Spring has officially arrived! In Florida, we must watch closely for the changes of the season, as we don’t experience defined seasons like other parts of the country. Our mild Florida winters allow plants to continue to grow and provide an abundance of pollen to our bees most of the year. Still, the change of seasons brings joy, excitement, and sometimes struggles that are a part of the season no matter where you live. Beekeepers know that this time of year is known as honeybee swarm season in Florida.
What is Swarm Season?
Bees reproduce in two ways. The first method is simple reproduction. The queen bee lays eggs that will be nurtured and hatched within the colony. These young bees become a part of her colony. Worker honey bees only have a lifespan of about 6 weeks, so in order to survive, the colony will constantly need to be replenishing its numbers. A queen bee lays between 2000 and 3000 eggs a day! So, you can see how quickly the bee populations can grow, despite their short lifespan.
The other way that honey bees reproduce is to create more colonies. Swarming is the natural process in which new honey bee colonies are produced. Each colony has one queen bee that governs the hive. Her sole responsibility is to lay eggs and build her colony. In order for a new colony to be produced, the colony would need to split, and a separate young queen begins to govern the rest of the bees.
Swarm season in Florida is typically between March and May when the spring nectar flow is at its peak. The time frame will vary depending on where you are in the country, but it will likely coincide with the spring months. The abundance of food is necessary for a swarm of honey bees to have the needed resources to survive. Late season swarms that abscond in the fall have a much lower survival rate because they likely won’t have the food stores to survive the winter.
See Our Bees Swarming
As Philip was preparing for his annual inspection and was planning to split some of his colonies, our own bees began to swarm while he was working in the hive! He caught this video. Don’t worry, we got them back!
Why Do Bees Swarm?
Bees swarm for several reasons. They will swarm when they have outgrown their space. If the colony becomes too large to sufficiently provide enough resources for the colony. Queen bees control their colonies through pheromone controls. If a colony becomes too large, her pheromone levels may not be strong enough to control the entire group. When this happens half of the worker bees and the queen will swarm.
Another reason that bees may swarm is that their current hive is insufficient in some way. Possibly there are insufficient resources in the area to support the hive. Maybe there is a disturbance in the area that makes them feel unsafe. Perhaps there is a disease, contamination, or pest invasion such as varroa mites in their hive. In these cases, the queen and the entire colony will leave the hive to seek out a better home for their colony. When this happens, the correct term is that the colony absconded.
How Does a Hive Prepare to Swarm?
A colony that is swarming due to overcrowding will prepare to swarm. Interestingly it is the worker bees that will drive the queen to swarm when they sense her pheromone levels insufficient to guide them.
They will first build swarm cells for a new queen to be produced. Only a portion of the colony will swarm with their queen, the bees left behind will need a queen to lead them for their colony to survive. Since swarming is a means of reproducing, the swarming bees won’t leave the bees left behind high and dry, they will be provided with the resources they need to create a virgin queen. When we first began beekeeping, I researched how bees create a new queen, it’s a fascinating process. You can read all about it here.
Secondly, the worker bees will prepare the queen to swarm. Normally a queen bee is too large to fly far. To prepare the queen to swarm they will slim her down. They do this by limiting her food or by running her around and preventing her from laying eggs.
Once the queen is ready to swarm, she and approximately 60% of the colony will leave the hive in a mass exodus. If you have never seen a swarm before it is quite a sight to see! It looks like a tornado of bees filling the sky. We were lucky enough to see our own colony swarm and caught a portion of the cloud of bees on video, you can see it here.
The queen will find a place to rest, and the entire swarm will beard together in a large swarm cluster or ball of bees to protect her. This cluster of bees is remarkable to see. While the swarm protects the queen, scout bees will be sent out in search of a new home to relocate the colony.
Capturing a Swarm
If a beekeeper wants to trap a swarm of honeybees, the easiest time to do so is when the colony is in that resting phase while the scout bees are locating a suitable place to settle. The bees are more docile, as they have filled their honey stomachs with honey or nectar for the trip. Brood production is halted during the transition and they don’t have any brood to defend. Once the bees are settled, they will defend their hive to death from intruders.
Steps to Swarm Retrieval
To retrieve the colony, the beekeeper will carefully remove the bees from the place they are clustering while in a swarm state. It is usually accomplished by cutting the tree branch that supports the swarm. The bees are then relocated to a nuc, or hive box by quickly shaking the bees off the cluster into the container. Philip uses a nuc box and adds empty frames, sealing the bees inside. Naturally, the bees will spread out onto the frames. Bees left outside the nuc will create a small cluster, as we hope the queen is contained within the box.
