When will bees swarm?

From: Roger Patterson)

There is a lot written about swarming, but the following is as a result of my observation, which may vary from convention. I have done it in steps for convenience.

  1. I believe the colony may be making preparation for a time before the initial signs are shown. It is my view that some of the well publicised “swarm triggers” may not be what the colony has in mind. For the vast majority of beekeepers this stage can be ignored.
  2. An egg is laid in a queen cell. This is probably the first sign a beekeeper will see. For convenience it should be seen as the first to reach all stages, but this may not be the case as I suspect there is some variation in development. Eggs are laid in other queen cells over 6-7 days, giving a staggering in ages.
  3. The colony sends out scouts to look for a suitable nest.
  4. After 3 days the eggs in the queen cells hatch into larvae.
  5. 8-9 days after the laying of the first egg the queen cell will be sealed. At this point the swarm will issue from the hive. It can be delayed, perhaps because the cell is sealed too late in the day or because the weather is bad, in which case the delay can be several days. If the delay is too long the colony can abort the process by destroying the queen cells. Once a swarm has issued it is an independant unit.

6. The swarm will cluster nearby, presumably to collect the queen and the required number of worker bees. It could stay a few minutes, or in some cases build a nest in the open. Most normally stay a few hours.

7. 15-16 days after the laying of the egg the first virgin queen will emerge. One of two things will happen, either she will kill her sisters/half sisters in their cells (this may be with the help of workers), get mated and head the colony, or she may take off with another swarm, called a cast, and leave the next queen to emerge to head the colony.

The above is what normally happens and is what all swarm control methods are designed to interrupt. The understanding of the swarming process is absolutely crucial to understanding what each method is trying to achieve. It is absolutely pointless trying to follow a system in steps A-B-C…. without knowing what the bees are trying to do. That is an easy way to failure.

I have observed many swarms issuing from hives and queens can emerge very early or very late. There seems to be no consistency.