A Swarm in May

A swarm of bees in May, is worth a load of hay. A swarm of bees in June, is worth a silver spoon. A swarm of bees in July, isn’t worth a fly.

Proverbial Beekeeping saying

It’s a warm spring day in the apiary, the sun is shining down on busy hives and worker bees soar across the air as they collect pollen and nectar. The green grass below your feet has given way to a carpet of golden dandelion heads, stretching towards the sky above in their little glory. You take care to watch where you step, avoiding hungry little honey bees foraging among the blooms. It’s hard to say if you hear it or see it first, because the sound is almost a deafening buzz but the wall before your eyes of thousands of bees is even more striking. A honey bee swarm!

Here on the farm we are in the thick of swarm season in our apiaries. Swarms are natures way of reproducing a bee colony and is a part of their natural reproductive life cycle. When a hives population reaches capacity and they start to feel overcrowded, the queen bee along with with her field workers will leave the hive and cluster nearby until scout bees can find them an acceptable new home. When these bees depart from the hive they leave behind swarm cells which contain new queens. The queens will hatch and fight to the death for power over the colony.

Swarms begin to happen as the spring weather warms up and food sources become plentiful. Here on our farm, this is marked by the blooming of the dandelions. Bountiful sources of pollen and nectar paired with the warm weather provide the right conditions for rapid increases in populations. As hive populations increase to provide adequate worker bees for summer foraging, hive space may begin to run low.

One way we as beekeepers control swarms in our own apiaries is by performing hive splits early into spring. We perform what are called walk away splits, in which we remove frames of fresh eggs, uncapped and capped brood and as many bees on frames as we can without the queen and place them into a new hive box. We then “walk away” and leave the hive for several weeks to establish their own colony. In this time, the bees should rear a new queen of their own and set up in this new box. This allows space in the old colony, a slight decrease in population and curbs the urge for the bees to want to swarm. This season we split four of our hive setups into three new hives, bringing us to a total of seven hives. We then captured a feral colony (more to come on this story later) which took us to eight hives.

On his way home from work the other day Dan received a message from a person in town who thought perhaps they had a wasps nest in their backyard but weren’t sure. Turns out, it was a large swarm of honey bees taking refuge in their backyard! So we packed up the truck, suited up and headed into town to capture the swarm.

Upon arrival, we scoped out our situation and got ourselves setup. The swarm had gathered near the tops of a cut off tree in the yard, so we were going to need a ladder to reach them. Thankfully, the homeowners provided us with a tall enough ladder to reach the swarm safely. With the empty nuc box placed atop the ladder Dan got to work as he scooped and brushed the bees from the limb into the box. As he begins to move the bees some take flight and a cloud of bees fills the air around us. Swarming bees are docile at this point because they have usually filled their bellied before leaving their home hive, however, standing among a cloud of bees can definitely be intimidating yet beautiful all at once. Once the majority of bees have been brushed from the branch into the box we step away and wait for several signs:

  • Have we got the Queen? If the queen bee is in the nuc box it doesn’t take long for the worker bees to start fanning out her pheremone. We watch for bees along the top of the box who have their butts in the air and their wings beating profusely. This is a good sign the queen is inside and they are calling the rest of the bees to her.
  • Marching bees. Another sure sign we have the queen is witnessing bees start to march into the box. After catching onto the pheremone, worker bees around the box will begin to march in, packing in thousands of bees.

Once the swarming bees flying above have died down some, we removed the box from the top of the ladder and placed it on the ground with the lid of the box slightly askew. We wait another half hour or so for the last of the bees to make their way into the box before we tape it shut for the journey home. Thankfully we live close to town and it was a short truck ride for these bees!

Once we arrived home, we quickly set up a new hive box, lid and bottom in a shady spot in the grass just off of our apiary. Frames of bees from the nuc box were removed and placed into a hive box and the remaining bees inside the box were then dumped in. Again, we let the hive settle back into the new box, giving them time to establish the box as their new home, send out the pheremone and again allow the bees to all make their way in. Once we were sure everyone was inside, we placed the new hive set up alongside our split hives from this year. Then we walked away and left the hive for a week before doing our first inspections, which we will perform tonight. From outside, the hive appears very strong with lots of pollen coming in. It was such a large swarm we actually added a second box the following day to allow space for everyone. We are so excited to see how this swarm does for us and how they will progress throughout this coming season.

Currently our little apiary sits at nine hives. We had no idea starting out this year we would more than double the hives we started with, but how exciting it is heading into this new season. We look forward to nurturing our splits, building strong colonies and even soon, adding on those honey supers. If things continue this way, we should be looking at a bumper honey harvest this fall. How sweet is that?!

As we end each day on the farm, we walk through our gardens and orchard, we pass by our berry patch and greenhouse and we come to say goodnight to the bees. Pausing for a moment, the last little flutters of wings as the bees return home for the night after a day of foraging. We give thanks to these amazing little creatures who not only provide us with a sweet treat, but who keep our world alive. Who pollinate our vegetable gardens, fruit trees, berry bushes, flowers and neighbouring crop fields.

One thought on “A Swarm in May

  1. Thanks for sharing that story Hadleigh. It and the photographs were fascinating. So happy to hear a success story about our bees.

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