SWARMING IN TO SPRING

Posted on

Spring has sprung! It’s been a while since we updated this website. Too long, in fact. But that’s not to say we haven’t been keeping busy like the bees. We’ve made a lot of progress over the past year and a half, and as we move in to our micro apiary’s fourth season, we have lots of news to share!

With spring comes swarming season. In our part of the world, the swarm season coincides closely with the apple blossom bloom, which typically begins in early May. We are in the peak of swarm season as I write this. We keep a close eye on our hives at this time of year, watching for signs of a swarm flight.

Maybe you’re wondering, ‘Why do bees swarm, anyway?’. Here’s some basic information on the magic of a bee swarm.

Back in the fall, when the weather was cooling down and the pollen and nectar supplies were getting sparse, our bees began to reduce the size of their colonies. The drones (male bees) were given the boot to conserve the hive’s valuable winter resources. The queen dramatically slowed her egg laying. The worker (female bee) colony shrank in size as bees died without new babies to replace them. The workers left in the hive formed a tight cluster with the queen in the centre where she was kept warm and sheltered through the winter months. As honey bee stewards, in the fall we remove the excess honey supers filled during the summer nectar flows. We take some of the honey to bottle but we are careful to leave enough honey in each hive to support the bees through the winter. In the winter, without their honey super boxes, our hive towers are much shorter than in the peak of summer which gives the bees less space that they have to keep warm and defend.

With the warmer weather of spring, food sources again become abundant. The queen begins laying new workers and eventually drones. The colony expands from its winter size of 10,000- 20,000 bees up to 50,000 bees or more. Again, as stewards, we monitor the hive activity closely and attempt to increase the number of boxes in each hive to match its expansion. Invariably however, some of our hives will swarm.

Swarming is a beautiful and important part of the honey bee life cycle. During the process of a swarm, the bee colony has expanded either beyond the size allowance of the hive, or to such great numbers that some bees no longer have access to the queen’s pheromones, leaving them literally stranded in the hive without a leader. The colony must divide to ensure its own health. To do this, a portion of the colony begins to raise a new queen bee. There can only be one queen bee in a colony. To allow for this, just prior to the new queen hatching, the old queen takes flight, followed by an entourage of her most loyal subjects. This is the flying cloud of bees that you think of when you think of a bee swarm.

The cluster of bees in flight that is characteristic of a bee swarm is a carefully choreographed group of worker girls strategically gathered around their precious queen who is at the centre of their group. The queen, though powerful, is a rather poor flyer. The swarm will settle in a tree or eve somewhere near their old hive so that the queen can rest. When this happens, the swarm forms a tight cluster on a tree branch or other structure, with their queen nestled tightly in the centre. In the meantime, scout worker bees will leave the group in search of a new home that they will then lead the rest of the hive toward.

In anticipation of swarm season, we put out swarm traps. These are essentially prefab bee condos, either commercially made or fashioned out of nucleus hive boxes. The idea is that they look inviting to scout bees so that they shepherd the rest of colony in to the trap.

Once the nucleus colony moves in to the swarm trap, we upgrade them in to their very own hive tower. From one healthy hive comes two. The original hive with the new queen, and the nucleus colony with the old queen. The two hives will expand their numbers and so the cycle begins again.

Sometimes we get lucky and find a resting swarm before they have found a new home. If the new home they choose is one of our traps, then everything is fine. Sometimes however, a swarm decides to find another place to settle down. When they do this, we often lose the hive. To prevent this from happening, if we see a swarm cluster we are quick to catch it. Sometimes we do this by knocking the cluster from the tree in to a cardboard box. Other times, we trap them in a swarm catcher that is a lot like a butterfly net.

The magic of hive swarming can also be harnessed by bee keepers to expand hive numbers. By allowing hives to expand their numbers to the edge of swarming, as bee keepers we can divide hives and start new hives with specifically chosen queens. Either queens that we have raised, again using the power of swarm instincts, or using bees that have been purchased from other queen breeders.

Over the past couple of years we have been working to raise our own queens and expand our hive numbers. We have also begun to diversify our hives away from an exclusive Langstroth hive apiary. With different hive styles comes a different understanding of the brilliance of bees.

We’re back on line now and we will work hard to keep up our website as dutifully as we keep up our other endeavours. Stay tuned for more updates from EquiFlora!