Honey bees are superorganisms, meaning that a single honey bee cannot exist without her colony. The colony and the hive itself make up the organism. The way that colonies reproduce is called “swarming,” and there’s a “swarm season” in spring when healthy colonies get the urge to reproduce themselves. First they raise a lot of drones (male bees), and then they start making new baby queen bees.
One the baby queen cells are capped (sealed off after about 9 days of developing as a larvae and getting fed by nurse bees), the reigning queen will leave the colony with about half the workers and some drones. The young queens left behind with a small contingent of workers/guards and young nurse bees will hatch, take mating flights, and one of the baby queens will take over as queen of the colony (if all goes well). If multiple young queens successfully mate and return, the hive may send out smaller secondary swarms with those queens (or even with virgin queens sometimes since only one stays in the mother hive).
The swarm will usually fly somewhere nearby and ball up. Depending on how many bees left the hive, this can be the size of a baseball, basketball, or much larger like a beach ball. They cluster in this clump and send out scouts who look for ideal conditions for a new hive. They are looking for a space that is protected, usually high up in a tree or in a crevice with a small entrance that is shielded from the elements and that fits the size of the swarm. Different scouts find different places, and return to the swarm to dance the location and convey what they like about the prospective new home. Other bees follow the instructions to check out the spot, they make their own evaluation, and come back to dance for the site if they like it. Eventually the bees come to consensus with all or a majority of bees dancing to indicate a chosen location, and they take off en masse to their new home, which may be miles away.
One neat thing about this process (other than the fact that bees have a better functioning direct democracy than humans do) for the beekeeper is that you have an opportunity to catch or attract (‘trap”) them while they are in the stage of scouting and dancing for new locations. With traps, you simply provide a box that meets “bee specifications” for an ideal home (size of cavity, entrance size, pheromones and bee smells, evidence of prior bee residents like honey comb present), and wait for a swarm to choose your location. They will literally just fly into the box and take up residence if they like it best compared with other available options.
To catch a swarm that is resting is a bit more challenging, but well worth the effort. Ideally the swarm is low to the ground and in an easy to reach location, but often they are 40+ feet up a tree (that happened to us this year, a small swarm was simply too high to catch and didn’t choose the box we out out for them). Ruby had never caught a swarm before – and to be honest she was a bit intimidated at the prospect but wanted to try it. She was praying for the “perfect swarm” – size of a basketball, less than 10 feet off the ground, and in our town at a time she was available to collect them, and her bee gear was with her (not up at the land). Sounds like a tall order, but that’s just what she got!
A few weeks ago, Ruby received an email alerting her about a bee swarm on her street, just a few houses away, and she responded within minutes. The garden is a certified Pollinator Garden, so it was extra special. The swarm was on a branch just at Ruby’s face level. She was able to give the branch a good shake and collect the bees into a box. Once the queen is in the swarm box, the rest of the bees, and the scouts that are out flying when you catch the resting swarm, will march into the box.
The swarm has settled into the apiary nicely, and is building quite a lot of resources, and laying lots of baby bees. We named her after the “mother of pollinator gardens” in our town, Gerlinde Smith. She is thriving, with the lowest mite (bee parasite) count in the apiary (zero mites!) and the fastest growth.