June (or earlier!) is traditionally the beekeepers busiest month requiring frequent visits to the apiary and careful inspections to ensure the rest of the year is successful. It is the month that honeybees naturally proliferate through swarming, and is the end and height of the spring season when both bees and plants have been their most productive. It is the time and opportunity to increase the number of colonies in the apiary, the time when we can harvest the spring crop of honey, the time that bees like to swarm, and it is the time when disease can appear and spread quickly. The increase in colony strength and level of activity also increases the risks. As quickly as the colonies build up, they can equally collapse or disappear. Vigilance and careful inspections are key and should be carried out at regular intervals no less than 7 days apart bearing in mind that a viable queen cell can be produced and sealed over in just 8 days at which point the original queen will take off with a swarm at the first opportunity.
With so much to do in the apiary this month, it is easy to forget or overlook what the seasons are doing. The spring flowers that have brought the colonies to life after winter and that have provided the nourishment to build up strong colonies, are all of a sudden finished. The flow of nectar and pollen comes to an abrupt halt, the summer flowers are no where in sight, and it will be a couple of weeks before they appear. Your colonies will continue to be busy in the hive but will be dependant on stores to survive especially if you have taken a spring crop of honey off. Have syrup and contact feeders ready for this 'June Gap' to avoid sudden starvation.
Swarming is the natural way in which honeybees proliferate, traditionally occurring in June give or take a couple of weeks, however in recent years with mild winters it has been as early as April with drones seen in March. A honeybee's lifespan is relatively short, a few weeks in the summer and few months in winter, the queen being the exception, she can last up to three years or more. A single worker bee doesn't last a season, so how you may ask do they survive? The answer is that we must consider the whole colony, not the individual, with members being hatched and dying throughout the year but in enough numbers to maintain a viable colony at all times. They survive through the winter on the fruit of their previous seasons labours, emerging in spring with depleted numbers, but strength enough to rebuild numbers in the better weather. And they deliberately continue to produce more numbers until the hive or nest becomes overcrowded. The colony reacts to the ample numbers, and stores of pollen and honey by first producing drones then building queen cups (swarm cells) which hang upside down on to the side of the comb, and into which the existing queen lays an egg, which when hatched is fed super food to develop the larvae into a queen with fully functioning reproductive organs. The queen cell is noticeably long, and when sealed at 8 days is reminiscent of a peanut husk. At this point, on the first warm day, all the adult flying bees load up with honey and gather outside the hive and wait for the original queen to come out and join them and off they go together as a flying swarm. What is left in the hive is the unhatched queen(s), brood and eggs, stores, and the as yet non flying nurse bees - in effect the basis of a new colony. The swarm will go off to set up home else where, first bivouacking not far from the original hive while the scouts go and find a new home where they will build comb and continuing the original colony, most times! Not every swarm is successful, many will not find a suitable location and will simply perish out in the open. Preventing and controlling swarming is a necessity for the keeper and is not without it's challenges, keeping an eye on colony build up is the key.
Note - the first swarm a hive produces is a 'Prime Swarm' and will have good numbers and a seasoned laying queen. Similarly the queen cells left behind in the hive will contain the best fed queen larvae, and will make the strongest queens. However subsequent swarms from the same hive will be smaller and will have a second batch young queen that will not be as vigorous.
Back in the hive the new queen(s) will hatch out in due course at 16 days when, if there are more than one, there will be a fight to the death and with any luck the strongest will survive. The surviving young maturing queen will be tended by the colony and fill out before leaving the hive on a mating flight on the first warm day, flying to around 30m in a 'Drone Zone' where she will mate with a dozen or so drones (estimates vary) before returning to the hive to commence her egg laying duties and won't leave the hive again unless in a swarm. The drones die after the act of fertilisation, their purpose fulfilled. This natural process of mating is out with the beekeepers control, the success of which is down to how well the virgin queen mates, and with whom. Genetics are pretty much a lottery as the drones will be from different colonies over a wider area. The results of mating won't be known until she starts laying. A poorly mated queen that is not performing well will in time be superseded by the colony. Ensuring the production of strong virgin queens with suitable traits is the only aspect to which the keeper has any input and can be managed through good husbandry practices in the apiary.
