With the warmer – even heatwave – weather of late spring and early summer South Africa’s beehives are a hive of activity (pun intended…)

Two phenomena which occur at this time of year can intrigue or upset inexperienced beekeepers and nature lovers.

Hives too hot

At this time of year, the residents of a beehive may congregate on the outsides of their hives, especially in hot weather. The outer vertical surfaces of the hive, especially on the shady sides, become a carpet of golden brown. The bees will cluster quietly together without flying off or moving much. This is a natural part of beekeeping. It is often simply an attempt at cooling down by the bees, who may find the interior of the hive too hot for comfort.

Bees massing outside a hive to cool off. Image: Mike Miles, BeeQuip SA, Johannesburg

If this is the case the bees will re-enter the hive as the ambient temperature drops, leaving the outside of the hive clear once more.

Departing swarms

Also at this time of year, bees will form swarming parties and fly off en masse. Again, this is nothing sinister. It is a natural part of the bee lifecycle.

What’s happening is that the swarm inside the hive, having grown too big for the hive, splits into two, or more, each clustering around a young queen.

After a few scout bees have explored and hopefully located suitable new accommodation, the party sets off, en masse.

Fatigued queen

However, the lumbering queen can quickly become fatigued. Queens are much larger than run-of-the-mill hive bees.

Needing to rest she will alight on a branch, or under an eave, or even on a bicycle gear, for a rest. Quickly the rest of the swarming party lands with her and forms a tight ball about her. This is to protect her and to keep her warm.

Once the queen is sufficiently rested the signal to depart will run through the bees. They will duly set off from their temporary perch once more to further their journey.

Laymen often find these resting agglomerations of bees unnerving, thinking they risk being attacked by the hundreds of bees they see.

This is unlikely unless the bees are disturbed. All they want is to left in peace and quiet for a few hours. They will move off by themselves.

Catch boxes

For beekeepers this is a good time of year. Not only is a hive that spawns a departing swarm generally a strong and healthy one, but it gives the keeper the chance to grow his or her beekeeping operation. He can increase the number of productive hives if the swarm should decide to alight on, and into, a catch box positioned in an enticing location.

Back in the original hive life goes on for the remaining bees. A good flow of spring nectar will have ensured plenty of food for the swarm, which should have enticed the birth and development of multiple queens. It is these queens who lead the departing swarms.

Bees massing and colony collapse

However, if a hive has too few young queens it sometimes happens that all the viable queens leave with none left in the original hive to lay more eggs.

In such a case the original swarm in the hive will collapse and the bees therein will eventually all die off.

The best that one can expect in such a situation is that a new swarm, with a viable queen, alights on the hive and decides to make it home.

This can easily happen as the remaining wax, propolis and honey in the hive will be giving off very enticing smells to any passing scouts.

Extracted from BeeQuipment’s November SA Bulletin, tel +27 11 476 5626

To read other articles on insects click here.

Main image: Swarming bees will cluster round a fatigued queen in bizarre locations, for example on a bicycle. Image: Nino Barbieri, Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Bees massing outside the hive – now what?

  1. What is the SA law with regards to location of bee hives and the distance from community allowable for safe breeding?, can I keep bees in my homestead?.

    1. I suggest you join your nearest beekeeper’s association who will quickly fill you in on what is allowed, safe etc. Beehives are supposed to be registered with the Dept of Agriculture.

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