Ready or Not--Swarm Season
READY OR NOT --- IT IS swarm season Did you know that prior to a hundred years
ago, beekeepers wanted their bees to swarm? Were they "nuts", or just wanted
to create neighborhood FUN? Neither.
Up until Rev. Langstroth "invented the movable frame hives were kept in straw
skeps or old gum tree hives where the bees had to be destroyed to remove the
In those distructive harvest days,the beekeeper depended on his bees to swarm
so that he could have bees for NEXT years crop and he destroyed the colony that
had swarmed to collect its honey, which was not a large yield in those days..
During most of.the 20th century, there have been all kinds of good thoughts
and wrong thoughts about the causes of swarming, and the prevention or control
Swarming has been intensely researched, millions of words written about it,
and yet, I find that many beekeepers are still confused about it.
Hence, I feel it is,my task to explain as much about swarming as much as possible
and I assure you that there are things that you did NOT know.
I must say here: A beekeeper must thoroughly understand swarming to be successful
with Carniolan bees!
Swarming is nature's genetic way of reproduction. In nature's habitat, swarming
brings a diversified line of genes into the picture because the drones mating
with the new queen of the parent colony are probably from diverse sources; and
normally the swarm flies a long distance to its new home:site, thereby populating
a larger area than that of the parent colony.
This, is just one more example, of the continuing way of nature to inhibit
in-line-breeding and the break-up of disease patterns by promoting survival
of the fittest. Hence, swarming has perhaps a value not known to you before.
When is this swarm season and what influences it? Obviously, climate plays
a major role, not only involving the temperature and bee flight weather, but
the climate that produces FOOD for the bees, both nectar and pollen.
In our Maryland area, swarm season is April and early May. When we see dandelions,
forsythia, jonquils, crocus, etc.. in bloom, our swarm season is almost upon
us. LET US MAKE SURE THAT YOU UNDERSTAND THAT SWARM SEASON IS BEFORE a major
There are those who will state that their bees swarmed right in the peak of
a heavy nectar flow, and a few paragraphs later, I will explain that swarming
is the fault of the beekeeper!
Just like our computer programing today, a colony of bees is genetically programmed
by nature to swarm under certain conditions and as these conditions come about
the swarming program is set into motion.
It will surprise many of you to know that bees plan ahead and do many unique
things taking as much time as 10-14 days prior to swarm issuance! Yep, 10-14
days of preparation time. I will explain some of these pre-planned programs
for the colony survival into next year's winter season, about 8 months from
Pray tell, for who do you think these "critters" with only a 6 week life span
are gathering all this nectar for? The COLONY! Surely, not YOU!
You must learn to "THINK Like a Bee" and stop being anthropomorphic!
Emerging from the doldrums of winter confinement and finding some pollen from
maples, alders, skunk cabbage followed by a smidgen of sweet nectar from dandelion,apple
blossom, etc.. the worker bees rush to polish cells, stoke food into the queen,
raise the brood nest temperature to 95 (even though it is freezing outside),
and prepare to raise a multitude of new bees
Busy as a bee - things are really humming!
The workers get into a fever pitch of urgency, demanding more of their queen
and stuff her with more and more food so maybe she is laying 2000 eggs every
24 hours; and after several weeks of this, there is a population "explosion"
of young workers who do their assigned duty of nurse bee in feeding all these
thousands of larvae, each one getting as much as 1200 feedings in 24 hours before
the cell is capped on the10the day.
Wow, what a brood area CONGESTION of nurse bees feeding larvae,cell builders,
cell polishers, foraging bees delivering nectar and pollen, glands working hard
to produce royal jelly for larvae food and the queen bee trying to force her
way through this congestion to lay more eggs.. if bees could talk, we would
hear one work loud and clear-Frustration.
Congestion! Brood chamber!(forget the supers) is the number #1 reason for swarming
, and in nature's way,all the bees worked very hard to create this congestion
because their entire aim is to Reproduce and that takes planning, hard work.
lots of bees, Brood Space, nectar for larval feeding, and a new,virgin queen
to take over the old homestead.
