The A – Bee – Cs Of Swarms

With June 18 marking the start of National Pollinator Week, we wanted to pay tribute to the humble bee. We might take these hovering buzzers for granted in our gardens, but their populations are actually in precipitous decline—a very serious concern for the farmers who rely on them and other pollinators, such as bats, butterflies and birds, to pollinate their crops.

Stone Barns Center’s beehives were bursting with activity this spring—quite literally.  A swarm occurs when a queen feels that her colony is outgrowing its hive. She strategically decides it is time to find a better home, and so she leaves, with about 40 percent of the colony, to find a new one. They travel swarmed close together, with the queen protected at their center (see the picture).  Contrary to the way things look, when bees are swarming, they are actually in one of their most docile states because they are focused on finding a hive.

There are telltale signs that a colony is going to swarm. One is the appearance of a “queen cell”—a specially formed cell that will hold the larva of a queen-to-be. Stone Barns beekeeper Dan Carr says it looks like a peanut shell. The formation of these cells indicates that the queen is preparing to leave about 60 percent of her colony behind, with a virgin queen in her place.

Dan tries to prevent swarming, so more bees remain on the farm and pollinating our vegetables and flowers. When it looks like one of our hives is ready to swarm, Dan creates a “split”—essentially, he simulates a swarm by moving a queen and part of the colony into a new hive.

Occasionally, a hive swarms before Dan has the chance to split it. When this happened in May, Dan set out to capture it. He backed his truck up under the branch where the swarm had landed, trimmed off sections of the branch covered with bees and then shook the bees into a new hive that he had prepared.  Once the queen arrives in a new hive, her worker bees send out a special pheromone that calls in the remaining swarm members. With a little help, this colony now has a new home with plenty of room to grow and make honey.

Check out the video of Dan and David (one of our farm apprentices) rescuing the swarm.

If you see a swarm, call a beekeeper! Click here for a list of New York area beekeepers who are happy to rescue swarms, and click here for the New York City bee rescue hotline.

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