Capturing a Bee Swarm and How to Build Bee Colonies
Building a colony
The simplest way is to buy an entire colony, or a nucleus, from a dealer. A colony consists of ten combs, a queen, a brood chamber, stores of honey and pollen and about 40,000 bees, while a nucleus combines the same elements on a smaller scale — say three or four combs with, of course, a much smaller number of bees.
Though many people do begin with a full colony, there are several disadvantages. In the first place, it is more expensive to buy a colony than a nucleus and, secondly, to open a hive containing 40,000 bees can be an awesome experience for the novice.
Starting with a bee colony is very much a matter of jumping in at the deep end; on the other hand, if you buy a nucleus, you and your bees can grow up together. You will have the satisfaction of watching the colony grow from small beginnings, and gain confidence in bee-handling as it does so.
But by far the most exciting — as well as the cheapest — method of starting your own apiary is to capture a swarm. There is, however, an element of chance involved, and you need sufficient leisure to stay within earshot of the telephone for a few days — ready to take immediate action.
The bee swarm
Depending on whether you want the to occur or not, this is either die most fascinating or the most infuriating moment of the beekeeper’s year.
Either way, there is little you can do to prevent it.
Swarming is essential not only to the survival of the bee species, but also to thousands of different kinds of plants as well. It is the means whereby the bee population spreads, carrying out its timeless, fortuitous function of plant pollination.
Swarming arises out of the complex social structure of the colony, in which food and activities are shared to a degree that makes it appear as though there were a common will, or even intelligence, devoted to the survival of the group.
No individual bee can exist on its own; therefore, if the species is to continue, there has to be a means of creating new colonies, and it is the instinct to do so that causes swarming.
This generally occurs in early summer. Through most of the year the queen lays eggs, steadily building up the population of the hive until it reaches a peak of some 60,000 individuals. This usually coincides with a period of fine weather and an ample supply of blossom.
However, the first sign of swarming is most often the appearance of young queen larvae within the hive. These are easily distinguished by the size and position of the cells they occupy —much larger than those of future worker bees, and hanging down vertically instead of being horizontal.
As the time approaches for the young queens to emerge from their cells, the hive becomes more and more agitated. Then, usually on a fine morning or early afternoon, there is a sudden and tremendous exodus.
Up to half the adult population, together with the reigning queen, takes to the air, leaving the remainder — together with the emergent queen — to take charge of the brood chamber, the larvae and the accumulated stores of honey.
The emigrants do not move very far at first. For a few minutes they circle, apparently aimlessly, emitting a low, booming note audible from a considerable distance.
They then settle on a nearby branch or fence, thousands of bees clinging to each other’s legs in a solid cluster about the queen, while scouts are sent forth in all directions in search of a new home.
Capturing a Bee Swarm
How long the cluster will remain in this position is a matter of chance. It might be hours, or even as much as a day; on the other hand, they could be off in a few minutes to build a new home miles away. Prompt action is necessary if the bee-keeper is not to lose a valuable percentage of his stock.
Curiously enough, despite their terrifying appearance, bees in this state are quite easily handled, and can be coaxed into a new hive or even a cardboard box without much difficulty. If they are hanging from a low branch, they can be dislodged by shaking it or by striking the branch so that they fall into a container held underneath. It is at this point that the beginner, if he is lucky, can make a real saving. Quite often, established bee-keepers are willing to part with a swarm. They probably have several other hives whose inhabitants are about to do the same thing, and their owners may not wish to increase their stock.
Once again, it is best to consult your local bee-keepers’ association, who may be able to put you in touch with a member with a swarm for sale. Of course, there is no guarantee that his bees will swarm. What usually happens is that he lets you know when he sees the first signs —the presence of queen cells and the growing disquiet among his bees. You must then stand by for a few days, awaiting the telephone call telling you that swarming has begun. Having collected the bees in a ‘suitable box, they must then be introduced to your — and their —new hive.
This should consist of a lower brood chamber, plus a queen excluder and one or two supers, ready-stocked with wax foundation frames for the creation of nursery cells and honey stores. Remove the entrance block to the hive and place a board from the ground to the entrance. Upend the box over the foot of the board, and give it a sharp tap to dislodge the bees. After a few minutes they will run up the slope and enter the hive. Once most of the bees are in, replace the entrance block leaving an entry hole about the width of your hand. Attach a syrup-filled feeder to the feeding hole, and keep it replenished for between a week and a fortnight to encourage comb-building. Do not worry if the population drops during the first three weeks or so; it will soon build up again. The decrease is due to the fact that during this period there are no young bees to replace those that have died of old age.
Making a start
Bee-keeping is a highly skilled occupation whose fascination is never-ending. If you are cut out for it, you will soon discover that the more you know the more there remains to be learned about bee behaviour and society, about their methods of harvesting and comb construction, and even how the bee language works. On the other hand, you may find that you remain apprehensive about stings and that your nervousness causes the bees to react unfavourably. It is essential, therefore, to obtain as much information as you can before you begin. While there are a great many books on bee-keeping, their advice is sometimes contradictory. No matter how well written, they cannot really tell you what it is like to handle bees. So before you buy your first hive, join your local bee-keepers’ association; the public library will tell you the address of the nearest one. You will find that they will welcome newcomers to their art, give you much practical help and advice and, above all, give you the invaluable experience of handling bees yourself.