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Swarming is the honey bee’s method of colony reproduction. When a hive reaches capacity and becomes crowded, the community begins preparations for a swarm. The reigning queen will accompany the swarm to its new home, while the remaining population begins the process of raising a new queen. During a swarm, the mature queen is escorted by approximately half of her colony’s worker-bees, often 10,000-30,000 individuals. Swarming generally occurs in the springtime, when food availability and colony population are at their height, but can also occur at other times of the year, weather and resources permitting.

Before departure, the bees gorge themselves on energy-rich honey to sustain them during their search for a new home. Sated and without territory to defend, a swarm of honey bees is inherently docile and difficult to antagonize. The bees fly a  short distances as a single entity and land clustered together, often on branches or fences. The swarm clusters range in size from smaller than a softball to larger than a basketball.  Scout bees investigate the surrounding environment in search of a suitable new home, and return to land on the cluster and describe their findings through movement. Their wriggling enthusiasm is mirrored by those around them.  The greater the suitability of the new location, the more enthusiastic the dance becomes, and the farther its message travels through the cluster. If the dance is exciting enough to warrant the interest of other bees, they will in turn begin to perform the same dance. Once a majority of the bees are dancing in favor of the same location, the swarm lifts and head towards its new home.

The ideal site is a dry, dark, ventilated cavity with a defensible front door,  three or more yards from the ground. with a capacity of 5-10 gallons.  However, swarms only have an average of three days to find a suitable hive location before their energy stores are depleted, so if options are scarce, a swarm might choose a less suitable site, such as under a deck, in abandoned or winterized farm equipment, or even hanging exposed from the branches on which they have landed. Those first to arrive at their new home cluster at the entrance and guide their sisters forward with chemical scent tracks. Comb-building begins immediately; the bees can build up to three pounds of honeycomb in the first week of inhabiting their new hive. Within a few months, the queen has doubled her ranks, and the colony reproduction is complete.

Swarms are transient and ephemeral by nature, rarely remaining in one place for more than a day or two and often completing their journey within three or four days. While hives can swarm in response to trauma or loss of habitat, a swarm usually represents the natural division of a healthy hive. As such, they not only pose very little risk to humans and other animals, they provide precious evidence of the honey bee’s continued struggle for survival.