When a beekeeper comes upon their bees outside of the hive, the immediate reaction is that something terrible is happening. However, sometimes bearding and swarming are very normal reactions. In addition, neither bearding nor swarming necessarily mean that your hive is doomed.
Knowing the difference between bearding vs swarming, the signs of both, and how to respond can help you easily navigate the situation.
What is Swarming?
In cartoons, a swarm of bees usually refers to an angry mob of bees going after someone. Luckily, in real life, that isn’t the case. Swarming is when some, or all, of your bees, decide to leave the hive to find a new one.
Swarming is not ideal for beekeepers because they lose either half or all of the bees they have raised. However, some beekeepers take advantage of swarming season and actually look for other swarms to capture. Through this, they get a free colony of bees.
Swarming is relatively common in beekeeping and happens for two reasons:
- Absconding: Absconding is when all bees abandon the hive because they feel it’s inadequate for their survival. The usual causes of absconding include:
- Colony Collapse Disorder
- Lack of food in the hive or the area
- Loss of queen
- Reoccuring pests, such as ants, hive beetles, or wildlife
- Bees Grow Out of Their Hive. If the colony population becomes too high for the hive, the colony will split into two. The queen is then kicked out, and about half the workers leave to create a hive or find a new one. Before swarming, worker bees will begin to raise another queen for the original hive.
What is Bearding?
Bearding, on the other hand, is when bees leave the hive temporarily to fix uncomfortable hive conditions. Here, bees will gather in large clusters outside the hive, appearing as large “beards.”
Bee colonies beard for a couple of reasons:
- It’s too hot: The ideal hive temperature is 92F. If the internal temperature becomes too high, it’s dangerous for the colony. Their brood begins to die, and the beeswax begins to melt.
- It’s too humid: Like temperature, the ideal humidity of a hive is vital. Excess humidity in the hive reduces worker bees’ ability to lower honey moisture content. If the bees can’t lower the honey moisture below 20 percent, it may go rancid. Additionally, high humidity levels invite mold and other pests into the hive.
While bees begin to gather around the hive and create the “beard,” some will start to fan around the entrance in hopes of lowering the temperature or humidity.
Differences Between Bearding and Swarming
While both bearding and swarming cause masses of bees to gather outside the hive, there are notable distinctions between the two.
Time of Year
A big distinction between swarming and bearding is the time of year they usually occur. Because bearding is due to high heat and humidity, it usually occurs during hot temperatures in the summer. Because swarming requires bees to start a brand new hive, it usually happens in mid-to-late spring. That way, the bees can have enough nectar and pollen sources to successfully build a new hive before winter.
Time of Day
While the time of day may seem arbitrary, both bearding and swarming happen at specific times.
There is a lot of preparation for swarming bees. In addition, there are many bees to move in a small amount of time. Because of this, swarming usually takes place mid-morning to early afternoon, around 10 am – 2 pm.
On the other hand, bearding usually occurs after all the forager bees have come home for the night. This is due to the body heat that all the bees give off. When just the younger worker bees, brood, and queen are in the hive during the day, the high temperatures aren’t that big of an issue.
However, once the entire colony gathers inside, the heat and humidity rise substantially. Therefore, bearding usually occurs during the late afternoon or night.
Level of Activity
A key distinction between swarming and bearding is the level of activity in the bees.
While walking up to a group of bees, you’ll want to notice their demeanor.
If the bees are loud, active, and moving rapidly, they are likely swarming. Just like foraging bees, swarming bees know they have a job to do and are devoted to getting it done.
Bearding bees should look like the exact opposite. These bees are hot, tired, and trying to conserve energy. For that reason, they will be docile and rarely take flight.
In addition, during bearding, some worker bees will fan the hive entrance. The fanning motions are attempts at creating ventilation in the hive.
Any Airborne Activity
When bees swarm, up to a whole colony moves to a new location. Thus, there will be bees swarming in the air.
However, bearding bees aren’t usually going to go airborne. Their primary purpose for leaving the hive is to cool the temperature or lower the humidity. Furthermore, since most of them have just finished a whole day of work, they aren’t very motivated to fly.
Signs of Swarming
Many early signs of swarming enable a beekeeper to respond and prevent it from happening.
Amount of Space Inside the Hive.
Looking at the amount of space inside the hive during your inspections will tell you if your bees are about to swarm. If bees have built comb to the edges of all frames, they might swarm. This means they are outgrowing the hive and need more space.
