Bee Talk

By: Jerry Hayes

Question 1
More Bees are considered better than less honey bees in a colony. But, as Spring arrives populous, healthy honey bee colonies want to reproduce by Swarming. Do we want to stop it? Do we want to encourage it? What should a beekeeper do?
As in any beekeeping practices, a beekeeper will have several options to choose from based on colony conditions and what he wants to be the end results.

A. Option 1. I would not let the bees swarm otherwise, it will be loss of bee population. It will also a set back to the bees left in the box. The virgin queen left behind in the box will take few days to mate and then she will start egg laying. This process may take up to 10 days for a queen to mate and start laying eggs. The off spring of newly mated queen will be 21 days later. The result of this process is a low colony population that will not make as much honey. If the queen fails to mate due to inclement weather conditions (e.g. rain, cold, etc.), the beekeeper will have to requeen with another queen. This even will delay the process of recovery and building up population to make honey and lead a normal colony this summer.
Option 2. I will make splits from the strong colony to avoid any swarming. The beekeeper will have to decide what a size of a split to make based on colony strength, season in his region, and what he wants to have at the end of the season. If a beekeeper is into increasing the number of hives, he will then make one or two splits out of the colony using one to four frames of brood and one to three frames of honey and introduce mated queens or queen cells to those splits. The mother colony will be in a good shape to make honey based on the population left and the season progress in the area. If a beekeeper does not want to increase the number of hives, he has the option to sell those newly made splits as nucs and make some money.
Option 3. A beekeeper will make splits and let them requeen them selves. This system is known as “walk away splits”. I personally don’t recommend this option as it takes two weeks for a queen to develop, mate and start egg laying. By the time the beekeeper will have a regular colony headed by a mated queens it will be five weeks. This is a waste of time and use of bees during the season. It will be even questionable option in Northern climates where the season is too short.
Overall, After making splits and addressing the swarming issue. I highly recommend to requeen the swarming colony to reduce the swarming tendency in my colonies. Medhat Nasr, Alberta

A. My favorite number in beekeeping is AVERAGE. AVERAGE population, average temperatures, average precipitation, average seasonal length – I could go on. Why? Because every living thing has a long evolutionary history of AVERAGE and knows how to handle those situations. We also teach rules to newbees in beekeeping, but live in a multi-variable world of complex equilibria. AVERAGE simplifies complex, important decisions. I’d also point at some of my favorite bees, Carniolans, who are hardy mostly because they are totally tuned into seasonal signals, and they choose to Winter on the smallest feasible cluster size. I think swarming is natural, and in many cases inevitable, but it is a total disaster around here if a huge-o colony decides to do it before Spring has established itself. The brood breaks my colonies have seen from swarming seem to have also helped with Varroa control. My city neighbors don’t love those swarms much, though.
If I know that I have a boomer colony, I will split it as soon as I feel it is safe: I take a page from Steve Repasky’s book and watch for the production of purple-eyed drones in the Spring. It is worth learning all you can about splitting colonies, anyway, so go read “Increase Essentials.”
Anything that winters here (DC) will split or swarm (or both) so I engage in plans to split everything based on it’s size/strength and the long range forecast. We also organize a swarm squad here because, gasp, beekeeper plans are rarely perfect. Toni Burnham, DC

A. Much depends on the goals of the beekeeper. Rather than try to stop swarming in an effort to maximize honey production, or encourage swarming and risk not only losing honey production and having to feed colonies to get through Winter, but potentially losing the entire colony should they fail to successfully requeen themselves, I prefer the middle road. I try to discourage, but not stop, swarming by reversing the hive in the Spring and then adding honey supers in a timely manner to be sure the colony does not get over-crowded and congested. My goal is to keep as large a population of bees in the hive early in the season so that they at least can store away plenty of honey for Winter. Then if they swarm later in the Summer, at least I don’t have to deal with the extra work and expense of feeding in order to prepare the colony for Winter. Ross Conrad, VT

