So . . . how did you and your bees come through the ‘swarming season’? Hopefully you didn’t lose any swarms, and hopefully you might have some new queens laying by now. Most of all, hopefully you didn’t experience any dramas in the process!
In Part 1 of this blog I talked about how swarming can seem like a very big deal indeed. Here, in Part 2, I want to share the method I use to control swarming. It’s a simple method but, like anything in beekeeping, it does rely on having the equipment you need at hand when you actually need it. Getting prepared is essential and believe me, it reduces swarming- related drama by at least 50%!
OK then . . . how to control swarming?
The first step is to understand the difference between swarm prevention and swarm control because the process of managing swarming begins way in advance of finding that first queen cell.
Swarm prevention begins as the colony starts to expand rapidly. The key objective is to ensure that the colony has enough space. This is absolutely vital because a congested colony is not happy: the queen doesn’t have space to lay and queen substance, which keeps the colony together as a cohesive society, cannot be transmitted as effectively through the crowded highways and byways of the hive.
To relieve congestion, you can remove a couple of frames of brood and give them to other colonies that need a boost, and replace them with empty drawn comb (ideally) or frames and foundation. Or you can make up a three frame nuc and let them raise their own queen.
Adding supers is also crucial – the bees will need the space if there is a flow on, and there is already a tendency to swarm during a flow because the abundance of food enables colonies to raise queens. Without supers, they will store nectar in the brood nest, forcing the space issue to crisis point. It’s essential to know when the nectar flows begin in your area, so that you can stay one step ahead.
The moment for decisive action arrives: a primed queen cell is found
You will have been inspecting your colonies every seven days, searching for signs of swarm preparation. It starts with production of drone brood in spring, then small cups – ‘play cups’, which are rough and unpolished inside, and which the bees are constructing around the edges of the comb. Sometimes it doesn’t progress beyond this, especially if you have managed them well as they expand. But it’s more likely that on subsequent inspections you will notice that the cups are being polished, and eventually you’ll see a larvae floating in a milky puddle inside – a primed queen cell.
This is the point at which you have to act immediately. Don’t panic!! Don’t knock down the queen cells and ‘come back next week’. I’ve done it, and they swarmed in the interim. (Incidentally, in my opinion, constantly knocking down queen cells is not a method of swarm control. The bees get depressed, and the colony dwindles.)
The basic principle of swarm control is to separate the queen from the brood to simulate swarming conditions. So, when you find that primed queen cell here’s what to do.
You will have your equipment ready to go because you got everything prepared, right?! Have an empty polynuc fitted with frames and foundation, for each colony, ready to use.
First, go through the swarming colony and check where the queen cells are and which one looks like a good one to keep. Remember not to shake any frames at this point to ensure that you don’t damage any queen cells that you might want to keep.
Next, find the queen and put her and the frame she’s on in the nuc. It is vital to destroy any queen cells on this frame – look very carefully because the bees are ingenious at hiding them. Use smoke to move the bees around and check all areas of the comb. (See Dave Cushman’s website for very helpful information about making up two frame nucs and their uses.)
Then put a frame of stores and pollen in the nuc, another frame of capped brood that’s ready to emerge, and an empty comb or some frames and foundation. Again, these frames must not have queen cells on them. Shake in some more bees from a few brood frames and add a dummy board and close up the nuc. Feed it syrup if needed, 2:1 if you want them to draw foundation.
Move the nuc away from the hive but keep it relatively close by in case you want to unite it again at some point (the general rule is 3 feet away).
Now deal with the queen cells in the main colony: take a another look through the frames and, without shaking any of them, choose a nice open queen cell, with a plump larvae inside and mark the frame with a drawing pin. Again, without shaking the frame, check it carefully for other queen cells and knock them all down so that your chosen cell is all that’s left. Avoid choosing capped cells because you can’t be sure there is a queen in there (I once chose a beautiful sealed queen cell which turned out to have nothing in it).
Having chosen your cell, its time to seek and destroy all other queen cells in the hive. This is no mean task. Not only do the bees resent the process of shaking them off the frames but it’s also very easy to miss queen cells which the bees are so good at hiding, especially in indentations or shrunken parts of the comb around the sides and bottom. One missed queen cell can derail the whole process further down the line.
But pause for just a second before you go on a rampage and ask yourself if you can use any of the other queen cells in the hive: if it’s a colony with traits that you like, you may want to use a queen cell to requeen another colony, for example. Bear in mind that you can’t use a cell if it has been shaken.
Now continue: carefully shake the bees off all the other frames and knock down all queen cells, doing a thorough job at getting the larvae out with your hive tool. Shake the bees off all other frames and carefully find and destroy all unwanted queen cells.
Finally, and this is crucial: open the hive again 4-5 days later and destroy any further queen cells that they will have made from the eggs and larvae that were still in there when the queen was moved into the polynuc. If you miss this step the colony will make a ‘second round’ of queen cells, meaning that you may have multiple queens hatching in a week’s time and chaos could ensue. I also check the queen cell again after seven days to check she has emerged.
Leave for the colony for 10 days up to three weeks to give her time to mate and start laying. Depending on her performance you can then cull the older queen and re-unite the hive and polynuc, or leave the nuc to grow into another full-sized colony.
Hopefully that sounds simple because it is in practice! Here are the key benefits:
- It’s quick: it takes around 15 minutes to do the whole thing
- No need for another complete hive, just a polynuc which is much cheaper
- No moving heavy colonies around.
There are also a couple of don’ts:
- Don’t leave the colony for a month as some books say – be sure to check again for the ‘second round’ of queen cells
- Don’t leave two queen cells – the first queen to emerge doesn’t always sting remaining queen cells. Sometimes she can depart with some of the remaining bees, further depleting your colony. There is lots of conflicting advice on this, but I have learned the hard way that one queen cell is best!
And that’s it! Hopefully this has shown how easy it is to manage swarming colonies. And how to take the drama out of swarming!