Learning about bees has been one of the most rewarding endeavors I have ever embarked on. I have been a treatment free beekeeper since 2007. The way that I keep bees requires me to pay much closer attention to my environment because I have to understand what health and disease truly are. Coming from a point of view that all life is sacred and connected, I appreciate the profound message of interconnectedness that is permeating our society via the ancient honeybee. Bees have been the focus of much study lately due to the mass die-offs that are happening in commercial beekeeping. There are many factors that can be attributed to this problem, and swarm prevention may be a part of that. Swarms are a natural progression in a healthy hive, and allowing such reproduction may very well contribute to the overall health of the colony.
Inside the hive the queen bee does not rule, for there is no hierarchy. She maintains the hive with her scent and by the remarkable fact that she lays hundreds to thousands of eggs a day. A queen bee egg is laid vertically, in alignment with the sky and earth, and fed a continuous diet of royal jelly as she grows into a fully formed queen. By contrast, the worker bees (the females in the hive) and the drones (the males) are formed from an egg laid horizontally and fed a diet mainly of bee bread -- a mixture of pollen, nectar and microbes.
When a hive is healthy and strong it will want to multiply. This is the absolute beauty of the honeybee colony. The old queen will lay a fertilized egg(s)s in a vertical queen cell(s), and the workers will begin feeding the new queen(s)-to-be a milky substance excreted from their heads called royal jelly. When the queen cells are about to hatch, the old queen and about a third of the colony will engorge itself with honey and fly off to find a new home. Biodynamic beekeeper and author Günter Hauk likens this to parents reaching their 60s, leaving the home to their kids, and going off to start a new life elsewhere. This is another selfless act of the bees.
All at once the queen and thousands of bees take flight. They find a nearby spot to gather while scout bees venture off to find the perfect hollow vessel in which to start building comb. Once a spot is agreed upon, the cluster of bees will disperse and fly off to their new home. This new home will be a hollow vessel such as a hollow tree trunk, an eave of a home, a pot, or a birdhouse. They do no structural damage to the vessel they choose as their new home. The hive begins building comb as soon as it settles in; the queen beginning to lay eggs as soon as there are cells to fill. Thus a new colony is born and life continues on for the great honeybee.
Many beekeeping books and courses discourage swarming. Coming from a capitalistic standpoint, swarms could mean a loss of field force, which would mean a loss of honey production. Given that most authors and teachers are coming from a commercial background, it makes sense that this is routinely taught. But upon further examination of all that plagues the honeybee faces, we might want to reconsider our actions of swarm prevention.
As I mentioned earlier, swarms are an indication of a healthy, vibrant hive. Swarm prevention is like birth control. In a climate where hives are dying at such a rapid rate, it seems only logical to allow the reproduction of healthy hives. Swarm season in this area begins in May -- an exciting time for beekeepers. There are many tools beekeepers can use either to encourage swarms or split hives in a way that mimics the natural inclination of the bees. Beekeepers can even register with local police or fire departments to be on call to trap a swarm if spotted in the area. (Free bees!)
I have seen that hives that are allowed to swarm have a much higher survival rate than those routinely prevented from swarming. In addition, swarming creates a period of time in the brood chamber where there is no brood: an excellent way to purge mites from the hive, since the parasite’s larvae is deprived of its food source during this time.
When a hive is strong and robust it will reproduce. Trusting nature and not interfering is the recommended course of action. If you are focusing on hive health and pollination, it is best to support the natural instinct of a colony rather than impose your own will. When we let the bees be we can learn much about their health and healing. I do believe that there are times to help bees when they are in need (such as when they appear to be starving), but swarming is not a time of distress; it is a time of celebration! May our skies be filled with buzzing this summer!