A swarm is one of nature's amazing spectacles (if you are not allergic to bees!). But what are they and why do bees do it? And more importantly, what should you do if you see one?
I recall in my early days of beekeeping getting a call for a swarm of bees in a tree. I was rather excited as I packed up my gear. This excitement turned to disappointment when I arrived at the address only to find that there were hundreds of bees foraging for resins on a tree in the front yard. The resident assumed that because there were so many bees, and no flowers in sight, that it was a swarm! Another call had me witnessing bees sucking up icecream residue from a child’s unfortunate mishap, despite it looking like a small swarm in the photo!
I have received many ‘swarm’ calls since then and have now learned that before I jump in the ute with my gear I firstly need to ask a few questions. I know that if I don’t I could be facing foraging bees. But mainly because trapouts and cutouts are services that I struggle to find time for.
Swarms vs Feral Colonies
There is a big difference between a swarm and a feral hive (which requires cutouts or trapouts). A swarm can simply be defined as homeless bees looking for their forever home. A feral hive is a swarm that has moved into their forever home! And this more often than not ends up being in very inconvenient places, not only for us (or our neighbours), but also for our native fauna.
If you see bees in a hollow of a tree, or flying in and out of your roof cavity then this is most likely an established colony. An established feral colony. That is, an unmanaged hive. Rehoming these bees requires a cut out or a trapout.
A cutout is exactly that, cutting out the comb and removing the colony and entire structure of the hive. It takes a lot of patience, skill, and time. These pieces of comb are attached to empty frames and placed in hive hardware ready to be managed responsibly by a beekeeper.
A trapout is performed when there is no or limited access to the hive. These are usually found in tree hollows and small spaces. Most trapouts are done by reducing the entrance to the hive and creating a funnel with pipework down into the back of hive hardware. This forces the bees to move through the hive box to forage. Essentially when they return from foraging they must enter though the entrance of the hive hardware, through the box, and then up the funnel and pipework back to their cavity.
Over time they will move down into the box and, once you have the queen down in there, the remainder of the colony will follow. At which point you remove the hive hardware with the bees. It is then crucial that you permanently block the entrance to the cavity so other swarms do not move in. Residual pheromone, honey, and wax left in the cavity will attract other bees. This whole process can take weeks or even months, depending on how established the colony is (and how stubborn their genetics are).
But let’s get back to swarms.
Why do Bees Swarm?
Essentially, when bees get too big for their space or there is an absolute abundance of food they prepare to swarm . These usually go hand in hand. They do this for a number of reasons. One is because they simply run out of room and swarming is their way of managing it - they are splitting themselves in half, in turn, creating less congestion within the hive. It is also a very natural behaviour that protects the genetics of the colony itself. Swarming is a form of procreation as it distributes the bee’s genetics and keeps these genetics alive. It is an essential part of bee biology.
The Swarming Process
Once a colony has decided to swarm they have a number of tasks that they need to perform. They will put their Queen on a diet to slim her down so she is light enough to fly. The only other time she has taken wing was during her mating flights in her first weeks of emerging from her cell.
Knowing that the Queen will be leaving the hive they need to ensure that the part of the colony that remains behind is not left short. They go about making a new Queen to replace the existing Queen by feeding young larvae copious amounts of royal jelly and drawing out Queen cells (which look a little like unshelled peanuts).
When they are ready to swarm up to half the colony fills up on honey and leaves with the existing Queen. They will travel up to a few hundred metres and stop to rest. This is where you see the ‘ball’ of bees. Scout bees can be seen coming and going from this cluster. They will be searching for their permanent home or the next place to rest. These locations are communicated to the cluster by the scouts until they decide to move to the next resting place. They will continue to do this until they find their forever home (or at least until they outgrow that as well!).
Bee Swarm Behaviour
Bees in this cluster or ball are generally non-aggressive (beeks like to call this non-defensive) as they have no home or brood (eggs and larvae) to protect. They are also said to be ‘happy’ as they have bellies full of honey. They will only be protecting their Queen who will be towards the centre of the cluster so there is little reason for them to be narky.
But bees have stings! The very first swarm I rehomed is an interesting story. I was called to a friend’s father’s rental where the resident had called in a swarm. This is when Dave was still working in Kazakhstan, so I was flying solo. I did my research (as suggested by Dave), viewing LOTS of YouTube content until I was pretty comfortable with what needed to be done, and how to go about it.
