Why Do My Colonies Keep Swarming?

Ask the Expert!

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David C. of Arkansas writes:

I have three hives that I started last year and all three swarmed in the last week. Now, they are swarming again — the same colonies. Why do the same colonies keep swarming every few days?

Rusty Burlew replies:

When you’re perplexed about swarming behavior, it helps to remember that swarming is a reproductive process. For a species to survive in the world, reproduction is the most important thing any organism can do. Any creature that can’t reproduce, will soon disappear.

This can be confusing when we’re dealing with a superorganism like a honey bee colony. We think of queen mating as reproduction, but newly mated queens cannot start a new “family” unless the colony breaks up and sets up housekeeping in new locations. The more swarms a colony can send into the world, the better off the species will be.

Multiple swarms are not unusual. In fact, they have names. The first and largest of the season is the primary swarm, after which you can have a secondary and often a tertiary swarm. When the swarms leave in rapid succession, the old queen leaves with the primary swarm, and the secondary and tertiary swarms may leave with unmated virgin queens, although sometimes the new queens may have already mated. The timing of mating and swarming is largely dependent on local weather conditions.

Not all colonies throw multiple swarms. It’s a bit like human families: some have no children, some have one or two or three. Biologically, the colony “decides” how many it can afford. When you look at the future of the species, a honey bee colony is better off having three offspring instead of one, even if the parent colony dies in the process.

That said, I’ve seldom seen a colony swarm itself to death. Swarm season is short, lasting roughly 6 to 8 weeks. Once it’s over, the colonies—both parent and offspring—have the rest of the spring and summer to prepare for the winter ahead. During that time, even a colony that threw three or even four swarms will probably be able to make up the losses. However, many of the swarms won’t make it, which is another reason that more is better.

From the beekeeper’s perspective, swarming seems like a huge loss, and there’s no doubt that those swarming bees reduce honey production. But from the bee’s point of view, the colony is doing what it is designed to do.

It may or may not be relevant in your case, but sometimes a colony appears to be swarming over and over when, in fact, the same swarm is returning to the hive and then trying again on another day. This occurs when the queen does not come along, or she gets lost or is eaten by a bird. Without a queen, the swarm will die, so if they lose their queen, the entire swarm will return and try again later, which can appear like many swarms instead of just one.

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David replies:

I’m not having any luck capturing this latest secondary swarm. I must not be getting the queen if there is one tried four times. This is not a normal swarm. They mostly fly off when I bump them with my bucket on a pole, and are mean as I have been stung several times wearing a jacket and pants.

Rusty replies:

When a group of honey bees is aggressive and stingy, it usually means they are without a queen. It’s the queen’s pheromones that keep the group in control so, without a queen, there is no supervision, no “rule of law.” If the swarm is uncooperative and nasty, you may not want them even if you could catch them.

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