Swarms are natures way for honey bees to reproduce and expand. If the season is good and a beehive’s population has grown, a single colony can become overcrowded. So much so that bees start to have difficulty understanding whether or not there’s a healthy laying queen in the hive. So the queen decides to find less cramped living conditions and absconds with half of the colony! But recently I heard about a beekeeper who discovered a queenless swarm. To be honest, I didn’t think this was possible. But it begs the question:
Will bees swarm without a queen? The short answer is no, a swarm contains thousands or even tens of thousands of worker bees and one queen. But on very rare occasions it is possible to come across a queenless swarm, or what appears to be a swarm without a queen.
So what are the circumstances where you might come across a swarm without a queen?
Most beekeepers try to avoid swarming. Swarming breaks the brood cycle and on a whole reduces productivity. And you can quite simply lose the larger part of your colony. That being said, swarms can happen. It’s not always easy to control. And when they do, most of us want to catch those bees and relocate them in a nice cosy new beehive.
But sometimes you can catch a swarm and it appears to be queenless. Logically, it doesn’t seem possible. After all, you know that swarms leave the hive with a queen… Right?
So what’s going on?
It was an Afterswarm
When a colony swarms it may do so more than once. After the first swarm leaves the hive with the reigning queen, you can sometimes see a phenomenon known as after-swarming.
In preparation for swarming a colony will begin the process of raising a new queen. The objective being to leave the original hive with a virgin queen so that the original colony is preserved and can continue to function. A number of queen cells are built for this purpose which can result in several virgin queens. After the old queen leaves with a large part of the colony you can sometimes see a second swarm quit the hive. This secondary afterswarm is usually smaller in number and includes a virgin queen.
So it could be that what you’re seeing is an afterswarm. Now, because you have a virgin queen, this new colony will be slower to progress. If you’re checking for the presence of a queen by looking for laying activity and don’t see any, it could just be that you have a virgin queen rather than no queen at all. Give her a chance to get settled! It can take a further 5 or 6 days for the new queen to become sexually mature. That’s before she mates and starts laying, so be patient! Wait 10 to 14 days to check for brood laying.
If you still suspect your swarm has no queen, you could try to help them raise a new queen by giving them a frame of brood from another hive. The worker bees can use the larvae to make a replacement queen. It’ll take a further 16 days for the queen to hatch.
One thing to look out for is unusual laying, such as more than one egg in the comb cells or eggs laid randomly in places other than the cells. This could mean that worker bees are laying eggs. If this is the case then find a replacement queen as soon as possible!
Another possibility is that you’ve simply stumbled across a bunch of lost worker bees. During the normal swarming process, the swarm leaves the hive with the queen and they find a temporary resting place until they decide upon a new nest location. Scout bees fly off in search of a potential new nest site and return to the temporary swarm cluster to report their findings.
The majority of the scout bees will return to the swarm by the evening. But if in the meantime a beekeeper comes along and collects the swarm, there can be a large number of absent honey bees out exploring. These bees will return to the original cluster site where the scent of the queen bee is strongest. Only to find their queen has disappeared!
In a similar way a swarm might split. Part of the swarm goes off with the queen to the new nesting site but for some reason you get a bunch of lost bees who didn’t get the right information! Again, you’ll find them hanging where the original queen-right swarm used to be.
This is one example of what might be termed a queenless swarm.
(This process is known as entomophily. Flowering plants need to create seeds which will grow to produce the next generation of plants, but this is only possible when pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species).
If you are the one who collected the original swarm, then simply gather the remaining grumpy bees and reunite them with their queen and all their other buddies! If the swarm has happened in your own apiary, you could try to catch them. In general, if for some reason the swarm finds itself without a queen, you don’t need to worry. They will simply return to their original hive.
The Queen is lost During Swarming
Well, maybe you did have a queen but you don’t have one anymore. If you think about it, swarming can be a dangerous moment for bees. They are taking the risk of exposing the queen to potential danger, even if the worker bees cluster around her for protection. But now and then an accident can happen. It’s possible the queen got damaged or lost somewhere along the way. Or even eaten by birds!
And so you might have collected a queenless swarm.
I’ve heard it said that a queen can get lost somehow in the course of swarming. For example when a queen bee is clipped (a procedure beekeepers sometimes use to try to prevent swarming). But again, if the swarm finds itself without a queen, it usually just goes back where it came from.
Alternatively you may have been clumsy, and you killed the queen. A sorry day indeed. Or maybe you just left the queen behind when you caught the swarm.
In either case you can setup the swarm in a new hive box and wait to see what happens. If the bees go back to the old hive then all is well. If the bees remain, then you need to help them launch a new colony.
How to tell if the Swarm is Queenless and what to do?
Faced with what appears to be a queenless swarm, what can you do? If you’re not sure of the origin of the swarm you might want to be careful. Your own bees have traits of character that you’ve come to appreciate so you probably don’t want to take on a colony that is aggressive, swarmy, etc. The following approach might be useful:
- Catch the swarm and install them in a hive box with some spare comb.
- Look for obvious signs of queenless activity. If the colony looks disorganized, if they are aggressive and noisy, then these could be signs they are missing a queen.
- Check for the presence of eggs after one week. Remember the queen may have a virgin queen. If the bees behavior seems normal, then you can wait a further week and check again for brood rearing.
- Be sure to check for unusual egg laying such as more than one egg in the comb cells. This is a sign of laying worker bees and means the queen needs replacing immediately
- A good course of action is to give the bees a frame of brood with a good mix of brood in various stages of development. Even if there is a queen this does no harm. If the queen is missing then bees will be able to start raising a new queen.
If you’re pretty sure your captured swarm has no queen, some beekeepers prefer to reinstall a queen immediately, rather than letting the bees raise a virgin queen. It helps to control the temperament of your colony if you are sure about the origin of your queen.