Friday, June 7, 2013

Bee swarms do not always good neighbors make!

If you have never experienced the excitement of a bee hive swarming, you haven't lived!  Suddenly out of the hive there is a tornadic like black mass of honeybees swirling around as half of the hive leaves with the old queen.  A new queen has emerged and ascended to the throne to take over reign of the hive, and no house can host two queens! The new upstart stays with the brood and the young workers and nurse bees that cannot yet fly.  But, half of the hive, which may be 30 thousand bees this time of year, leaves with the old queen!  All buzzing and flying.  They head to the closest structure that the scout worker bees have identified as being a temporary staging area.  The old queen flies there and soon the tornadic mass of older workers flies to meet her and to get as close to her pheromone on her body as possible. 

Swarming is how hives naturally reproduce.  When the current beehive runs out of room, it's time for some of the worker bees and the old queen to move on.  The hive runs out of room because: a) the queen has exhausted all available areas for laying new eggs-she lays over 1,000 a day, b) there is so much honey in the hive there is no more room left to lay eggs,  or c) the hive is "pollen bound" and has stored so much pollen that there is no more room left to lay eggs.

This sight can be one of awe for entomologists, or for laypeople who are unfamiliar or entomophobes (one who is afraid of insects), one of a worst nightmare.  The fact is, bees that are swarming are actually very gentle and are not at all interested in stinging.  They just want to find and be with their queen. 

When they find her, they form a hanging ball around her.  Where they land initially is just a temporary platform.  The scout bees are still looking for a place to call a new permanent home/hive.  In the wild, this can be a hollowed out tree or stump.  Unfortunately, in ever increasingly urbanized America, this can often sometimes be someones' back porch or eave or attic or backyard swingset or picnic table.  So it is important to catch new swarms before they move to such areas.  Usually the temporary location is left within two to three days for the permanent one.

Responsible urban area hobbyist beekeepers know that to prevent the emergence of a new queen (and subsequent swarming) of their hives, they need to get into their hives at least once every 14 days. (Fourteen days is the amount of time required for a new queen to develop from egg to adult.)  But, informed beekeepers also know that the bees don't read the literature written about them, and that it is more prudent to be in the hive once every ten days!  (Higher temperatures increase metabolism and can quicken developmental times.) 

When you inspect your hive once every 10-14 days, you are looking for swarm cells.  These are the developing queen cells.  They are very obvious.  They hang down from the bottom of the frames like a peanut; in fact, they kind of look like a complete peanut in the shell.  Simply take your hive tool and cut them away so they do not develop.  (Of course, it is important to check first to make sure your existing queen looks happy and healthy!  You may in fact want a new queen to develop, if not.)

There are different beekeeper schools of thought out there on whether you should knock down swarm cells or not.  If you leave them and the swarm occurs, you introduce new genes into the neighborhood population, and new bees into the area with the new queen and hive.  If you are on 50 acres of land and have no close by neighbors, that's perfect, and I'm all for it.  If you have near neighbors, then you don't want this.  Swarms do not good neighbors make!  At least, usually.  Just to be prepared for it, I always give my neighbors free jars of honey!

Another reason to discourage swarming is that it divides your workforce, and suddenly you have half the workers bringing in nectar and making you honey.  Thus the familiar 17th C. proverb,...

"A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly."

The nectar flow is in May and June, so you don't want to lose your workforce out there working to bring all that nectar in!  By July, the nectar flow has dried up, and it really wouldn't matter until the fall nectar flow of goldenrod and asters.  That is, if you don't have near neighbors!

An interesting thing about swarms is that March, April and May swarms tend to be found initially down low on a branch near the hive they just left.  They are very easy to put in a bucket and rehive in a new hive or even the same hive from which they just came, as long as there is just one queen-so one must go. 

June swarms are higher up, and July swarms are often in the tops of a nearby tree, or the top of a church spire or belfry.  So, it's much easier to retrieve an early swarm than a later one.  Later ones require a very long ladder, and most folks are a little nervous about being high on a ladder with buckets and bees. 

Please do try and save a hive if at all possible!  Call your local beekeeper or state agriculture extension office and ask for the state apiarist.  Or go online and google your state apiarist or University Department of Entomology for their Apiarist on staff.  Or google your local beekeeper's association.  Remember, it is alot easier to retrieve such a hive before that 3 day period is up, when they move on.  Also, do not treat a swarm with any pesticides.  Also, do not collect a swarm that has been treated with any pesticides.  You will bring the pesticides into your hive. 

