Navigate / search

Swarm sense

The conversation begins like this, “I’m a new beekeeper with a quick question. How do I keep my bees from swarming?” Then, even before the paroxysms of laughter, snorting, and choking die down, an officious, self-important beekeeper proclaims, “My bees don’t swarm because I keep them content and happy.” Wow, where do I begin?

I want to say, “Look around! What do you see besides seven billion humans?” Cats, rats, and mice tuck behind every garbage pail. Ants spill from your foundation. Termites dine on your sill plates. Mites suck bee blood. Bacteria vie for space in your gut and Occupy your kitchen sink. Weeds rend cracks in your driveway and ravage your garden. Reproduction happens, babe. Every living thing has the drive to reproduce itself. Why should bees be any different?

“How do I keep my bees from swarming?” is like asking, “How do I keep my [pick one: dog, cat, guppy, kid] from reproducing?” There are ways, of course, but the ways involve interference with a natural process. You can neuter your dog or cat. You can feed pills to your daughter or supply your son with condoms. You can tear apart your brood nest, split your hive, or cut swarm cells. Even checkerboarding interferes with the colony’s perception of its own strength.

Am I saying you shouldn’t do those things? Not at all. I’m saying that you will have a better chance of succeeding if you understand the reproductive imperative. Remember, when you try to prevent a swarm, you try to stop what a colony has an irrepressible urge to do. Swarmy bees are acting according to specs, working as designed. No manufacturer recall is needed.

That said, as beekeepers we want to prevent swarms. We want our bees to work for us, we want large strong colonies, we want to curb home invasions and spare children and old folks from marauding insects. So we try to prevent what nature is hell-bent on doing. It’s a little like building levees along the Mississippi or tsunami walls in Japan—it all works to a point.

The guy who says his bees don’t swarm because they are happy is naïve . . . and usually condescending. His words imply that your bees are unhappy and you are a bad beekeeper. BS. If all bees were as happy as his bees, the species would quickly go extinct.

I don’t believe bees experience happiness or lack thereof, but let’s use that language for a moment. Do you believe an animal is happier if it is neutered? Most pet owners swear their neutered pets are “happy and content.” Most humans want the same thing, yet they don’t get neutered in the pursuit of happiness. And a simple vasectomy or tubal ligation doesn’t prevent the reproductive urge any more than clipping a wing.

But reasonable management is not a bad thing, even if we wouldn’t go there ourselves. As humans, we can manage our animals and have compassion at the same time. My own pets are spoiled beyond measure and, yes, they are neutered and I am not. My point is simply that to be a successful beekeeper, you need to look at your colony through the eyes of a biologist, not a family therapist. Lose the idea that you must make your bees “happy” to keep them from swarming.

To prevent swarming you must interfere with the course of nature. Most swarm prevention measures weaken the colony in some way, lessening its bee-ness just as neutering your dog lessens his dog-ness. That’s okay as long as you realize that preventing reproduction enhances your goals—not the goals of bees or dogs or guppies—and not the goals of nature.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Related post: Romancing the swarm: the dream of wild bees

Swarm in a tree. Flickr photo by Frederick Knapp.

Comments

Sarah
Reply

If the bees want to swarm, is there something wrong with letting them go? Are the bees remaining in my hive any worse off?

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

If you live in an urban or suburban area, you should try to prevent swarming. See “Summer in the city: urban hive inspections” for some insight into managing hives in the city.

As for the bees, they usually recover quickly from a swarm–but you will get little honey in a swarm year. If your colony does cast a swarm, make sure it successfully raises a new queen. If it doesn’t, you will have to add a queen for them.

