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Swarming - How bees reproduce

Q: What is bee swarming?

Swarming, simply put, is the method in which honey bees reproduce and procreate the species. Once a colony of bees reaches the maximum capacity of a current living space (think - filling the cavity of a hollow in a tree with honey comb and bees) and there are ample resources available, such as plenty of food producing blooms in the spring, the colony receives signals from this growth state that they are healthy enough to reproduce.

Once the signals trigger the colony to swarm, several wheels are set into motion. First, the current queen, knowing she will be leaving soon and taking the bulk of the worker force with her to start anew, will lay special eggs called Queen Cells or Swarm Cells (see below) for the remaining members to raise her successor.

Second, the mother queen (which typically lays upwards of 2,000 eggs a day) will be put on a diet of sorts and slow down her laying / brood production. She will need to trim down to get into "flying shape" and prepare for a journey that could be several miles to a new home.

And finally, after about a week when she is ready, the colony puts out the signal that it is time to go. At this point a mass exodus takes place and several thousand bees, including the queen and roughly 75 percent of the workers, and several dozen drones (male bees) head for the exits and form a cloud.

This cloud of bees, known as a "swarm in motion" will find a place to land and rest while they send out scouts in search of a new cavity of a specific size and basic shelter requirements to accommodate their future needs. They may rest on about any surface or structure, and occasionally on the ground, but typically about 8 – 12 feet off the ground on a tree limb.

After what could be a few hours or even several days of scouts reporting future home sites and additional members checking these sites for their needs, a voting system is used to select the site of choice. It is not until the entire inspection team all agree on one single best location, and only then, the swarm takes flight again and they all move into the new home site. On rare occasion, the scouts and inspectors do not find and/or agree on a cavity soon enough and the colony will begin to build comb where they rest. This creates what we call an exposed or “open air hive” see below. Not typically found up north, but a beautiful sight that is occasionally found in our region.

Shown above: Progressive photos from an Open Air Colony relocation/removal.
The bottom two images are the before photos, followed by the images taken after gently vacuuming bees and carefully dissecting the comb structure and rebuilding it into hive boxes. The entire process took several hours and resulted in two deep hive boxes full of bees. The main image in the center illustrates the heart of the brood nest with the typical rainbow pattern of food stored above the darker nursery area.

It should be noted that while in the swarm mode and resting, the colony is not at all aggressive. They have no young or food to protect, so not until they have a new place to call home and the queen begins laying and the workers bring in food stores they are not likely to offer a sting, even if approached. I rarely wear any protective gear when capturing swarms.

Q: What should people do if they see a hive on their property?

First and foremost, even though a swarm is normally docile, a cluster of bees is not automatically going to be a "swarm". It is possible to mistake an open air colony (see above) for a swarm in resting mode. Therefore, it is always best to maintain a safe distance and contact an experienced beekeeper. We have a good deal of local beekeepers in the San Antonio area that are qualified and permitted to assist when needed. Contact Us for more information regarding swarm capture and bee colony removal services.

Secondly, be aware that a swarm differs from an active “hive” or properly termed an active colony of bees. Meaning, technically the “hive” refers to the housing/structure and the bees are the inhabitants or the colony in the hive. With that said, the bees and housing are typically referred to as a “hive”.

If the bees are clustered on a structure, like a tree limb, that is typically a swarm resting and not aggressive. If the bulk of the bees are not visible, and only a few are seen coming and going through an opening, like a crack in a wall or hollow opening of a tree, then keep away and know they have taken up residence in that space and will defend their home and young just as we do with our own homes and loved ones.

And finally, leave it to the experienced beekeepers to assist with removals and swarm capturing because you never know what you may run into in terms of genetics. Be aware that we do live in the south where Africanized Bees are known to be a part of the feral bee population and despite the Colony Collapse Disorder that effects managed hives, they are still surviving in the wild here after being in this area for over 30 years.

Click here for a short video showing the capturing of a small swarm.

Q: Is there any other information you think might be relevant to share?

Honey Bees are a vital part of our ecosystems and need our support in terms of managed hives by beekeepers, but also as a community. We all need to be aware that putting out poisons in our landscapes and gardens can have effects beyond our view and even our imagination. If a pesticide, fungicide or herbicide must be used to control some sort of unwanted guest in the yard or garden, please consider using granular forms versus liquids or any especially hazardous powders and dusts that will cling to a bees hair like pollen and will be carried back into the nest and have devastating effects on the entire colony.

We need our pollinators and we have many less expensive organic choices other than chemicals when controlling unwanted pests, weeds and even fungi in our environment. A little research in these areas can make a huge difference.

Ultimately, we need to teach the next generation to be stewards of the environment we pass on to them and encourage them to be an active positive part of the ecosystems. The joy of sharing with others can bring rewards beyond expectations.


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