Happy swarm season beekeepers! This year, we have been fortunate not to have any swarms (yet). Last year, we weren’t so lucky. One of our colonies pretty much swarmed itself to death. With a bit of research and wisdom from keeping bees, we’ve learned what to look out for and techniques for keeping our girls all in one place.
Why do honeybees swarm?
Essentially, honeybees swarm when they are starting to feel cramped in their hive. As the weather warms up, the queen lays more eggs to produce extra worker bees for the nectar flow. In our region, the nectar flow is usually during the months of April, May, and June. The bees then use the nectar to produce honey. With all the new baby bees emerging each day, a hive can become overcrowded rather quickly. Recognizing this, the queen will send messages to the colony and instruct the bees to swarm, or leave the hive. When a colony swarms, the queen leaves and takes about 50% to 60% of the colony with her to find a new home.
How do you keep a colony from swarming?
The first precaution a beekeeper can take is to ensure the colony has enough room in the hive. As the nectar flow approaches, many beekeepers will add honey supers to their hive boxes to give them room. We do this every season to encourage honey production and to discourage swarming. My husband also likes to create nucs, which is like a mini bee hive. He takes a few frames of brood (the eggs) out of the existing hive and puts them into a small hive. Naturally, the nurse bees will recognize the absence of a queen and will raise a new one to replace her. If the hive fails to do so, you can also purchase a laying queen for your hive from queen breeders. Creating nucs gives the existing hive more room by removing bees and creates a brand new one. Win, win!
Check your hives regularly during swarm season. A sign that your hive is preparing to swarm, is the emergence of queen cells. If you are certain that your queen has not died and is still laying well in the hive, you can remove these peanut shaped cells from the hive by scraping them off with your hive tool. Bees will erect a new queen if they know the old one is leaving, is absent, or is not laying well. It’s important to know what’s going on in your hive before you remove the queen cells.
My bees swarmed. What now?
Stay calm. As new beekeepers, we were terrified of our bees swarming. I mean, come on… you spend a lot of money to get started, countless hours researching and learning about them, and they kind of become sort of a pet. It’s tough to see them go. Remember that swarming is natural and essential to the survival of the species. It means they are flourishing and healthy (and you’ve done your job well). Take heart beekeeper!
If you are afraid of your bees booking a permanent vacation without your approval, there’s some steps you can take to encourage a staycation, instead. First, get a swarm trap or two and set them nearby. You can purchase them online (here’s one from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm we like) or make your own. It’s really simple (and less expensive), actually. This video can give you an idea of what to do.
Secondly, walk the yard and have new hives ready. If you are lucky enough to be around the day your hive swarms, you might be able spot them and recapture them. When a colony swarms, it will not go far, at first. We walk the yard regularly during swarm season and have been fortunate enough to catch three swarms. If you have a new hive box ready with frames, you can place the box near the swarm with a few drops of lemongrass essential oil (bees are attracted to lemongrass). If the bees are bunched onto a tree limb or bush, you can also shake them off into the new box. And voila! You have two hives instead of one! See, swarming isn’t all that bad. If you have any questions about swarms or what to do with them, comment below. My husband has actually gotten into the business of swarm/hive removal. He’d love to help you and the bees in any way. Good luck!