My bees swarmed.
What the? How did that happen? Frank and I decided that this year, our first year as beekeepers, we weren’t going to try anything clever, we were just going to live happily with our 2 hives, observing them, catering to their needs and stealing as much honey as they stored. No trials, nothing experimental, no messing with queens, no splitting or merging hives, nothing other than enjoying 2 bee colonies living happily side-by-side.
Unfortunately we forgot to explain this to our bees (hmm) and they took it upon themselves to swarm. Ugh.
There are a few things a beekeeper can do to avoid swarming. The most important thing is to minimise overcrowding in a hive. That means making sure there’s plenty of space for the queen to lay and lots of room for the workers to store honey. Last week we robbed some honey and made sure there were empty frames in the brood chambers so tick and tick. You can also squash any queen cells you find but I’ve read this is futile as a colony in the mood to swarm will just make more while you aren’t looking. Also, you can leave the colony with no back-up plan if their queen fails them or dies. If this happens they need those queen cells quick smart. So we did our best to ward off a swarm. Which wasn’t good enough because yesterday Frank pointed up to the sugar glider box (a type of possum which has not moved into the box we made and hung for it) and said “look, our bees swarmed”.
The typical swarm game plan is the queen and half of her worker bees (who first fill their guts with honey for the road trip) leave their hive and hang in a cluster on a nearby branch. Scout bees scour the local area looking for a place to start a new hive (pray it isn’t your neighbour’s back porch). Once a new home is found, the swarm moves en masse and takes up residence. In this new hive, the queen sort of sits around while her faithful retinue starts drawing comb for her to lay eggs in. Voila, you’ve got a new colony.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (aka old hive) a new queen is about to emerge. She is born, goes around killing her competitors (generally a colony will produce several potential queens), stretching her wings and wielding influence. When she’s good and ready (within a few days) she does her mating flight pursued by all the drones in the vicinity for her one day of passion. She mates with a few (presumably the best flying) drones, stores all the sperm she’ll need for her laying life then returns to the hive to lay and lay and lay until it’s her turn to swarm (or die).
Many beekeepers love swarming as they get a new colony for free. I don’t want a new colony, I find 2 plenty. Some beekeepers hate this as it reduces the productivity of their colony so there’s less honey harvested that season. I have enough honey but really don’t want 1/2 a hive and don’t want the hassle and my bees don’t give a toss what I want.
I have no idea which of my colonies swarmed (or if it was a totally unrelated colony), when they swarmed (though since Frank and I both stare at the hives several times a day it seems likely it was recent) or what to do with the darned swarm. Options are: a) give it away to someone in the beekeeping club, b) create and keep a new colony by buying a new hive box and transferring the swarm to it, c) try to merge the swarm back in with its original colony (which would involve squashing the old queen and a lot of faffing about to get the 2 colonies to play nice), d) wait and see if the swarm queen is stronger than the back-at-the-ranch queen before deciding which is the best colony to keep/merge, e) probably a few things I haven’t yet considered.
For the record, a swarm is not a scary mass of bees intent on doing harm to humans and animals alike. They’re a homeless mass of critters looking for a safe place to put down roots. They are actually less aggressive than bees with a hive as they have no brood to protect, no home to defend.
Last night after sunset I climbed a ladder to look into the possum box to eyeball that swarm. I wanted to see if it was really there, how big it was and if it looked like it had been around for a while (I guess they draw new comb pretty quickly). I geared up (maybe I didn’t need to since I wasn’t planning on disturbing the bees but I always gear up when I go near hives), climbed the ladder and placed my gloved palm on the outside of the possum box. It vibrated like a mild electric current was running through it – or like a swarm of bees was inside. I gently lifted the hinged lid to discover a clump of bees all hanging on to each other about the size of 1/2 of a rugby ball. I’ve no idea if this is a normal clump of bees or how many bees a solid grouping of them holds but it was clearly a swarm and very new (zero comb) and so I climbed down the ladder and pondered the situation.
I have what is probably a very nice mob of bees living in my possum box. Now I must decide what to do with them.
Here is the possum box in relation to the original hives. Those kids didn’t move far from home did they?