I collected a number of swarms this year, and probably a third of them have gone on to be viable colonies. I am pretty ruthless with swarms in that I leave them to their own devices: if they don’t get going or the queen doesn’t mate well, I don’t throw a lot at them to make it work. The reason for this is that I’ve had many times in the past when I’ve given bees a new queen, or a frame of eggs, or helped them out in all sorts of ways and they still never really come to anything. This is in contrast to swarms who get on with making comb and bringing in supplies and quickly build up in numbers and strength. I don’t find any difference between prime swarms and casts, as many prime swarms supersede the queen they swarmed with as soon as they can, and for some reason the new queen frequently vanishes or doesn’t thrive.
I also don’t feed swarms. I think beekeepers really underestimate the importance of bees learning the forage provision in the area surrounding the hive and the only way bees can do this is to get out there and find it. Of course, we need to ensure we have indeed sited the colony in an area where there is good forage but the bees need to fetch it. I also think it allows them to calibrate themselves with the food supply and regulate themselves accordingly. This is why I don’t feed in autumn, as I want the bees to naturally detect the reduction in foraging opportunities as the season continues. I know people say that it helps them build comb but in my experience they build up too quickly and can then overreach themselves.
People also worry that swarms will be too small to survive the winter, as they haven’t built up enough stores. Bear in mind that the priority of the swarm is to build up numbers, so brood will make up most of the frames with some pollen and a small amount of honey; they don’t need to store much as during the summer there is plenty of nectar and long days in which to collect it so the important thing is to get the population up as quickly as possible. These bees will then be the foragers who will be out there stocking the larders and backfilling the brood nest once the days shorten and weather is less clement for gathering food. That’s when the storage happens, and on good days (of which there are still a good number through September, October and even November) they will work 7-8 hours if it’s warm enough.
September forage here in the south east of England is willowherb, dandelion, some heather, asters, dahlias and Himalayan balsam. October will be those plus colchicums, gorse, and ivy. November and December are lean months but garden plants mean it is worth going out.
Here is a swarm I collected at the end of June, so about 11 weeks old. It was a cast and went on to foundationless frames, so not a small amount of work for them to do. Here they are in the 18˚C sunshine this afternoon:
Needless to say, I am not worried about these bees. I have been feeding them back some crushed honeycomb but this is not the same as feeding sugar syrup. Firstly, it is a relatively small amount (probably amounts to about 100g of honey) and secondly, as they do not have to invert it and evaporate it down, it is not a nectar substitute. This means they aren’t fooled in to thinking there is a large source of nectar available when in fact, there isn’t. They are bringing in packets of dark orange pollen, which I am pretty sure is dahlia, and there are plenty with the badge of Himalayan balsam on their thorax, unsurprising given it’s currently lining every verge in the village.
Monitoring foraging activity is really important so if you get the chance to watch them for a while on sunny days, it will be reassuring to see that they are provisioning themselves for winter.
I am running workshops on Autumn and Winter Beekeeping, and also Gardening for Bees so that you can ensure you are doing everything to help the bees (and other wildlife) in your apiary to find the resources they need. Please see Courses tab for details.