Speaking of QUEENS, how old is your queen? You don't have to be a "'rocket
scientist" to know that an eighteen year old girl will get pregnant faster than
a 35 year old woman. Not only do the ovaries of the queen commence losing ability
to manufacture eggs as she ages from her nuptial flight, but in just the last
decade or so, we have learned the importance of queen pheromones in maintaining
colony togetherness ( I call it "the Glue")
I am not going into some detailed -mathematical explanation of colony population,
broadly think of these numbers:
worker bee life:42 days,or 6 weeks,
worker bee gestation period is 21days or 3 weeks
a queen laying 1500 eggs every day lays 31,500 in that 21 day period or 63,000
bees in two gestation periods: but bees have been dying all those two 21 day
So you can see why a population of 60,000 is very difficult to reach requiring
a very healthy queen.
But just like losing egg production ability with aging, the queen also loses
the ability to produce larvae amounts of queen pheromone, queen substance, queen
odor, whatever you want to call it,AS SHE AGES.
A 12 months old queen just cannot lay as many eggs or produce as much "glue"
as a month old queen!
Hence, as she starts her second season of life, this 13 month old queen ,not
only can not lay as well as her first season, but she can't produce enough "glue",
pheromone, to hold together a colony as a colony unit some some large group
of bees- So the workers prepare to swarm.
Now you should realize that the age of the queen is the 2nd most important
reason for swarming. Researchers over the last century and in several foreign
countries have announced that a 2nd season queen is 3 times more apt to swarm
than a first season queen! I don"t even want to mention the figures for a queen
in her third season.
In addition to REPRODUCTIVE INSTINCT, BROOD CHAMBER CONGESTION, and AGE OF
THE QUEEN, there are several other reasons for swarming that YOU can control:
bee's race (Carniolan's have a high propensity of swarming )-ventilation of
the colony and super space(only when the nectar flow is on).
Other reasons beyond your control is weather and intensity of the nectar flow
(fast and heavy or slow and light).
In a fast and heavy nectar flow, maybe the bees can't cure the nectar and store
it fast enough, so they swarm because of lack of storage space in the supers.
(I told you on the first page that I would mention swarming because of poor
Now you know the REASONS for swarming, let me tell you about the swarm preparation
in the colony, and how it will really foul up your hopes. I hope that you understand
that our I queen bee is very much akin to 'Queen Elizabeth ll of England who
is a FIGUREHEAD only,: making no decisions, because, the common man of PARLIAMENT
makes all decisions'.
Our queen bee is not a LEADER; but rather an egg laying machine and pheromone
producer that combines all these thousand of workers into a single functioning
almost socialistic colony held together by a single aim-to produce bees in the
Don't be anthropomorphic now, and imagine that foraging bees POLLINATE ON PURPOSE.
They pollinate by accident in nectar collection and getting pollen for their
protein food. The worker bees, having decided to swarm, construct queen cells,
stop comb, building, STOP FEEDING THE QUEEN so she loses weight to fly, send
out new home site seekers, and stay home from foraging for fear of being left
out of swarming (wow! anthropomorphism!), and start producing. "gallons" of
royal jelly to feed all those new queen larvae:meaning of course, they are doing
NOTHING to help the beekeeper for up to 10 days before swarming.
Finally, the first queen cell is 9 days old and the cell is CAPPED. If the
weather is nice the very next day, there is suddenly an excited noisy whirring
sound and bees are literally failing out of the hive and taking wing to a nearby
tree, bush, fencepost or what have you.
Why? They are hunting for the queen, to make sure she got pushed out of the
hive and is with them.
If they cannot find her in their cluster in about an hour, they break up and
return the hive looking for her.
If her wings had been clipped and she couldn't fly,or if she got lost, the
bees will wait about 4-5 days: (again doing nothing for the beekeeper) until
the first Virgin queen emerges from her queen cell, force her out side ,with
out allowing her mating time, and they swarm with her.
The clustered bees may stay in this temporary tree or bush for an hour, a day,
or even several days in bad weather, but they are NOT IDLE.
SEARCH BEES are sent out looking for a new home (maybe inside the walls of
YOUR house). They are looking at areas a mile or more from your apiary, a space
of 1 000-5000 cubic inches (a deep hive body= about 2500 cubic inches), about
10-15 ft high, slightly shaded, WIND Free, and hidden.
As these search bees return,they do round wag-tail dance CONTINUOUSLY(not like
a food dance) trying to persuade others of the best location.
Finally, with a whir, off they go, and in Maryland-your honey crop for that
year is probably GONE. There is always next year,but there is still menthol,
Apistan, fumadil-B, requeening, and sugar feeding to be done before next April.