If a swarm has occured long ago and the hive is now established well within a chimney or attic or wall void area, etc., you may instead need to call your local pest management company.  These hives have usually been treated with pesticide by the homeowner already.  The bees will need to be vacuumed out of the wall void where they are living.  Then the wax comb and dripping honey must also be removed.  So, the wall must be opened up generally.  It's a sticky and expensive mess!  If wax and honey are not removed, secondary pests will come to this area, including mice, skunks, dermestid beetles, flies, wax moths, woodpeckers, etc.

To prevent swarming in urban areas, provide the queen and bees room and space within the hive so she can keep laying eggs.  She (the queen) will always want to move up more than out.  So after frames are filled in one super, have another super ready to place on top.  Simply move a frame with some brood into the new super to get her to come up into it.  Knock down swarm cells every ten days or so.  Keep a journal and calendar so you remember when you've been in the hive to do this.  (This is a good idea anyway to jot down hive observations and then to compare from year to year and hive to hive and queen to queen.) 

Despite your best attempts, swarms can still occur if you miss seeing a swarm cell when you go through your hive or if you have to be out of town for over ten days.  Educate your neighbors about swarms and how gentle the bees are, and give your neighbors honey regularly; yes, I'm a mercenary! Remind them that bees are threatened currently and that the reason their yards look so good lately is that your girls have been hard at work pollinating them!  Keep the name of a beekeeper willing to collect swarms at the ready.  And, if you do go out of town, share his/her name with your neighbors.

A technique called checkerboarding can be done to try and reverse a queen who is determined to swarm and keeps laying swarm cells.  This is where you place empty frames every other frame within the top supers to give the queen space.  This usually works well.  (Of course, you also knock down all swarm cells.)

Another trick is to split the hive and start a new one with frames of brood and swarm cells attached. Be sure some nurse bees are on those brood frames and also provide some honey and pollen.  This approximates a swarm and makes the queen think that's what happened.

One other trick is to take a frame of brood and swarm cells and place with no bees on it into a weak hive.  This may boost the weak hives' health and make the old hive think they swarmed.

As you can see, there are a lot of tricks out there.  Be an attentive beekeeper and all should be well. 

In my 7 years of beekeeping, I've had only one swarm (knock on wood!).  It was about 5 years ago in early June, and I was still new to beekeeping.  It happened on a Friday evening when I was at a women's group meeting 50 miles from home.  My boyfriend went to walk my dog, and the neighbors approached him and said, "something strange is happening with Kathy's bees!"  He went to look.  The tornadic swarm was leaving my hive about 6pm and headed to the lowest pine tree branch in their backyard very close nearby.  It is quite a sight to behold and it was attracting the entire neighborhood!  Whole families had come out to watch after eating supper.  Where I live is suburban, but still rural, and the neighbors appreciate natural phenomena, thankfully. Also, the previous week, again, thankfully, I'd been the speaker at the local garden club and had spoken on bees and swarming.  So, both my boyfriend and my neighbor had heard me say how gentle they were.  He echoed this again to my neighbors.  And, he called the local bee collector of swarms.  (I call this guy Rick the bee whisperer!)  He also called me to alert me.  By the time I got home, the swarm was nicely hanging from the pine tree branch.  Rick, with no gloves or suit on, had placed a ladder below the hanging mass of bees.  On top of the ladder he placed a super and let it sit there overnight, as it was now dark.  He returned at 7am and shook the branch into the box and the whole mass dropped in.  He put a lid on it and asked me if I wanted them.  I said, no after all that work, now they are yours!  He was delighted to have another hive.  My neighbors came out to say how cool it had all been to watch and experience-nature at its best!  I breathed a sigh of relief that they shared my opinion.

Do the groundwork to make sure your hives are safe and you manage them well.  It will be rewarding for all involved.

Some of you have written to say that the feature to post questions is not working.  I do not know why.  If you have questions, place "bee" in the email title and feel free to email me at

1 comment:

Annie J said...

Thank you for all of this useful information, Kathy! I don't think it is natural instinct for many of us to try to save a hive, especially if it in or near our home, but I'm glad there are people like you who can help us with this situation!

And, I recently saw Oz, and definitely agree that no kingdom has room for two queens :-)