A. I spent a lot of energy in my first years of beekeeping trying to control swarming without splitting. It proved almost impossible. A good split gives us two populous colonies, ready to take advantage of the Spring flow, and at least one new queen. It’s a win-win for us and our bees. Not splitting causes loss of the old queen and half of the hives’ population, and 75% of the time, the swarm dies. Split early and win. Tina Sebestyen, CO

A. In general, we want to avoid swarming, because we lose the queen with its genetics for which we may have paid highly, and the work force resulting in fewer nurse bees and fewer foragers (less honey stores). Multiple swarms result in the loss of most of our young worker bees. In addition, the new queens will only have half of the “mother queen’s” genetics along with that of the 15 or more drones she mated with. If the drones are sick or have poor genetics, the colony’s new progeny will be affected.
Obviously beekeepers who live in town want to avoid swarming to avoid potential neighborhood tension. Many books explain how swarming can be avoided or at least minimized. Strong colonies can defend their colonies and overcome potential illnesses and problems as well as produce a good honey crop. Making nucleus colonies is one good way of reducing the risk of swarms and provides the beekeeper with more colonies for backup if problems arise. Barb Bloetscher, OH

A. Do we want to stop it? Honey beehives that are populous in Spring progress to swarming as a form of natural reproduction. A beekeeper could effectively try to stop the swarming behavior (i.e. split colony, cage queen/queen excluder, requeen, etc.), but it may not always work. The recommendation of swarm stopping is in place in most cases for the following reasons:
• Geographic location of the colony (i.e. swarms in southern region could happen all year given mild/ideal weather)
• Season of when swarming may occur or time of year (i.e. remember adage: swarm in July, aint worth a fly – colonies need time to build population of food and brood stores for Winter survival)
• Apiary location in relation to human population (i.e. swarms in cities not ideal given potential for human concern)
• Learning tool for beekeepers (i.e. new beekeepers can learn so much by understanding the signs and mechanisms of swarming that learning to stop it is in essence making them a better beekeeper because you are learning how the colony “thinks and reacts.”
• Legality (i.e. towns/cities and states may have ordinances in place that require beekeepers to manage colonies to prevent or mitigate swarming so it also may be legally required that you manage swarming in your area)
• Potential for disease spread (i.e. colonies that swarm could spread disease, parasites, pests to new areas)
Do we want to encourage it? Remember swarming is natural reproduction. If you have an old queen (i.e. older than two seasons of laying) or she is not up to par (i.e. spotty brood pattern, physically damaged body, etc.), it may be worth saving her genetics (if she has been a proven layer, colony overwintered, or good honey producer or whatever traits you are interested in) then, letting the colony get a fresh start with a new queen of the same genes, if the swarm goes by the book and actually re-queens from the same hive, leaves you some population that is able to continue in growth the same season. Some beekeepers also love the challenge of catching/fishing for swarms. Note that if you place swarm lure/trap boxes in an area these need to meet state/local laws since some states require that no exposed beekeeping equipment can be left outdoors (i.e. comb or box used for swarm catching). I encourage beekeepers to try to stay one step ahead of the bees if possible so they can try to control the outcome of what colony-level decisions are made.
What should a beekeeper do? It depends based on the answers to part one above. It also depends on how you manage your apiary. There is no wrong answer here unless you are violating laws, then you must step back and re-evaluate to get a legal plan in place. Remember, honey bees want to reproduce, so your best laid plans may change leaving you with no choice as a beekeeper so equip your beekeeper tool kit by learning how to recognize and react to the signs of swarming. Knowledge will always keep you in the drivers seat even if it feels like you are back-seat driving most of the time! Kim Skyrm, MA

Question 2
Looking at the first Question, what if a colony is too weak or shows no preparation to swarm. Is that a good sign? Or is it a cause for concern and a closer look at the colony?

