Yes, it’s that time of year again. If you are anxiously inspecting your colonies, dreading that you might find a queen cell, then you are not alone!

The swarming process can be very confusing and stressful, especially if you are in your early years of beekeeping.  Everything seems to be going so well:  the hive is full of bees and you start visualising those jars of golden honey when suddenly, it seems that you lose all control – and then half your bees!

For me, swarming has been the cause of tears, injuries, marital discord and hangovers!  All beekeepers have their ‘swarm stories’.  And yet, now that I’ve worked it out, I realise how easy the swarming process is to manage.

Swarming is, after all, a natural behaviour that we need to work with, and not try to stop it or suppress it.  Even before you find that first queen cell, there is a lot you can do to control or at least influence your bees’ swarming preparations.

Why all the drama?

As I said, swarming is completely natural.  But that doesn’t lessen the panic you feel when your neighbours are enjoying a perfect Sunday afternoon in their garden and all hell breaks loose.  Or so it seems to them and you.

Seeing a hive swarm is incredible and fascinating.  You really feel the full animal force of the super organism as it divides and reproduces! However if you’re not a beekeeper, you would undoubtedly be more likely to run away than stand in awe.  I understand why people who aren’t wearing bee suits feel a need to flee the scene.

Then of course there is the strange aftermath with swarms hanging around in trees or wherever – imagine if one of those suddenly appeared in your garden with its busy scouts flying to and fro.  (Obviously as beeks, we’d put it in a hive, but if you’re not a beekeeper . . . ?!)

So I think that swarming can indeed cause a lot of drama – but in itself it isn’t something to panic about.  You are not a bad beekeeper if your bees swarm! But the goal is to find a way of managing their natural swarming behaviour to avoid a swarm issuing from the hive in the first place.

It takes time, attention and experience to do this, but it can be done without the drama – I’m living proof!

Can someone name a swarm control method after me please?

My first nuc swarmed when I’d had it for two weeks.  I now know that shouldn’t have happened, but nevertheless I was scarred from the start!

Determined to tackle swarm control, I tried using the Pagden method of artificial swarming in my first two years.  It was like the dummy’s guide to swarm control:  I went through the manipulation but didn’t always understand why.  I don’t think I ever went through the process of moving the parent hive to the other side of the swarm hive.

As I grew more confident, and space became an issue in my garden, I switched to vertical methods such as Demaree and Snelgrove Boards.

But to be honest, none of these really worked for me.  No doubt there were things that I wasn’t doing correctly.  But at the end of the day, I like things that are simple and that work.  I don’t like equipment or methods that you have to fiddle around with all the time.  And my problem with the swarm methods I was using was that they supposedly required a full spare hive for each colony, and lots of lifting and shifting stuff around.

In searching for a new swarm control method I became overwhelmed with all the options and ideas out there.  Every time I opened a beekeeping journal there was something new to me, named after someone!  This added to my anxiety:  was I doing the right thing?  Would my bees suffer from my ignorance??!!

The kindness of beekeepers

Beware:  when you ask for advice about swarming, set aside an hour or so for the answer.  Beekeepers are notorious for conflicting opinions and contradicting themselves!  I think we all know what I mean!  Should you leave two queen cells or one?  Does the first queen to emerge always sting other queen cells?  Is the cell always capped on day seven? Etc.

I once had two beautiful queen cells to choose from in a swarming colony, and asked fellow beekeepers if I could leave both.  Some said yes, some said no.  I left the two cells and the first queen to emerge didn’t sting the other cell as I had been told.  Instead they cast, leaving me with even less bees.  Still, it was ultimately my decision – and I learned a valuable lesson!

Having said that, when you are at the point where you need support or just don’t know what to do with a colony, ask a beekeeper!  I have always found beekeepers to be kind and supportive (as well as driving me nuts!).  Don’t suffer through swarming alone – ask for help.

So, what is the answer to drama-free swarm control?

I eventually arrived at a simple method of swarm control that doesn’t require a whole spare hive, or moving hives around.  I will explain the process in Part 2 of this blog, but for now, the clue is ‘polynuc’!

In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘swarm therapy’ session.  I certainly feel better to have got some of these things off my chest.  Just don’t ask me about the time I tried to collect a swarm in my dressing gown!