Most beekeepers try to keep swarming under control.
After all… there’s a chance you might lose a good proportion of your bees if you can’t lure the swarm back into a new hive.
That said, a swarm is a positive sign from your honey bees that they are happy, healthy, and growing. And sometimes you just can’t stop them.
Recognizing the signs that bees are swarming is very useful. It’ll help you deal with the situation more effectively.
In this article, I’ll break down all the indications that a hive is about to desert the hive so that you can take action!
Signs a hive is about to swarm.
Watching thousands of bees swarm out of a hive to form a swirling, buzzing cloud is an impressive site! Possibly even a bit scary 🙂
Bees are relatively harmless when swarming, but try telling that to your neighbors!
The whole thing is an entirely normal process. It’s a natural way to split the colony and create continued growth. The bees are simply trying to reproduce their own species. But beekeepers can do a lot to anticipate the oncoming swarm and take precautions to avoid it or minimize the consequences.
To do this, you need to see it coming!
How to tell if bees are going to swarm
There are several clues beekeepers can look out for to tell them when a hive is about to swarm. The following checklist will help you keep tabs on the swarm status of your bee colonies:
- Hive is prosperous with a rapidly increasing population
- Presence of drone brood as the population increases
- The brood nest is full with no room for expansion
- Field bees congregating (bearding) often at the entrance
- Presence of queen cells on the comb frames
- The queen bee is dead, ill, or too old
- The colony is unsafe or diseased
- Insufficient food for foraging
Let’s take a look at each situation:
The Hive is prosperous.
A healthy and thriving colony can multiply quickly. The bees aim to build a workforce and achieve maximum productivity in the favorable spring and summer months. When this happens, a healthy population with plenty of nectar and pollen sources can outgrow the hive.
The bees run out of room to store honey. Beekeepers can lessen the problem by adding more honey supers, but there is still a limit to the size the beehive can grow.
The triggering factor for swarming is probably more about congestion than space. An overcrowded colony means communication within the hive is negatively affected by its size. The queen’s pheromones that help control events inside the hive will be weakened. As a result, bees will begin to make preparations to swarm.
Presence of drone brood.
Drones are raised in the build-up to swarm season (usually starting in the Spring).
Drones signal the beginning of the reproductive season. After all… a queen can only mate when there are drones, and the primary purpose of swarming is to reproduce.
You can easily recognize drone cells in the brood chamber. They are bigger and have a protruding dome compared to the flatter surface of worker bee cells. They are found at the edges of the brood nest.
The presence of drone brood indicates that drone bees will soon arrive, and the swarming season is imminent.
The brood chamber is full.
An overcrowded brood chamber full of eggs, pupae, and larvae indicates that bees need more room. Without sufficient space, they may decide to swarm.
Adding another brood box can help prevent swarming. The same applies to honey supers. Add more boxes, so bees have room to store supplies.
Bees congregating at the entrance.
It can be tricky to spot the difference between bearding (the clustering of bees outside the hive) and an intention to swarm.
Bees beard during hot or humid weather. They leave the hive to improve ventilation inside the hive so that conditions are ideal for raising brood.
Suppose the cluster of bees is very noisy and active, or you see other indications of swarming. In that case, this congregation of bees could be a sign of an approaching swarm.
Queen cells on the combs.
Queen cells are a larger type of cell used for raising new queens. This is the natural process of replacing a queen. Queen cells are an indication of a coming swarm.
When the colony makes up its collective mind to swarm (for example, a thriving, overcrowded hive), it begins preparations at least a week before the event. Part of this is building “swarm cells .”This particular type of queen cell is constructed to raise a virgin queen.
When the old queen lays fertilized eggs in these queen cells and the worker bees have fed and capped them, the old queen will be ready to leave the hive with a swarm of about half the colony.
Note: swarm cells should not be confused with supersedure cells. A supersedure cell is a kind of “emergency cell” made when the queen is failing, ill or dead.
The queen is too old or dead.
An old or missing queen can also provoke the bees to swarm.
An aging queen will have a diminished laying capacity. Eventually, she will run out of sperm and only lay infertile eggs. Bees can pick up on this and start preparing supersedure cells.
Similarly, if a queen dies suddenly, bees build emergency cells and raise a queen, using larvae less than 3 days old.
When the virgin queen emerges, she will swarm with part of the colony. There can also be secondary swarms with other newly born queens.
The old hive will be significantly weakened when the swarming is finished.
A queenless hive.
Sometimes a hive ends up queenless, and the remaining bees fail to raise a new queen. This affects the colony’s behavior, with bees becoming agitated and defensive.
A queenless colony with no ability to raise a replacement queen will not survive. The only hope is for the beekeeper to introduce a new queen.
The hive is diseased or unfit.
If conditions inside the hive are deemed unfit, honey bees will abandon the hive in search of a better nesting location.
A large swarm of bees will quit the old hive. But this is not strictly called swarming, but rather “absconding.”
Absconding occurs when almost the entire colony leaves the hive because conditions are untenable. (On the other hand, a swarm only departs with a proportion of the hive).
Parasite infestations or other predators bothering the colony can cause the bees to abscond.
Insufficient food for foraging.
The amount of available food and forage nearby the hives could contribute to a colony’s decision to swarm.
Particularly if their environment cannot sustain the expansion of a growing colony.
Beekeepers can feed bees with supplemental syrup or sugar water to help support bees and alleviate the desire to swarm.
The real reason why bees swarm is not completely understood. There are undoubtedly many different events that motivate bees to swarm from a hive.
If you can anticipate the swarming tendencies of a honey bee colony, you can try to take measures. And you could lose fewer bees and keep honey productivity up.
But don’t be surprised if your bees decide to swarm anyway 🙂