lose weight (about half her body weight) in order to fly. Finally, the worker bees will gorge on honey to sustain them until they can find a new home and about half the colony – so up to 30,000 bees – will start to leave the hive taking the queen with them.
A swarm is an impressive sight, it can look a bit scary but in fact the bees aren’t defending a nest so they are not particularly aggressive and as they are also full of honey they have difficulty bringing their stings to bear – though I don’t recommend trying to check this. They will settle within about 100 metres of the parent hive though they may move more than once while scout bees set out to look for a new nest site. New research suggests that the scout bees may share a genetic component (though the queen is mother to all bees in the colony because she has mated with up to 30 different drones they have different fathers) and amazingly the 200 to 300 scouts will check every possible nest location in an area of several square miles and through a complicated process of ‘debate’ involving exchanging details on each site the colony eventually settles unanimously on one location and off they go.
The problem is that very few honeybee colonies can survive in the wild – honeybees are prone to a range of pests and diseases, they may be unable to find a suitable location (they only have about 48 hours before they run out of food) or someone may call in a pest controller to destroy them. And of course, from the beekeeper’s perspective, it’s not good to lose half your bees. So responsible beekeepers practice ‘swarm control’ which can take different forms – my favourite method is something called a ‘shook swarm’ (if you’d like to know more just let me know) or the ‘nucleus method’ which involves removing the queen before the colony swarms. That’s why if you look at the apiary at the bottom of the garden there are two boxes to the left of the beehives– these are nucleus boxes with the old queen which will stay there until a new queen has successfully mated and started laying at which time I’ll either reunite the ‘nucs’ with the colonies or use them to create a brand new colony in a new location.