Season of the Swarm – Part 3: OK Then, How Do I Stop This?

By William Rowe1 & Geoff Williams2

1The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Fairhope
2Department of Entomology & Plant Pathology, Auburn University, Auburn

Will you have to deal with a swarm at some point? Do bears poo in the woods?

But, by employing a few simple, yet effective management strategies you can keep swarming to a minimum, and perhaps even add a few colonies to your growing empire along the way.

There are two basic swarm prevention techniques that every beekeeper should employ:

  1. Afford your colonies with room to grow (Fig. 1) – remember, congestion promotes swarming!

Fig 1. Honey bee colonies equipped with supersFig 1. These colonies in northern Alberta, Canada are fully supered in preparation for the nectar flow. Photo by G. Williams.

2. Head your colonies with young, productive queens (Fig. 2) – remember, diminished queen pheromone promotes swarming too!

Fig. 2. Newly mated queen with mating sign
Fig. 2. This newly mated queen (the copulatory plug is marked by the blue arrow) should contain enough sperm to last several years. It’s generally recommended that beekeepers replace their queens every 2-3 years; however, beekeepers have recently reported the need to replace queens more frequently. Photo by G. Williams.

Even if you fervently employ both these strategies, one of your colonies will invariably try to swarm at some point. The reasons for this vary. Perhaps you didn’t provide enough room soon enough? Perhaps your new plump queen wasn’t as productive as you first thought?

Because of this, it’s always important to regularly inspect your colonies to gauge their status. The trick is to not visit them too much, or too little. Every other day is certainly wayyyyy toooo much! Give your colonies room to breathe, but also consider queen development. Colonies typically swarm a few days before new queens emerge. Therefore, if you have a knack for spotting queen cells, you can space your inspections 7-10 days apart during the height of the swarming season, depending on your schedule. During your inspections, keep your eyes open for signs of congestion and for those peanut-looking queen cells. Consider lightly shaking or brushing some bees off the frame to help with your inspection. Check for opened or sealed cells. Remember, they typically occur on the bottom of the frame, but they can appear in the middle too (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. A honey bee brood frame
Fig 3. A honey bee brood frame containing peripherally-placed queen cells. The blue arrow marks a particularly pronounced capped queen cell. Photo by G. Williams.

If you do see opened queen cells, inspect them for larvae and royal jelly (it’s a white, shiny liquid) (Fig 4). If the cells are occupied, that means that new queens are on their way. The colony feels strong enough to swarm! At this stage, drastic steps are needed to prevent swarming. It’s time to take charge!

Fig. 4. Cut-out queen cells
Fig. 4. Queen cells of different stages that have been cut from a frame. The blue arrows denote uncapped queen cells; each contains a larva bathed in royal jelly. Photo by G. Williams.

If you are looking for a big honey harvest, feel confident in your current queen (you see lots of brood and capped cells), and the queen cells you find are uncapped, you can give your colony a second chance by cutting the new queen cells out. This will either delay swarming or, if you are extremely lucky, stop it altogether. Make sure you simultaneously add a super to the colony to give your bees room to grow. If you see queen cells about one week later, then it’s time to seriously consider your next steps because THAT COLONY WANTS TO SWARM.

Various methods for efficient swarm control exist. Most consider that the main components of a colony are:

  1. The queen

  2. The brood

  3. The flying bees (aka the foragers)

If any one of these elements is removed, then your colony’s urge to swarm should subside.

Davis and Cullum-Kenyon of the British Beekeepers’ Association provide excellent examples of how to perform different swarm control strategies in their book. For example, you can:

  1. Remove the queen – Place your original queen, along with some workers (about 1-2 frames worth), into a nucleus hive containing empty frames (Fig. 5). The break in brood rearing will naturally depopulate your hive, and by doing so, diminish the chances of swarming. Remove all but one or two healthy-looking queen cells in your original hive so that a new queen can be produced. If all goes well, your colony will produce a new queen in no time. But, should this not happen, your original queen (in the nuc) will serve as an insurance policy. If you’re nervous about using your fingers to collect your queen, try one of the many queen catchers on the market. Make sure that you keep a watchful eye on your little nuc to ensure it has enough food and is tightly packed to protect against small hive beetle! This method will still promote honey production in your original hive.

    or

  2. Remove the brood – To simulate a natural swarming event, slide your hive over to the side about 2 feet, and place a new empty hive box in its place. Next, move a brood frame and your queen to the center of your new hive box; fill up the remaining space in both your hives with empty frames, and place any honey supers onto your new hive. Like in the previous section, remove all but one or two healthy-looking queen cells in your original hive so that a new queen can be produced. In the meantime, watch all your flying bees go to the new hive housing your original queen as they return from their foraging trips. After 1 week, move your original hive about 2 feet to the other side of your new hive. Again, watch all your foragers return to the latter. This will help bolster its bee population. This is called the Pagden Method, and will result in two colonies depleted of bees that are unlikely to swarm. This will result in colony increase.

    or

  3. Remove the flying bees – Shift your colony to one side by about 2 feet, and replace it with a nuc box holding a queen and a few brood frames containing nurses. These frames can be poached from other colonies, whereas the queen could be one that you ordered or reared yourself. All your foragers will quickly join the nuc, thereby depleting your original hive just enough to prevent swarming. Alternatively, simply swap positions of your soon to swarm colony with a relatively weak hive. This method will promote honey production, and potentially also colony increase.

In addition to these methods, one can take a quick and dirty approach by making a ‘split’ that divides up the resources of your hive (the brood, food, and bees). You want to ensure that both boxes have frames with equal amounts of eggs, brood, and bees, and that you have removed all queen cells in the nuc containing your original queen. The other ‘queenless’ nuc should contain 2-3 opened, good-looking queen cells (cut everything else out), or no queen cells at all if you plan to add an adult queen you purchased or reared. Be sure to place frames appropriately, with those containing pollen adjacent to the brood, and those containing honey frames on the outside. Then, insert enough new frames with foundation to complete each box. Both nucs will be sufficiently depopulated to prevent swarming. This method will promote colony increase.

As you can see, there are several ways to skin a cat (or prevent a swarm). Each method has its benefits, such as promoting honey production or colony increase. Each also requires practice! Decide what you plan to do before you arrive at the apiary; this will make sure you are fully prepared and confident to do what you need to do!

Further resources

  • Davis, I. & Cullum-Kenyon, R. 2012. BBKA Guide to Beekeeping. A & C Black Publishers Ltd, 192 pp.

  • Graham, J.M. (Ed.) The Hive & the Honey Bee. Dadant & Sons, Inc., Hamilton IL. 1057 pp.

  • Seeley, T.D. 2010. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton University Press, 280 pp. Public lecture available @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnnjY823e-w (Accessed 9 April 2017).

Fig. 5. Queen searching
Fig. 5. Disclaimer: finding the queen can sometimes be painful! Photo by G. Williams.

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