Hello everyone! I hope this post finds you well. I was out doing some trimming Wednesday evening and was walking toward one of the Chinese Elms and looked up and saw a swarm of bees. I have not seen a swarm of bees since I was a kid! I called a man who has hives and he called one of his neighbors who has just started beekeeping to see if he wanted them. He came as soon as he could and said it was too late in the day to try to move them. He said if he tried it then it would just make them mad. He also said since it was a small swarm they were likely from a hive that split.
This small piece of honeycomb was found under the branch where the swarm was. This likely means the swarm has been in the tree for several days and that they could be feeding… That is a little odd because swarming bees normally only stay on a tree branch for a few hours before the workers have found and agreed upon a suitable nesting site. Sometimes it can take a few days, though. The guy that was here said he thinks the cluster has been on the branches for several days already. He said that worker bees have been bringing food to the cluster because they have made this cone and is definitely sticky with honey. He said he has seen where clusters have stayed in a branch like this for quite a while although it is uncommon.
He said he would be back this early this morning to get the bees and said he might need to leave the hive for a while to make sure most of the bees enter the new box.
I got up earlier than usual to check to see if he was here or had been here. He came even earlier than I expected and the cluster of bees was already gone. Then it rained for quite a while so it was a good thing he came early. I called him at 11:00 and he said it took him about 30 minutes to get the bees in the box. He had to cut several branches because the cluster was in kind of a fork and a lot of twigs were involved. He managed to get all but a handful of bees into the hive so he didn’t feel like he needed to leave the box until tis evening when they would all be in the box for the night. He left me the branch with the fork and another twig where the bees had already been making honeycomb and filling it with honey. Judging by this, he estimated they had been in the tree for 3-5 days and may have very well planned to stick around even longer. Perhaps because the scout bees had not found a suitable spot for their new nest…
I became curious, so I did a little research on bee swarms, queen bees, etc. I read information on several sites and each one had about the same information, some more than others.
There are a few reasons why bees swarm. One is if they outgrow their hive and need to split and part of their colony moves out. Sometimes there is a lack of food so the entire colony will leave the old hive and find a new spot where food is more plentiful. There are other reasons but they are unlikely the case here.
A lot has to happen before a colony of bees can swarm if a hive has to divide so part of the colony can relocate. Worker bees make “queen cups” for the queen to lay eggs and stop feeding her. She has to lay the eggs and stop eating or she will be too heavy to fly. These eggs will be for future queens, and once the eggs are laid, the queen cups are capped. Queen cups are where the queen wil lay eggs that become new virgin queens.
I didn’t know it, but the queen determines what “type” of eggs she lays and even the sex of the new bees. IF the queen is very old, female worker bees can lay eggs for new queens but they won’t be as large. Also, queen bee larvae are fed ONLY royal jelly, whereas other types of bee larvae are fed a combination of royal jelly and pollen…
Sometimes the bees that leave the old hive will do so with the old queen before virgin queens emerge from the queen cups. Once the virgin queens emerge, they will fight to the death even though worker bees try to keep them from fighting. There may need more than one virgin queen in case the hive has to divide more than once (called “cast swarms” where part of the hive leaves with a virgin queen). They may also kill the virgin queens that have not emerged from the queen cups. If part of the hive doesn’t leave with the old queen before the virgin queens emerge, workers also have to protect the old queen. Up to 2/3 of the bees will leave with the old queen.
OH, another weird thing is that when the virgin queen bee mates, she will leave the nest (hive) and go to where drones have congregated and mate (in flight). She may do this for several days until she is fully mated. She then stores up to 6 million sperm from multiple drones in her spermatheca which she will use for her entire life of 3-7 years. The Wikipedia article says female worker bees gather food for the larvae while the males (drones) function is primarily to mate with the queen then they die.
When a colony is ready to swarm, scout bees go out and find a nearby location for the swarm to cluster, sometimes very close to the original hive. That means the hive they left may even be in this same tree. The bees will eat before they leave and may not eat again until the workers have found a new suitable nesting spot. Once the bees have clustered on a branch, 20-50 scouts set off to find suitable nesting sites. The scouts communicate by dancing in such a way that points to where they have found a possible site (called a waggle dance). If their dance is really excited, it encourages other scouts to have a look at what they have found. This dancing and checking out suitable sites goes on until a location is agreed upon then the swarm will relocate.
I am sure I have missed something because it seems like a lot to take in… There are quite a few good websites about bees, so I will include a few links to the ones I thoroughly read…
SWARMING (HONEY BEES)-Wikipedia article.
QUEEN BEE-Interesting Wikipedia article about queen bees.
WHY BEES SWARM AND WHAT YOU SHOULD-OR SHOULDN’T DO- ABOUT THEM. Article by the UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County.
HONEYCOMB IDENTIFICATION-BROOD NEST-Great article by BackYardHive.
Definitely, if you find a swarm of bees, you should contact a beekeeper to see if they will come and remove them and put them in a suitable hive box. Sometimes, homeowners find a swarm on the side of their house under an eve and spray like they would a paper wasp nest. If they have been there for a while and have started making honeycomb, spraying not only kills that colony, it can also endanger other colonies as well. Bees from other nests can come and eat the honey and take the pesticide back to their own nest.
Experienced beekeepers are interesting to watch as they remove swarms and put them into a box. I remember as a kid my grandpa had several hives here. One time we were visiting my cousins on their farm and there was a swarm of bees in a tree next to their house. They had relocated to another farm when the Corps of Engineers bought their old farm because the Truman Dam was being built and water would eventually cover their land. Anyway, the farm they relocated to had a HUGE old farmhouse. There were a few rooms they couldn’t use because honey bees were living in and on the walls. Anyway, my mom called grandpa and he came with a box to remove the swarm. Grandpa put his hand inside the cluster of bees and found the queen. The swarm then circled his arm and he just raked the bees off into the box. He didn’t get stung once!
Swarming bees are usually harmless because they have filled up on honey before they leave the old hive. There are several species of honey bees, but they all generally have the same characteristics and reasons for swarming. However, in some areas, there are more aggressive Africanized bees that can be a problem. Some beekeepers that bring home aggressive species have found them too dangerous and need help getting rid of them. More experienced beekeepers will introduce queens from a docile hive and within 45 days or so, the aggressive bees will be replaced by docile bees. If nests are disturbed or threatened, guard bees can also attack people and pets. More aggressive species will become agitated by mowers or other loud noises…
OK, I better close this post. As I said, there is a lot online about bees, swarms, keeping bees, etc. I learned a lot I didn’t know.
Until next time, take care, be safe, stay well, be positive, and always be thankful…