February 25, 2020
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Swarming season has begun for busy bees

Peter Cowin | BDN
Peter Cowin | BDN
Swarms have been very numerous this year, if you see one call a beekeeper who will be happy to re-home them.

It took till June for mother nature to give my bees some warmer weather. The cold and rain this spring has certainly held up the succession of blooms we would normally have expected but inside the hives, populations of bees have been exploding! Ironically, because the bees have been cooped up in their hives due to rain, the temperatures inside the larger clusters of bees has been higher and they have raised more brood extra fast.

The rain, sun, rain, sun mixture has also got bees itching to swarm and I have seen a particularly high number of swarms so far this spring.

Swarming is the way honeybee colonies reproduce, splitting in half, with the old queen leaving the colony along with half the workforce to build a new colony. They leave behind them in the old hive the other half of the workforce plus all the brood (developing bees) and about a dozen developing queen bees. The first queen to hatch will quickly murder all of her sister queens often tearing open the unhatched queen and stinging her sister to death before she even hatches. The survivor becomes the new queen of the colony.

In contrast to last year, when I had hardly any swarms, this year has been different. Even hives I have been putting new mite resistant queens in have been swarming, taking my special new queens with them!

On the plus side, all of my swarms, at least the ones I have seen, have landed on a nearby branch less than 4 feet from the ground! This has made catching them a very simple task.

I love catching swarms. Mostly I love catching other people’s swarms, but I like catching mine as well.

A swarm is usually very gentle as they have filled up with honey before leaving their home and they have no structure, food or brood to defend. When catching a swarm it is ideal to take the new hive, including a few combs, to the bees. Where possible, the open box is placed under the swarm. The branch upon which the bees are hanging is given a sharp tug. Usually the majority of the bees fall into the hive and immediately start to crawl down into it. Many bees stick their abdomens into the air, open their scent glands and begin to fan a pheromone into the air which signals to the other bees to “come here.” Then the most amazing thing I have watched (numerous times) in nature happens: the thousands of bees that missed the box and fell onto the ground start to turn towards the hive and walk right in, following the trail of pheromones. Often you can see the queen bee walking along with the crowd as they enter the hive.

Beekeepers are always trying to be prepared for swarms. It is very important for them to be captured before they take up residence inside a hollow tree or worse still, the wall of a house. Once a swarm goes “feral” it is unlikely to live more than a year as parasitic mites will soon infect the brood of the new colony introducing viruses. This usually leads to the colony’s death. It is therefore very important that if you see a swarm contact a beekeeper or go to the Maine State Beekeepers Association’s swarm hotline at www.mainebeekeepers.org and report the swarm. They will send out a volunteer to rehome the bees. Once in the care of a beekeeper, the new colony stands a very good chance of living a long productive life.

My friends at 2 Feet Brewing on Columbia Street in Bangor have made another batch of ”Bee Whisperer” bragget (honey beer). I can’t wait for it to be in the pub. I think I will stock up on a few growlers this time as it sold out so quickly last time! One day I hope to see “Bee Whisperer” in dozens of pubs in the region, till then you will just have to ask for it!


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