Why Honey Bees Swarm

A short quiet video where I explain how backfilling can signal that swarming, or splintering, could be on the way, a little tip I first picked up from Rusty Burlew. Then I insert a couple of frames of foundation into a super full of honey to relieve congestion so the queen’s pheromones can better circulate throughout the hive and all that jazz.

If nectar is available, the foragers will bring it into the hive to the point of even filling up the brood nest with it. The brood nest refers to the frames of comb, usually near the bottom of the hive, that are reserved for the queen to lay eggs. When that space gets filled with nectar before the queen can lay her eggs, the queen becomes what’s called “honeybound.” The pheromones given off by open brood (the smell from all the eggs she normally lays every day) disappear from the hive, and when that happens, the colony becomes aware that something is up.

It’s a colony condition that can trigger swarming (a.k.a. reproduction). It makes sense when you think about. A honeybound queen signals to the colony that an over-abundance of resources are available, so why not splinter off a big chunk of the population to fly away and make another colony while the going is good? (For this reason, I think swarms should be called splinter colonies. It seems accurate to me, and the phrase “splinter colony” is less likely to cause alarm in the general public than the word “swarm.”)

Swarming can also be triggered by an overly-populated hive. Even if the queen isn’t honeybound, if there are so many bees packed into the hive that the queen’s calming pheromones that give the bees their purpose and direction in life can’t drift easily throughout the hive, again, it let’s the colony know that something out of the ordinary is going on.

Similar conditions can arise when a queen is sick, injured or getting old or dying — that is, her pheromones and the smell of open brood drop dramatically and the bees know it. The colony will then (in theory) make supersedure queen cells to replace the queen. And they’ll do that even when resources aren’t as abundant.

But in the case of backfilling in an over-populated hive, the bees make swarm cells and off they go. The short video in this post demonstrates what I do to prevent that from happening.