A thriving bee colony and, in turn, a thriving beekeeping business can only be enjoyed by meticulous attention to the care of the honeybees. If proper care is not taken, bees can suffer in several different ways affecting your overall beekeeping process, your harvests and the complete business set up as a whole.
There are different things that bees need to be protected from, such as natural elements, pests and diseases, and several manmade disturbances.
Swarming is when a colony breaks into two. It does so by forming a swarming group of a few worker bees, a few drones, and the present queen, which shall eventually leave the colony and form their own separate colony at a different location.
There are two ways to understanding the whole swarming process. Basically, the swarming of bees is a natural phenomenon through which the whole bee colony ‘reproduces’ as one single entity.
See it not as individual bees reproducing, rather, one bee colony reproducing and giving rise to more colonies.
A few beekeepers believe it is perfectly fine for a colony to swarm when it reaches a few thresholds on certain factors. This is perfectly true. But, it is also true that due to swarming, those beekeepers who are also running a beekeeping business would want to suppress the swarming impulse as this would result in lesser production of honey or its byproducts.
An alternate thinking or approach to swarming, and the most sensible one too, is to let the colony swarm but catch the resulting swarm and raise it as a separate colony in a different hive.
A bee colony can choose to swarm for several reasons. A rapidly growing colony needs sufficient space to raise the brood and store the honey and pollen collected. If the colony encounters a lack of space for its purposes, then the colony can decide to swarm. As said earlier, swarming is not essentially bad.
It is a natural process and there’s absolutely no need for you to panic if you find your bee colony making preparations to swarm. There are ways to gently discourage the colony from swarming, but at times, even after doing everything possible, a colony can choose to swarm anyway.
How to Know When the Bees Are Ready to Swarm
There are signs that you can look for to know that the colony is preparing to swarm. The two most prominent giveaways to swarm planning is the sudden growth in the drone population and the presence of ripe or capped queen cells or swarm cells.
Queen cells or swarm cells are elongated cells, uniquely different from the regular hexagonal cells that bees usually build. uniquely different from the regular hexagonal cells that bees usually build. Though worker bees tend to make such elongated cells from time to time, they are not usually put to use.
Process of Swarming
When the colony has decided to swarm, the queen begins to lay eggs in the swarm cells. This is to ensure that the colony would still have a queen once the old queen has left the colony with its workers.
The queen is basically preparing a new queen that would replace her after she has left. Once all the swarm cells have eggs from the queen, then these swarm cells are capped and sealed. The queen must now try to lighten its body.
It is usually heavy and unable to fly very well during the egg-laying stage. So as part of the preparation for swarming, the queen will stop laying eggs and the workers will decrease the amount of feed fed to the queen. This makes the queen lighter, and now it’s ready to fly.
Colonies swarm on a peaceful sunny day. So, after all, their preparations are in place, they wait for such a favorable day and make their move.
The old queen along with more than half of the worker bees will leave the old hive and simply fly off to a different location.
The worker bees flying with the swarm are the young workers that are at the prime age to create wax and build cells, around eighteen days old.
When the scout bees return after finding a suitable spot for them, they all fly off to the said location. Before flying all the bees eat their fill and store what little they can carry with them to last them till they find a new location.
As their food stores are small, they naturally avoid extensive stress, or physical activity and prefer staying together. All the bees form a tight group, and even fly as a group, this is what is called a bee cluster.
From the temporary location, the scout bees fly again in search of a permanent home. They are usually looking for places that have narrow entrances, are dark and deep.
If the scouts have found such a place they come back and perform a kind of dance that impresses the swarming colony of the merits of their new home, and they move again to finally get settled.
Meanwhile, in the old colony that is left behind. A new queen emerges from the queen cells. The first adult queen will move to eradicate her competition.
It will kill any other queens, either hatched or still in their cells, to ensure she is the only adult queen for the colony. Sometimes this new queen will again swarm with a few workers. This continues with each new queen until the whole colony is evacuated.
Measures to Prevent Swarming
If the beekeeper wishes to prevent the colony from casting a swarm, then he must look for early swarm preparation signs. As soon as the beekeeper spots these changes within the colony, he or she can take necessary preventive measures to stop the swarm.
Swarms usually occur in late summer, as this is the ideal time to produce a healthy brood and stock up on honey. During the mid-spring to midsummer inspection, any signs of swarming can be identified.
Swarming basically means the colony doesn’t have sufficient space, so the beekeeper can simply begin by providing more space for the bees to build additional combs on.
