Swarming bees

Swarming bees are the easiest way to increase the size of your apiary.

This page was last updated by Bernard Preston on 14th September, 2019.

Reviewed by Derek A. Lewis, beekeeper

Introduction

Reproduction in the honey bee life cycle occurs in two ways. During a honey flow there's natural growth within the hive as the queen starts laying more eggs; more workers are needed to collect nectar and pollen - their carbohydrate and protein (and some fat) - their food.

Bees in nature only eat raw honey for carbohydrate; it's quite different to the supermarket stuff.

Take a blinded test if you don't believe me, comparing the scent and taste of raw vs processed honey.

And the sweetening of our food, in moderation like all simple and refined carbohydrate, if we know how to manage the bees is best done with the raw honey.

Swarming bees seeking out a nesting place in a pile of old hives.

But secondly, it is an opportunity to spread the species, not unlike Columbus sailing out into the unknown. And that is done via swarming bees; a new queen is bred and, just before she hatches, the old lady and half the colony move out on a warm sunny day in search of a new home.


Several days before the bees swarm, scouts go out into the neighbourhood looking for a suitable hive site. When you see them moseying about an outside shed, under the eaves or in a pile of boxes, then there is a possibility that a new colony will be arriving on the next hot, sunny day.

You notice a build up of workers sussing out the chosen site, cleaning out any debris and getting Buckingham Palace ready for Her Majesty. Suddenly, there is a loud droning sound and the sky is filled with tiny flying black dots. Slowly the bees congregate on the box, and landing all around, in this case on the brick wall.

Queen Bee is somewhere there, but you're unlikely to see her; she's a little larger than the rest, but very shy and they keep her well out of view.

Within a few days the organised beekeeper will make sure that he puts frames with wax into their new home. They often build diagonally across the hives otherwise.

Back in the old hive, usually half a dozen queens are near to hatching. They start to make a loud trumpeting sound from within the still sealed cells.

That's the message for the old lady; get out, or you'll be attacked and most likely killed by the first young virgin queen, unencumbered by literally millions of fertile eggs in her abdomen.

In the honey flow, a queen can lay up to 2000 eggs per day. She is no match for the young virgin. So she leaves, taking half the swarm.

Swarming bees

Swarming bees are one of nature's miracles; a wonder to behold.

Swarming bees clustering on the old trap

Around any beekeeper's home there are invariably half a dozen empty hives. They smell of honeycomb, and propolis; the perfect place for a new home.

Watch closely and you'll see the bees scuttling in.

These bees arrive mostly during a honeyflow, or if their old home has been destroyed for one reason or another. At this time, an organised beekeeper will make sure old boxes like these are full of the frames that hold the wax.

This wasn't honeyflow season, and this beekeeper wasn't prepared. Those boxes are quite empty without any frames. Now I have work to do to hive them properly.

Worst is if you do nothing for a few weeks; they are certain to build diagonally across the frames making a nightmare.

Swarming bees are all in the old hive trap.

Ten minutes later there's hardly a bee in sight. The whole swarm has vanished inside. Immediately they will set about building new comb and within a day the queen will lay the first eggs; within three weeks they will start hatching and the future of the colony is assured.

If she's a strong, young queen, the growth will be exponential and within a few months there'll be the first bottle of honey for the beekeeper. It could be you.

An American trap for attracting swarming bees.

Trap nests and swarming

Derek Lewis is a beekeeper in southern Florida, USA.

Bees have evolved to produce a new queen when the existing lady gets old, or when the hive is overflowing with bees, and they run out of room. In the wild, most nests are of a fixed size, so needing space happens often during nectar flows. Catching one of these, usually gets one a virile young queen, able to lay 2000 eggs a day, and produce lots of honey. 

The worker cycle is 21 days from egg laying to hatching, so she needs room for nearly 50,000 larvae in all stages. Add in a day or so for cleaning between laying, and that means she needs almost 10 frames of just brood at her peak.

The watchful beekeeper tries to prevent this by adding space as needed, and removing (robbing?) any honey so they are driven to go and get more nectar. As you can see, one hive in the picture has 4 supers, and a lot of bees outside.

This is a strong swarm, that I removed most honey from recently, and the next flow from Brazilian Pepper in Florida has just begun. This hive alone has produced over 50 lbs this year, and I am hoping for at least that much again very soon.

One of the beauties of 'keeping in USA, is that the bees are mild-mannered so heavy, full gear is not essential. My shorts have ties at the knees so they don't crawl up, and I very rarely get stung, unless I touch a bee accidentally.

Three reasons why bees swarm

1. The old queen is worn out and simply is not able to produce her quota of eggs. They may just kill her when the young virgins are about to hatch.

2. The hive is too small; often they will produce multiple swarms of bees, each with a relatively young queen.

3. The hive is no suitable. Perhaps winter has arrived and a fire is being lit in the chimney; or it is wet in the rainy seasons, and so on.

