Two years in and can I stop them swarming?

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This is aimed at bee-keepers with one or two years experience who may feel that bee-keeping is not as easy as it appeared. None of what follows is intended as anything other than tips for an easier life. My methods will not suit everyone so please pick out the parts that are relevant to you and adapt them if necessary to suit your own situation.-

Swarms have been dealt with admirably in the last couple of issues so I want to try and tell you a few things that might not have cropped up and that as a beginner might be worth considering. And try and mention a few things that others forget.

You should know by now why bees swarm. It is their method of reproduction and once bees have it in their minds, much like teenagers, the more you try and stop them doing it the more they seem to want to do it. For that very reason you will never stop bees swarming. All you can do is try and control it to some extent.

I am not going to explain all the various methods of swarm control. There are many and you need to play with a few to decide which suits you best. Which ever method you do decide to use this year try and stick with it for a while but be prepared from an early stage to go into swarm control mode when you least expect it. I always have a totally empty hive in my apiary full of new frames of foundation so I don’t get caught out. You might prefer to clip the queen’s wing. Personally I am not a great fan of clipped queens but it is another tactic for you to read about and consider.

Try and think practically about when it would be a good time for a queen to fly off with half the hive. When there is not enough room for eggs and/or honey or when there is a good flow of nectar and the hive is strong are just a few obvious examples.-

You can bet that the week you miss an inspection will be the week queen cells appear. You need to know exactly what you are going to do when you are stood there with a frame containing two or three of them! Just knocking them off the frame might buy you a bit of breathing space but it is not going to get rid of the swarming instinct. In an ideal world you will have the equipment to hand for your chosen method and everything will go according to plan but what happens if it doesn’t?- Well, you get your first swarm, closely followed by a second cast and maybe even a third. All of a sudden you are running out of kit and your neighbours are running out of patience.-

A swarm is an amazing sight akin only to flocks of starlings in my opinion, and I love the challenge and sense of satisfaction in being able to hive them. If they come from my hive then I haven’t lost any bees and if they come from elsewhere then I have gained some bees. You will soon recognise the unique sound of a swarm and it helps to see which hive they have come from so that you can reduce any queen cells to one or two, depending on your preference, to minimise casts.-

I have found that each hive seems to have its favourite swarming spot, it maybe a gate post, a nice low tree branch or at the top of a fifty foot pine tree. Some swarms will be inaccessible and later on the same day or even several days later you will see that initial swarm take off for a new home and there is nothing you can do about it. Other swarms will taunt you on the end of a branch where your ladder will just reach. Please do not take any risks trying to recover swarms. I know of several people who have received injuries while swarm collecting and it really is not worth it. A swarm of bees is actually quite heavy and if you are dropping it into an empty box whilst carrying out acrobatic stunts on the end of a ladder things can go very wrong very quickly. It is also surprising how much a swarm of bees bends a tree branch down so make sure that if you are using a ladder there is plenty of allowance for branch movement. Even when you think you have an easy collection job things can go wrong. I once had a hive swarm into two sections. Instead of waiting until they united into one unit, I cut both the small branches off the tree they were on. I had a branch full of bees in each hand. I walked to my box and shook the branch in my right hand so that the bees fell into it, unfortunately when I shook my right hand my left hand involuntarily made the same downward thrust. All the bees on the branch in my left hand also came loose and went straight down the top of my wellington boots. We all make mistakes that we can laugh at afterwards!
Just occasionally a swarm might do all the work for you and land in just the right place like a hanging basket. PHOTO

Bees are usually very calm during a swarm and it is a pleasure handling them but that is not the way your neighbours will see it. Thousands of bees flying in circles can be both amazing and frightening- so it is imperative that you stay calm whilst collecting them. Think of what you are going to do before you do it. I have been known to cut large branches to try and reach swarms. As the branch falls the bees will take off again and may end up somewhere even more difficult. I have been told that a long pole with a bag at the end with a frame of old comb in can entice them in but I have not tried it yet.-

One of the main problems is that you don’t know how long bees are going to stay in the initial swarming spot before they fly off to their new home. It could be hours but I have known them be on an apple tree branch in dry weather long enough to build several layers of comb. The collector
came well prepared. PHOTOS. My advice would always be to let them settle as one swarm, as sometimes they split into two or three initial parts, and then to let them calm down before attempting removal.-

Please do not feel you have failed just because your bees have swarmed. As beekeepers we should be as responsible as possible for our bees but all you can do is try your best and if one gets away then so be it. During the summer you may have a hive that seems to throw a swarm every week until you are at your wits end. With a little experience this will happen less as you become more prepared and more adept at spotting the signs of swarming and hidden queen cells. Enjoy the experience but don’t take any risks.

Finally, my tip for this week is that if you do see the swarm leaving for a new home then try and keep an eye on it. If it heads for your chimney or a neighbours then you have a few minutes to get a cool smokey fire going in the grate to disperse them. They will start building comb very very quickly and once that has started they are there to stay.-