Thursday, July 21, 2011

Averting a bee-mergency (stopping a swarm)

The other morning I was doing a routine check on the bees and I noticed that bees in Venessa's hive were clumped around the entrance, not being as active as usual, just kind of hanging out, in large numbers....  basically, showing the first signs of swarm behavior, so far as I could tell.

Yup, we're just bees, hanging out, waiting to see where the party is... (scary for the beekeep!).

Swarming is the natural reproductive process of honeybees. It goes like this- the existing queen lays some queen eggs, then gathers a large amount of workers (roughly half or more) to leave the hive with her.  They form a swarm on the outside of the hive, and then take off to search for a home for a new colony.  The queen cells left behind hatch into queen bees, one of whom will emerge victorious from a deathly queen-to-queen battle to oversee the remaining bees in the hive.

In the wild, this behavior is a natural part of the bee's reproductive cycle, once the hive gets too big for its home and needs to divide. However, this behavior poses a large problem for the keeper.  If half of your hive swarms, along with a queen that is strong and actively laying eggs, it puts the bees who are left at a disadvantage, in a race against the clock to build up enough of a worker population to collect the necessary amount of pollen and nectar to make it through the winter. Chances of a honey harvest can be slim, as can be the smaller hive's chance of surviving the winter. 

I had been worried about this problem, because one of the big triggers of swarm behavior is overcrowding, and I knew that it had been getting quite crowded in both hives, especially in Venessa's (which started out with an unusually large package of bees to begin with).  Also, I had been seeing an increase in the population of drones- male bees- which can be an indicator that a hive is about to swarm. 

The most reliable way to tell if the hive is thinking about swarming is to check your hive for the presence of queen cells- which look something like this:

Photo borrowed from

Easy enough, right?  Just open up the hive and check for those crazy looking things.... um no.  Not that easy.  While that would work for a more traditional method of beekeeping- one which uses frames with pre-formed comb-  the Warre Method of beekeeping (our method) allows the bees to build their own comb.  This creates all kinds of healthy benefits for the bees; unfortunately, it does not really allow for the disassembling a hive without severe damage to the comb. Absent the ability to confirm presence of queen cells, we had to act on what we could observe at the hive entrance and through the hive window. 

From what I've read, I've learned that swarming is about a 9 day process once the queen lays eggs- and the further along you are in that process before you do something to fix it, the harder it is to change the hivemind- that is, convince them to stay if they're all thinking of going.   It had been a few days since I'd checked on the bees, so I had no idea how far along they were- but I  new we needed to add extra hive space quickly if, indeed, these bees were thinking of swarming.  With our hive builder unavailable due to a new baby and increasing bee responsibilities of his own,  I made a deal with my husband- acquisition of a table saw in exchange for two hive bodies and top bars, stat. He got to work right away with the new table saw, and in a very little while I had two lovely new hive boxes.  I painted them blue, we built wax foundation strips for the top bars, and we were in business!

The actual installing of the bee boxes was no big deal- one person held up the top two hive boxes while the second person slid the box under the hive. We really wanted to be sure that the hives hadn't yet swarmed, plus we were curious about how the bees were doing, so we decided to open up the hives from the top and take a peek to see what was going on in there. My co-keeper Venessa took a bunch of lovely shots, which tell the rest of the story: 

Setting up

Lighting the smoker
ready with the tools

Sneak peek- note how much propolis (waxy stuff) is on the glass at this pont.  They've been busy ladies.)

Approaching the hive
Looking in through the feeder hole in the quilt- they've sealed up most of the opening.

Peeling back the quilt..... 

And there they are!  Look at all that honey!
Underside of quilt- more honey, more bees.
Once the hive was open, the bees were remarkably calm.  Indeed, they seemed quite preoccupied with the honey and rather unaware of our existence.  I suppose they were busy trying to patch up honey leaks from the minor disturbance we had caused, but in any case, it was nice to not worry about angry swarming bees.

We attempted to cut out a top bar's worth of comb, hearing that the bees would just fill in the empty space with new comb and honey; however, when we lifted it out, the comb started to break away from the top bar, making quite a mess. We opted to just leave it in place and be patient.  We did manage to sneak a few chunks of comb from the top of the top bars....   and the honey was absolutely delicious.  Pure heaven, nectar from our little bee-goddesses.... yum.  Keep busy in there ladies!  I can't wait to taste the fruits of your labor in another month!
 I watched the hives closely for the next few days, but I didn't see any further signs of swarming.  I did have a brief scare when my next door neighbor reported seeing a swarm of bees in his back yard plum tree a day earlier..... however, he assured me that they come to that same tree every year, so there is a good chance the bees in that swarm were wild bees.  Who knows, perhaps the scent of my bees attracted some wild cousins! Anyhow,  the population in both hives does seem to be quite steady, so I think we can safely say that a bee swarm has been averted.  As further evidence, the other day I witnessed some worker bees throwing some drones out of Venessa's hive and not letting them back in, which perhaps means that the drone population in that hive has stabilized in response to the bees making a decision to not swarm. 

Very relieving!  My worry about swarming has turned into anticipation of the upcoming honey harvest...  yum!  I can't wait.

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