The other day our beehive had a sudden rush of activity. The hive that had been operating at normal capacity that morning quite quickly was buzzing with super numbers of bees around it. Lots of them. Being beginners at this beekeeping thing, sweet husband remembered something he’d read in the Beekeeping For Dummies book (highly recommended, by the way) about swarms of bees robbing other bees’ hives. When you get an attack of robber bees, the bees will fight to the death, all while the invaders are uncapping and stealing your bees’ honey. This is a bad situation and we thought we might have robbers on our hands with all the extra activity.
So we called one of our bee friends. He didn’t have a lot of time, but asked, “How do you know they’re not swarming?” Well, we thought they had no reason to swarm–the book says to put the top hive body box on when the bees have filled 7 of the 10 frames with comb to give them more space and there was more than 3 empty frames last week when we checked in on them, so officially they weren’t ready for another box and should have still been happy in their home.
If your bees are being attacked by robbers, you want to reduce the entrances to one bee width to help them defend their hive. You can also cover the hive with a wet sheet and this will help keep the marauders out. The sheet should stay on for a day or two until things settle down, being re-wetted as necessary.
However, if your bees are wanting to swarm, they need their space opened up by adding another box and opening up the entrances as well. Totally opposite of how to help them defend from robbers.
So not knowing which was happening, and not wanting to waste any time if it was a robbery, we added a hive body box AND put a wet sheet over the hive. We’re creative like that.
You can’t even see all the bees in that picture. There were tons of them buzzing around outside the hive. About an hour later, things were already calming down and there weren’t nearly as many bees outside of the sheet.
We left it on until the next day while we read the book more. Swarming bees will take half their hive and the queen and leave, after creating the makings of a new queen in the hive for the half that stays behind. This cuts down your number of bees and also slows progress way down while the new queen is being hatched and maturing so that your honey production will be greatly diminished. This is all assuming the new queen is good and the home-body half of the hive continues their bee business. If they end up with no queen, those bees will leave as well. And we don’t want that.
The trouble with bees deciding to swarm is that once they’ve decided they’re going to do it, it’s tough to stop them, but there are a couple of things you can try.
So the day after the apparent attack, we went out and took the sheet off the hive to check things out. Finding no dead bees around which we should have had if it was a robber attack, we decided to check for signs of swarming. We still had empty frames in the lower box like we should have. However, on a couple of the full frames, there were larger, extruding larva cells. These are the makings of new queen bees. If they are in the top two thirds of the frame, your bees are just making a queen to replace an old queen. If they are in the bottom third of the frame, your bees are making new queens because they’re planning on swarming. Of course ours were in the bottom third. Crazy bees.
The cells weren’t as large as some of the pictures in the book showed, so we’re hoping we caught them early enough. We used the hive tool to scrape those extruding cells off the frame. If the bees have no queen in the making, they shouldn’t leave.
We scraped all the bulging queen looking cells off each frame (only 3 frames had anything that looked like it might be one of these). Then we interspersed the empty frames among the full frames to get the bees onto them. We also put the top hive body box on for them, opened up the entrances, and put a double helping of sugar water in the hive top feeder. Now they have every reason to stay, hopefully they’ll rethink their decision to swarm if that’s what was going on. We’ll be checking back in on them sooner than we normally would to see how things are going.