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How a Swarm Finds a New Home

Besides the many obvious reasons not to leave your dresser sitting outdoors is one that you may not have considered:  Bees like dressers too!

A friend of Wildflower Meadows’ manages a nature reserve, which happens to include some lightly used houses.  One day our friend found a swarm in one of the drawers of a dresser that, for some unknown reason, had been left outside.  A swarm of bees had entered the third drawer through the rear of the dresser and began constructing comb right inside the drawer.  This is something like a natural top bar hive, only with a bit more creativity on the bees’ part.

When a swarm of bees begins its journey from the original hive, it typically first travels a relatively short distance before stopping to perch in a temporary resting area, such as a tree branch.  From this staging area, the swarm sends out scouts to evaluate new possibilities for a more permanent home.  The scouts, who are the hive’s experienced foragers, travel approximately a mile or so from the resting area.  They explore their surroundings both near and far, much in the same way as they have done in the past when scouting for nectar and pollen.  In a swarming situation, however, the scouts are not searching for food for the collective, but rather shelter for the collective.

This scouting needs to be executed as quickly and efficiently has possible.  Afterall, the swarm is vulnerable when sitting out in the open.  The bees cannot transport food with them for their swarming journey; they can only carry whatever food stores they can in their bellies, and that food won’t last for long.  Plus, when sitting on a tree branch or the side of a building, the bees have no decent shelter from the elements.   And, although their precious queen is sheltered in the middle of the swarm, she is completely unable to perform her egg laying duties without any honeycomb available.

This all means that the scouts need to spring into action right away.  They survey their surroundings looking for shelter, and return to the swarm with their findings.  Much in the same way that foragers communicate the location of desirable nectar sources, the swarm scouts communicate the location of favorable housing locations to the other bees by performing the “waggle dance.”  The better the housing prospect, the more intensely the bees will perform the dance.  The scout bees then recruit other bees to check out the prospective new homes.  Once approximately 80% of the bees in the swarm have concurred that a location is suitable, a consensus is reached.  The swarm then makes its move and will begin to populate their new home.

It’s fairly easy to see why an abandoned dresser might make an attractive home for a swarm.  A dresser is stable, cavernous, and made of natural wood.  Plus, the drawers are reasonably well-protected from the elements.  For the human (former) owner of this dresser, however, not so good.  Good luck to this poor person reaching for a pair of socks, particularly in the third drawer!

Starting A Beehive Without Buying Bees

In a world where everything costs money, it is difficult to believe that one of the simplest ways that a beekeeper can start a new colony is completely free.  During the swarming season, which takes place every spring, complete beehives literally fall out of the sky!  Why not make them yours, and in the process start a new beehive without buying bees?

Catching a swarm is not as difficult as one would think.  Beekeepers have been starting beehives in this manner as a time-honored tradition for centuries.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we catch our fair share of swarms and obtain new beehives for free too.  (Of course, we lose a few swarms each year, but that is another story . . . )

To catch a swarm, a beekeeper needs to think like the swarm.  A swarm of bees has one main objective, which is to find and settle into a desirable new home.  When a swarm is on the loose it can be found in either of two states – settled (usually resting on a branch) and looking for a home, or flying (moving from one location to another) and looking for a home.  Either type of swarm can be captured by an opportunistic beekeeper.

Settled swarms require the beekeeper to go out, suit up, and retrieve the bees from their resting area.  The beekeeper usually shows up to the swarm site with a collection box or empty hive body.  More often than not, it is not particularly difficult to shake or brush the bees into the collection box.  If the swarm is clustered on a branch, oftentimes a beekeeper will simply cut the branch and remove both the bees and the branch at the same time.  (Sometimes, however, the swarm is out of reach and cannot be safely be retrieved.)  How can you as a beekeeper locate these types of swarms?  The best way to find swarms is to get the word out that you are available to collect them.  Some cities and counties maintain lists of beekeepers who are available to collect swarms.  A beekeeper that is looking for swarms can also contact nearby apartment managers or housing complexes, many of which run into unwanted swarms of bees, especially during the spring.

Believe it or not, swarms that are flying can also be lured, but this requires a more passive approach.  In this case, the goal is to attract a flying swarm to the beekeeper’s equipment by using chemical lures, which are designed to mimic the pheromone that honeybees produce when they are calling their fellow bees to a location.  To catch flying swarms, a beekeeper uses either bait hives or swarm traps.  Bait hives are standard empty beekeeping hive bodies that have been scented with swarm lures.  Swarm traps are containers specifically designed to lure and catch flying swarms (both swarm lures and swarm traps are sold by beekeeping supply companies).

