Honey bees often swarm in the spring and early summer when their population increases rapidly and conditions inside the hive become too crowded. Prior to swarming, the bees will gorge on honey to fuel their flight. Then the queen and half the bees will take off in search of new digs. But before the swarm makes it too far from the hive it will take up temporary residence on something nearby – a bush, a tree branch, a picnic table, a fence, etc. – clustered together with the queen inside. The cluster of bees will stay put for a few hours up to a few days while scout bees search for a new home.
From the beekeeper’s perspective, swarming is considered something to avoid because it drastically reduces the number of bees available to make honey. Some beekeepers who aren’t as interested in harvesting honey but keep bees more for pollination services may view swarming as a helpful self-thinning event. But if the swarm leaves later in the year it can leave behind a colony too weak to make it through the winter. Ideally beekeepers try to prevent swarms.
We are heavy into the swarm season now, and for many beekeepers it’s a great way to get free bees! You just need to keep extra equipment on hand to be ready to capture the swarm.
If you observe a swarm on your property and would like someone to come get it you can contact Cooperative Extension at 919-542-8202 or email Debbie Roos and we will put the word out on the Chatham County Beekeepers’ Association listserv. Usually within a few hours the swarm is captured!
The swarm prepares to exit the hive.
The swarm flies around for a few minutes, circling nearby bushes. The sound of thousands of bees in flight is unforgettable. They finally decide to land on a red tip bush about 10 yards from the hive.
The bees initially form two clusters on the bush.
Gradually the bees bridge the two branches together to form one cluster. It took about 15 minutes from the time they left the hive to form this swarm.
Capturing a Honey Bee Swarm
This is actually a different swarm that the one pictured above! These bees are from a different hive and swarmed a few days later to the same bush, now known as the official “swarm bush”!
Chatham County beekeeper Jim Williams decides where to prune back the branches to make the swarm more accessible.
Jim eased the box under the swarm but it quickly became apparent that this was a two-person job because the branch was thick and needed to be cut with loppers. So I put down my camera and stuck my head inside the shrub canopy to make the cut.
Swarm on a stick!
The branch is trimmed again to fit into the cardboard box. Notice some of the bees have fallen off but they will soon rejoin the queen in the cluster.
Swarm in a box!
Jim will transfer the bees to an empty hive once he gets home.
Swarms can also be placed right into a hive body. It’s a good idea to keep extra equipment on hand to be prepared to capture swarms.
Installing Package Bees
NC State University Apiculture Research Technician Jennifer Keller installs a package of bees at a recent field day for the Chatham County Beekeepers’ Association. The Association maintains three hives at Central Carolina Community College’s Land Lab, where their pollination services are greatly appreciated. The Land Lab’s farm manager said that yields have increased significantly since the bees arrived.