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Swarming and the urban beekeeper

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Well swarm season has peaked and has started to diminish somewhat as the spring bloom is over. The swarm season is not over however and will continue on in a much less hectic fashion through  September as some hives seem to ignore the intensity of the honey flow , or lack there of, and are compelled by biology to reproduce themselves before winter. Many of us are new to the hobby and are very excited about  swarming, obtaining one and hiving it. Watching a hive swarm and then hiving it is literally watching the birth of a new hive, it is just as amazing and exhilarating as watching a goat give birth to a kid or watching your dog give birth to a puppy. There really is no difference they are both biological reproduction in action.

Many of us live in the city or urban areas with neighbors close by. All the news of dieing bees and loss of pollinators has stimulated more urban beekeeping by new beekeepers. It is a political and popularity battle for some to get permission to keep bees in the city and in order to win that battle we must try as much as possible to appease those that are afraid of bees. I believe that one of our biggest problems that gives beekeepers bad press, and generally freaks out people that are against bees, is the swarming phenomenon.

Hives themselves are generally not a problem in the city. Bee nervous people can be completely oblivious of a hive in a tree in their own yard. Bee nervous neighbors may be completely oblivious of the hives you are keeping until…… they swarm. Nothing creates more bad publicity or nervousness and opposition to beekeeping than swarming. I know, I know… it is a paradox, we as beekeepers know that there is no gentler mass of bees than a new swarm. To a seasoned beekeeper, being afraid of a mass stinging attack from a non-africanized newly emerged swarm is like being afraid of being eaten alive by a newly born Bengal Tiger. That being said you can, and people do, get stung from bees in a swarm. Stings often occur when someone inadvertently pinching a bee that has landed on them. In the worst case swarms can become defensive of the cluster as if it were a hive and develop a greater propensity to sting. I believe this happens when the swarm is old (emerged days ago), is low on resource (because they have consumed all the honey they had carried with them) and are desperate due to lack of suitable housing available. If you want to stay in the good graces of the neighborhood so that we can keep on keeping bees it is in your best interest to minimize swarming.

Since high bee loses were recently publicized we frequently see news stories of beekeepers as the hero, collecting and saving the community from a swarm that has landed in some very public place while simultaneously saving the bees to be our food producing pollinators. I however also remember not long ago that the beekeeper was often written more as the villain with swarms emerging from his apiary creating havoc in the neighborhood. The reason many cities have laws against beekeeping is the old public perception of swarming and the problems they create. It is only the recent phenomenon of bee losses that has public sympathy for bees and hence a willingness to allow bees in the city. If you want to maintain public support and continue keeping bees in the city we must do what we can to minimize our hives from swarming.

What does that mean to do what we can to minimize swarming? You can not stop swarming anymore than you can stop the desire for humans to have sex, but you can take steps to minimize it. It is generally agreed upon by the honeybee scientists that one of the primary stimulants to swarm is the decreased distribution of queen pheromone throughout the hive. This can be caused by a number of things that we have some control or influence on:

