Do Swarms travel with a Spare Queen?

Yesterday I housed my sixth swarm of the season, and far from becoming routine, the process threw up a number of questions, including, do swarms travel with a spare queen? In the end, I think I can answer that, but at the time it was an interesting question to mull over, whilst observing the swarm taking up residence.

I have been waiting for two full colonies to swarm, including a second hive with a Buckfast type queen. Yesterday, during a routine swarm check, I noticed a medium sized swarm, which had obviously landed on a willow sapling, and the weight had bent it over, so that the swarm were resting on the ground. Here’s what they looked like.

Swarm on branch

Swarm on Branch

The swarm was big enough to be a fair prime swarm, the bees were predominately of the Buckfast type, and the swarm was directly in front of the Buckfast colony that I have been waiting for a swarm from. See below for a view from the swarm to the hive in question.

Bee hive in apiary

Parent Hive

So far so good. I set up the new hive about three feet away from the swarm, with ramp, and then simply lifted the sapling up to get the swarm off of the floor, cut the sapling with some secateurs, put the whole lot at the top of the ramp, and then shook gently. The swarm didn’t hesitate, and rushed into the hive so quickly that I thought that the queen must have gone straight in. I like to watch the whole process, and whilst laying next to the ramp, spotted a slim dark queen, almost certainly unmated, who took to the air. The swarm seemed to take little notice, and so I wondered if there had been two queens. It’s a sensible question. With only one queen, anything happening to her would jeopardise the future of the whole swarm. A spare queen,or even the carrying of some eggs by workers, would be a good safeguard against that.

I also recalled a swarm from last year, which I put into a Warre hive. After all of the bees went in, there was an injured queen left on the ramp, obviously in a bad way. I was surprised that the other bees had left her. I moved her closer to the entrance, but they ignored her, and the body was still there, when I came back to remove the ramp. I was worried that the colony was now queenless, but left them. Sure enough, soon there was brood in the hive, clearly visible through the observation window. So, two queens?

Back to the current swarm. I then watched the/a queen land at the corner of the entrance, walk up the edge of the hive, and take off again, as if unsure of the welcome. A few minutes later I saw the/a queen land on the centre of the ramp, and walk in. The surprising thing was that the bees that she passed seemed to take no notice of her.

I’m pretty sure that this was not a prime swarm, and that the queen was therefore unmated. Although it is only a few days since the first Buckfast colony swarmed, this is probably from that hive. My thought that this was from a hive that had yet to swarm, and the speed with which they went into the hive, probably led me to ponder the two queen question unneccessarily.

Other observations include the fact that even when almost all of the swarm had gone in, there were a lot of ‘fanners’ using pheromones to call in stragglers, until the queen went in, when the level of fanning decreased. I also noticed quite a bit of  flying above the hive, a bit like ‘top cover’ until she went inside. It’s not unusual for there to be plenty of flying whilst the swarm is going in, but the level dropped dramatically once the queen went in, as if the bees were acting like a shoal of fish, to confuse predators, and protect their queen.

The other swarms that I’ve housed since my last post, As busy as a beekeeper, have also posed a few questions, particulary which swarm belongs to which colony. I was pretty sure that I knew where each of the swarms came from, until the colony which produced the tiny swarm which I mentioned in the last post, then threw out a much larger swarm, which is it’s third. Did the second one come out prematurely, leaving most of the swarm behind? The tiny swarm is set up on the swarm box, and has bees going in and out, despite coming out of the dark building in an uncomfortable state. I think that it might have been too warm, even though it didn’t seem to be. I won’t try that again. The parent colony is congested, and I didn’t want to disturb it, or potentially damage any hanging queen cells, by adding a fresh box underneath, but wanted to prevent them from swarming themselves to death, so I added a super. The hive was still full of bees after producing three swarms, all of this after I had to divide the colony a few weeks ago, in order to move it back here from an out apiary, where it was in a double brood body, commercial hive. Too heavy to carry safely.

Now I just have to wait for the two remaining colonies to get going.  I have two further colonies that may swarm later in the season, but which are currently building up after I had to requeen them in April. Again, this was a large single colony, in two brood boxes, but that had become queenless.

Once they are finished, I only have to watch the colonies formed from the prime swarms in July, if the weather and forage allows them an opportunity to swarm again. I have yet to have a colony from a new queen swarm late in the season, but there is always a first time for everything.

Take Care


4 thoughts on “Do Swarms travel with a Spare Queen?

  1. Emily Heath

    Interesting. A bee inspector told me recently that there are two queens in colonies working side by side for months more often than people think, so in that situation I suppose both queens would swarm together.

    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Emily
      I’ve no idea if there are two queens with a swarm. The second queen from last year may have been a ‘cast’ that we caught up with the main swarm, as there seemed to be a persisitent tiny group of bees who didn’t seem to want to stay with the main group. It just seems like a big risk to bank everything on a single queen.
      have you read ‘The Buzz about Bees’ by Jurgen Tautz? It is an outstanding book, with a lot of very interesting new facts about honeybees. It mentions mass flights of bees at the time that a queen emerges from the hive, and also when she returns from a mating flight. If my memory is correct, it also mentions an incident where a queen was spotted on a leaf, surrounded by a small group of workers, who were actively fending off some drones, whilst allowing others to approach to mate. The more that we learn, the more that more clear the gaps in our own knowledge become.
      Take care


  2. Emily Heath

    Hi Deano,

    I haven’t read ‘The Buzz about Bees’ yet, but it’s on my list of books to buy! That’s incredible that the queen was spotted on a leaf in that way. I’m sure they get up to all sorts of things we have no idea about. You’re right, we still have so much to learn.

  3. Pingback: Two Queens, or Two Swarms? « The Sustainable Smallholding

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