Of bees & swarming

In early June we supplied a hive and a colony of bees to a friend who lives in a nearby town. This set-up we installed in her back garden. Since then her hive has been very active and healthy – lots of bee activity, pollen & nectar coming in.

Recently, over the past 2 weeks, our friend has noticed an increase of activity each day around 12:30. Lots of bees flying out, a burst of high activity. After some additional research we have determined that this is swarming behaviour.

Swarming is a natural process caused, primarily, by congestion in the hive. Early in the spring the population of the honeybee colony can explode creating overcrowding. As a result, the colony makes a decision to divide – what biologists call “colony-level reproduction”. The colony begins the magical process of producing a second queen. Once the development of a new queen is well under way the old queen and approximately half the colony will depart the hive and begin looking for a new home. This is called a “prime swarm” – one which contains the old queen.

It seems that in the second year of life a queen & colony are more inclined to swarm even if no external “swarming factors” are present. Our queens are between 1 and 2 years old therefore the colonies are predisposed to swarm. There is a burst of increased production within the hive and the workers begin to construct many queen cells. These virgin, unmated queens are allowed to hatch and subsequently leave taking with them a small portion of the hive’s population. Once this small swarm (“after swarm”) has departed the virgin queen will mate and the hunt for a new permanent home intensifies.

On Friday 29th July, our friend called us to deal with a small swarming incident. I easily recovered this swarm as it had taken residence directly above one of the hives, only a metre away. I placed an open nuc box beneath it and shook the bees into it. After replacing the lid I placed the nuc box, with door open, below the site of the swarm and left it for a few hours. Later that evening I returned to note that all the swarmed bees had entered the nuc at which point I taped closed the door.

Success – one captured swarm.

Today, Saturday 30th July, however we have reports of two more swarms leaving the hive. They too are small so most likely also virgin queen after swarms however they’ve gone too far for us to be able to practically recover them.