What is a swarm and what to do if you see one
You are probably all familiar with the term 'swarm' as a simple collective name for a group of bees. However it's not entirely accurate to say that most groups of bees you see are 'swarming'. In the language of bee keeping swarming is a very specific bee behaviour and a swarm is used to describe bees that are in that process.
So what exactly is a swarm?
A swarm is actually a group of bees out looking for a new home! It's part of the life-cycle of a colony and the way a bee colony grows and reproduces. As we touched on in our 'Life of a Queen Bee' blog last year, there are circumstances where the queen bee will leave the hive and take up to two thirds of the colony with her. When that happens that is what we call a swarm, put simply it's a large group of bees that are following the old queen to look for a new home.
The remainder will stay and raise a new queen bee, so when a colony casts off a swarm, it is reproducing. For bee populations to stay large and healthy swarming is absolutely necessary. A swarm will usually settle within 15 minutes of leaving the old hive and will wait there until scout bees return to the swarm to let them know that they have found somewhere suitable to live. That process can take up to several days, which is why we often see a swarm clustered on a tree, out building, or even a lamppost in urban areas.
The scout bees need to find a good location and when they find a potential new home they will return to the cluster. The scout bee will communicate the locations distance and direction to the other scouts by performing a 'dance' of sorts. The other scouts will all follow these directions to see the location for themselves. If they agree on the new home they will fly the whole swarm to the new location and start a new colony. This cycle will continue on and on with the colony expanding and reproducing its genetics leading to a large healthy bee population in the area.
When are you most likely to see a swarm?
You are most likely to see a swarm during a warm, sunny, summer afternoon, especially if there has been some bad weather beforehand. With the weather so changeable at the moment, the likelihood of seeing a swarm is actually higher than usual right now, but swarming behaviour is usually far less common after the end of July.
What to do if you see a swarm.
A swarm of bees can be stunning to see in flight and beautiful to look at in a cluster. In flight, they will look like a large black cloud of bees and while that could appear threatening, a swarm of bees are not on the attack. Bees in a swarm are usually more passive than usual as they don't have any honey or brood to defend. They will be simply looking for somewhere to cluster for a while or on their way to their new home! In the unlikely event that you find yourself very close to a swarm in flight, don't wave your arms around or be a nuisance to them, just let them go about their business. If you don't bother them, they likely won't bother you either.
If you find a swarm cluster in a problematic or inconvenient place, such as right outside your front door or, as recently happened in Manchester, on a table at a popular café, we'd recommend visiting the British Bee Keepers Association website and logging it on the swarm collector map. You'll find a lot of useful help and information there and in some cases you might be able to find a local beekeeper to come and relocate the swarm for you. If you see a swarm cluster out in the countryside you can just leave it alone knowing that they will soon be off on a new adventure themselves!
While swarms are a natural and essential part of the bee life cycle, most beekeepers will try and control swarming for obvious reasons, they are losing a large portion of their bees!
There are a few steps that can help beekeepers keep their bees around without resorting to undesirable methods. Firstly by adding extra boxes on top of the hive that allow the colony to expand to its full potential. It creates space for new comb to be built and more room for the queen to lay eggs. Eventually the colony will still get too big for the hive, but it can prevent them swarming early and too often.
By far the most effective way is to create what beekeepers call a split, there are many ways to do this but often a developing queen bee from an existing colony will be added to a new hive along with some bees, pollen and honey. This split is a made to allow the colony to expand in your own hives and can prevent them swarming off somewhere else!
Of course bees still swarm and that's something all good beekeepers accept, they may even come and collect your swarm and move the bees to their own hive so the cycle can continue and we can continue to enjoy the honey!