Bee Swarm or Split

Beekeeping is like farming. All livestock—whether large animals with four feet or tiny ones with six—need food, water, shelter, and sometimes medication. Like an old farmer checking his herd in a meadow, I watch our ‘girls’ flying back and forth between their hive and the clover. But the parallels end there.

Modern farmers seldom have much cause for worrying about losing their stock unless there is a fence down or rumors of rustlers or the USDA issues an animal health alert. But beekeepers have to struggle with many insecurities, and the epidemic called colony collapse disorder is at the top of their list. But the most common loss of a bee colony is the most natural. Before running out of space the queen bee often abandons her hive in a swarm of thousands of workers.  That is the origin of hiving-off, a British expression for breaking away.

Shortly before exiting the hive, swarms gorge on honey to avoid starvation until scout bees have found a new home. Meanwhile, the workers that stayed behind in the hive prepare new queen cells by feeding a few of the youngest larvae with extra royal jelly. If swarming happens in early spring there is plenty of time for both the absconders and the home-buddies to build up their numbers and honey stores before winter, but if it happens in late summer the chances are poor.

A swarm in May
Is worth a load of hay.
A swarm in June
Is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm in July
Isn’t worth a fly.

18th Century English verse

When a swarm lands on a tree in a garden or on the side of a building the startled residents may be terrified, and someone calls a pest controller. What a pity! Beekeepers would love to take it away to start a new colony in an empty hive. A swarm is typically quite passive because the bees don’t need to protect their brood or honey in the comb. It can be gently transferred to a box for taking away.

We try to avoid bees hiving-off by ‘splitting’ the most fecund colonies in the spring. The only method I have tried is called a walkaway split because a busy beekeeper trusts nature to take its course.

Five frames of honeycomb, including pollen and nectar, capped honey, ‘capped brood’ (larvae), and very importantly one frame of eggs or very young larvae are transferred to a box for the new colony, or ‘nuc.’ Before closing the box thousands of bees are shaken off other frames to provide nursing services while guard bees buzz angrily around the beekeeper. Since the queen is left behind in the old hive and the workers in the nuc must create a new one, it is the opposite of swarming although both swarms and splits serve the same purpose of reproduction. If all goes well queen cups (larger cells) appear in the nuc a few days later, confirming that a royal succession is progressing.

bee hive
Queen bee cups (arrows)

To reduce the risk of swarming we split one of the strong colonies in the churchyard of Grace Church in Yorktown. Everything went according to plan. I sealed the lid and the entrance of the box with duct tape before loading it in the back of my SUV. Normally I transport bees in the trunk of a sedan car, but it had a flat battery that day. After stepping out of a hot bee-suit I could sigh with relief and look forward to getting the precious livestock home. But after driving only two miles and turning into Colonial Parkway something caught my attention in the rear-view mirror. There were bees crawling up the back window.

“Yikes, they’re getting out!” I mumbled (or something to that effect).

Luckily there was somewhere to safely pull off the highway. I jumped out of the car and dove into my bee-suit, getting the zip stuck when I pulled it too quickly. More and more bees were emerging as I continued to fumble. They were crawling off the window confused by the unfamiliar environment, but as they gained confidence they took off and some started dive-bombing. Now safely zippered in I wrapped so much duct tape around the box that it looked more like aluminum than wood. The escapees were eventually coaxed out of the car because I could never get them back in the box. They continued buzzing around after the door was closed and I hoped a guardian angel would lead them back to their hive.

Playing it safe, I kept my bee suit on for the remaining seventeen miles of the journey, although I folded the veil back for better vision. But after starting the car I noticed a police patrol car had pulled up behind me.

“Gracious! Have I been reported?” In the ten minutes I was standing in my voluminous white bee-suit dozens of cars had passed by. Perhaps someone was leery of me if they mistook my outfit for a hazmat suit and thought I was clearing up a chemical or radioactive spill at the roadside?

I waited for the officer to appear in my wing mirror. My finger was ready to lower the window for the expected interrogation. While I waited I wondered if there is a county ordinance requiring a special license for transporting livestock in a car? And if driving in a bee-suit is a traffic violation?  These seemed outlandish fears, but I know Virginia legislators are very imaginative.

However the officer stayed in his car with his head bowed either for reading notes or dozing off. So after a discreet interval I pulled out and drove away quite slowly with eyes flashing back and forth for a long time between the wing mirror, back window and road ahead. It was the longest journey home.

The following morning I wandered into the yard to check the nuc that was now in the apiary. After my perilous journey I glowed with satisfaction that the risk of swarming at the church hive was over and I would soon have a new colony. But perhaps I was too blasé and too close wearing only a t-shirt and pants because I felt something collide with my cheek and then a stabbing pain. Something was telling me to hive-off.

New Post: Peckers

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

Your Reply is Appreciated