By Jim Orem and Ginger Davidson (www.GeezBeezHoney.com)
A swarm caught in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm caught June is worth a silver spoon; and a swarm caught in July ain't worth a fly.
The objective during the month of May is to have a queen-right, healthy, and well-fed hive so they can build up to maximum populations for the onset of the major nectar flow. This means your bees will constantly be on the verge of swarming but hopefully, never fully to that point.
Yes, May is swarm season and your job is to intervene. Of course, there are many schools of thought about beekeeping. Some say, just let them "bee" and they will do their thing. That is true... and swarming is the bees natural way to combat varroa mites. Bees also want survive and their natural instinct is to split and swarm on thier own. If we allow them to swarm, then we lose the foraging force we needed to bring in a honey crop. If we prevent them from swarming, then we can also be assured the mites will continue to build in numbers and we will have to deal with them later. Only time impresses experience on us... and in the meantime, we use each other to bolster experience and ultimately determine our own methods of hive management.
Hopefully, you attended one of the local club meetings to hear the ‘bee whisperer’ talk about catching swarms as this is a whole topic by itself. Traps should have been set into place by the first week in May. If you are interested in going on swarm calls, be sure to get on swarm call lists locally, with state associations, and the DNR. Also, be sure and register on the SIBA website map with your phone number.
The exciting thing about seeing the first swarm of the season is that you know the bees have determined it is time to make queens. Drones will be out flying regularly and mating flights will occur during 75 degree days with winds less than 10 mph. So start thinking about what you can do with new queens.
When you open the hive, look for nectar and pollen stores, and make sure there's a nice laying pattern in the brood chambers. Requeen if the brood pattern is not satisfactory. Maybe the bees will have already made the decision for you by creating some supercedure cells. Typically, queen cells hanging off the side of a comb indicate a supercedure cell. Supercedures are replacement queens and it means the bees have decided the current queen is not getting the job done. In these cases, you might consider leaving those cells alone.
But how do we determine if a hive is about to swarm? We look for other signs. Is there enough space in the hive? How has the colony population built up between the spring clean out, and now? Has it doubled or tripled in the last month? Have you been feeding the colony? A healthy colony of bees should be brimming right about now and each inspection should consider the ratio of available hive space, and the amount of bees. Also, the number of frames of capped brood (bees about to emerge) should be known. If you have two deeps of bees and the bees are occupying 7-8 frames in each box, then you would want to have 2, maybe even 3 honey supers (mediums) on top. More specifically, if you have 4-6 full frames of capped brood, then there will be a boom in population in a matter of days when they emerge. In that case, more supers, or even a 3rd deep on top of the original 2 deeps may be called for depending on your goals for each specific hive.
During the rush to think about new queens, don’t forget about the necatar flow. Make sure there is room in the hive for honey before the locust flow arrives (note: it has been as early as April 15th). Keep empty comb overhead and add more supers if needed. Research has found no difference in top-supering vs. bottom-supering and it is one of those highly debatable issues among beekeepers. So, do what is easier for you.
Use this time to make nucs and splits to increase the size of your apiary. If you have a hive that you believe is about to swarm, it might make sense to split out a nuc... or maybe two or three. Take the current queen and put her in a nuc with enough resources to support her, and move her to another apiary if you can. Letting the original hive rear a new queen during the honey flow is a good time to do it. At the same time, you can maximize your honey crop since the bees won't have any young larva to feed.
You should always have a specific goal for each hive. One might bring a honey crop, others may be used to build up and split for apiary increase. As you inspect your hives, and log your notes, over time, decisions for each become more apparent and you will feel less and less overwhelmed on all things we have to think about during bee season. Coming to the meetings and asking questions is a great way to get multiple views on any topic, and also meet prospective mentors, or friends that can come over and help you out. Look forward to seeing you at the next Hanover or Milam meeting soon!