Karl Colyer

With an abundance of forage and flying days, colonies grow very rapidly. The natural impulse to swarm will need to be managed.

With swarms, there are three overall approaches: let them swarm if they want to, but this is not recommended unless you live on an island or a very remote area; manually prevent them swarming or, allow the swarm process to be proactively enacted but under ‘artificial’ or controlled circumstances.

Swarming is a natural process
It is normal for bees to want to swarm. It is their sole method of naturally replicating the colony. In nature, it is thought that only around a fifth of swarms would become a viable additional colony to the point where they could successfully overwinter. So bees will instinctively want to swarm if the conditions are appropriate. If there is an abundance of bees, eggs or larvae, forage and available flying drones, it will incline bees to swarm. If the hive has a lack of space for eggs to be laid, or if the queen is three or more years old and her pheromone levels fall, or perhaps if the bees are diseased, or if they are genetically ‘swarmy’, it may compel the bees to swarm.

Unexpected swarms happen
With the warmer weather in February and March this year, several colonies will have increased their bee populations earlier than usual. Anticipate swarms if the brood box is packed with bees. The swarm impulse can be delayed or negated simply by adding more brood space and making sure that the brood box is not congested with excess nectar or honey. Additional supering is helpful if the bees are numerous and forage plentiful.

There are two ways to help mitigate any swarming mishaps. Consider having a bait hive or two in your garden or grounds. If a swarm does pour out, it may be attracted to this as a new home, albeit sometimes only temporarily. Another option is to clip one set of the queen’s wings. A swarm may still occur, but the bees will return to the hive and the queen may often be found on the ground surrounded by attendant bees. Both these options help reduce the risk of swarms getting into a neighbour’s building. 

Manual swarm cell removal
Before you decide what to do about queen cells in a colony, you must consider what is going on. Are the queen cells for swarming, supersedure or emergency re-queening. If, on inspection, you conclude they are swarm cells, then you must act quickly to prevent the colony swarming.

Knocking down queen cells each week is a common but mistaken approach to offset swarming. All it does is give the beekeeper a week to get the equipment ready for their preferred method of swarm control in time for next inspection. But knocking down queen cells will not prevent swarming; ultimately the action can demoralise the bees and the colony can still swarm.

Artificial swarming
A preventive action for swarming is to proactively create an entirely new colony by splitting a large colony under controlled conditions. There are many ways to do this and it is worth learning one or two methods and having a few goes at it. In essence, they all cause the bees to create new queen cells under what is often referred to as the emergency impulse, which is caused by a sudden absence of queen pheromone in a colony. All splits require young nurse bees and some eggs or young larvae to make into queen cells. The split must start off queenless. The larvae for the queen cells can be chosen by the bees or be manually transferred from another colony and presented to the queenless colony in a vertical position. This allows an opportunity to rear queens with larvae from your favourite colony.

Get to Know Your Bees
Swarms are entirely natural and the instinctive process can offer some advantages for the sustainable beekeeper:

  • By removing three or four frames of brood and bees from a populous, healthy colony, new frames and foundation can be put in their place, cycling the frames and causing the bees to invest effort in comb creation and bee replacement rather than swarming.
  • If a split is made, the colony that is queenless for a while has a brood break which disrupts the growth of Varroa numbers in a colony; an entirely natural form of temporary Varroa suppression.
  • If you want to increase your colony numbers or replace an aging queen, making a new colony is very cost-effective and will use local genetics rather than genetics from another area. The best bees for your area are most likely already in your area.
  • By making an extra colony or two during the summer, you have an additional queen available if one of your other hives has problems during the season. You can also try overwintering the spare colony, effectively having bees to replace any winter losses before they happen.

Photo:  Karl Colyer