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Under One Roof

Beehive Management During the Swarming Season in a single hive

By: - Nick Withers

Introduction:

All beekeepers wish to be in control of their bees. They will wish for strong healthy hives at the start of the honey flow (whenever that is) so that they can get the best possible honey crop. They will not wish for his colonies to increase in number in an uncontrolled fashion or for swarms of bees to be lost as they take control of the agenda.

In most districts in Britain there is a 'main' honey flow in late June and July and colonies should be at their peak by mid June to exploit it fully. Unfortunately the period immediately before the main flow, generally the months of May and June, is the swarming season. This is the period, at the best time of year from the bees' point of view, when honeybee colonies follow their natural instincts and reproduce by swarming. In nature all colonies of honeybees can be expected to swarm every year, just as most other wild creatures, e.g. frogs, seagulls, badgers breed every year.

Swarming is the division of the colony into two (or more!) parts, with each part having many less bees than the original complement. Coming just before the main flow there is little chance (an early swarm may be OK) for worker bee numbers to recover sufficiently to collect a decent surplus of honey. Usually swarming results in almost complete absence of a crop from the affected hive.

The beekeeper can influence the situation in three ways and take control of it with two of them. If he gets it right he can keep his colonies in one piece during the vital swarming season and reap the rewards by getting his expected honey crop.

The first way is to minimise the factors known to trigger swarming off. He can minimise crowding by giving supers early and ensure all his hives have young queens. He can also buy or breed queens from parent lines with a good reputation for 'non swarming'. These measures, however, are merely influences for the better and in no way guarantee positive results!

The second way is to observe colonies for signs of swarming and then take control of the situation in a way that keeps all the bees together and maintains the colonies' growth prior to the honey flow. There are many methods of doing this but the best involve replacement of the swarming queen with a newly mated one, thus minimising the likelihood of any further attempt to swarm. Dealing with colonies after they have started swarming preparations is called swarm control.

The third way is to pre-empt the start of swarming by using a method of management that prevents it. Again there are many methods and again the best involve getting the colonies headed by new young queens. These methods are called swarm prevention.

The following sections give details of swarming natural history and some methods of prevention and control. A feature is that all the operations keep the bees in a single hive, albeit with two entrances at times - hence the title. I have used these methods for swarm control and dealing with swarms for about 10 years. I have not used the similar method for swarm prevention but it seems to be a well tested system in its own right.

Several books on general beekeeping have good sections on swarming. The authors generally suggest the artificial swarm as a method of both control and prevention. general beekeeping books



Natural History of Swarming - Colony Reproduction

Colonies grow rapidly in Spring, fuelled by winter stores at first, then the spring flow. The growth is to get enough bees for successful swarming. honeybee natural history

Swarming triggers:

Crowding (brood nest especially).
Less queen pheromone (as the queen gets older).
Poor pheromone distribution (caused by crowding).

Queen pheromone suppresses queen cell raising and swarming preparation by worker bees. Queens produce less pheromone as they age. As a result hives with older queens swarm more readily. Crowding has been shown to disrupt pheromone distribution among worker bees.

Swarming preparations:

Queen cells produced.
Changes to worker behaviour.

less foraging, more resting.
gorging honey.
less brood rearing.
queen fed less.

The appearance of queen cells is the first sign of swarming for the beekeeper. The changes in worker behaviour may show up as a less active hive than normal. The effect is to conserve the workers' working life and 'prime' them for wax production in the new nest to be built by the swarm. Starving the queen lightens her ovaries so she can fly with the swarm.


Timetable for parent hive or nest:bee development

Day 1. 1st eggs laid in queen cups.

Day 8. 1st cells sealed.

Day 8+ swarm issues (prime swarm).

Day 16 1st virgin queen emerges.

Day 16+ virgin queens destroy sealed cells and fight each other until only one is left.

OR: Day 16+ workers keep virgin queens in cells and protect cells from emerged virgins. One or two more swarms (casts) emerge.

Day 21+ the remaining queen mates and heads a new colony in the old nest.

The start of swarming may be fairly ill defined. Some workers may let the queen lay eggs in queen cups, only for other workers to eat them. Queen cell development will proceed when there are enough workers 'turned on' to swarming.

Issue of swarms may be delayed several days in bad weather, even to the time when virgin queens are ready to emerge.

Newly emerged virgin queens seek each other out and fight to the death. They also attempt to bite into still sealed cells to sting the occupant. They signal their presence to each other by making a sound called 'piping'.piping They make the sound by pressing themselves against the comb and vibrating their flight muscles without moving their wings. Other queens respond, including those still in their cells which make a lower pitched sound called 'quacking'. If you hear these sounds from one of your hives, it is likely the prime swarm has gone and issue of a cast is imminent.

