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Is It Congestion?

Bee Culture – Feb., 2003

by Walt Wright

The excuse mentality is just my phrase for the theory that swarming is “caused” by congestion, and that bee crowding limits distribution of queen pheromones. The limiting of queen scent distribution is given credit for the starting of swarm queen cells. The starting of swarm cells is presumably the reaction of workers to a failing queen.

Let me reemphasize that the above is a theory. Careful experts will use the words that leave open the factual aspects of the theory. Words such as “it is believed” or “general opinion” are used to preface the description.

The intent of this article is to show that the theory or theories will not stand up to scrutiny. We have all seen colonies swarm that did not seem to be overly crowded, and conversely, crowded colonies that did not swarm. We will try to break the concepts down into manageable bits and pieces.

Congestion comes in two forms. Adult bee crowding is what the term means to most of us. A second type of congestion is stores, in what had previously been comb used for brood. Nectar is used to reduce the brood nest volume prior to starting swarm cells. If nectar is in short supply in the field, the colony will sometimes use pollen to start brood nest reduction. The process will be described more fully in a later article.

Dr. Roger Morse stated that hive body reversal was the best way to “relieve” congestion. He must have been writing about nectar congestion of the brood nest. A beekeeper would not likely be clumsy enough to make an appreciable dent in the total population by reversal. When the lower hive body, with brood to the top bars, is raised, the colony starts over with brood nest reduction at the top.

Before we leave nectar congestion, one more thought is offered: The upper hive body can be nearly filled with nectar by the brood nest reduction before swarm cells are started. The queen will be circulating in the lower hive body, recycling brood cells as they are prepared for eggs. Heat rise from the brood nest will carry her scent right through the plane where swarm cells will be started. Swarm cells are generally built on the bottom bars of the upper hive body. Most of the bee crowding will be concentrated in the upper hive body, where there is less activity. Although the upper hive body is crowded, there is queen scent available where the swarm cells are started.

There are two major types of swarms generated in the Spring season. The reproductive swarm is earlier and smaller than the overcrowding swarm. To build population to an intolerable level takes a little longer and the swarm is generally larger. The literature makes no distinction between these two types of swarms, and that leads to confusion as to the “cause” of both. The causes are different for each.

The reproductive swarm is timed to coincide, as close as possible, to hardwood leaf-out in the Spring. At my location, the reproductive swarm issue period lasts for about three weeks, starting at the beginning of apple blossom. General hardwood green up starts a week after the start of apple blossom. Considering the complexity of swarm preparations, most colonies in good condition do an excellent job of hitting the issue timing window. This puts the offspring swarm on their own approaching peak woodland forage availability.

The bees do not need an excuse for reproduction by their unique method. Their motivation to reproduce would be as compelling as the mammal sex urge. I doubt that anyone reading this has found it necessary to fabricate an excuse, a reason, or a “cause” for his sex drive. Why must we invent a justification for the honey bee reproductive process?

The steps to reproductive swarming are a deliberately controlled process. Starting in Winter, the buildup in population is specifically for the purpose of division by the reproductive swarm. Controls built into the process prevent overpopulation when permitted to do it their way. The reduction of brood volume by nectar congestion serves several purposes and one of them is to prevent population overrun. The process controls will be explained in a later article. If there is a “cause” for reproductive swarming, it is the colony motivation to reproduce.

Overcrowding swarms do occur. They are created by the meddling beekeeper. The beekeeper who deliberately interferes in the controlled process of reproduction can cause overcrowding. For example: Reversing hive bodies on a periodic basis maintains nearly two full boxes of brood. He must add space for the bees generated by that much brood. The bees have been deprived of their natural control of brood nest reduction. We see overcrowding swarms as a defense mechanism to protect survival of the existing colony.

In summary, with two types of congestion and two types of swarms, the literature theory isn’t applicable to all circumstances. We can safely say that overcrowding swarms are “caused” by congestion (overcrowding), but the root cause is mismanagement by the beekeeper. It ends there. Neither type of congestion is the “cause” of reproductive swarming. We need to recognize swarming for what it is: a deliberate effort to perpetuate the species. No excuses required.

The experts tell us that some swarming is inevitable, no matter how hard you work at prevention. This is true if you treat the symptoms. Its much like the doctor prescribing a pain pill without treating the source of the pain. Congestion, both kinds, are component parts of the swarm process. They are effects, and not the cause. Treating the effects or symptoms of the swarm process will continue to yield only partial success. It’s time to move away from yesteryear’s guesswork. In this age of exploding technology, we keep bees by the same dogma handed down for 200 years. I’m inclined to call it horse and buggy technology.

The last improvement in beekeeping know-how was the Reverend triple L’s movable frame, and that’s over a 100 years old. It was a mechanical improvement that contributed very little to dispel the misinformation of yesteryear. Although it should have – we can now remove frames and actually see how the bees run their shop. As I see it, the main obstacle to improvement in technique is the mind set of those schooled in “conventional wisdom.”

The intent of this article is to soften the reader up a little for an impending series on survival traits of the European honey bee. The survival traits discussed in that series stray considerably from conventional wisdom. They are the result of my personal observations. It is human nature to reject any concept that differs from what we think we know to be true. Acceptance of what I see happening in a beehive will be difficult, if not impossible, for some with strong conviction to the contrary. I invite you to take a strong stand and set out to prove me wrong. I will have one more convert.