May 2001

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES

The GOOD and BAD of Swarms!

If you have LOST a swarm from one of your colonies, you can’t say anything GOOD about swarming. If you have just retrieved a swarm that was found hanging in a tree near the county police department, you can’t say anything BAD about swarming.

Bees swarmed back in the Garden of Eden as their way of reproduction and making new homes over the vast expanse of the whole world; and they HAVE NO CHANGED THEIR PROGRAM ONE IOTA! The will still be doing the same in the future unless the are made extinct by Americans who have seen too many Hollywoodized “killer bee” movies, and self-declared themselves, their children, and even their pet dog ALLERGIC to bee stings.

If you have carefully followed, not only, my PINK PAGES, but the findings of almost every bee researcher or scientist about the management techniques of swarm prevention, your bees will not swarm very often, but rather always make a fine honey crop. The cardinal points of swarm prevention are:

  1. Prevent brood nest congestion by early spring reversing of brood bodies;
  2. Have a queen less than 1 year old; and
  3. have EXCESS supers of drawn comb in place on the colony just prior to the beginning of the major nectar flow (about April 15th for Montgomery County, MD).

Those in doubt of these 3 steps should read pages 618 and 623 of the 1992 Extensively Revised Edition of The Hive and Honey Bee. Since that was written, researchers, scientists, and even commercial honey producers now favor YEARLY requeening instead of requeening every two years. This is not the time or place to debate the value of requeening; but if you allow your bees to re-queen themselves, in these times of lack of feral bees and hence few drones around, your bees are probably badly inbred with your own drones which can lead to various undesirable traits like poor honey production, mean and nasty, or just “sickly”. This is one of the reasons that those bee breeders that possess great knowledge and integrity swap queens annually with other breeders in order to produce drones away from their own line and hence reduce inbreeding.

Much to my dismay, I have found that most beeHAVERS and some beeKEEPERS are NOT aware of the fact that most swarms are headed by an old queen who probably will be superseded in a few months after swarming or die during the coming winter. In nature, only a few swarms survive and are still alive a year later. Perhaps this is nature’s way of preventing inbreeding. Further, although heavily debated, the quality of queens resulting from supersedure of the old queen is highly questioned.

However, there is much GOOD that can be attributed to a new swarm. A captured swarm is placed in a hive consisting only of ten frames of foundation. Since the life expectancy of a bee during flying weather is a mere 6 weeks, this means that more than half of all the swarm bees are going to be dead before the first new worker bee emerges from her 21 day (3 week) gestation period. The queen can’t lay eggs on foundation until the bees draw that foundation into comb, and the bees need lots of nectar in great haste to acquire the energy to produce the beeswax scales to build comb. Further, comb has to be build to hold the nectar that is collected. The POINT is: A swarm of bees is DESPERATE and in great hurry to draw foundation and build comb, and works “overtime” to find nectar to accomplish this. Hence, a swarm is extremely valuable to get frames of foundation drawn into drawn comb that you can use in your other bee colonies; and you can destroy the bees and queen when they finish “their job” of drawing foundation unless you want another colony of bees for yourself.

Another value of a swarm is as a gift to someone who might be interested in beekeeping. That is exactly how Master Beekeeper Ann Harman got started in beekeeping in the late 70’s, and today, she is an international consultant in beekeeping. I often use a caught swarm in observation hives rather than deplete my honey production colonies. Of course, the value of transferring frames of brood from a hive of swarm bees to one of your weak colonies is obvious. If you want to experiment, try a new idea, prove some management technique, or even do something “forbidden”, do any of these things with a swarm rather than with your own “pedigreed” valuable bees. One might remember the old adage: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Acquiring a swarm of bees that did not come from your colonies is a very valuable asset for you that can have lots of different uses, some of which will help your own colonies and others of which might help your learning of better beekeeping. Make an effort to catch every swarm possible as it can serve beekeeping in so many valued ways when in the hands of a beekeeper, whereas its chances of feral survival are next to zero due to the universal presence of mites over the entire U. S.

