Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hiving a bee swarm

click on pictures for bigger versions
One of my bigger hives surprised me today and swarmed. I thought there was a possibility, so when I was walking by and saw the "beard of bees" hanging out the entrance, I figured it was today. It was warm and sunny -- the bees think that this kind of day is the day for a road trip.
Bees swarm when they think that the hive is too crowded. For me its unusual to see a swarm this early in the year. I usually see them in mid to late june, but that's ok. An early swarm is actually better -- they have a good chance to grow big enough to survive the winter. So this isn't a bad thing for me. it's like lambing, but with bees. I get a new hive out of it.
What bees do in preparation for a swarm is they start feeding and raising 4 to 8 larvae as queens. A day or two before the larvae hatch, the old queen leaves the hive emitting a "follow me" scent. A big group of bees does follow. The process looks like a tornado. In taking these pictures I'm surrounded by 20 to 30,000 bees. Just before they leave the hive they gorge themselves on honey for their trip. So they're full and not really into fighting. They bump into me as a take the picture, but I'm not stung. I'm wearing a t-shirt and jeans. no protective gear.

I walk off to give them time to settle, and about 15 minutes later see that they're gathering around a blackberry bush. The queen has landed there, and the rest of the workers will surround her, forming a solid mass of bees. I'm able to look at this group of bees and I'd estimate it at 3lbs of bees -- call it 25,000 workers.

They gather in smaller and smaller flights, eventually forming a very tight mass

Back at the hive are the bees that know that a swarm is going out, but missed the smell of the queen. They'll hang out in the entrance, but since the queen is gone, they'll not fly off.

The bees have formed two lumps under a blackberry vine. It's a handy spot, about 2' above the ground. I'm grateful for that. It makes hiving them very easy.

I grab an empty hive I have, but you can do this with a cardboard box with a couple of holes cut in it, and remove two frames from it. I remove the frames so that the swarm will drop into the hive when I shake the blackberry vine. I want the largest number of bees into the box at once. I'll replace the two frames in a few hours if things go well.

Ok. Having shaken the bees into the hive, I slide the top of the hive in. There's still a couple of bees hanging there, and there are bees all over the branches on either side, and flying around. I'd guess I've got about 12,000 bees in the hive, and the rest are flying. Now I wait.
If the bees go into the hive and stay, I've captured the queen and all is well. If they reform a ball or fly a short distance and reform the ball that means I didn't get the queen, and I start over again.

They're going into the box. Now I want as many of these bees as I can -- the more bees I can capture the better the colony will do later. Every worker is needed. So I leave the frames out and the top a little off so that there's plenty of places for the bees to go in. I'll go back around sunset, remove the top, replace the frames and then put the top back on the hive. Now I haven't been wearing any protective gear while hiving them but when I go back a few hours later and put those frames back in I'll want to be wearing a head protector. At that point the bees will have decided that's their hive and they will defend it. Review: A new swarm can be handled with low risk of being stung. But if they've colonized something and have been there for a few hours, they'll sting you if you mess with them.

You can see the lid of the hive at the bottom right of this photo, and the frames I took out at the bottom left. They only flew about 25 feet before settling on the bush. Very agreeable bees.

Here's what a hive looks like that isn't swarming. There's a few bees here and there, but not the masses hanging out of the doorway. I've narrowed this doorway with a stick (the unpainted wood in this photo) so that this hive can easily defend itself against other hives stealing its honey or supplies.
When you capture a swarm, you can take that opportunity to have the hive make new comb. In this case I had drawn comb (comb that was already fully formed by other bees) to give them, so they've got a huge head start, but if I were giving them wax sheets to make comb out of I'd be inclined to feed them some sugar to help that process. Since we're at the start of the bloom in this area, and they've already got drawn comb, I will not feed these bees unless they don't thrive for some reason. I'll leave them alone for 7 days and then pop the top on the hive and look to see that everything is ok. If things go well I should see newly laid eggs.


Kim said...

Kind of out of the blue... but will you have Katahdin lambs born any time soon, or more likely in spring of 2010? I'd like to buy a Katahdin ram lamb, to have a new, unrelated ram to breed all my ewes.
All that's important, is that it's a healthy Katahdin ram, and in good condition, etc.

Bruce King said...

I've bred the ewes now, so they should lamb in december sometime. if you'll email me your number at I'll mark the calendar and call you prior to castration so you can come and take a look at the boys to see if one looks good for you.

Both the ewe and ram are from triplet stock.