The size of the colony and in particular the number of adult workers helps decide if there will be casts. Large colonies may produce two, or even three casts in succession.

Workers feed the virgin queens they trap in their cells.

No (more) casts will be produced if there are no more queens yet to emerge from queen cells.

Hive colonies are sometimes unnaturally big at the time of swarming and may produce too many casts, leaving a colony unlikely to survive.


What the swarm does: finding a home

Swarms usually emerge around the middle of a fine day and cluster nearby.swarmcluster Scout bees then go searching for a new home in such places as hollow trees, chimneys and unoccupied hives. They dance on the surface of the cluster to indicate a good site and get other bees to go and look. When all the scouts agree on the best site the swarm flies off and enters the new nest.

Swarms use the same round or waggle dances waggle to find a new home as they do for directing foragers to food sources. They are very much attracted to places where bees have lived before and will readily occupy and renovate combs left by a deceased colony. This has survival value despite the disease risk because it saves them the energy of building new comb.

Swarms will choose fairly small cavities to nest in if they can, with enough room for about 45lbs of stores for the winter. The large space provided by a brood box and several supers in not what they choose naturally. natural nest size

The new nest:

The swarm then works very hard to build new combs from scratch, raise new worker bees and collect nectar and pollen to supply the demand and create a reserve of stores.

Swarming is a risky business for wild bees. On average only ~25% of prime swarms in forests survive their first winter whereas ~75% of established nests get through. winter survival


Reducing the Likelihood of Swarming, Examining Colonies in the Swarming Season

Queen bees produce pheromones that suppress queen rearing behaviour in worker bees. pheromones Young queens produce more pheromone and suppress queen rearing (and hence swarming) more effectively

It is recommended therefore to have young queens in your hives. A beekeeper should re-queen his hives regularly and have queens from the previous season if possible. Nevertheless it is also valuable to keep some queens for their natural life in order to evaluate their potential as breeders.

Crowding, especially of the broodnest, is accepted as an important trigger to swarming. It may be that it disturbs the transmission of queen pheromone among workers.

Prevent crowding by giving super space early. Also ensure the brood box is not congested or contains too much unused stores. In a spring flow where the colony's requirements are being met by incoming nectar, bees will be reluctant to break into sealed stores even where they restrict the broodnest. You can force them to move the stores by breaking through the cappings with a hive tool. Cut deeply to break the cell walls so as to force the bees to empty the cells to repair them.

Obtain and maintain a good strain of bee with low swarming tendency.

If you are raising your own queens and making your own judgement on this do not rely on the results of a single season.

Inspect hives weekly during May and June to check for signs of swarming.

A 7 day inspection interval is convenient for most. The 9 or 10 days often quoted is actually quite risky.

Inspection Routine (double brood chamber):

Open hive down to the queen excluder.

Smoke over the excluder and pause.

Separate the boxes and tip the top box to see the bottom of the frames.tiptestdiag tiptestphotoSmoke bees away if necessary.

Check for swarm cells:

none - close up.

empty queen cups - close up. emptycups

queen cups with eggs - check again in 5 days or start control procedure.

queen cups or cells with larvae - start swarm control procedure. larvaecups

The 'tip test' is a good, quick way of checking for swarming. It is said to work better with a shallow as the top brood box. snelgrove

Note that the excluder is not separated from the top box unless a full inspection is needed.

The idea of smoking from above is to encourage the queen into the lower box where she will be needed if swarm control has to be done.

Queen cups with eggs may well not lead to swarming just yet, but a re-check after 5 days will tell you if the cells are developing before a swarm is lost.

If you are doing a full inspection and find the queen, put aside the frame she is on in a nucleus box to save having to look again should queen cells be found.




Two Queen Method of Swarm Control


The description is based on having a 'brood and a half' brood chamber with the deep box below.

You need a small amount of extra equipment to work this method.

Essential:

A piece of metal mesh (wire cloth, expanded or perforated metal) to pin over a crown board feed hole. meshnboard

A means of giving a rear entrance (3 strips of wood to raise the box on 3 sides is simple and easy to provide). stripsentrance

Optional:

A swarm board or modified crown board with mesh covered hole and built in entrance. meshnswmboardmeshncrownbd

A spare crown board for the top.

The mesh allows bees to contact and feed each other but not to pass between the two parts of the hive. This helps maintain a common colony odour in the first instance and later on ensures that pheromones from both queens influence workers in both parts. Its effectiveness is shown by it always being spotlessly clean.

