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We’ve known for some time that the colony of bees residing in our neighbor’s attic is very robust.  They’ve survived multiple winters without medications, or supplemental feed. However, as happens in all hives sooner or later, these bees have simply run out of room.

Swarming is a natural process, and how healthy colonies divide themselves

When bees run of out space to produce offspring, or store food, clusters of the colony are periodically ejected as swarms to make room in the hive for the remainder of the bees.  By making space within the hive, and decreasing the surplus population, the new resident Queen will have room to produce new generations of offspring.

A cluster of bees on the lid of our Merrill toolbox - if you look closely, you'll see a worker with a Varroa mite on her thorax

Beekeepers spend much of their time fretting about their hives swarming.  Even though most times only a portion of the colony leaves, it takes time for the population to build back up, and for commercial beekeepers this translates into diminished honey harvests.

Swarming however is a perfectly normal part of a healthy colony’s life-cycle.

The original swarm of bees we collected from our neighbor’s property on March 30th seem to be from a colony that is so crowded, and so robust, that they’re now throwing multiple swarms in an effort to get their population back down to a manageable level for the size of the hive.

On Thursday afternoon our phone rang, and it was our neighbors calling to say that their attic hive had thrown a second swarm, and that there was a cluster of bees now on the ground on the bottom branch of a rosemary bush near their porch.

When I arrived, unfortunately sans camera in my haste to get out the door, I saw a small to moderate sized beard of bees draped along the ground at the base of an old, contorted rosemary bush.

We often see bees amidst the rosemary, but not usually an entire swarm

Any swarm of bees is vulnerable.  They’re homeless, have only the food reserves they can carry with them, and are at the mercy of the elements, and predators.  Bees don’t usually like to be on the ground, and spending the night on the ground seemed potentially risky.

It was already gone four o’clock in the afternoon, so I needed to act promptly if I was going to gather the swarm before dusk.  I had an advantage however in that the cooling temperatures, and decreasing daylight were working in my favor, as the bee’s natural inclination is to cluster together before dark.

Our Merrill toolbox. Holds frame racks, bee brushes, and miscellaneous beekeeping equipment, but is vented, and can be used to temporarily hold a small swarm.

The challenge with this swarm was situating a box underneath them.  However, I was fortunate in that the branch they were attached to, despite its age, was still somewhat flexible.  I very carefully lifted the free end of the branch, with bees attached, as my neighbor slowly slid my empty Merrill toolbox (my beekeeper’s toolbox pictured above) underneath the bees.  I then lowered the branch so it was supported by the box, and gently brushed the bees from the branch, into the box.

Usually the box is full of entrance reducers, hive straps, cappings scratchers and smoker fuel...not bees!

Once the majority of the bees were in the box, the box was covered, except for a small opening in the corner.  I backed the box a few feet away from the rosemary bush, and pulled up a chair to wait for the stragglers to join the rest of the bees. Unlike Lisa and Robb, I didn’t have a nearby brewpub handy while waiting for the rest of our straggler bees!

The toolbox is good for keeping the bee brush handy...and seems to attract bees every time we take it outside

The bees spent the night outside on our hive stand, but locked in the Merrill box as it was too dark to hive the swarm by the time I made it home.  This box isn’t ideal for swarm catching.  It’s heavy, and awkward, but it is designed to hold frames, and to be used as an emergency swarm box, but in warm weather ventilation is less than ideal.  Fortunately it was a cool evening, and the bees would be fine until morning.

The toolbox is designed to hold frames. Useful both for having them handy during inspections, or when capturing swarms. I think this bee is following me...

Early the next morning we set up our Nuc hive on the hive stand, and transferred the bees to their new home.  As is typical of afterswarms, this was a much smaller colony of bees than the primary swarm we captured in March, approximately 20% the size of the original swarm.  As a result, this colony is starting out at a relative disadvantage.  With fewer bees, it will take longer for this colony to build out comb, and there are less foragers to gather food.  It also means they don’t need as much space to get started, so the Nuc seemed like a better choice for now, until their population begins to recover.

This blob of bees is about 35% of the total bees in this swarm

There’s another element common to many afterswarms that can slow development of a new colony.  A virgin Queen.  This afterswarm was produced 16 days after the primary swarm.  However, after collecting this swarm on Thursday evening, the hive swarmed again on Saturday morning, a mere 48 hours later.

As this hive is producing multiple afterswarms, back to back, this suggests that the hive population is still too large for the space in which they’re living.

In this situation, worker bees can delay Queen hatching.  Even with multiple Queen cells in a hive, the workers may only permit one Queen to hatch at a time. Soon after hatching, the workers will shake and annoy the new Queen, preventing her from stinging her sisters, and push her out of the hive during a subsequent swarm.  As she leaves the hive with her entourage this has the desired effect of decreasing the surplus hive population, but doesn’t leave the hive entirely Queenless.  A few days later the next Queen will hatch, and the situation will repeat, until the hive population has decreased sufficiently. In this situation, the Queens contained within the afterswarms likely have not had a chance to take their mating flights.  They are virgin Queens, and until they’ve mated, they cannot produce new worker bees.  [1]

A virigin Queen would mean these bees don't yet have the capacity to replace their population

If this Queen was not yet mated when we hived her Friday morning, she will first need to take her mating flight before she will begin laying eggs.  Hopefully, she’ll return from her flight safely, but it’s possible she may not.  Even after her flight, there will likely be a short delay before she begins egg-laying.  So with fewer bees in this afterswarm, not only are there less foragers and comb-builders, but also potentially a Queen who won’t be egg-laying for a while.  Compared to the primary swarm we captured in March, this colony is thus at a significantly greater disadvantage.  However, it’s spring, the flowers are in bloom, and there are quite a few drones about at the moment, so hopefully this colony will be Queen-right soon, and the hive will thrive, but we’ll need to keep a close eye on them until we see evidence of brood.

A worker from the afterswarm cleans up some spilled nectar

In the meantime, the third swarm Saturday afternoon was housed by another neighbor whose bees did not survive this last winter.  It’s quite likely the parent hive will continue to produce more swarms this spring, as new young are produced, and the population increases again.  Hopefully any remaining swarms will find suitable habitat in the trees nearby, and thrive.

Home Sweet Home: with two additional hives of bees on the way, our hive stand is going to get a little crowded! At least the Ceanothus is in bloom though, and bees LOVE Ceanothus.

If our new Queen doesn’t show evidence of being appropriately mated within a couple of weeks, we may, for the sake of the remaining bees, either re-queen this Nuc, or combine the workers with their thriving sisters in the Salvia hive.  For now though, we’re giving this hive the benefit of the doubt, and we’ll see what transpires in the next few weeks.

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[1] Seeley, Thomas D. 2010. Honeybee Democracy.  Princeton University Press.  p. 40-42