As you can imagine when a swarm leaves your hive there is a considerable loss to consider. All adult flying bees, the workers, the foragers, have gone and that may account for more than half the worker bees in the hive. And they didn't leave empty handed, they took a lot of honey with them. Whats left are the as yet non flying bees, the nurse bees that were tending the eggs and brood left in the hive, they won't be going out foraging until more of the brood has hatched and have taken up the house keeping duties. The queen won't immediately begin laying until she has mated and matured, so all in all the hive comes to a temporary stand still and will take some time before numbers build up and it becomes fully productive again. It is quite a loss and will require monitoring to ensure it gets back up to sufficient strength to get through the next winter. It goes without saying that the best scenario is not to lose a swarm!
Regular inspections from mid May through June and early July keeps the beekeeper on top of colony build up and allows the opportunity to artificially swarm colonies that are likely to swarm. Alternatively splitting a strong colony up into 2 good nucs will avert disaster. This can be done before or after swarm cells appear.
Reality Check - Losing a swarm is inevitable! Even with the best will in the world and the greatest care taken, every beekeeper can miss a hidden queen cell during inspections. Don't despair if you do, its perfectly natural for honeybees to swarm, and the colony will recover.
If during an inspection you find a congested hive with swarm cells, you must decide on a course of action to avoid losing the swarm, doing nothing is not an option! Artificially swarming the hive in effect replicates a swarm leaving the hive but remaining in the apiary in another hive, and will prevent you losing the bees out of the apiary. This is best carried out before mid June, and when the adult bees are out flying, mid-day in good weather preferably, but timing is the priority. Late swarms or nucs may not have enough season left to fully build up and will need to be united to ensure survival. Have all equipment ready before starting.
Preparation - Have an empty brood box with floor, crown board and roof to hand, filled with frames of foundation or clean comb.
Summary - The original hive is now a 'nucleus colony' containing brood and eggs and nurse bees, but without a queen. If there are no swarm cells present at this point the nurse bees will make an emergency queen cell from an existing egg or freshly hatched larvae. Place this new 'nucleus colony' at a good distance from the main hives to avoid robbing, and put on a feeder to give them a boost. The original foraging bees out flying will return to the original location and join the original queen in what is essentially an artificial swarm in a new hive, which with any luck won't try to swarm again this season. Put a feeder on this also to give it a boost.
There are other methods of swarm prevention / artificial swarming, and make interesting reading however the above is a simple and reliable method widely practised and requires no special equipment or skill.
At some point you will faced with taking a swarm, either in your apiary or in someones garden or other location. Sometimes they are conveniently hanging from a branch or fence post and easy enough to access, and other times not so much - up in a tree or some other difficult to access location, and some are just impossible to recover. The process is relatively straight forward, a purpose built swarm trap, a skep, a nuc box, a brood box with frames of fresh comb a base and a roof is all that is required, although a cardboard box is perfectly adequate in an emergency as long as it can be sealed for transport. Honeybees are relatively passive when swarming, loaded with honey and not inclined to sting, but its best to wear your bee suit.
Preparation, time, patience and gentle action.
A prime swarm about the size of two footballs bivouacked in the top of a small conifer, fairly straightforward to recover using a step ladder, a pair of garden shears, a bee brush, a prepared polynuc, and a bit of patience.
The whole swarm needs to be taken in tact, with all the bees and queen. If they are on a branch, a ladder and a pair of secateurs will be needed to cut the branch and twigs to allow moving the swarm gently, branch and all, into the box. You may have to remove a couple of frames to achieve this. Once in the box, place the box on the ground below where the swarm was and leave it there with the entrance open until the evening when any strays and scout bees will have returned and joined the rest. If your using a cardboard box lift one end up slightly to allow the bees access in and out. Later in the evening, gently close up the box, make sure its bee-tight but able to breath, and transport it to your apiary, wrapping it in an old bed sheet helps. If the swarm is in a brood box, simply leave it closed over night in the apiary and open it up the next morning, recover the branch and replace any removed frames.
