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What is the purpose of a colony of bees?

Pollination? Wrong.

A swarm of bees marches into its new home after being dropped from a tree.

A swarm of bees marches into its new home after being dropped from a tree.

Bees do this by accident. They don’t realize how much they’re helping humans and wouldn’t care if they did.

Making honey? Wrong.

Bees make honey because this is a stable food source. The fact that humans like honey is again irrelevant to the bees.

Bees are like any other wild animal. They exist for two reasons: to survive and to reproduce.

Except that, in the case of honeybees, most of them don’t reproduce. They are part of a colony, and the colony tries to survive and to reproduce.

Which brings us to “casting swarms.”

I don’t recall ever coming across that term until veteran beekeeper Jim Tew used it in a presentation to the Blount County Beekeepers Association meeting in August. Jim said then that bees will try to survive until they can find a suitable place to live — a good hollow tree or something like that — and “cast a few swarms.”

The term popped up again when I was reading Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy, a fascinating book that is built around Seeley’s decades of study of swarming behavior.

In upstate New York, where I live, my colonies begin sending forth their drones in late April, and they begin casting their swarms . . . a week or two later in early May. (p. 35)

* * * 

An enduring mystery about honeybees is what exactly stimulates a colony to begin rearing queens and thereby initiate the process of swarming. Beekeepers know that certain conditions inside a colony’s hive (congestion of the adult bees, numerous immature bees, and expanding food reserves) and outside the hive (plentiful forage and spring time) are correlated with the start of queen rearing for swarming. Nevertheless, to this day, no one knows what specific stimuli the worker bees are sensing and integrating when they make the critical decision to start the swarming process. (p. 36) (quoted material)

Swarming is what bees do. It’s one of their basic purposes. As good beekeepers, we should let them do it.

Related articles

Jim Tew describes the inside of a feral beehive

Tew: the natural hive is not a ‘permanent’ home for bees

A different view of swarms


Key words: bees, beekeeping, casting swarms, pollination, Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, swarming, honey



Almost all of the Sacred Texts and Tribal Elders of Modern Beekeeping will give you this straightforward piece of advice:

You must re-queen at least every two years to keep up the honey production.

Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?

But let’s think about it in a different way for a moment. There are some very good reasons NOT to re-queen.

It’s time-consuming.

A beekeeper friend of mine says that finding a queen in a hive is the “most aggrevatin’-est thing” involved with beekeeping. Some people can spot the queen right off. Not me. I have spent hours trying to find a queen even in a moderately populated hive.

It’s expensive.

This year a new queen will cost you nearly $25. Most beekeepers I know are generous with their time and knowledge but pretty tight with their wallets. And as the price of queens has risen, the quality of imported queens seems to have decreased. There have been lots of complaints in our local association about queens during the last couple of years.

It’s disruptive.

Yes, you have to take the hive apart to get to the queen. But there’s more. Think about what it does to the colony to have to orient itself to a new queen. This may not be a real problem for the bees, but the fact is that we don’t really know one way or another. Common sense says there is some disruption and that disruption has a cost.

It may not work.

A hive may not like a new queen, even if you have destroyed the old one. One veteran beekeeper told me that, in his experience, about 30 percent of the queen doesn’t take.

It may not be necessary.

Generally, it is thought, queens run out of steam after about two years, but that isn’t always the case. Some queens go on for longer. Or, you may have a new queen in the hive and just now realize it because you didn’t see the swarm or didn’t know they had already replaced the queen.

Read the rest of this entry »

Beekeepers spend a lot of mental and physical energy trying to prevent swarms. A hive that swarms is less productive in making honey than a hive that doesn’t, particularly if the swarm occurs during a honey flow.

But, maybe we should stop, take a moment, and consider the good that a swarm can do.

First, swarming is a natural activity. It’s something that bees do to increase their populations. A bit of common wisdom among beekeepers is that swarms occur because the hive gets crowded, but we’re not really sure that’s the case. Adding more room to a hive may help, but it may not.

So what are the benefits of a swarm?

The obvious one is that if you can catch the swarm, you have another colony of bees, and those bees are inclined to draw comb. Beekeepers have been taking advantage of that for many decades.

But, there is another benefit to a swarm that is rarely mentioned. The hive from which the bees swarmed is left with a new queen. She’s young, and she’s locally mated. That means you won’t have to replace her any time soon. And many people now believe that local queens are more able to survive and fight off pests than imported queens.

