How to stop Swarming

walrus and honeybees
Walrus and honeybees

How to stop swarming?
Answer: you can’t! At least not completely.

However, beekeepers have to try to stop their bees swarming. If you lose swarms, you will not make as much honey as you could do. You can also catch swarms which is great fun.

There’s a swarm coming

I suspect that a wave of swarming is about to sweep across my part of the country. I can feel it in my waters. The walrus has a sensitive bladder which is attuned to these things. We had a great year last year meaning that the bees went into the Winter in good condition. Then we had unseasonably hot weather in February. Throughout March and April colonies have been more advanced than usual. Recently we have had a week of wintery weather, so the little minxes have been flying less. They have been plotting, and as soon as the warmth and sun return they will be off! Mark my words, it’s going to happen.

I leave an empty hive out in each apiary in the hope of catching a swarm. Two weeks ago I noticed bees flying in and out of one such hive, and thought they must be robbing. I popped the lid off and discovered that the whole hive was bursting with bees, but I could not see the queen or any eggs. This will have been a swarm with a virgin queen, known as a “cast”. I imagine she will get mated in a week or so, as the weather forecast looks promising. Some beekeepers clip one wing of their queen, which means that when they attempt to swarm she cannot fly properly and falls to earth to die. What then happens, if the beekeeper misses queen cells, is that they swarm later with a virgin queen. As I don’t clip my queens, and most are marked, I think this new colony has come from another beekeeper. I shall soon be giving it a blast of oxalic acid vapour to kill any mites they may be carrying.

It’s in the Genes

Even though swarming is how bees naturally reproduce, the tendency to do so is determined partly by genetics. Many people who catch a swarm will re-queen it with one from proven stock. If you make increase from bees that are about to swarm or who have swarmed, you are selecting for swarmy genetics, which is not smart. Part one of the answer to the question, “How do I stop swarming?” is, therefore, to make sure that you do not propagate swarmy genetics – make sure you raise queens from non-swarmy colonies.

Older queens are more likely to swarm

Young queens are less prone to swarm than older ones. Brother Adam said that it is in their third season that they are most likely to go. Many commercial beekeepers will re-queen colonies if they are in their third season. If it is a fantastic queen, she can be kept in a nucleus hive, and her larvae can be grafted to raise daughter queens. A queen that is held in a nuc does not lay anywhere near as many eggs as one in a production colony. She can stick around for much longer, in some cases several years.

Finally, in an attempt to dissuade bees from flying off to pastures new, we must ensure that there is space inside the brood nest for the queen to lay eggs. When they get overcrowded, and the brood nest gets clogged up with nectar brought in from a flow, the urge to build queen cells seems irresistible. This is what occupies beekeepers for much of May and June in my area; we are continually providing space in the form of new combs, and additional boxes.

Demaree

There is an endless list of manipulations that beekeepers can do to control swarming once the bees have made up their minds to go. We know they are thinking of swarming when we find queen cells on brood frames; once the cells are sealed (8 days since the egg was laid), the bees will soon be off. Many people in the UK carry out a Demaree arrangement on their hive just before the bees make cells. There are pros and cons, but for many, it’s a great way to keep the colony strong, head off swarming, and make some nice queens to head other colonies.

Fifty ways to stop her leaving

Many commercial beekeepers do not have the time to fiddle about with their hives too much. Often when they find queen cells, as long as the queen is still home and laying eggs, they pull out all of the cells and make sure there is plenty of space. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, which pretty much describes most things in beekeeping. Another option is to additionally remove some frames of brood and use them to boost other colonies or make up cell builders for queen rearing.

For what it’s worth when I find queen cells I use either the nucleus method or a vertical artificial swarm with a Snelgrove board. The object of the exercise as far as I’m concerned is to keep colonies big so that they continue to collect nectar but to prevent swarming, which is what they want to do. I suspect that I will be quite busy with that over the next month, assuming the old walrus waters are on the money. It’s hard sweaty work, but I enjoy it. This presentation by Wally Shaw covers many of the common forms of swarm control

Interviews with Beekeepers

In other news, I have finally handed the first draft of my book over to my publisher. The editing process will now begin, and I’m optimistic that a great masterpiece is going to emerge from my two years of travels and interviews. If Will Shakespeare were still around, he’d be fearful of the competition I’m sure.

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