Divide and Conquer

E88 lives in a colony which has weathered the trials of life.  It has survived winter and disease, fended off attackers, replaced its ailing queen and finally mastered the cycle of life.  For its labors the colony will now be torn to pieces.

E88 is a forager in her colony, but just barely.  She knows the patterns of the hive and the location of the fields and flowers.  She will guard her hive aggressively and gauge its health with every moment she is in it.  Her colony is well established, with many combs full of brood at every stage.  The establishment of the broodnest was done by others.  The queen laid the eggs.  The house bees chose the ones that would remain to keep it shaped like an oval.  The house bees take whatever comb remains for storage.

This leads to the natural storage of honey above the brood nest.  This is no accident.  In the winter E28’s colony will slowly eat itself upward through its stores.  In the summer it will grow downward.  This is not E88’s concern.  She will not live to see the winter and the house bees store the nectar.  She lives the free life of a forager, choosing the flower and the pollen from a thousand windborne scents. 

In the evening the hive is too warm and workers fan the entrance.  E88 takes her turn doing so but mostly she just sits on the face of the hive with the other foragers waiting for the night to cool.  As the days warm the foragers have had to wait outside earlier and earlier each day.  Inside the brood nest is crowded with nurse bees and covered in larva. 

No single bee makes a decision but in the cool of the early may evening the foragers outside sense a change in direction.  Instinct is calling them to a new pattern.  The first light of the sun will see its shape take form.

The next day when E88 takes off the foragers leave in a cloud.  They work overtime all the time until they die but this is different.  As they fill their nectar crops the foragers return to the hive and E88 is no different.  This time though she passes the guard bees at the entrance and walks right past the house bee waiting to take her nectar. 

Up into the broodnest she crawls until she finds an empty cell.  No pollen, no nectar.  Here she deposits her nectar, leaving a shiny wet film at the bottom of the cell.  Behind her another forager moves in and does the same.  E44 is a house bee and she is torn.  Normally she would relay the nectar to its spot.  She would move it to make room for the queen to lay, but the older bees insist on putting it right there in the middle.  This is the sign to her of the forager’s plan and she agrees.  Other house bees gather and begin to condense the nectar.  E88 is not present, she’s off on another flower or another hundred.

The apple blossoms are opening now and the house bees are literally overwhelmed with nectar.  The foragers return faster than their worker sisters can manage the nectar and they continue their plan, filling in open spots in the brood nest.  Those bringing in pollen follow suit, plugging frames with pollen as quickly as possible.  E44 is now on board with the plan.  Though she did not help decide she knows what must be done.

Each time the queen passes by E44 nips at her causing her to run.  When she stops to feed the other house bees ignore her more and more often.  They aren’t killing her.  E88 passes the queen on a trip inward and approves.  The queen isn’t being allowed to lay.  Her long abdomen is shrinking as she loses weight.

Meanwhile E44 and her sisters are hard at work.  This colony needs no new comb but they are drawing wax and crafting from it queen cups everywhere along the bottom of the brood nest.  These the queen is allowed to lay in without disturbance.  When the larva in these special cells hatch they are given royal treatment.  They are fed constantly.  Across the entire colony eating is on the rise.  From the day the eggs are laid the workers begin to gorge themselves.  E88 and her coven continue to plug the broodnest.  At night they eat as often as possible.  The queen is now flight worthy, having survived a brutal diet and exercise regime at the hands of her daughters.  Now the colony waits, for what it does not know.

For the first few days the E88 continues her crazed quest for pollen and nectar.  As the days go by though she leaves the hive less and less.  Each time she returns the scent of the queen brood fills the hive.  Each flight she takes is shorter.  Finally she will not leave at all.  The foragers return to their plotting point on the front of the hive.  A change is coming and they cannot afford to miss it.

Now ten days have passed since the queen laid eggs in the cups.  One of them will become her successor and inherit the throne of this colony.  The current queen will never see her daughter’s ascension.  The nurse bees have capped each of the queen cells, making white peanuts of wax to cover their royal sisters.  The colony takes a deep breath.

