Catching a Swarm of Bees in Fall – Blessing or Curse
The delight an experienced beekeeper feels when seeing a swarm of bees is lessened in Fall. We know that the swarm has little chance of surviving Winter without human intervention.
Swarm are exciting. Sometimes we love seeing them and other times…. not so much. If fact swarms are a pain, especially if they came out of one of your hives.
The late Summer or Fall swarm is not a bonus that is likely to result in a healthy beehive. And we often wonder if the effort to collect it is well spent. But we do it anyway, because we are beekeepers.
There are several reasons that a late bee swarm is not wanted. Our main concern with Fall swarms is that they are often very small.
And Winter is coming soon. Can the swarm build up enough to survive? If the Fall swarm came out of one of your own hives – it too will now be at risk.
When a parent colony swarms, they must make a new queen before Winter and rebuild the population.
I know for myself, I want my Fall colonies to stay strong and get ready for winter. Instead of throwing a swarm, I want my colonies to focus on other things.
Raising new bees for overwintering and storing winter honey is where I hope to see the bees expending energy.
However, the Fall hive will sometimes throw one or two small swarms. This leaves the beekeeper with a dilemma and the future of swarm and mother colony uncertain.
Why a Swarm of Bees Leave the Hive Late in the Year?
Well, do we really know why bees do anything? Sure we see patterns and understand why bees react to certain stimuli. But we still have so much to learn about honey bee behavior.
Even bee researchers are not certain why this happens but one thing is sure – small late season honey bee swarms have an almost 0% chance of survival without beekeeper intervention.
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Fall Honey Bee Swarms Are Not Rare
It is late September a year or so ago, I see a small swarm in a tree. I do not know if it has recently issued from a hive or has been up there for a week or so . It is the size of a small cantaloupe at best !
As the Beekeeper, I am faced with a decision. This swarm (even if it has a queen) has almost no chance of building into a viable winter colony.
Bees need several months of good foraging to build comb, grow population and store winter food. A bee swarm in Fall does not have enough time to prepare before cold arrives. If it has to build a hive structure up from nothing.
If I do nothing, the swarm will most likely die. The beekeeper who tries to save these small swarms must be prepared to feed them heavily And, still may need to combine small colonies together before cold arrives.
Swarms Usually Have a Queen
Sometimes, I decide to capture the late season bees. If the swarm has a queen, I can keep it in a small hive box for a few days. This gives me time to check some of my production hives.
If I have a hive that is lacking in population and/or queen-less, I may combine this swarm with that colony. In this way I can attempt to save the bees in the swarm, even if they don’t become a separate, stand alone hive.
The first thing I must do is get the bees out of the tree. Please remember that the mated queen may be worth the effort. Even if she is not the greatest queen in the world, as long as she is mated I could put her in a queen less hive.
Using my Bucket to Catch the Swarm
Using my “bucket on a pole” I reach up about 12 feet and bump the limb to knock many of the bees into the bucket. These bees are quickly dumped into a box containing 5 frames of drawn comb.
This is called a NUC box and is half the size of a regular 10 frame Langstroth hive. It is a good idea to match the size of the box to the bee population. A large box would be too much room for this small swarm to defend.
Do I have the queen ? YES I DO. If she will stay inside the box, the others will eventually come down to her. A few minutes later, the queen is inside and some of the bees that I dumped in have come outside to inspect.
I make a couple more bumps with the bucket – dumping bees in front of the box. Some go inside – some fly up in the air. I need to get enough bees in the box for them to realize the queen is in there and not in the tree.
Then, they will begin to “scent” at the front signaling their sisters to come down. I am seeing more bees at the front door ! They are scenting to call down the rest of the bees still on the limb!
Increasing the Odds of Fall Swarm Success
The entrance is reduced to a tiny opening – approx 1 inch in width. A temporary feeder jar with some sugar water is placed on top. Your small swarm does not have enough bees to fight off robbing attempts-help them out.
Hopefully the bees will realize this is the best chance available for them and stay in the box you provided. Once dark falls, I move the box to the bee yard.
For this particular very small swarm I will investigate my options. As with any swarm, they may leave my box. Ok, I can say I tried to save them.
Honey bee colonies that swarm during Spring buildup and have a better chance for survival. They are reproducing the colony at a time of growth and food surplus.
But when bees swarm in Fall and must start over from scratch, their survival is unlikely.
When bees swarm in Fall, both colonies are at risk? We don’t know for sure why bee colonies do this risky behavior.
It is another one of those honey bee mysteries. And late season colonies can be rather cranky so be prepared.