What is a Honeybee Swarm
A colony of honeybees will consist of tens of thousands of individuals, in the wild they may live in a hollow tree or a crack or crevice in some rocks, although these days you are more likely to find them in the cavity wall of a house, or in one of the many types of honeybee hives which are used around the world. Wherever they are, there is likely to be limited space for the bees, their brood and honey stores, when they run out of space they will cast a swarm. A single swarm will consist of a queen, worker bees and a few male drones, they can number from 2,000 to in excess of 40,000, although from 10,000 to 15,000 is much more common.
The first swarm which leaves a colony is the largest and will usually include the original queen, around half the workers and a few drones, however a prolific colony can also send out afterswarms, also known as casts, these are much smaller, typically only around 2,000 honeybees in total and have a new virgin queen. Once they have found a permanent home she must fly off to mate and return to the colony before she can start to lay, these colonies are particularly vulnerable due to their low numbers. The swarm will have worker bees of all ages, these live for around 6 weeks in mid summer, so as soon as the swarm settles the workers will begin to die off. The queen can be gone for 2-3 days on a mating flight, then may not lay eggs immediately upon her return, although even if she does begin to lay straight away it takes 21 days for a laid egg to hatch into a larvae, then be sealed in and emerge as an adult worker honeybee, so the swarm can be almost on the verge of collapse when these first workers emerge. The colony must then grow incredibly fast and find huge amounts of stores if it has any chance of surviving the winter, unfortunately they rarely do without help and feed from beekeepers, particularly with the very cold winters we have seen in the UK during recent years.
Many beekeepers, myself included will go out and collect swarms as a free service to the general public, after all most people would rather keep some distance between them self and any insect capable of stinging them, their children or pets. To find a local swarm collector please visit this page.
Someone will collect the swarm and take it away to a safe place, help it to get established in a new hive by feeding and treating it for disease, this gives it as good a chance as possible to make it through the winter. Sometimes, particularly if the later swarms were quite late in the year it will still not be possible for us to make them strong enough to have enough bees in the cluster to last over winter, in this case we will unite colonies to make one larger one, this is common practice as one large colony has a better chance of surviving the winter than 2 or more smaller ones. Either way, they come out of the winter fit and healthy, ready to pollinate our crops and gardens and of course, make some honey.