Swarm Season Is Here

We've spent the last two weeks talking about swarms. People spotting swarms of bees in their yards. Beekeepers wanting to prevent swarms in their hives. Other beekeepers trying to figure out what to do now that their hives have already swarmed. Here's what we hope is helpful advice for all of those situations!

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Don't Panic.

That's our best advice, no matter what the situation. Swarms are not dangerous nor are they a death sentence to a hive, so no matter what you've got going on it's going to be ok.

What's a Swarm?

A swarm is a natural part of the life-cycle of a honeybee hive. When a colony begins to outgrow the space it is inhabiting, it will begin preparations for swarming. The old queen and a portion (up to about 50%) of the workers will leave the hive to form a new colony elsewhere. They leave behind a complete colony with a developing new queen. This new queen will go out and mate and the old colony will continue on. 

The stage of swarming that we usually see is when a cluster of bees is hanging out somewhere, like on a tree limb or a fence post, voting on where to go next. This cluster is often referred to as a "swarm" of bees, and is incredibly docile. These bees are not defending anything, so have no reason to sting. Bees typically stay in this cluster for 24-72 hours before moving on to their new residence. 

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If You See a Swarm (and don't want it)

Again, remember our "don't panic" advice. Please call a local beekeeper to see if they can come and remove it. Many beekeepers will provide this service at no cost. We have a list of local beekeepers and the areas that they service right here. Remember that this is very different from a hive removal, or a cut out, which is much more complicated.

If You See a Swarm (and you DO want it)

This is a pretty cool way to get "freebees!" The process is pretty simple. Once you identify a swarm cluster, you simply need to put the bees into a box and move them to a suitable location. We say simply, but it's really only simple when the bees are located within easy reach. If they are, then it's usually just a matter of shaking the branch that they are on and knocking the bees off into a box. 

Once the queen is in the box, the bees will give you some good clues that she's there. Watch for "fanning," which is indicated by bees lined up at the entrances to the box, sticking their butts up into the air and furiously fanning their wings. They are spreading pheromones to call the rest of the bees to the queen's new location. Once this message is out, you will see the remaining bees move toward your box. When everyone is safely inside, it's fine to go ahead and move the box to another location. 

At this point, the bees can either be installed directly into a hive or left in a nuc box (always with frames!) until they are more established. You'll be watching for signs of a viable queen. In the unlikely event that there is no queen captured, you could purchase a new, mated queen and introduce her to the new colony.

If Your Bees Swarmed

If your colony did indeed swarm, then there are a few things you will want to check on to make sure that nature has indeed taken it's course and the colony will be no worse for it. Remember that the old queen has left with the swarm, leaving behind a number of developing queen cells. These queens will begin hatching out and one (often the first) will become the new queen, disposing of the remaining ones. You will often see remnants of the queen cells upon your next hive inspection. If you do, then this likely means that a queen has hatched out and you will begin looking for signs of her presence in the hive.

Once a new queen hatches out, she will go out on mating flights, returning to the hive fertile and ready to begin laying worker brood. It's not necessary to spot the queen, and it's often difficult to find a new queen because she isn't quite as large as she eventually will be. You'll want to look for proof that she's there. Eggs are the proof that we always look for in our hives. We look for single eggs in cells, as this is an indication of a healthy, fertile queen.

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Remember, it takes time for a new queen to begin laying and eggs are sometimes difficult to see. We get many reports from new beekeepers of queenless hives after a swarm, only to find a hive full of brood a week or two later. Nature works pretty well, and the vast majority of colonies do just fine at making a new queen. That said, it does happen that a queen is eaten up by a bird or something during her mating flights and never makes it home. In cases like this, the beekeeper will need to intervene and develop a plan to requeening the hive.

Preventing Swarms

While swarming isn't altogether bad, it is something that most beekeepers want to prevent. There are steps that the beekeeper can take to reduce the risk of swarming. I'll publish another article on preventing swarms through proper management soon...

Bears in the Beehives

This is a post that I'm incredibly irritated to have to write. Not because I don''t like bears, but because I'm not excited about the prospect of having to protect my bees from Winnie the Pooh. We typically don't have to deal with this issue here in the East Aurora area or in places north, but we've had numerous bear reports over the past few weeks...and we had a visit to our own apiary last week.

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Bears are largely harmless to us but can do real damage to an apiary. If you live in the Southern Tier, you've likely already thought about this and have protective measures in place. For those of us that haven't had it on our radar, here's some tips about protecting your hives from your neighborhood bear.

Bears eat bees, particularly the larvae. In order to get at the treat they're looking for, they will typically knock over the hive and start removing frames. This causes a huge disruption to the colony, obviously, but can also destroy your equipment. Many times, a single visit from a bear can spell disaster for an apiary.

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Bears must be physically deterred from the hives, as there are no repellents that we are aware of. A physical barrier can be either structural or electrified. If you're handy, a bear-proof structure can be built to surround your hives. 

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Our solution to the bear problem was to surround our hives with an electric fence. It took about an hour to set up, and was up and running the day after the "bear incident."

Electrified bear fencing is different from horse or cattle fencing because it is comprised of a net-like fence. This is because a bear needs to feel the "zap" on his or her snout in order to encourage it to back away. A zap that hits the bear in the legs or shoulders will usually cause it to push forward, plowing through the fence and reaching your hives anyway.

Electric fences consist of the fencing material and an energizer that will power it. These energizers can be either wired, battery operated, or solar powered, and are sized for the length of fence you need to electrify.

We stock a variety of fencing solutions and can help you figure out what will work best for your apiary. 

Should I Order a Nuc or a Package of Bees?

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If you're a new beekeeper, it can seem like there are an overwhelming number of decisions to be made when setting up your first apiary. Do I need a bee suit or just a jacket? Plastic frames or wax foundations? Carniolan or Italian bees? There's no right or wrong answer to any of these questions, just like there's no right answer to give when new beekeepers ask us if they should order a nuc or a package.

Here's how we like to explain the difference, and our recommendations for when each is appropriate:

What's a nuc?

"Nuc" is short for nucleus colony, and it is easiest to think of it as a small version of a working hive. 

Langstroth Hive Setup

My winter project? Make a bunch of short videos answering the basic beekeeping questions we get all of the time. Here's a preview:


So, you bought all of the parts to put together your new hive, and now it's time to actually put it together. And that's where it can get tricky!

What part goes where? It all makes a lot of sense when you see it set up in the store, but can get pretty confusing when you have to do it again at home. Here's  a quick video that we think should help.

Do you have an idea for a video you'd like to see? Let me know! erin@mastersons.net