Bees are social insects and in the course of their year the colony builds up from under 10,000 adults to a peak of more than 60,000 adults and then down again. The population of bees is all the result of eggs laid by one queen.
While worker bees live for around 50 days, the queen can live for more than two years. However, her ability to lay hundreds of thousands of eggs diminishes over time, so swarming is the bees’ natural way of moving from one queen to the next.
At some point, when the queen’s chemical powers start to diminish, the worker bees know that they need a new queen to continue laying eggs. This is done by way of the old queen leaving the hive with a band of workers and setting up a new colony elsewhere. It usually happens in the summer when the hive is heading towards its peak population.
How to Tell When a Swarm is About to Happen
In advance of the swarming, the worker bees start to produce new queen cells on the combs in the brood box. These are easy to spot as they are larger than the cells of worker bees and of drones. They hang downwards and are often at the edge of the frame
When the queen is younger, she releases a pheromone that transfers to the worker bees and prevents them from building queen cells. As she ages, she produces less of this pheromone, so the worker bees start to create queen cells. When the queen leaves with only a portion of the original colony, she will have enough pheromone to again inhibit the worker bees from producing queen cells.
Meanwhile, back in the original hive, a new queen is born and starts laying eggs to build the colony back up.
What to Do as a Beekeeper
One of the cheapest ways to start up as a beekeeper is to get hold of a swarm of bees and put them in your hive. However, with a colony of bees under your care, the control of swarming will become a key consideration.
After inspecting your hive and seeing the queen cells in production, you will be on alert. However, it is not necessarily the case that the bees will swarm. Sometimes they destroy the queen cells on their own.
For the beekeeper, a swarm represents the opportunity to increase the number of hives that they can fill – and the amount of honey that they can produce. When the bees swarm you can catch them and put them in a new hive. Or you can create an artificial swarm and move the queen to a new hive before the bees swarm.
For beginners, this is often a stressful time as you need to be able to identify the queen and isolate her to make a transfer. Also, if the bees do swarm you invariably find they will gather in the tallest branches of a tree where they are difficult to capture. Swarms are noisy and impressive and may also frighten people who are not used to seeing bees.
Pick a Course of Action
As with many aspects of beekeeping, there are a number of different methods to deploy. The best advice is to pick one and stick with it. Make a decision about what you are going to do before you open up and inspect the hive.
For an artificial swarm, you will need to have a new brood box available. When inspecting the old brood box and finding queen cells, you should move it and its floor to a new position about two feet away. Then a new brood box and floor are put in the original location.
At this point, you examine the old brood box and find the queen. You move her and the comb on which you found her to the center of the new brood box. If there are queen cells on this comb, they should be destroyed. Then fill the new brood box with 10 new combs, preferably drawn combs, place the queen excluder on top and the old supers on top.
Make sure that the entrance to the old brood box is facing the same way as when it was in the original hive. Examine it and remove all capped queen cells, leaving only unsealed queen cells that are ready for capping. Put a crown board and roof on top and leave for a week.
At this point move the old brood box to the other side of the original hive. In this way, you will increase the number of worker bees and ensure that the new queen has not hatched before the final location of her colony is picked.
Catching a Swarm
If your bees swarm before you have time to do an artificial swarm, then you have the option of capturing them. If you are certain that the bees you have captured are your own and came from a specific hive, you can handle them in the same way as the artificial swarm process described above.
To capture a swarm, you should always wear a veil and gloves. Usually, the bees will be co-operative. If they have left a colony that had plenty of stores, they will be full of honey. But if they are starving, they could potentially be nasty.
There are three positions to capture swarms, and the technique is to encourage them to move upwards into the dark and stay there with the queen. The dark can be provided by a straw skep, a specific piece of equipment, or you can use a sturdy cardboard box.
If the bees are on a low branch, you can shake them from it into the container. You then place the skep on a sheet on the ground and use your smoker to encourage stragglers to join them. If the bees are on a high branch or a wall, you put the skep over the top of them and use a puff of smoke to drive them in. If they are under something solid, then you need to brush them down onto a sheet and then into the skep.
Once you have them, put them in a new hive and give them some foundation to encourage them to stay.
If you have a hive that has swarmed and you do not catch the bees, then you need to open the brood box as soon as possible and find a good queen cell and mark this comb. Then shake all the other combs and destroy any other queen cells.
If no hatched cells are found, wait 20 days and examine the brood box again. You should find that a young queen will have started laying eggs. Most colonies are unlikely to remain queenless.