We offer our bees a place to live

Whether they choose to stay there is entirely their choice and, if they decide they don’t like their digs, they swarm or abscond. However, a colony is an incredibly dynamic organism, constantly growing and changing its objectives. At some points of the year it will be focused on brood, then the honey flow will result in rapid growth in the honey store. As winter approaches brood production will be cut back.

Add to this the highly localized factors of weather, temperature and foraging resources and it’s impossible to define a single timetable everyone can use.

As this fascinating environment changes over the weeks and months, beekeepers have an obligation to observe and understand these changes. With that understanding,

The development of a bee colony follows an annual cycle of growth that begins in spring with a rapid expansion of the brood nest, as soon as pollen is available for feeding larvae. Some production of brood may begin as early as January, even in a cold winter, but breeding accelerates towards a peak in May (in the northern hemisphere), producing an abundance of harvesting bees synchronized to the main nectar flow in that region. Each race of bees times this build-up slightly differently, depending on how the flora of its original region blooms.

Colony reproduction: Swarming and Supersedure

A swarm about to land

All colonies are totally dependent on their queen, who is the only egg-layer. However, even the best queens live only a few years and one or two years longevity is the norm. She can choose whether or not to fertilize an egg as she lays it; if she does so, it develops into a female worker bee; if she lays an unfertilized egg it becomes a male drone. She decides which type of egg to lay depending on the size of the open brood cell she encounters on the comb. In a small worker cell, she lays a fertilized egg; if she finds a larger drone cell, she lays an unfertilized drone egg.

All the time that the queen is fertile and laying eggs she produces a variety of pheromones, which control the behaviour of the bees in the hive. These are commonly called queen substance, but there are various pheromones with different functions. As the queen ages, she begins to run out of stored sperm, and her pheromones begin to fail.

Inevitably, the queen begins to falter, and the bees decide to replace her by creating a new queen from one of her worker eggs. They may do this because she has been damaged (lost a leg or an antenna), because she has run out of sperm and cannot lay fertilized eggs (has become a “drone laying queen”), or because her pheromones have dwindled to where they cannot control all the bees in the hive. At this juncture, the bees produce one or more queen cells by modifying existing worker cells that contain a normal female egg. They then pursue one of two ways to replace the queen: supersedure, replacing or superseding the queen without swarming this is a  monster question? What makes the different choice and by whom, or swarm cell production, dividing the hive into two colonies through swarming.

A hive that supersedes its old queen does not lose any stock. Instead it creates a new queen and the old one fades away or is killed when the new queen emerges. In these hives, the bees produce just one or two queen cells, characteristically in the centre of the face of a brood comb.

Swarm cell production involves creating many queen cells, typically a dozen or more. These are located around the edges of a brood comb, often at the sides and the bottom.


New wax combs between basement joists

Once either process has begun, the old queen leaves the hive with the hatching of the first queen cells. She leaves accompanied by a large number of bees, predominantly young bees (wax-secretors), who form the basis of the new hive. Scouts are sent out from the swarm to find suitable hollow trees or rock crevices. As soon as one is found, the entire swarm moves in. Within a matter of hours, they build new wax brood combs, using honey stores that the young bees have filled themselves with before leaving the old hive. Only young bees can secrete wax from special abdominal segments, and this is why swarms tend to contain more young bees. Often a number of virgin queens accompany the first swarm (the “prime swarm”), and the old queen is replaced as soon as a daughter queen mates and begins laying. Otherwise, she is quickly superseded in the new home.

Different sub-species of Apis mellifera exhibit differing swarming characteristics. In general the more northerly black races are said to swarm less and supersede more, whereas the more southerly yellow and grey varieties are said to swarm more frequently. The truth is complicated because of the prevalence of cross-breeding and hybridization of the sub species.

Factors that trigger swarming


It is generally accepted that a colony of bees does not swarm until they have completed all of their brood combs, i.e., filled all available space with eggs, larvae, and brood. This generally occurs in late spring at a time when the other areas of the hive are rapidly filling with honey stores. One key trigger of the swarming instinct is when the queen has no more room to lay eggs and the hive population is becoming very congested. Under these conditions, a prime swarm may issue with the queen, resulting in a significant decrease in the population within the hive, leaving the old colony with a large number of hatching bees. The queen who leaves finds herself in a new hive with no eggs and no larvae but lots of energetic young bees who create a new set of brood combs from scratch in a very short time.

Another important factor in swarming is the age of the queen. Those under a year in age are unlikely to swarm unless they are extremely crowded, while older queens have swarming predisposition.

which are a dramatic signal that the colony is determined to swarm.

When a colony has decided to swarm, queen cells are produced in numbers varying to a dozen or more. When the first of these queen cells is sealed after eight days of larval feeding, a virgin queen pupates and is due to emerge seven days later. Before leaving, the worker bees fill their stomachs with honey in preparation for the creation of new honeycombs in a new home. This cargo of honey also makes swarming bees less inclined to sting. 

A swarm attached to a branch

This swarm looks for shelter. A beekeeper may capture it and introduce it into a new hive, helping meet this need. Otherwise, it returns to a ferel state, in which case it finds shelter in a hollow tree, excavation, abandoned chimney, or even behind shutters.

Back at the original hive, the first virgin queen to emerge from her cell immediately seeks to kill all her rival queens still waiting to emerge. Usually, however, the bees deliberately prevent her from doing this, in which case, she too leads a second swarm from the hive. Successive swarms are called “after-swarms” or “casts” and can be very small, often with just a thousand or so bees—as opposed to a prime swarm, which may contain as many as ten to twenty-thousand bees.

A small after-swarm has less chance of survival and may threaten the original hive’s survival if the number of individuals left is unsustainable. When a hive swarms despite the beekeeper’s preventative efforts, a good management practice is to give the reduced hive a couple frames of open brood with eggs. This helps replenish the hive more quickly and gives a second opportunity to raise a queen if there is a mating failure.

Each race or sub-species of honey bee has its own swarming characteristics. Italian bees are very prolific and inclined to swarm; Northern European black bees have a strong tendency to supersede their old queen without swarming. These differences are the result of differing evolutionary pressures in the regions where each sub-species evolved.

When a colony accidentally loses its queen, it is said to be “queenless”. The workers realize that the queen is absent after as little as an hour, as her pheromones fade in the hive. The colony cannot survive without a fertile queen laying eggs to renew the population, so the workers select cells containing eggs aged less than three days and enlarge these cells dramatically to form “emergency queen cells”. These appear similar to large peanut-like structures about an inch long that hang from the centre or side of the brood combs. The developing larva in a queen cell is fed differently from an ordinary worker-bee; in addition to the normal honey and pollen, she receives a great deal of royal jelly, a special food secreted by young “nurse bees” from the hypo pharyngeal gland. This special food dramatically alters the growth and development of the larva so that, after metamorphosis and pupation, it emerges from the cell as a queen bee. The queen is the only bee in a colony which has fully developed ovaries, and she secretes a pheromone which suppresses the normal development of ovaries in all her workers.

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