It’s Swarm Season: Honey Bees Are House Hunting
Do you know anyone who called an exterminator when they discovered a swarm of honey bees? If so, that is especially sad because while honey bees are responsible for every third bite of food we consume and they contribute $15 billion to American agriculture each year, as any beekeeper will tell you, they are battling a combination of diseases, parasites, pesticides, and malnutrition.
April and May are prime swarm season and it’s a special privilege to witness swarming honey bees.
App State elected to become a Bee Campus USA affiliate in 2017 to raise awareness of how vital pollinators are to life as we know it, and the challenges all pollinators face.
Honey bees function as a superorganism. In other words, a single honey bee cannot survive alone. While there are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world (think bumble, sweat, mason, leafcutter, digger, miner, carpenter, squash, blueberry, sunflower…), only seven of those species make honey. North America would not have honey bees today had the European colonists not introduced them in 1622 because they needed wax for candles. They must have felt comfortable together since they were colonists with monarchies, too!
The honey bee’s closest cousin is the bumble bee, a fellow colonist, with a queen and worker bees, but not one that overwinters or swarms like the honey bee. Honey bees have a large, complex society in which as many as 60,000 members perform services ranging from gathering food, constructing wax cells, tending the queen, providing health care, heating and cooling, nursing babies, etc. This allows them to build homes and food stores that get them through the winter, prepared to come out like gangbusters in the spring.
Splitting the colony in half and leaving with the old queen allows a new colony to be born, with a new queen. To prepare for swarming, nurse bees create new queen cells and the old queen’s court withholds food from the queen for a few days to make her flight-weight, since the only other time she has flown was for mating.
Then the worker bees that are leaving the hive fill their honey stomachs for the journey to their new home. Gorged on honey, their abdomens are so distended they are almost incapable of stinging.
Unprotected by their hive, a bee swarm is dangerously exposed to rain, cold, and myriad predators, and generally cannot survive more than three days. Ironically, with no hive to defend, they are much less defensive when swarming. Their focus is protecting their queen mother at the center of the swarm. She is responsible for their continued existence because most worker bees don’t live more than six weeks during the growing season.
Throughout the day, scout bees busily fly in about a three-mile range to identify prospective homes. They report back to the swarm through waggle dancing in a figure eight. The more intensely they dance, the better the chances their prospect is dry, protected from predators and large enough to house the colony’s food and babies. It’s really fun to watch multiple waggle dancers on the surface of a swarm!
In a democratic process documented by Dr. Thomas D. Seeley in “Honeybee Democracy”—kind of a town hall meeting, they choose their new home, usually in a hollow tree. If a bee has found a better prospect, a scout will investigate and report back with her own waggle dance. When the scouts reach consensus, the swarm takes flight to build their comb in their new home—wax comb produced from their wax glands to store either pollen, nectar, or brood.
So, if you see a swarm, let a beekeeper, your local beekeeping chapter, or your local Cooperative Extension Service know immediately, before it changes locations, so a beekeeper can attempt to rescue the bees. Most communities maintain a lengthy swarm call list. At Appalachian State University, the swarm contact and number is James Wilkes-828-265-6263. A local directory of willing swarm catchers is available at http://wataugabeekeepers.org/mentors/.
Almost all beekeepers dream of catching swarms, since buying bees costs about $150 or more per nucleus hive. Most importantly, you will be helping to sustain one of the world’s most fascinating and beneficial creatures.
For information about four simple ways to help pollinators, visit xerces.org/bringbackthepollinators