I Love Bees

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Swarming and Absconding

on January 4, 2013

Swarming behavior usually takes place in between April to June (so watch out for possible signs of swarming during these months).

In the past, swarming was considered a good thing because beekeepers were able to naturally increase the number of colonies by capturing swarms. However, in more recent times, swarming is considered a nuisance because it instantly reduces honey production.

Reasons for Swarming

Why would a colony decide to swarm? Here are just some of the identified causes of swarming:

1.Overpopulation or congestion in the hive.

2.There is an imbalance between old worker bees and young worker bees.

3.The hive is often overheated and the bees are unable to adequately ventilate the hive. This is usually caused by placing Langstroth hives in places where there is absolutely no shade around.

4.The hive structure is no longer serving at full capacity due to the over-abundance of defective cells. Signs of defective cells include: far too many cells filled with male drones, irregularly shaped cells, thick cells and damaged cells.

When the queen bee is no longer capable of laying the usual number of eggs she normally lays, the hive may be considered unsuitable and the colony may decide to swarm.

5.The queen bee is unable to lay eggs because many of the new cells have already been filled with cured nectar (honey) or pollen.

6.Weather is inclement and inhospitable. The weather does not permit bees to exit the hive, as evidenced by workers “hanging out” near the entrance and exits of the hive.

7.The queen is no longer capable of laying eggs. The queen may be sick or dying. Instead of creating a new queen by creating queen cells, the colony may decide to simply leave the old hive and establish a new colony elsewhere.

8.The queen bee is no longer producing the necessary amount of pheromones to keep the colony together.

9.Genetics and the bee’s race also play a part in swarming behavior (and even absconding behavior).

10.The presence of idle nursing bees (workers) may also signal an internal problem, which may result in swarming.

In some instances, a colony may decide to abscond instead of swarm. Absconding is very different from swarming because 100% of the colony’s population is involved in absconding.

Some reasons why bees would abscond their hive include:

1.The bees are starving due to lack of foraging material.

2.The hive is infested by Varroa mites.

3.An adult wax moth has infiltrated the Langstroth hive and is causing irreparable damage to the hive.

4.The Langstroth hive is newly painted and is emitting undesirable fumes.

5.The hive is poorly ventilated.

6.The beekeeper or perhaps animals from surrounding area may be excessively disturbing the colony. Bears and skunks are notorious for disturbing hives.

Swarm Preparation

Regular inspection is needed to spot possible swarming preparation or swarming behavior. It is recommended that you inspect your hives at least once (or more) per week. The following are some clues that a colony may be preparing to leave your hive:

1.There is a visible increase in the population of female worker bees in the colony.

2.Drones are suddenly being reared in large numbers.

3.Hive expansion is no longer taking place even if cells are full to capacity with pollen, larvae and honey.

4.Queen cells or queen cups are seen near the bottom sides of a frame.

5.The queen bee has already laid eggs in the queen cups.

6.Normal egg production of the queen bee begins to slow down; the number of brood being reared by nursing bees has decreased.

7.The queen bee appears restless and is not doing what she usually does (grooming, receiving food from workers, laying eggs in clustered patterns, etc.).

8.There are open queen cells that contain multiple larvae. The
larvae may or may not differ in age.

9.Field bees or foraging bees are no longer as active as they used to be. It is possible to see some of these field bees hovering near the hive.

10.Swarm cells or queen cups are being sealed by workers.

11.Finally, when everything has been done, the preparation ends and the swarm is finally cast.

A swarm is considered imminent if you see any of the following signs:

1. The queen cells are no longer empty and have been sealed completely by the workers.

2. Some wax has been removed from the tips of the queen cells. When the wax is removed, a live cocoon can be seen protruding from within the queen cell. T his exposed part is called the “bald tip”.

3. The bees are no longer collecting food compared to your other hives of similar age and size.

4. When there is a clustering of bees near the entrance of the Langstroth hive. The clustering will take place whether or not the hive is too hot for the bees.

Clipped Queen Bees

Some beekeepers think that clipping the wings of the queen bee can actually prevent a whole colony of honeybees from swarming.

This is simply not true. When you clip off the wings of a queen bee, two things can happen: first, the queen be may not be able to leave the hive at all or it will attempt to leave the hive and fall to the ground.

