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Preventing a swarm is not easy

It is totally presumptuous to say we know what’s going through a colony’s mind, but it seems that bees swarm for two reasons: the colony is crowded or the colony wants to reproduce.

If the colony wants to reproduce, the “plans and preparations” have been going on for quite a while before it actually happens. It is very difficult to stop a swarm with the reproductive urge. Most steps you take will delay—rather than prevent—the eventual swarm.

Requeening in the early spring can help reduce swarming because young queens tend to produce more pheromone than older queens. As the amount of queen pheromone decreases the urge for swarming increases.

Cutting swarm cells is popular among beekeepers, but this often becomes a battle of wills: you keep cutting cells and they keep producing new ones. The beekeeper usually loses because if he misses a single cell or cuts a day too late, the swarm will issue anyway. Worse, if he unknowingly cuts the cells from a hive that already swarmed or is just about to swarm, he may leave the old hive queenless.

If swarming is imminent, one of the best things to do is split the colony in two. By splitting you are essentially initiating an artificial swarm during which you (try to) control when and where the bees go. By taking the old queen and some brood and nurses and putting them in a new hive, both parts seem to “think” they have swarmed and, if you’re lucky, they will both grow into strong colonies. Both colonies together won’t produce as much honey as one big colony, but you were going to lose them anyway so it doesn’t much matter.

If a colony has an urge to swarm due to overcrowding, anything you do to reduce congestion will help.

  • Follower boards between the brood box and frames give bees more room to cluster
  • Screened bottom boards not only separate mites from the colony but provide better ventilation
  • An upper entrance improves ventilation and decreases congestion at the lower entrance
  • Reversing hive bodies keeps the brood nest lower in the hive and provides room above the brood nest to store honey
  • Empty supers provide room above the brood nest to store honey
  • Burr comb built between the frames should be cut away. Not only does the queen need lots of room to lay, but she needs to be able to get there easily.

If you do all these things you may be able to prevent a swarm—or not. In spite of all we know about bees, we are not bee psychologists. The best we can do is note what has worked in the past and experiment in the future.

Rusty

Comments

Hello_Kitty_
Reply

What do you mean by “Follower boards between the brood box and frames give bees more room to cluster.” I have a Top Bar Hive which has a follower board in the back. How is a follower used in a Langstroth-style hive?

Rusty
Reply

You caught me; I was going to write about follower boards tomorrow. Follower boards in a Langstroth hive are the same shape as a regular frame except the top bar part is only ¾” wide. Instead of filling them with foundation you fill them with masonite or some other thin, solid material like plastic.

You take out one regular frame and replace it with two followers, one on each side of the brood box. That is why the top bar part has to be narrow—because you replace one with two.

The theory here is that the bees can collect on the follower boards without sitting on the brood. In hot weather, the bees have a hard time keeping the brood cool enough, and sitting on it makes it worse. So both follower boards and slatted racks give the bees a place to “hang out” without making the brood hotter. This also reduces the feeling of congestion in the hive, and congestion is a major factor in swarming.

Thank you for taking the time to write!

Rusty

Gary
Reply

Rusty,

So, I was checking the hives this weekend and noticed that one had much less activity than just a few days before. Once I opened the hive it was clear that for the comb I had absolutely too few bees. I’m thinking they must have swarmed. The frames are full of empty comb, with the exception of the lower deep which has what seems to be a nice ratio of brood to honey. Getting to the point, is there anything special I should do? Maybe plan to combine with another, or just let nature take its course?

Thank you for all you do to help. I read every one of your posts.

Gary

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

Hard to say what happened, but they may have swarmed. You need to figure out whether you have a queen. If you can estimate the date you think they may have swarmed, you can figure out roughly when a new queen should start laying. After a swarm leaves you need about three day for the virgin to mature, a week or so for her to mate, another three days to mature further, and then she should start to lay. Let’s call that about two weeks, but it can be longer if the weather is bad.

So if you see eggs or young larvae by then, you are good to go. If not, you can introduce a purchased queen, combine the hive with another, or give the hive a frame of eggs from another hive and see if they can raise a queen. Or, if you can find a swarm cell in another hive, you can give them that.

Gary
Reply

Rusty,

Excellent information. Thank you. I have a path forward!

Please keep writing, it’s great.

Gary

Robert
Reply

Rusty,
My bees love bridging the bottom box frames to the upper box frames with honey cells. Of course they get all kinds of worked up when I break this comb and the honey starts running all over the place.
Two questions, first, could it be that there is too much space between the upper and lower frames?
Secondly, it’s pretty easy to scrape the comb off the top of the bottom set of frames but how do I get it off the bottom of the top box frames?
Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Robert,

Yes, there is probably too much space between the frames, and the only way to get it off is one-by-one. That’s the reason so much attention is paid to bee space.

