Bees and swarming

I was fortunate to meet Brian and Joan last month when a swarm of honey bees stopped at their property. It was quite small and late in the season, but I am pleased to say that it is doing well. I put them into a hive and the queen has been laying well and the number of bees has increased. They have been out foraging and have amassed some good stores of honey and pollen. I am confident that they will survive the winter.

While a swarm of bees may look scary, thousands of venomous insects flying around, it is useful to know that they are at their most placid when swarming. Honey bees are not aggressive, they are defensive. They protect brood and food i.e. their hive, but when they are swarming they have neither to protect. They have evolved over 25 million years to try to be left alone when they are at their most vulnerable. While being a nuisance to some, swarming is a sign of a very strong, healthy hive. Individual bees live quite short lives, but for the species to survive, the colony of bees must reproduce and that is what swarming does. When a hive has enough bees and food it will swarm. The old queen will take up to half the bees and honey and leave. A new queen will emerge shortly after the swarm has left and then there will be two colonies. The swarm will typically go 50 –100m away onto a branch, fence or other suitable place. From there, scouts will go out and find a suitable new home, this can take from a few hours up to a week. Once they have agreed on a new home, they will all depart. When they move into a new home, they are no longer a swarm, they are a colony.

Now that swarming season is generally over (it is usually spring and early summer) you may still see lots of bees; this is unlikely to be a swarm. It could be a hive that has absconded. This is a hive where there are some bee diseases and they have all left, leaving the honey. These are unlikely to survive. It could be a swarm that has made a home somewhere and has only just been noticed. Once established, it can be quite difficult to rehome. Thirdly and most commonly, it is wasps (they can be quite difficult to identify), I get called out to quite a few misdiagnosed wasp nests.

Honey bees were successfully introduced in 1839, and within a couple of decades feral bees had established themselves throughout New Zealand thanks to swarming. Unfortunately, varroa mites were discovered in 2000 (Australia was the last major honey producing country to get varroa last year), and since then the feral colonies have been decimated. Usually honey bees in the wild won’t survive for more than 18 months now. Beekeepers need to treat for varroa mites and the diseases that they carry for their bees to survive. So, if you see a swarm please report it at soon as possible. There are lots of beekeepers who will be happy to collect them for free or call your local Beekeepers’ Club.

I’ll be dropping off a couple of jars of honey to our editors from their bees soon.

Ken Brown

Beekeeper & President of Auckland Beekeepers’ Club

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