Spreading the Bee Buzz #2 – Swarms

Here is the text of the second article for our village magazine. Like the first article here, the aim is to spread an appreciation and respect for the insect population around us. In this instalment, the focus is on swarms.

The Bee Buzz – Swarms

Honeybees are a valuable pollinator and their reproduction and growth is to be encouraged. As a ‘superorganism’ their true reproduction is not the birth of individual bees, which happens routinely throughout their active year, but the foundation of an entirely new separate colony – a swarm.

In Oxfordshire, swarm season is late April to June. Overcrowded nests, or colonies amassing around 60,000 bees, trigger the instinct to split, whereupon the old queen lays eggs in new queen-rearing cells, then she and half the hive, the most mature bees, fill their stomachs with honey and fly away to find a new home.

Initially, the swarm of bees emerges from a hive and settles as a cluster nearby, with the queen protected in the middle – usually hanging from a branch out of the reach of predators, but sometimes on a wall, or even on the ground. The cluster size can vary from a small Gallia melon to a football,

The cluster sends out scouts to range around the area for a few miles looking for new nest sites. The scouts return and dance locations, then check out the best sites each have found: bees evolved in hollow trees and prefer a certain cavity volume, height, smell, access to water and food, and sunny entrance. Once enough scouts agree on the very best site, they herd the swarm to their chosen new home. Clusters can take as little as an hour, or as long as three days to decide.

As the massive cloud of bees breaks cluster and fly off, they look and sound really impressive – but they are not to be feared and are actually at their most passive. They have full stomachs, no young or stores to protect, and they are purely focused on getting the queen to her new home. So if you see a swarm, do not panic, just admire it as a marvel of nature, but if it is flying then best to stay out of its path. Beekeepers like to catch and re-house clustered honeybee swarms – so if you spot one note the Beekeeper contact numbers listed in the SAL directory.

A nest established away from people is rarely a problem. Some colonies live in house cavities for years without causing disturbance, and unlike wasps they don’t chew through wood, to create their nest they simply add material (wax). Last year I heard of a 20 year old colony in a roof which had never given the residents problems. If accessible, Beekeepers can sometimes remove such colonies, but usually not from walls or chimneys.

What beekeepers can not do is move bumblebees, which are classed as protected wild animals, and there’s usually no way to move their delicate nest without destroying it. Bumbles often buzz round their nest in late summer in a cloud of 50-100 – but this is just the stingless drones (males) showing off to prospective mates. Bumbles are even better pollinators and their nests last only one year, so they are best just left alone.

There is debate whether feral honeybees can survive without human help in the modern world and so I would be interested in knowing about any unmanaged colonies in the area, as well as swarms!(oxnatbees@gmail.com)

Happy swarming season.

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4 Responses to Spreading the Bee Buzz #2 – Swarms

  1. Pingback: Spreading the Bee Buzz #8 – Apis, Bombus, and many more | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

  2. Pingback: Spreading the Bee Buzz #9 – Local Bees | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

  3. Pingback: Spreading the Bee Buzz #10 – Surviving Winter | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

  4. Pingback: Spreading the Bee Buzz #11 – Starting Beekeeping | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

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