Q. What is a Swarm? and why is there a “Swarm season”?

What is a Swarm?

A Swarm is the reproductive function of a colony of honey bees.

Typically, the queen mother will split off the original colony of bees, leaving to build a new hive elsewhere with 40-60% of the worker bees from the original colony.

In doing so, queen mother leaves behind the newly hatched daughter queen with the remaining bees to continue their existence in their original location.

The part of the colony that leaves may be referred to as a Swarm (noun), not to be confused with the activity of swarming, which is the process taking place (verb).

The Swarm will typically settle in a temporary location (wall, tree, bush, shed, etc) within 30 yards or so for a couple hours to a couple days, while the colony sends out scouts bees to find their perfect “forever home”.

Swarm in a Shed

These scout bees will come back to the colony and report their findings by doing a dance on the outside of the Swarm in its temporary location.

A selection is made by the colony and the bees fly as a rolling cloud of bees to the location and start building wax honeycomb to store their food and produce more bees.

Swarm in Flight

Once honeycomb is present, the colony is no longer referred to as a Swarm and the process of swarming is completed.

Colony on a Statue (no longer a Swarm due to presence of wax comb)

In Florida, depending on the genetics, colonies can swarm anywhere from 2-9 times per year.

Although Swarms can be intimidating due to the sheer number of bees, the honey bees are actually the most docile at this point since they have no food nor babies to protect and are merely looking for a new home.

It’s important to note that although docile, poking them with a stick, spraying them with anything or any other aggravating activity may still cause defensive behavior and may cause someone to get stung by one or more bees.

Why do Swarms happen?

A Swarm can occur for a number of reasons:

  • Reproductive function of the colony, typically when there’s an abundance of food available
  • Bees ran out of room for the queen to lay sufficient eggs to maintain colony growth at their current location (too small)
  • Hive location is less than ideal to start with (not protected enough from rain, wind, etc)
  • There’s a pest inside the hive that the bees cannot get under control, so they leave to preserve their genetics rather than being overrun by the pest (genetic preservation)
  • There’s a reoccurring pest or disturbance outside the hive that poses a threat to the bees
Swarm on Swing

What is Swarm Season?

Swarm Season occurs during times when there is good “nectar flow”, referring to large number of blooms from one specific and prolific and/or various floral sources.

Primary floral sources throughout most of SW Florida include, but are not limited to:

  • Oaks (spring)
  • Mangrove (spring)
  • Citrus/Orange Blossom (spring)
  • Palmetto (late spring and summer)
  • Palms (late spring summer)
  • Melaleuca (late summer and fall)
  • Brazilian Pepper (spring and fall)

The time period for any one floral / bloom source is typically 4-6 weeks, where that particular flowers nectar and/or pollen will be available.

White Mangrove Bloom with Honey Bee

When does Swarm Season occur in SW Florida?

In SW Florida, it is possible for Swarm Season to start as early as December after “winter solstice” as the days get longer again or as late as March, if it’s a particularly cold winter.

Typically, it ends with the Brazilian pepper blooming as early as Sep or as late as Nov.

Our weather is fickle, so one year can be very different from the next.

Nationwide, the more active Swarm Seasons occurs right after “winter” as things warm up and spring starts with blooms everywhere; and in Florida, it also occurs again in the fall due to the prolific amount of Brazilian Pepper everywhere.

Brazilian Pepper blooming with Honey Bee

What is an Apiary?

An Apiary is not where the apes hang out ;-),  but rather a formal name for a bee farm or location where a beekeeper keeps their bee hives. The base of the word comes from the Latin word “apis” meaning “bee”, leading to “apiarium” or “beehouse” and eventually “apiary“, according to Wikipedia. We just call it the Bee Farm.

Apiaries come in all sizes and provide different services with their honey bee colonies and locations range from urban to rural.

Tim at the apiary

A beekeeper uses the apiary to raise bees:

  • to sell to other beekeepers,
  • to pollinate crops at farms locally or nationwide,
  • to produce honey and other hive products, like pollen, propolis, royal jelly or beeswax,
  • to help study the genetics, pests or behaviors of the honey bees in the area,
  • to teach beekeeping to beginners
  • or simply to help the environment and protect the bees from the rapid development of our lands. 

In Florida, the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Sciences (FDACS) requires an apiary and it’s beekeepers to register and be inspected annually. The Division of Apiaries handles this in the State of Florida. 

Q. Are Honey Bees on the Decline?

In 1950, in the United States, there were approximately 5.5 million colonies of honey bees.

Now in 2017, there are around 2.5 million. Loss of habitat, change in agricultural practices, changing pest pressures and other factors have contributed to this decline.

In 2006, what is known as CCD (colony collapse disorder) came on the scene. CCD was so named because of the unexplained dying off of honey bee colonies, even though they had plenty of stores of honey and pollen. Because of CCD, winter losses among beekeepers have been higher than normal. Some possible causes were thought to be the following: varroa mites, diseases, pesticides, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and commercial and unnatural beekeeping practices.

It can be challenging keeping bees in the 21st century. Beekeepers managing colonies in the US must cope with a myriad of issues. It takes knowledge, skill, and perseverance to overcome these challenges and be a successful beekeeper.