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September Swarm

September 8, 2010

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay,

A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,

But a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

That’s how the old adage goes and it seems to work out to be true. The later in the season a hive swarms, the less likely it is to survive, because the bees do not have time to gather enough nectar and pollen to make it through the winter. That said, not “worth a fly” is a little severe.

I was chatting in the driveway and looked up through a gap in the foliage to see a pretty big swarm of bees in our neighbor’s oak tree. These neighbors are no strangers to swarms; they’ve had honey bees living in the attic of their house for an estimated 20 years, with the resulting smell of honey, the muted buzzing in the walls and, several times each summer, the flurry of excitement when the bees swarm. We successfully hived a swarm from an oak limb in the same yard, but it was on a much lower branch.

This one will be a challenge. The swarm is large, which is good for them. We have 10 deep supers of honey in a freezer that could help them make it through the winter. There is also the possibility of merging one of our weaker hives with these new bees, if we can capture them. The merger usually involves stacking a bee-filled deep super from one hive over the deep supers on the other hive, with a sheet or two of newspaper between them. In the time it takes the bees to eat through the paper, the new bees will have become acquainted with the scent of the bees below and they should be able to coexist. Only very rarely will two queens coexist in the same hive (usually when two colonies with separate entrances exist as very close neighbors), so it is important to make absolutely certain that one of the colonies is queenless. Queens battle to the death, and it is not uncommon for both queens to be killed, or one killed and the other wounded. Honeybees won’t keep a hobbled queen around and will immediately begin to try to super-cede her by raising a fresh young queen, leading to future swarming. Autumn doesn’t give the bees enough time to sort this out.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I still have to catch the bees. I’ll set up a super that might interest them tonight, and see what the morning brings. It may be a 16-foot pole with a cardboard box attached to the end, which has worked several times in the past, or a very tall extension ladder, or some combination of the two. Or, if the scout bees have done their jobs well today, the swarm might high-tail it out of here at first light. In my experience, they usually wait until at least mid-morning. There remains a very slim chance that the bees will find my sweet super set up and willingly settle there of their own free will.

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