E88 isn’t the first to signal.  She is quick to join though.  A wordless bugle rings through the colony, electrifying the bees inside.  They beat their wings and the colony roars.  Foragers still inside the hive lead the charge.  They rush out the entrance of the hive and take flight.  Some hover in front of the hive and others circle.  They aren’t going anywhere yet but so many of their sisters must leave that the landing board cannot hold them all.

Inside the hive the queen is herded down the combs of the brood nest.  She shies away from the light.  She has not left the hive since her mating flight and she is uncertain of her wings.  The house bees will not be denied their demands though and she is driven downward and into the light.  With her the ascension begins as thousands of bees are faced with the decision to leave or stay.

The queen takes flight and wobbles upward.  She is no longer a trim flying machine and her navigation skills are poor at best but to escape the nipping of her daughters she zips upward.  A nearby tree branch looks safe and shaded and she lands on it.  Behind her come thousands of her daughters.  They alight on the branch and form a wall of bees, a ball of bees encasing the queen, keeping her safe.

Back in the hive E44 is racing across the comb.  She heads for the door again and again but turns back each time.  The roar of the colony has fallen silent and the house bees and their younger sisters are uncertain of what has happened.  Many of E44’s generation has left as well, and hundreds of nurse bees as well.  They do not know where they are going.  Only that they are.  E44 approaches the entrance once more and then turns decisively.  Up the comb she crawls to the nearest queen cell and takes up a position on it.  Let the others leave, her lot is cast.

Outside on the tree limb the swarm is a mass of confusion.  The nurse bees and house bees huddle in the center.  Again and again they check the queen.  Her scent calms the swarm.  The queen is here, it says.  That is enough for now.  E88 and her sisters are already at work on the next phase of their ploy.

The moment the swarm achieves critical mass E88 is driven to leave.  She can find her way back by scent alone.  What she is searching for is a home.  She flies as a forager does in wider and wider circles.  Then something catches her attention.  A hole in an old oak which grubs and rain has rotted out.  She approaches with caution.  The entrance faces to the west.  She would prefer one to the south but still she looks inside.  Through the hollow she crawls, gauging its size, its scent.   This hollow has an old smell, the smell of a colony long gone.  With a flick of wings she is on her way back.

The swarm has no comb to land on but E88 doesn’t stop.  She lands on a living wall of bees, the younger bees that can’t be trusted to search.  From the moment she lands she begins to dance.  Her dance tells the others the way to her chosen spot.  The ferocity with which she performs it tells the others how excited she is.  E88 is very excited.  Another colony found this hollow acceptable.  Surely it is good for hers as well.  Other foragers return without finding a nesting site.  These land and watch E88 dance.  One is interested and takes off to check out her site himself.  Nearby another bee dances harder and harder for her site.

The colony will make this decision together.  When the scouts return from E88’s site they begin to mimic her dance, enticing others to look.  Another forager is continuing her dance in competition though.  A contest of followers emerges as scouts examine both sites and then pick sides.  As the hours go by E88 is becoming tired.  She stops for a moment to rest.  In that moment the dance of the other foragers seizes her and off to the other site she flies.

This site is an old bird house, long ago abandoned by the birds.  The entrance faces south and the inside is spacious.  The single round hole is defensible but what sets E88 on fire is the smell.  It is the scent of comb.  She can tell from the smell that there is no colony here but the comb they drew still hangs.  Wax worms have destroyed much of it but it is salvageable.  E88 returns a convert. 

With more and more foragers dancing for the new site the dance contest is quickly won.  The foragers crawl quickly to the inside of the cluster and begin to beat their wings.  Pressing their thorax to the wall of bees they continue this until the swarm repeats it.  The temperature inside the cluster rises, warming the bees for the flight ahead.  At 90 degrees it is time.  The swarm lifts off en mass, following the foragers to their new home.  The bees cover the bird house, streaming into the entrance as fast as space permits.  The queen waits with the others outside.  Inside the bees mount a brutal battle against the wax worms and spiders that remain inside.  It is over in moments.  Now the queen proceeds inside and behind her a long train of daughters.  A new colony is born.

Back at the old colony E44 and her sisters wait.  Though the foragers have left the hive is packed with bees and now the reason for their stockpiling nectar is clear.  They must wait for the new queens to hatch.  When they do the colony will once again be queen right, and can begin the process of building itself again.

