Ready or Not–Swarm Season

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES

READY OR NOT — IT IS swarm season Did you know that prior to a hundred years ago, beekeepers wanted their bees to swarm? Were they “nuts”, or just wanted to create neighborhood FUN? Neither.

Up until Rev. Langstroth invented the movable frame hives were kept in straw skeps or old gum tree hives where the bees had to be destroyed to remove the honey.

In those distructive harvest days,the beekeeper depended on his bees to swarm so that he could have bees for NEXT years crop and he destroyed the colony that had swarmed to collect its honey, which was not a large yield in those days..

During most of.the 20th century, there have been all kinds of good thoughts and wrong thoughts about the causes of swarming, and the prevention or control of swarming.

Swarming has been intensely researched, millions of words written about it, and yet, I find that many beekeepers are still confused about it.

Hence, I feel it is,my task to explain as much about swarming as much as possible and I assure you that there are things that you did NOT know.

I must say here: A beekeeper must thoroughly understand swarming to be successful with Carniolan bees!

Swarming is nature’s genetic way of reproduction. In nature’s habitat, swarming brings a diversified line of genes into the picture because the drones mating with the new queen of the parent colony are probably from diverse sources; and normally the swarm flies a long distance to its new home site, thereby populating a larger area than that of the parent colony.

This is just one more example of the continuing way of nature to inhibit in-line-breeding and the break-up of disease patterns by promoting survival of the fittest. Hence, swarming has perhaps a value not known to you before.

When is this swarm season and what influences it? Obviously, climate plays a major role, not only involving the temperature and bee flight weather, but the climate that produces FOOD for the bees, both nectar and pollen.

In our Maryland area, swarm season is April and early May. When we see dandelions, forsythia, jonquils, crocus, etc.. in bloom, our swarm season is almost upon us. LET US MAKE SURE THAT YOU UNDERSTAND THAT SWARM SEASON IS BEFORE a major nectar flow!

There are those who will state that their bees swarmed right in the peak of a heavy nectar flow, and a few paragraphs later, I will explain that swarming is the fault of the beekeeper!

Just like our computer programing today, a colony of bees is genetically programmed by nature to swarm under certain conditions and as these conditions come about the swarming program is set into motion.

It will surprise many of you to know that bees plan ahead and do many unique things taking as much time as 10-14 days prior to swarm issuance! Yep, 10-14 days of preparation time. I will explain some of these pre-planned programs for the colony survival into next year’s winter season, about 8 months from now.

Pray tell, for who do you think these “critters” with only a 6 week life span are gathering all this nectar for? The COLONY! Surely, not YOU!

You must learn to “THINK Like a Bee” and stop being anthropomorphic!

Emerging from the doldrums of winter confinement and finding some pollen from maples, alders, skunk cabbage followed by a smidgen of sweet nectar from dandelion, apple blossom, etc., the worker bees rush to polish cells, stoke food into the queen, raise the brood nest temperature to 95° (even though it is freezing outside), and prepare to raise a multitude of new bees.

Busy as a bee – things are really humming!

The workers get into a fever pitch of urgency, demanding more of their queen and stuff her with more and more food so maybe she is laying 2000 eggs every 24 hours; and after several weeks of this, there is a population “explosion” of young workers who do their assigned duty of nurse bee in feeding all these thousands of larvae, each one getting as much as 1200 feedings in 24 hours before the cell is capped on the 10th day.

Wow, what a brood area CONGESTION of nurse bees feeding larvae,cell builders, cell polishers, foraging bees delivering nectar and pollen, glands working hard to produce royal jelly for larvae food and the queen bee trying to force her way through this congestion to lay more eggs.. if bees could talk, we would hear one work loud and clear-Frustration.

Congestion! Brood chamber! (forget the supers) is the number #1 reason for swarming, and in nature’s way,all the bees worked very hard to create this congestion because their entire aim is to Reproduce and that takes planning, hard work, lots of bees, Brood Space, nectar for larval feeding, and a new, virgin queen to take over the old homestead.

