Swarm Instinct

By: Barbara Gillette

On a late sunny afternoon in early August, intuition calls me out to my small apiary of three hives. 

I checked my girls yesterday, and all seemed in order. Hive #1 continued to cap their one super of honey. I had placed sugar syrup on top of this year’s nuc. Despite the fact that Hive #2 had good numbers, plenty of honey and was certainly Queenright, they had steadfastly refrained from moving honey up into their single super. I left the super on to afford them some extra space. There would be plenty of time after the Autumn nectar flow to feed them up for Winter. I saw no signs of mites, beetles or wax moth.  Everything looked good. In normal circumstances, I would wait another week to recheck.  

I have no scientific explanation for this calling; this urgent need to check the hives, but I have experienced this “gut” feeling a number of times during my nine years as a novice beekeeper. I always go, because, I have learned that something is always up. And something was. Hive #2 was wild and alive with swarming behavior.  Bees were gathered at the front of the hive and hundreds were circling. I recalled hearing a new queen pipping when I checked the hive the day before. There was nothing to do but wait to see where they landed and see if I could capture the swarm.  

I drove our golf car out into the area of the apiary around dusk that evening to search. If these bees followed a normal swarming pattern, they will have landed on a nearby structure to wait while scouts flew out to look for a new permanent home. My apiary is located in an area of about three acres of restored prairie. Some years ago I had planted a couple of Bradford Pear trees there. The trees, often valued as an ornamental landscape tree, had been given to me, and, as an early Spring bloomer I valued them as an early food source for my hives. The truth is, the Bradford Pear can be a weedy invasive, not much liked by my bees, and popping up everywhere. I now had several dozen scattered throughout the prairie, most of them untrimmed saplings with low twiggy branches and prairie plants and grasses crowded around the base. I circled around the prairie searching for any sign of activity to no avail.  

Early the next morning I was back out on the prairie and it didn’t take long to locate the swarm.  They were nestled into a low crook on one of the sapling trees, halfway up the trunk, and on the dozens of twiggy stems and grasses around the base, not more than 30 feet from the original hive. This was not going to be easy. The swarm was fairly big but somewhat scattered making it impossible to guess in which cluster the queen might be.  For the beginning beekeeper and those who have not experienced a swarm, the swarm queen is usually found in the center of a large cluster of worker bees. If the queen can be moved into the trap or catch box, the worker bees will follow. I gathered some equipment together, including a wooden nuc box with three frames of drawn comb and my bee brush. The brush is a soft bristled hand tool used to gently brush the bees into the box.  

I returned to the swarm and set about my first task which was to remove the grasses from the base of the tree, along with as many of the low twiggy branches I could manage to clip off. Then I began to use the brush and the swarm erupted. We often hear that swarms are gentle, that they have nothing to protect. Not so in the case of these Texas bees. The sting pheromone permeated the air and several times I had to walk away until the bees settled. Back to the bee house for the smoker and a few more tools. I needed to really think this through and be smarter than the average bee.  

This time I returned to Hive #2, the hive from which the swarm had originated. I pulled a frame of honey and a frame of brood, carried them to the nuc catch box and exchanged them with two of the frames of drawn comb. I took the drawn comb back to Hive #2 to fill the empty slots and closed up the hive. Then, back at the swarm, I used my smoker fairly generously and began to scoop bees up in my gloved hands and release them into the nuc box. I went right for the biggest clump of bees and must have gotten the queen for, within minutes, the workers were making rapid progress toward the box.

I left the bees to gather in the box and when I returned a couple of hours later the box was filled to the brim and bees were spilling over the sides. Back to the bee shop for a deep hive, I returned to the swarm with the deep and seven frames of drawn comb. Two inner covers with the holes taped closed would serve to close up the deep box full of bees so that they could be moved back into the beeyard. I attached one inner cover to the bottom of the deep with strong tape. Then, using my smoker to calm these aggressive girls, I lifted the three frames from the catch box, now covered with bees, and placed them in the deep. Then I picked up the nuc box, turned it upside down over the deep and gave it a good shake. Once I had as many bees as I could possibly retrieve, I used tape to attach the second inner cover on the top of the deep, effectively sealing the bees inside. I placed the box in the handy tool bed on the back of my golf car and moved the entire new colony into the bee yard where I had set up cinderblocks, bottom board, a shim, and a top to complete my new hive. I carefully added three more frames of drawn comb and left the inner cover taped to the bottom of the deep for a couple of hours, to give the bees a chance to crawl up into the frames.  When I returned to remove it, I added the remaining frames of drawn comb, a quart of syrup as a top feeder, and an entrance reducer.  The bees would have two small entry/exits from the shim and the inner cover for the next 24 hours.  

Friends and family often ask why bees swarm. Scads of material are available. The bottom line, I believe, can be attributed to instinct. Might we consider that, at times, the beekeeper shares that instinct and experiences a “knowing” when the bees are about to swarm? Perhaps this is simply another myth to add to the fascinating hobby of working with bees. For me it is part of the magic.  

When I began my journey with honey bees, I was fortunate to have two excellent mentors; women who had a combined 20 years of experience. Their advice and assistance has proved invaluable.  Most of all, they taught me that there is always more than one solution. As beekeepers we can find ways to support our hives, to increase and to achieve success.  We just need to listen to the bees and trust our intuition.