A sad picture, isn't it. Well, what can you. do about it? There is both swarm
PREVENTION and swarm CONTROL, so lets talk about them.
PREVENTION is provide plenty of BROOD space (not
supers), by reversing the brood boxes often from March into May so the queen
can always move up to lay in open cells, have a queen that is less than 9 months
old, clip a queens wings (I do not like that as my personal way of management
but many beekeepers clip wings), and in dire emergency,but capped brood up in
the bottom-most super and fresh drawn comb in the brood chamber(rarely done).
Before I mention swarm control, let me state STRONGLY that egg-laying by the
queen at nectar flow time in Maryland and a lot of other eastern states is a
TOTAL WASTE of bees,because these bees will never be alive to forage for nectar
in the future, just eat up stores, make beekeeper management difficult, and
really it would be almost desirable to stop her from laying.
OK, now Swarm control.
You must understand that any type of control is going to cause some honey production
loss or cause a difficult management problem. You can CAGE the queen on a brood
frame to prevent her egg laying. If you have more patience than the bees and
you have eyes better than 20/20 you can cut out queen cells every 8 days (never
longer than 8 days) and don't miss a single one, you can split your colony into
two separate units and recombine them to a single unit in August (that is my
choice), and if you really are strong, young, full of ambition, and CRAZY, you
can save all your honey crop and not lose a swarm by using the DEMAREE method.
I did it when I was young and foolish, and never again! You can look it up in
a book if you,want.
This gives you a birdseye view of swarming. I cannot cover everything for two
reasons: I would confuse you, and I expect you to use your brain and think out
some of these things yourself.
However, before I just stop, I want to mention a few things of importance to
some, unimportant to others, that I have not covered above.
My remarks are made on the basis os situations in Central Maryland But they
can be applied to any place in the world if you account for the weather:and
type of flora.
A)A dramatic difference in two stocks of bees: Carniolan and Starline Hybrid.
The Carnie queen slows her laying in a dearth of nectar flow, so Carnie bees
don't have a large store consuming bunch of bees going into winter. Oppositely,
the Starline is a man created hybrid to gather nectar 12.months of the year
and is used by migratory beekeepers moving their bees from flora to flora. But
this whole bunch of bees is eating a lot of food the whole 12 months and is
a very poor choice for hobbyist beekeepers..
B) If you see a capped queen cell,, the die is, caste a swarm will happen
in a matter of. hours unless,you stop it., Cage the queen,split the colony,
Demaree it and don't wait until tomorrow. Too late! :If you see a big larvae
floating in royal, jelly, but not, yet capped, you, might leave the hive queenLESS
if you I cut that cell. Better to use the stringent, controls', above.
C) You can help to ease brood chamber congestion, plus increasing the efficiency
of foraging bees by providing several additional colony entrances. Use Imirie
Shims (available from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm) in between your supers; and
the foragers will learn to use those to leave and enter rather battle up through
the brood nest.
D) Always try to have a Class A, near perfect, worker cell drawn comb in your
brood nest. Leaving leaving badly formed comb, or a lot of drone cells in the
brood nest area diminishes the laying space fro the queen.
E) Have swarm clear and equipment READY TO USE RIGHT NOW, not an hour from
now as you find and collect it. You might watch the swarm fly away just because
you put off until tomorrow. YOU MUST BE READY TO ACT IMMEDIATELY IN, SWARM SEASON!
F) I have, saved this to last, because it is so important,SWARMS ARE THE BEST
OF ALL COMB BUILDERS! When you catch a swarm always put them in hive of ten
frames of foundation with continuous feeding of,l:l sugar syrup and plan on
getting a new queen by September. This old swarm queen and the swarm need SUDDEN
COMB for queen laying and storage space for food to feed these young larvae,
and all of these swarm bees will be dead in just 6 weeks, so they will work
rapidly and have new bees hatching out in about 30 days after hiving.
Since this swarm will not produce any honey for human use this year, it is
best to put at least one fresh Apistan strip in the center of the brood area
and leave it for 6-8 weeks, NO LONGER, and then REQUEEN it with a good pedigree
This group might be next year's biggest honey producer. If you don't want more
colonies, just use this swarm to produce drawn comb for future use, and destroy
the bees in late summer or unite them with some other colony.
This is the greatest value of a swarm!
Now, since you all are swarm experts,I can rest and take a nap. I have had
fun, and I hope you have learned!