March 2005

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES


In our Montgomery County, Maryland, WITHOUT beekeeper KNOWLEDGE about swarming, some of you, during April and particularly MAY, are going to lose much of your honey crop and perhaps YOUR BEES because they SWARMED. I have heard many say “isn’t that NORMAL, part of the game?” My reply is: Could a professional honey producer, whose entire income is based on honey production, tolerate swarming? Hence, I am saying that swarms can be prevented by knowledgeable beekeepers, but probably not by beeHAVERS or those too lazy to LEARN.

Losing a swarm in late March or April, BEFORE the major nectar flow in May, should be SELF proof to yourself that you do NOT understand much about swarming. It is my purpose to try to “educate” you in BEE BEHAVIOR, so you learn to “think like a bee”, and hence, prevent swarming, maintain a strong colony for next year, but still have a SUCCESSFUL honey crop which can be sold, gifted, or “make you fat”.

Every LEARNING episode needs some BASIC UNDERSTANDING, without which the “student” is lost. Hence, follow what I am going to say: Swarming is a very NATURAL occurrence that started eons ago when ALL bees lived in the natural hollows of trees. There, in this small enclosure (about the size of one deep hive body-or smaller),- the queen layed brood heavily to provide bees to collect nectar which would provide food for next year’s winter. In early spring, this “house” suddenly was VERY CROWDED with far too many bees (like a one bedroom apartment with 6 children), so the worker bees fed “royal jelly” to eggs deposited in queen cups, STOPPED the queen from laying, and just a day or so BEFORE a new virgin queen was supposed to emerge, about 50% of the adult bees, PUSHED THEIR QUEEN MOTHER out the door and said ” Come on, SWARM to some new home with us.” NOTE RIGHT HERE: The queen does NOT lead the worker bees in their action, but the queen HAS to be PUSHED to go along. The queen leaves ALL decisions to the worker bees, and the simply an “EGG LAYING MACHINE” whose progeny are part of the GENETICS of her parents and the 7-1 5 drones that mated with her. Further, some bee RACES will swarm sooner than others, and raise brood sooner than other races. A notable example of this difference is the Carniolan race, whose “home” is in the foothills of the ALPS along the Danube River where it is cooler than Italy and the nectar season much shorter. The Carnies that are used in the U.S. are well known to enter the winter with a smaller cluster, eat less winter stores, and EXPLODE with early brood rearing 2-3 weeks before the Italian race. This pattern is ideal for our central Maryland MAJOR nectar flow in April and May, which persuaded me to switch my 60 colonies in 1948 (57 years ago) from Italians to Carniolans. OBVIOUSLY, when one has Carniolan bees, he must have great understanding of SWARMING; and therefore, the Carniolan is NOT a good bee for a beginner or beeHAVER. However, all races of honey bees SWARM and ALL for the SAME REASONS, so let’s talk about THOSE reasons, and those reasons are SO DIFFERENT depending on the presence of a nectar flow or the absense of a nectar flow. You MUST understand that no beekeeper can truly PREVENT swarming, but a LEARNED beekeeper can dramatically inhibit swarming so he loses very few swarms from his apiary whether it consists of 5 colonies, 50 colonies, or 500 colonies.

As I write this, I am so reminded of those days 60-70 years ago when I listened to the the talks of those great “old timers” advising all listeners that the best swarm prevention techniques were to always have a “clipped” queen, so she could not fly; and always provide EXTRA SPACE. We have LEARNED so much more about swarming since those days. Now we know that a CLIPPED queen will NOT prevent swarming, but maybe delay it for a few days; because the bees, so intent to swarm,vovill kill the old queen and swarm with the first virgin queen that emerges. What does SPACE mean, (kitchen space, bedroom space, apartment space, or front-door space????) Without explanation, most beekeepers just put on a super of foundation (MORE space), and the bees SWARMED. Of course, the QUEEN was blamed, which is like grabbing for straws in a hurricane. If one would just “get off their butt” and LEARN what bee scientists teach every day, they would know just what SPACE is. SPACE means “BROOD REARING” space, which is NOT done in supers, but down in the brood chambers of the colony where bees are maintaining a 90°-96° temperature for queen egg laying and brood survival.

