Whether the honey bee colony is found in a hollowed out tree in the woods or in a rectangular hive box in a beekeeper’s backyard, the goal of honey bees is the same: to produce colonies. By contrast, the goal of the beekeeper is to produce bees. So, when a colony gets to the point where they have outgrown their current residence, it’s time for them to split their forces and take a chance at expanding as a species. Depending on where the honey bees are located in the world, they will swarm during the first or second honey flows. They choose this time because this is when their food source is most plentiful and an abundant food source will provide the energy necessary to put in all the work to build comb and start a new colony.
The first thing that must happen for swarming to occur within the hive is for the worker bees to come to a consensus that the hive is overcrowded and there is no longer enough space to expand. This is an issue that needs to be remedied. At this point, worker bees will begin feeding eggs in certain cells (laid by the old queen) royal jelly in order to turn these eggs that were once destined to be a worker bee into a queen. These cells are known as swarm cells. They will most commonly be found on the bottom half of a frame and these cells can number in some cases more then ten throughout the hive. After 16 days (with only 6 days capped with the cell completely enclosed) these swarm cells begin to hatch queens. These virgin queens will promptly travel throughout the hive, stinging rival queen cells aborting them. In the event that another virgin queen has hatched, they will fight to the death.
The surviving virgin queen will leave the hive on her own to mate with drones in an area far away from the hive called ‘Drone Congregation Areas’ (DCA). Upon her return she will begin her reign as queen bee. Once mated, the queen will be recognized the workers of the colony as their queen. At this point, anywhere from 10-60% of the hives workers will fill up on honey and prepare to swarm with the old queen. They will create a ‘carpet’ of bees just outside the hive on the ground or on the face of the hive before taking off to a tree branch to form a cluster of bees roughly the size of a basketball where they will contemplate their next move.
In our next post we will talk about the process the swarm will take to arrive at a decision on a nesting site to settle in (Hint: it is a democratic process in its purest form!).