After he has allowed the bees to settle, he can inspect the frames within the nuc box to locate the queen. Allowing the bees to settle onto the frames makes looking for her much easier, as they will quickly spread out from the cluster. Once the queen is contained, the colony will stay with her, less likely to swarm again.
Swarms typically create a permanent home in a hollow tree, abandoned structures, or cavities in a building, assessable by a small opening. . I have kept screech owl nesting boxes in my backyard for years, but after two years of having bees take over my nest boxes, I quit putting them up! Bees only need a small hole to access almost any hollow space that protects them from the elements.
Our Experiences Chasing Swarms
When Philip first began beekeeping, he was constantly chasing swarms. He also encounters beehives frequently in his work as a tree surgeon. Our first and most difficult swarm that he retrieved was a swarm of bees that had taken up residence in the walls of a local home. It took several weeks, but he did successfully remove a good portion of that colony from their home. You can read about it here.
We first got into bees when he found the very first bee colony in a tree he was hired to remove. Since then, he has pulled at least 3 more colonies from trees. There are several posts about removing bees from trees, one 35’ in the air! Check them out here.
Philip has retrieved our own bees’ swarms on at least four separate occasions. Thankfully he has access to the equipment he needs to reach the bees when they choose a resting spot high in the trees.
Beekeepers prepare for swarm season as well. Beekeepers can place swarm traps in areas that bees might find hospitable. These are typically cardboard-like boxes that can be mounted and baited with scents that bees find appealing. If a scout bee leads its colony to the swarm trap, the beekeeper can easily move new colonies to a more appropriate hive box and glean the benefits of free bees.
Most swarms of bees will be the swarming colonies of other beekeepers rather than feral honey bees. It’s usually safe to integrate them into the bee yard. Bees that are removed from trees or abandoned houses are considered feral bees and should be placed into a “dirty” bee yard. These bees may have diseases or pests in their hives that we don’t want to expose our bee colonies to. We have lost at least one of the rescued colonies due to moths and carpenter ants. Neither of these pests would be welcomed in our apiary.
Preventing the Swarm
If you have spent any time around animals of any kind, you know you can only control what you can control! There is nothing worse than seeing a colony of bees that you have invested in fly away! To prevent swarms, it is important that beekeepers monitor the sizes of their colonies, especially in early spring. Ensure your existing colony has adequate space to grow. Bees that become overcrowded will swarm, that is the natural process.
Beekeepers can do splits, which is the dividing of a bee colony. Bees will produce queen cells in a colony. If a beekeeper finds a queen cell with eggs in them or sealed queen cells, the beekeeper can divide the colony, called a split. To make a split, a beekeeper will pull sufficient resources of brood, honey, and pollen from the existing colonies and start a new colony. Philip and I recently did a quick split when adding the honey supers to the hives this month.
When the colony realizes they are without a queen, by the lack of sensing her pheromones, they will expedite the making of a new queen. Once the new virgin queen hatches, she will take her mating flight and return to nurture and develop the colony. The queen of the original colony will continue to grow her separate colony.
What To Do if You Find a Swarm?
If you live locally to us here in Belleview, Florida and you find a swarm, give us a call. Philip is always on the lookout to enlarge our apiary during swarm season in Florida. If you find a beehive in the wall of a home it’s much more complicated to deal with. There are places that provide live bee removals but it is a huge expense.
If you are a local beekeeper yourself that lives locally and your own bees swarm out of your reach. Give Philip a call. Part of the services he offers with his tree service company is bee retrieval. He has the equipment and know-how to help you get your bees back!
If you don’t live locally to us, you can find a local bee rescuer using this website. Pollinator.org
Assisting a Fellow Beekeeper Retrieve a Swarm
Philip got a call from one of his fellow beekeepers that his bees had swarmed. He invited Philip to come to assist him to retrieve the swarm and asked that Philip inspect the hives to see what they could do to prevent the bees from swarming again. After retrieving the bees, Philip is spending time mentoring his fellow beekeeper by inviting him to come work in our hives to see how we manage our apiary and then together they apply the strategies to his own colonies. Enjoy this video of Philip retrieving the swarm!
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.
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These websites really helped in my research regarding Swarms.