HERB
Reply

Rusty . . . Spent the day getting ready for checker boarding. Made every effort possible to not disturb the bees/queen any more than possible. Had worked several hives earlier . . . everything had gone just great. On this hive I took my hive tool and lifted what I thought was an empty candy board . . . to my surprise the queen was on the bottom of the empty board and fell to the ground. I fell to the ground with my bee brush in hand in the mist of a great swarm of pissed bees begging her to take a ride back to the front door of the hive. She took the ride. I have never liked using the smoker . . . this was the day I should have used the smoker! Thank goodness it was seventy degrees at the end of February . . . Not the norm. I know the smoker has its place in the process of managing the bees . . . Tell me how you keep your smoker lit and puffing light blue smoke an hour at a time? Went back to do a walk-by check on that hive this afternoon . . . got popped on the side of the head and lost my glasses. I am sure I will look like Mr. Potato Head tomorrow.

Rusty
Reply

Herb,

Read “Never trust a queen” if you haven’t already; it lists some of the place where I have found my queens. Good job finding her, by the way, before you stepped on her. It can happen.

As for smokers, when I use one (which isn’t often) I use wood chips (sold as animal bedding) topped with baling twine. For getting it lit, I use part of a fatwood starter stick. It’s important to make sure the fire is really hot before shutting the lid or else it will go out quickly. Keep pumping the air through until the fire is well established.

Sarah
Reply

My friend gets mulch by the bucketfuls for free and that works pretty well. I used dried pine needles the one time I used a smoker. I am sensitive to the smoke so I’m going to use it as little as possible.

Herbs
Reply

Rusty . . . Thanks for the advice. Herb

Deborah
Reply

This certainly altered my perception of swarming as a bad thing. I will still try to prevent it, but I won’t label myself as a “bad beekeeper” if I fail. Thanks for another wonderful article!

Sarah
Reply

Another question:What are the chances of a swarm making it on its own? If I just let them go, am I really just letting a whole bunch of bees die?

Rusty
Reply

In North American most swarms don’t make it through the first winter. Of those that do, nearly all will die sometime in the second year because of mites and the diseases they carry. There are always exceptions, of course, but most don’t make it.

Jane Peters
Reply

Hi Rusty…. I just caught my first swarm ……. it’s our own! I have most of them in a new small super with frames and foundation. I went back and have more in a box so I’m just waiting for it to cool down and cluster so I can put them in with the rest… My question is … Should I leave them closed in until tomorrow ? Put a reducer ? Will hey try to go back to their original hive? What happens if I don’t have the queen? Thanks for your help…. Jane

Rusty
Reply

Jane,

You can leave them closed up tonight (or not). They won’t go anywhere at night so you don’t have to worry about them leaving. They probably have the queen with them because bees don’t normally swarm without a queen. If the queen is with them they will not try to go back to their original hive. Sometimes a newly hived swarm doesn’t stay where you put them and they may leave in a day or two if they don’t like their new home. To encourage them to stay put you can add a frame or two of drawn comb and/or a frame of honey and/or a frame of brood from your other hive. Any of those will encourage the swarm to stay.

Jane Peters
Reply

Rusty. The hive that swarmed is a split that I did in May . I checked both split hives , the parent hive has tons of bees inside. The split is half full, both have brood and a laying queen. In your opinion could some of the split have gone back to the orignal hive ? I had them side by side. Goodness…. So much to learn. I appreciate your advise.

Jane

Rusty
Reply

Jane,

After you did the split, all the foragers would have gone back to the original hive. Only the nurse bees, brood, and queen would stay with the split. Because, of that, it will take some time before the split builds to same size as the original colony.

Sarah

It does take time, but now my split is doing better than the original colony: a large portion of the bees disappeared over the course of the week recently. My friend and I aren’t sure what is wrong. I am so glad I have two hives so at least I’m not bee-less if the one hive fails.

Rusty

Sarah,

It sounds to me like they swarmed. You should check to be sure you have a laying queen.

Sarah
Reply

I did not notice a swarm but it is a possibility. We checked for a laying queen, and there is some capped brood and hardly any eggs. We were unable to spot the queen herself. So we gave them a frame of brood from my strong hive in hopes that they will raise a queen for themselves.

Rusty
Reply

Giving them open brood is the best thing to do. Good work.