Now, I will “set a stage” for you to dwell on: Regardless of whether you are using two deep bodies or three medium bodies for wintering colonies, in either case, the UPPER half of the colony was all capped honey in November, and the lower area was some brood, some capped honey, and the CLUSTER of bees. As the winter progressed, the cluster slowly moved ALWAYS UPWARD (never sideways) and by February the cluster should be in the upper box and leaving the BOTTOM HIVE BODY TOTALLY EMPTY OF ANY THING. Brood rearing is well underway, honey stores being rapidly used, dandelion nectar is about to appear, pollen is available, winter bees are dying, young bees are becoming VERY numerous, and the IMPORTANT thing for the bee is NOT honey, but BROOD rearing! In spite of all that empty cell space in the EMPTY bottom brood box, bees just REFUSE to go DOWN during those chilly months, but if they run out of queen laying space in that upper brood box, they will SWARM (and probably die of starvation); Science has NOT YET deciphered why the bees will NOT go DOWN in the early spring, but swarm instead. YOU, the beekeeper, could have easily prevented this swarm by simply REVERSING the two brood boxes, so the box with all the brood, queen, and the bees are now in the BOTTOM box position and the former EMPTY bottom box is now in the TOP box position, and NOW the queen can move UP and have LOTS of SPACE for laying eggs. YOU only have to provide 1:1 sugar syrup through the inner cover hole to provide lots of food to the bees who are making their brood nest just under that inner cover hole! I have just described maybe the most important anti-swarming technique called REVERSING. Some lazy beekeepers have just added another empty brood box on top of the existing boxes rather than REVERSE. History has shown that this is harmful because it just increases the box volume that bee cluster heat has to warm up; so REVERSE! Now, I hope you know the proper definition of “SPACE”.

How often does the beekeeper have to REVERSE? How often do you have to fill your car with gas? REVERSING is dependent on colony STRENGTH, location, deep frames or medium frames in the brood chamber, fecundity of the queen, race of bees, average temperature, and maybe some more variables. Hence there is NO WAY to say figures like “every 2 weeks”, “once each month”, or “twice” each spring, or any other figure. You INSPECT YOUR BEES, and when you find the upper brood box well filled with brood, bees, queen, and food, and the lower brood box mostly empty or ONLY old Capped brood, REVERSE! I make my first REVERSE in mid January, and my last REVERSE usually about April 15th or May 1st, some years I have only reversed 3 times, but other years 5 times. It is IMPORTANT for you to LEARN these things to become more and more successful at beeKEEPING.

The FOREGOING was just PART ONE of this writing. Now, let me talk about that spring period during a major nectar flow, when MOST swarms occur. LEARN ABOUT BEE BEHAVIOR! Specifically, once that great NECTAR flow gets underway, the bees, NOW “graduating” from ‘nurse’ bees into ‘forager’ bees, forget thoughts of brood chamber space for raising brood, and switch their thinking to nectar collection to ripen into honey which will provide winter survival stores for their “family” long after they are DEAD. READERS, think about this – Is not this what you attempt to do for your grandchildren and heirs? Now, when bees have switched their thoughts totally to nectar collection, WHERE are they going to store this THIN, WATERY SUCROSE solution that might be as much’ as 25 pounds per day until they can evaporate the 50%-80% water from it and ripen it into honey? Have YOU provided the DRAWN COMB (like a cabinet) needed to store all these “goodies”? FOUNDATION is NOT going to take the place of DRAWN COMB, just like expensive fancy lumber will not take the place of a chair when you need to sit down. Although forager age bees, those over 19 days old, can secrete wax and build foundation into drawn comb, it is NOT their interest, and they will decide. to SWARM and start all over again. Irrespective of which size super you use, shallow that holds about 35 pounds, medium that holds about 40 pounds, or a deep that holds about 60 pounds, if your bees bring in 20-25 pounds of nectar each day for 2-3 days, and find NO SPACE to store this nectar, it is time to “get out of this dilemma” and SWARM, SWARM, SWARM. Don’t BLAME the bees, YOU caused that swarm in failure to provide super space; and that space had to hold large quantities of THIN, WATERY NECTAR until your bees got time to EVAPORATE the water, inject the solution with the enzyme INVERTASE, and ripen the converted sucrose to a combination of glucose and fructose, NOW CALLED HONEY. How many supers should you install and WHEN? Think in terms of producing 80-120 pounds of honey, which is 2-3 medium supers filled with HONEY (not nectar). Hence, install FIVE medium supers of drawn comb, NOT FOUNDATION, about April 15th, but before May 1st. so your bees, seeing all that VAST storage area above their brood chamber, forget about swarming and concentrate on FILLING all that space with nectar. I want you to note that bee research has definitely proven that it is far better to install your supers ALL AT ONE TIME then trying to add them one at a time as the first ones get filled., but the frames MUST BE DRAWN COMB and NOT foundation. (see page 620 of the 1992 Hive and Honey Bee)