The view of the Hive from the House

What to do if you awaken one morning to find a ball of bees on your tree, car, porch, or roof?

Don't kill them.

You don't have to take up beekeeping yourself. Just call a beekeeper to do it for you. Most beekeepers pick up swarms that aren't 20 feet up a tree for free. If they are 20 feet up the tree, you aren't going to be able to bother them anyway. If there were 20,000 kittens in a ball in that tree, well, actually that would be pretty strange.  It would probably involve some sort of cult and a lot of super glue.  The point is you wouldn’t kill them.

The instinct to swarm begins days before the actual event, as a series of conditions combine to trigger that most ancient instinct of life. If in the winter they heeded the call to survive, and in the early spring to thrive, then in mid spring it becomes reproduce. Like most organisms, Bee colonies reproduce by splitting in two. The old queen goes with the swarm, leaving the first virgin to hatch to lead the old colony. As I said, the process begins much earlier.

Days before, the bees begin to gorge themselves on honey. This influx of food triggers the wax glands, stimulating them to produce in a manner that even newly hatched nurse bees cannot match. At the same time, the foragers operate on overdrive, backfilling the colony's stores deep into the brood nest.

Beekeepers argue and debate over whether this backfill is the cause or result of the swarm instinct. As with most things related to bees, the answer is probably both. A clogged brood nest simulates the same conditions as would be created by the foragers in any case. Special queen cells are constructed everywhere, and the queen lays in them. Then the queen ceases laying. Sometimes this is because she has no room. Sometimes this is because the workers nip at her, preventing her from resting. They feed her less and less, and her abdomen shrinks. In days she is flight worthy. In that same interval the queen cells are capped, and the queenlings begin their metamorphosis.

A change sweeps through the hive, and the foragers become listless. They mill about in the front of the hive, sometimes hanging from the front. They cannot leave. They do not know the time and the date, but the division is fast approaching, and they do not want to miss it.

The queen cells are now a leathery brown, resembling peanuts cast of wax, and inside the virgins pip to each other, a sound like a duck quacking. It is a challenge. It is a beacon. A hatched virgin pips to find unhatched virgins. Unhatched virgins pip back, playing a game of marco polo with their soon to be murderer.

In the morning as the sun warms the hive, their tone shifts. They gorge themselves one last time, filling their crop. The bees surge toward the entrance in a wave, pouring out of the hive in a steady stream, circling until they achieve critical mass, and then clustering on a nearby branch. Here the swarm organizes itself, going through a checklist of sorts. Primary among these are: Is the queen with us? If she is not (perhaps she cannot fly) the swarm will return to the colony. They won't give up, but they'll return. If the queen rejoins them (say, by crawling back into the hive), the process will repeat, and again they gather. Most of the time the queen is present.

Now the scouts depart, looking for homes. Each returns to incite other bees to come look at its location. If those return and incite more, the mass of bees "voting" for a location grows, and grows, until a tipping point is reached. The swarm reaches a breaking point, and takes off toward the new home, or at least to a closer spot.

Here is where you come in. It might be your car, or your tree, or your lamp post. Keep in mind a few things:

1.     Bees fight to defend the hive. These bees have no hive.

2.     Bees fight to defend brood. These bees have no brood.

3.     Bees are more likely to sting when hungry. These are stuffed.

4.     Full bees cannot get their stingers into proper stinging postion (though to say they can't sting is a mistake).

That ball of bees is looking for a home. You do not want that home to be in the walls of your house. Or the wheel well of your car. Or the tailgate of your truck. The bees want a home. You want to them to have one. Here's how you get what you both want.

Call a beekeeper. Most do not charge for swarm pickup.

Do not gas them.

Do not spray them.

Do not mess with them.

If you live an an Africanized Honey Bee area that swarm is not a pet you want to take home. Sure it's cute and cuddly now, but later comes the running, and the screaming.

Don't know a beekeeper? Call the fire department. Most beekeepers register their names with the FD to come "rescue" you from the bees (and those bees from you).

Do not call them for yellow jackets.

Or other wasps.

