Swarm Season

I am sure you have all heard it, or maybe even been fortunate, or rather should I say unfortunate enough, to witness, attempt to prevent, or have your hive succumb to what this year has experienced especially frequently—swarming.  Maryland beekeepers would agree, as I heard in the state meeting this past weekend, that calls for swarm removals have spiked this year and beekeepers have been keeping an especially close eye on hives to make sure to prevent them.

An overcrowded hive can be reason enough many times for bees to swarm; or a combination of a very mild winter and a bad queen can create swarm conditions for a hive. Prime swarm season is generally in late spring and early summer and can contain anywhere from several hundred bees and be the size of a grapefruit, too much, much larger swarms having upwards of 30,000 bees and easily more than half the hive.

Photo credit: www.nwibeekeepers.com

When the old queen leaves the hive she has a following so to speak, of bees that also abscond with her. They fly around for a period of time and settle somewhere temporarily. A nearby tree branch, fence, a car mirror, or maybe even a low lying bush a foot or so above the hive. One never knows, but usually it is a convenient spot not too far from the hive and only for a few hours to a day or two. Once the scouting bees find a new nest the bees will move there, unless of course they are removed first by a helpful beekeeper. Swarms of bees are usually docile as they not protecting food or young bees. This is because no young bees participate in swarming and the bees are not protecting any food stores.  Just refrain from provoking them.

To catch a swarm, calling a local beekeeper is always an option, but if you want to try to remove it yourself you can do so by placing an empty container, for example a hive, cardboard box or a nuc, on the ground below the swarm. Dislodge the bees into the container by shaking them.  Other methods include using a ‘bee vac’ or even placing swarm traps in your apiary during swarm season. If the queen goes into the ‘new home’ the bees will follow her within the half hour and the swarm will have been ‘caught.’

Swarms are honey bees’ way of naturally reproducing themselves. If you catch a swarm, you have essentially acquired a new hive. If you want to keep your hive from swarming and notice overcrowding and swarm cells hanging off the bottom of frames, simply take a frame with a capped queen cell, or cells, along with a few more frames of open brood and place it into a nuc. This will slow the bees down and may eliminate the possibility of swarming for a good period of time. Also, keep in mind to have enough supers on during the nectar flow in the event that the bees may also fill up the brood box with honey, greatly reducing the area for the queen to lay and causing extra congestion in the hive. A situation such as this will only accelerate swarming. Sometimes however, no matter the precautions that are taken, the bees are still determined to swarm, so it is always a good idea to keep a close eye on your hives during prime swarm season and inspect them regularly.

For more information on this year’s especially busy swarm season, check out the NY Times article here, in which NYC residents and tourists are getting some unwanted first hand experience with swarms.

Written By: Jennie Stitzinger

Jennie Stitzinger has written 55 post in this blog.

In the summer of 2010 I walked in to the Penn State Agricultural Sciences building to inquire about a job a friend had mentioned to me. I was a poor college student, I needed to pay my summer rent, I was offered the job and I took it—I had no idea what I was in for. Fast forward a little over a year and I was kneeling on rocks and mud, in the cold, northern California rain, surrounded by dairy cows and hundreds of hives while Africanized bees were pinging off my bee suit. With a degree in Community Development from Penn State University, I never thought in a million years I would be working with honey bees upon graduation, but I guess life sure has its surprises. Now a member of the University of Maryland Diagnostic team, I work on many different aspects of BIP and the National Honey Bee Survey. Whether it is field work, traveling, report writing, crunch time projects, or larger missions, I am most likely working on it. What is my favorite part of the job? Working on an awesome project that has impact and is helping beekeepers around the country, learning more about honey bees than I ever thought I wanted to know, and giving me experiences I never thought possible.

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  • Hello! I am writing a novel that has elements of beekeeping in it, and I have some questions about bee swarms. I am planning a scene where the protagonist’s bees will swarm so she can provide a neighbor with the bees she needs to start her own hive. You mention above that swarming happens more frequently after a long winter. How would wet weather affect the hive? Right now, in my story world, it is mid-spring, and there has been more rain than usual. The rains have now stopped, and it is getting hot and humid outside. (The story takes place in central Illinois.) How might these conditions affect whether or not there is a swarm?

    Thanks in advance for your input. I appreciate any info that you might be able to provide.