Urban Beekeepers, Don’t Overfeed Your Bees

I caught a swarm out in the country last year and I loved it. But unfortunately I live in a relatively crowded urban neighbourhood with an easily enraged nextdoor 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?

Upper half of the large water melon sized swarm I caught last summer.

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.

I know many beekeepers in North America who make a living from selling nucs made from natural splits. To create queen cells (or swarm cells), they crowd their hives and overfeed their 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 I’m not so sure that’s the case. A colony doesn’t have to be busting at the seams with bees to be healthy. A moderately sized colony might 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, what’s wrong with that? I’d rather have healthy bees and a little less 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. I’d also inspect for swarm cells every eight days starting May 1st if the hives seem to be overflowing with bees like they are in the above video. Keeping the hives out of sight and out of mind of nosey neighbours probably isn’t a bad idea too.

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.

May 22nd, 2013: 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).

June 24th, 2013: Two of my colonies swarmed again this year. The colonies swarmed mostly because I didn’t have the time to pay close attention to them, but I’ve nevertheless decided that the only time I will feed my bees sugar syrup is in the fall to top up the colonies before winter, or whenever the colonies are weak and would otherwise die without sugar. My bees seem to do well enough on their own in my local environment without much sugar syrup in the spring.

May 2019 Postscript: Not every spring in Newfoundland is as warm as it was in 2012 and 2013 when my colonies were swarming out of control. It’s May 20th as I write this and none of my colonies are anywhere close to swarming. It’s been so cold that most of the queens have barely begun to lay. The largest colony I have doesn’t even fill a full deep. I’ve spoken to many beekeepers on the island who have never had a colony swarm on them any early than June. It seems that swarms in May are the exception.

7 thoughts on “Urban Beekeepers, Don’t Overfeed Your Bees

  1. So THAT’S where the honey bees have been coming from around my crosusses. I thought perhaps there had been a swarm last year that you missed and has become naturalized. Nice to see them around, I had thought we wouldn’t see them any more since you moved your hives out of the city.

  2. Whenever I feed the bees honey, they attack it, devour it, with more at least twice as much enthusiasm as they would with even the sweetest, most attractive sugar syrup.

    I decided to feed my bees last year’s crystallized honey. The hive in the city that I don’t want to swarm hasn’t received any sugar syrup this year. I can’t risk overfeeding them. But I did give them left over comb honey that I didn’t eat from last year, and today I took pint sized Mason jar full of crystallized honey, put it on its side with the mouth of the jar next to the inner cover hole, covered by a honey super, and the bees have been going at it like mad.

    I figure it’s just as good as any sugar syrup. Maybe not, but close enough.

  3. I performed an artificial swarm today as explained in this video…


    …and like all things on the internet that make a beekeeping procedure seem peaceful and easy, it’s a lot harder than it looks. I hope it works.

    Note to self: NEVER feed the bees past the month of May, or maybe just don’t feed them past winter anymore. I barely fed my bees this year and they still created swarm cells. I can deal with it, but I’d rather not. Tearing apart a 3-deep hive packed with bees ain’t easy no matter how Zenfully blissed out you are.

    • I asked around about this method for dealing with swarm cells (i.e., preventing the colony from swarming) and a straightforward answer I got was: “Move the queen to a new location.” That’s it. Move her with some other bees, some honey and pollen, etc. — but no swarm cells. It’s a simple move that emulates what happens during a swarm and supposedly works every time.

      What I don’t get is this: If dealing with swarm cells is so easy, why doesn’t everybody talk about it? “Got swarm cells? No problem. Just put the queen in another location. Done.”

      Why is that not the #1 tip for all new beekeepers? EVERYBODY is going to deal with swarm cells eventually. If moving the queen is so simple and effective, why isn’t it common knowledge?

      Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if I find another hive full of swarm cells this weekend. If so, I’ll just move the queen and see what happens.

      • Phillip,

        That’s a really good question. In my opinion it has to do with equipment. Moving the queen is the same as making a split and lots of beekeepers don’t have an extra hive sitting around, so they try to prevent the swarm by removing the cells or making some other hive manipulation.

        Also, if someone is trying to maximize honey production, they may not want to split their hive. Some beekeepers may be more willing to try an alternative method, even though they risk losing a swarm, in order to try for that extra production.

  4. The artificial swarm worked. It’s nice when something works.

    Then I had to dig into another 3-deep hive today and discovered it was full of swarm cells. What a headache. I should have just left it alone and let it swarm. Instead I performed another artificial swarm and the bees were not happy.

    For now on, the only time I feed my bees sugar syrup is in the fall, to top them up just before winter. Any kind of spring feeding to give them a boost is not necessary. It seems to be a guaranteed recipe for swarms. The bees do well enough on their own.

    I also had to transport a mating nuc full of bees today in my car and the bees got out at one point. I eventually removed the mating nuc, but it took hours to kill all the bees that stayed behind in the car (they wouldn’t leave). Another headache.

    Anymore beekeeping days like today and I’m pretty sure I’d give it up. Beekeeping is supposed to fun and peaceful. Today was treacherous.

  5. My hidden city hive, despite being queenless for at least the past two weeks (a new queen will emerge from a supercedure cell soon, I hope) — it’s now the largest hive I’ve build. It consists of 3 deep brood supers, a shallow honey super and 2 medium honey supers. THAT’S BIG. And nearly every super, including the deeps, is full honey. It’s kind of nuts.

    I suspect the bees are into honey-making mode because there is no queen and no new brood. By default, with nothing else to do, they collect pollen and make honey. Or perhaps the city has so many sources of nectar, they’re just in the middle of a massive honey flow. (I will never feed my city hives into the spring again. If this is any indication, they don’t need any help.) Whatever is going on, I had to add another honey super today so they might free up the brood area and give the new queen (if she mates successfully) some place to lay. It’s getting a little crowded in there. I’ve never seen so much honey in a single hive before.

Comments are closed.