How wonderful it is to visit your apiary and watch all that industrious honeybee activity — oh, no, wait! You see hundreds of bees flowing upward on the hive exterior from the entrance and bottom board? That means you’ve got a hive that’s swarming. It’s a sign that there are problems in that hive that requires prompt attention.
Common Reasons Bees Swarm
We all know who’s in charge of the hive: the queen. If she decides that more space is needed, or if the original queen was superseded and more than one queen is present in the hive, one of them will signal to the colony that they’re leaving. Stop! There she goes with 40 percent of the colony!
This all means that you didn’t check conditions in the brood super, or reverse its position in the spring, and you also didn’t check for supercedure cells. Well, give yourself a quick whack on the wrist with a hive tool (ouch!), and then get busy and do some hive inspections.
Technique to Stop a Swarm
There they are, flying in a cloud right through the air as you stand there and gawk. Well, you just might succeed at stopping them if you try a trick I learned during my nearly 20 years of keeping bees.
Keep an old tin bucket, stainless steel bowl, or another metal container, and a heavy metal spoon, handy to your bee yard. Then, if you’re present when the bees are leaving the hive body, start banging on the metal container with the spoon (or your metal hive tool). Keep it up nonstop, as loud as you can, until you see them going back into the hive bodies. Don’t worry what your neighbors will think — they might decide to watch and learn something in the process.
As I understand it, bees don’t exactly hear as we do, but they’re sensitive to vibrations in the air. Something about that clanging noise causes them to turn around and head back to the hive. Even when they’re in flight through the air, I’ve seen them change course and return back home.
It’s worked for me many times and is really nothing short of a miracle. This technique may sound like an old wives’ tale or witchcraft, but it works. A very experienced beekeeper friend and winemaker clued me in on this. At first, I didn’t believe it, but I tried it, and it worked almost every single time! Usually my apiary contained about 15 colonies, so it wasn’t just a hive or two, and I didn’t want to lose any of them. After trying this the first time, I became a believer.
The Bees Returned. Now What?
When they come back, you must be right out there and prepare to give Madame Queen more space — now! Try to quickly enlist a helper during this “crisis” who either can do the clanging and banging, or fetch the stuff you’ll need.
First, immediately either reverse the deep supers of the swarming hive, or give the colony another deep super of clean empty frames, placed at the very top of the stack directly under the lid. After the bees have settled back in a bit and you see a large population, you’ll likely need to do a split. Don’t walk away, figuring you can come back later and do this. It must be done right away if you want to keep the hive intact.
Count all the Queens
You’ll need to do a queen count as quickly as possible. If more than one queen is present in the colony, they’ll swarm again. You’ll need to either do a split, making sure you get a queen for each colony, or take a chance and cold-bloodedly kill all but one queen and hope she holds the colony together.
We’ll discuss these, and other swarm prevention measures I mentioned in future blog posts. If you have any of the good beekeeping books such as The Hive and the Honeybee or The ABC XYZ of Bee Culture, around, they cover this subject very well, complete with great photos. A veteran beekeeping mentor can also explain and show you what must be done.
Don’t be afraid to admit that you still don’t know it all when it comes to beekeeping. (Hint: nobody really does; we’re all still learning!) Having bees in your backyard is a privilege and an opportunity to marvel and learn, and swarming is an incredible sight. But once is enough — too much swarming and you’ll be out of bees and have to start all over. That’s both expensive and unnecessary. Good luck!
Mary Moss-Sprague is a certified Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver in Corvallis, Ore., and author of Stand Up and Garden: The No-digging, No-tilling, No-stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs.
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