Sarah
Reply

Dear Rusty,

I am looking for some advice as to where to place a swarm box on our property. We have a thriving hive already on our seven acres and I worry that placing a box here might tempt my girls to take flight. Is there any way that this could happen? I have Honeybee Democracy on order from Amazon and have a nuc box painted blue and ready to go. I have two used but empty frames (that smell wonderful by the way) and a frame of fresh drawn comb I took from my girls last fall. I appreciate the help.

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

The decision to swarm is made by the colony according to what is going on in there. The colony will not be swayed by the presence of swarm traps. But, if they do decide to swarm, it is nice to have traps available because then you stand a good chance of catching them. I put traps at the perimeter of the apiary and sometimes I catch my own swarms and sometimes I catch other swarms.

Peter
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I emailed you few days ago but I’m afraid the situation has gotten a little worse. I got my bees about 2 and 1/2 weeks ago, they were all doing excellent and making comb really fast due to the sugar water and nectar flow we are having. About four days ago I peeked thru the observation window and got to see the queen and all seemed going well. The day after I noticed a peanut looking comb sticking out on one of the combs, I asked the internet and it definitely appears to be a queen cell. Just today I saw the queen again but they are making another one. I’m sixteen and a first time beekeeper and do appreciate the help immensely! What do you think is going on? and any ideas on what I should do? Thanks! – Peter Howell

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

Queen cells mean your queen is about to be superseded or else the colony is about to swarm. Although placement is not definitive, usually supersedure cells are on the comb face and swarm cells hang off the bottom of the comb or are placed on the edges. Usually.

A supersedure usually indicates the queen isn’t performing as well as the workers think she should. Swarming is colony-wide reproduction. Both are normal. If you only have one hive, there is not much you can do at this point. You can make sure there are empty combs directly above the brood nest so the queen has plenty of room to lay, but once swarm preparations have started it’s hard to stop unless you can split the colony.

Peter Howell
Reply

Hi Mrs. Rusty, Thank you for responding! Just a little bit more information and questions, the queen cells are on the bottom of the comb to the side of it. I am doing TBH and only have one hive, but I did not use a follower board so there is still a lot of space. A beekeeper friend said that she could not believe they were trying to swarm due to no apparent reason but she did not think it was a supersedure cell either. She had heard of you and said to ask the “master of all beekeepers”! So I wanted to ask you if thought it would be possible for them to be swarming with no overcrowding issue? I don’t think I could split anyway because there is not that much comb yet. I don’t think they would be building a queen cell if they were going to abscond, would they? I truly love this site! Thank you in advance! -The aspiring beekeeper but I’m afraid dumb, -Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

First, you are right about absconding. When bees abscond, they all leave. In that case there would be no reason to make queen cells.

But swarming has very little to do with overcrowding. Swarming is an act of reproduction, and colonies swarm when they “think” they are strong enough to begin another colony. It’s not that you are doing anything wrong, it’s that swarming is what they are hard-wired to do. If the queen is laying just fine, you can cut off the queen cells, which will delay swarming but it won’t prevent it. To be clear, are you seeing queen cells or queen cups? Sometimes the bees build queen cups but don’t use them.

Peter
Reply

Hi again, Thank you for the information. By the pictures and articles it is definitely a queen cell hanging down on the comb. One more thing, If you did do a split how would you do it without much comb and with a TBH? Thanks, Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

I don’t know. I split my top-bar hive into a Langstroth using a shook swarm or a Taranov split.

Peter
Reply

Sorry to bother you again but I wanted to ask, I do believe it looks like a swarm impulse but as a said it was just a three pound package a few weeks ago and the new eggs have not hatched yet. Do you think it would be possible for the bees to do a swarm and still survive?

Rusty
Reply

I suppose it’s possible.

Peter Howell
Reply

Ok, today the queen cells are capped. I have another TBH and was going to do a “walk away split”. I peeked in the hive today and there is two brood combs and two honeycombs (basically). So should I put one in each and try to get the queen in the new hive and call it good? Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

I don’t want to give advice on this. I don’t think they are large enough to split or swarm. In this case, I might cut the queen cell, something I rarely do but I think this is an unusual situation.

Peter
Reply

Hello Mrs. Rusty, well, I decided to take your advice and cut the queen cells but as I went and looked in the hive I noticed that there was more queen cells in the middle of the comb. Isn’t that a sure sign of supersedure cells? If it is, should I cut the some cells or leave them alone? Thank you so much for all the information! -Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

Since there is a bunch, I would leave them alone. It sounds like they are hell-bent on replacing that queen. Maybe they have a good reason.

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