Great Swarms of Bees!

October 4, 2010

As many of you know, we have an observation honeybee hive in the Butterfly Center. It was initially installed in the Rainforest Conservatory by a professional beekeeper during the recent renovation of the Entomology Hall – and you can learn more about beekeeping in several exhibits there.

If you haven’t seen our hive, make sure to check it out next time you’re here.  The set-up is really cool – the one-frame-thick construction sandwiched between plexiglass makes it possible to see all the bees and watch their fascinating behavior.

If you’re lucky you’ll see the queen making her rounds, laying eggs in any available cell, several attendants clustering around her.  Drones are possible to spot, for those with a discerning eye – they are stockier and have bigger eyes than their hard-working sisters.  You can see workers coming in and out of the tube leading to the great outdoors, where they forage for pollen and nectar, or watch them working inside the hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
This is the tube the bees travel through to get outside the Butterfly Center.
See a full set of images on Flickr.

It’s especially fun to see the pollen-laden returning workers doing the waggle dance – telling their sisters the distance and direction to a flowering patch, and how productive it is.  Deciphering this amazing bee language won Karl von Frisch the Nobel Prize in 1973.

But the same features that make the observation hive such an ideal observation tool also bring problems.  The main constraint is the structure’s small size.  Beekeepers can add another hive body and endless numbers of “supers” to their colonies as the number of workers in them grow.  But the observation hive cannot be expanded, and with only three frames and one small super, it quickly fills up with bees during the active summer season.  During these months the queen is an egg-laying machine, producing several hundred to a couple of thousand eggs per day.

Bees have a natural way to control their populations – when a hive gets too crowded, they swarm!  As I now know, thanks to joining the Houston Beekeepers Association, swarms are a common phenomenon.  But most people don’t notice them – I certainly had never seen a swarm until this year.  During a swarm, the old queen leaves the hive, taking about half of the workers with her – they go off to find a new home.  The bees left behind tend several developing queens that were laid in anticipation of a swarm.  Usually there is more than one young queen – this is hedging bets, just in case the first queen to emerge doesn’t make it back to the hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
A swarm of bees looking for a new home. See a full set of images on Flickr.

When the new, virgin queen emerges from her pupa the drones swarm around, closely following her as she leaves the hive.  She swiftly flies high up into the air, hotly pursued by her eager suitors.  Only the fastest can reach her and there, high in the sky, she mates with several of the speediest.  The drones die after mating.  The young queen returns to the colony, her abdomen filled with enough sperm to fertilize the several million eggs she will lay during her lifetime.  She will never leave the hive again, unless she heads up a swarm.  If there are other developing queens in the hive, the new queen will sting them to death, eliminating all competition to her reign.

But what happens to the bees that leave the colony during a swarm?  Thanks to the observation hive, I can tell you!  Our colony swarmed late last week (for the second time this summer, we think – we missed seeing it the first time).  A few days before the bees swarmed, they seemed more agitated than normal.  It also appeared to us that there were more drone cells (bigger than the normal cells that contain baby worker bees).  It was hard to see them underneath the masses of bees, but we thought we could glimpse at least a couple of queen cells.  These structures, which look like peanuts hanging down off the edge of the comb, are the nursery chambers for a new queen bee.

Queens are produced by feeding the larva a special diet of royal jelly.  This amazing substance is produced by worker bees.  All bee larvae get a bit of this extremely nutritious secretion, but are also fed a lot of “bee bread” – a mixture of pollen and honey.  In contrast, baby queens are fed royal jelly exclusively.  As a result of this special diet they grow bigger (thus needing the special cell), are fertile, and develop several days faster than the sterile worker bees.  Queen bees also can live for several years, while workers survive only 6-8 weeks.

But back to the swarm.  At some point about half of the bees inside a crowded hive, led by the old queen, stream out of the hive, and land some likely place – in this case, on the branch of a jujube tree growing only about 15 feet from the Butterfly Center.  They formed a tight cluster of solid bees, probably 30,000 bees or so.  The swarm cluster may stay put for a few days while scout bees scour the surrounding area for a likely new home.  If they find a potential new home (usually in some sort of cavity) the group migrates en masse to take up residence.