Speaking of QUEENS, how old is your queen? You don’t have to be a “rocket scientist” to know that an eighteen year old girl will get pregnant faster than a 35 year old woman. Not only do the ovaries of the queen commence losing ability to manufacture eggs as she ages from her nuptial flight, but in just the last decade or so, we have learned the importance of queen pheromones in maintaining colony togetherness (I call it “the Glue”)

I am not going into some detailed mathematical explanation of colony population, broadly think of these numbers:

  • Worker bee life: 42 days or 6 weeks,
  • Worker bee gestation period is 21 days or 3 weeks
  • A queen laying 1500 eggs every day lays 31,500 in that 21 day period or 63,000 bees in two gestation periods: but bees have been dying all those two 21 day periods.

So you can see why a population of 60,000 is very difficult to reach requiring a very healthy queen.

But just like losing egg production ability with aging, the queen also loses the ability to produce larvae amounts of queen pheromone, queen substance, queen odor, whatever you want to call it, AS SHE AGES.

A 12 months old queen just cannot lay as many eggs or produce as much “glue” as a month old queen!

Hence, as she starts her second season of life, this 13 month old queen not only can not lay as well as her first season, but she can’t produce enough “glue” pheromone to hold together a colony as a colony unit some some large group of bees – So the workers prepare to swarm.

Now you should realize that the age of the queen is the 2nd most important reason for swarming. Researchers over the last century and in several foreign countries have announced that a 2nd season queen is 3 times more apt to swarm than a first season queen! I don’t even want to mention the figures for a queen in her third season.

In addition to REPRODUCTIVE INSTINCT, BROOD CHAMBER CONGESTION, and AGE OF THE QUEEN, there are several other reasons for swarming that YOU can control: bee’s race (Carniolan’s have a high propensity of swarming ) – ventilation of the colony and super space (only when the nectar flow is on).

Other reasons beyond your control is weather and intensity of the nectar flow (fast and heavy or slow and light).

In a fast and heavy nectar flow, maybe the bees can’t cure the nectar and store it fast enough, so they swarm because of lack of storage space in the supers. (I told you on the first page that I would mention swarming because of poor super space.)

Now you know the REASONS for swarming, let me tell you about the swarm preparation in the colony, and how it will really foul up your hopes. I hope that you understand that our I queen bee is very much akin to Queen Elizabeth ll of England who is a FIGUREHEAD only, making no decisions, because the common man of PARLIAMENT makes all decisions.

Our queen bee is not a LEADER, but rather an egg laying machine and pheromone producer that combines all these thousand of workers into a single functioning almost socialistic colony held together by a single aim – to produce bees in the world.

Don’t be anthropomorphic now, and imagine that foraging bees POLLINATE ON PURPOSE. They pollinate by accident in nectar collection and getting pollen for their protein food. The worker bees, having decided to swarm, construct queen cells, stop comb, building, STOP FEEDING THE QUEEN so she loses weight to fly, send out new home site seekers, and stay home from foraging for fear of being left out of swarming (wow! anthropomorphism!), and start producing. “gallons” of royal jelly to feed all those new queen larvae:meaning of course, they are doing NOTHING to help the beekeeper for up to 10 days before swarming.

Finally, the first queen cell is 9 days old and the cell is CAPPED. If the weather is nice the very next day, there is suddenly an excited noisy whirring sound and bees are literally failing out of the hive and taking wing to a nearby tree, bush, fencepost or what have you.

Why? They are hunting for the queen, to make sure she got pushed out of the hive and is with them.

If they cannot find her in their cluster in about an hour, they break up and return the hive looking for her.

If her wings had been clipped and she couldn’t fly,or if she got lost, the bees will wait about 4-5 days: (again doing nothing for the beekeeper) until the first Virgin queen emerges from her queen cell, force her out side ,with out allowing her mating time, and they swarm with her.

The clustered bees may stay in this temporary tree or bush for an hour, a day, or even several days in bad weather, but they are NOT IDLE.

SEARCH BEES are sent out looking for a new home (maybe inside the walls of YOUR house). They are looking at areas a mile or more from your apiary, a space of 1 000-5000 cubic inches (a deep hive body= about 2500 cubic inches), about 10-15 ft high, slightly shaded, WIND Free, and hidden.

As these search bees return,they do round wag-tail dance CONTINUOUSLY(not like a food dance) trying to persuade others of the best location.

Finally, with a whir, off they go, and in Maryland-your honey crop for that year is probably GONE. There is always next year,but there is still menthol, Apistan, fumadil-B, requeening, and sugar feeding to be done before next April.