Many of you don’t have frames of DRAWN COMB, and some don’t know how to get foundation drawn into comb, and others let wax moths destroy drawn comb after the honey harvest. I want to TEACH beginners how to convert foundation into DRAWN COMB, and I want to “kick butt” of the lazy beeHAVERS how allow wax moths to destroy drawn comb. I AM NOT RUNNING FOR OFFICE, BUT TRYING TO TEACH YOU HOW TO BE A SUCCESSFUL BEEKEEPER; and it is YOUR decision.

You cannot CHANGE nature – bees will ONLY build comb if th-t e is a NECTAR flow in progress, and NO OTHER TIME! We can “trick” the bees by Teeding sugar syrup as an artificial nectar flow; but in EITHER case, if there is “nothing coming INTO the hive in the form of nectar”, the bees are not going to build a single cell of foundation into comb. Further, comb building is HARD WORK and TIME CONSUMING for bees, and they have to consume about 8 lbs of honey to produce one pound of wax. Further, all of this work is primarily done by young, nurse bees, not by those “old” foragers that are over 19 days old. Since bees will only WORK on just what is needed for that day (can’t PLAN AHEAD), you can only install ONE super of foundation, and those 10 frames MUST BE TIGHTLY PACKED TOGETHER with NO SPACE between the end bars. Inspect the progress every 3-4 days, and when that super of foundation is about 2/3 drawn and filled with nectar, move the center filled frames OUT and the outside UNfilled frames to the center, and THEN, add a second super of all foundation, and continue this procedure until the nectar flow stops. If you have a very strong colony, it may be possible to get 50 frames of foundation drawn into comb in a single year; but it is better to figure on 2-3 years to get 50 frames of DRAWN COMB.

Assuming that you have tried very hard and followed directions in getting foundation made into DRAWN COMB that holds a honey crop, and you (with great delight in your success) extract the honey, YOU now can give some away, sell some, and even win a ribbon at the fair with some. MY GOD, why then would you let the wax moths destroy all the hard work by the bees in comb building, as well as your “sufferance?’ WHAT IS THE CURE FOR THIS? After you extract, put the super of wet frames over the inner cover of one of your strong hives and let them CLEAN OUT every drop of honey for the next 3-4 days. You take these clean honey supers into your shed, garage, or basement, stack them 5-10 supers tall, place a tablespoon of PDB (para-dichloro-benzene) on the frame top bars of each super, seal the supers together with masking tape, and VOILA, your drawn comb is protected from wax moths until next spring. If you do this in July, you MIGHT have to add more PDB in late August or September. Personally, I don’t take chances, I always add a second dose of PDB.

