May 4, 2023

Well... It Depends - Swarms (124)

Well... It Depends - Swarms (124)

A lot of times, when somebody asks us a bee question, the best answer we can give them is, “It Depends.” In today’s episode, Kim and Jim explore the topic of Swarms. Where did it come from? Where do you put it? What do you do with the queen?...

A lot of times, when somebody asks us a bee question, the best answer we can give them is, “It Depends.”

In today’s episode, Kim and Jim explore the topic of Swarms. Where did it come from? Where do you put it? What do you do with the queen? Should you feed them?

As they explore how to manage this newly caught swarm, they realize there are no definitive answers, as there are so many answers based upon the circumstances and the beekeeper’s goals. It just depends.

Listen today, and let them know how you’d manage the swarm!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 124 – Well... It Depends - Swarms


Kim Flottum: Good morning, Jim. Hey, over the weekend, I caught a swarm.

Jim Tew: Oh, well, a happy day for you.

Kim: Yes, but what do I do next? I mean, there's so many things.

Jim: Kim, there are so many things. It depends on a whole list of characteristics that are going to affect what your next plan of attack should be.

Kim: All right. Well, hi. I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Today, we need to explore those options that you have because, one, you go one direction, and that affects what you do later or what you have to do later, or what you shouldn't do later. You think?

Jim: I do agree with that. That leads you to this concept that I've used a lot. I suspect you have. When someone asks a question to give yourself just a moment to think, you say, "It depends." While you leave that hanging in the air with the audience or with the questioner, really, you're scrambling. [laughter] What are the other ramifications of whatever question has just been asked? In this case, it's the swarm that you ask about. What should we do now with that swarm? Well, Kim, it depends.


Introduction: You are listening to Honeybee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honeybee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a longtimer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: How does the swarm look right now? Is it settled down, or did it stay over the weekend?

Kim: Well, as luck would have it, it went out the front door, went about 6 feet, and hung on a branch about 4 feet off the ground.

Jim: Well, that was a gift.

Kim: That was a gift?

Jim: Oh, yes. [laughs] Other times, someone would say it is 40 feet in the air. What should I do? Well, it depends, but since it was 4 feet off the ground, that was just a gift, Kim. If the bees decided to stay in the home nest that you gave them, so it depends on them, are they going to go or stay once you put them in that box? It's a good sign that you kept them over the weekend at least, they didn't move out right away.

Kim: Yes. Well, so they're hanging out there. I can see them from here. I go out there with my clippers and put on my bee veil and light a smoker, and I clip that branch so I can get it off the tree. Do I put them back in the same box?

Jim: The box that they swarmed from?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: It depends. I wouldn't normally do that because, number one, you got to be certain they came from that hive. If you make a mistake and just drop that swarm back in the wrong hive, you're going to kill a bunch of bees in a hurry. I probably would let them establish themselves as a new colony. This is just me making this up now on the fly, Kim, just what I would do, because the other colony now is queenless and has queen cells. The parent colony is queenless and has queen cells. It's in a different frame of mind from a bee/queen standpoint. I would let that swarm establish itself, begin to produce brood. Then if you don't want any more colonies, then recombine it with another colony.

Kim: Back up half a step. That means I got to put it in some kind of box so it can get established.

Jim: Yes.

Kim: All right. If this was your swarm and you pick up the first box you find, or maybe any box you find, and you look in the top, and some of the comb is new, some of the comb is old, some of the comb is so ancient, it was probably used by the Romans. What's the best thing to do?

Jim: There is no best thing. What can you do? Because when you were setting that question up, I'm thinking, if there's a swarm hanging there and it's 4 feet off the ground, I'm in the biggest hurry you've ever seen. I mean, Kim, how much truth can I tell you? I don't even have to have frames. The main thing is to get that colony that's hanging on that limb in a box before it takes flight to go somewhere else.

In a perfect world, I would probably give them just a frame or two of fairly recent comb, and then depending on the size of the box that you put them in, was it a 4-frame nuc? Was it an 8-frame box? One of my 10-frame boxes. I'd probably like to put in some new foundation to have that swarm build out new comb for itself. That way, I've got new comb that I can use to phase out some of the older comb either in that colony or in other colonies. Shoot a hole in that.

Kim: No, that makes perfect sense, I think. Get them started on something familiar and then move that older stuff out once they begin to get established, or maybe not. Maybe just leave it in there but get some new in there anyway. Well, all right. It's early April, and we're about two weeks late, so there isn't a whole lot of blooming right now. I'm going to have to feed them because there's nothing in the box that I put them in. What do I feed them?

Jim: You tell me what you've got. What kind of feeders do you have? What kind of sugar syrup concoction do you have? What tools do you have that you could use, or you want to hop in the car and go buy something at the bee supply dealer?

