Swarm Season

Keeping honeybee hives means swarms. A natural reproduction process, it can happen to any beekeeper, experienced and inexperienced, so you should be prepared when it occurs, as well as excited. It is a sight to behold when the swarm is in full flight. The season of swarms is nearly always in April and May here in the Mid-Atlantic,  when bees are building up quickly from all the  available nectar.  Check out my post on Honey Bee Nectar Flow. 

For another post on swarms, go to It’s That Time of Year Again.

I am inspecting the excess honey after a nectar flow

You can hear the humming bees from at least 100 feet away and they come out in a wave that bursts from the hive.

Extra Equipment On Hand

As a  beekeeper, I have at least two hives, sometimes, three, but an experienced beekeeper will always have additional hive boxes on hand when a swarm appears. This is your opportunity to increase your bee population free of charge! The problem is catching the swarm as it can be quite tricky. Over my twenty years of beekeeping, I have caught about one half of the swarms that appeared out of my hives, and several that people have called me about on their property- maybe a dozen in total.

Cost

Honey bee start-up colonies are expensive to buy – in the neighborhood of $150 a pop- and when a swarm emerges from a newly installed hive, like it did to mine recently, you see your honey harvest evaporate into thin air. Literally the hive will decamp, taking at least 1/3 of the population along with the queen and move to greener pastures.

This swarm was so high up I used a pole pruner with a bucket on the end

Close is Better

Those greener pastures might be close enough for me to capture, but more likely than not, they fly far away to land in a tree 60 feet high with no chance of hiving them up for a new colony. The remaining bees are a much smaller population and have little chance of producing excess honey for me to harvest.

This teardrop shaped swarm lit on a nearby tree about 8 feet up-a perfect spot to capture

Capture the Queen

Last week I had a swarm land on a nearby tree and I simply climbed a ladder and lopped the branch off and brought it down the ladder with all the bees attached and knocked them into the hive box. The key is to get the queen into the hive box and all the workers will automatically follow. For once, the whole procedure of moving the swarm into the hive went like clock work!

Sometimes secondary smaller swarms can emerge after the primary one accompanied by virgin queens. The virgin queens must then mate with drones to start producing eggs for her new colony. If you have afterswarms, you are left with a ghost-like remainder who probably will die off.

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Queen Cups

Before the swarm leaves the original hive, the queen lays eggs into “queen cups” or larger cells that can accommodate the larger growing queen larvae. After the swarm leaves with the old queen, the new queens will emerge from the queen cups and if there are several that emerge, they will fight to the death, until the stronger one and usually the first one to emerge, is victorious.

A beekeeper removes any swarms cells or cells containing queens to avoid the hive swarming. Here I removed the cells to reveal the queens underneath. On the left you can see the opened swarm cell.
A vacant swarm cell where a new queen emerged

Way Station Cluster

Queens are too heavy to fly long distances so the swarm usually will form on a nearby structure or tree branch which scout bees have already scoped out beforehand. They cluster in the chosen spot for a few hours or a few days, until the scout bees determine where the final nest site will be.

Then the entire swarm will fly off never to be seen again by the beekeeper unless you have set up swarm traps or you are able to capture them before they leave. Their final chosen site could be an old tree cavity or between the walls of a house.

A swarm trap set into a nearby tree, baited with old frames and lemon grass oil

Swarm Traps to the Rescue

Tired of losing all my bees to swarms that disappeared, I had two swarm traps made last winter, which are simple plywood boxes with an entrance and lid, that has been baited with five frames and lemon grass oil, a natural attractant of bees. Painted a green that camouflaged the box, I hoped that these traps would attract some scout bees looking for a new home. And this spring, it worked! I noticed the other day that bees were coming in and out like they were there to stay. I don’t know where the swarm came from. I am surrounded by properties that have bee hives, so I am crossing my fingers that I captured a good hive population to start a new colony or combine with one of my weaker ones.

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