Unfortunately, the great majority of all beekeepers, both novice and experienced, have accepted swarming as “one of those surprise unfortunate events in beekeeping that is very difficult to prevent”; and they are WRONG! Swarming is NOT a surprise to a beekeeper who is aware of the recent findings of researchers about swarming and uses the bee management techniques recommended by those researchers, thereby PREVENTING most swarms! Yes, there are still some people who practice cutting out swarm cells and clipping of a queen’s wings as swarm prevention techniques; and these systems are as obsolete as women’s corsets, an Underwood #5 typewriter, or a car with a manual choke. Rather than spending their time “bitching and complaining”, they should spend their time LEARNING swarm prevention techniques of our new 21st century.

There are so many things that beekeepers either don’t know about swarming, or believe in the many “old wive’s tales”, or use anthropomorphic thinking to explain why their bees swarmed. The result is that these people lose swarms, fail to produce much honey, and pass on their lack of bee knowledge to other people. The errors of our honey bee thinking of 50 years ago have grossly come to light in the past 20 years due to the increased vigor of research by bee scientists to solve problems caused by appearance of mites, small hive beetles, resistant AFB, Africanized bees, etc. Now, armed with these new findings, much of our older thinking about swarming can be discarded and replaced with new techniques that have been developed due to the new findings. For example, queens do NOT decide to swarm, but it is her daughters, the worker bees, that make the decision to swarm, stop feeding the queen so she can reduce weight in order to fly, prepare swarm cells, force the queen to lay in the cell, prepare drone size cells for drones to mate with a new virgin queen, partially suspend field foraging for nectar, send out scouts looking for possible new home sites, prevent the old queen from destroying the new swarm cells, and a dozen other swarm preparations. These are programs started 2-3 weeks in advance of the swarm issuance, and 2-3 weeks is NOT some sudden action of the bees that many people think is what happens about the act of swarming. Now, we know that clipping a queen’s wings will NOT prevent swarming, because the bees will kill their mother and swarm with the first virgin queen that emerges. In bygone days we used to think that swarms were disease free, but now we know that they carry large loads of mites with them to new homes and will probably die shortly because they are no longer treated for mites. This new research has proved that a queen bee makes almost NO decisions about the affairs of the colony, and about 95% of ALL decisions are made by the worker bees based upon the circumstances found within the colony at specific times. All of this is thoroughly discussed in many recent books as well as my PINK PAGES, but many beekeepers just cannot abandon the beliefs of the “old timers”, and accept the findings of recent scientific research. As a former Manhattan Project scientist, no wonder we kept the building of atom bombs so secret, because had we not, the American people surely could not be convinced of atom energy without SEEING IT IN USE and the voters might have failed to re-elect President Roosevelt in 1944. By the way, not even Vice President Harry Truman knew a single thing about the Manhattan Project until a few hours after he was sworn in as the new President after the sudden death of Roosevelt. I was “locked-in” at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developing methods to purify Uranium 235 then, along with 75,000 other workers who were UNKNOWN to Truman, most senators and congressmen, and ALL of the American public. It is “high time” that you avail yourself to the literature and talks about the new advanced findings of bee research over the past 20 years if you are to upgrade your status of beeHAVER to beeKEEPER, not to mention the appreciation of the real JOYS OF BEEKEEPING.

I have a new, great big, golden queen now in my apiary. The telephone rang on late Monday afternoon, April 16th from a lady in Alexandria, VA asking me if I could PLEASE “come and remove a swarm of bees clustered on her chain link yard fence before they stung somebody?”. No longer can I do this since being disabled by strokes, but my eldest son “volunteered” to take my electric vacuum swarm retriever and drive to Alexandria that night and get them. He brought home a fine 4 pound swarm, and I installed them on 10 sheets of foundation the next day. Upon inspection on Friday, April 27th, I found a big golden queen who has layed some brood on 3 frames and foundation drawn on a total of 7 frames filled with sugar syrup that I have been feeding, and all of this just 10 days after I installed them and we have had freezing weather at night. By the way, since I will not remove any honey from them this year, I have Apistan strips in the hive now.

