A Swarm in May…

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Disaster struck!

Everything I had read advised me to be cautious and thorough in my inspections; May would be the prime month for swarms. I heeded the advice, but unfortunately for me my bees managed to hide some queen cells. By not noticing the queen cells, I was unable to take measures to prevent them swarming.

The result of this was that my bees swarmed. About half my workforce flew off with their queen which will probably result in a diminished honey crop this year.

More bees, more honey. Oh well. I was a bit bummed about that but hopefully they found a nice hollow tree to live in…

A kind helper, but a failed attempt…

The aftermath

One hive have successfully created a new queen, who is in there laying eggs. I can see lots of sealed brood in a really nice pattern, and the hive is brimming with bees hard at work filling the supers! So far, the bees are still nice and placid. It was my worry that after the new queen mated, her offspring may have been more aggressive; early days though.

I suspect the other hive has made a queen however I’m still concerned about their progress. I’m hoping that they may just be a week or so behind the other (maybe she took longer to mate?). Things aren’t looking good though – the other hive is already busier than pre-swarm.

One state I’m worried about is ‘laying workers’. All worker bees are female and therefore have ovaries. Under normal conditions in the hive the workers ovaries are suppressed by ‘open brood pheromone’. When a queen dies, workers may nurture a new one from 3 day old pupa. If the workers are unable to make a new queen, eventually there will be no brood and no brood pheromone. Symptoms could be: multiple eggs per cell, laid randomly around the edges of the cells, in a patchy brood pattern. Lots of patchy drone brood is another red flag. Workers don’t leave behind any marker scent to identify cells. They also have short abdomens. This means they lay many eggs per cell, and not nicely in the centre.

Queenlessness?

One common way to test if there is a queen present (other than spotting her) is to provide the problem hive with a frame of eggs from another hive. If there is no queen, the bees will construct queen cells from the eggs when they hatch to make a new one! My problem hive did pass this test however I still feel a little concerned; I still see no eggs, when there ought to be a laying queen present by now. It’s possible I accidentally squished their queen, or she got eaten by a bird on her mating flight. I’ll elaborate a bit more on this hives situation in my next post.

The Swarm

So I mentioned that my hives swarmed; what exactly happened?

While I’m certainly no expert, I’ll try to explain my rather basic understanding of the swarming process. The bees will begin preparation weeks before they begin to swarm. Workers make the decision by a sort of ‘consensus’, or possibly an accumulation of stimuli. Examples of these stimuli could include but not be limited to: overcrowding near the entrance, warmer weather (not too warm), perception of seasons, their ability to communicate being hindered (possibly a symptom of congestion within the hive).

A failed attempt to climb up and retrieve the swarm…

When the bees have decided they will swarm, they build ‘queen cups’. Often at the bottoms of the frames, these are wax cups (before containing a developing queen, they look like a smaller version of the cup which attaches to the nut on an acorn). Queen cups are larger than worker cells because when she’s fully grown she has a much bigger abdomen. An egg is laid in the cup and nurtured into a queen (any fertilised egg can be turned into a queen by the workers.; the differentiation of their development is diet; the queen receives royal jelly until her cell is sealed). From an egg, it takes 3 days until hatching, 8 days until sealed, and 16 days before she’ll emerge. Queens take a further 4 days to mature before they are ready to mate.

The planning

As part of the swarming preparation, the queen is fed less and chased around the hive more. The workers also start filling the area of cells which she would have like to lay eggs in with honey. These behaviours have the effect that the queen stops laying eggs, and she becomes thinner and fitter for flight. The workers put her on a diet, and take her to the gym… Fat queens can’t fly.

8 days after an egg is laid in a queen cell, wax is built around the prepupa. When this stage is reached roughly half the bees will likely swarm with the old queen on the first good flying day! The gorge on honey and fly out.

The bees will typically fly out, settle somewhere close by (sometimes for up to 3 days) while scout bees present the locations of different spots they’ve found to the rest of the swarm. When the bees reach a consensus then they ready themselves for flight and make the journey to their new home.

And the result is a few thousand bees sitting just out of reach on the branch of a tree near their hive… So long, good luck!

Fraser

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