How to Bamboozle Bees to Prevent Swarming (& Simultaneously Spring Clean Hives)


One advantage to having someone live in the basement apartment is the potential for dinner company. Especially if I’m in the mood to cook and Mark is out of town and I want somebody to appreciate my effort. Rachel joined me for Portbella, Bacon & Kale over Grilled Polenta last night and we got to talking about the fascinating lives of bees, one of my favorite conversation topics. I’m going into Portland to pick up an Italian queen Monday, as part of our Prevent Swarms Campaign, so bees are on my mind.

Even though we want to prevent swarms, a swarm is amazing to behold–especially if you can stand beneath one as it makes its way over your head and off yonder. A black buzzing cloud fills the air and can be heard from the other side of Fern Creek. Seriously, I’ve been hoeing the pumpkin patch and heard the distinct buzz of a swarm a 100 yards plus away.

We nearly always had May swarming.  And June, and sometimes July. Which is actually a sign that we are really good to our bees. Healthy hives jam-packed with bees swarm.  And while standing beneath a swarm has a very high Coolness Quotient, we never rejoice when a hive decides to split. If we only valued bees for keeping zucchini, peaches, green beans and berries on our plates we’d be set.  But we kinda like honey, as do our CSA members and a good number of other local folks. Swarming hives means lost time for gathering the excess honey we’d harvest in August. A swarm in July means you lose an entire harvest for the year, and nearly so if one swarms in June. So, last year we took a seminar on swarm management at Ruhl’s Bee Supply and launched our Prevent Swarms Campaign.

Here’s what you need to know about bees before contemplating a swarm prevention campaign: A swarm is a colony-based decision to split the hive because they are feeling crowded. No hard feelings–just time for half the hive to move on. It’s an accomplishment for a hive actually, like sending off children into the world, only in this case, Mama takes off with a good chunk of her kiddies, leaving behind another chunk of kiddies and some Queens-in-the-Making. (As an aside, human names for bees create an interesting fiction. The “queen” could be perceived as the hive’s reproductive slave, spending all day stuck inside laying eggs and getting killed off if she takes too many breaks. And the “worker”  gets to go lolly about visiting flowers, sipping and gathering nectar to share.)

At any rate, when bees swarm the existing queen and up to half the bees take all the honey they can fit in their tummies and leave to find another home.  They take up temporary residence in a nearby tree while scouts scout out a permanent settlement. (For a great comparison of the democracy of bee-voting in this process vs. filibuster solutions in the US Senate, check out Robert Krulwich’s article.) People who don’t realize the swarm in their backyard climbing tree is temporary sometimes call beekeepers to come remove it. Beekeepers wanting another hive are generally happy to oblige.

You can do at least two sneaky things to hopefully prevent swarming. I feel kinda mean doing either one except that this is for their own well-being as much as for a good honey harvest for us. The first helps with spring clean-up besides, especially if you are not the kind of beekeeper that annually douses your hives with a dose of Terramycin (an antibiotic) to ward off foulbrood (though there is no guarantee that it does). A healthy hive will take care of most mold, decay, and various intruders on their own, but we help by replacing half of their frames every year. It’s more expensive than Terramycin if one thinks only of money spent, but less expensive if you consider other ramifications, like preventing super-resistent bacteria from developing a laugh-in-your-face resistance to penicillin–for human and bees ailments alike.

Besides, the used frames make great fire-startrs. Our gazebo fires smell wonderfully of beeswax all year long–which is about how long it takes us to get through them all. Assembling frames yourself is less expensive than buying them pre-assembled. Here’s a demo on how.

framesSo last week we donned our suits, not because the bees are aggressive but because I react rather strongly to stings, lit our smoker, and checked just about every frame in Lucy and June, while swapping out every other one with new frames checkerboard style.

I love every opportunity to go hang out with the bees.  We can sit by them any time we’d like, but opening the hive and seeing all the activity, and being right there among them–it’s a treat, plain and simple.chairs

The key to a successful spring clean-up is to do it before the queen starts her first big push of egg laying for the onslaught of late spring/early summer blossoms. Last week we hit it perfectly. Since we eventually burn whatever is in the frames we pull, which could include honey, larvae and pollen–we feel successful when the pulled frames are mostly empty after we shake off the bees. We scored the frames that had capped honey in them and left them a few feet from the hives so the bees could reclaim whatever honey they wanted.

Checker-boarding with new frames accomplishes two goals–it gets rid of two-year-old frames that are damp and potentially growing an assortment of Unwanted Nasties, and it gives the bees more space so they don’t feel crowded and inclined to swarm. We trade damp, sometimes moldy frames with fresh ones ready to be drawn out with wax and filled with brood, pollen and honey. I like to think they appreciate our efforts.

In addition to swapping out frames, we took apart the bottom board and scraped it clean of an assortment of winter debris and dead bee bodies, and then left them with pollen patties and sugar water (medicated with Fumagillin when we found evidence of nosema–a diarrhea-causing parasite).  Emma, our third hive, is a particularly strong one, and we will split her before she up and decides to swarm, which is the second sneaky thing you can do to prevent a swarm–split a hive in a controlled way early in the season so you get to keep both halves, rather than wait for them to decide to swarm, in which case you generally lose half a hive and an experienced egg-laying queen.

I’ll post about the process of splitting a hive and introducing a queen after we do it next week, so I can include pictures. Meanwhile, if you have bee-related questions or comments I’d love to hear them!

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