At this time of the year I need to remind myself that our bees are not domesticated animals and the degree to which we can exercise control is limited. We can influence behaviour primarily by selecting queens with the characteristics we desire.
May is the month of the queen – she determines the economy of your hive. By now she should be clipped and marked . If you don’t do this, or at least mark her, management is extremely difficult.
May is also the swarmiest month – the bees will be building up and thinking of reproducing and setting up a new colony. Describing it like this makes it sound like there is some sort of decision- making process in the hive. There is a process but there is no inner council, committee or ruling group!
Jurgen Tautz in his book “The Buzz about Bees – Biology of a Superorganism” (2008 Springer-Verlag) describes the process in these terms: “The bee colony is a complex adaptive animal community, consisting of many thousands of individuals that are continuously active and respond to the conditions of their surroundings and to the presence of their nest mates. There is no ruling body, instead the overall behaviour of the colony results from the co-operation and competition between bees”.
The colony may decide that the best course of action is to reproduce itself. If that decision is made then a number of queen cells are created and eggs laid or placed in them and these hatch into larvae. These royal progeny are fed on a constant diet of Royal Jelly that causes them to develop into queens.
Once the first queen cell is ready for sealing, the first or Prime swarm containing the original queen, the mother of the colony, flies off taking at least half the flying bees with her to begin a new colony elsewhere.
Virgin queens start to hatch and one may take over having killed the remaining queens or a number may be retained to swarm separately. The first swarm after the prime swarm is known as a ‘cast’ and will be considerably smaller then a prime swarm.
Subsequent casts will be smaller again and sometimes no bigger than an adult fist. You want to avoid these casts as they are depleting your colony even further. The way to do this is to cut out all but one of the queen cells once the prime swarm has left.
It is received wisdom that the best queens are those reared naturally under the swarming impulse. That may be true but it is also true that some strains or ‘lines’ of bees are much more inclined to swarm than others and it is generally not a good idea to have colonies of bees headed by queens that genetically carry a propensity toward swarming.
We tend to be very wasteful of valuable queen cells. Maybe I should just speak for myself! When I find multiple queen cells, I tend to cut them out and destroy them rather than harvest them and rear them so I always have a supply of queens. Obviously you would only harvest them from your best hive(s). But you need to be organised to do this – each cell needs to go into a mini hive or Apidea or a nuc or used in a queenless colony.