Peak Swarm Season

Yes!! It is that time of year  – early Honey Flow–  when the bees build up quickly and silently. Before you know it you are looking at a huge moving bee swarm  perched on a tree branch like the one below when you come home….and you must capture them quickly before they move on to roomier and more distant pastures! Capturing a swarm is tricky and each one is a challenge.

Perfect tear drop swarm on a fruit tree

Honey Flow

Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance. For me in central Maryland, honey flow happens when the black locust is in bloom, starting in early May into June.  I can see the heavy creamy white hanging blossoms dangling from the trees lining the wooded roads around my house. This is my signal that my bees will be in tip top form, ferrying nectar to the hive and capping it with wax to make honey stores for the winter.

Black Locust flowers are one of the honeybee’s favorites

But, it seems that the bees as usual in the spring, have swarming on their mind. This year, there have been many more than normal and thankfully I have been home to catch them. I and other beekeepers have never had so many ‘swarm calls’  as this year.

Swarm on branch

It usually happens like this; A panicked home owner calls and tells me that there are bees everywhere in their yard and forming into a cluster, and they are terrified to let their kids out to play. Reassuring them that a swarm is very docile as they are loaded up with honey stores looking for a home, I ask them questions about the size and how far off the ground the cluster is hanging. Crucial for capturing, a low hanging cluster is ideal for boxing up and bringing  to a new hive home. If the cluster is over 20 feet high, I let nature take its course and the bees will decide where to go on their own.

Sometimes the cluster is out of reach of the tallest ladder

Dumping in bees into hive body

Swarm going into hive

Is Swarming a Good Thing?

If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get ten 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. A large nectar gathering colony of 50,000 – 60,000 bees has suddenly been reduced by a half or a third.  And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm.  The bees have a mind of their own and may swarm to the top of a tree 30 feet high out of reach or go a mile away.

Swarm Production

Hiving up a bee swarm

So what is bee swarming? Swarming is a natural reproduction 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 on their own. The old queen or a new virgin queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 20,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance, usually within a mile, and land on a structure and form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more.

This is a large swarm and can weigh over 10 pounds

The queen is usually centered in the cluster with her daughters protecting her and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house. Swarms can stay in their temporary location for a few hours up to several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.

Swarm starting to form and gather on a tree branch

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 body 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.

This is two separate swarms that left from the same hive, each with a virgin queen in the cluster

Swarm on lacrosse net

Usually, the new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony in the hive along with the workers left behind.  But occasionally newly created virgin queens depart with workers and must mate with a drone before she can start laying eggs.. But they are a much smaller and weaker population so won’t produce that honey surplus that you want to harvest. If you just want your bees as pollinators for your garden, then you won’t care about the honey loss. 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 probably need their honey stores to get through the winter.

Capturing a swarm
Capturing a swarm

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 in their apiary. 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, the beekeeper can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away to re-home. See the video below from Bruce Jones, a fellow beekeeper.

As bees can be expensive, about $180 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, like inside your walls.

Swarm high up in a tree
Swarm high up in a tree

I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars,  and yes on lacrosse nets!  If they are in your walls, the bees are extremely difficult to get but not impossible. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest and is building up quickly. 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. Just make sure that they are honeybees and not yellow jackets or hornets! Take a good picture and text them the location so a beekeeper can come prepared.05182009 043

Getting my supplies out for a swarm run. The sprayer contains sugar water to calm upset bees

Swarm Traps

And I also have swarm traps around my property to capture swarms from my hives as well as wild ones. These are just wooden boxes with frames and a scent like lemon oil to attract the bees.

Plenty of Room

 I have already added extra boxes on top of my existing brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs and move up into the colony.

Capped brood (eggs) and 2 peanut shaped queen cells where new queens are growing; You can also see worm like larvae (white)
Bees also collect pollen for food for young brood. Pollen comes in all colors-Picture from Rebecca Cobb
Give the bees lots of room
Give the bees lots of room

Splitting the hive quickly sometimes can help you avoid the swarming. That just means keeping one queen with frames of brood in the original hive and placing other brood frames in another hive with nurse bees and hope that they make a new queen.

A mini swarm that I hived back into a box and is doing well

As you can see, catching swarms isn’t an exact science, but can be challenging and rewarding at the same time.

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