The good news about swarms is that they are easy to handle.  As long as a swarm is not well established in its new location, it has no young brood or honey to defend, so the bees normally behave very gently.  Even a swarm from an aggressive African honeybee colony will act gently after it has been separated from its main colony.

Once you have collected your swarm, it is critical that you soon replace the queen that came with the swarm.  Why?  Because, the queen that arrived with the swarm is of unknown origin.  It could have poor genetics that could lead the colony to be undesirable in many ways, such as having a bad temperament or being prone to disease.  The only thing you know about a swarm is that the genetic line is likely to swarm.  After all, it already has!  With a new queen, especially one from Wildflower Meadows, you will be obtaining quality, healthy, and known genetic stock that is well suited for your new colony.

The Swarm Lure

Wildflower Meadows is not in the business of rescuing or catching swarms, and it is generally not something that we spend a lot of time doing.  When it comes to swarm catching, we let other beekeepers have all the fun!

However, once in a while we run into swarms that demand our attention.  Sometimes a mating nuc has swarmed into a tree outside the apiary and needs to be brought back into place.  At other times, one of our colonies has swarmed near a neighbor’s house and the neighbor is panicked and calling for assistance.  Occasionally, we may find that a giant swarm has arrived right next to our breeders.  We strive to keep swarms away from our breeders lest they even think about entering a breeder colony and possibly usurping a champion breeder queen.  In all these cases, we need to take action and give our best efforts to corral the swarm into a better place.

This is when the swarm lure proves to be an invaluable tool.  The swarm lure is a bait of essential oils that is highly attractive to a traveling swarm.  The mixture of oils is designed to either smell like an appealing beehive, or to mimic the smell of the Nasonov gland.  The Nasonov gland is the gland in a honeybee that emits the pheromones that call bees together.  Ideally, a good swarm lure immediately catches the swarm’s attention and directs the flight path in the direction of the lure.

There are many different recipes for swarm lures, many of which can be discovered with an Internet search.  Other commercial swarm lures come pre-formulated, and are sold by nearly all of the beekeeping supply companies.  Our personal favorite is the Swarm Commander, which is a proprietary mix of essential oils that reliably directs swarms into our waiting equipment.

When working with a powerful swarm lure like the Swarm Commander, our beekeepers need to be careful not to spill any! Wherever the lure goes, the bees follow. Even an accidental drop on top of the head is enough to cause problems for an entire day!

 

Mini Mating Frame

 

Given that the bees inside of a colony will generally only tolerate one queen, and that queen bees themselves fight amongst each other if they are in the same colony, it is obvious that when raising queen bees, each queen needs to be provided its own separate colony.  It is impossible to raise more than one queen inside of a single colony, as queen bees do not tolerate “roommates.”  Each queen needs her own castle to call home!

This issue quickly becomes a challenge when raising thousands of queens at a time.  If each queen needs her own colony, and the queen producer needs to set up a separate colony for every queen being raised, then this can quickly become a logistical and costly endeavor.  This process could be considered similar to trying to run an army where every soldier needs a separate apartment, and cannot tolerate living with another soldier.

The only reasonable and cost-effective solution to this problem is to set up small-sized and inexpensive colonies, one for each queen that is being raised.

The majority of beekeepers who raise bees in standard Langstroth colonies are familiar with the three sizes of frames available to them, full size (deep), medium size and small size.  These three frame sizes correspond to the three sizes of hive bodies that beekeepers traditionally use, deep hive bodies, medium supers, and shallow supers, respectively.  Nearly all beekeepers who use standard beekeeping equipment use one or more of these sized frames.

The majority of queen producers, however, utilize a fourth size of frame, which is known as a mini-mating frame.  The mini-mating frame is roughly half the size of a shallow frame.  Three of these small mini-mating frames are just large enough to provide a comfortable living space for a small colony, and most importantly, enough space for a queen to lay a good pattern of brood and prove the quality of her mating and genetics.

Given the small size of the frame, a high-quality queen can easily fill a mini-mating frame, such as the frame above, in less than a day.  The mini-mating frame shown above, filled with brood, is proof that this queen bee is ready for sale.  To us, she is “showing off” her talents.  She is more than ready to visit a “real” and full-sized colony and continue her fine brood laying talents for one of Wildflower Meadows’ customers.