Robbie
Reply

I haven’t done a deep hive inspection for about a month. Things were looking good according to my 2 months experience with beekeeping! I figured don’t bother them, they know what they are doing even if I don’t.

This morning around 9 o’clock, I went to go look at the bees coming and going and I had a big surprise. I had thousands of bees in the air and clustering on the front and underneath the hive. After things calmed down for a while my wife and I donned our suits and dug into the hive. We found everything in the 2 hive bodies full of honey capped and uncapped, capped brood and drone cells. We also found queen cells and supersedure cells. No eggs or queen was found.

Did it swarm while I was off doing something else? The hive seemed to be still full of bees. Do we keep letting nature take its course and hope for the best? We left 4 out of the 12 or so queen cells intact. The honey super on top is still empty, they have just started drawing comb in it. We are in Central Montana.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Robbie,

It is really hard to say from here what happened. If the bees were clustering around the hive and hanging from it, they may have been about to swarm, thinking about it, or perhaps they were just hot. You say things calmed down after a while, so I suppose they went back inside? Sometimes they get off to a false start; if so, they will try again later.

The queen lowers egg production right before a swarm, so the lack of eggs and presence of swarm cells sounds like a swarm is imminent. If you see honey stored in what was previously brood comb, that is a sign of a swarm as well.

I think you did the right thing by leaving some of the swarm cells, especially since you can’t find the queen and are unsure of the colony status. You will know more the next time you check on them.

Robbie
Reply

Well, I now now what to look for when a hive is ready to swarm! First hand experience teaches me the best. The bees swarmed while I was away today. Drove around hoping to find them, but no luck. My make shift trap didn’t look good to them. Now that they swarmed, what now? Wait a week to inspect and hope fully find eggs is my plan. What I have found out is waiting is hard to do! 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Robbie,

Most likely it will take longer than a week. Assuming the virgin was not hatched when the swarm occurred, allow about 2 days for hatching, 3 to 5 days for maturing, 2 to 7 days for mating (longer if the weather is bad), another 3 days for maturing. Then eggs, if all goes well. So that’s roughly 10 to 20 days. I normally wait about three weeks before I get worried.

robbie
Reply

I looked today, because I couldn’t wait any longer. No eggs yet, but what worries me now is I don’t see where she will lay eggs when she is ready to. It looks like as fast as the brood are hatching, the cells are getting filled with honey. They are not full, but it appears there is liquid in all the empty brood cells. Or is that just an allusion from them being cleaned? I have a medium super on top, but there is not much going on in it.

Rusty
Reply

Robbie,

Don’t worry about the queen having a place to lay. The workers will make sure she has space. Check on them again in a few days. Your hive swarmed on July 6. That plus 3 weeks (an average time before a virgin starts laying) is July 27. Today is the 15th. Some things can’t be rushed.

However, are you sure you are seeing nectar and not royal jelly? That also looks like liquid in the bottom of a cell, especially when the larvae first hatch. If your virgin matured and mated really fast, that is a possibility.

Carl
Reply

Hi Rusty! I’ve been reading your blogs and articles for a couple years now, thank you for being a selfless resource for all keeps and pollinator lovers alike!

I wanted to share a unusual moment I had a couple days ago. One of my hives had swarmed the day before and I managed to catch it (woo hoo!). I was doing an inspection on the hive that had swarmed and came across an emerging queen and piping queen roving the same frame. I’ll send you the video I took!

Pin cushion
Reply

Excellent resource. Thanks for all your help. I’m a third year beek with a hive that has swarmed the last 2 years. I got a new queen from Mark at northwestqueens.com and she is excellent! This year I had a bear attack that took the hive apart but it has survived. I just added a super because it was getting so full but the comb isn’t drawn out because it is new. Any way to speed that up?

Rusty
Reply

Pin,

Some people feed sugar syrup to speed up comb building. The problem is that you have to monitor it carefully and remove the syrup before they start storing it like honey. In my opinion, it is best to let the bees work on their own schedule. They will get the comb built when they are ready.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website