SWARM!!!

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”.

Possum box with bee swarm inside

Possum box with bee swarm inside and worker bees happily coming & going

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?

IMG_1198-001

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About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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24 Responses to SWARM!!!

  1. Your bees are really happy bees. They couldn’t fight against their natural urge to swarm but on the other hand they don’t seem to have wanted to leave you.

  2. We were in the exact same position last spring and did all the same things you did to create growing space in the hives. They weren’t buying it, and if you read back to my posts at that time you’ll see we went through numerous swarms. It was a nutty time. But the main thing to remember is that swarming usually means a healthy hive. We feel the same about keeping things to two hives. Can your association give you a temorary nuc you can collect them in until you decide what to do? That’s what we did with our first swarm. Giving them to beginning beekeepers would be a nice thing to do.

    The first thing I thought of was the ages of your queens. At around a certain age, maybe 3 years, these ladies are middle-aged and their daughters can be pretty fickle if they are not feeling the love.

    The other thing is that when they first swarm, the bees will settle temporarily very close, while an advance party searches out better digs. And, then they’ll move but that usually happens relatively soon. Sounds like they might have found a nice comfortable place already.

      • It is great advice. Isn’t this blogosphere great! Beekeepers online are very open and sharing in their knowledge. I suppose in real life they are as well, but they aren’t sitting in my office offering my advice!

    • Thanks for these comments. I am looking for a way to collect and then wait to decide. I really wish I knew someone who was so fascinated with bees they’d love a swarm but everyone I knows is fascinated with the honey I provide and then take a step back when I suggest approaching the hives 🙂 Of course I’m sure the beekeeping association will have a waiting list of newbies keen to get their hands on my hives so I’ll see.

      I did look at your multiple swarming posts and live in terror that mine will do that. Rather naughty behaviour if you ask me.

      Fingers crossed the bees like their new home well enough that they won’t move one before we deal with them. It is nice and comfortable for them.

      • If they haven’t moved off after a day or two than it would seem like they are taking up permanent residence. I really think the association will help you in collecting and possibly re-homing the swarm. Good luck!

        • My problem now is it’s been raining for 2 days and they can’t go out and forage. Hopefully the rain will stop this afternoon and I can re-house them with a fram with some honey from another hive so they don’t starve!

      • On the other hand it seems that the longer they occupy it the more likely it will continue smell like home to any passing swarm in the future. You will have lost a sugar glider box but gained a bait hive.

        • Yep, I think those silly sugar gliders have lost their chance.

          I consider it a great thing if any future swarms end up in this box. It means capture will be so much easier than climbing up in my neighbour’s oak tree (or whatever other inconvenient place they selected) and since it feels like a great permanent home to bees, I won’t have the time pressure to capture a swarm before it moves on. If I had thought of setting this bait hive myself I’d be really patting myself on the back right now 🙂

  3. The first year we had bees here, they swarmed 3 times, and each time just flew out of the hive onto the nearest tree or fence post. Neil tried to capture them in a nuc box, but they weren’t having any of it and they flew off to someone else. I think because you have had alot of hot weather it makes the bees swarm. Anyone they probably think the possom box is another hive and perhaps will stay there quite happily, but not so easy for you to access them and the honey. Quite a predicament.

    • 3 times?!? Don’t scare me.

      I wouldn’t mind if they flew away to some bushland, in fact that might be a nice thing to introduce wild pollinators in this urban setting, but I fear their idea of a good home might be my neighbour’s idea of a pest. I’m sure if they make a home near any house around me they’ll meet a poisonous death. And I’m not keen on leaving them in the possum box. As you say, hard to get the honey, also hard to control pests and with them so near my other hives, if they get something nasty, it will spread. The best bet is to make them a nice new home either in my backyard or someone elses. It’s still a work in progress.

  4. We once had a swarm appear out of nowhere hanging from the bottom of our birdbath! It was about 2ft by 3ft! we called someone nearby who keeps bees and she just came (suited up) and gathered them together into an esky. They did seem very docile! (then again I was watching from inside – a safe vantage point!) I am sure you will figure out what to do soon.

    • I sure hope my neighbours don’t start calling me if they get a swarm, I’m having a hard enough time figuring out what to do with mine. But maybe this will become commonplace with experience. Why isn’t anything as simple as we dream?

  5. How about another hive for you both? Seem like the easiest option?

    • The problem with keeping the swarmed hive as a separate hive is that, even if we thought we could manage 3 hives rather than our current 2, what happens next year and the year after when we get more swarms? We’ll end up wall to wall bees here!

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