Or mosquitoes. We do not collect swarms of mosquitoes, until someone finds a way to make mosquito honey that doesn't involve a pound of mosquitoes and a blender.

Do not expect them to pull a colony out of the wall of your house for free.

On a related note, if there's a bee colony in the walls of your house, poisoning them could be a disaster. Bees cool the hive, keeping the comb from collapsing. If they've been there more than a week or so, and you kill them off, when the heat comes you'll have honey dripping down the walls (if you are lucky), or wax attracting wax moths. Walling them in won't work either - bees don't normally chew, but if you trap them, they'll surprise you. A beekeeper can remove them, but it will take time (and probably money).

Particularly if you live an an AHB area, do not mess with the bees. Just remember if that ball of bees shows up at your house, be a good neighbor. Help them find someone who wants to give them a home. Think of it like putting kittens up for adoption. You'd do it for them, and you can't get anything edible from a kitten. At least, not without breaking some animal cruelty ordinances and ruining your blender. It's like one of those pet adoption stories, only with 20,000 tiny fuzzy faces.

The hive at home

Swarming:  The nemesis of every beekeeper.   Short of varroa mites nothing else consumes the time and energy of the beekeeper.  Understanding the mechanisms behind swarming is the key to minimizing swarming.  The key thing to remember is that swarming occurs because the brood nest becomes clogged.  By clogged I mean there isn’t open space for the queen to lay.  Bare foundation does not count (though it is better than pollen, capped brood and honey).  Many beekeepers make the mistake of assuming that if space requirements are met all swarming is eliminated.  This ignores the fundamental truth that swarming is a reproduction mechanism.

Bee colonies _exist_ to reproduce.  While there’s no question that letting the broodnest get full will trigger the swarm impulse, it is entirely possible that a backlogged brood nest is equally a symptom of the forager’s drive to backfill the colony’s stores.  This is highly debated, and you will find beekeepers who swear that each is the only cause.  That will be up to you to decide.

That said, managing space in the broodnest is essential to preventing some swarms.  Premature swarms are usually bad for everyone involved.  The neighbors run in fear of the thousands of bees in flight.  The beekeeper scrambles to recover the swarm (which may contain half of his colony).  The colony which casts the swarm is now queenless and dependent on a new queen to mate.  The break in the brood rearing cycle may cancel any hope of harvesting honey.  That is why beekeepers work to minimize swarming.

It all begins with space

Bees with space in the broodnest are less likely to have congestion.  If you’ve ever driven home in rush hour traffic and thought “If I could go somewhere else to get out of this, I would”, you understand what motivates bees to swarm in a congested broodnest.  Congestion can be caused by not having enough hive bodies on and having a sudden population explosion.  Many times bees build up in a nice and even manner in the spring.  Sometimes however they explode at the seams, having a population that nearly doubles in the span of just a few weeks.  Those colonies are ripe for swarming.  Make certain that when eight of the ten frames in a body are drawn you add a new body or super.  The exception to this is late fall, when you _want_ the bees to build up stores in a limited space.

Keep it fresh (the queen)

By this point you know that the queen pulls the hive together.  As a queen’s pheromones weaken one effect is to drive the foragers to swarm.  A strong queen unites a strong colony.  A weak queen can’t do the same.  I recommend that you re-queen in the spring.  Why the spring?  In the fall it will be more difficult to get the bees to accept a new queen (they do so best when nectar is coming in and brood is being reared).  Plus, normally lower spring populations make it easier to find and …remove the old queen.

Draw and Draw again

Drawn comb is a beekeeper’s second most important asset.  His curiosity and observance of the bees is the first.  I can’t help you with curiosity but drawn comb is another matter.  If you see white wax bur comb between frames in a hive full of drawn comb the bees are letting you know they are ready to draw wax.  Keep spare frames ready to go in.  If you use foundation, you may install it ahead of time (or not).  Take the frames of stores (which should be brood free) and take two out.  Slide the frames in the center out and place the fresh frames in the center of the brood nest.  They’ll draw out the frames with new comb, giving them a useful place to put their wax to work and room to cluster.  The new cells are empty and can be put to use.  What about the old frames?  Freeze them (to kill anything that might be lurking in the comb) and pull them out when you need stores.  If the cells are empty even better – those can be inserted into the brood nest at any point to give the bees space.

