The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Swarming behavior and prevention

Bee swarmIn nature, a healthy, mature hive tries to swarm at least once every year.  As soon as the first flowers open, the bees scurry to gather nectar and pollen, which tempts the queen to lay a lot of eggs and to hatch out plenty more workers.  At a certain point, the hive is getting crowded, and the bees start filling up the brood nest (where eggs are usually laid) with honey and pollen.  These two conditions --- lots of bees in a small space and a brood nest full of food --- change something in the hive mentality, and they decide it's time to make some new queens.

Once queen larvae are developing in the hive, the old queen knows it's time to move on.  She gathers up about 60% of her workers and flies away to another nest site, leaving the rest of the workers behind to care for the developing queens.  Eventually, the new queens hatch, and one usually kills off the others before settling in as a new matriarch of the old hive.

From the perspective of a bee, swarming is an effective method of reproduction.  In addition, the gap in brood rearing between when the old queen leaves and when the new queen starts to lay tends to break many disease cycles in the old hive.  However, beekeepers generally want to prevent swarming since a hive that swarms rarely produces much honey.

Queen cupSwarm prevention begins with keeping the brood nest from becoming congested during the first nectar flow.  Michael Bush adds supers as necessary so the bees have plenty of room to dehydrate nectar.  However, supering alone is not enough, so he also opens up the brood chamber by putting one empty frame after every two frames of brood.  A different beekeeper, Walt Wright, uses a less invasive method called checkerboarding, which consists of alternating frames of capped honey with drawn (but empty) frames in the box above the brood nest.

If you didn't get around to managing the hive and you see queen cups already built, you'll have to move on to the second phase of swarm prevention.  No, don't cut out those queen cups --- once the bees have decided to swarm, they'll just build them again.  Instead, take each frame with a queen cup on it and start a "nuc" --- a small, new hive --- with an extra frame of honey to tide the bees over.  More tomorrow on how to handle nucs, but for now just understand that each of these little hives can be raised into a new hive to expand your apiary.  As long as you open up the brood Catching a swarmnest at the same time you create the nucs, the bees should think they've already swarmed and will get back to work making honey for your larder.

The flip side of the swarming coin is that the behavior creates an opportunity for beekeepers to get started with no outlay of cash.  This spring, I may follow Bush's advice and ask police and rescue dispatchers and the local extension agent to contact me when they hear about swarms.  More on how to catch a swarm when I've put some of my readings into practice.

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This post is part of our The Practical Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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