April, one of my favorite months. It is the beginning of the most exciting part of the beekeeping year. It is the beginning of swarm season for most beekeepers on the west side of the Cascades. While the month of May usually holds the record for the largest volume of swarms produced in a single month, the months of April and June also see large numbers of swarms. But don’t think you won’t see any swarms before April or after June because the bees love to surprise us. But before we get started on swarms, is there anything else we should be doing with the bees this month? How about hive inspections? Most of you have probably already completed an inspection or two of your honey bee colonies. (Weather permitting, of course.) Do you have a laying queen? Did you see her? Regardless of whether you did see her or not, you should have seen brood, probably in both open and capped cells. And pollen both in the cells near the brood and on the bees returning to the colony. How about honey capped in the cells? The bees may still need 20–30 pounds of honey before summer. If you don’t have that much stored honey, you probably need to be feeding sugar syrup. A 1 to 1 ratio is recommended for this time of year. But hopefully you found brood, and honey inside the hive along with pollen coming into the hive entrance. A fair-sized population of adult bees is a good thing to see also. About 4–5 frames of bees in an overwintered hive of 10–20 frames would be the minimum size I want to see. If you observed all this without seeing sick or dying bees, then you are probably well on your way to a good season of beekeeping. You may also need to purchase a new queen now if you found no brood or living queen in your colony. If the population is less than 4–5 frames, you may want to add a frame or two of bees from another colony to boost the population. Making sure that those frames do not have the queen from the doner colony on them first. Ha! Been there, done that!
So, what exactly is a swarm? Why do they occur? What can we do to prevent them? Do we really need to prevent them? How can we catch a swarm? And what do we do with a swarm if we are lucky/unlucky enough to catch one?
A swarm is the product of a honey bee colony’s genetically embedded desire to reproduce, or to multiply. (Those are my words, not Webster’s. ) It is nature’s way of producing more honey bee colonies. Swarms occur when several conditions come together at the same time. But keep in mind that the honey bees want to do this. It is a golden moment for the colony when it can swarm. Sending half their population off to find a new home and produce even more swarms. They seem excited about it and proud to take part in it.
Then we have the beekeeper trying with all he or she knows to prevent them from swarming. Why? Well, if the beekeeper keeps bees for honey collection, the beekeeper stands to lose a crop if they swarm. Most colonies which swarm are not able to recoup their lost population and put in a surplus of honey, not in the same season anyway. It is that surplus of honey that the beekeeper depends on for his or her own. And yes, I try to prevent them also. Swarms can sometimes be prevented without going to extremes. Earlier I mentioned conditions which can contribute to swarming. The condition most often associated with swarming is congestion. During the spring months is an especially bad time to allow your colonies to become crowded. This time of year, it is better to have too much space inside the hive rather than not enough. So, try to stay ahead of the bees as they grow in population.
An ample food source is another of the conditions which contributes to swarming. Sometimes we overfeed our bees in our effort to help them. I see this with purchased nucs. A beekeeper will bring the nuc home and install the 4–5 frames of bees in an 8–10 frame box of bare foundation and provide an abundant food supply. Sugar syrup, protein patties, pollen supplements, etc. If the queen has no place to lay eggs because most available brood cells are full of sugar syrup, look out for swarming. Add congestion or crowding to this scenario and swarming is practically guaranteed. When congestion and an abundant food supply come together, the bees may build swarm cells for replacement queens. This is the last step before swarming. If you see swarm cells in your colony, prevention efforts are likely a waste of time.
Weather is the one factor that might postpone swarming after swarm cells are constructed. Good flying weather is necessary and, when absent, may cause the colony to wait until it arrives before swarming. During this period, it is not unusual for a colony to have two queens. Mother and daughter queens can and do share the same hive while waiting for the weather to clear.
So, is swarming a bad thing? Depends. Not really, unless the goal is honey collection. Swarming does have some good aspects. A break in the brood cycle is created during swarming and that is a good thing for Varroa control. The swarm temporarily has no brood in the new nest site and, without brood, the Varroa mite has no place to lay eggs. All mites which rode bees to the swarm’s new home are now phoretic and are thereby vulnerable to most all types of mite treatments. So, don’t miss this opportunity to treat for mites. While we are on the subject of mites, remember to treat the old hive also. Because it now has most of the former population of mites with half or less of the former bee population. Just remember to remove any honey supers from the old hive before treating that colony for mites.
My efforts toward swarm control are limited to avoiding congestion and trying not to overfeed the bees during swarm season. I prefer to put most of my efforts into being prepared for swarming. Putting out plenty of bait boxes (swarm traps) near my colonies. And being prepared to catch swarms in other locations as well, when called upon to do so. Swarms are really fairly easy to catch, and many tools are available to make this fast, easy, and fun.
I hope we all have great April this year. Now, let’s go catch some swarms!