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This is an article aimed at both beekeepers and non-beekeepers and runs the risk of being too basic for the former and too advanced for the latter - lets look on it as a challenge.

Bee colonies multiply by splitting, the half consisting of the original queen and many of the flying bees leave the hive and fly off to start a new colony. Many of the worker bees are not flying bees at the time the swarm leaves but young bees whose duties consist of cleaning, nursing the larvae, and putting away nectar and pollen. They only start flying after a few weeks of emerging from their pupae stage.

Swarming normally takes place in late spring when the colony is expanding rapidly and has plenty of flying bees and honey. This is bad news for the beekeeper as the swarm takes many pounds of honey spread between the bees and held in their honey sacs (non-digestive crop or stomach). They need the honey to ensure that they have enough food to survive the trip and produce enough wax to build comb. The queen can then lay eggs and provide young to take over from the flying bees as they die off. The flying bees only last about five weeks in the spring and summer, they literally work themselves to death, whereas in the winter they huddle together for warmth and last for months.

Swarming can take place if the bees have insufficient space or are stressed by disease or parasites, etc. All honey bees have an instinct to swarm but some have it far more than others. It follows therefore that beekeepers favour bees with a low swarming tendency and good bees would be expected to swarm every other year at most.

Once bees have decided to swarm its difficult to stop them but there are ways. They start by building queen cells and raising queens. It takes fifteen days to raise a queen from an egg and so during the swarming period the beekeeper is watching for queen cells as a warning of swarming. A single queen cell probably means the queen is being replaced or superseded but when intending to swarm they raise half a dozen or more. I have found colonies with over twenty queen cells at various stages of development. The beekeeper can break them down but this only delays the bees. If he misses one - and its easy to do - they will swarm. The bees will only stop trying to swarm if the weather turns very bad or some major change in the hive takes place. The beekeepers takes advantage of this by taking major action to discourage swarming or creating an artificial swarm situation so that the bees abandon their own attempts.

The beekeeper will create a new colony or nucleus by taking three frames of brood and eggs, or a few frames with one queen cell intact, plus a few frames of honey/nectar and pollen. Its important that this new nucleus has sufficient food because they will not be able to collect much food for a few weeks simply because the flying bees placed in the new hive will promptly fly back home to the old hive. It may even be necessary to feed the new nucleus with sugar syrup while they establish themselves. Its also important to ensure the new nucleus has plenty of young nurse bees to raise new bees and the new queen. This is done by shaking the bees from a few of the frames that are going to remain in the old hive into the new nucleus bearing in mind the old flying bees will fly back home. The existing queen should be kept in the old hive so as to prevent any check on the honey gathering of the original colony. That is one of the reasons beekeepers mark their queens on the thorax with a spot of coloured paint to prevent mismanagement.

To confuse you further, another approach can be to swap the position of the two hives, ensuring they are at least three feet or a metre apart or the bees will find their own hive. The flying bees returning home go to the wrong hive and the hive planning to swarm looses its flying bees. No flying bees means no swarm. No flying bees also means no food coming in so there is a slow down in honey production. The beekeeper has to decide what action or combination of actions is appropriate and this is the source of much discussion and "new" approaches to the problem.

It is interesting to understand what is happening when a swarm issues from the hive. Scout bees will have already found a potential new home before the big day arrives. The bees will have ensured that new queens are emerging from their cells or about to emerge before they leave. When the moment comes, usually about noon on a sunny day, great excitement will be evident at the hive entrance with bees running up the front of the hive. They then surge out taking to the air and circling like a tornado. Once the queen, who has been thinned down for the flight joins them they move off to a near-bye tree or building and settle. Some think they do this to check all is well and the queen is with them since without an egg layer they have no chance of success. Then after a few minutes or a few hours they take to the air again and go to their new home which may be a few hundred yards of a few miles away. Many people think swarms are terrifying but they are rarely vicious. They have no home to protect or stores of food to maintain to see them through the winter. Their main concern is to stay together, protect and guide their queen, and get to the new home. If they get caught in your hair or clothes they will probably sting you but in general they are not after you. Now an established hive in Autumn is a different matter - but that is a different story. Meanwhile back in the hive the new queen will emerge and attempt to get to the remaining queen cells, nibble a hole in the side and sting the queens still in their cells before they can get out or if already out then fight her to the death. But the remaining worker bees may keep them apart to allow more, smaller swarms, called "casts" to leave over the next few days. It all depends on the situation at the time.
If the beekeeper can catch or take the swarm when it settles he can put it in another hive to start a new colony. If he knows which hive it has come from he can swop the position of the new and old hive so that the flying bees will come back to the new hive in the old position, because they're a bit slow in that respect. The old hive will temporarily lose its flying bees to the new hive and no flying bees means no swarms. The bees in the old hive will tear down any remaining surplus queen cells and usually give up the idea of swarming.

Suggested further reading:

If you have any questions you could e-mail me David Bates at enquire@honeyshop.co.uk and I'll try to reply promptly.

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