May 26, 2023
The assumption that bees love nothing better than to make honey is easy to assume, considering they work every daylight hour gathering nectar and pollen and will literally work themselves to death doing so. However, this is a means to and end not the primary objective. Making more bees is.
What do they need to make more bees? An abundance of food (nectar and pollen) and warmth.
Warmth from the weather or body heat from the bees themselves determine the size of the brood nest the bees can manage. Keeping the eggs, larva, and capped brood warm enough to survive the developing stages. As the population grows they are able to maintain a bigger nursery with the increase of body heat. Also, more bees equal more foragers and that translates to more resources for a bigger bee factory.
Anyone who has ever raised children knows the stress when the new baby arrives, and suddenly the amount of square feet in the home is no longer adequate. Bees are no different.
When the amount of nectar and pollen coming in fills all the available space the house bees start storing it in the brood chamber. This causes congestion and less space for the queen to lay eggs, and it triggers a swarm behavioral response. The bees will build a series of larger cells for the queen to lay in, and when hatched will flood the larva inside with hormone rich Royal Jelly (Wikipedia article on Royal Jelly). This ensures full development of a female bee’s reproductive system and thus new queens are now on the way. This is a 15-16-day process, and on the day they hatch, mayhem ensues.
When the first queen hatches, she roams through the hive looking for other new queens. Funny enough she will co-exist with the original older queen, but her fellow virgin queens are fair game. She will find unhatched queen cells and tear them open stinging and killing the occupant. If queens hatch at the same time, they will fight to the death. Only when there is one virgin queen left does the carnage end.
Very shortly after, the new virgin queen will commence her mating flight, and for a very brief period of time there will be two queens active in the colony.
Immediately the older queen will stop being fed by her attendants and she will rapidly slim down to her flying weight. She will be pretty indistinguishable from her daughters, but her identity is in her mandibular pheromones, not her appearance.
In the next following afternoons if the weather and the forecast is fair (Yes, they can accurately predict the weather), the bees will commence to swarm. A large portion, sometimes more than half of the bees consisting mostly of the youngest will flyout and gather in a cloud above the colony. These young bees are the wax makers, the nurse bees and the house bees. They also load up on as much honey they can stuff into themselves, which is a significant amount.
The cloud like swarm of bees will then fly off to what you could consider a camp site to scout out a new home. This temporary camp may be a dozen feet, or half a mile away from the original colony. Swarms can camp anywhere. The top of a 40-foot pine, the windscreen of a car, or a fence post. The “why here and not over there?” question remains a mystery, but this is the window of opportunity to capture the swarm with the least amount of effort.
Having no home to defend, the swarm is fairly docile and can be handled gently with low chances of being stung. They pose little danger to the public and should be left unmolested and for the love of God DON’T SPRAY THEM. So many unknowledgeable folks take a garden hose or a can of insecticide thinking they pose a threat. Put Down The RAID. Pick Up The Phone. (204-612-2337) We can intervene, an ensure that they are placed in a new hive and are not a nuisance to anyone. They just want to thrive and survive, just like you and I.
Until the sun sets that day, and the first half of the next day scout bees will be flying in all directions to seek out a new home. This could be the hollow of a tree, or an old dilapidated barn, or even a crevasse in a rock face. They look for dry sheltered spots with a cavity they can keep warm or cool enough to set up house.
The problems start when they find undesirable (to us) locations like the soffits or attic of your house. The dead space in the walls of your garage, or in your garden shed.
The scouts return to the swarm camp, and dance their report to the others. Soon a consensus is achieved and the swarm will lift off and go to the chosen location be it compatible to human approval or not. Comb is built in an incredible rate, with the queens feeding resumed so eggs can be laid in the first created cells.
Once the first egg hatches, those bees will not be lured, smoked, or coerced out of their chosen spot. Relocating them now takes significant effort, results in up to 50 percent mortality, is time consuming and expensive. Not to mention painful as they now have a home to defend. They are now an established colony an extraction, not a capture is now the situation. If they are in an attic or soffit, or pose a danger to children then extermination is an option, but not a cheap one. Professional exterminators charge about 300 bucks to start, and if they need to bring out a ladder you can tack on another 90.
The window of intervention is small, but capturing a camped swarm is relatively simple. A brood box containing comb, wax, and honey is a compelling lure to a swarm of bees and I’ve had them march right in as soon as I’ve placed it near. We let them sit overnight, and we come before the sun rises to shut them in and drive them away to our quarantine yard for inspection and treatment.
Swarms cost beekeepers a pretty penny. They lose a large percentage if not all of that colonies honey production. It’s preventable, and a good vigilant beekeeper should be able to control the colony by reducing brood congestion, splitting the colony artificially, or replacing full brood frames with empty combs. Those full brood frames can be given to weaker struggling hives, so there is not loss at all.
So if you see a swarm of bees, give us a call to give them a fighting chance. If they can be reclaimed, we can make it happen. If you are a beekeeper yourself, make sure you are inspecting every 7 days for signs of congestion, presence of swarm cells, and prepare to intervene. Domestic honey bees did not choose to be in your apiary, so YOU are responsible for their wellbeing.
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