One of the world’s most prolific species of pollinators, the honey bee, is arguably the most important insect species known to mankind. However, despite their immeasurable importance in the role of food production, they often have a negative connotation in the minds of many homeowners and the general public due to their “swarming” behavior around this time of year.
Swarming is the natural reproductive process of a honey bee colony. It is the process that allows the honey bee to increase its chances of survival as a species. Essentially, this could be thought of as the colony giving birth. Swarming usually occurs during the springtime which is also their reproductive season. This process is initiated by an abundance of springtime flowers which produce pollen and nectar – coupled together, these serve as a food source for the growing colony. Days begin to grow longer, and the temperature begins to warm up – prompting an 8 AM – 5 PM working schedule for the honey bee (kind of like us).
The process of swarming can occur about two to four weeks before the nectar flow, and/or about two weeks into the nectar flow. This is directly related to the fact that the bees can forage enough pollen and nectar to boost the mother colony in preparation for the birth of the new colony. Up north where the winters can be very harsh, the honey bee will nearly seal off the entrance to their hive with a substance known as propolis that protects them from the elements until the first sign of spring. Once spring has arrived, an outburst of honey bees heads towards the nectar flow where they can refuel and prepare to swarm. When observing the process of a honey bee colony swarming, don’t be afraid! Instead, smile and be glad we have such amazing creatures here on earth that pollinate our plants for free, asking for nothing in return.
Oftentimes, bee swarms are thought to be an attack or an act of aggression, which is a complete fallacy. Historically, the media exaggerates instances of bee swarming, but in reality, when bees swarm, you run the lowest risk of actually being stung! There are many different acts a bee colony will conduct while swarming – rest assured, going on a stinging rampage is not one of them. One reason a beehive may swarm is directly related to the congestion within the hive itself. Sometimes the capacity of the hive may reach a breaking point, triggering the queen to signal worker bees to begin to swarm. This signal initiates the construction of new queen cells, sparking the swarming process, which will relieve some congestion once the swarm has left the mother colony. The congestion of the hive shows the queen that the colony has become strong, which relays that it is time to separate and split into another colony.
When bees swarm, it is not to increase the chances of survival for each individual bee, but to increase the chances of survival for the whole organism known as the “colony”. A bee colony is considered one organism because of the symbiotic relationships within the colony – it is proven that the colony breathes in and out in unison like a lung in a process known as respiration. This is about the same amount of respiration produced by an average-sized house cat! Ultimately, without every single component of the colony working together, the natural reproductive process could not occur, and the species would not exist.
In the end, the act of swarming is the honey bee’s natural process of reproduction and is a process we are lucky to see in our lifetimes. Without honey bees, we would not exist merely because 70% of the world’s agriculture depends exclusively on bees.