Ian Campbell, Newcastle & District BKA and BBKA Social Media Manager

May is always a busy month! A spell of warmer weather may well result in colonies looking to swarm.

Inspection frequency
Ideally, inspect at least every seven days and every four to five days for colonies at higher risk of swarming. Look carefully for any early signs of swarming. This is when it is really handy to know the queen’s life cycle (see p 10).

Remember, bees always start building queen cells the moment you close the lid! Then it’s up to eight-and-a-half days until a queen cell is sealed. Importantly, this can be considerably shorter if they start with a larva instead of an egg. You know what happens next! The photo above was taken 96 hours after introducing a test frame into a colony; they produced multiple sealed queen cells. On that basis, checking earlier is better than later.

Entrance blocks
These can removed if entrances are congested, but it’s not essential. Smaller entrances are more easily defended but keep an eye out for congestion.

Expanding and healthy?
Check if the colony is expanding; if not, ask why. Failure to thrive in spring could mean a weak queen, or possibly nosemosis or even European foulbrood (EFB). If in doubt carry out a disease check and take a sample of bees for examination under a microscope. Contact your seasonal Bee Inspector immediately if EFB is suspected.

Oilseed rape honey
Remove any ripe honey crop before it sets in the comb. Extract as soon as possible as it is likely to granulate when away from the warmth of the hive.

Varroa levels

Monitor and check the Varroa count against BeeBase guidance in the Managing Varroa booklet to see what treatment is required.
See: https://tinyurl.com/2p84ca6s

Always use a licensed treatment. Be aware that most chemical treatments are not permitted for use when honey supers are on. Integrated pest management throughout the season is recommended

Be ‘kit ready’
Have plenty of spare kit ready for use. You will be amazed how quickly that pile of spares reduces! Also, gather together the all-important swarm collection kit. You will need a box, sheet, secateurs, brush, smoker, water spray, pole and bucket.

Brood comb changes
Bailey comb change and shook swarms are options. Ideally, combs are swapped out every three years.

Swarm prevention

Add supers if the hive is becoming crowded, especially if near crops like oilseed rape. Do they need to go onto brood and a half or double brood?

Look for signs that the queen’s laying rate has slowed; she can be slimmed down for flight and will lay fewer eggs. Look for backfilling – nectar and pollen stored in cells where you would expect to see brood.

How old is the queen? Older queens produce less pheromones making the colony more prone to swarming.

Clipping queens is much debated; it will stop a prime swarm but not cast swarms. If you clip, don’t get complacent; it will just give you a couple of extra days.

Knocking down queen cups and cells will NOT prevent swarming! A pre-emptive artificial swarm can be optimal.


Swarm control

Once charged queen cells are seen swarm prevention is unlikely to stop the process. Artificially split colonies (photo below) if swarming looks likely. Many methods exist. Each has pros and cons. Choose one method and stick to it at first. You can always use different methods as your experience grows.

Knocking down queen cells won’t work; you will miss one and they will swarm.

This swarm control refresher about the Pagden method is great.

Queen cells and swarm risk

A queen cup is small like an acorn cup, aka ‘play cup’, and they will make many all season long.

An open queen cell extended downwards with a pool of royal jelly and a larva. At this point swarm control takes over from swarm prevention and action is needed NOW!

Thin out queen cells
The usual advice is to leave one queen cell. Hopefully, this avoids cast swarms. A drawing pin on the top bar above the selected cell is a good memory aid.

Selecting the one to leave is tricky; a good size, open so you can see the larva, and a craggy exterior are often selection criteria.

You may well need to thin out queen cells more than once; they will build more. So, check after six to seven days. Check again at the next visit as missed queen cells is one cause of unexpected cast swarms.

A queen cup with an egg in poses an elevated risk but it is not yet a queen cell. Quite often the eggs are removed.

If a queen cell is sealed, it is very likely that a swarm has left. However, always check to see if the queen is still there. Don’t knock down all the queen cells as a panic reaction. If the queen has gone and no eggs or young larvae are left, then the colony’s future is at risk.

Managing a new swarm

Varroa control can be used while broodless and without supers. Also check if there is a laying queen/virgin queen. Do they need feeding? Do not feed for 72 hours to lower the risk of EFB transfer.

Queen rearing

Select a method that is appropriate to your number of colonies. Keep it simple.

Buy local!

If this is your first season – ideally once you’ve done an introductory course – this is a great time to get an overwintered nuc of local bees.