Mid-June is the time when colonies are growing at their fastest and the beekeeper has to be alert for signs of swarming. By this stage the brood chambers are reaching full size. The queen is laying eggs as fast as she can, perhaps 3,000 per day, more than her own body weight in eggs. At any one time, there might be 40,000 to 50,000 young bees in development and a further 60,000 to 80,000 adult bees in a strong hive.
At the same time as the brood chambers are full to capacity with brood, pollen and nectar are also flooding into the hive. The lower portion of the hive is the brood rearing area. In a typical hive, there are 10 combs across in each box or super the beekeeper provides. As the colony fills up, the beekeeper adds more supers to the top, much like adding additional floors to a building. Typically, the brood chamber occupies the lower two of these supers. This is also normally where the entrance to the hive is so every bee entering or leaving the hive passes through this center of activity. The area is filled with bees of various ages, each with roles to play depending upon their age.
The brood chamber is full of young adult bees less than two weeks old. Their key role is to clean the cells, feed the larvae and to receive incoming nectar and pollen from field bees. They store the pollen around the edge of the brood chamber so it is readily accessible to feed the young. The nectar, which is a dilute sugar solution, is stored initially in any open cells in the brood chamber. At night, these bees will move the nectar to the upper areas and sides of the hive for longer term storage. The bees fan their wings to create an air current which gradually will reduce the water content of the nectar. Once the water content has been reduced to 19 percent or less it is now cured honey and will be sealed with a white layer of beeswax to be consumed when food is no longer coming into the hive. Cured honey will last forever. It may crystallize, but it will never spoil.
Once the young bees become two weeks old they start the process of learning where they live. For about 20 minutes each warm sunny day, thousands of these young bees begin their orientation flights. They fly in small circles in front of the hive and gradually increase their range from the hive noting such things as the color of the hive and where it is in relation to surrounding landmarks.
With all of these young bees in the brood chamber, pollen, nectar and honey being stored in and around it, the queen can be restricted in room to lay eggs. More supers are added to give the bees more room to store honey in places other than the brood chamber. It’s hives such as this that decide they should split in two or “swarm.” Swarming is a natural way hives reproduce themselves. The reigning queen leaves the hive with about half the worker bees. Leaving behind all the brood, half the workers and several developing young queens in specially built queen cells. The first of these young queens to hatch will kill her sister queens before they even emerge from their cells. They will then be queen of the hive.
If the beekeeper is not successful in preventing swarms they hope to catch the swarm while it is temporarily hanging from a nearby tree limb. This stage may last for a few hours or a few days while the swarm sends scouts out to find a permanent home. If you see one of these basketball sized clusters of bees hanging in a tree let a beekeeper know so they can be given a good home!
Now that my bees have come back home from the blueberry fields I have been busy assessing them and making nucs or nucleus colonies for sale. This is my biggest workload of the year. This year I found that about 1 in 10 had already outgrown their hive and swarmed before they got home. Each hive that has not yet swarmed has a population of about 50 to 60,000. My first job is to find the queen bee amongst all those bees. This can take anything from 1 minute to an hour … sometimes the queen just likes to hide! Once I find her, usually on a comb of eggs and young, “open” brood, I transfer that comb with the queen into a nuc box. I then choose 2 or 3 more combs of brood, some in their first stages of development, some in the process of hatching. Finally, I add a comb full of pollen and honey. It’s important that these nucs are not overfilled or that they have any queen cells in them or they too could swarm. Once the nuc is made I replace the combs taken with frames of empty foundation for them to build new combs. Then I add a new queen bee to the original hive. It will take a few days for the new queen to emerge from her wire cage and another week or two for her to settle down and be fully accepted by her new subjects.
These hives will now be my honey production hives. Then we just need warm sunny weather for them to fill up the honey supers during the clover honey flow which has just started.
Peter Cowin, aka The Bee Whisperer, is President of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association. His activities include honey production, pollination services, beekeeping lessons, sales of bees and bee equipment and the removal of feral bee hives from homes and other structures. Check out “The Bee Whisperer” on Facebook, firstname.lastname@example.org or 299-6948.