A. Of course the weak colony in Spring is a concern. Then, I would have to investigate to find out why? Few symptoms to look at – presence of diseases such as Nosema, Varroa, AFB, EFB, Chalk brood, etc.; brood pattern; presence of queens and queen age; feed; colony history from last year by checking notes taken about the colony last year. This step will enforce the importance of recording colony management through the season.
Once a beekeeper has a good idea about causes of weak colony, then he has to make a decision on how to help this colony to recover. In many cases if the colony is weak, it is economically better to get rid of this colony. If there is enough population, then requeening and adding capped brood about to emerge and feed will help. I would not advise combining weak colonies together unless you know the colony has no disease history. Combining weak colonies that have diseases will spread more diseases around the bee operation. Medhat Nast, Alberta

If a colony is weak, you could consider moving some brood from that boomer colony (if you have one, and do a mite test first). My feeling is that colonies which limp out of winter are likely to keep limping. You can try to reinforce them by adding package bees (without the queen – yes, you can buy that) or by requeening as soon as queens are available. I’d do my best to be sure that the colony was right-sized for the population so that SHB and wax moth don’t take a shot at wrecking the place. I might consider doing an oxalic vape, too, in case Varroa have carried over. I would not add package bees without vaping them, either. Toni Burnham, DC

A. Definitely a cause for a closer look not just at the colony, but also at the beekeeper management which may be the cause of the weak hive as opposed to a poor queen. On the other hand, small weak colonies do not build up mite populations as quickly as big strong colonies. I find that the smaller colonies that struggle all Summer and often don’t produce much, if any surplus honey for harvest, are the ones that almost always survive the Winter well and are very strong and raring to go the following Spring. I believe that this is the primary reason so many beekeepers are able to successfully overwinter nucleus colonies that are made up in mid- to late-Summer. It is not so much that the queen is somehow superior, it is simply that the small size of the nuc (and the late creation of it) simply don’t allow Varroa mites to build up to deleterious levels that negatively impact Winter survival. Ross Conrad, VT

A. If the colony is weak, it is a cause for concern, and the problem should be rectified immediately. A col-ony not showing signs of preparation for swarming doesn’t necessarily mean it is weak or that there is a problem. A good, strong colony that has a young queen (from the previous Fall) will not necessarily want to swarm if it is given plenty of room. Re-queening of splitting in fall is a great way to avoid having to do Spring splits and results in populous colonies, perfectly prepared for the Spring flow. Tina Sebestyen, CO

A. Few of us want to worry about swarms in early spring but we do want strong colonies. If the colony looks weak, check the brood pattern of the queen and consider requeening if the pattern is weak. Also check the Varroa mite level and treat if necessary. If the laying pattern is poor or the queen is over a year old, it may be wiser to requeen than treat a mite infested colony that potentially is sick with viruses and/or Nosema sp. as well. Barb Bloetscher, OH

A. This depends on the answers to a few additional questions and assumes you have been and are evaluating your colony on a routine basis to observe changes over time:
• What time of year are you making this assessment? If the colony is being evaluated in early Spring, this may be pre-mature assessment since they have not had time to build up, etc.
• Is it consistent every time you assess the colony? What is the queen quality?
I recently purchased a shirt for a friend that said “I am silently judging your queen’s brood pattern”. Be this t-shirt. If it isn’t there, swarming or not, it won’t matter – bigger issues may be happening here. A proven queen may have some ebbs and flows depending on weather and season forage availability, etc. but overall you should feel great about her ability to produce brood and overall good about the colony when you close the outer cover each time – what is your first reaction when you get inside, does it change as you go through the frames? Remember, a consistent queen is just that, consistent. If you have doubts, there is probably a reason and trust your instincts. Queen quality matters so every time you go through your hives you should be evaluating how old is the queen, is she a proven layer, tight brood pattern, consistent, physically no visible damage to her body?
• You should also evaluate your colony health not just on their ability to present signs or actually swarm, but overall health as well. How is the build up? Are they producing whatever resources you want at the time/flow you like? Are you seeing questionable brood? Where is the brood and food stores being placed in the colony? Does the queen have room to lay?
• The more time you spend with your bees and the more experience you have will make you not only a better beekeeper, but also able to accurately determine then judge the criteria that you are looking for in your colonies and the apiary as a whole. Kim Skrym, MA