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Backyard Beekeeping 101: Swarm Prevention

Posted 06/04/2021 BY Donald Vincent

Bee hive swarm nesting in a tree.

Welcome back to our backyard beekeeping series. If this is your first time, we recommend reading “Backyard Beekeeping 101: All You Need To Know“ before continuing.  The second installment of the series focuses on swarm tips and includes pertinent info in case you spot a swarm of bees during the early weeks of summer.

What is a Swarm?

A beehive swarm does not mean a large group of bees. When a beehive swarms, tens of thousands of bees depart the hive in a chaotic whirl, eventually settling on nearby structures such as a tree branch before finally relocating to their new nest site.

Swarming is a means for beehives to reproduce, a natural part of honey bee biology. At first glance, a swarm can look scary with so many bees visible in one place; however, swarming bees are surprisingly non-aggressive. In fact, swarms only cause problems in most urban beekeeping environments because of the perceived risk to the public.

 

Why Should I Prevent Swarming?

In the process of swarming, a single colony splits into two or more distinct colonies. As a new backyard beekeeper, one of your regular tasks should be checking on the hive’s population. For example, a routine check of the number of queen cells can let you know if a swarm is likely to occur. 

It’s important to make efforts to prevent swarming or any of the following might take place:

 In this guide, we’ll highlight a few ways of working with swarms. Remember, swarms are remarkably docile and can be fun to collect. All you’ll need to collect your first swarm is a cardboard box in order to transport the bees to a hive to settle in.

Saving the Swarms 

Honey bee swarms can be caught, combined, or created. Depending on your beekeeping experience and education, our veteran beekeepers recommend the following ways of working with swarms. 

Beekeeper Bronia completing swarm prevention in downtown Boston.
Beekeeper Bronia completing swarm prevention in downtown Boston.

 

Catching Swarms

Before honey bees depart their natal hive, swarms overload on honey to provide them enough fuel to last them on their journey of finding a new home. This honey also helps them to provide wax to begin building the new comb.

Think back to the last time you ate a big meal. Did you enter a ‘food coma,’ meaning you were in a state of Zen after you finished eating? Just like the human body, bees tend to reduce their activity when swarming. The gentle nature of bees in this state makes it easier for any level beekeeper, even the beginner, to simply brush, shake, or guide the bees into your handy cardboard box held just below the swarm.

Try your best to find the queen. You can do this by simply keeping your eyes peeled for a bee that’s a bit more robust than the others. Some beekeepers will use a “queen clip” to capture her safely and transport her into the cardboard box. The rest of the bees will follow. 

You can now cover and transport the box to an available hive so the bees can settle and begin to establish their new nest.

 

 

Combining Swarms Using the Newspaper Method

The newspaper method should be used in the rare event that two swarms are caught or when two established hives are too weak to make it on their own. In this case, you can combine them to make one, really strong hive.

Follow the steps below to create your newspaper-honey combination:

  1. Place newspaper over a hive with a nest of bees inside.
  2. Using sugar water or honey (make sure it’s from a healthy hive source), glue the thin piece of newspaper in place.
  3. Next, spray the paper with more of the sweet substance you’ve chosen.
  4. Lastly, place the second swarm, or weak hive, in a hive box over the first.

This edible barrier delays any direct interaction between the two unrelated hives so they can get used to each other’s scents. Remember bees communicate with each other through pheromones. 

Once the bees chew through the newspaper, the two groups should now be acclimated to one another and begin operating like a single hive.

 

Preventing and Creating Swarms

 When a beehive grows rapidly, they often create additional queen cells, which to the naked eye looks like peanuts hanging down from the wax comb. A great management technique to swarm prevention and possibly losing half of the bees, is to safely remove these extra queen cells.

 The hive will likely make more queen cells, so be sure to keep an eye out for new cells as you routinely and diligently check your hives. If the hive is strong, the bees might be served best if you split the hive into two or more hives by simply moving the frames with new developing queens into separate boxes.

 Every new hive should be positioned as far as possible from the natal hive. This will ensure that the foraging bees return to their new hive instead of the old one.

 

Newly caught bee swarm in a nuc box.
Newly caught swarm in a nuc box.

Handling your first swarm can be scary, but if you have a love for bees and are equipped with the correct steps on how to handle a swarm, it should be one of the easiest tasks as a new beekeeper.

If you’re in need of swarm removal services, don’t hesitate to contact The Best Bees Company. Our expert beekeepers, better known as Swarm Catchers, are on Swarm Duty during the months of May and June. 

If you’ve been following along with our beekeeping series, tag us in a photo of your hive on our social channels at @BestBees. We’d love to see how you’re saving the bee population, one little creature at a time.

 

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