Swarming, the spontaneous division of a honey bee colony, continues to be one of the beekeeper’s most vexing problems. For example, the Rev. L.L. Langstroth wrote as far back as 1860: “For years, I spent much time in the vain attempt to discover some infallible indications of first swarming; until facts convinced me that there can be no such indications.” L.L. Langstroth, A Practical Treatise on the Hive and the Honey-Bee, C.M. Saxton, Barker and Co., 1860.
Over the years, a great deal has been learned about swarming dynamics. It is now apparent that “queen substance” (a mixture of substances called pheromones) plays an important role in the swarming process.
A prevailing theory is that as a colony becomes over populated, the amount of queen substance available to individual bees is reduced. Those workers not receiving/perceiving adequate amounts of the pheromone may begin preparations to swarm. This does not necessarily mean a colony will do so. There is a body of anecdotal evidence that bees are continually producing and tearing down queen or swarm cells during the active season.
There is a high correlation, however, between the crowding of a large population of bees and swarming. With this in mind, certain guidelines have been formulated that might reduce the incidence of swarming. These are designed to prevent crowding in the hive. They include providing room judiciously by adding supers, reversing hive bodies or rotating empty frames from honey supers or other sources into the brood nest. In addition, ensuring that colonies have adequate upward ventilation, shade and water can also reduce the swarming impulse.
Several other time-honored manipulations are thought to help control swarming:
1. Requeening in the summer or fall because colonies headed by young queens are not likely to swarm the following season.
2. Clipping the queen’s wing to prevent her from going with a swarm may or may not be a deterrent.
3. Destroying queen cells in colonies making preparations to swarm. This is perhaps the least desirable way because it is labor intensive and every cell must be found and eliminated if it is to succeed.
The best long range-strategy to prevent swarming is to consistently requeen colonies with a non swarming strain of honey bees. Swarms collected in the field can also be requeened in this manner. Finally, it must be recognized that no matter what the beekeeper does, as contributor Dave Cushman states: some colonies will swarm.
With all this in mind, the following video from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada discusses some of these techniques in detail. It is 14 and a half minutes.
A good way to control swarming is to divide a colony before preparations begin. Splitting colonies in this way is an important management tool, which is becoming much more important as losses of honey bees increase due to increased environmental stresses.
A time-honored activity for beekeepers is collecting swarms. This should be avoided, however, in Africanized honey bee territory.
Recently, on a field trip to northern Mexico, I was forced to rexamine the meaning of the word “swarm.” Almost every reference book on beekeeping defines this term as an agglomeration of honey bees issuing from a spontaneously dividing colony, when half of the population goes elsewhere in search of a home. This is the reproductive swarm and is the model that those keeping European bees know all too well.
But there is another kind of “swarm.” This is the absconding or migrating swarm, where honey bees simply abandon (abscond from) their nest and go in search of another site. Rarely seen in European honey bees, the migrating swarm is quite commonly associated with Africanized bees now moving through northern Mexico. These migrating swarms are not as big as the reproductive ones and also may have few, if any, drones associated with them. The migratory swarms are often associated with moisture availability and prolonged rainfall can cause a great increase in numbers. These bees are so quick to abscond that it becomes a real management problem for beekeepers.
While visiting the research headquarters of Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor south of the Texas border in early March, I saw a large number of migrating swarms. However, the season for reproductive swarms was just beginning and that type would supersede the migrating ones for another two months or so. The typical reproductive swarming pattern in the area, according to Dr. Taylor, who’s now observed the bees in the area for three years, is similar to the European bee model. But factored in is the migratory (absconding) swarming season that occurs from perhaps November to March and then from July through November now that the African bee is present.
In other words, one might see “swarming” in northern Mexico at any time of the year. Given these two kinds of swarms, how is one to interpret the often cited information regarding swarming in African bees? They do indeed appear to “swarm” more often than Europeans. However, the fact that there are two distinct types of swarms can muddy perceptions by bee scientists and beekeepers alike, who have only experience with the reproductive kind found in European honey bees. This is one example of how the arrival of a feral Africanized honey bee population will force us all to reconsider many of our previous notions about beekeeping techniques.
Swarming is an intricate process and leads to honey bees searching for a new nest. This is described in some detail in this 57-minute video: Uploaded on Feb 15, 2012: Tom Seeley, author of “Honeybee Democracy,” and professor of neurobiology and behavior, reviews the history of behavioral studies of foraging honeybees and explains the process by which swarming honeybees choose a new home in his November 17, 2011 lecture to Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti (CAPE