When the queen bee is flightless, the colony will still swarm away. After a time, it will cluster on a tree or vertical surface near the queen bee, or it may cluster on the ground where the queen bee is. Give the swarm a little more time and it will return to the old hive. A colony cannot survive without a queen bee.

The colony will raise a new, virgin queen bee and will proceed to swarm when the new queen bee is ready. Clipping does not prevent swarming.

What it does is simply delay the swarming. Some adherents of this method say that you can prevent a swarm if you put back the flightless queen bee and remove several frames from the hive, thereby reducing congestion.

The surplus frames can then be placed in a new hive (it doesn’t have to be a Langstroth hive; you can use a top-bar hive if it’s the only thing available). It is likely that the excess frames that you removed from the old hive have queen cells attached to them.

So what do you do with these queen cells? Do you remove them during the transfer of the frames? No. Allow the split colony to raise new queen bees from the queen cells.

Once the new queens emerge, they will have to fight each other. Once a new queen bee emerges, she will take her nuptial/mating flight and begin laying eggs once mating has been successful.

Preventive Measures

Of course, every beekeeper wants to keep his hives intact. Swarming is no longer considered an efficient, natural way to reproduce colonies. Here are some steps that you can take to prevent bees from swarming:

Congestion is often the main reason why bees decide to swarm. You can easily ease the congestion in a colony by adding more room (frames) to the hive.

By adding brooding and storage frames, the queen bee will be able to resume her egg-laying duties and the workers will resume collecting nectar and pollen.

Temporarily separate the queen from the rest of the colony until all the issues in the hive has been resolved. This can be done by placing the queen in a special super/frame at the topmost section of the hive that will not allow the queen to fly out.

Reverse the hive to ease congestion brought about by winter clustering.

Hive Reversal

The most common cause of congestion in hives is winter clustering. During wintertime, the queen bee usually moves upward to the upper frames of a Langstroth hive.

The workers bees follow their queen and cluster together in the upper sections of the hive. This produces instant congestion. This type of clustering is fine during the winter months, but for early spring, it is not (and this is when bees usually prepare to swarm).

Hive reversal is one of the most effective ways to reduce congestion brought about by winter clustering. Here’s how you can do it:

1.You need another bottom board if you want to reverse your hive. Elevate the hive and place the new bottom board, effectively making the old bottom board the second board.

2.Install another hive body on top of the old hive body.

Ideally, this will force the queen bee to move up once again since she is effectively “on the bottom” of the hive. If this doesn’t work, remove one brooding frame and replace it with an empty frame.

Other Strategies for Preventing Swarming Behavior

Colony splitting involves the division of the colony population into half. The old queen is taken to a new hive along with half of the colony and half of the population in the old hive is allowed to raise their new queen.

The old queen plus half of the population should be installed in a distant hive. This technique works most of the time, but honey production will still be reduced in the process.

Additional supering can also be installed to the hive so that the bees have additional space to store pollen and honey.

Here are some additional tips (minor interventions, but just as important as the approaches mentioned earlier) for swarm prevention:

Replace your queen bee every two years – Colonies with young queens are less prone to swarm. Colonies with queen bees that are 3 years old or older are twice or thrice as likely to exhibit swarming behavior than colonies with young queen bees.

Avoid supersedure completely – Supersedure happens when a queen bee is no longer laying as many eggs as before or when the queen bee is not producing enough pheromone.

In such cases, the colony often produces supersedure cells or additional queen cells.

When the new virgin queen bee emerges, a fight will ensue. When the old queen bee is killed or driven out by the new queen bee, the risk for swarming doubles.

Winter Management

Ideally, a winter-hardy colony should be composed of at least 30,000 workers and a queen bee no older than 2 years. It is fairly common for some colonies to be cut down to just ten thousand or fifteen thousand during the winter.

Preserve the surviving colonies and breed them. This ensures that as you grow the number of hives in your bee yard, you also grow the resilient, healthier strains of honeybees. Mortality during winter is simply nature’s way of weeding out weaker colonies.

Honeybees have three main enemies during wintertime: other insects (including other bees), inclement weather and temperatures, and of course, starvation. They should be protected from all three if they are to survive the challenging time that is winter.

Here are some guidelines for the winter management of colonies:

1. If you think the food stores of the colony is running low, you can use emergency foodstuff like light syrup to make sure your colony doesn’t die.

