Although we worry, honey bees are built to last

In order to prevent swarming and keep my bees at home, I did the logical thing. By the end of last week, I had split each of my hives into two parts. And because I wanted local queens, I made simple walkaway splits, assuring both halves had eggs and young larvae. I didn’t worry about where the queens ended up because I knew the bees would soon tell me.

Three days later, I found emergency queen cells in half the hives. Perfect! What more could I ask for? After that, I marked my calendar and crossed “splits” off my to-do list. All I had to do was wait for them to finish the job.

The best laid plans

Then yesterday—after three days of cloudy, shivery temperatures and intermittent rain—the sun showed itself in the early afternoon. For the first time in days, the leaves of the trees glowed celery green and glittery sunlight warmed the soil. The roof of my house steamed like a tea kettle.

I reached for my camera and walked up the back slope, looking for the source of the bright red pollen the bumbles were wearing. After I snapped a few unsuccessful shots—bumble bees are nervous creatures—I became aware of an unmistakable sound. I stood up, listening like a cat.  A swarm!

Convincing myself of the obvious

But then I talked myself out of it. I just finished splitting, I reasoned, so no one’s going to swarm. Silly me. I resumed my hunt for bumbles, but the sound was insistent and close. I stood up again. “You know it’s a swarm,” I told myself, “so why pretend it’s not? Just go find it.”

So I did. I followed the sound, guided by its intensity. I kept climbing higher and higher, up the steep trail toward my loftiest hive location. It was confusing because the colonies there were noisy, and as I approached them, all the sounds muddled together. But after I passed, the sources separated again, and the swarm sound predominated. I scanned the limbs overhead until I saw it—not the cluster itself, but a place right above it where a miasma of poison-tipped runaways dipped and dove in the sunshine.

An afternoon flight

If you’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, you’ve never really seen a tree. The trees here go up and up until they tickle the underbelly of the cosmos. There is no way you’re ever going to retrieve a swarm from one, so finding the bees is a matter of interest, nothing else.

This particular tree, a big-leaf maple, is clinging to a steep slope about equidistant from my low-elevation hive stand and my highest one. I tried to convince myself the swarm wasn’t from one of my hives, but really? Of course it was from one of mine. It’s only a question of which.

And just as all the books say, “Swarms are likely to occur on the first warm spring afternoon following a rainy spell.” This one issued at about 1 pm. I should have expected it.

House hunting

By 4 pm, my bait hives were being examined by scouts. Several of them had contingents going in and out of the entrances, circling behind and underneath, and loudly discussing the pros and cons. Still, I know how honey bees operate, and these bees will most likely move a fair distance away. I’ve often seen them get worked up over a bait hive—to the point I was sure they would move in—only to have them ultimately reject it. It’s that democracy thing. Like good citizens everywhere, they need to discuss the issues thoroughly, then vote.

A few stragglers were still out as darkness fell and the rain returned. All night long, I heard the wind. Occasionally the thrashing was punctuated by torrential downpours, and these were followed by more wind. I kept thinking about those bees getting beaten by raindrops the size of marbles and battered by maple leaves as large as dinner plates.

Camping in bad weather

In years past, I’ve watched many swarms in just such a position. One year, a swarm remained in a maple tree for eight full days of rain and hail before it finally took off, seemingly none the worse for wear. I remember watching the bees until my neck hurt, and talking to them about available real estate. Many times, I’ve wondered where they finally went and why they went there.

Then, too, I always think of these “campers” when a beekeeper has a hissy fit about opening a hive—even for a just a second—in the rain or in the cold or the wind. Yes, I know, brood is more delicate than adult bees. But even so, I think our bees are much more resilient than we give them credit for. They are tough creatures. Honey bees are built to last through the eons, even as other creature, other plants, and other climates come and go.

Bees are built to last, but

This is the end of my story, although it’s not the end of theirs. Just like other swarms, I know they have a good probability of setting up a new home, but a low probability of making it through the first winter. I share this story simply because I think honey bees—especially swarms—are endlessly fascinating and hopelessly complex, especially for our mere mortal minds.

Honey bees are built to last, and weathering storms is life-as-usual.

Honey bees are built to last, and weathering storms is life-as-usual. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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  • Two weeks ago I removed a tiny swarm which had been out overnight in torrenial rain, powerful winds, and mid-forties temeratures. The homeowner told me they got knocked out of the tree during the night, and went back up the next day. His English wasn’t the best, but it sounded like they got comatose with cold like you describe in your post “Cold Bees.”

  • Do you manage to catch most of your own swarms, or do they usually choose an area that is less congested with other honey bees?

  • Honey bees really are fascinating, their social order, their communication, and their swarms and home-finding. How did I live so long without experiencing their wonder? Now then, did you ever find the source of red pollen your bumbles found?

