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Swarm prevention: a duel with the forces of nature

The first thing to remember about swarming is that it is a perfectly normal phenomenon. Swarming is nature’s way of reproducing a colony of bees. Without swarming, honey bees as they exist today would not have survived down through the ages. Swarm prevention turns out to be a duel between the beekeeper and the natural world and sometimes the natural world wins—so don’t be too hard on yourself. Think of it this way: if your bees attempt to swarm, it usually means you have raised a robust and populous hive. Good job!

There are many beekeepers who believe that if you lose a swarm you are either inept or stupid. My advice to those people is “get a life.” If a beekeeper thinks he never lost a swarm it’s because he wasn’t paying attention. It is very true that as you gain more experience you get more skilled at recognizing the signs of an impending swarm, and you get more adept at altering hive conditions so a swarm doesn’t occur. But to say someone is inept because he loses an occasional swarm is ridiculous.

That said, there are many reasons for trying to prevent swarms. To me, one of the most compelling reasons is that bees now have a hard time surviving in the wild. Bee diseases and parasites have done a remarkable job of spreading to far corners of the planet and colonies succumb to these maladies on a regular basis. It varies, of course, depending on where you live. But here in North America, there are very few remaining feral colonies that persist past the first season. So a lost swarm may be able to start a new home somewhere, but it probably won’t survive till spring. For that reason alone, if you can prevent a swarm—or catch a swarm—you are likely saving bees.

There are other good reasons to prevent swarming:

  • A lost swarm means less honey production and less pollination
  • A swarm may intimidate neighbors or become a public nuisance
  • A late-season swarm may jeopardize the parent colony’s survival

You can relax a little if you have a new colony or an older colony with a new queen, both of which are less likely to swarm than an established colony with an older queen. Still, if the hive becomes congested quickly, it may decide to swarm. As your hive expands, be sure to give it room to grow.

Over the next week or so, I will write about swarm prevention and control, as well as recognizing congestion. In addition, I’ll write about some newly published research that gives clues about how animals move in cohesive groups.

Rusty

Comments

jess
Reply

I noticed you’ve been talking about swarms a lot lately. Have you had any swarms? Have you caught any? Someone at the bee club was saying she’s caught four swarms in her bee yard, none of them from her hives. That seems like a lot!

Rusty
Reply

Some how I doubt she caught four swarms in her bee yard that weren’t from her own hives. That doesn’t seem right. Swarms tend to go to areas of lesser congestion and usually don’t go into an area with lots of bees already there. Obviously I don’t know the details but I’m guessing she’s catching her own.

When bees first leave the hive they cluster somewhere near their original hive until they decide on a place to go. That’s probably when she’s finding them. It’s not always easy to tell if a hive has swarmed, and she may have missed the signs.

I haven’t had any swarms lately but I get a lot of questions about them so that’s why I’ve been writing about them. Most of the swarms I’ve ever caught have been my own.

angie
Reply

New beekeeper using a top bar hive. Noticed round capped cells today resembling the pica of drone cells. About 4 or 5 on each frame. Is this cause for concern? I haven’t t been able to identify the queen during inspections.

Rusty
Reply

Angie,

Do you think they are drone cells or do you think they are something else, like queen cups? They could be either and they are perfectly natural.

angie
Reply

I thought drone cells because of the round shape and placement in the middle of frame. Just wanted to make sure they weren’t preparing to swarm or that I was missing something. Thanks!

foy
Reply

At this point, please find the queen? If you don’t you may have laying workers. This is not good; you need a queen. Don’t just add a queen because they will not except her.

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