Kim: Well, I've got Boardman feeders. Everybody's got an old Boardman feeder or nine. I got a gallon pail feeder that you put on the top and I got-- I don't know, what do you call them, that feeder that you put inside the box that takes up the space of a frame?

Jim: A division board feeder.

Kim: Yes, I got some of all of those.

Jim: You got plenty of tools. The one that's easiest to use and the one that I used when I was just a child in beekeeping was that Boardman feeder. All the mentors of the day 50 years ago said that's a good feeder for a beginner to use because you don't have to disturb the colony to refill it. Well, the biggest headache with those things is that they encourage robbing in the off-season. If you're trying to feed a colony at the entrance with all that sugar syrup there, it's easy to get robbing started. It's easy to get robbing started anyway, but it's particularly easy with an entrance feeder. What you're going to do, Kim?

I've got a feeder that's really quick to use, easy to use, but it's got a problem. If it's all I had, I'd probably use it, but of the ones that you were talking about, I'd probably go with the gallon pail, but I wouldn't put a gallon in there. If it's a two or a three-pound swarm, they can't take that syrup fast enough before it begins to ferment some, I'm afraid, or maybe even get a bit moldy. In that gallon feeder I would probably only put about a quart at the time.

Kim: That makes sense. What about taking some honey from my other hive next door? Am I going to transfer a problem maybe from one colony to another or is it going to be pretty safe? They got treated pretty well for all of last year. They overwintered.

Jim: You know the caveat here, it depends. How much honey does that colony beside it have? I have grown really reluctant to keep going to my good colonies to subsidize my colonies that are not so good. I guess if I had a choice, I would almost rather go to the colonies that are okay because the good colonies are doing everything right. I should leave those alone, I think, is my new philosophy here in this matter.

Yes, if you've got honey from anywhere else in the comb, that is the premier way to go. It depends on whether or not you've got it. How much do you take? How much are you concerned about diseases? What diseases? Did you have some issue last year that you're worried about? Did someone in your community have a case of American foulbrood that came up at the meeting when we were all talking about it? Are you worried about that? All those things would make me have decisions in different directions. If disease is an issue, I probably wouldn't move too much comb around. If disease is not a big concern of mine and the bees have some honey they can get along without, move those frames over.

Kim: Let me think about this minute. While I'm thinking about it, let's get a word from our sponsor in here.


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Kim: I think I've got food figured out. I've got the hive figured out and at least one of the variables is left is, what about the queen that's in that swarm?

Jim: I'm not going to say it again, Kim. [laughs] It depends. That queen in that swarm, she's finishing the last phase of her career. She's going to be asked for one big final push that's probably going to use up the last of her physiological resources. It's a common recommendation that a swarm queen should be replaced before the bees start the supersedure procedure process that'll drag on for several weeks.

All right. What to do, Kim? What to do? Well, what's your philosophy? Do you want to go buy a queen and use a particular stock to start that colony in a different genetic direction? Do you like the natural scheme of things, let the bees do it themselves? Maybe she'll be a better queen. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe she'll go for another year when most people thought that she wouldn't have de gone that long. It's really your call. Tell me what you think your options are.

Kim: Well, I always wrestle with this question when I get them in the box and I'm looking and they're sorting things out and running here and there. The first thought that comes to my mind is that queen was good enough, long enough to raise a colony big enough and healthy enough to swarm. She's got some things going for her. The other side of that coin is, you're exactly right, she's probably over her peak in terms of productivity. She's on the downward slide.

That downward slide going to happen tomorrow and they get rid of her and they can't requeen because there's no eggs or does it take a month? I can see where it depends comes in here. If you want to keep her, you got to watch her. If you don't want to watch them, spend time, all that, because you got other colonies to take care of, then maybe just a quick replacement.

Jim: I like that. I like that. You’re saying it depends on your management scheme. You don't have time to go back. You've got a full-time job, you've got a young family, you've got a garden or whatever. You have multiple things attacking your time. That's not going to be a good recommendation to tell somebody to watch that queen. That particular person should probably consider requeening the colony. If, however, the person is a single-minded beekeeper, spends days, a week opening, looking thinking, they can probably know fairly quickly when that queen begins to fail. They can either supplementally put a queen in there, or at least monitor the queen replacement process.

Kim: That's a good point. My time is a little freer now than it has been in the past, but do I want to go traipsing out there bothering that colony every couple of days?

Jim: You're hurting my heart when you say that, because one of the curses in my bee life has been an adage that I've really lived by is a silly adage, but I think it works. Here it is. If it's working, don't fix it. If that colony, even though I know the queen is a swarm queen, and probably already at least two years old or into her second year at least, she's still got a nice pattern going. The bees are manageable, they're building up, they got a good pollen collection going. Everything looks good.

