The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Why do honey bees swarm? A local swarm of bees moved into one of our empty hives

Detail from pondside garden

Detail from pondside garden

“Bees will be bees and do what they want to do however hard you try to manipulate them.”

Brenda announced this over a leisurely mug of tea years ago and she’s right. Brenda is married to our one time Bee Mentor Mike Hastings. She has that special something – our Min Pins fawned on her rather than yapping and dancing away with their normal ‘don’t touch me’ skip. She is one of the calmest most centred people that I have ever met.

Of course Brenda didn’t mean that bees should not be husbanded. They need care and help to survive in an increasingly bee hazardous world. But aside from that, you can never master a honey bee. The best that you can do is work alongside and guide a colony.

The worst situation that can affect a beekeeper is total colony loss. The bees are generally wiped out over the winter when the cold rips through the last of their resistance. These colonies have often been weakened by the Varoa mite, a nasty little bug that burrows into the bee larvae and deforms them as they develop. This can be alleviated by treating the colonies with Thymol.  Insecticides, cold, damp and lack of food can also weaken and kill bees.

This happened to our colony of bees last winter – they had plenty of food so I reckon that cold and disease wiped them out. I have a new colony arriving in June. We have two hives, so imagine my delight when a swarm arrived and took up residence a couple of days ago. Bees can fly up to three miles way from their hive in all directions. If they find a spot to settle with plenty of flowers (for nectar) and water (an essential ingredient in the honey making process) they are lucky bees indeed. This hive, situated in a garden filled with flowers and beside a 28’ pond is premium honey bee real estate.

Unless you are the eager recipient of a swarm, the second worst beekeeping headache is that your bees swarm. A swarm consists of the old queen and bees carrying honey stores. The new queen is left behind with the remaining bees and very little or no honey. At this time of year (late May) the remaining bees might produce a decent honey harvest. Losing a swarm might mean no honey for the beekeeper for the next year.

Why do bees swarm? At this time of year there are probably just two reasons. At its highest point a colony can total 70,000 + bees. Over winter this population drops dramatically. If bees swarm at this stage in the year – when the colony is way below its highest point the bees might notice that the queen is losing strength or they are being disturbed by a beekeeper too frequently.

Let’s take the former reason first. As the queen bee ages she loses the strength of her pheromones. These pheromones send messages to the colony. At their strongest they make the colony feel safe, content and happy. If these pheromones weaken the bees will make another queen and when she hatches they will leave the hive with her.

On to the second reason. Beehives need to be inspected and maintained regularly. We check the bees every couple of weeks or so. On the check list is any signs of disease and the dreaded queen cup – this is a small enclosed cup shaped pod that houses a maturing new queen. A swarm leaves when a new queen has hatched. If you destroy any queen cups that you find, your bees will not swarm. However, bees are canny. They can be expert at hiding these cups.

Some beekeepers fiddle just too much with their bees and the bees understandably get fed up, make another queen and leave. The inside of the hive is a dark place. Taking off the roof to expose the bees must be like training a spotlight on the bees. Would you like someone to rip off your roof to see whether you are OK every couple of days?

Later in the year bees will swarm if there is not enough space in the hive for all of them to exist together comfortably. This is why beekeepers keep on adding supers (vertical box sections) as the summer progresses, to give the colony more space to grow.

So this week we were blessed. As the old rhyme goes:
“A swarm in May is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.”

We have a swarm in May! This gives the colony plenty of time to make enough honey to harvest in September. Let’s hope that they like living here and will stay.


  Leave a reply


  1. Robert

    This is a great place to learn, if a newb like me, keep the info coming, thank’s.

  2. Jacquie

    Sorry to disagree, but the old queen lays eggs to develop into queen cells, then takes a large proportion of the colony with her. When she leaves there is no hatched queen in the hive (or they would have fought and probably one would have been killed which is not a good way to perpetuate the species), but she can start laying almost as soon as the swarm is settled intot he new home.

    In the hive they have left behind, the remaining colony has to manage on what is left of the stores, but will be busy tending the hatching brood and collecting nectar and pollen so that by the time the virgin queen hatches, has her mating flight and starts laying, there are enough stores to feed the newly hatched larvae.

  3. Obviously a very discerning swarm of bees, to choose your garden!

  4. thinking of the days

    such good news for you…cottage smallholder honey!

  5. Thats fantastic for you , we have a friend who is a natural beekeeper he doesn’t open the hive very often and won’t use smoke as he says that this makes the bees think theres a forest fire and may leave altogether.

    We are hoping to get bees next year and are going on a course soon 🙂

    Hope you get lots of honey!

    • Robert

      As bees only live 6weeks in a garden hive, how would they know what a forest fire was? So use a smoker to calm them, make inspections easier!

  6. Diane

    You make me feel very envious as I used to keep bees but suddenly became allergic to them which made it all a bit risky to have them at the end of the garden. I hope the swarm are both healthy and gentle so they are good to keep. I once had a rogue hive of the most aggressive bees which were moved to an orchard where they were having trouble with the local youths kick the hives over. That soon put pay to their little game!!!

  7. KateUK

    Did your swarm look like they had come a long way? Three lots have left my chimney in the past weeks!

    • Fiona Nevile

      I have a strong idea where they came from. Say no more. Too much fiddling caused this swarm. We’ll let them relax and smell the scenery!

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