Why Use MARKED Queens?
Be Smart – Not Stubborn – Read

For centuries, most people thought that all bees were the same, and the only things they really knew about bees were they STUNG and MADE HONEY. It was not until the Italian race of bees was imported to the U.S. in 1856 and people saw its “golden” color did they recognize that this honey bee was different than the dull brown old English bee that had been brought to this country from England by the first settlers in Virginia and Massachusetts. About the time that the Wright brothers flew the first airplane and Henry Ford made his first car, the gentle, dark Carniolan bee and the dark, propolis collecting Caucasian bee were introduced into the U. S. In the early part of the 20th century, in efforts to breed a “better” bee (better honey producer, more gentle, disease resistant, brighter colors, and superior wintering ability) ALL the races were cross bred, out crossed, in crossed, as well as crossed OFF in breeding of various hybrids like Buckfast, Midnite, Starline and Double Hybrid. Now 100 years later, we know that there is no such thing as the “BEST” bee, and that a well bred Italian or a well bred Carniolan bee is the most successful of bees the world over. Further, bee scientists have shown that when bee races or bee stocks are crossed, the progeny almost always lose their good points and demonstrate undesirable points. During the past 10 years, the entry of the Africanized Honey Bee (killer bee) into the U. S. has convinced almost everyone that honey bees are different and are “not all the same”.

If you are truly honest with yourself (not me), you have to admit that it is very difficult to swear that a queen bee that is in your colony today is the same queen that was present 6 months ago or a year ago, UNLESS SHE IS SOMEHOW MARKED. In addition, if you have several colonies, all with unmarked queens, how old is the queen in Hive A, how old is the queen in Hive B, in C, in D, and in E? If you don’t know the age of your queens, no wonder that they SWARM, since bee scientists now state that queens over a year old are very likely to swarm because they have lost the ability to produce enough queen pheromone to inhibit swarming.

Lastly, in the event of the contested ownership of a swarm, surely a marked queen of known color mark is a strong point for the rightful owner.

Although color selection of the mark is not caste in stone, there is an International Color Code for Queens that is widely used:

Year Ending DigitColor
0 or 5BLUE
1 or 6WHITE
2 or 7YELLOW
3 or 8RED
4 or 9GREEN

When I find an unmarked queen in a colony, I mark her light gray or silver to indicate to me that she has to be replaced by a pedigreed queen and the marking makes her easier to locate.

Marking queens yourself is easy, or you can pay the queen breeder to do it for you at a cost of about $1. Betterbee Company makes a fine queen holder for marking that costs less than $5 and prevents injuring a queen. Don’t use some “junk” like typing WipeOut, fingernail polish, or water base paint for marking material. Fast drying model airplane paint in hundreds of colors is sold in felt tip marking pens made by TESTORS, and can be found in any hobby store and some hardware stores. One pen will mark thousands of queens with one color, so 5 pens with 5 colors should last you a lifetime.

Protect your race of bees by MARKING your queen so you are sure that she is the queen that you purchased as a pedigreed race, and not the result of one of your virgin queens being bred by all the boys on the “back street”. Then your Carniolans will be Carniolan gentle, and your Italians will be fine comb builders that is an Italian trait. Further, if you need proof yourself, you will find that colonies headed by real young queens rarely swarm, whereas colonies with 2 year old queens swarm easily, but you must have MARKED queens to know the age of the queen.

This is all part of being a beeKEEPER instead of being a beeHAVER! Stop your bitching and put into practice what you have been taught.

The Governor of Maryland to Honor George Imirie

In mid April, a telephone call from the Governor’s Office informed me that I had been selected for a special award for my Volunteer work in Beekeeping and a following letter would explain more. The letter is reprinted on the other side of this page. I could not imagine who had nominated me, nor how a ultra conservative Republican could be honored by a Democratic Governor. Upon asking many questions of the Governor’s staff, I finally learned that the Executive Director of the Montgomery County Fair, JoAnne Leatherman, had nominated me.

I expect ALL of you to help me THANK JoAnne for this honor by attending and participating in the LARGEST AGRICULTURAL FAIR EAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI this year from Friday, August 10th through Saturday, August 18th. We want a HUGE number of entries of honey and related beekeeping items from you so you can win huge cash prizes and beautiful ribbons. The MCBA will have quite a display of live bees, extractor, bee hives, video bee films, and photographs at our booth in Old MacDonald’s Barn all headed by Master Beekeeper Barry Thompson. Don’t say “no” to Barry when he asks you for help at the FAIR. I will be putting on FOUR demonstrations each day in a new wider aperature screened cage of opening bee hives, showing the queen, EXPLAINING THE VALUE OF BEES TO OUR HUMAN FOOD SUPPLY, while I wear NO VEIL and work in a Tee Shirt and Shorts. Next door in George’s Honey House is the sale of many flavors, colors, and quantities of honey, comb honey, creamed honey all done by my wife, sons, and daughter-in-law.

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

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