Preventing the Swarm

The main challenge of every beekeeper is to keep their bees healthy and therefore have a better chance at colony survival (especially through the winter). A colony of bees is a super organism—an animal—and like all domesticated animals, honeybees rely on humans for well being and health.  Everything we do, with the exception of harvesting honey, has the goal of safeguarding colony health. There is a lot of news in the world about declining bee populations and the high mortality rates of colonies. This is absolutely true and I wanted to reiterate that fact before going on to talk about the Whiting Forest hive conditions this spring because we had the rare experience of all of our hives surviving.

We had good signs of colony strength in February so we ramped up feeding of the hives as food reserves had run low and starvation is still a threat to a colony at that time of year. Another threat is a warm spell followed by extreme cold – also known as Michigan spring. The bees during the winter, cluster in the hive together to keep the queen warm and the hive temperature at a level to allow for survival. The clustering happens when the temperature drops to 57 degrees, sometimes even a little sooner. During warm spells, the colony can ‘break cluster’ so that bees can do cleansing flights and if the warm spell is too long, the queen could start ramping up brood production. The risk is that during a subsequent cold spell, the brood can become chilled and die or be very weak bees.

In the past week or so, Elly visited the hives (alone due to social distancing) and reported back that our hives were SUPER STRONG! She kept me well-informed through photos and videos which I can share here. Bees were filling all portions of the two deep boxes and essentially overflowing from the hive when she opened to evaluate. They were flying in and out of the hives actively bringing back pollen which is a high protien food for the hive.

As she was observing, she noticed that our hardware cloth mouse guard (in place to keep mice from taking up residence while the hive can’t protect itself) was knocking the pollen off of the bees as they entered. In the photo shown, you can see big clumps of pollen at the entrance.  Mouse guard was removed.

Your eyes to NOT deceive you, that is blue pollen. In my searches, it looks like the plant known to have blue pollen is Siberian Squill. An early, small blue flower that often goes under-noticed in the landscape. It exists in abundance in the Dow Gardens, Whiting Forest, and nearby parks.

All these things are so exciting to see and true signs of spring. The question I had, as a novice beekeeper, is what do we need to be doing now? Since we have all been at home, I have had the pleasure of delving into more learning about many things related to my job. Michigan State Extension has been putting out some exceptional online webinars (live and taped) for beekeepers of all levels. Their offering on Established Colonies: Preparing for Swarm Season seemed like something I knew NOTHING about and should probably see what that title even meant. It was SO informative. After I watched it, I had some questions for Elly. My questions along with what she was seeing in our hives prompted her to watch it too. Even after 12 years of beekeeping, there is always something to learn.

You see, the risk of having VERY STRONG hives this early in the season is that the queen runs out of space to raise brood or the workers to store nectar and half of the colony follows the queen in leaving the hive to look for a new home! This is definitely not what any beekeeper wants to have happen, nor do their neighbors, whose houses the swarm could decide to take up residence in. With how full and active our hives were, Elly decided it was important to relieve the pressure of ‘overpopulation’ by removing a couple of frames of brood and bees from each hive and replacing with empty frames that the bees could continue to fill. The photo shows the hive with a couple of frames removed…filled with bees all the way through!!

We could have officially split each of the hive into 2, but with how early it is in the season and our quarantined status, she felt it was better to relieve pressure for now and possibly do an official split a bit later in the spring. I am glad, because I want to be a part of that process!  We never know what to expect from mother nature and weather, so waiting a few weeks helps to increase the possibility of them raising a queen in a proper split.

Have no fear, these bees have a nice new home as two small colonies in nuc boxes and will receive closer monitoring. Elly purchased a new queen for each to introduce to these make-shift colonies, adding some partial frames of honey for food and will check them this Tuesday (after 3 days) to see if they have accepted the queen and are ready to keep growing. As their numbers swell, eventually they will be put into a 10-frame hive for the summer.