Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Here are a few rambling thoughts on preventing swarming.

Beekeepers love strong overwintered hives, because strong overwintered hives also produce a bumper crop of honey or they can be split to make more hives.  However, on the downside strong hives may also swarm.

Swarming is the natural way the hive super organism reproduces.  Weak hives do not swarm.  Swarming is about a month long process.  First certain preconditions must be met.  These are overcrowding, no egg laying space, pollen available and a honey flow.  At that point the hive initiates the swarming process.  First they start replacement queen cells.  Then they slim down the queen.  After about 10 days the new queen cells are capped.  Only then will the urge to swarm become overwhelming. 

Through manipulation the beekeeper can minimize swarming. .   If a swarm gets away all you have lost is a little honey.  On the positive side the hives undergoes a brood rearing break while the new queen emerges and mates.  This also interrupts the mite cycle and reduces the hive mite load.
There are a number a ways to potentially prevent swarming.  NONE is foolproof.

1)      Conduct weekly hive inspections to understand hive strength, space, and find potential swarm cells.  If there is little or no space in the brood boxes for the queen to lay eggs then the hive will probably initiate the swarming process.  Inspection intervals longer than weekly increases the chances the hive will go through the entire process undetected.

2)      Reversing of strong hives should be reserved for in the spring.  Getting the queen in the lower brood box seems to promote brood rearing.  But it should not be done too early because it may split the brood and result in chilling of the brood in the smaller piece. It may lessen the swarming tendency by giving the queen more room to lay.

3)      Overfeeding a new package hive or even an overwintered hive can result in the brood nest getting filled with sugar syrup.  This decreases the space in which the queen can lay and thus cause the hive to swarm.  Otherwise a new package will almost never swarm. So quit feeding a new package once the honey flow starts (about May 15th around here).

4)      Make sure you super the hives with sufficient honey supers.  This creates space for the surplus bees and also promotes honey production.  Anytime a super is 60% full (not necessarily capped) add a super.  Replacing capped frames with empty frames accomplishes the same thing. If there is no room in the honey supers the bees will store honey in the brood nest.  Loss of open cells in the brood nest promotes swarming.

5)      Just the simple action of removing 3 or 4 frames of brood and bees from a strong hive and starting a nuc can prevent the urge to swarm.  Place undrawn frames in the hive as the replacement.  This provides more room and lets the bees work at drawing new comb. You can let the nuc raise their own queen (about 60% success rate) or provide the nuc with a queen of your choice.   This is my favorite.

6)      You must do something if you see swarm cells. You can physically remove swarm cells but if you miss only one swarm cell the hive will swarm.  But also be aware the hive is simply going to build more swarm cells unless you take further action(s) to lessen the overcrowding. 

7)      You can do a split and start a new hive(s).  Put all swarm cells in one half and the queen in the other.  This may lower your honey harvest.

8)      You can do a partial split.  Take out 4-5 frames with the swarm cells and place them in a nuc or 2nd hive. Put in replacement frames for the hive to draw out and the queen to lay in.

9)      In preparation for swarming the bees cut way back on feeding of the queen.  This is so she will lose enough weight and size so that her wings can get her airborne.  If you encountered an already slimmed down queen it would be a good idea to cage her while you are taking other corrective actions; splitting, starting a nuc, etc. 


1)      Swarms usually issue from the hive between 10AM and noon and between mid-May and late June.  I am sure everyone can quote an exception to the rule.  The swarm usually alights in a tree, bush, etc. within 100 feet of the hive.   If you can be in the apiary daily about this time you may be able to catch the swarm prior to them leaving.

2)      If you see capped queen cells during your inspections the hive may have already swarmed.  Look extra hard for the queen.  Remember she will be slimmed down in preparation for the swarming flight. (Marked queens are easier to find)

3)      If the hive did not slim the queen enough you may find the swarm near the hive on the ground like a big puddle of bees. 

4)      Know the difference between swarm cells and emergency cells.  Swarm cells are usually around the bottom of the frames because all other cells are already filled with eggs or brood.  Emergency cells are usually in the middle of frames where the bees convert any larvae of the right age into a queen cell.   
a)      If you find the queen you can quickly do a split.  Put the queen in a cage and in the new hive.
b)      If you don’t find the queen DON’T remove any queen cells.  Those cells are the queen’s replacement. 
5)      Sometimes once the swarming process is set in motion the old queen is going to leave no matter what you do.  Putting the queen in a split with absolutely no queen cells may prevent the swarm.  This is doubly true if you cage her for week or so.
6)      You will need a spare empty hive or nuc to make a split.  Plan ahead.  Remembers the 6P’s. Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance

Coming soon a primer on catching swarms.

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