  • It’s definitely swarm time in the NW! I have multiple swarm traps up, and two have swarms, and the rest are getting constantly checked. This year in my hives for swarm prevention in my hives I switched 100% to Demaree-ing the strong ones, and ones I find with queen cells- and though I can’t report a full season of doing so- so far it’s been amazing and I wish I had done this every year. It’s an ancient technique with lots of ways to do it it- and it’s awesome. No change in bee volume (even before blackberry these hives already have two supers full of maple in them)- and they are primed for the blackberry in two months. Plus- since I have all one year queens this year- they lay amazingly in the empty brood box. I keep the queen cells I find from the good hives- and put them in mating boxes- and so have a host of emergency mated queens ready to go. Splits seem to me to shut down my honey crop- and keeping the hives intact and as big as I can make them without swarming is a real plus. Not to say I haven’t had hives swarm this year- but that’s because I didn’t get them inspected in time. Those that were Demareed, even with queen cells, seem to be like rockets this year. We’ll see. Thanks for the post Rusty! Fun to read about other PNW beekeepers!

  • So, Rusty, we backyard beekeepers here in TN thought we were being SO cool using a double screen (Snelgrove) board to raise extra queens and still make some honey in supers in between the brood boxes. There was a great article about this last year in the American Bee Journal: “Hobbyist Queens Using a Double Screen Board” by Jerry Borger, September 2018, pp. 997-1001. We did in fact raise some extra queens, split the one overwintered colony into 2 deeps, and set up 2 queen rearing mini-nucs besides. Problem was, we set the double screen up on March 23, and for us, that was TOO LATE. One of the colonies still swarmed on March 30. Dumped themselves right on the front lawn. So of course, we raked them (brushed them gently) into a 5 frame deep nuc, soon expanded to an 8 frame deep, added a queen excluder and a medium super (4 drawn frames checkerboarded with 4 empty frames for comb honey, since you so passionately have written about comb honey). After all that was drawn and getting filled nicely, we added another medium super (bottom supered). And congratulated ourselves. Until, exactly 47 days after they swarmed, the same group swarmed again, off to the highest tree in the neighbor’s yard, possibly regarded as a shrub by NW standards! To top it off, the colony right next to it, 20 minutes later, got the same tweet apparently, and off they went for the trees! Really? 47 days and plenty of space? We’ll go back to double deeps next year I guess. Maybe their DNA has the swarmy chromosome!

    Thanks for your fabulous writing and wisdom! You are our hero!

  • Rusty, you are such a good writer. Thank you for this piece. May your swarms, like chickens, come home to roost. I just thinned out my girls today, anticipating the same.

  • My apiary is located in a medium-sized fruit orchard of two dozen semi-dwarf and full-sized trees. I keep the trees pruned low in order to facilitate catching swarms from my hives. It has worked well to that end in the past. My experience is that the first flight of the old queen is usually a short one, less than 100 feet, so if you have an easy landing place for her, and a convenient spot to catch the swarm it works well. I live near to the orchard so that gives me a fair chance of hearing a swarm forming.

  • Lovely story …. so true! Seems like the norm this year … split and they swarm anyway. I have yet to catch a swarm in a bait hive. Glad all is working well up your way.

  • Hi Rusty, here in middle TN we have had unusually wet and cool weather. You are correct in that the first warm day after several days of bad weather the bees will merrily swarm to the top of the highest tree around, ignoring those nice swarm traps. We have had an unusually high rate of swarming on a state-wide basis, but you are correct, bees are tough little bugs. Wishing you the best for a successful beekeeping season this year!

  • Have you done lots of splits this way? Just wondering if you have kept track of queens from walkaway splits as I’ve read they will likely be lower quality due to the largest larvae that the bees try making into a queen hatching first and the possibility of that being a larvae that had at one point been fed lower quality food before the bees realized they needed a queen and started feeding it royal jelly again.

    Any thoughts or experience with how long these queens last? And their quality?

    • Stephen,

      Oh my heavens. So many wive’s tales and bee myths. Walkaway splits, which are my splits of first choice, produce my best local queens. The trick is to make sure the brood frames you give with them have plenty of eggs. That way, the workers will use those that are just hatching or have just hatched. They won’t start with old larvae if they have plenty of young ones. Honey bees are not stupid: they do what is best for their long-term survival.

  • I did a walkaway 4 weeks ago. I live west of Eugene, oregon in the foothills of the coast range. Had lots of drones in the hive, but didn’t see them flying yet. Think I might have gone too early? I know 4 weeks is the time to go look for eggs, but I didn’t get time this weekend….. both hive entrances are still active.

    • Jason,

      I think they should be fine. Usually by mid-April in the Pacific NW there are plenty of drones.

  • Once the bees decide to swarm, most of what we do will not stop them – split or no split. I hope they are warm and toasty somewhere with plenty of stores.

    Thank you for the lovely story, as always.

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