Pieces of mesh, drawing pins and strips of wood are very simple things to keep with you when doing swarm checks. stripsmeshcollection


Step-by-step Guide, Day 1:

You have examined the colony and found queen cells developing.

1. Set the top box aside.

2. Check the bottom box for the queen. She needs to be in the bottom box to proceed. Check for eggs as you look through.

3. Examine the queen cells in the top box; destroy any already sealed. If you did not find the queen in the bottom box search for her here and move her to the bottom box. (If you cannot find the queen, see any eggs and many of the queen cells are sealed it is most likely you have missed the prime swarm and the queen has gone.)

4. Swap boxes, the top box with queen cells on floor, bottom box with queen aside.

5. Put on the excluder excluderon, supers and crown or swarm board. Pin the mesh over the feed hole, if there are two feed holes, cover the other or use a second piece of mesh. twomesh

6. Check the bottom of the frames in the original bottom box and cut away any wild comb below th bottom bars.

7. Arrange an entrance to the rear and put the original bottom box above the crown board. scday1p Put on the roof. scday1d

The outcome of this first manipulation is that the flying bees will return to the box with the queen cells, now on the floor, and the upper box with the queen and the rear entrance will become depleted. The bees will soon tear down queen cells in this box, while the lower box will be queenless and will have plenty of bees to complete its queen cells satisfactorily.

This procedure can be done with a colony on a single brood box by providing a second box and sorting the combs between the two. About 1/3 of the combs with queen cells should go in the bottom box and 2/3 with the queen in the box to go on top. There is no need in the first instance to fill the empty spaces with combs or foundation although you should fill out the box with the queen on day 7. You may push the combs to one side but must ensure the mesh covered hole in the crown board is next to the frames. onebox

The idea behind destroying cells already sealed is to give you 7 clear days before the next manipulation. Unsealed queen cells will not emerge in that time.

There can be a snag if there are many queen cells on the bottom bars of the top box and the floor is shallow. Squashed queen cells don't make good queens!


Step-by-step Guide, Day 7:

1. Open hive and take off everything down to and including the excluder.

2. Put the crown or swarm board with its mesh still in place on the lower box with the queen cells. These cells will by now be sealed and will soon be ready to emerge. sealedcells Turn this box and floor round 180 degrees so the floorboard entrance faces the rear.

3. Arrange an entrance above the mesh board to the front.

4. Next, put on the box with the queen, then the excluder, supers and roof. scday7b

The bees in the upper box will have lost the urge to swarm and the queen should be laying normally. It is quite common for the upper box to eject drones and destroy drone brood.

In the lower box the first queen cells will be approaching emergence.

Re-arranging the boxes like this gets the flying bees back with the queen while the box with queen cells becomes depleted of bees, preventing casts being produced when virgin queens emerge.

Returning bees will have to climb a little to get to the front entrance and any foragers oriented to the top rear entrance will drift down to the new rear entrance at the bottom.

Day 14 on:

Resume routine inspections of the upper box with the queen at 7 day intervals.

The queen once again has a strong colony to supply pheromone to and in due course further swarm preparations might be expected. Very soon however, a virgin queen will be in the lower box and the hive will have two queens and two sources of pheromone. Once the new queen has mated swarm preparations become very unlikely.

Day 28+:

Check the lower box for a laying queen. newqbrood Check there is sufficient food and number of bees if you wish to keep the lower division going. Reinforce if necessary.

The new queen should be laying within 3 weeks of emergence.

Later on, when you wish:

Remove the old queen and unite. uniting

Ideally, wait until the new queen has some of her own workers emerged.

Variations:

Day 7:

Take 1 or more nuclei from the lower box with queen cells. nucleus

Use some of the queen cells in mating nucs prepared from another hive.

Destroy all the queen cells and introduce a queen cell or young queen from another source.

Destroy all the queen cells and introduce a frame of eggs and leave a further 10 days.

The decisions you make here will depend how good you think the swarming queen is and whether you wish to use this line or another for re-queening or increase.

The 'straight' procedure will give you a new queen which is the daughter of the one who's colony swarmed. If she was young (2nd year) or the colony had other bad characteristics you should consider the options to raise a queen of a different strain.

If she was good you should consider the options to raise more than one queen.

Day 28+

Unite with an excluder between to make a true 2 queen colony. Ron Brown 2 queen system


Advantages:

Very little additional equipment is required, especially to start with. When doing routine checks you only need to carry the pieces of mesh and a simple means of making an upper rear entrance.