Know the flow

This ties in really closely to the first point but most swarms occur (and are triggered) during nectar flows.  Whether you believe that the backfill is the cause or result of swarming it’s much easier for handle if you know it is coming.  This is an area where I cannot help you.  Beekeeping is an extremely regional activity and your fellow beekeepers can tell you what will bloom and when.  Have space available _before_ the bees need it and you be less likely to trigger the swarm impulse.  For minor flows maybe an open frame at the outsides will do.  For major flows have supers on standby and don’t be afraid to check to make sure they are being used and don’t need to be uncapped.  Bees can easily fill a medium super in a week if they have drawn comb, so check up during flows.

What’s done is done

You opened the hive and there are no eggs and no larva.  Swarm cells adorn the frames like air fresheners.  You blew it.  Maybe, maybe not.  You can’t control all swarming impulses.  Whether it was beekeeper mistake or bee nature at work, once a hive decides to swarm one of two things will happen:  Either the beekeeper will fulfill the swarm desire in an artificial way or the colony will swarm.

What to do? 

Decide on a course of action.  If you live out alone and have time to sit with them you can always let them swarm.  The impulse _must_ play out.  You can perform “artificial swarms” by shaking the bees out on a blanket.  You can do any one of a dozen complicated methods for dealing with the impulse.  Or you could try a simpler method.

Splits, or splitting a hive, involves separating a colony into two.  One half gets the old queen.  The other half gets the swarm cells.  The half with the queen won’t swarm.  You can combine them together again later once the queen cells have hatched and mated (or you destroy them and add a new queen).

I’m not touching That

If your bees swarmed they probably didn’t go far to start.  The queen is really a pitiful flyer and her map reading skills are even worse than when she was a virgin so the whole swarm will coalesce somewhere close to start.  It’s a nice safe way to collect and make sure everyone is present with seat belts fastened before beginning the ride.   That’s your chance to grab them.  Or it may be that the neighbors are pounding on the door and begging you to come save them from the bees (yours or not).  Go ahead, be the hero.  Always keep at least a couple of hive bodies and frames ready, along with a  piece of gutter guard or steel window screen cut to fit over the entrance to your spare hive.  They might not be your ‘A’ frames and equipment.  The lid might be a piece of plywood or OSB.  The floor might be rough wood with 1x2 supports.  That’s ok.  Have it ready.

Two Scoops of Bees, Please

When a swarm arrives at a new home the first to enter set up fanning at the entrance.  That tells the others to come here.  If you can reach the swarm set the spare hive up at your feet.  Floor on the ground, box on the floor, frames in.  I use a measuring cup to scoop a glop of bees out of the cluster and dump them into the box.  Then gently put the lid on.  Now watch the entrance.  With luck you’ll see the scooped bees exit the hive and start fanning.  Once that scent hits the cluster they’ll usually go straight for the box.  If they are crawling all over it because they can’t all get in at once that’s a great sign.  Watch closely and you might spot the queen going in.  Once most of the bees are in you can put the screen on the entrance and take them home.  Remember – swarms have nothing to fight for and are usually well mannered.  The exception of course (and what beekeeping ‘rule’ doesn’t have exceptions?) is dry swarms, swarms that left the hive a few days ago and have had nothing to forage.  If you spent three days hanging on a branch eating you would likely be in a foul mood as well.  I keep a bottle of sugar water ready.  Swarms get a solid dose of sugar water for two reasons:  Wet bees don’t fly well, and if they are hungry it gets them started eating.  As always, watch the bees.  They’ll tell you if they are hungry by how quick they slurp up the sugar water you spray.

Like anything else in beekeeping there are many ways to collect a swarm.  You could hold the box or a bucket under the swarm and shake them into the box.  If you get the queen they’ll stay for a bit.  If you don’t they’ll fly back to her.  You can build and use a bee vac (but careful, a unturned bee vacuum’s primary function is to produce mush that used to be honeybees).  The number of devices created to catch swarms high in trees or in other inaccessible locations is amazing.