Thursday, May 4, 2017


There have been several reports from beekeepers in the area ( beekeepers Grandpa Jack and Fred) that some of their strong overwintered hives are raising queens (swarm cells) in preparation for swarming.  A slight honey flow has begun, so the only other factor needed to put these hives into a full-on swarm mode is some sunny warm weather.  NOTE TO NEW BEEKEEPERS: Hives that have a new package will almost never swarm in their first summer.  
Hives that have successfully survived the winter have been rapidly growing in April to be ready for the upcoming honey flow.  The availability of pollen and the warm weather has the hive raising both workers and drones.  At the first hints of the honey flow the hive may also initiate the raising of queens.  Via regular hive inspections the beekeeper can detect the queen cells and then be aware hives are getting ready to swarm. 

Swarming is a natural reproductive trait of the honey bee.  It serves several purposes.  First, it allows the super organism of the hive to reproduce.  Half of the hive’s bees leave with the old queen.  The remaining half raises a new queen and hence the hive reproduces itself.  Two hives instead of one.
After swarming about 70% of the original hives successfully survive.  In the other 30% a replacement queen either does not get raised or does not successfully mate, return to the hive and begin laying.   So if you know one of your hives has swarmed you need to check that hive after 2 weeks and verify that it has a laying queen.  If the hive does not successfully replace the queen there is a narrow window of about 4 weeks after swarming to install a replacement queen.   If a replacement is not installed prior to the end of those 4 weeks some workers (sterile females) will begin laying as the queen and brood pheromones dissipate.  Being sterile the “laying workers” only lay drone eggs.  The laying workers also become very defensive against a later introduction of a new queen and will either kill her or drive her from the hive.   A hive with laying workers is thus condemned to slowly dwindle away and die.  Surprisingly, queenless hives can create a bumper honey crop since no resources are spent raising brood.

The swarm has left with the old queen.  After establishing a hive at a new location the swarm usually supercedes (replaces) the old queen.  Some beekeepers encourage replacement of the captured swarm queens after the hive gets organized and well established.  I would recommend using a locally raised queen as the replacement.  Letting the swarm requeen itself is probably better than using a purchased “factory” (non-local) queen.  After all the swarm is from a hive that has survived a Wisconsin winter.  

All beekeepers love to catch swarms.  It’s like a FREE package of bees.  But are you ready?

Swarming usually occurs on a warm sunny day from about 10AM to noon when there is a good honey flow occurring.  In my area this is usually from early May through late June.   The swarm, after exiting, usually alights within a 100 feet of the original hive.  They can be on the ground, a bush, tree, fence post, building eave, etc.  From ground level to 50 feet up.  They will stay there until scout bees find a new home for the swarm.  This can take a few hours or even days. 

1)      So if you want to catch swarms from your own apiary it is a good plan to do a daily visit about noon to scan nearby trees and structures for a clinging swarm. Sometimes the loud hum of the swarm alerts you to their presence. 

2)      Prior to leaving the hive the bees in the swarm fill their stomachs with honey; similar to what they do when you smoke your hive.  Therefore the swarm bees are usually gentle.  I’ve caught about 15 swarms.  All were gentle except one which strung me multiple times through my suit.

3)      Next, you need a vacant hive ready to accept the swarm. That is, after you catch it.  You can initially get by with only a spare brood box (deep) plus frames, bottom board and outer cover.  You can call on a nearby beekeeper for the loan of their equipment if they are both willing and at home to get your call. The old Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” is probably better than depending on a neighbor.  Note: the swarm is more likely to accept a new home if a few of the frames have drawn foundation.  This empty hive can also be used as the swarm catching box. Usually one deep brood box has sufficient volume to hold most swarms.

4)      If you must transport the hive after catching the swarm you will need a screen to cover the hive entrance to keep the bees inside. 

5)      If the swarm is on the ground you can usually just place the brood box right next to the swarm and the bees will usually walk in the entrance.  If you see the queen it’s a good plan to capture and cage her.  Place the cage in the brood box and the workers will follow right in over the period of about an hour.

6)      If the swarm is in a bush or low tree branch simply place the box below the swarm.  Sometimes it helps to trim away branches to gain better access to the swarm.  Make sure you have permission to do this.  Tree clippers and a small hand saw are usually in a swarm catcher’s toolbox.  Usually a hard shake of the branch will cause the swarm to cascade down into the box.  If the queen went in the box, the job is done.  If not, the bees will return to her location.  Try again.

7)      In heights from 6 to 15 feet a bucket on a pole can be used to catch the swarm.

8)      Higher than that involves use of ladders or chain saws and increases the risk to the beekeeper.  In those cases make sure you have a helper.  Since a brood box is heavy it is better to have a light weight catching device; cardboard box, buckets ,etc to shake the swarm into.  Then quickly pour the swarm from the bucket or box into the brood box.

9)      If you feel you have the queen put the inner and outer covers on the hive.  Let it sit there for about a day before moving it.  Adding a sugar water feeder is also a good idea. 

10)   If you have vacant hives in your apiary you can open the entrance.  Once in a great while you get lucky and a swarm will decide to hive themselves and save you the work.  It’s happened to me once in eight years; so your chances aren’t very high.

11)   If you can’t visit your apiary daily to look for swarms it would be a good idea to place a swarm trap or bait hive at least 100 yards away from your apiary.  The trap or hive should be about 6 to 10 feet above ground level.  Data shows a swarm from your apiary will almost never stay in the apiary. 

12)   Getting a swarm from elsewhere is a benefit.  It is a good idea to call your local and county police and get your name placed on their list of someone willing to respond to “bee” problems.  Be aware that you will probably also get calls about paper wasp nests and bald faced hornet nests.  Unfortunately, that goes with the territory.  Be prepared with an aerosol can of wasp killer.  

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