Survival of the fittest: why do honey bees swarm?

Last week we had some great news! We discovered that our tree hive in our woodland apiary has bees in it once more. You can see a video of Katharine making the discovery below.

Our tree hive most replicates the tree hollows that wild bees colonise. Until January this year there had been bees in this hive for about three years, but something happened last winter and they vacated the tree hive and left it empty.

There was damage to the outside of the hive which we believe was caused by squirrels looking for honey.  In the next two videos you can see a new colony of bees has swarmed into the hive. 

Why do bees swarm?

Honey bees, Apis mellifera, swarm for one of two reasons. Either the hive has become too crowded so they split into two groups (or more), with one group remaining in the existing hive. Or they abscond. This is what happened to our tree hive; all the bees including the queen abandon the existing hive completely due to lack of food or water, parasite or disease infestation, frequent disturbance by humans or animals, weather changes, poor ventilation, or problems with the queen.

If the bees are swarming due to overcrowding or the lack of pheromone production from the queen, the worker bees are able to detect when it's time. In preparation for the swarm, the workers will deprive the queen of food in order to slim her down so she can fly. They will also agitate and run her around in order to prevent her from laying many eggs. However, they will create new queen cells and allow the queen to lay eggs so a new queen can emerge and take over the hive.

Below is a video of some of the kids taking part in one of our education programs removing the old wax and honey to make room for a new swarm.

Are bees dangerous when they swarm?

When they are swarming, honey bees are typically very docile, as they’ve eaten their honey stores and are full and happy. They also don’t have hives with honey stores or brood to protect. 

If they are swarming, you can also count on the fact that the honey bees are most likely local and carry strong genetics. Swarming is a behaviour that only healthy bees exhibit, they have survived the winter and are strong enough to leave their old hive and find a new one.   

What does this mean for beekeepers?

For traditional beekeeper, swarming can be perilous as there is the danger of losing a hive of the strongest bees. Therefore, a lot of bee management by traditional keepers is to prevent swarming or to artificially control the division of hives. For us, as natural bee custodians, swarming is a natural instinct of the bees that we want to allow and encourage to ensure our bees are happy and healthy. Which is why we are so happy to see a wild bee colony in our tree hive, we hope they are happy in their new home and we will keep you posted about their progress.

Beeswax from the tree hive
One benefit of an empty hive is that you can extract the comb and honey without worry of taking away from the colony. We were able to extract honey and wax that had been abandoned by the original tree colony and recycle it and use it in  our limited addition amazing Bee Lippy lip balm which is available to buy here.


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