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?
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.