The catch-22 of beekeeping
I started my first hive last year in early May from a swarm given to me by a local beekeeper. I did not harvest any honey, and I had to re-queen in October. Following your advice (quilt box, follower boards, HopGuard, etc.) I successfully overwintered the hive.
We had a warm, early spring and the hive was active. I inspected, reversed the deeps, fed sugar syrup with HBH for a week or two until things started blooming, treated with HopGuard, inspected again, and observed a big increase in population.
The first week in May I added a medium super. The next week they swarmed (size of a basketball). The following week they swarmed again (size of a basketball). Yesterday they swarmed again (size of a football).
There are still bees in the hive, but I haven’t inspected yet—postponing my disappointment, I guess. What should I have done early on? What should I do now?
Swarming is the perfect catch-22. According to Wikipedia, a catch-22 is a “paradoxical situation in which an individual cannot avoid a problem because of contradictory constraints or rules. Often these situations are such that solving one part of a problem only creates another problem, which ultimately leads back to the original problem.”
As beekeepers, we do everything possible to make our colonies strong, robust, and healthy. If we succeed at that, if we do everything right from a colony-health perspective, the colony will be ripe for swarming. Colony reproduction (swarming) is something that healthy colonies do—it is not the province of the weak or struggling.
The logical thing to tell the writer is, “Sweet! You did everything right!” But of course that is not what she wants to hear. As a matter of fact, she is probably feeling like a failure, which makes no sense whatsoever if you look at it from the bee’s—or nature’s—point of view.
It is hard for us to think of swarming as a victory because what we want is different from what bees want. We want them to stay put so they don’t bug the neighbors. We want them to stay put so we can harvest lots of honey. We want them to stay put so we can start new colonies and raise more colonies that will also stay put.
Of all the strange ideas that exist among beekeepers, the most perplexing is the notion that “if your bees are happy, they will not swarm.” That is nonsense. A happy, healthy, robust colony is going to want to do what every other happy, healthy, robust organism wants to do—reproduce. If bees didn’t swarm throughout the millennia, bees would no longer exist. Why is that so hard to understand?
But back to our writer . . . You have to hand it to her—she raised an awesome batch of bees. To prevent, or at least limit swarming, the standard recommendations include reversing (which she did), checkerboarding, pyramiding, splitting, and re-catching. Also, good hive ventilation—screened bottoms, ventilated covers, and slatted racks—seems to be of some help.
As for what to do now, my recommendation is to wait a week or two and then check for eggs and larvae. Sometimes, especially after multiple swarms, the original colony is left without a viable queen and with little brood. If there is no fertile, egg-laying queen after two weeks, she should probably introduce one or risk losing the colony.
In this case, I think the beekeeper was unprepared for her own success. She came into spring with a stronger-than-expected colony and didn’t realize the bees would run out of room so quickly. But that is okay; it’s all part of the learning curve. Beekeeping cannot be mastered in a season or two; it takes more like years. And even then, there is always something new, something unexpected, something catch-22 ready to catch you.