“Beekeeping is a lot of like chess,” my husband exclaimed one night at dinner. “I think that’s why I like beekeeping so much. You always have to think ahead, and it isn’t always obvious what you should do next.”
Each season brings a new set of challenges for beekeepers. In early spring, we take advantage of the first warm days to open the hives and see what’s happening. Ideally, you will be able to spot the queen during your inspection, but she can be shy and doesn’t always cooperate. Beekeepers also need to check honey stores because bees can starve in early spring. That seems so weird because the bees made it through the winter, but the cold snaps and lack of flowering plants to forage can make early spring a dangerous time. Starvation is not a big worry, though, because it can easily be averted with the addition of fondant patties or syrup. (What you feed the bees is dependent upon the temperature. You don’t want to feed syrup if the evening temperatures are still going below freezing.) Insects and critters are also worries, but those are year round worries and get no special attention in spring. What beekeepers worry about most in the spring is a SWARM.
Honeybees, like all life on earth, want to reproduce. When bees feel their hive is getting too crowded, the queen and a large portion of the bees in the hive leave and go off to establish a new colony in some other location. That other location could be a hollow tree, a nice niche the bees find under your siding, or in a swarm trap set by another beekeeper. Swarming is the way new bee colonies are formed in the wild. Beekeepers don’t like swarms because it means you are losing lots of your bees. Some people think swarms are good things because it introduces more bees into the wild. I personally don’t think it is such a good thing because in the wild the bees aren’t going to receive all the TLC and mite control that they get in our hives. Varroa mites have wiped out many of the feral honey bees. I like my bees in my hives where we can keep them safe. If your goal is to make money from your bees through honey production or the sale of bees, then you really hate swarms because your money is literally flying away. Bees are expensive. Where we live, a 3 lb package of bees costs $120.
Swarming is different from absconding. Swarming happens when the colony is strong and ready to make a new colony. Absconding is what happens when the conditions in the hive are so bad that all the bees pack their bags and leave in a last-ditch effort to save themselves. Bees abscond when there is sickness or something extreme like a nest of mice living in the bottom of the hive.
Last year we started beekeeping with two nucs. (Here is the post where I describe the day we received our nucs.) One of the nucs that we later named Alpha colony was very strong with an excellent queen. Within 6 weeks of when we installed our nuc into the new hive box, the colony swarmed. The bees that were left behind continued to do well. They made a new queen, and Alpha colony continues to be our strongest colony. However, we learned a valuable lesson, which is to pay attention to the signs that bees are getting ready to swarm.
The first thing to look for is if the bees have plenty of room in the hive. The queen wants spaces to lay eggs. The worker bees need places to store honey. If the bees feel too crowded, they will prepare to swarm. Beekeepers can checkerboard frames, which means placing new frames in between full frames. Beekeepers can also add a hive body (also referred to as a deep), which is the large box people typically see in pictures of bee hives. You can stack more boxes on top of each other to give the bees room. Bees like to work up, so you stack boxes rather than placing them side by side.
The next thing to look for is a queen cell. When bees are getting ready to swarm, they will prepare to make a new queen. Queens are larger than workers and drones, so the cell made for a queen will be significantly larger. Bees will make three different types of queen cells depending upon the situation. When getting ready to swarm, the queen cells will be on the bottom of the frames. If the queen is failing and a new queen is needed, a cell will be made in the middle of the frame. This is called a supercedure cell. If there is an emergency that causes the colony to suddenly be without a queen, the queen cell will also appear in the middle of the frame but it will look different from the supercedure cell. Beekeepers always need to pay attention when they see queen cells in a hive, but this is especially true in late spring and early summer when honey bees like to swarm.
One way beekeepers can control swarming is to proactively split the colony by placing some of the frames into a new hive. The new hive should have frames of capped brood and honey as well as 1 or 2 open frames to give your new colony some room to grow. The nurse bees (worker bees that take care of the brood) are on the frames of brood and get transferred as well. A beekeeper can either purchase a mated queen or let the colony make a new queen. A beekeeper needs to make sure that drones are present if she wants to split a colony and let the new colony make its own queen. A queen can’t lay eggs if she hasn’t gone on a mating flight and mated with drones. Before making a split, check the frames for drone brood. If you have drone brood, then drones will be available for mating by the time the queen emerges from her queen cell. (The alternative is to buy a mated queen that gets introduced into the new colony. Mated queens cost $30-40, so it is great if you can let the bees make their own.)
Our three colonies look strong coming out of winter. Our queens are laying eggs like crazy. Alpha colony has nearly filled two deeps and was quickly running out of space. We saw drone brood but no queen cells yet. We decided to proactively split the Alpha colony into two smaller hives that we hope to either sell or grow out to 10 frame hives. We are opting to let the bees make their own queens. This is a new endeavor for us, so we are keeping our fingers crossed. You will read more about it in future posts. Our goal is to stay ahead of the swarms. Like Doug said, beekeeping is a lot like chess.