I know that nothing is forever, Kim. She's not going to keep living but right now, at this moment in time, she's doing a great job. Do I want to fix it? I think a good beekeeper would probably replace that queen while the colony was healthy and vigorous rather than wait until things went south and then try to fix a colony that had multiple problems. My own philosophy hurts me here. If it works, don't fix it, but the problem with that philosophy is that it's not going to work indefinitely.

Kim: Yes. Well, I think another thing is looking at starting today when she gets in that box and watching the relationship between the bees and that box and the honey flow or not going on outside, if there's a honey flow going on, I can see all my other colonies just kicking butt, and they're not, that tells me something or if they're kicking like everybody else's, that tells me something. She's producing the foragers that I want, at least early on.

Jim: She's doing a good job right now. I'm trying to think of exactly the right thing to say. I know me, Kim, if I were working with that colony, I would watch that queen for a while before I decided to do anything about it. Then I would make my decision as to what queen technique to use. Go buy one or let them do their own thing. Am I keen to work? Am I pushed for retirement activities in other areas in my life? The queen's going to be what? What's the queen going to cost this year? 30, $35.

You got to go get her or pick her up. Take probably the better part of a day to do it. Either do that or compare it to the fact, all right, I'll just let the bees do it. It'll take longer. Don't have a good guarantee of a great queen coming from this process. Overall, I know me, I bet you, Kim, that I would let the bees replace their own queen. Knowing how long that's going to take, knowing all the vagaries of not knowing what kind of queen I'm going to get. I just know me that well.

Kim: You just hit on something here that I hadn't thought of until just now is, if we let that colony produce its own queen, it's going to produce more than one. It's going to produce two, three, nine queen cells, depending on how strong the colony is and how things are going outside. I may end up here with locally produced queens that I can requeen my other colonies with.

Jim: Yes, you could. I'm thinking, okay. It depends, Kim. It depends. How much time do I have? What am I going to do with those other queens? When I used to raise queens, the biggest agony of my life, it's what to do with all these virgin queens that had no future. They simply had no future. What do you do? I had queens running all over the grafting room that, they don't have a nuc. They're not accepted in any colony. You know what their fate is. What do you do with all these extra queens? When you were saying you've got all these extra queens, that's the negative thought that I flash to.

Are the other colonies in a position to accept these queen cells? Am I fixing things that weren't broken, try to use these queens that I have access to? Extra queens, extra unmated queens are not always a gift. It would be like some giving somebody fish that have not been cleaned. It's a gift after the fish have been cleaned, but if he got to do all the work on it, it's not the gift you thought it might have been. Yes, you could do that but then we're into this time thing how much are you working with other colonies, other things in your life? Do you have time to now keep up with four or five new queens that this colony produced?

If I had access to those queens, I'd try to do something with them, but that's not the primary reason that I was letting these bees supersede that queen on their own. I was doing it because I can't readily get a queen without taking the better part of the day and make it a significant drive to go pick up a queen.

Kim: Well, another part of that is, do your bees put food on your table? If your bees put food on your table, you've got queens and you've got colonies to split, you got a nuc to sell.

Jim: Oh yes. You just took a left turn.

Kim: Yes, I did.

Jim: You added a variable to this. You went from being a hobby to being somewhat of a commercial beekeeper. Totally different mindset on that. Totally different commitment to work colony oversight. No, if they're part of your business and providing part of your income, then I would go a different direction with this queen management scheme.

Kim: Well, I'll give you one more and then we can call it a day. I'm going to bet you half the people listen to this, maybe more than half have had some time in their bee career. Somebody in their house said, "I thought we were going to make money on this." Then your answer is, "Well, it depends."

Jim: That's not funny. That's not funny. I did see, I did think. I'll build my own equipment, I'll save money, we're off the subject now. I'll build my own equipment; I can really save money doing that. No, you can't. It actually costs more to build my own equipment. The reason I can't make any money is I don't have enough bees. You go to a ridiculous number of bees, which means that now you're working harder, and the extractor's too small, so you need a bigger extractor, and you just never really seem to get caught up.

It is a type of agriculture. It's a very demanding process to find equilibrium that'll actually leave you something as a profit.

Kim: I think I'm going to leave this here right now. I haven't figured it out yet, but at least I have some variables I can explore. Thanks for your advice.

Jim: Not advise, this was conversation. We didn't talk about one thing and we can get back to this again, because it's a biggie. That colony that you hived is now in a different place in life and you got to become concerned about Varroa. What are you going to do about Varroa? Here we go again, whether it depends on what your control techniques are. At some point soon now, you've got to start managing Varroa in that colony has it establishes itself. That's another topic for a different time.

Kim: Yes, a long different time. Like I said, you give me some ideas on what to do on this, and I'll let you know how it turns out.

Jim: I'd like to hear it. Thanks for talking to me.

Kim: Take it easy.


[00:21:38] [END OF AUDIO]