In addition to the amount of space, overpopulated hives will have idling bees who aren’t working. Adding another hive body to your frame and/or more supers will prevent the swarming.
Presence of Queen Cells
The presence of queen cells in your hive is a big giveaway that your colony is about to swarm.
There are two types of brood in a hive: regular worker bees and queen bees. Queen bee larvae are common bees fed royal jelly and given more space to grow. These two factors alone are the ingredients for a queen bee.
Typically, worker bees don’t have cause to develop a new queen bee. However, they will for two reasons:
- They have reason to believe their queen is dying.
- They are close to kicking the queen out.
So, on your next hive inspection, if you notice queen cells, you may want to prepare for a swarm.
What to Do if Your Hive Swarms
While preventing a swarm is the best protocol, you won’t always get to it fast enough. However, there are still options available if your hive swarms.
Attract Bees to New Hive
Best done as a prevention method instead of a response, you can always attract bees to a new hive. By creating a new hive in a close enough location, you may attract half of the colony to a new hive. Doing this requires several other steps but is a great way to split your colony.
If you are lucky enough to catch the flight mid-swarm, you have a chance of keeping that half of your colony.
Worker bees are very loyal. So, they will follow their queen wherever she goes. You can probably find the queen if you can get close to the hive. Once you locate her, place her in a queen cage and move her to a new or temporary location.
Once she emits pheromones, her worker bees will follow her to the new location.
Destroy Competing Queen Cells
After a hive has swarmed, make sure to check on the original colony. Using extreme caution, check on the hive body. There should be multiple queen cells.
Although queen bees will naturally kill other queens in the hive once they hatch, you can also do this artificially. One by one, destroy most queen cells so there isn’t too much competition. This will make the newly emerged queen’s job easier.
Once you have a newly emerged queen, be sure to perform regular hive inspections. Although she should be fine, it’s essential to check up on the hive as they are in a fragile state. If the queen were to die, the hive would die slowly.
Signs of Bearding
The signs of bearding are much more obvious than swarming. All you have to do to predict a bearding hive is to watch the weather. If the weather is in the 90s or above or hot and humid, your hive is likely to beard.
Additionally, if your hive is in the direct sun, the hive is likely to beard sometime during the summer.
What to Do if Your Hive Beards
While bearding is a very normal thing, a beekeeper can follow protocols to make sure their colony is safe.
Supply Food & Water
Just like us, bees need extra hydration in the extreme heat. Bees need extra energy with the extra demand of fanning the hive and hovering outside. If they are not provided with additional water and/or food, they might be at risk of overheating.
Additionally, if there is not a naturally good supply of water in your area, repetitive bearding might cause them to swarm eventually.
Don’t Perform Hive Inspections
The last thing you want to do when your hive is bearding, or even close to bearding, is to perform a hive inspection. After a long day of work, your bees are hot, tired, and frankly – irritable. Doing a hive inspection during the hot weather will not only get you stung but will cause unnecessary deaths in your worker bees.
Furthermore, performing hive inspections while your bees are bearding will likely increase the hive temperature. Thus, erasing all of the bees’ work to cool the hive off.
Check-In on Hive Next Morning
While your bees are excellent at doing their job, it’s still worth checking in on the hive the following day. Because the queen is unlikely to leave the hive, it’s wise to check to see that she hasn’t overheated.
It’s also smart to check on the brood and combs, as excessive heat can both:
- Kill brood
- Cause wax to melt
Move Hive to Different Location
If your hive is repeatedly bearding throughout the summer, it’s time to move the hive.
The ideal hive location should have both:
- Morning sunlight
- Afternoon shade
This is the ideal hive location for several reasons. First, your hive needs some sunlight throughout the day for pest prevention. Second, your hive will need afternoon shade to avoid direct heat during the hottest times of the day.
Moving your hive requires carefully thought out protocols, but if done correctly, it can prevent your bees from bearding during the summer.
Although they look similar, bearding and swarming are two very different phenomena.
Bearding is when the worker bees leave the hive and fan it out to lower temperature and/or humidity. They do this to reduce the chances of the queen overheating, the brood dying, and the wax from melting.
Swarming, on the other hand, happens when either:
- The colony overpopulates
- The hive is inhabitable
For whichever reason, either half or the whole colony decides to leave. Once on a nearby branch or structure, the bees choose where to relocate.
The main differences between bearding and swarming are the time of year, the time of day, the level of activity, and how many bees are airborne.
For both bearding and swarming, prevention is usually the best response. However, in both cases, there are always ways to respond that keep both you and your bees safe.