What is a Swarm?

A swarm of honeybees is distinctive. The swarm in flight can be described as a cloud of bees flying excitedly. It may appear haphazard, but the bees know exactly where they are going and what they intend to do.

Swarming is natural.

It’s the bees’ method of replication. A healthy honey bee colony will divide in two so that its genetics are replicated. Half of the colony takes to the air, and the remainder carries on as though nothing had happened, rebuilding colony strength and foraging for the winter that will inevitably come.

A swarm of honey bees in flight

When a consensus has been reached they take to the skies again and head for their new home. Once they have started to build comb and the queen has started laying eggs again, they are no longer a ‘swarm’; they are a colony.

The bees that are left behind have “brood”: bee eggs, larvae and pupae that will emerge and continue their work for the colony’s survival, and a few developing young queens. Here, you see ‘queen cells’: elongated cells that look like unshelled peanuts. Inside each is a queen pupa that will emerge in the next few days.
The first queen to emerge will take her departed mother’s place.
A frame of brood with queen cells

In those days, honeybees were kept in ‘skeps’ – woven baskets – and honey was often harvested by killing the bees – an appalling thought nowadays! Therefore, encouraging the bees to make new colonies made sure that the beekeepers would still have bees to overwinter and start again next year. A swarm in May would build up well, whereas a swarm taken in July would struggle to reach a size that was capable of surviving winter.

Now, of course, we have hives that are cleverly designed, being the right size for a colony of honey bees and allowing us to harvest any excess honey that they might store (only the excess – it would be counter-productive to take more than they can readily spare).

Every effort should be made to preserve honey bees as they are under threat.

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