With the coming of spring a couple of weeks early this spring, I am getting a little nervous about my bees. The honey flow which is the frantic bee activity of bees collecting nectar from spring flowers will be here very soon. I have a strong hive that made it through the winter and I am on the lookout for swarms! 2012 marks my tenth year anniversary as a beekeeper and I have had my share of swarms from my own hives as well as from the wild. I hate it when my bees swarm! If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get 10 different answers and opinions. Other non-beekeeper friends who don’t understand will ask me, ” Why don’t you want your bees to swarm? You can increase your hives !” The answer is really simple. Say goodbye to any honey production for that year! And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm. The bees have a mind of their own.
As a beekeeper, I am sometimes called by a panicked home owner when a huge ball of noisy bees appears in their backyard. They are afraid of them stinging and just want the bees to go away or be killed. In fact, swarming bees are loaded up with honey and are very unlikely to sting. They are not dangerous and are just looking for a new home.
Swarming is a natural duplication process for honey bees to form a new colony. When a colony is bursting at the seams in their home with little room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen. The old queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 15,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance and cluster on a tree branch, shrub or other object to form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more. The queen is usually centered in the cluster and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house! The swarms can stay in their temporary location for several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.
The Big Event
I have observed a swarm in progress from my hives several times and it is very impressive and exciting. One of the signs that precedes a swarm is the sound! The tone of the hive increases greatly in volume and the bees start to exit in a huge undulating wave from the hive box and head for some nearby structure, usually a tree, to land. The bees seem to have a unified purpose and know exactly what to do.
The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. Beekeepers try to avoid a swarm because it splits their population and reduces the likelihood of producing honey to harvest that season. The advantage to swarming is that now you have two hives instead of one but again you have to put off harvesting any honey because both colonies will need honey stores to get through the winter.
Capturing the Swarm
If the swarm is from a beekeepers own colony the beekeeper will try to capture it and put it in a new hive. But if it is a wild colony that swarms it can land in a unsuspecting homeowners yard and they start calling 911 in a panic. If a beekeeper gets the call, and the swarm is not that far off the ground, they can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away. As bees can be expensive, about $125 for a laying queen and brood, beekeepers are usually delighted to take them off your hands. Sometimes beekeepers will charge the homeowner a fee, especially if the swarm is located in a difficult to access place. Go to http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/hiving-a-swarm/ to see a slide show of me hiving a swarm.
I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars, and in the walls of houses. If they are in your walls, the bees are almost impossible to extricate and should be euthanized. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest. If you discover a swarm in your yard, the best thing to do is call a local beekeeper by looking on the internet for the CMBA, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which keeps a database of beekeepers interested in capturing swarms. If you are not in MD, just look up Beekeepers in your area and someone will take them off your hands.
Here are my pointers on avoiding this catastrophe:
I like to give the bees plenty of ventilation by not only having the entrance unimpeded with reducers but also by shimming my upper boxes open slightly to give the bees more openings for air flow.
Plenty of Room
I have already added supers (extra honey boxes) on top of my brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs. I have stopped using a queen excluder to the horror of many beekeeper friends. I feel that this keeps the queen from going where she needs to go and if she feels restricted, swarm production will start. When I harvest my honey, if there is brood in the supers, I just move it down to the brood boxes.
Requeen when your queen is a couple of seasons old. Some beekeepers say every year, but there is so much supersedure going on (bees making their own queen) that sometimes this isn’t necessary.
Split up your hive early in the season if it is going strong. This simply means take a few frames of brood with some nurse bees and place them in a new hive. You can add a new queen or let them make their own. This can be a gamble because it takes time to make a new queen but by separating the hive you reduce the urge to swarm.
Removing Swarm Cells-Forget it!
Beekeepers recommend to go through your boxes frequently and remove the queen swarm cells that are ready to hatch out new queens. I think at that point, it is too late. Bees are programmed to swarm and you are swimming against the tide by trying to stop the process. Also, I don’t think it is a good practice to open up your hives too frequently. Leave them alone!
- Natural Qualities of a Honey Bee having a Corn Cob of a Time! (honeybeesandme.com)
- Swarm Sense (thrivefarm.wordpress.com)
- Hives Through History (romancingthebee.com)
- Start Beekeeping (thebeerevelation.wordpress.com)
- One hive makes it through the winter, one doesn’t (sfgate.com)