So, if your bees are about to swarm, maybe you should sit back and let them do their thing.

Jim Stovall

About ten days ago, at the apiary inspector training course held in Oak Ridge, Mike Studer mentioned that he had reports of swarming here in Tennessee beginning the second week of February.

We’ve all been watching our hive populations explode and we’ve been doing a variety of manipulations in an attempt to keep our colonies more or less intact. I began expanding my healthier colonies beginning Feb. 5 – starting with expanding the brood areas, adding supers, and rotating boxes every 7 – 10 days.

Today my spouse, Betty, noticed a lot of bees checking out the eve line of our house. About the same time a neighbor asked me to check his house and hopefully explain to him what was going on. In a nutshell, dozens of bees were flying around his roof edge, exploring any and all openings.  These are scout bees and they’re looking for new potential nest sites.

My next box rotation is this coming Wednesday, and I won’t be surprised to see queen cells full of developing queens when I check them. I last rotated six days ago and saw no queen cells, but I’m betting things have changed.

Five of my seven hives have considerable nectar/honey already stored in one super, while another has a full super and two more partials.  So, a word to the wise – check your hives, rotate boxes if need be and put some supers on!

The maple/cherry crop this year is looking to be a door-buster. Also, the plums and cherries have exploded, along with the Bradford and similar lines of pears.  Redbuds are showing color and will be bloomed out by week’s end.

As a follow-up to our February short course, more information for beekeepers who are just starting out will be presented at the next meeting of the Blount County Beekeepers Association on Monday, March 12.

The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. in the Blount County Library. The public, as always, is invited.

Presentations and discussions will be led by BCBA members Ricky Bailey and Logan VanLeigh. We’ll be talking about what to do with a new hive, swarm prevention and pollination, among other things. We’ll also be announcing our scholarship winners.

And don’t forget about our woodenware workshop on Saturday, March 24. More details about that are on page 2.

Some of our members probably remember George Imirie (1933 – 2007), a veteran beekeeper who learned a lot of common sense beekeeping practices during nearly three quarters of a century of beekeeping. He wrote a great deal about the subject in what he called his “pink pages.” Some of them are on the Tennessee Beekeepers Association website: Here’s an excerpt on “supering” from one of those papers:

For many years, beekeepers added another super when the first super was about half or 2/3 full, maybe due to lack of supers, lack of research to investigate this, or more likely “it was the way that Daddy did it.”

However, since migratory beekeeping has become popular and the US Dept. of Agriculture has researched supering techniques during the past few decades, research has clearly shown that due to the “hoarding” instinct of the honey bee, the placement of several supers of DRAWN COMB (NOT foundation) on a colony all at one time results in more honey production and less swarming during a nectar flow than adding one super to another as they are needed. I put 5 Illinois supers of DRAWN COMB on each colony on or before April 30.

Page 618 of the 1992 Revised Edition of The Hive and Honey Bee agrees and recommends the use of multiple supers of drawn comb rather than single supering.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Blount County Beekeepers Association

Join us

If you’re interested in joining the Blount County Beekeepers Association, call

Dale Hinkle
423-261- 5234


Kathy Flaherty
203-314- 0270


Welcome to the web site of the Blount County Beekeepers Association in Maryville, Tennessee.

This site will tell you a little about the association and how to become a member. It will also tell you a little about beekeeping.

Bees are an important part of our environment and particularly our agricultural system. They are also fascinating creatures.

We hope you will be interested enough to join us at some point, even if you're not interested in keeping bees. There are lots of ways you can join in with what we do.

Follow us on Twitter at @blountbees.

Schedule of BCBA meetings for 2019

The Blount County Beekeepers Association meets on the second Monday of every month, except for September and December, at 6:30 p.m. at the Maryville Church of Christ, 611 Sherwood Drive in Maryville.

All of the meetings are open to the public, and anyone interested in learning more about beekeeping is welcome and encouraged to attend.

The following is the schedule of meetings and activities for 2018:

January 14 – regular meeting

February 11 – regular meeting

February 16 – BCBA short course for new beekeepers

TBA– New Beekeepers class

March 11 – regular meeting

March 17 -Wooden Ware class

April 8 – regular meeting

April  27-Field Day for new beekeepers

May 13 – regular meeting

June 10 – regular meeting

July 8 – regular meeting

August 12 – regular meeting

October 14 – regular meeting

November 11 – regular meeting

December 9 – Christmas dinner

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