Swarmed: How I Captured a Swarm of Bees

bee swarm-secondary

bee swarm-secondary

No, we are not talking about the 1978 horror flick starring Michael Caine in which a swarm of Africanized bees invade the state of Texas.Or if you believe the latest conspiracy theorists, an imminent takeover of said state by the government. We are talking about a swarm of honeybees following nature’s directive and fleeing en masse from their primary hive in order to form a new colony.

Yes folks, tis the time of year when winter populations are undergoing a rapid increase in brood production and overcrowding quickly becomes an issue. It’s swarm season and we’ve just experienced our first swarms of the year here at the farm.

Swarming is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the hive. I’ve mentioned before that population is key to the longevity of the honeybee. Without a large population, (and I’m talking 50-60,00 bees per hive) it is difficult to go about the business of what bees do. That is cooperative brood care, a structured division of labor and overlapping of generations, all hallmarks of the eusocial system of which the Honey Bee belongs to.

cluster swarm

cluster swarm

Swarms normally occur in Spring and can be broken down into two categories primary and secondary.

  • In a primary swarm, between 50-60 % of the hive may leave with the old queen. Prior to the swarm, the queen will begin laying eggs into the queen cups. Queen cups are elongated peanut shaped cells designed to hold the larger pupae that will emerge as a virgin queen. The hive will prepare for a swarm and stop feeding the old laying queen (an enforced diet, of sorts) so she will slim down for the swarming flight. They will swarm prior to the emergence of the young unmated queen.
queen cell

queen cell

  • Secondary- occasionally, a subsequent swarm will occur within a few days when a young virgin queen from the same hive swarms with a smaller percentage of worker bees.

During both swarms, scouts bees will be sent out to find a suitable location for the cluster of bees encircling the queen to land. Normally this initial flight is within 50 feet or so from the primary hive and up off the ground. My primary and secondary swarms both landed in the same cedar tree some 20 feet away and about 8 feet up. They may remain in this location for 90 minutes or so before swarming again to the location chosen by the scouts bees as a potential new home.

You might ask, why do bees leave a perfectly warm and safe hive to swarm in the first place? There are many reasons why they do so. A few include:

  • A weak or failing queen will cause the hive to build up queen cells in the Spring as a reserve to ensure the business of reproduction. These cells will only be capped and a young queen developed if the hive senses a need.
  • Overcrowding is also a major contributing factor in swarm behavior. A strong over-wintered hive that can be split and smaller hives (nucs) formed to reduce the population and simulate the behavior of forming new colonies. One of my hives produced two such Nucs last season.
  • If a natural disaster strikes a hive may vacate their hive such as in the case of a forest fire or extreme weather event. Man-made disasters such a predator robbing, (other more aggressive bee species, bears, or even cattle knocking over the hives) might make the hive vacate the premises. Extreme weather conditions that lead to exposure of the brood nest to the elements would send the hive looking for warmer, dryer conditions. Beekeepers try and site their hives in natural wind breaks and use bricks to batten down the lids to prevent possible exposure. If you keep your bees on a pasture with horses or cattle, it should be fenced off to prevent potential destruction.

Capturing a swarm in the initial landing spot is relatively easy and safe to do. Bees in a swarm state are usually docile and easy to work with because of several factors.

  • They are focused on maintaining a cluster of protection for the swarming queen.
  • Their primary focus is finding a new location to quickly move to and go about the business of building a new hive.
  • They have recently gorged on honey in order to sustain the energy needed for the swarm flight. And like most of us, a full belly leads to a better disposition.

As a beekeeper, it is in my best interest to prevent swarming. Swarming although completely normal in nature, does set back the raising of brood and thereby the storage of honey for several weeks during the Spring buildup. Some ways to prevent swarming include:

  • Splitting over-crowded productive hives to form nucleus colonies.
  • Distributing frames of brood from over-productive hives into weaker ones.
  • Providing adequate space for the hive to work and raise brood. One such technique known as checker boarding involves swapping filled frames of nectar and pollen with unfilled.
  • Removing queen cups in early Spring maintenance.

I used a combination of these methods with this particular hive to no avail. Sometimes, Mother Nature does as she wills.

My primary swarm was leaving its initial landing area before we noticed it. And if you’ve seen or heard a swarm of bees, it is not something you will not soon forget. The sound is intense as is the mass of bees flying overhead. Unfortunately, I did not get to my primary swarm until it was flying overhead, down the driveway, across the road and into my neighbors woods with me running behind. And that is a sight, I am sure my neighbors will not soon forget or the folks driving the the road seeing a crazy bee lady standing out in bee gear in the middle of the street.

However, a couple of days later, my husband was able alert me to the secondary swarm which had once again landed in the same cedar tree. This time I was prepared and after a little ingenuity, voila’ , the secondary swarm was safely ensconced in its new home.

FYI: 7 day report on the primary hive and captured swarm.

Primary hive inspection yields no eggs or brood or queen cups. I added a frame of brood containing queen cups from another stronger hive in hopes of stimulating the hive to rear its own queen. I will check it again in another week. If no eggs or brood is found at that time then a new queen may need to be ordered.

Captured swarm Day 7. Inspection yields remarkable activity. The bees are busy building comb and filling out frames. I have been supplementing the hive with sugar water to assist in the activity but they are starting to bring in pollen and store nectar. No sign of eggs at this point but a virgin queen is hard to locate and will need to take her mating flight before she can begin laying. I will check again in another week. So stay tuned.

captured hive

captured hive

If you happen upon a swarm, do not panic. Notify your local beekeeper association if you do not already know someone who keeps bees. Chances are, they can link you up with someone willing to capture them. Depending on the time of year, free bees are a bonus to beekeepers. I’ll leave you with an old beekeeper saying.

“A swarm of bees in May is worth load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July, let them fly.”

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