By J. Morgan
"A swarm caught in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm caught June is worth a silver spoon; and a swarm in July... just let it fly."
I'm not really sure who originally said that, but I first heard it from Jim Orem, our resident swarm authority.
During the month of May, we should have a queen-right, healthy colony that has been building up to a maximum foraging force for the onset of the major nectar flow. That's black locust here in SE Indiana. This means your bees are constantly on the verge of swarming but hopefully, never to that point. Strong hives need a closer eye on things. Now is the time to get into your hives to have an idea of each colony so you can make individual preparations for each. Once the flow hits, we want to stay out of them as much as possible.
May is swarm season and your job is to grow your hives, and keep them from swarming. 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... but swarming is natural to bees, and they most certainly will do their thing if you let them! Swarming is their way of outbreeding varroa, and multiplying their populations. If we allow them to swarm, then we lose the foraging force we need to bring in a phat, (that means big and awesome) honey crop when the time is right. 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 each of us... and in the meantime, we use each other to bolster experience and ultimately determine our own methods of hive management.
Swarm traps should have been set into place by now. I've put mine out when I saw dandelions this year if not to catch new swarms... then at least to catch my own if I start casting them before I identify them. 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 nectar 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 meeting soon!