A Good Foundation For the Bees

Swarm Season is Upon Us

Now that honey bee swarm season is officially here (read about the first swarm of the season here), we potentially have swarms to manage over the next couple of months and a bit of preparation to do.

The swarming tendency can start about May, peaks in June, and begins to come to an end in July.

What is Swarming?

Honey Bee Swarm in A Hedge - Died and Gone To Devon
Honey Bee Swarm in A Hedge - Died and Gone To Devon

Swarming is a natural way for Honey Bees to multiply.  Although the Beekeeper tries to manage the hive to stop swarming from happening, I have come to the conclusion, that whatever you do, and how hard you try a hive will swarm and can not be stopped when its made its mind up to do so.

A swarm occurs typically, if the hive becomes over congested, or the queen becomes old, or sick.  At this point the queen's pheromone or scent becomes weak.  Its this scent that is the 'glue' for the colony, keeping the colony together.  If the scent becomes weak this can trigger the workers to prepare for the creation of a new queen.

They do this by building a 'queen cell'.  They then either get the existing queen to lay in this cell, or build the cell around an existing egg or very young lava.  When the egg is hatched the lava is then fed 'Royal Jelly'.  This magic substance transforms, what would normally be a worker bee, into a new queen.

At the point the queen cell hatches or when it has hatched, and assuming conditions are right (right time of year, the right weather, if there are sufficient stores in the hive and the colony is the right size) half the bees in the hive will leave with the queen.

In the process of leaving, the hive not only looses half its inhabitants, but also half of any honey stored.  The honey is taken by the swarm to feed and help set-up their new home.  This should be enough to keep them tied over until their new place of residence is up and running, and they can go out and forage from their new location.

Artificial Swarm

As a Beekeeper, I think the easiest way to stop a hive from swarming is to perform an 'artificial swarm'.  This is essentially splitting the hive yourself at the right time in a controlled manner.  The benefits of doing this that you hopefully retain the bees in your apiary and create a new colony which will turn into a productive hive the following year.

The disadvantage can be that it puts honey production back.  The hive that is left will not be as productive as there are less workers and half its honey stores have been depleted.  Its unlikely that you will get any honey to harvest from this hive.  Having said this, it is better than loosing half your bees, and them flying off elsewhere!

Preparing for an Artificial Swarm

Bees In January - New Beehives being prepared for the spring

I should have really been more prepared for swarm collecting or performing an artificial swarm.  To rehouse the bees, they need a hive and frames with foundation for the bees to build their wax cells for storing honey and rearing young.

Over the winter, I built the some new hives, but never got around to preparing new frames.

So today, over a cup of coffee, I put together 10 frames in preparation.  The frames come in packs and need nailing together (for this I use a small nail gun which saves a lot of time.)

In each frame I slide a piece of preformed wax which the bees will use to build their cells on.

Hive Refresh

I'll not only use these frames for new hives, but will swap out old frames in my current hives to refresh the wax.  This practice ensures that any build up of pesticide, pollution, pests or disease that could be detrimental to the bees are removed from the hive.  It has been shown that older comb (wax cells) contains higher concentrations of these pollutants.

So although the practice of refreshing the wax means the bees need to spend energy and effort building new wax (it takes 8 times more nectar to build wax than it does to make honey) it should pay off with improved health of the bees.

Tom Good

View posts by Tom Good
Read my blog about buying a Victorian farm house in Devon, England. What started as a dream of self sufficiency, is now a midlife reality.

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