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Queens, Swarms and Queen Excluders

On Mother’s Day, I received a call from a fellow on the north side of Richmond about a swarm. It was a 25 minute drive and from a location that I have not collected a swarm before. Plus, he kept going on about how big the thing was, so I couldn’t resist!

But, Sunday was becoming very tough. I wanted to go spend some time with my Mom, plant another round of beans, squash, cukes and melons, and (of course) had 5000 bee tasks to do. When I decided to get that swarm, I decided it would be a ‘grab and run’ job. I rarely do these (truly – I’ve done maybe 2 of them and both of them were in the distant past when I would actually drive an hour to pick up a swarm.) This kind of swarm pick up focuses on dropping the swarm in the hive body, waiting a few (maybe 5) minutes to see that the bees are not reforming on the tree and some are coming into the box, taping them up and leaving. I effectively leave a lot of foragers at the site (scouts, out and about) and risk not having the queen. Normally, I’d leave the hive body there and come back after dark. But, with my current schedule, there was no way that was going to happen today.

At the site, the swarm was 5′ off the ground and an easy catch. As I talked to the land owner, he asked if I thought there were multiple queens in the swarm. With good confidence, I replied that it was unlikely. The size of this swarm said to me that this was a primary swarm and the new queens had probably not hatched yet. The next swarm would have a better chance of having a couple of queens. Heh. I should have known that this was major foreshadowing…

So, with a haul back down the 64/95 Exchange, I made it there and back in about an hour and setup the swarm box before I headed out to the bee yards to check honey supers. This is my favorite time of the year, as a full hive can draw out and nearly full a full Medium super in a week. I don’t like any of my hives to be lacking space!

Within 30 seconds of opening up the hive the bees were everywhere. Having seen my first swarm just weeks ago, I realized they were ‘re-swarming’ (or basically absconding!) I couldn’t blame them as they probably were thinking that this new home sucked with all of the jostling and so forth they went through only moments after I shook them into the hive body. Seeing them begin to collect on a nearby bush in my backyard, I grabbed a queen excluder and placed it under the primary hive body that still had most of the swarm. I didn’t have time to deal with these troublesome bees, I was getting irritated that I had wasted time getting them (on a very busy day) since they were acting like they were going to leave again and I figured this was my only chance to have a chance at keeping them.

I had never done this before, but had frequently read online about beekeepers in the South putting a queen excluder beneath a hived swarm to keep them from absconding. I figured that if, by chance, the queen had not yet left the box, I could manage to keep the swarm (and the small half-quart of bees hanging on the bush would return to the main hive when the queen didn’t follow them.) I worried about killing the queen, as the bees were spazzing out when I put the excluder beneath them, but I simply didn’t have time and was actually getting mad at the bees (heh – a character flaw for sure, but times were tough on Sunday!)

When I returned that evening, there that little troublesome ‘child swarm’ was, still clinging to the bush at night. I could still see a bunch of bees in the original swarm hive, about 15 feet away, so I figured this little extension were simply rebels without a cause (queen) and blank ’em. Of course, the next day at work it was constantly on my mind. And, as is always the case, I was so busy at work, I had something like a 40 minute window at work to deal with them. So, I hustled home and hived those troublesome bees in a small Nuc and left it at that.

Now, here’s the first mistake. It did  dawn on me the next day that maybe there were two queens. I also began to wonder that, even if there was just one queen, what if she was actually a virgin and I had her tied up in that primary hive with the queen excluder, unable to go out an mate? I actually had this thought multiple times, but never go around to acting on it until after work on Friday (5 days after catching the swarm.)

Going through the big hive/swarm, I found the little queen. Indeed, she was a virgin and no eggs were in sight. The big dilemma is ‘has she gotten too old to mate’? I have no idea how something like that would work. I removed the excluder and will give them a frame of eggs from one of my big hives in an outyard on Saturday, just to be safe. They had already drawn out 6 frames in the Deep and I wasn’t even feeding them. I then checked the Nuc and VOILA, there was the old queen (or at least a full sized queen that had started laying eggs pretty much the day I hived them, so I assume she’s a yellow queen – that’s what I’ll mark her with before moving them to a full Deep anyway.)

So, maybe the swarm wasn’t trying to leave after all. Maybe the old queen simply broke off from the main bunch after I set them down. Who knows how many queens may have been in that original swarm. Regardless, the lesson learned for me is that I absolutely cannot delay in getting that queen excluder off of a swarm (assuming I ever use that trick again.)

2 comments to Queens, Swarms and Queen Excluders

  • Interesting post, I think I remember reading that a queen remains viable for mating for a few weeks after emerging, it was less than a month but the exact time escapes me right now. Good luck with them!

  • I’m hoping that you are right (I’ll know this weekend, I hope). I’m no biologist, but I seem to believe that there is a window of 3 to 5 days. But, assuming this is right, my next question is ‘when does this window start’? I am hoping that it starts once she goes on her orientation flights. It only makes sense to me – it would not be a very good genetic trait to be confined to a certain window for mating, regardless of what happens.

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