Clearing the Air

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

The swirling vortex of honeybees was a curiosity for most folks walking through the Sweet Home Post Office parking lot, but for local beekeepers it was an opportunity.

Amy Philipsen, a Liberty area resident, showed up on the evening of June 16 to capture the swarm with the assistance of fellow beekeeper Jim Strawn.

The bees had swarmed the parking lot in the afternoon, gradually settling in a clump high on a branch in a tree on the southeast corner of Long and 13th.

By evening, the bees were settling, and Strawn met Philipsen to capture them as half a dozen curious passersby watched, pulling out cameras to capture images of the bees clumped together in the tree.

Strawn happily explained what the bees were doing in the tree and what would happen to the bees after they were captured.

“Swarming’s the mechanism that the hive uses to reproduce,” Strawn said. To propagate the species, the honeybees need to reproduce more than just individual bees. They need to reproduce their hives.

Only one female in the hive, the queen, is allowed to reproduce, he said. Under that restriction, he asked how a hive can expand.

“The way God made them to do that is to swarm,” Strawn said. When the hive is heavily populated, the queen releases a pheromone calling for members of her hive to leave with her.

About half, between 40 and 60 percent, of the bees from every caste will detect the pheromone and join her.

Those who do not detect the pheromone, now queenless, will start raising new queens.

The old queen takes her workers to start a new hive. Along the way, they will stop to send out scouts. Usually, the old queen will gather four to five feet above ground.

The clump of honeybees Strawn and Philipsen captured were high above the ground, and that’s an indication that it might be a virgin queen, Strawn said. It’s not a certainty, but when a swarm is found higher up, usually “it’s a virgin queen out on her mating flight.”

The old queen might be dead or gone, Strawn said. When a queen reaches the end of her life cycle and gets weak, her hive will swarm over her, forming a ball over her, to overheat the queen, killing her.

To replace the queen, the hive raises several females in cells specially built for the prospective queens. One of Strawn’s queenless hives had five or six of these cells recently, he said.

The workers feed the prospective queens “royal jelly” exclusively, allowing the female to reach sexual maturity. All bee larvae are fed royal jelly, which is produced by the bees; but only queens receive it throughout the larval stage. Worker bees are females that are not allowed to reach sexual maturity.

Upon maturity, the replacement queen goes out on a mating flight, bringing members of her hive with her, Strawn said.

“Usually the virgin queen will go back to the hive.”

While on her mating flight, she will mate with eight to 12 drones from other hives, Strawn said, bringing new genes into the hive. The sperm the queen collects on her mating flight is stored and is enough to supply her for most of the rest of her life, two or three years. Younger queens will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.

“They’ll all cluster where she is,” Strawn said, and then she’ll go out on her mating flight, searching for places where drones are likely to be.

Strawn said he didn’t know where the swarm at the Post Office would be from. Normally, swarms do not travel too far.

A swarming group of bees, with an older queen, will remain in a cluster while scouts go out and find a new place to live, Strawn said. The scouts return and perform a dance for the hive, explaining the distance and direction of a possible new home. The dance also will tell the hive how much they liked the potential hive location.

The report will drum up interest among the other bees, and several will go visit the potential hive sites. Eventually, the bees will develop a quorum, 25 to 30 bees that have visited and liked a possible site, that can decide where to relocate.

The best outcome for the Post Office swarm is that it was a virgin queen that was well mated or a second-year queen who was swarming because her original hive was strong, Strawn said. Beekeepers like strong hives, although they don’t like the swarming that comes with them and take steps to ensure that a hive remains strong without actually swarming.

Once their hives swarm, honey production is done for the season, he said. Still, swarming is an indication of a strong queen, a hive that found forage and a hive that has resisted mites and disease.

The trick to capturing the swarm, whether with an old queen or young, is to convince the bees they have actually swarmed and gone through all of the steps.

To capture the cluster, Strawn climbed onto the back of his truck and used a long pole with a small blade attached to the end to cut the small branch on which the bees were clustered and lower it directly into a waiting hive box brought by Philipsen.

The activity of falling into the box should have convinced the bees they had swarmed, Strawn said. They’ll stay if the hive appears to be a good home.

He does something similar with his own hives once in awhile to prevent actual swarming, he said. He’ll dump much of the hive directly on the ground near the hive box to stimulate the notion that the bees swarmed and were moving into a new hive.

After the Post Office swarm had been deposited into the hive box, many disturbed bees were still swirling around the area and a small cluster remained in the tree. Bees on and around the new hive began fanning their wings to send instructional scents to those that hadn’t yet made it to the new hive.

Philipsen left her truck and the hive under the tree for several hours to pick up stragglers and then drove them home.

Strawn and Philipsen didn’t worry much about getting stung and Strawn wore no protection.

Bees sting for three reasons, he said. They sting to protect honey, the brood and their own lives. While swarming, they have no hive or brood to protect. Stinging is also a little more difficult than usual while swarming.

Swarming bees have stocked-up honey in their stomachs, and it makes their abdomens a little more difficult to bend, Strawn said.

This was the second swarm of bees Philipsen has been involved in catching, but she gave the hive to a neighbor and reported that it is doing well.

Strawn now has 21 hives, he said, and he would rather see new beekeepers capture new hives.

Beekeepers are always looking to help new beekeepers get started to help boost bee populations, he said. Hives face many challenges, from mites to disease. Twenty to 30 different pathogens can affect a hive, and now hives are falling prey to Colony Collapse Disorder, an unexplained condition that is destroying bee popuulations.

Beekeepers have a number of theories about what causes it, but no single idea seems to explain it, Strawn said. It may be a combination of factors, including stress, that cause it.