Lucky for me it was a ‘chop and drop’. The bees were hanging off a low branch and I managed to chop the branch and gently lower it down into the box I had sitting below. While I was putting the lid on one of the girls flew out and WHACK!! Got me right on the face. This was the first of a few stings I have managed to get on my face over the years.
Dave: How did they get you through your bee suit.
Me: Well, I wasn’t wearing one.
Dave: Why not?
Me: In all the videos I watched not one beekeeper wore a suit. I just assumed that swarms don't sting!
So, AHEM ... YES they can still sting you.
It's important to note that even though bees in a swarm are generally fairly placid, they still have stings and it only takes one to decide they don’t like your perfume or deodorant (or the smell from the banana you had for breakfast).
Safety Around Bee Swarms
If you see a swarm it is best to remain calm. Take a photo from a safe distance and contact a registered beekeeper. Try not to delay. If the swarm is able to be collected and successfully rehomed then that is one swarm that will not become a feral colony.
Most Australians are now aware of the Varroa mite incursion over in NSW and WA has a very good chance of remaining one of the only Varroa-free regions in the world. The more we can limit the number of feral colonies the better chance we have of eradicating this pest if it enters WA.
The WA Apiarists’ Society has a list of swarm catchers who operate around the State. These beeks are experienced, insured and registered beekeepers (all beekeepers must be registered). They are also vetted and approved prior to making it onto the list. Some local councils also have a list of approved beekeepers.
Sometimes it is not possible to rehome a swarm or feral hive. This is when it is appropriate to euthanise the colony. I received a call from a local primary school a few weeks ago and had to advise them that they may need to arrange a pest controller to euthanise the feral hive if a beekeeper could not be found to do the trapout. They had an exterminator on standby for that evening but luckily we were able to find someone to come out and rehome them. As bad as it sounds, sometimes euthanising the hive is the best option for safety, but also importantly, biosecurity reasons.
There is a fairly strong sentiment around the globe that we need to ‘save the bees’. Fortunately for us, this phrase is not actually relevant to us down here in Oz. Our bee populations are thriving, perhaps a little too well when you include all the feral colonies out there. We do not suffer from colony collapse disorder like they do in other parts of the world, particularly in the northern hemisphere. This is due mostly as a result of Varroa coupled with other pests and diseases we simply do not have here.
Managing Swarms as a Beekeeper
As a beekeeper swarm management is one of our main priorities during major flows. Around Perth and the southwest this normally occurs during Spring and Summer. February to March is when our main swarm season occurs due to high nectar flows from the Marri blossom.
Biosecurity is something that I am quite passionate about and effective swarm management on our hives is an essential part of our beekeeping practices.
During peak times I know that I need to get into our hives at least on a weekly basis to perform swarm management tasks. This includes brood management by rotating frames from the brood into the honey supers. This creates space in the brood box for the Queen to lay, and also creates space in the honey supers when the capped brood you rotated up there emerges.
We also perform artificial swarming which is essentially removing the existing queen with part of the colony and placing her in separate hiveware. We leave the remaining bees to produce a new queen. This is called ‘splitting’. You’ve all heard of chicken maths? Bee maths exists too. Splitting hives at the right time is a very effective swarm management tool, and has the added benefit of being one of the quickest ways to build up hive numbers.
Call to Action
Bee swarms are a natural behaviour of bees and is one of their survival mechanisms. Swarms are nothing to be afraid of, and it pays to be sensible around them.
If you see a swarm, take a photo from a safe distance and call a registered beekeeper. You can request their hive brand (a combination of three letters and numbers). If they are registered they will know what their hive brand is and will happily tell you.
Let’s start getting the word out that swarms need to be either rehomed or euthanised, and not left to just move on to become a feral colony.
Are you a beekeeper wanting to know more about swarm management and how to effectively manage swarming behaviours? Our consultation service provides everything you need to know and is specific to you and your bees.
The WA Apiarists’ Society also has some fabulous courses which cover swarm management and more. For further details and course dates head on over to their Training page. Courses run in October to November and again in February to March. They are delivered in Perth, Bunbury and Margaret River.
Helen Humphreys Passionate Beekeeper Trainer | Mentor | Producer