Bee stings

When a bee stings you, the stinger is ripped out of its abdomen, and it dies. Occasionally one might get a warning prick and both you and the bee are lucky enough that the barb doesn't become embedded in your flesh.

A bee stinger can inject a large volume of the toxin, up to 50 microgrames, so it's best to immediately use a knife blade to scrape it off the skin; or a long fingernail; pulsating muscles can be seen pumping more of the venom into the wound.

But do not grasp the stinger between the fingers as you'll squeeze more of the venom into your body.

The main component is a protein called melittin. It destroys cell membrane tissues including red blood corpuscles and activates pain receptors, and releasing histamine. Inflammation and swelling soon follow.

Other components are various enzymes like hyaluronidase; they drop the blood pressure, inhibit blood coagulation and attack cell membranes.

There are according to Professor Jamie Ellis from University of Florida over 50 different compounds in the venom, many not well understood.

Other bees are attracted by the scent of the venom, meaning you are likely to get stung many more times if you hang around. Ducking through bushes is the best way to escape the avenging cloud.

It's quite normal for the site of the bee sting to swell and be very painful; however if a reaction begins at a distant place, say hives on the skin around the abdomen, or at the throat then it's best to get to the emergency rooms immediately. An allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock can kill within a short time.

Roughly 1% of people are allergic to bee stings, but everyone experiences pain and local swelling.

After a vicious creature called a human, bees kill more people than any other animal. Horses are third in line.

Schmidt, in his book, The hive and honey bee, lists the following reactions to stings.

1. Normal, non-allergic reaction

2. Normal reaction lasting days

3. Large local reaction at the site of the bee sting

4. Allergic reaction of the skin away from the site; not life threatening but worrying to the victim

5. Non life-threatening systemic allergic reaction


6. Life-threatening systemic allergic reaction

Pain, redness, swelling and tenderness at the site

Itching, residual redness and swelling at the site

Massing swelling at the site lasting  up to a week

Hives, swelling, itching and redness of the skin remote from the sting site.


Allergic reaction in nose and eyes, minor breathing problems, nausea and vomiting

Shock, fainting, unconsciousness, breathing difficulty, massive swelling in throat, tongue and mouth. High pulse rate, dizziness, death.

At stage 5 one should immediately get the victim to the emergency rooms, as you have no idea whether it will progress to stage 6 or not.

It's estimate that 1-2 people in a 100 will experience an allergic reaction, stages 4-6, after a bee sting. It's caused by massive tissue destruction releasing large amounts of histamine into the blood vessels causing extreme dilation and drop in blood pressure.

Laying the patient on their back and raising the legs would help.

Ellis reports that African bees are no more venomous, but they are more sensitive and attack in greater numbers.

Raw honey

Raw honey is a rare product these days; most is heated and highly filtered to remove any "foreign particles." That unfortunately includes the pollen that makes raw honey so unique.

You either keep bees yourself, and it all starts with swarming bees, or you find a small beekeeper who can assure you that he hasn't meddled with this healthy choice food. You won't find it generally in the shops.

The irony of it is that raw honey requires less processing, and really should be cheaper; it's easier to produce. But because it's so rare, you'll pay a premium.

Find your own bees! It's been the hobby of a lifetime, the one that's stuck for nearly sixty years. Remembering too that beekeeping is one of the few hobbies that definitely pays its way; last year I harvested over five hundred 500g jars from ten hives; this year it's going on 700. We always have a few extra Rands for little luxuries. This year it's going to be a top notch Canon camera that I've been wanting for a long time; all paid for, thanks to swarming bees.

Healthy choice foods

Raw honey, rich in pollen, is one of nature's healthy choice foods; better still we should eat natural honeycomb, but that's impossibly expensive for all but beekeepers and the idle rich. But the bottled stuff you buy in the supermarket, in the main, can best be described alas as a highly processed junk food; rather consider a hive in the garden and one of those swarming bees colony.

If you're serious about your honey, think about swarming bees for you and your children; it's been the hobby of a lifetime.

Last week a new swarm moved into one of my swarming bee traps, so the last few days have been busy with preparing a spot for them. Two trees, unwanted in any case because they shade the veggie garden have to come down.

Having these swarming bees in the garden means 100% pollination too; that means masses of butternut squash, fresh green peas, limes and lemons, and avocados and the like.


Bernard Preston

Bernard Preston is a retired chiropractor, catcher of swarming bees, organic gardener, solar guru and general health nut. Oh, and a writer. His books are dirt cheap on Amazon as Ebooks.

Now with seven hives, he's looking for more bees to get to ten. Then he'll have ample honey for Christmas and birthday gifts and making honey mead. They never make white elephants!

Bee under the mitre

Of course, there are several stories about beekeeping in all  three of my books of chiropractic anecdotes. Read one of the free tidbits from Bats in my Belfry ... Bee under the mitre is one of my favourite stories.

Special honey is another short story; a gem by Geoff Elliott.

Only $2.99 buys you the Kindle version to read on your favourite eReader. Download Bats in any instant.

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