Honeybees in Swarm Season

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Spring, and thus swarm season for the honeybee, are here, “already”. It seems no matter how much planning we do before it gets here, we aren’t ready for it. Everything needs to be done at the same time. With the blooming of the trees and the buzzing of the bees, our laid back winter lifestyle just changed into sunup to sundown activity. Here at Windy Ridge Apiary the bees have had to take a back seat to the other springtime chores. Not that I want them to. I wish my bees were here working those first flowers and the early blooming trees. In the mean time we will get the garden planted, the clover seed spread and the pasture rolled. Since the area I want in clover is covered with grass and weed stems, I am going to try rolling the clover seed in with a water-filled roller. Hopefully this will get it in close enough contact with the dirt to germinate. If it does, pictures will be posted. 

It’s swarm season for the honeybee. Swarms have already issued from southern hives and they are getting ready around here. A swarm is the way a colony of honeybees reproduces itself. It is their instinct to build up in late winter and when pollen is available and the temp is right, a swarm will leave when the newly hatched queen is ready to go. Swarms are good and bad. They can leave a colony weak and not able to make a honey crop. The good is if you can retrieve the swarm you can increase your apiary. Usually the bees don’t land where you can retrieve them without the risk of breaking your neck trying to get the swarm from a tree just a bit higher than your ladder. Our southern friends now have to worry about the swarm being an African swarm. We have heard about the “killer bees” for years. They have spread across the South, and the beekeepers are learning how to deal with them. If you live in the South, be careful about approaching a swarm of bees. If they seem the least bit aggressive, avoid them completely. Swarms are usually gentle. The bees have engorged themselves with honey before leaving the hive, so they have food when they arrive at the new location. The swarms you see are probably from a managed hive since the mites have just about destroyed all the feral colonies. I am putting out a nuc box with a swarm attractant to try to attract any swarms that might be in the area. 

If you have bees, swarms seem to be attracted to your area by the smell of your bees. The hive has a distinct order, which I look forward to smelling again. This is why to me it makes no sense putting chemicals in the hive. So much communication among the bees is done with pheromes the bees release. If you introduce chemical odors the bees lose their ability to communicate effectively, which may be part of the cause of CCD.  If I attract a swarm, I will go through the procedure of hiving the new bees. 

Swarming is natural for the bees, but beekeepers don’t want our bees to swarm since our goal is to have strong, well populated colonies for the honey flow. This is where management on the part of the beekeeper can lessen the chances of a colony swarming. Although once a colony has decided to swarm, it is almost impossible to stop them. Some ways of preempting this is to check the hives as early in the year as the weather permits. A warm day (50 to 60 degrees) with no wind will allow a quick internal inspection. Just be careful not to chill the brood, as this is the time of brood rearing for the spring flow. If a colony has abundant bees at this time, mark them for nucleus division or taking a frame or two of brood and young bees to give to a weak colony. Always check food stores in the early spring also. This is the time the bees will starve. They are raising brood which takes honey and also building their population before the nectar is available. If they are short on stores you can either take honey from a colony with ample stores or feed sugar syrup. Don’t have the mind set that if you have to feed, something is wrong. We supplement feed all of our other farm animals. I went to part of a beekeepers meeting last month. The man talking about checking your bees in the spring made it sound like if the bees need anything now, you’re just wasting your time. I couldn’t follow his logic. That being said, I would suggest a lot of reading from many different sources if you are going to have bees, so you can discern what makes the most sense in managing honeybee colonies. I’ll promote Bee Culture magazine again, it’s the best source of bee-related information I have found. 

I have been assembling the rest of the bee equipment. The frames with the wax foundation is about the last thing to do. The wax foundation is more fragile than I remember. I am going to have to evaluate the value of assembling wooden frames and wax foundation against plastic frames with wax coating. I have bought three such frames and I guess we’ll let the bees decided if they like them. I have read that some bees don’t draw out the plastic foundation very well. Along those lines I will share with you my plans and thoughts about the equipment I am going to use in my next blog. I’ll try to catch some bees at work, too.