December 14, 2012

Primer: How to Get Bees (Part I: the Swarm)

What It Is: ±half of a colony's bees with their queen. FREE if you capture the bees yourself; at the swarm catcher's discretion depending on how difficult the capture is. Swarming season in the Denver area is heaviest in May/June, but you should be prepared March through July. (One thing to be aware of: late April is when most people start with packages, so some April/May swarms may not be swarms at all but  absconded packages instead.)

Why You Should Want One: a reproductive swarm is the by-product of a strong healthy colony. Although the swarm will depart with mostly young and eager wax-producers, expect the population to decline until replacements emerge in 3 weeks. This slow start gives a new beekeeper time to adjust to having bees. A nice big (soccer-ball size) swarm can fill a brand new top-bar hive with comb in just a few weeks, and the process is really cool to watch.

When to Get One: Start inquiring in February. Your bee club may not have a list started yet, but you want to be first on the list as they are first-come-first-served. Earlier swarms are best because they're more likely to have emanated from an overwintered colony, i.e., survivor stock.

How to Get One: First, get on the Swarm List of your local beekeeping club. Some are listed on the Colorado State Beekeepers Association web site. For really local bees, go to the nearest firehouse and ask them to call you the next time someone calls them about a swarm.
Problems with Swarms: First there's the dying off part. Your colony goes backwards a bit before it starts to grow. Established beekeepers with drawn comb have an advantage over beginners with no resources. After population decline, the big bugaboo is unknown provenance. A swarm can be from a feral colony or someone's chemically-treated hive. I'm not condemning chemicals but nobody wants sick bees. Or maybe it's an afterswarm or after-afterswarm… There's no way to tell where they came from. The swarm we started with, conveniently captured for us, was on the smaller side and the queen failed very quickly. The president of our beekeeping club speculated that the bees weren't a swarm at all, but rather an absconded package. Experienced beekeepers would have requeened but we did not recognize the need until too late. Now that we know what 3lbs of bees looks like and have some idea of what is ab/normal behavior, we would restock with a swarm again but only if we know it's origin. A feral colony with proven overwintering skills would be ideal. Oh, one more thing: you should think about genetics. Colorado is too cold for Africanized genetics to be a concern, but it is a concern in Southern states.

Next-Best Option: the Package


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