I left “perhaps the MOST important swarm PREVENTION technique” to my ending remarks, because it apparently is very difficult for most hobbyist beekeepers to understand. You have to understand that a colony of honey bees is a singular “total FAMILY” all of whom are devoted to one purpose – colony survival and its future! When you have 20,000, 40,000, or 603000 bees all living in the same “house”, and none of them “talk” or communicate with each other, HOW DO THEY KNOW THAT THEIR QUEEN IS PRESENT? in recent years bee scientists have PROVEN that each queen produces a specific “scent”, “odor”, “substance” or what-have-you now called the queen PHEROMONE. As long as her bees can detect that pheromone, they are happy, dedicated workers; but in failure to detect that pheromone, they want to raise a NEW queen and swarm. MY NEXT SENTENCE IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT: The scientists have PROVEN that the queen’s ability to produce this wonderful scent DECREASES EVERY DAY OF HER LIFE from the day of her mating. Hence, a very young queen can successfully bind 50,000-60,000 of her progeny into a functioNing, working, unit without ideas of SWARMING, because she has enough queen pheromone to spread over a vast number of bees. However, as she ages, she has less and less control over the bees who want to replace her with a NEW queen and SWARM. It has been shown that a 12 months old queen is 2 times more likely to swarm than a 1 month old queen, and a 24 month old queen is 4 tithes more likely to swarm than a 1 month old queen. Further, queens should not be aged by number of months alive, but by how many EGGS THEY HAVE LAYED, of course the most being in the spring of each year Hence, a queen that you buy in April and lays 1500-2000 eggs every day for the next 2-3 months is no longer a “young” queen the following April. Since queens are not expected to lay very strongly in fall or winter, a queen .born in late summer and installed in your colony in Augustor September is Still a “YOUNG” cfueen the following April, and capable of producing vast quantities of queen pheromone that inhibits swarming. You SHOULD BE AWARE that the -great Majority of commercial honey producing beekeepers, even those that have as many colonies as Richard Adee’s 60,000 colonies REQUEEN EVERY 12 MONTHS and generally in the LATE SUMMER or EARLY FALL. I’m referring to those beekeepers who have 5000, 10,000, 30,000 colonies or more and derive their TOTAL income from their bees, not these “side-liners” with only 1000, or 3000 colonies and a regular job. If a beekeeper with 10,000 colonies buys 10,000 queens each year, or a beekeeper with 30,000 colonies buying 30,000 new queen each year to inhibit swarming, why can’t you do the same for your few colonies and PROTECT your honey crop? Want to find out FIRST HAND? Just attend the January 2006 meeting in Louisville, Kentucky of the American Beekeeping Federation and ASK those commercial honey producers “How often do you requeen, what time of year, and WHY?” AFTER YOU HAVE DONE THAT, you are free to disagree with me about swarm control. Meanwhile, with MARKED queens, I KNOW that I lose precious few swarms; and hence produce a great deal of honey each year. So ALWAYS HAVE A MARKED QUEEN!

SUPPOSE THEY SWARM – HOW DO YOU RECOVER THEM? There is the swarm hanging on the limb of a nearby tree, or maybe wrapped around a fence post, or hidden in the hedge around your house. Depending on the time of day, temperature, HOW LONG THEY HAVE BEEN THERE, they are NOT GOING TO STAY PUT VERY LONG, maybe just a few minutes and as long as 24 hours (longer if it rains). So many UNINFORMED try to entice them into a box with HONEY. WHAT A JOKE THAT 1St These bees are already “gorged to the gills” with honey that they will use in their new home for food and comb building. (How active are you after a big Thanksgiving Dinner?) Not only are these bees “stuffed with food”, but they are in “a few hour” rest space which is NOT a home to defend. A SWARM OF BEES IS EXTREMELY CALM AND NOT INTERESTED IN STINGING, and generally can be handled like a hungry kitten. These bees are looking for a HOME – not food. DON’T RILE THEM UP WITH A SMOKER! They are as calm as bees ever get. A frame of larva and eggs is almost like an aphrosdisiac to bees – they have great desire to “get aboard” that frame and take care of those “baby bees”. In NO need of food, just wanting a shelter to call home, start comb building so the queen can lay, all you have to do is !lace a hive body close by with a frame or two of EIDRAWN COMB (not foundation) and BEST OF ALL, a frame of “open brood” from one of your other hives, either shake the limb that holds the swarm so the bees drop into your hive body, or put it against the fence post holding the swarm, and using your fingers slowly push some of those bees into your hive body, or if they are the hedge, push the hive body tight against the bee cluster and then GENTLY, GENTLY, smoke from the other side so they go to the hive body to get away from the smoke. Again, I say LEARN BEE BEHAVIOR! I see people trying to recover a swarm using VOLUMES OF SMOKE, GLOVES ON THEIR HANDS, A HOT, FULL BEE SUIT ON and that is like calling out the National Guard to protect the 6 year old child’s lemonade stand. Those people have ZERO understanding about bees – they are only beeHAVERS or worse.

Of course, the ideal swarm recovery method, IF YOU CAN AFFORD ABOUT $300, is have an electric powered swarm VACUUM box like a vacuum cleaner, where you just stick the nozzle into the swarm and SUCK the bees into a carry box which you take home and dump the bees into a nice new hive of DRAWN COMB frames and some 1:1 sugar syrup as a nectar attractant. If you have about 200 feet of electric extension cord, about 90% of the time, you can find a 110V plug to get electricity, and MOST people are very willing, and even enthused, to HELP you, and “admire” your BRAVERY in swarm capture

Will YOUR bees swarm this year, or have you LEARNED something?

George W. Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper
Starting my 73rd year of successful beekeeping

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