Beekeepers ready to assist during swarm season
Honey bee swarms are a familiar sight to beekeepers, but to those who are not familiar with their habits, the sight of a cluster of tens of thousands of bees flying together or hanging from a tree can be frightening.
For those who keep bees and those who do not, Knox-Lincoln County Beekeepers can help collect swarms, said founding member Jean Vose of Nobleboro. Susan Spicer is the contact person,, and can be reached at 549-5480. She will take information about the location and size of the swarm and how high it is. The club asks that callers try to make sure their insects are really honey bees first, since some other insects resemble honey bees. Vose suggested visiting http://pollinator.com/identify/whatsbuzzin.htm to identify what they have.
Swarming is a natural part of the life cycle of honey bees, Vose explained, and usually occurs between the beginning of May and the early part of July, although the insects can swarm into the fall. From the beginning of spring to late summer, the queen bees lays a vast number of eggs – between 1,200 and 2,000 a day at the peak of the season. A bee colony can contain as many as 100,000 bees, Vose said.
When a colony outgrows its hive, the worker bees – infertile females – excrete a pheromone that suppresses the queen's egg production, and they start preparing to take the queen and part of the hive to a new home, Vose explained. The queen, who normally spends her days laying eggs and being fed, groomed and cared for by the workers, is chased by the workers through the hive to get her in shape to fly to another nesting place. The workers also make queen cup cells, from which the hive's new queen will come.
The appearance of the queen cells in a hive is usually the first sign a beekeeper gets that the bees are getting ready to swarm, Vose said. Once she sees them, she knows there is about three and a half weeks until half the hive takes off, along with the queen. At this point, swarming can be prevented by removing the queen cup cells, adding another frame – a sort of drawer where farmed bees live – to the hive, or even moving some of the bees to a smaller colony that has room to grow.
A week or so before the swarm occurs, scout bees go out looking for a new home. A few days before the swarm, the workers start taking the queen out on short practice flights, Vose said. When the time comes, the whole colony comes out of the hive and flies in a circle for 10 to 15 minutes. Then the bees that are staying go back inside and the swarm lands somewhere nearby for up to a few hours.
While the swarm is clustered outside with the queen in the center, the scouts do a “waggle dance,” walking across the backs of the gathered swarm to impart information about the potential new homes they have found. Sometimes, Vose said, a few bees will break away from the swarm and go to investigate the location a scout has found. Vose thinks of the scouts a bee real estate agents, she said.
If a beekeeper does not catch the hive before it swarms, they may still be able to avoid losing their bees by placing a trap hive 10 or 15 feet up in a tree with some old honeycomb or a pheromone lure inside, Vose said. The traps are usually about the size of a box of copier paper. Sometimes, though, swarming bees will ignore a carefully prepared trap hive and go somewhere else, she said.
Within three or four days the swarm usually settles into a new home, perhaps a hollow tree, a bush or inside the walls or attic of a building, Vose said. Knox-Lincoln County Beekeepers members will collect an outdoor swarm for free and add it to their own hives. Some members can also do extractions from buildings, but this entails a charge, she said, because the extractor has to cut into the wall to get to the bees. Members do not repair walls or other areas damaged in the process of removing the bees; that is up to the homeowner.
The club makes its list of members willing to collect outdoor swarms and do indoor extractions available to town offices, fire departments, sheriff's offices and extension services, Vose said.
Swarming honey bees are unlikely to attack people, Vose said. Soon after they swarm, they are quite docile, because they gorge on honey before departing the hive. Later, they may be more aggressive, but will not sting unless they feel threatened.
While swarming is a sign of a healthy hive, bees in Maine, as elsewhere, are subject to both natural and man-made threats, Vose said. There are fewer feral bees than before because of opportunistic diseases and pests like the nosema virus and the varroa mite.
Beekeepers can protect their bees by keeping them well fed and using proper management techniques, she said.
Another danger for bees and other insects is the chemicals – pesticides and herbicides – that we use on our yards, farms and fields. Since bees stay within two to three miles of their hive, beekeepers can work with their neighbors to keep the use of harmful chemicals to a minimum, and when they are necessary, to know in advance when to keep their bees in the hive.
For more information, visit the Knox-Lincoln County Beekeepers website at klcbee.com.
Sarah E. Reynolds is copy editor for the Courier Gazette and Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, ride her ATV and play word games.