If you discover that the whole swarm has returned to where you first found it this simply means you missed the queen first time round and you will have to try again!
If you have used a cardboard box then you need to transfer it to a hive. Use the old bed sheet, lay it down over the hive stand extending out in front and place the floor on top of the sheet on the stand. Assemble the brood box, crown board and roof as normal on top of the floor. Now tip the bees gently on to the sheet out in front of the hive laying the box down open end facing the hive. You'll witness an intriguing sight as the bees march en mass up the sheet and in through the hive entrance.
A swarm found in a classic location, hanging on a branch approximately 20 meters from the parent hive. Late in the evening the swarm was gently introduced into a polynuc and the supporting twigs cut without greatly disturbing the bees. The twigs and other debris were recovered the following day and the swarm given a good feed of syrup to aid comb building on the fresh foundation. Ideally a nuc box prepared with a couple of frames of clean drawn comb gives a swarm a quick start, but fresh foundation is perfectly adequate. Once the queen starts egg laying (usually after a few days and evidenced by returning foragers loaded with pollen) the 'queen-right' swarm colony can be transferred to a full brood box.
Using a purpose designed swarm trap gives you a greater chance of capturing a swarm. The design, placement and baiting are all important in attracting the scout bees and the swarm into the trap and staying there. Put traps out in suitable locations mid April when the scouts are starting to search about, and leave them out until end of July. Swarms after that are late in the season and unlikely to prove viable. Re-deploy successful traps as soon as the bees are hived, they will have a fresh 'swarm smell' which is the best kind of lure.
Swarm Trap design, placement, and baiting - an informative and useful home made video from a US beekeeper, explaining his successful designs on building and setting custom made swarm traps, and covers all the main points and the importance of 'dead space' in the trap. There are a couple of documents to support this: an easy to read informative research paper on 'Bait Hives for Honey Bees' by Thomas Seeley, Cornell University; a 'DIY Swarm Lure' recipe; and a simple guide to Swarm Trapping.
Note - swarms need to work hard, if possible give them a feed of syrup to help them draw comb, and consider a precautionary varroa treatment while there is little or no brood present.
Creating nucs are a good way of increasing your colony numbers and, as previously described, are a way to discourage swarming. Nucs can be created from 2 to 4 frames of brood with or without queen cells present and can be housed in Nuc Boxes containing 4, 5 or 6 frames, or in an ordinary brood box reduced down in size by baffles. Chose a strong colony with plenty of brood, carefully remove a couple of adjacent frames of brood and eggs along with the attendant bees and transfer them into the nuc box. Take anther frame from the hive and shake to attendant bees into the nuc as reinforcements and return this frame to the hive. A frame or two of honey / pollen either side to keep them going will help. Other frames in the nuc should have clean foundation or clean comb. Position the nuc in a sunny sheltered spot away from your main hives as the stronger colonies will rob the weaker nuc of any stores. Put a feeder on the nuc to ensure they don't run out of food while they get to work.
The bees in the nuc will notice very quickly the absence of queen pheromone and that they are queen-less, and will get to work on developing a new queen by picking a freshly laid egg or very recently hatched larvae and feed it super food as they would for any queen cell. The bees will build the cell walls of this larvae out and down to accommodate the growing queen larvae. Queens produced this way are though to be slightly inferior to queens developed in queen cups, but they will hatch, mate and lay, and build up a working colony which will need to transferred from the nuc to an 11 frame hive in a few weeks. If the colony are unhappy with her performance the following year they will simply supersede her.
When a queen is failing through age, is damaged, or is not performing well due to poor mating e.g. the colony will decide to replace her. They will produce one or two queen cells that will fight it out when they hatch. This normally happens outside the swarming season and can produce good quality queens without the losses associated with swarms, and is something that the colony itself manages on its own, the beekeeper just has to keep an eye on stores levels.