April 2004

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES

Beekeepers’ Duties

Beekeeper’s Duties concerning Supering and Swarming in the Maryland-Virginia area near Washington DC UNlike about 90% of the rest of the U.S., our nectar flow is VERY EARLY, VERY INTENSE, VERY SHORT, and is TOTALLY OVER SHORTLY AFTER JUNE 1st.

If you don’t believe me, get a SCALE HIVE, and weigh that “critter” EVERY night after dark, and PROVE it to yourself! Our nectar flow “normally” starts just after April 1st, normally becomes very strong before May 1st, and almost ends about June 1st or June 10th; and surely is NONEXISTENT after June 15th to September 1st.

Again, check with a “scale hive”. Rarely is any honey made during the rest of our year, unless “we luck out” on some goldenrod nectar around September 1st, BUT DON’T COUNT ON IT! How many supers do you have “ready to install” on your bees? Are the frames already DRAWN into comb, or are they just foundation? WHEN do plan to install them? Do you plan to install supers “as they are needed” as your Daddy or Grand-daddy did”, or install 3-5 all supers ALL AT ONE TIME on the same day?

If you answered these questions in writing to me, less than 10% would be correct. Let me explain: ALWAYS be “ahead” of your bees – get things IN PLACE before they have a need. History shows that there is some nectar, not much, beginning as early as April 1st; and hopefully, your brood chambers are already crowded with bees, brood, pollen, and nectar so the queen is already short of laying space. What a grand cause for a SWARM! Put on your first super on April 1st, with NO queen excluder under it, and 14 days later, April 15th, make sure the queen is NOT in that first super, put a Queen Excluder under it, and add FOUR more supers of frames of DRAWN COMB on top of that first super ALL AT ONCE!

If you think that I am “nuts”, ask Dr. Tom Rinderer, Chief of the Baton Rouge Bee Laboratory or read his writings. Tom, and other INDEPENDENT scientists have proven that installing several supers of omy DRAWN COMB frames rather than installing “more as needed” results in HIGHER honey yields and DECREASED swarming.

Now if you are a beginner (or a careless beekeeper) and don’t have any frames of DRAWN COMB, and have to use foundation, that is a “whole NEW ballgame”.


Further, the super MUST contain 10 frames of foundation (NEVER 9) and these frames MUST be TIGHTLY bound together endbar touching endbar with NO space between endbars! After that first super of foundation has 6-8 frames drawn with SOMETHING in the cells (nectar, pollen, or BROOD), move the outer frames of foundation to the center, and install a QUEEN EXCLUDER under that super.

No doubt you have heard that some beekeepers refer to a queen excluder as a HONEY excluder and don’t use them. That is because they don’t know HOW to use an excluder. I will admit that bees resist going through the excluder, but if there is a super over the excluder that has brood in it or fresh nectar that needs ripening, that is the “bait” that entices the bees to move through an excluder with no resistance. Suit yourself, but I don’t want bee LARVA in my frames of honey.

Back to the subject of adding the second super or 3rd or 4th super. AFTER that first super is about 75% drawn and cells filled with “something” and you have installed a queen excluder under it, install the 2nd super of 10 frames of foundation , and when 6-8 of these 10 frames are drawn and filled with nectar, then add the 3rd super and repeat.

NOTE: I have NEVER used the term HONEY FLOW, because bees do not go out and forage for thick honey, but forage for THIN, watery nectar that requires a LOT of drawn- comb storage space until the bees can evaporate about 75% of the nectar water content and RIPEN the remainder into HONEY.

THIS FACT is why you need 5 supers when you only get 2-3 full supers of honey! Without STORAGE SPACE for that THIN, WATERY nectar while the . bees are trying very hard to EVAPORATE all that nectar water and ripen it into honey, they will SWARM due to LACK of space to store that nectar!

If they swarm during a nectar flow, it was NOT lousy bees, but it was 100/o YOUR fault, because YOU were too cheap, too careless, or just not smart enough to provide your bees with sufficient space to prevent swarming.

I make NO apologies for being BLUNT; because highly educated, well paid bee scientists will agree with all I have said. ASK THEM!

Now let’s talk about a MUCH MORE CONFUSING subject of SWARMING. Perhaps the advent of the “killer” bee arrival in the U.S.in 1990, plus the arrival of the mites in the U.S., tracheal mite in 1984 and varroa mite in 1987 did MORE for beekeeping RESEARCH than we had known for the previous 50-100 years. Bee scientists and bee researchers found all kinds of new concepts, proved some previous ideas, and found many previous ideas in total error.

If you doubt me, examine the record of United States honey production from 1990-2000 compared to any 10 year period prior to 1990, and COLONY honey production is higher today than it has ever been. This was accomplished by the “smart” beekeepers who listened to the findings of the bee scientists while the others “went out of business” or just “QUIT” beekeeping.

Now, I want to try to explain the many complexities of SWARMING. Let me help you “get your mind working”. Do you like SEX? Everything about sex basically ends up in “REPRODUCTION” of our species. You want children and wish for grandchildren. When you first married, you had a one bedroom apartment, followed by a 2-3 bedroom home to care for your “increasing” family, and finally, due to CROWDED conditions, someone (you or the children) HAD to leave; and these children marry and produce your grandchildren.

