Life in the hive—and what happens when the population gets out of hand.
After a bee colony has come through a winter really well (not an easy task) and started collecting nectar and pollen, it will grow enough brood till it is time to find a new hive. The queen and half the bees leave the hive en masse, clustering around a tree branch. This is called swarming. And the swarm season is in full swing right now.
During the first week of swarm season this year, the Wasatch Beekeepers Association swarm coordinator received one to three calls a day—more swarm calls than in all of last year. We can’t quite pinpoint why some years are good and others are not, but I’m going to blame the weather; we had a warm, early spring with many nectar-producing flowers in bloom with no late hard freeze.
Here’s how swarms happen: First, scout bees fly around searching for a new home. They are looking for a cavernous space about the volume of a few gallons that smells like bees have lived there before. When we set up a trap to catch a swarm, we use a handful of old honey comb to give it that smell, plus we have a lure of lemongrass oil and pheromone.
Meanwhile, back at the hive, the bees have created some queens cells. I once saw 57 queen cells in one hive which was a little bit extra because there can only be one queen per hive. In fact, after a queen hatches, one of her first jobs is to sting all of the other queen cells with a reusable stinger. If more than one queen does hatch, they will fight to the death, leaving only the one queen.
The hive creates this queen cell by feeding the larva (a legless and featureless white grub) about 10 times as much as a normal worker egg. After the virgin queen hatches, her reproductive organs and wings mature for a few more days. Then she is able to fly. Hopefully the weather is good, for she will do mating flights for a few days, mating between 15 and 50 times.
The only job of a male bee, called a drone, is to mate. When he does his thing, he explodes. Part of his guts go back to the hive with the queen, where the worker bees clean her off and send her out again. The goal is to fill up her spermatheca with enough sperm to last her entire life life (one to five years). In a few days, she will start laying up to her weight in eggs each day, 2,000 eggs. Over the next five days, each egg gets visited around 1,300 times and fed 750 of those visits to grow enough to pupate into a worker bee.
When a worker bee first hatches, she becomes a nurse bee for a few days, then a guard bee, and then forager bee for the rest of her life—which is only about six weeks, as her wings wear out at that point.
The forager bee brings in nectar which is then passed from bee to bee, each adding enzymes. Then it is evaporated into honey in the honey cells and capped with wax. Usually there’s plenty of honey to support the hive and share—with a bear or, more likely nowadays, a beekeeper.
The honey provides the energy for the bees to survive through the winter. They cluster together and create heat by flexing their muscles without moving their wings. They can keep the center of the cluster 92 degrees all winter long.
As beekeepers, we try to give our bees the best habitat and the greatest opportunity to collect the all the nectar they need to transform into one of our favorite sweet treats, honey.
But back to the swarm: If you have an empty hive and want to get some bees for free, make a swarm trap. If you build it and position it well, there’s a one in 10 chance they will come.
It’s pretty simple: I use a pressed cardboard flower pot with plywood over the top to keep out the weather. Some old honey comb to give it that smell, plus lemongrass oil and pheromone go inside.
Come to Bee Fest on June 16 and I will help you make your own swarm trap and teach you how to use it—and what to do with it once you’ve caught your bees.
Owen Parry is the vice-president and former president of the Wasatch Beekepers Assnociation. He has kept bees for nine years. He tends the hive at Krishna Temple.