Since swarms can sometimes take up residence where they are not wanted (inside the walls of a house, for example), responsible beekeepers will do their best to keep their hives from swarming by being sure the hive has room to grow, or by dividing a large hive in two before it swarms (the presence of queen cells is a good indication of an impending swarm).  We don’t have any way of expanding the observation hive – but were happy to see that this swarm was easily accessible.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Suiting up! See a full set of images on Flickr.

So Zac and I suited up and proceeded to capture the swarm.  Standing on a ladder, Zac gently brushed the bees off the branch and into a cardboard box.  The first glob of bees fell with a thump to the bottom.  We couldn’t get all of the bees but got most of them and taped a screened top over the box (unfortunately it turned out to be a bit leaky!).  We were fairly certain that we did get the queen, however, as the remaining bees did not stay on the branch but buzzed around uncertainly, eventually returning to the observation hive.  All in all the bees were fairly calm during the process although we both found several stingers embedded in our gloves after we had finished.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Attempting to move the bees.
See a full set of images on Flickr.

Since I had lost my “home bees” earlier this year, I had an empty hive box at home and was excited to get new bees!  After work that day I put the box of bees into the trunk of my car and drove home.  There I placed them in a corner of my yard for the night.  In the morning I would “hive” them into my empty box, which I had repainted and filled with new frames.  In the meantime I spritzed some sugar water over the screen to give the girls something to eat.

The next morning I saw that many more bees had gotten out and were flying around the box.  I suited up and prepared to put the bees into my hive.  Unfortunately it was not an elegant process – we had put so much duct tape on the box that I had a hard time opening it, especially with those heavy gloves on (really experienced beekeepers often don’t use gloves while working with their bees – but I’m still a neophyte and really don’t enjoy getting stung).

I finally got the box open and as gently as possible tried to dump the bees into the hive body.  It was a bit messy and bees were flying everywhere.  I managed to cover things over, and watched for a while.  The bees that had fallen outside the hive appeared to be crawling in to join their brethren (or should I say sistren). Thinking all was well, I went off to Wabash to get a couple more frames as I had only 8 of the 10 needed to fill the box.  About two hours later, my frames put together, I came back to the hive.  All was quiet, with some bees flying in and out.  Quite a bit of the sugar water in the boardman feeder had been consumed.  A good sign, I thought.

Cautiously I approached the hive, and gently lifted the top.  All was calm – too calm.  I lifted the top completely off and – oh no!!!  The hive was empty, except for a number of bees (probably from another hive in the neighborhood) coming to rob the feeder.  My bees had flown the coop!  Sure enough, I looked around and about 40 feet up in a huge water oak in my neighbor’s yard, I could see the cluster of bees as a dark wedge.  Drat!  There was no way I could retrieve them from so high.  A day or two later, they had disappeared – hopefully to a nice hollow tree and not to one of my neighbors’ attics!

I learned the error of my ways from Joe, another staff member here at the museum who – as I found out too late – has a lot of experience with bees (I think he keeps six hives himself).  He told me that when he is housing a swarm, he lets the swarm sit in the capture box for 3-4 days, feeding them with sugar water, before introducing them to a new home.  If you move them from one place to another too quickly after they swarm, he says, they just take off.

As they surely did.  So I guess I’ll be ordering another “package” of bees this coming spring, to fill my empty hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
See a full set of images on Flickr.

In closing, and despite the unsuccessful swarm capture, I can attest that keeping bees is easier than you think, is increasing in popularity and in importance (since many commercially kept bees are succumbing to various ailments), and is absolutely fascinating.

If you are a gardener, these essential pollinators are a natural fit – especially if you grow fruits and vegetables, as more bees mean a bigger crop!  There are some wonderful books on beekeeping, including the excellent “Beekeeping for Dummies.”  Leisure Learning offers a course on beekeeping at least a couple times a year.  And there are several beekeeping associations in the Houston area; go to to find your local chapter.

Authored By Nancy Greig

Dr. Nancy Greig is the founding director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which she oversaw from 1994 to 2016. As emeritus director she continues to work with the museum doing outreach and education. Her academic training is in botany and entomology, with a specialty in the interaction between insects, especially butterflies, and plants. In addition to cultivating backyard butterflies, she grows vegetables and bees

One response to “Great Swarms of Bees!”

  1. Yes, I agree that is a great swarm of bees!

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