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SANDY WALKER WRITES
I thought they were happy here!
It’s early spring. You’re a backyard beekeeper concerned about sustainability and nurturing honey bees. You notice that your beehive has come through the winter safely and that the bees have begun early foraging. The next day as you walk in front of the hive, you don’t see any activity at all. No bees are visible at the opening of the hive. None are visible in the air. With a sinking feeling, you make a mental note to check again a little later in the day.
Subsequent checks throughout the day yield the same results. The apiary is apparently empty. Every bee has swarmed off. The hive has absconded.
That’s the million-dollar question. Swarming—when the existing queen and about half of the bees in the hive --leave their apiary and relocate to another home, is a common occurrence. Swarming can be good or bad, depending upon why the hive swarms and whether or not you—as the beekeeper—end up with any viable hives.
Ask a dozen beekeepers why swarming occurs, and you’ll get a dozen variations, all of which will contain a few common threads. Here’s the gist of why honeybees leave home.
This house is too small!
One of the biggest causes of swarming is a crowded hive. Swarming most often occurs in early spring, when the new batch of brood are hatching. If bees realize that their current hive is too small to accommodate all the young and everyone else, some of them start looking for a new domicile.
We’re not sure what signals the bees to do this, but at some point, they determine that swarming is going to be necessary. Worker bees prepare a group of fertilized eggs to become queen bees. Before any of these bees hatches, the queen of the existing hive says tally-ho, gathers about half of the hive with her and—literally—buzzes off.
A couple years ago, I saw a swarm flying across the sky about 15 feet above my head. It was remarkable—and noisy! Thousands of honeybees flying in a tight group are an impressive sight. If I had seen where they landed, I’d have made a beeline for them. (Yes, “making a beeline” for something is derived from worker bees flying straight back to the hive on the shortest path once they have a full load of nectar.)
Meanwhile, back at the hive, the baby queens are ready to hatch. The first one that hatches becomes the queen of the new (smaller) hive. The worker and drone bees carry on their activities in the same hive, which is now much more spacious.
Even if you can’t locate the swarm that flew off, you now have a hive with a young queen and a functioning group of workers and drones. They have a more spacious home in a location that has previously allowed them to thrive.
If you are fortunate enough to capture the swarming group and relocate it to another of your hives, you’ve gained a hive with a queen you know has been productive. That’s a classic win-win.
This house has issues.
The location just isn’t right.
Like Goldilocks, bees thrive in a situation that’s “just right.” They need abundant food supplies and a consistent source of water. Their home needs to be warm in the winter, but not too warm in the summer. They need ventilation. (If you had thousands of family members living with you, you’d need fresh air, too.) There’s a fine line, though, between too little air and too much. Excessive ventilation or breeze disturbs the brood and can make the hive hard to keep warm in the winter.
The “neighbors” are bothersome or destructive.
Small pests like hive beetles, mites, ants and other bugs sometimes infest a hive. Wasps and birds can also hinder a hive. Bees that are “worried” by these types of issues often look for a better location.
Animals that eat the bees, or try to rob the hive of honey, can also cause the hive to swarm. Raccoons and opossums enjoy an occasional snack of honeybees. Skunks are an even bigger problem. They love to eat bees and will return to the hive again and again unless they are stopped. And, of course, bears love honey and honeybees. They may attack the hive itself in their effort to get to the honey.
It’s just time to move.
Sometimes whole hives leave for no apparent reason. This is called absconding. If you’re a beekeeper, you know that having a hive abscond is very discouraging, especially if the hive has been apparently healthy. A hive that appeared to be a good source of honey for you is now completely devoid of honey producers. There is no queen left to repopulate the apiary; you’ll have to start this hive fresh.
The double discouragement occurs when you open the hive to gather clues about why the hive left, but can’t find any obvious reason. The hive isn’t littered with dead bees. There aren’t signs of parasites. Some comb is filled with honey. Other honeycomb obviously held brood.
At this point, you have a couple of options. You can buy bees for the hive. Many companies that sell beekeeping supplies also sell live bees. A local firm we’ve used is The Carolina Honey Bee Company, based in Travelers Rest, SC. Buying bees is generally a quick solution, but it’s expensive.
The other option is to capture a swarm. Some beekeepers specialize in capturing hives, and have developed a system for luring swarming bees from their hives and others’ hives. Others, like my husband and me, occasionally capture swarms when the opportunity presents itself.
We’ve captured 2 hives so far. One ensconced itself among the honeysuckle growing in the chain-link fence in our backyard. We heard it before we saw it. (Did I mention that swarming bees are noisy?) Extracting that swarm was tricky. My husband worked carefully. I stood back and took pictures.
We learned about the 2nd one from the parents of our daughter-in-law. We drove a few miles to extract this swarm from some overgrown shrubbery. This swarm was about 10 feet from the ground, and required some delicate ladder work.
After being in our hive for almost 2 years, this colony just absconded. They left behind honey-filled comb, but no bees. We’ve harvested some honey and left some in the hive. So, now we’re looking for a swarm that can repopulate the top-bar hive that’s sitting empty.
We didn't start keeping bees as a first step toward urban homesteading or down-home sustainability. We started because our oldest son, Aaron, read that eating local honey was good for people prone to springtime allergies. He was one of those people, and wanted to test the theory with his own honey. (Full disclosure: He was interested in beekeeping before then. The allergy idea was his catalyst.) He read books about beekeeping, then purchased an active hive from a retiring beekeeper.
The next spring he got a lovely batch of delicious honey and began adding hives. After having some issues with Langstroth hives (the stacked-box hives most commonly seen in this country), and losing a couple of hives during the winter, Aaron built a horizontal top-bar hive. A top-bar hive looks like a covered manger on stilts. It's a little easier to work with and easier to reach since it sits up off the ground. (The photo at the top shows a top-bar hive.)
Shortly after that, Aaron married and moved to Scotland. We inherited his hives and became beekeepers. I can't say that we've been particularly successful as beekeepers. We've harvested more beeswax that we have honey. We learned the hard way that Roundup kills honeybees. We lost two more hives during the winter, and had a couple of hives swarm and move on. That's the bad news.
There is good news. We have learned much about beekeeping and the importance of helping bees survive in an increasingly difficult environment that includes widespread use of pesticides and potentially-harmful herbicides. As growers of fruit trees, we now understand the delicate balance between keeping the blossoms safe for bees to pollinate, and keeping pests out of the fruit. We're learning the value of bee-friendly pesticides. After a time of seeing very few pollinators in our garden, we now have an abundance of them.
Beekeeping has also provided some really interesting stories. Twice my husband has successfully captured someone else's hives that had swarmed. The first one settled among the honeysuckle entwined in the chain-link fence at the back of our property. Michael donned protective gear and began to methodically and carefully extract chunks of bee-encrusted honeysuckle vines. He worked while I stood by snapping pictures and urging him to be careful. Things got intense when he said, "Oh, blast. There's a bee inside my pant leg!" He calmly continued snipping bee-laden vines. The bee apparently decided she'd taken a wrong turn, turned around, and exited the way she had come!
The biggest benefit of beekeeping has been the satisfaction of knowing that we're helping--in a very small way--to stem the tide of drastically-declining numbers of bees in this country. In the process, we have a well-pollinated garden and the joy of watching, and learning about, these fascinating creatures. Occasionally, we also get to taste some of their honey. Beekeeping has been the important first step for us along the road to down-home sustainability.
I'm Sandy . . .
I write crisp, accurate, engaging copy and content marketing for my B2B and B2C clients. My favorite topics are vacation rentals, urban homesteading, sustainability, and inspirational posts.