  1. Keep a young queen: An old queen produces lower levels of queen pheromone and therefore a hive with a two year old queen is much more likely to swarm than a hive with a six month old queen. This is one of the reasons many commercial beekeepers re-queen all their hives in late summer. The next spring their queens will be less than one year old, lay more eggs and produce more queen pheromone. (Do I do this? No, most of my re-queening happens in late spring and early summer but I try to re-queen any hive with a queen over a year old at this time. I would like to re-queen in late summer or early fall but I can’t seem to raise good queens at that time of year and buying them is too expensive.)
  2. Make sure the hive has plenty of ventilation: When the hive gets too hot, bees move away from the brood nest and cluster outside the hive or in the supers. This clustering and reduced contact with the brood nest where the queen is located reduces movement and contact with the queen hence reducing the distribution of queen pheromone throughout the hive. To minimize over heating the hive needs good ventilation so the bees can vent the heat from the hive. As the hive gets larger make sure their entrance is large, turn the bottom board to the 3/4 inch opening side, on very large hives stagger one of the supers back a little to give a 1/4 gap to provide an upper entrance. When the honey flow is over and robbing may become an issue then readjust the hive to eliminate the upper entrance and reduce the bottom entrance only if you think robbing is a potential.(Do I do this? Yes)
  3. Watch for hives that have entered the swarm impulse and stop it: Learn the difference between supersedure queen cells and swarm queen cells. Swarm queen cells are usually built at the bottom and edges of the brood frames in large numbers (more than three, often more than twenty). Supersedure queen cells are often in amongst the brood, on the face of the frame and in small numbers. Sometimes the difference is small, I sometimes leave queen cells thinking that they are superseding and the hive ends up swarming. Don’t expect to always stop swarming. When you have a hive building swarm cells then it is deep into the swarm impulse and it is labor intensive to stop or suppress. It is kind of like telling your pregnant wife on the delivery table that you have thought about it and have decided that you are not ready to be a father so would she please stop pushing and not have the baby right now. No amount of talking and pleading will stop the baby at that point. In my opinion you have two choices at this point (For those that have not heard my speech about beekeeping practices and opinions this means I personally limit myself to two choices, you really have many choices, I make it easy on myself and choose one of these two.).
  1. Abort the swarm by going through the hive frame by frame removing all queen cells in all their stages from queen cups with egg to sealed queen cells. If there are no queens near emergence then the hive will not swarm. It takes  a queen 16 days to form from egg being laid to queen emerging. The first swarm will issue just before the first virgin queens emerge such as on day 14 or so of the swarm cells (this is not a fixed rule, there is no such thing in beekeeping that is one reason we call ourselves anarchists). House bees remove wax from the end of queen cells to assist them in emergence just before the queens emerge. If you see queen cells chewed down to the cocoon on their ends then that cell is just about to emerge and you almost lost that hive to swarming. You got there just in time. Removing the queen cells stops the swarm but not the swarm impulse so you will have to repeatedly go through the hive removing all queen cells to prevent a swarm. The frequency at which you go through the hives depends on your schedule. Every 14 days is not frequent enough, every 3 days is too frequent causing too much disturbance and the queen cells will only be cups with egg and too hard to identify. Every 10 days is kind of the recommended duration and means you only have to do it 3 times per month. Every 7 days makes it fit a weekly schedule which fits my life but means more work than an every 10 day interval. Eventually the honey flow ends, bee population drops and the impulse subsides so queen cells are no longer produced. Additional note here; I frequently add room to a hive wanting to swarm when I first cut the queen cells. I do this by expanding the brood nest with an additional box and breaking up the brood nest adding a frame or two of foundation and the rest of drawn comb interleaving these with frames of brood. Sometimes if the brood nest has a lot of honey in it, I move the honey up into an added empty honey super, move as much sealed brood as will fit in the bottom brood chamber and interleaf the remaining brood combs with empty drawn comb in the second brood chamber. I then fill out the added super with foundation and drawn comb. It is good to have some foundation just above of in the brood so that young house comb builders get out of the brood nest to reduce congestion. Interleafing empty comb in the brood nest gives the queen room to lay, and generally disrupts the hive which may shock it out of the swarm impulse (I know the books always say never break the brood nest… oh you anarchist).
  2. Allow the birth of new hives in a controlled way by splitting the hive. Split the hive into a number of nucs, remove all but one or two queen cells from each nuc as it is made up. If you happen to see the queen while making up the nucs kill her, no sense in keeping an old queen when you are about to get a new one also the hive you leave her in may swarm unless you remove all queen cells from it. If you do not remove most of the queen cells then you risk having the nuc swarm when the first virgin emerges, the bees are still deep within the swarm impulse. I personally prefer to leave two queen cells but you risk having the nuc swarm with the first emerging queen which I  have had happen a number of times. If I lived in the city I would only leave one queen cell, the trade off is that more of the nucs will fail to yield a queen-right colony. Remember the city beekeepers primary goal is to prevent swarms from causing complaints from the neighbors. The number of hives you split the swarmer into depends on what you want to do. If you are trying to expand split it into as many as you can with three or four frames of brood each. Remember that all the field bees are going to go to the original hive location. Leave the mother stand box with less brood and shake more of the bees into the nucs to be placed on new stands as many of those bees will return to the mother stand. If you can’t find the queen to kill her make sure each new hive has some open comb available for her to lay in, there is a possibility that the hive she is in may swarm but there is not much you can do about it if you can’t find her. If you really don’t want to increase, split the hive in two giving each plenty of room to suppress the swarm impulse, wait a month and then recombine the two hives with a news paper. One method of the two hive split and recombine is to find the queen leave her on the original stand, with foundation or drawn comb and as many supers as inspections indicate they are filling, make up the new hive taking all the brood with 2/3 of the bees and remove all but one queen cell putting them next to the mother stand, wait a month. If the new queen successfully mated and is laying, kill the queen on the mother stand and recombine the hives. You now have a young queen on the original hive stand and did not loss your bees, though you may have lost much of your honey production if it happened in the middle of your honey flow. If a new queen is not laying in the second hive combine the hives and keep in mind that the hive has an old queen that needs to be replaced if she is not naturally superseded. Always keep your queens marked so that you can tell when they are superseded (In other words , if you keep your queens marked and notice an unmarked queen than you know she is new and has superseded the older queen, now mark her with the new year color).

Repeatedly going through strong colonies and cutting queen cells is a real pain. Some times weather conditions are too poor for going through the hive and if you are a city beekeeper I would forgo the inspection on that scheduled day. Why? Because riling your hive into a defensive frenzy is worse for the neighborhood then allowing it to swarm. The queens egg laying is not the same in a hive preparing to swarm which can make inspection confusing. If you see egg anywhere even though some of the brood nest is not being laid in as expected then you still have the mother queen present so if you don’t cut the queen cells the hive will swarm. You greatly increase the chance of inadvertently killing the queen in this massive hive inspection process and it can get hard to tell at times if the hive has gone queen-less or the queen has merely slowed down her laying in preparation of swarming. You may wish to add a queen excluder if you don’t have one on a swarm impulsed hive. The excluder limits the range of the queen so that you do not have to inspect the supers for queen cells. If you don’t have a queen excluder then you need to look through the entire hive supers included otherwise I guarantee you will miss some queen cells. A hive deep into the swarm impulse has decreased the feed that the queen is feed so her laying gets poorly defined. It can be difficult to decide if the hive is queen-less, has a failing queen or is simply ready to swarm. I have cut out queen cells only to find the hive queen-less the next inspection and now wishing I had left at least one queen cell. I have decided that a hive was queen-less and left a queen cell only to have the hive swarm a few days latter. You are not going to stop swarming from happening every time you try but you should do your best to minimize it if you want to keep having bees in the city.

I was once a bee haver and proud of it, but I am now gradually becoming a bee keeper. It is easier to have bees, because it takes more work to keep bees. If you live in the city and want to have bees for very long then you must learn to be a beekeeper. If you only want to have bees and leave them to their own devices then you may be disappointed to learn that a city ordinance has been passed that prevents your from having bees. Political and public opinion changes like the wind. It is up to us to keep bees in good favor.