Where Are You Going, You Flying Black Cloud?



I can see them coming! The flying black cloud has arrived. It’s getting closer and closer. In rapid tempo it flies through the streets, past the bushes, over the fields.

Please, come here in my arms!

O, those good old days. The days in which beekeepers used fixed-comb hives. They are combs that cannot be removed. Almost any hollow structure has potential to become a comb: a clay pot, an upside down basket, or even a hollow in a tree.

These were the days where the swarming season was the highlight of the year. Beekeepers couldn’t move their hives around, so how else could they obtain new colonies? The only option was to try to spot that black cloud formed by a mass of flying bees – bees that are looking for a new home. “You need a new home? I got a fine house just here for ya!”  If the beekeeper needed new bees, he basically had to catch them with his own (metaphorical) bare hands.


Fixed-comb hives in the Lithuania Honeymaking museum

….It might sound charming and romantic, but I imagine this dependence on the swarming season might have been quite a nuisance. And I don’t even want to start imagining how difficult it must have been to maintain a colony in a clay pot or a tree….(mind you: in many developing countries this is still common practice)

Today, most beekeepers use “flexible” beehives that you can easily move around. Today, we hate the swarming season. It is a bloody nuisance! It distracts the bees from being their productive selves: rather than collecting pollen and nectar, they are mostly occupied with preparing their “Great Escape”. Also, there is a risk that diseased or varroa-infected colonies will swarm and spread their demons.

So, why do they do it?

Swarming is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, it is a natural instinct that occurs in spring/early summer. In most cases only part of the hive takes off, leaving the others behind. The leaving bees start up a new colony in a new location. By reproducing and dispersing themselves, they remain flexible, finding better environments to live in, and increase their survival chances. However, when the bees are under threat they may decide to move away all together. This can happen under the threat of the varroa mite or “natural disasters” like climatic changes.

When the workers start to prepare themselves for swarming, the first thing they do is starting to construct “swarm cells”. One factor that makes them do this, are the pheromones (the messages) that the queen sends out to them. Usually, the queen will send out messages that the bees should not built swarm cells. However, when the queen gets older or when she is failing, her messages can’t reach her bees that well anymore. It is as if her voice loses strength. A poor queen is another important reason for bees to swarm.

A few things look different inside your hive when the bees are preparing for take off.

  • The queen starts laying eggs in the swarm cells that the workers have built. You can recognise them easily since they are big cells shaped like acorns. Swarm cells are cells in which new queens are raised. When a new queen is about to emerge, the bees stop doing what they were doing and immediately start to stuff themselves with honey. After their meal, usually in the middle of the day, they are ready to leave. Together with the old queen they fly away to never to return again. They may rest on a tree branch first and cluster up. Then, they send special scout bees to explore the area. They are responsible for finding the best new nest site.
  • a few days before they are ready, you may notice thay your hive becomes suddenly way quieter
  • a few hours before they are ready the quietness has turned into chaos for the fnal preparations

After they have left, the bees back in the original hive are at the mercy of the new virgin queen. The first thing she does is tearing open the other swarm cells. Workers bees come help her and conduct the final destruction of these cells. After all, there can only be one queen in a hive. If two queens happen to emerge at the same time, they have to fight it out. Literally.

As soon as you notice swarm cells (often on the edges of a frame) you should crush them. But preventing is always better than curing – good beekeepers should make sure they provide optimal conditions for the bee, to minimize their tendency to swarm. Make sure you re-queen your hive every other year, make sure they have enough space (for population, honey, pollen) and make sure the hive is well ventilated.

It’s a lot of things to consider, but it’s still more comfortable than keeping bees inside a tree…


Photo’s: Wikimedia Commons


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