She's Leaving Home

The title of the hit Beatles song could be written for the Queen Bee of each honeybee colony, and in fact, although it would never really happen at 5 am it would usually be around lunchtime, yesterday saw a swarm from one of the Blackburne House apiaries. So why do Honeybees swarm and what do beekeepers do to manage this phenomenon.

Video by Andrea Ku


Each year as we pass the Winter Solstice (usually around the 20th December), our colonies are clustered up in their hives, not hibernating but clustering to keep warm. Think of the penguins David Attenborough educated us about in Antarctica, taking turns to be on the outside of the cluster. So why am I telling you this, well its because there are so few eggs being laid by the Queen Bee at this time, and they are protecting her and the new eggs, larvae and pupae (collectively referred to as Brood) in the nest? They are the hope, the new bees that will see the colony through the winter into Spring.


From the solstice the Queen's egg-laying rate increases ever so slightly each week, it can be associated with the number of daylight hours we have as we come out of winter and into spring. She increases her laying from maybe 100 per day up to 2-2,500 per day in the spring/summer. This increase is synchronised to coincide with the first flowers coming into bloom, first in small numbers, increasing to huge fields of crops such an Oil Seed Rape in April/May and through Summer. So lots more bees to go out and forage for pollen and nectar, but more significantly many more mouths to feed and put a roof over their heads. As a result of this increase and as we get into the warmer spring months they start to run out of space in the hive.


From Spring Beekeepers visit and check their hives when the temperature is at least 14 degrees centigrade, any cooler and we run the risk of cooling (ultimately killing) the Brood in the cells of the honeycomb, we do this weekly. Why do we go in bothering them so often you may ask? Well as a result of the numbers increasing within the hive we are assessing whether or not there is sufficient room in the hive for expansion of the colony as well as putting down of stores. Not enough space and we add additional boxes (Supers) filled with frames of wax for them to use, for storing their honey.

Video by Paul Conlan


All well and good you might think, however, the natural progression is for the colony to swarm when it is up to full capacity. As the cells are filled and the room starts to become a premium the pheromones passed from the Queen to the colony, to reassure them that she is healthy, happy and laying well, slowly starts to become more diluted as it is passed around the hive. Given that this is the way the colony are reassured that they have a Queen if they cannot smell or taste the pheromone they think the Queen has gone.


So they start to prepare for another Queen as a matter of urgency. They select eggs that are 1-4 days old and not older and start feeding them a protein-rich substance called Royal Jelly. Only the Queen gets this and it allows her egg, larvae, pupae to develop to a bigger size and at a much quicker rate than that of a worker (female) honeybee. She emerges from her cell on day 16 as opposed to day 21 for a worker. This allows for the shortest possible time without a queen laying eggs.

The queen (bee with the red dot) and the worker bees. Video by Paul Conlan


However, despite the colonies preparations for replacement of the Queen she is still in the hive. The colony has started to focus on the new queen cells and stop feeding the original queen. As a result, she starts to "slim" down from her larger egg-laying body, a body that is so large that it prevents her from flying to a svelte body capable of short flights. The next available warm day is the day she takes flight (swarms), along with fifty per cent of the colony. Off in search of a new home in a cacophony of noise and swirling of thousands of honeybees.

Photography by Paul Conlan


Typically the queens' flight from the hive can be up to one hundred feet away from where she will pause. Giving off large plumes of pheromone (equivalent to that of perfume worn by women) she is quickly identified by the colony, who cluster around her for her protection, where she has come to rest. This can be anywhere, a branch of a nearby tree, a wall or even post boxes and street signs. Wherever she stops the colony cluster around her.


From this point Scout Bees will be searching for a suitable new home, they will visit voids and cavities in any object to determine if suitable. Is it dry, protected from the elements. Does it provide a safe environment for them to grow as a colony and protect their Queen? Once identified multiple flights are taken to the same spot, each time measuring how big space is to come to a collective agreement that it suits their need.


Once they are agreed they are off again, flying in a cloud of black to their new home.

So if you are fortunate enough to see a swarm, don't panic. Stand well back and take in the awesome sight of a queen and her colony in search of a new home. Maybe even take a video or photo and share.


Written by Paul Conlan

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