Swarming is the honey bees’ natural method of reproduction. It’s their way of making two* families out of one. The swarm season generally takes place over a few weeks in late Spring but we do see early swarms and some take place later in Summer.
* Not every colony will produce a swarm each year and some very strong colonies will issue more than one.
Each honey bee colony has a queen. She lives for several years and despite her name, she does not rule. Her main duty is laying eggs providing generations of bees to ensure the survival of the colony.
The queen is bigger than the other bees. Notice the attendant bees around her; cleaning and feeding her.
The queen is mother to all the bees in her colony and can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day. During Spring, the population of the hive (or nest, if it’s wild honey bees) builds up strongly and quickly becomes over-crowded.
Most of the eggs the queen lays develop into female worker bees**. During the first half of a worker’s short life, she labours in the hive doing things like cleaning and feeding the young.
The second half of a worker’s life is dedicated to collecting pollen and nectar from flowers and trees, pollinating our crops and plants as she goes.
Notice the heavy load of bright-orange pollen she’s collected in the baskets on her legs.
** Most of the bees in a colony are female workers but up to 15% of the population are males called drones. The drones cannot gather food or do any work, their only purpose is reproduction.
Sometime in Spring, the honey bee family gets too big for its home. At that point, the queen leaves the hive* with many of the worker bees. After swarming through the air for a while, the bees gather temporarily in a cluster like this.
* The bees left behind in the hive raise a new queen and carry on with their work as usual. The hive also contains the food the colony has already collected and the brood (unhatched bees) the old queen produced before she left.
The cluster may remain in its temporary location for a short while or for several days. Typically though, it’ll be there for three to four hours. During that time, several hundred ‘scout’ bees will be searching round your neighbourhood for potential new permanent homes. Each scout comes back to the cluster and performs a dance to describe the possible new home she has found.
Using a democratic process which puts us humans to shame, the bees whittle down the possible choices until they all agree on the best one. At that point, the whole swarm takes off, bound for its new home.
So, should I just leave the bees to fly away then?
Well, you could do that! It’s certainly true, the gently buzzing ball of bees dangling in your Penstemons won’t be there for long, but they may be eying-up your shed or chimney as their next DesRes!
You can watch video clips showing the collection and hiving of a swarm by clicking here.
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