The goal of a honey bee colony is simple – continue the species. In early spring, when weather is mild and food is abundant, the queen starts laying eggs at an amazing rate – over 1,500 per day. She keeps this pace for several months in order to replace the constant turnover and loss of her workers. Only a strong colony will have enough resources to swarm – naturally dividing into two colonies.
Studies have indicated that a typical honey bee colony will survive in approximately 3 cubic feet of space. A colony, at its peak by late spring or early summer, will have 60,000-80,000 bees and the hive becomes crowded. Knowing their colony is strong, the bees will spend about 12 days preparing to swarm. Bees will not leave the remaining colony without means to survive. Plenty of pollen and nectar will be stored, several fresh eggs will be chosen to be raised as the potential replacement queen, and there will be various stages of worker larvae and capped brood. Scout bees will look for a new location. The queen is put on a diet, otherwise she will be too heavy to fly. A few days before the potential new queen will emerge, almost half of the colony will gorge on honey for energy, gather the queen, and fly to a nearby point (often a tree branch). The bees are gathered in a tight cluster, protecting their queen. The swarm will stay in place for a short time – they are vulnerable out in the open and have only the honey they gorged on to sustain them. They will regroup, confirm their new hive location, and take off as a big cloud of bees to the new site. They must work hard and fast to establish the new hive. Wax must be made, comb must be built, eggs need to be laid, and pollen and nectar must be stored.
Is a swarm a wild hive? Technically, NO – not yet. This distinction is important to determine the disposition of the bees if capture and relocation is the goal.
Remember, a swarm is temporarily out in the open, vulnerable, and their primary focus will be to surround and protect their queen. Surprisingly, these bees are generally not aggressive. Often all a beekeeper needs to capture a swarm is an empty hive box and a firm shake of a tree branch.
A wild hive, however, is already established and has a lot to protect: shelter, comb packed with food and brood, and their queen. These bees will be active and very defensive. Accessing the cavity, removing the wax comb, and collecting the bees may take hours. Beekeepers often charge a fee to remove an established hive.
If you ever see a bunch of bees, take a closer look (but do not disturb them). Can you tell if it is a swarm or a wild hive? Search the internet to find your nearest beekeeping club. Their website will probably have a list of club members to call for swarm captures and cut-outs (removing a wild hive). And thank you for saving the Queen (and her colony)!
By Jill James