After some time the swarm will depart to the new hive in one or more steps, and may even bivouac outside if the weather is fine. The swarm is usually extremely passive in nature. They will defend themselves if threatened, but will usually tolerate gentle handling and close proximity. This is due to the fact that they need every bee to work towards the new hive, and cannot afford to loose bees unnecessarily.  They need to preserve the young bees within their numbers (only these can produce wax) and they need every drop of honey the swarm carries to manufacture new wax comb (7-10Kg of honey per kg of wax), and obviously a larger swarm will find it easier to defend their new site until the queen can start laying. Aggressive swarms may deplete their numbers to such a point that they are no longer viable, and may have to rejoin the old colony. Once they are inside the new site, and have begun to produce comb for stores and brood, they will no longer be so passive. Now they will readily defend their new home with their lives.

Back inside the old hive site, once the excitement of the issuing swarm has died down, the remaining colony prepares to welcome their new queen or queens. Around two weeks before swarming, worker bees will have prepared multiple peanut-shaped Queen cells, complete with an egg. These are fed exclusively on royal jelly and pollen, and around swarming time the new Queens will be close to emergence. The first virgin Queen to emerge will sting her regal sisters to death in their cells, in a brutal battle royale before they can challenge her rule. The Queen is unique in that she has no barb on her stinger and so can sting multiple times.  If the colony is still large and well stocked, they may prevent the Queen from destroying her sisters and instead issue one or multiple subsequent swarms.

Virgin Queens will wait for good weather before flying to a drone congregation area, where they mate with multiple males, storing their sperm in a spermatheca (sperm bladder)to use later. Fertilised eggs (diploid) result in workers and Queens. Unfertilised eggs (haploid) result in drones. Virgin Queens must make their mating flights within a week of emergence, or the duct leading to the spermathecal will narrow, not allowing normal mating function. This will result in a drone-laying Queen and the colony to fail.


Welcome to a series of blogs about bees, beekeeping and the natural environment by our resident beekeeper.

Welcome to spring! We are nearing the start of the swarming season for bees, and the busy season for beekeepers. Swarming is the process by which bees occupy new areas and increase their numbers by forming a new colony.  The decision to swarm is made the previous summer. A well located colony (dry, well ventilated, proximity to forage) combined with a fair summer will give enough stores to last the winter, and allow the colony to start quickly in the spring. Foragers will look for new nest sites and communicate these using the waggle dance in a similar way to nectar/pollen, water or propolis sources. Experienced foragers are more trusted in this crucial process, and can be spotted by their damaged wings. In particular they are looking for a cavity of around 15-20L in volume, a defendable entrance, raised off the ground to reduce damp, facing the morning sun (E/SE) and preferably close to the existing colony to reduce chances of predation to the Queen.

In swarming, the Queen bee leaves the hive accompanied by mostly workers (females) with some drones (males).  However the Queen is initially not ready for her departure. She is an egg-laying machine (1500+/day at peak fertility) and as such is extremely well fed by her courtiers. She must go on an extreme diet to slim down for flight. To achieve this they chase her around the hive for several days prior to swarming. Nipping her with their mandibles and reducing her rations until she is an appropriate weight for flight.

Before leaving, the departing bees gorge on honey, filling their stomach and crop. At around midday on the hottest day of the year so far, they spill from the hive in vast numbers, usually clustering on the front of the hive, before taking to the air en masse. They will then fly to a congregation spot chosen by foragers, where they cluster for warmth and protection, with the Queen somewhere in the centre, to minimise the risk of her predation. She is the only one capable of laying viable eggs at the new site, and they must protect her. Sometimes multiple queens can be found in the swarm, this may be a strategy used in areas with large numbers of predators.

A cluster of bees is an amazing sight. Foragers will be sent out for nectar and pollen. It is a fascinating to see foragers return to the cluster, and perform a waggle dance on the backs of her siblings (as obviously at this point they have no comb).

To be continued…