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.
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.