BEES DO THE SAME THING! In late winter and very early spring, GOD has programmed them to produce lots of “baby” bees who can forage for the coming winter food supply of honey. As their “home” gets crowded and congested with too many bees, plus they run out of “pantry” space to store all the incoming nectar, the queen and half or more of the bees SWARM off to some new home probably in the local woods, leaving behind some virgin queen to “take over” the old homestead hive after she mates.

SWARMING IS THE NATURAL WAY OF COLONY REPRODUCTION AND HONEY BEE EXPANSION! -The findings of bee scientists indicate that the MAJOR cause of swarming is CONGESTION in the brood chamber (forget the supers) and a loss of queen laying space, because brood chamber cells are being filled with both pollen and nectar. Further, many of the world’s TOP bee scientists have proven that a queen bee produces a pheromone (odor) that does MANY things to the worker bees like INHIBITING queen cell building, maintaining colony SECURITY of knowing that “MOTHER is alive and functioning well”, and that NO OTHER QUEEN smells like their own queen.

SO WHAT? You say! This pheromone odor has to be spread by contact among ALL of the bees (even if there are 40,000-60,000 bees) in the colony to maintain happiness and security. HOLD ON, scientists have proven that every queen (or any queen) loses her ability to produce this queen pheromone a little bit every day of her life from the day she was bred. Hence, a very young laying queen can produce enough pheromone to “glue” together 50,000-60,000 bees as a single functioning unit with no thought of swarming; whereas a 12 month old queen can NOT produce enough of the queen pheromone to “bind” a large number of bees into a single functioning, happy unit, ,: so they SWARM.

In summary, the YOUNGER the queen, the less chance of swarming; and the older the queen, the GREATER is the chance of swarming. WANT PROOF? Talk to a commercial honey producer beekeeper whose sole income is from his 5,000, 10,000, or 30,000 colonies, and he will tell you that he requeens ANNUALLY, and some of them even requeen twice in 12 months.

I have talked to MANY about this, and even Richard Adee requeens all of his 60,000 colonies every year, because he wants HONEY production, NOT SWARMS. So-called SWARMING season is that short period right after the dandelion bloom and a good nectar flow commences.

If you have provided laying space for the queen in the BROOD chamber area that is not encumbered by pollen or filled nectar cells, and if she is YOUNG enough to produce adequate queen pheromone, you probably will not suffer a swarm. Once a GOOD nectar flow gets going, byes stop thinking about swarming and concentrate on nectar gathering. PROVIDED THAT YOU HAVE GIVEN YOUR BEES PLENTY OF SPACE (in advance of need) FOR STORAGE OF NECTAR until they have time to ripen it into honey, you probably will not suffer any swarming. However, if your bees swarm during a good nectar flow, IT IS YOUR FAULT!

Lastly, I find it fascinating that so many beekeepers believe that it is the QUEEN that decides to swarm; or that the bees swarm on a sudden impulse without reason or any advance planning. BOTH of these thoughts are VIOLENTLY WRONG!

A queen bee makes NO decisions on her own, but is fully controlled by her daughter worker bees based on how much they feed their mother, or how much comb they build for her to lay eggs in. When bees swarm, generally the queen is almost the last bee to leave the parent hive, and often has to be “pushed out” by the worker bees. The worker bees have also been busy PLANNING the swarm for about 15-20 days before it happens.

First, they slow down their FORAGING activities and linger around the hive, they build queen cells or enlarge previously built queen cups and direct the queen to lay in them. After the queen has layed eggs in many of these queen cells (maybe 5-20), the bees STOP feeding the queen so she loses weight and can fly. After some of the queen cells are CAPPED, the bees wait for a nice sunny, warm day and the swarm suddenly issues between about 10 AM and 2 PM and forms a nice cluster in some nearby tree, bush, or hedge and await the old queen to join with them.

After she joins the cluster, the scout bees go out to search for a new home site, and upon finding one several hours later, the cluster and queen DEPART INTO UNKNOWN TERRITORY, leaving YOU with a colony badly depleted of bees and a yet non-emerged virgin queen who will not be bred and lay her first egg for perhaps 10-20 days. NO HONEY CROP FOR YOU FROM THIS COLONY!

Swarm prevention or swarm control is a very complicated and highly misunderstood phenomenon, and this short note is not the time or place for it. However, I do want to mention TWO ancient swarm control procedures that were used for eons, but quite often left YOU with a queenLESS colony. First, beekeepers tried to CUT out every queen cell they could find about every 7 days; but the bees swarmed anyhow and left the colony with no virgin queen to take over, so the colony dies. Second, lots of beekeepers clip the wings of a queen so she can’t fly and the poor old queen gets lost walking around in the grass outside the colony and dies; and a few days later the swarm takes place headed by a newly emerged virgin queen leaving your colony queenLESS and it dies. The lesson here is learn ALL YOU CAN about swarming prevention and control; and don’t trust cutting out queen cells or clipping queen’s wings because quite often those procedures fail.

ENJOY, but hopefully LEARN! Although now an octogenarian, there are so many fine, exciting, wonderful things to LEARN about apis mellifera that have still NOT been discovered, my passion in life to to LEARN MORE of the successes of bee research findings. N0, the mite problem is still not solved; but neither has human death from cancer. SCIENCE moves slowly, but always FORWARD to better things.

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

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