To Catch A Swarm 6 – Is It Ethical?

Why Do You Ask About Ethics?

When we relocated our business from a southern US climate to a far northern US climate, we made the decision to acquire new honey bees that are naturalized to the local region. At BM Dooney Farms, we value the importance of local genetics on the performance and sustainability of our apiaries.

Simply put: southern adapted honey bees are not likely to do well facing the over winter stresses of a northern climate.

While we could purchase bees in our new location, there are many advantages of collecting local swarms versus purchasing honey bee nucs, which may or may not be derived from locally adapted genetic lines (depending on where the queen was sourced). A major benefit of collecting local swarms is this greatly reduces the spread of honey bee pests and diseases.

We embarked on an adventure to capture local swarms from various locations throughout our county. We have been very kindly received in our new community, and have had much interest in our project. Several inquiries have been made about the ethics of capturing feral honey bee swarms, some asked:

  • are we stealing bees from others?
  • are we stealing expensive queens from current beekeepers?
  • are we somehow harming the bees by trapping them?

To address these misunderstandings, we thought this post would be helpful to clarify the swarming process, as well as take the opportunity to explain a little more details about honey bee genetics.

What IS a Swarm?

Honey bees are social organisms that depend upon their group dynamics and colony structure to survive. The honey bee does not live in nature as a solitary insect. Natural selection acts at 2 levels in honey bees: on individual bees, and on the entire colony as a whole. In fact, the colony is the level of selection for most traits that are considered important for honey bee health and commercial productivity interests, which include honey yield, swarming tendency, and disease susceptibility.

While there are certain genetic links that increase the probability that a hive will swarm, swarming is a naturally occurring process in all honey bees.

Swarming is a colony level form of reproducing.

A healthy colony will reproduce annually to the point where it becomes crowded, typically in spring. At this point, the workers begin rearing new queen(s) in response to this crowding. Since a colony can have only 1 queen, the current living queen has a choice: a battle with the new queen (to the death), or to leave. When the queen chooses to leave, about 1/2 of the colony will go with her, so typically it is the older queen who leaves in the first swarm (often called a prime swarm).

Swarming is a natural process that happens when hives become too crowded, and represents a form of reproductive fitness at the colony level, where natural selection is acting to increase population growth.

Are Swarms Really Trapped?

A honey bee swarm is vulnerable, so the primary goal is to find a new home. The queen initiates her flight from the hive and will be surrounded by a cloud of bees, typically about half of the colony population. The queen relies on the workers, scouts, to find the best new home, so she will fly from the hive landing on a nearby tree branch often just a few feet away. The cluster of bees surrounding her is called a bivouac, which is a temporary encampment that is not under protective shelter.

At this point, the bees are now feral, regardless of whether they came from a managed hive. The beekeeper, if managing a hive that swarms, can use many tools to re-hive the bees, and future blog posts will detail this process. If you are interested in learning more, please subscribe to our blog HERE.

While the term trap is often used to describe the box used to capture feral swarms, it is not a trap in the traditional sense the term is used in reference to hunting.

The honey bees are actually lured to the swarm box using criterion determined preferential to the bees based on research science.

Much of that work was conducted by Dr. Thomas Seeley, you can read more about his research HERE in an earlier blog, where his work is listed in the Literature cited at the bottom of the page. Our swarm boxes were made to the specifications that Dr. Seeley established for volume, location, and attractants or lures.

What is a lure to a honey bee? Well, it is not the same as a fishing lure, that’s for sure!

Using drawn old comb is one of the lures that helps to attract the bees because it provides them with the infrastructure they will need to build their wax comb interior in their home. Additionally, a scent lure is placed inside the lid of the swarm box, which mimics a scent that scout bees use to mark a potential location for the new home. Honey bees produce a pheromone from the Nasonov gland, and they use this pheromone for communication, tagging a preferred potential new home location. By using the scent lure, the bees are enticed to find the swarm box, and to then decide for themselves if it meets their criterion. The Nasonov pheromone includes a number of different terpenoids including geraniol, nerolic acid, citral and geranic acid, many of these are included in the commercially available lure, Swarm Commander spray, as well as naturally in lemongrass oil, which you can read more about HERE.

Essentially, it is up to the swarm to choose to move into the box/trap. Using previous scientific research that shows what the bees prefer, where they prefer it to be located, when, and how – we are able to entice feral swarms of honey bees to take up residence in our box.

Bottom Line – Maintain Healthy Bees or They Will Leave

Swarming is a natural reproductive process at the colony level for honey bees. It is not to be confused with absconding, which is when the entire hive abandons the home leaving few if any remaining bees. Absconding is often a response to an unhealthy situation for the bees due to disease, or can be caused by pesticide and herbicide exposures.

Maintaining healthy honey bees is the number one priority for our apiaries – we manage our bees for health over all other productivity measures. By prioritizing the health of our bees, that helps to minimize many of the other problems that arise in beekeeping – like problems due to pests and diseases, optimized honey production, even swarming tendency.

Our bees are never really “trapped”. After all, they are free to leave our hive boxes at any time they choose – we never clip the wings of any of the queens in our hives, which is common practice among some beekeepers.

The trick to keeping bees versus having bees is to maintain healthy hives.

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