Swarms, Swarms, and More Honeybee Swarms!

Swarm of bees on a branch

Photo by Anne Arundel County Master Gardener Beekeeping Project

On May 12, Nancy Allred, Interim Master Gardener Coordinator, Anne Arundel Co. called to say that one of the two Master Gardener Beekeeping Project hives at Hancock’s Resolution Park in Pasadena had swarmed. Swarming is the natural process that a honeybee colony uses to reproduce itself, so this is an exciting event. My husband and I packed up our bee jackets and drove to Hancock’s Resolution to check on the swarm.

Hancock’s Resolution is a historic farm park operated by the Friends of Hancock’s Resolution (FOHR) a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization. Under an agreement with Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks, FOHR operates the farm and offers programming that interprets the site’s historical and agricultural significance. This remnant of a 410-acre middling plantation located in northern Anne Arundel County is on Bodkin Creek, near the mouth of the Patapsco River, and was once a well-situated market farm with close access to the Chesapeake Bay and the port towns of Baltimore and Annapolis.

Master Gardeners tend a demonstration garden and are on hand to discuss 18th-century farming practices, answer questions about plants, and invite visitors to participate in garden activities (however, activities and access are currently on hold due to COVID-19). Since 2009, Master Gardeners have tended the hives and provided pollinator educational programs that currently feature an observation hive that provides a view of the inner workings of a beehive.

Master Gardener beekeeper at Hancock's Resolution Park

Master Gardener beekeeper at Hancock’s Resolution Park – Photo courtesy historichancocksresolution.org

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the swarming bees had settled on the lower limb of a tree right next to the hives. Often swarms land just beyond the reach of your tallest ladder, so we were very lucky.

When swarming, the colony splits into two distinct colonies. The queen and about half of the workers (females) leave the hive in search of an appropriate site for their new home, often a large cavity in a tree. Typically the swarm temporarily settles on a tree or structure near the hive with the workers surrounding the queen in a cohesive “teardrop” of bees. Scouts fly off to find a suitable site for the colony, which might take a day or two or more. Once they identify a suitable site, the swarm takes to the air and follows the scouts to the new site. Meanwhile back in the original colony, the workers are busy raising several queens, one of which will become the new queen of the hive.

Tending the swarm

Photo by Anne Arundel County Master Gardener Beekeeping Project

In many cases, beekeepers are thrilled to see a swarm because if they can catch the swarm, they can add another colony to their apiary or replace a colony that died during the winter (in the last few years in Maryland, beekeepers have reported losing approximately half of all colonies each year — but that’s a topic for another article).

As Brian and I looked at the swarm that had settled next to the beehives at Hancock’s Resolution, we considered catching the swarm and setting up a new colony.  However, all of the Master Gardener hives at Hancock’s Resolution and Quiet Waters Park made it through the winter just fine, and our own colonies had also survived, so we had no place to install the new swarm. Unfortunately, you can’t just put the bees back into the hive that they came from since that hive is already down the path of raising a new queen.

Since we had nowhere to put the swarm, I called a fellow beekeeper, Charles DeBarber, to come collect the swarm. Charles has worked with John Conners and myself with the beekeepers at the Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, including to help remove a swarm that had moved into an abandoned building there. Charles wears many hats, including maintaining about 20 hives at Filbert Street Community Garden in nearby Curtis Bay, and he sets up hives for other community gardens in the area. He was thrilled to have another colony to donate to a community garden.

Charles arrived at Hancock’s Resolution 20 minutes after I called him and a few minutes later had the bees in a small box called a nuc complete with frames of honey and honeycomb to make them feel at home. The swarm was very gentle and only focused on protecting the queen who was somewhere in the middle of the ball of bees. Charles was able to collect the swarm without protective gear (don’t try this at home!) and no one got stung during this process. When Charles left, he was headed to a community garden to move the “ladies” into their new home.

Tending the swarm

Photo by Anne Arundel County Master Gardener Beekeeping Project

But that wasn’t the end of this story. The next day Nancy called again to say that ANOTHER swarm had appeared in the same location. Was it from the other hive, the same hive, or another hive in the neighborhood? There’s no way to know, but we suspect that it was from the other hive. Once again, we made the trip out to Hancock’s Resolution, called Charles, and got the second swarm (which was even larger than the first) dropped into another box to be delivered to its new home.

But, still, there’s more to the story.On May 22, ten days after Nancy called about the first swarm, she called again reporting a THIRD swarm. Once again, Charles showed up and retrieved the swarm and took it to a local community garden that was grateful to have such hardworking pollinators near their garden plots.

In the meantime, the Master Gardener Beekeeping Project honeybees at Hancock’s Resolution and Quiet Waters Park are thriving, collecting lots of nectar and pollen, raising young, and making sure that the hives have enough honey and pollen to survive the next Maryland winter.

It is a wonderful thing to support and help pollinators thrive. The transfer of pollen from the male organ to the female organ of a flowering plant – is essential to life on earth, for without pollination most people and non-human animals would not have enough food. Over 90% of all known flowering plants, and almost all fruits, vegetables and grains, require pollination to produce crops. Happily, there is a pollinator volunteer workforce that includes bees that does this job for us.

If you find a swarm on your property, you can find a beekeeper via Maryland Beekeepers Association to come and save it.

Pam McFarland, Anne Arundel County Master Gardener, University of Maryland Extension. Edited by Dan Adler.

2 Comments on “Swarms, Swarms, and More Honeybee Swarms!

    • Pam, This was an intriguing article.Bees of all types are such important pollinators . I used to love sitting near my beehives just watching !Thank you for the update.

      Like

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