The whole operation is completed on the one hive stand. With restricted space this is an advantage and you do not have to provide extra roofs or floors.

Disadvantages:

Unlike the artificial swarm method, it does not result in you getting the bees to draw out foundation into new comb.

This method does not lend itself to incorporation into an integrated strategy of Varroa control because it does not result in a brood-less period in the main brood nest. The artificial swarm does, or can do, and combs of drone brood can be used to trap nearly all the mites in the colony. varroa control



Dealing with a swarm (or a Taranov swarm)


Equipment needed:

As for the swarm control method plus a box of foundation.

Swarms are excellent at drawing foundation and no opportunity should be missed for getting them to do so.

Step-by-step Guide, Day 1:

1. Take the swarm in the usual manner.

2. Go through the swarmed hive and destroy all sealed queen cells.

3. Reassemble the hive and pin mesh over the crown board or fit a swarm board.

4. Place a box of foundation on top and arrange a side entrance.

5. Hive the swarm in the top box and feed. dwasday1pdwasday1b

Hiving the swarm at the top of the hive allows it to establish itself for a week before being reinforced. Hiving the swarm at the bottom using the original entrance results in immediate reinforcement with the flying bees that did not go with the swarm. I have found this is not completely reliable. The swarm may emerge again after a few days leaving behind a few queen cells just started on the foundation.

The Taranov method makes you a swarm you can hive like a natural swarm. In effect you are forcing the bees to swarm a day or two early. Taranov swarming

Unlike the box with the queen in the swarm control method the swarm will have many foragers which must re-orientate to the front entrance on day 7. Using a side entrance makes this possible.

Step-by-step Guide, Day 7:

1. Dismantle the hive down to the original brood chamber with the queen cells.

2. Turn this round with the floor to give a rear entrance.

3. Place the mesh board and swarm next, giving a front entrance. If the original brood chamber was 2 boxes you may prefer to put one of them (minus queen cells) above the swarm. If you wish to take this box out of service, place it above the supers until all the brood has emerged.

4. Put on the excluder, supers and roof. dwasday7b

This is essentially similar to the swarm control method. Turning the bottom box round loses bees to the front entrance and makes issue of a cast unlikely. The swarm is reinforced and should do even better.

Day 28+:

Check that a new queen is laying in the old brood chamber.

Unite when appropriate.

After uniting you can take away old combs and sort the boxes so the colony will winter on the new combs drawn by the swarm.

Variations:

As for swarm control

Advantages and disadvantages:


Similar to The swarm control method except that you do get foundation drawn into new comb.


Two Queen Method of Swarm Prevention

When to start:

The hive must have built up well and have plenty of bees and a good-sized broodnest spread across both brood boxes. springbrood

You should gauge a time when the colony has benefited from the rapid growth of the spring build-up and looks to you it could prepare to swarm soon. Early on the ratio of bees to brood is low and it would be unwise to split the colony. spring growth

Step-by-step Guide, Day 1:

1. Check through the hive and ensure there are eggs in the upper box of the brood and a half pair.

2. Ensure the queen is in the lower box.

3. Rearrange the hive as for Day 1 of swarm control, spday1b the queen will be in the box at the top of the hive, with a rear entrance and the brood with eggs in the lower box will have the normal entrance at the bottom.

This is an almost identical procedure to the swarm control method. Very similar methods have been evaluated before. Wilson method The only differences are in timings to suit raising queens from eggs. The queen cells will of course be emergency cells but with a good number of bees available good quality queens will be reared.

Day 10:

Rearrange as for day 7 of swarm control. spday10b The bottom box, now with queen cells close to emerging is put below the mesh board and has its entrance facing the rear. The box with the queen is next, with a forward entrance and the excluder and supers are above.

Day 17 on:


Resume regular inspections of the top box. The new queen in the bottom box should be laying by about day 31. spday31b

Variations:

Day 7:

Destroy all queen cells and introduce a queen cell or queen from another source.

Destroy all queen cells, introduce a frame of eggs and leave a further 10 days.

Day 10:

Take 1 or more nuclei from the lower box with queen cells.

Use some of the queen cells in mating nucs prepared from another hive.

Day 31+:

Unite with an excluder between to make a true 2 queen colony.

Advantages:

As for swarm control. advantages

Disadvantages:

The disadvantages are the same as for the similar swarm control method. disadvantages

In addition: This may be an effective way to ensure you always have young queens but by doing so you do not get to assess your queens through a complete season. If you want to evaluate potential breeding stock you should evaluate queens at least through their first complete season and preferably until they swarm or supersede.

© Nick Withers, March 2000                    (start)