If in a top bar hive, the colony is full with combs from one end of the hive to the other, then the beekeeper can simply remove a few bars, harvest the honey or beeswax, however appropriate, and add a few empty bars in their place for the bees to build new combs on. This can, at least for some time, discourage the colony from swarming.
Another issue that can lead to a colony to swarm is insufficient ventilation. The brood cells become so congested that flow of air is restricted. For this reason, bees may resort to swarming as an alternate method to live in better well-ventilated spaces.
To prevent this, the beekeeper can move the base screen partially to allow air to circulate within the hive. A different kind of observation window with a small hole covered with fine wire mesh for airflow is also a good temporary solution.
Another step the beekeeper can resort to is to destroy the long swarm cells. This, though, does not guarantee that the old queen and the workers will not simply leave the hive in most cases, not bothering whether the old colony gets a queen or not. If the colony is bent upon swarming, there is little anyone can really do.
One other measure that beekeepers resort to is to partially snap the queen’s wings. Though this would assuredly stop the colony from swarming immediately, this would also restrict the movement and active role of the bee.
There is no guarantee that a new queen would not overthrow this old queen or maybe even kill it. Again, this new queen can look to swarm once more. So, these measures do not promise a guaranteed reversal of a swarming impulse.
Alternative Steps to Swarming
Sometimes, it is simply too late by the time a beekeeper notices changes in the hive for the upcoming swarm. If you find capped queen cells that means the queen has already laid the eggs for the future queen. In this scenario, you can simply split the colony.
It is as the name suggests, simply splitting the colony into two. If you have decided to split the colony, you must make a few arrangements before you actually carry out the process. Get ready for a new separate hive structure.
It must be complete with top bars, follower boards, and the cover. Allow for a few bars to be placed from the other hive. For this purpose, you must spot the queen in the hive and pick that comb out of the hive with the queen still on it Place this bar comb in the new hive set up.
Along with the queen bee bar, make sure you add one bar of brood comb, one bar of stored honey and an extra bar of worker bees. You have now successfully split or divided the old colony into two. The bees will not swarm now as this new place has plenty of empty space in the form of new bars for them to build their combs.
It is naturally more spacious and better ventilated than the previous hive where everything was full to the brim and was beyond congested.
In the old hive, as the queen cells are already capped, a new queen will emerge and automatically act like the queen of the colony.
Catching a Swarm
Many beekeepers let a colony swarm without interference as this is the most natural and normal thing to do.
Beekeepers who are beekeeping to safeguard bees and even those who are beekeeping as a business venture, can both find merit in the idea of catching a swarm.
This is not something that you can successfully achieve if you have just begun beekeeping. But for a beekeeper with a fair amount of experience, it is thrilling to be able to catch a swarming cluster of bees.
The idea is to catch the swarm and relocate them in a separate hive. The difference between splitting and catching a swarm is that you are not interfering with how the bees think and plan.
You are letting nature take its own course. And as the swarming colony is on the lookout for a suitable place to call it home, you are providing them with one at the ready.
This is a more appropriate approach as this lets the bees to be themselves and make their own decisions.
Some beekeepers even go as far as to simply attract the bees to a new hive, without actually catching them, so that the decision of where to settle lies with them and is not forced upon them. But this leaves a lot to chance and is simply too farfetched.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting a colony swarm and catching the resultant swarm and leading it to a new home.
Catching swarming bees becomes an issue in urban areas.
As a colony swarm, it can opt to make a temporary halt at the most absurd and unlikely place. Swarms have been known to be spotted on lamp posts, under window ledges, under the cars, over the benches in parks, and so many such unconventional places.
All these are temporary stops making it essential to catch them at their current location for we never know where they can stop for their next halt.
Swarms are generally not dangerous, as the bees in a swarming colony have neither brood nor food with them to be protective about and moreover they would have just had their own food before taking the flight, which reduces their ability to sting well. So a swarm is safe unless they are unduly provoked and stressed a lot.
In urban areas, swarming can cause quite a few problems as you wouldn’t want your neighbors to be angry over swarms of bees hovering their yard.
It is a different story in the countryside as the houses here have wider open spaces and are placed far apart from each other. There are organizations or even beekeepers whose sole aim is to catch swarming bees.
When bees have been found in unlikely places, these beekeepers are called over to catch the swarm. They then relocate the swarm to a more suitable place, a different hive.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Another important issue that a beekeeper can face apart from swarming is the Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. It is also known as bee absconding.
This is when almost the whole colony up and leaves the hive behind.
There is no apparent evidence as to why a colony would do so. But a few beekeepers have observed that there might be a potential message to beekeeping ventures out there, in how the bee behave through colony collapse disorder.
