The catch-22 of beekeeping

Hey Rusty,

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?

[name withheld]

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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Phillip
Reply

I’ve only been at this for a couple of years, but I already see beekeeping is a big fat contradiction. I did everything for my bees to get them through the winter (because if I did nothing they could have easily died). Then I did everything to get their numbers up early in the spring. And now I’m doing everything I can to knock them back — to prevent swarming. Reversing, checkerboarding, pulling frames, ventilation all over the place — you name it. I’ll probably do same next year, but in some areas I’ll do less and in other areas I’ll do more. It’s all part of the learning experience, and it’s definitely a balancing act.

Sarah
Reply

I had my first swarm experience the first week of May. It was AWESOME!! I looked out the window at 9:00 a.m. and watched in utter confusion as my backyard filled with bees. I couldn’t walk anywhere in the backyard without bees swirling around me! And then they settled down; some back into the hive and the others settling on a branch of a choke-cherry tree only 7 feet from the ground. It was beautiful. The following events made me feel like a failure but the story has a happy ending. The bees are now doing well.

Jim Withers
Reply

About all that can be said to your post Rusty is “Amen sister.” Danged if you do, and danged if you don’t.

Carol
Reply

“Name withheld” could be me! I bought a package in spring 2011, kept the original package queen and harvested 52 pounds of honey last September. I tucked them in for a warmer-than-usual winter with a quilt box, generous stores, grease patties and a winter protein patty. They were treated for mites and Nosema using essential oils. I followed their winter activities through the hive using a stethoscope. In early spring, unusually warm also, I fed syrup with HBH and protein patties and added a slatted rack and screened bottom board.

The first week of April I split the hive, (a generous split) and took 2 extra frames of honey for a new package, checkerboarded, reversed the brood chambers (twice), added a ventilated inner cover, an upper entrance and a honey super with foundation. Last Saturday they swarmed (also the size of a basketball). I think they will put out another swarm soon since traffic in and out of the current 3 entrances is very high.

Yes, the swarm was awesome! The sound was amazing, somewhat like a combination of a distant train and a deep vibrating roar. And, the swarm landed on a cherry branch 10 feet off the ground so I was able to hive it.

I loved the rush of the swarm, the sound, the thousands of bees floating across the tall grass prairie like one organism, as well as hiving the swarm and bringing it back to the bee yard! I’m preparing another hive just in case that second swarm happens. I’m pleased to have captured the swarm but absolutely thrilled to have witnessed the swarm ceremony. The swarm gave me a feeling of hope, not failure.

Rusty
Reply

You all write such great descriptions of swarms. Phillip (Mudsongs) has been razzing me about dancing with bees ever since I wrote my own description of a swarm: A Swarm in June . . .

Phillip
Reply

I had to double check on “razzing” to make sure it wasn’t a bad thing and that you weren’t taking anything I said seriously.

I would *love* to walk into a swarm and have the bees fly all around me. But I don’t think I have the type of neighbours who would react well to thousands of bees filling the air.

The necessary work I put into swarm prevention takes some of the fun out of beekeeping. I look forward to when I can expand my hives outside the city next year.

I’m intrigued by Debbe’s comment about reducing the surface area after a swarm to prevent further swarming. It reminds me of Fat Bee Man referring to demoralized bees that swarm because they get overwhelmed by too much empty frames or space in the hive. Sounds like another balancing act.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

I didn’t mean a bad thing. You things you wrote made me laugh!

And, yes, I thought Debbe’s comments were interesting . . . something I’ve never considered.

Sarah
Reply

“The swarm landed on a cherry branch 10 feet off the ground so I was able to hive it” Did that go smoothly for you?

The first time I “hived” (is that the correct term?) the swarm they re-located in the same tree 15 feet up, much higher than they were the first time. Oh, THAT was an EXPERIENCE! My beekeeper friend sat atop a 12 ft aluminum ladder sawing the branch while I stood on the same ladder (my head practically resting on her lap with her feet kicking me in the chest as she shifted uncomfortably…) waiting to catch the branch as it fell. After forever passed we decided that was a stupid idea. Somehow (I still don’t know how) we got the branch down after 2 hrs. We again attempted to hive them. We thought they were settling in. We were wrong. The queen climbed up out of the midst of bees, perched on the edge of the hive, sat a moment and then flew away. It was devastating.

She came back eventually and the hive, as I said, is doing well.

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

I often put the queen in a queen cage for a few days until they settle in.

Tricia
Reply

Well done Rusty, for an informative reply but also giving it all perspective. Two more slight positives: You mentioned the learning curve—bad experiences or things going wrong often lead to more understanding than when everything goes right so take comfort from your experiences. When I did my beginner’s course the speaker mentioned everyone’s obsession with ‘non swarmy bees’ and pointed out that for him the concept was worrying—rather like seedless grapes. That is an image that helps me get some perspective.

Carry on enjoying the bees and celebrating when it goes as planned; don’t kick yourself at the setbacks.
Tricia

LJ
Reply

From my experience, everyone from the beginning beekeeper with one hive to the most experienced with multiples experiences swarming. I have seen beekeepers do all kinds of things—artificial swarms, splits etc-and the bees still swarm. As Philip observes, it is always down to the specific circumstances, the dynamics and temperament of the colony. I speak from experience as the first three weeks of May have been horrendous with swarming for our hives. I do agree with Sarah, though: when you are not worrying or feeling like a failure, a swarm is quite an awesome thing to observe.

Pattie
Reply

This is an interesting point of view about swarming and successful beekeeping.:)

Debbe
Reply

Rusty,

Her experience with swarming is identical to ours with one hive. Local beekeepers were not much help; we were even assured by them that the hive would only swarm once. The book, Honeybee Democracy, was the most informative in explaining the why. How to take care of it was a different matter.

I would warn the beekeeper that now that her hive is so much smaller in numbers, the surface area in the hive needs to be reduced. What happened in our hive was that there were not enough bees left to protect the hive and we had a serious wax moth infestation. We managed to save the hive, but it was an ordeal. We did it without chemicals; however, reducing surface area, especially after the third swarm, would probably have prevented the problem.

We’re still trying to figure all this out 3 years on, and we are determined—it’s all so fascinating.

Jeff
Reply

Recently I tried to stay one step ahead of the bees and attempted some swarm prevention by doing artificial swarm splits on 2 of our KTBHs. In one hive it seems to have worked as planned, but in the other hive it turned out a little different. My intervention seems to have caused 2 more afterswarms. That original colony has become 5 colonies (the original, 1st split, 2nd split using the leftover queen cells after the first virgin queen emerged, and the 2 small swarms), and only one of the five was queenright at last inspection.

Aaahh, the fun of beekeeping.

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