AN UPDATE WAS ADDED TO THE END OF THIS POST ON JUNE 24, 2013.
I caught a swarm out in the country last year and I loved it. But unfortunately I live a in relatively crowded urban neighbourhood with an easily enraged next door neighbour, so even though I only have one hive in the city now, I don’t have the luxury of a laid back attitude towards swarms. I need to keep my neighbour from calling the fire department on me again, which means I have to do everything I can to prevent my lonely little colony from swarming. So what should I do?Last year I reversed the brood chambers and checker-boarded my hives. But three of my four colonies swarmed anyway. Here’s a video that shows what one of the hives looked like shortly before its colony swarmed:
I also gave my colonies a constant supply of sugar, starting on December 31st (dry sugar and then sugar syrup beginning in April), and then a constant supply of pollen starting on February 15th. Essentially, I overfed the bees for four months and gave the queens everything they needed to lay eggs at an unnaturally accelerated pace. The colonies grew so fast they had no choice but to swarm, which is exactly what they did starting on May 25th last year.
Ask any experienced beekeeper who makes a living from selling nucs made from natural splits and they’ll tell you that if you want to create queen cells (or swarm cells), all you have to do is crowd and overfeed your bees. I overfed my bees, the population went through the roof, the hives got crowded, the smorgasbord of sweet nectar and pollen kept coming — perfect conditions for swarming. Mix in some distraught, angry neighbours, plus a whole lotta stress. Picturesque vision of beekeeping goes poof!
I used to think feeding the bees and building up their numbers was essential to maintaining a healthy colony in a place like Newfoundland, but that’s not necessarily the case. A colony doesn’t have to be busting at the seams with bees to be healthy. A moderately sized colony may not produce as much honey for humans as a larger colony, but as long as it’s large enough to fight off predators and has enough honey for itself, then it’s doing fine. I’d rather have healthy bees and little honey than out of control colonies and potentially unhappy neighbours.
That’s why I caution Newfoundland urban beekeepers who may not have bee-friendly neighbours not to overfeed their bees in the spring and to inspect for swarm cells at least every ten days starting May 1st, especially if the hives are overflowing with bees. Keeping the hives out of sight and out of mind of nosey neighbours probably isn’t a bad idea too.
P.S.: Although the number of bees buzzing around in the video put my next door neighbour on edge, I’d like to point out that not before, during or after the swarming were the bees aggressive or defensive towards us. I often had to walk through even thicker clouds of bees than shown in the video and the bees landed on my arms and even my face and acted like I wasn’t even there. They may have pooped on me from time to time, but they didn’t buzz me in the face or ever try to sting me. It can seem unnerving to people who don’t understand honey bees, but when the bees are in orientation mode or preparing to swarm, they couldn’t be any friendlier.
UPDATE (May 22/13): Here’s an excellent post from Honey Bee Suite about preventing swarms: Backfilling: the sign of the swarm. The Taranov split articles also demonstrate a cool method of hiving a swarm before it swarms (though it’s not something I would attempt in an urban setting with nosey neighbours nearby).
UPDATE (June 24/13): Two of my colonies swarmed again this year. I’ve decided that the only time I will feed my bees sugar syrup is in the fall to top up the colonies before winter. The bees do well enough on their own in my local environment without sugar syrup in the spring.