19 Feb 2012

Urban beekeeping and swarming hives

From an online discussion about the management of bee hives in the urban environment and our responsibilities regarding swarm management/avoidence.

David is convenor and moderator of the Warre discussion group, co-translator of the book 'Beekeeping for All' by Emile Warre as well as author of 'The Bee-friendly Beekeeper - A sustainable approach'.

Republished with kind permission from the author.

There are two main issues here. The first is duty of care, due diligence and the rest, regarding apiary/hive site and hive monitoring. However apicentric one's beekeeping may be, humans take priority in the ethical decision tree.  All hive sitings should be assessed on a case by case basis having regard for local land usage and any bylaws that may apply.

The second issue is whether or not preventing swarming should be mandatory for urban beeks, or for beeks anywhere for that matter. It is this second issue that's the main purpose of this post.

I've kept bees for nine seasons in frame hives and for the last five seasons in both Warré and frame hives. I've had about three nasty colonies in that time, all in frame hives. Two cured themselves. The third I moved because it was in a friend's garden and was stinging him when he was quite a distance away. I've never had a nasty colony in my Warrés, though I know of one or two UK beeks who have. Several with long experience of bees in frame hives have noticed the relative gentleness of bees in Warrés. Probably the hive is not to be thanked for this. More likely it is the fact that bees in Warrés are not frequently interfered with, for example to control swarming, or just to see how they are getting on.

It has been said that swarm prevention is a sort of bee equivalent of coitus interruptus. As you all know, swarming is what bees do to reproduce and fill the landscape, including urban, with their species. And they find it hard enough under the present circumstances of pesticides, loss of habitat/floral diversity and Varroa etc, without humans adding a further obstacle to their propagation.

There are a several reasons why genuine organic, natural beeks may want their bees to swarm:
1. Propagation by swarming versus splits favours vertical over horizontal pathogen transmission. Horizontal pathogen transmission, the route favoured by many modern beekeeping practices, including splits to control swarming, encourages pathogen virulence. Vertical transmission favours avirulence. [1]

2. The swarm process involves a major component of bee biology and behaviour that contains a number of complex processes, all subject to natural selection. A very entertaining account of it is presented in Tom Seeley's 'Honeybee Democracy'. In the long run, natural selection favours vigour. If you take swarming away then you risk compromising the vigour of stocks.

3. Splits done before there are swarm cells result in emergency queen rearing in worker cells that are remodeled for the purpose. In the normal course of queen multiplication, she is reared in a cell hanging vertically from the start. Queen vigour may be relevant here.

4. Introducing a decent sized prime swarm is a good way to populate one of the more natural hives such as the Warré. The intimacy of queen and workers is already long established. The colony gets a good start in life.
Swarming in town? I would say 'yes' subject to some conditions. The most difficult condition to meet is the public education needed to explain what swarming is and that if the public wants to 'save the honey bee' it may need to move over a bit and make room for it. A compromise would be needed a little more in favour of the bee. It is not too difficult. For example, swarm mitigation measures such as bait hives (swarm lures) and a good local communication system for taking swarms could be put in place. Hives, bait hives and feral nests need to be monitored by the beekeeper responsible, or by others nearby who are willing to do so. Bait hive colonies are then immediately relocated to appropriate sites. I use this system even at sites far beyond the swarming range of my colonies.

I'm the only top-bar beek in my locality. Judging by the number of colony extraction calls I get, frame beeks here are losing a lot of swarms. Their bees get out whatever manipulations they try. For my first six beekeeping seasons I too practised swarm control. Then I realised that it was counterproductive as regards bee health.

A little anecdote: a UK beek who [knew] the whereabouts of 40 feral colonies, and gets a lot of questions about beekeeping from novices, was approached by one beginner in a town who wanted to know what he should do to control swarming. The response was, 'Don't worry about it. There are four ferals near you that throw swarms.'

In my experience towns are riddled with ferals. Bees love chimnies.

[1]  Fries, I. & Camazine, S. (2001) Implications of horizontal and vertical pathogen transmission for honey bee epidemiology. Apidologie 32, 199-214

David Heaf
North-West Wales, UK
Warré & 'National' hives at 30 metres OMSL
Warré beekeeping English web portal:
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