A sad picture, isn’t it. Well, what can you. do about it? There is both swarm PREVENTION and swarm CONTROL, so lets talk about them.

PREVENTION is providing plenty of BROOD space (not supers), by reversing the brood boxes often from March into May so the queen can always move up to lay in open cells, have a queen that is less than 9 months old, clip a queens wings (I do not like that as my personal way of management but many beekeepers clip wings), and in dire emergency,but capped brood up in the bottom-most super and fresh drawn comb in the brood chamber(rarely done).

Before I mention swarm control, let me state STRONGLY that egg-laying by the queen at nectar flow time in Maryland and a lot of other eastern states is a TOTAL WASTE of bees,because these bees will never be alive to forage for nectar in the future, just eat up stores, make beekeeper management difficult, and really it would be almost desirable to stop her from laying.

OK, now Swarm control.

You must understand that any type of control is going to cause some honey production loss or cause a difficult management problem. You can CAGE the queen on a brood frame to prevent her egg laying. If you have more patience than the bees and you have eyes better than 20/20 you can cut out queen cells every 8 days (never longer than 8 days) and don’t miss a single one, you can split your colony into two separate units and recombine them to a single unit in August (that is my choice), and if you really are strong, young, full of ambition, and CRAZY, you can save all your honey crop and not lose a swarm by using the DEMAREE method. I did it when I was young and foolish, and never again! You can look it up in a book if you,want.

This gives you a birdseye view of swarming. I cannot cover everything for two reasons: I would confuse you, and I expect you to use your brain and think out some of these things yourself.

However, before I just stop, I want to mention a few things of importance to some, unimportant to others, that I have not covered above.

My remarks are made on the basis os situations in Central Maryland But they can be applied to any place in the world if you account for the weather:and type of flora.

  1. A dramatic difference in two stocks of bees: Carniolan and Starline Hybrid. The Carnie queen slows her laying in a dearth of nectar flow, so Carnie bees don’t have a large store consuming bunch of bees going into winter. Oppositely, the Starline is a man-created hybrid to gather nectar 12 months of the year and is used by migratory beekeepers moving their bees from flora to flora. But this whole bunch of bees is eating a lot of food the whole 12 months and is a very poor choice for hobbyist beekeepers.
  2. If you see a capped queen cell, the die is cast and a swarm will happen in a matter of hours unless you stop it. Cage the queen, split the colony, Demaree it and don’t wait until tomorrow. Too late! If you see a big larvae floating in royal jelly, but not yet capped, you might leave the hive queenLESS if you cut that cell. Better to use the stringent controls above.
  3. You can help to ease brood chamber congestion, plus increasing the efficiency of foraging bees by providing several additional colony entrances. Use Imirie Shims (available from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm) in between your supers; and the foragers will learn to use those to leave and enter rather than battle up through the brood nest.
  4. Always try to have a Class A, near perfect, worker cell drawn comb in your brood nest. Leaving badly formed comb, or a lot of drone cells in the brood nest area diminishes the laying space for the queen.
  5. Have swarm clear and equipment READY TO USE RIGHT NOW, not an hour from now as you find and collect it. You might watch the swarm fly away just because you put off until tomorrow. YOU MUST BE READY TO ACT IMMEDIATELY IN SWARM SEASON!
  6. I have saved this to last, because it is so important. SWARMS ARE THE BEST OF ALL COMB BUILDERS! When you catch a swarm always put them in hive of ten frames of foundation with continuous feeding of l:l sugar syrup and plan on getting a new queen by September. This old swarm queen and the swarm need SUDDEN COMB for queen laying and storage space for food to feed these young larvae, and all of these swarm bees will be dead in just 6 weeks, so they will work rapidly and have new bees hatching out in about 30 days after hiving.

Since this swarm will not produce any honey for human use this year, it is best to put at least one fresh Apistan strip in the center of the brood area and leave it for 6-8 weeks, NO LONGER, and then REQUEEN it with a good pedigree marked queen!

This group might be next year’s biggest honey producer. If you don’t want more colonies, just use this swarm to produce drawn comb for future use, and destroy the bees in late summer or unite them with some other colony.

This is the greatest value of a swarm!

Now, since you all are swarm experts,I can rest and take a nap. I have had fun, and I hope you have learned!

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

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