The conversation begins like this, “I’m a new beekeeper with a quick question. How do I keep my bees from swarming?” Then, even before the paroxysms of laughter, snorting, and choking die down, an officious, self-important beekeeper proclaims, “My bees don’t swarm because I keep them content and happy.” Wow, where do I begin?
I want to say, “Look around! What do you see besides seven billion humans?” Cats, rats, and mice tuck behind every garbage pail. Ants spill from your foundation. Termites dine on your sill plates. Mites suck bee blood. Bacteria vie for space in your gut and Occupy your kitchen sink. Weeds rend cracks in your driveway and ravage your garden. Reproduction happens, babe. Every living thing has the drive to reproduce itself. Why should bees be any different?
“How do I keep my bees from swarming?” is like asking, “How do I keep my [pick one: dog, cat, guppy, kid] from reproducing?” There are ways, of course, but the ways involve interference with a natural process. You can neuter your dog or cat. You can feed pills to your daughter or supply your son with condoms. You can tear apart your brood nest, split your hive, or cut swarm cells. Even checkerboarding interferes with the colony’s perception of its own strength.
Am I saying you shouldn’t do those things? Not at all. I’m saying that you will have a better chance of succeeding if you understand the reproductive imperative. Remember, when you try to prevent a swarm, you try to stop what a colony has an irrepressible urge to do. Swarmy bees are acting according to specs, working as designed. No manufacturer recall is needed.
That said, as beekeepers we want to prevent swarms. We want our bees to work for us, we want large strong colonies, we want to curb home invasions and spare children and old folks from marauding insects. So we try to prevent what nature is hell-bent on doing. It’s a little like building levees along the Mississippi or tsunami walls in Japan—it all works to a point.
The guy who says his bees don’t swarm because they are happy is naïve . . . and usually condescending. His words imply that your bees are unhappy and you are a bad beekeeper. BS. If all bees were as happy as his bees, the species would quickly go extinct.
I don’t believe bees experience happiness or lack thereof, but let’s use that language for a moment. Do you believe an animal is happier if it is neutered? Most pet owners swear their neutered pets are “happy and content.” Most humans want the same thing, yet they don’t get neutered in the pursuit of happiness. And a simple vasectomy or tubal ligation doesn’t prevent the reproductive urge any more than clipping a wing.
But reasonable management is not a bad thing, even if we wouldn’t go there ourselves. As humans, we can manage our animals and have compassion at the same time. My own pets are spoiled beyond measure and, yes, they are neutered and I am not. My point is simply that to be a successful beekeeper, you need to look at your colony through the eyes of a biologist, not a family therapist. Lose the idea that you must make your bees “happy” to keep them from swarming.
To prevent swarming you must interfere with the course of nature. Most swarm prevention measures weaken the colony in some way, lessening its bee-ness just as neutering your dog lessens his dog-ness. That’s okay as long as you realize that preventing reproduction enhances your goals—not the goals of bees or dogs or guppies—and not the goals of nature.
Related post: Romancing the swarm: the dream of wild bees