What's going on in the hives in May

The beekeeping season is now well underway and with it comes the risk of a swarm. As a beekeeper and honey producer you must try to prevent a swarm happening unless you want to kiss goodbye to your honey harvest this year...

When a colony swarms, the queen leaves with around half the bees to find a new home, leaving one or more virgin queens behind that will fight it out to become the new head of the colony. Swarming is primarily the way that honey bees reproduce and is often triggered by an old, injured or underperforming queen. As it’s just nature doing its thing it can be difficult to stop. In fact, rather than preventing it, we manipulate the colonies to make the bees think that they have swarmed with the hope that they settle down and carry on the business of making that delicious honey.

The tell-tale sign that a colony is about to swarm is the presence of queen cells. A queen cell is exactly what it sounds like - a cell in the comb where the bees rear a new queen. It’s an interesting fact that the same type of egg that creates a worker can also turn into a queen. It's just the what they’re fed that makes the difference. To produce a new queen, the worker bees feed the chosen larvae royal jelly from a gland on their head. This genetically alters the larvae resulting in it eventually emerging as a new queen.

Queen cells start off as a small cup and can be difficult to see but when complete they look a bit like a monkey nut and are much easier to spot. It takes around seven days for the bees to finish a queen cell, at which point the bees will usually swarm so hive inspections are made once a week to prevent this. Sometimes there can be as many as 20+ and we need to find every single one of them or the bees might go ahead and swarm anyway. What we do is trick the colony into thinking it has swarmed. There are a number of different ways that have been developed over the years, and something that would require a blog post of its own to even scratch the surface. But in simple terms, we find and remove all but 1 of these queen cells and then split the colony in two. This is called an artificial swarm.

We’ve performed artificial swarms on a few of our colonies already and no doubt so too have our suppliers. But as well as dealing with swarm control, at this time of year we need to make sure that the bees have enough room for their activities. The Spring ‘flow’ is underway in May and the bees are bringing in large quantities of nectar, from Rapeseed flowers in particular. All this nectar requires a lot of storage room so we’ve been adding honey boxes, or ‘supers’. These boxes also make room for all the extra bees that are now in the colony. Running out of room can be another trigger to set the bees swarming so we are constantly assessing the size of a colony and making sure it has enough room to expand. As soon as a super becomes around half full then we add another. As long as the nice weather keeps up, all this will soon translate into a good spring crop of honey. Just as the bees intended.