Beekeeping Wednesday : Swarming

by Jacob Cole

If you didn’t know, spring is one of the honey bee’s busiest times of the year. Speaking of spring, many of you know that it is time for the bees to start swarming. Swarming is a natural function of the honey bee, and is the subject of my article today.  Swarming has many benefits for the bees, but also can benefit the beekeeper, and I will cover that in my article. Bees swarm for a couple of reasons and I hope to inform you as to why.

Honey bees swarm mainly for reproductive reasons. In case you didn’t know honey bees are classified as a super-organism, which Google defines  “the term superorganism is used most often to describe a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labour is highly specialized and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods..”  Ants and termites are another example of super organisms. Similar to a cell, super organisms reproduce by splitting in two. In a beehive, this looks like the old queen leaving with half of the workers, looking for another cavity to nest in. Some bees have a strong split nature making them more likely to swarm in spring.  This year, my family put an empty hive body in our apiary, just in case a swarm might nest there.  This is a good way to catch your own swarm or another one in the area.

There are a few signs that can indicate that your hives might be preparing to swarm. One of the easiest ways to prevent swarming is to make sure that the hive has plenty of room for the queen to lay eggs and raise brood. Generally bees will swarm when they run out of room in their home. This is especially important right now in the honey flow; when the bees can fill up their supers almost as fast as we put them on. One early sign of swarming can be queen cells. The hive will split just before the young queens’ hatch, with many of the workers following the old queen to a new home.  Some things you can do to keep the bees there, is to put a queen excluder underneath all of your boxes. This will keep your queen in your hive. You could also just kill the queen cell.  Another method would be to split your hives, especially if there are queen cells on the frames.  You should talk to an experienced beekeeper before you split, if you have never done it.

Swarms can be great for a beekeeper, especially if they are from someone else’s hives. One of my favorite things to do as a beekeeper is to catch swarms and hives with my dad. We have removed hives in roofs, wall, trees, and water meter boxes and we have also grabbed swarms from fences, tree branches, and bushes. Swarms are very easy to handle, but an established hive can be a little trickier. I have learned a ton from catching bees, and one of these lessons is that it is better to supplement your hives with swarms that were free as opposed to buying hives.

I would also like to point out that bees are most docile when they are swarming. My father has caught a swarm, our first year of beekeeping, with a broom and a box, so it is very easy. Also there is nothing bad about buying bees, but anything free is great. I hope that you are able to glean a little information from this article. Just remember that queen cells, can indicate that your hive is preparing to swarm, and it would be best to split them yourself.

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