For a beehive, its brood and its food are the two most important things. These are the things that inspire the overprotectiveness in a bee.
It is astonishing to see then, not just a few bees but almost the whole colony except for the queen and very few nurse bees leaving their hive behind; their brood and food behind!
For a beekeeper naturally, it is devastating to know that your bees have all left you and more puzzling is the fact that you do not know why. After all your hard work to ensure that the bees were as comfortable as possible and providing them with all available resources, from flowering plants to water, to ventilation and whatnot, the bees could still simply leave all behind and very well vanish.
Researchers have puzzled long and hard over how or why this happens.
There never seems to be a scuffle, or any evidence of the bees having faced any sudden stress or attack, like from an animal; a bear, a skunk or a raccoon, perhaps.
There are no dead bees to investigate and everything just seems as it always was, except now, there are no bees around. The remaining nurse bees are there to care for the developing brood and even they are very few in number.
Occurrences of CCD have increased as the years have gone by, making it even more important for researchers to find a solution to this puzzling problem.
Signs of Colony Collapse Disorder
There are a few signs that can explain if the colony has suffered from a colony collapse disorder or if it has faced some other issue.
The primary sign of identifying if your colony has suffered from colony collapse disorder is the presence of abandoned capped brood cells. Bees would never leave their young behind this way.
A capped brood cell means the larva is under the process of development, and bees would not leave until all the brood cells have hatched, in short, all the brood cells are uncapped.
So the fact that they are leaving behind capped cells shows it is colony collapse disorder. Another sign is the abandonment of sufficient stores of honey and pollen.
A bee would not need to move out if it has sufficient food available, and still, the bees have left This shows the bees did not much care for food either, another sign to it being colony collapse disorder.
One more symptom is the presence of the queen bee. If the queen bee is not left behind, it is not diagnosed as colony collapse disorder.
Though either scenario is horrible for any beekeeper, the absence of a queen bee might give a certain amount of relief to know it was not CCD that affected your hive.
Usually, the queen has left behind along with a few survivor bees that take on the role of nursing the abandoned brood.
Causes of Colony Collapse Disorder
Though the researchers are yet to come up with suitable explanations for what causes CCD, several theories have been put forward.
These points toward not just one reason but a combination thereof. Many believe that instead of a single stressor, colony collapse disorder is caused by several stressors that together act simultaneously bringing the whole colony down.
Many have put forward learned guesses as to what these stressors might be and to find out if there are certain combinations of these stressors that finally push the bees too far, that they decide to flee.
The proposed stressors or issues include:
a. Contamination of beeswax through chemicals
This can happen when chemical pesticides and insecticides are sprayed over the hives, resulting in the beeswax accumulating these chemicals affecting the food stored within the beeswax cells, in turn affecting the bees themselves.
b. Poisoning from pesticides
This can happen when certain pesticides or insecticides are detrimental to the bees themselves. Apart from getting rid of unwanted pests and insects, these chemicals affect the bees themselves.
They act slowly, poisoning the bees and reducing their various abilities or distorting them. Most common of these harmful pesticides have been known to be the nicotine-based insecticides.
They have been known to have adverse effects on the bees, which if not apparent immediately, become apparent as time goes on.
It is essential that bees are presented with genetic diversity. When the queen mates, it is expected that the resultant brood will be genetically diverse as is expected.
This is vital for a healthy and thriving bee colony. But if this mating is restricted, then there is a definite lack of genetic diversity that the bees would need to contend with, which is not at all desirable and can have very negative effects in the long run.
c. Infection of the colonies
Several parasites and pathogens have been known to infect whole colonies. When this happens in a combination of other stress factors, it could very well cause the colony collapse disorder.
Varroa mites are a known cause for several destroyed colonies across the Americas, and it is therefore very much possible to link the varroa mites with colony collapse disorder too.
Apart from such known and tangible causes, there are many human interferences that can also cause considerable disturbances, which when seen collectively can be termed as causing the colony collapse disorder also.
As much as it boggles the mind, it is understandably caused by our own lack of efficiency that results in such complete ‘colony death.’ If swarming is the way a colony reproduces as one entity, then colony collapse disorder is the exact opposite of it, where a colony dies as one organism would.
Seeing as how cases of colony collapse disorder are on the rise, from late 2006, it is obvious that the climatic and elemental changes we observe around us on our planet are in a way affecting the bees too.
If we are not stressing the bees directly, our actions that cause severe adverse climatic changes affect the bees indirectly.
In short, it is our shortcomings that lead to colony collapse disorder. It is an urgent need of the hour to take concrete steps to reduce the occurrences of such colony deaths.