However, hive-top feeders filled with sugary syrup also attracts unwanted attention from common enemies such as robbing bees from other hives and wasps. Watch out for the presence of these critters.

Entrance points and exit points should also be reduced to regulate the inflow and outflow of insects in the hive. If you see evidence of robbing behavior, there is little that you can do (though robbing behavior is more common during spring and summer).

One technique to stave off robbing behavior is by covering the hive completely with a wide fabric to block intruding insects. Robbing behavior starts and ends on its own; you will just have to trust that your colony’s defenders (its worker bees with mature stingers) are doing their best to defend the hive.

2. Another potential problem during winter is mice and wax moths. Since the colony is in a winter cluster, they are not that active (especially if the temperature has dropped considerably the past few days) and the hive becomes that much more open for pillaging.

If you have mice trouble at home, you can bet that your backyard hive will be the next target. Remove the entrance reducer and install a mouse guard. Mouse guards were specifically made to withstand attacks by mice and also provides excellent protection against invading moths.

3. Hives are also at risk from people – like other beekeepers. This problem is most common in bee yards that are not fenced off properly and are not visited regularly (at least, not regularly enough).

Whole frames can be stolen. If you think this is a very big possibility, it might be a good idea to transport your hive to a safer location. Follow the guidelines in the earlier section of this book regarding the proper transportation of hives.

Spring Management

Avoid opening your hives during early spring, unless the temperature has risen above 14 degrees C. Otherwise, your bees and the brood may become chilled and may die from the sudden flux in temperature inside the hive structure. If the temperature is less than 14 degrees C., it is not a suitable day to open the hive for inspection.

A clear sign that it is fine to open the hive for inspection is when you see foraging bees collecting winter stores from plants like the flowering currant.

You can also observe what kind of activity is taking place at the entrance and exit points of the Langstroth hive. If you see numerous bees taking off (presumably for cleansing flights), then that is another sign that you can open the hive.

Regular foraging means the colony is slowly returning to its former level of activity and the queen bee has probably resumed laying eggs in the upper deep of the hive body.

Now, if you have more than one hive in your bee yard, it is necessary to check to see if all of the hives have made it through winter. There are some cases when the winter had been too much for a colony, and severe or complete mortality of the colony transpires.

If one colony has fared well, it does not mean that all of the colonies enjoyed the same luck. If you think one hive succumbed to the winter cold, a quick inspection of the suspect hive is in order.
If a whole colony has died, you must remove the dead bees from the hive immediately. If this is not possible, seal all possible entrances with tape to prevent other bees and insects from robbing the poor hive.

If the weather is good for inspecting the hive, here is a quick checklist for early spring inspection:

Check the bees for signs of dysentery. Bees with erratic flight patterns may have dysentery. Consult with your vet to confirm this.

Look for the queen bee. Is she still in the hive? Is she laying eggs? If so, your queen bee has survived winter and is resuming her regular egg-laying duties. If you see supersedure cells or queen cells on the corners of your hive’s frames, the queen bee has died during winter.

The queen-less colony must be united with what is called a “queen-right” colony. If there is evidence of egg-laying workers, the egg-laying workers must be separated from the colony as these bees are capable of killing queen bees.

Is there congestion in the hive? If congestion is apparent, perform hive reversal to prevent swarming.

Are there enough stores of food to help the colony grow to a robust size during the early spring nectar flow? If not, proceed with supplemental feeding with sugar syrup.

Making Supplemental Sugar Syrup

Supplemental sugar syrup is usually given during the late autumn and during the early spring to help honeybees prepare for the change in seasons. Early spring means renewal of nectar and pollen sources, but it also usually translates to reduced colony size and little or no extra food left for the whole colony.

Thin sugar syrup is used during autumn, while thick sugar syrup is used during the early spring. The recipe for the two are as follows:

1. Thick sugar syrup – add two pounds of white sugar to one pint of pure water.

2. Thin sugar syrup – add one pound of white sugar to one pint of pure water.

In more recent times, a third type of sugar syrup, the medium sugar syrup, has been proclaimed as adequate for both autumn and early spring supplemental feeding. To make medium sugar syrup, simply mix a kilo of white sugar to a liter of pure water.

The sugar syrup can be placed in the hive top feeder or it can be placed inside the hive body. To do this, pour the syrup in a large Ziplock bag and use a blade to make a tiny cut at the very center of the plastic. Replace the feeder or bag at least once a week.

 

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