I’ve written about swarming quite a bit in the past. I’m not sure how many people who read my stuff are beginners, but I’m going to assume it’s not the majority. You probably all have your ways of dealing with preventing swarms or controlling them once the bees have decided to make queen cells. In this article, I mainly want to explore some alternative methods of swarm control. I’d also like to encourage people to write in ‘comments’ what they do and, just as importantly, why?
Prevention better than cure
A quick re-cap on swarm prevention:
- young queens swarm less than old queens
- raising queens from swarmy bees can propagate the swarming tendency
- the queen needs a brood nest of the right size (some brood boxes are too small to be used as singles, although it depends on the type of bee)
- when the brood nest becomes too full of stores and/or brood, the queen has nowhere to lay, and swarming is probable
It follows that we should:
- replace older queens
- use queens from good stock
- maintain the right sized brood area for our type of bee
- manage brood frames to ensure that there is always laying space
- give supers early and often, as needed, to stay ahead of the bees.
She’s been a grand old dear
Going into winter, I had an old yellow-dot queen. She was in a nuc last season because I want her to live as long as possible; she’s my best breeder queen, and I hope she’s still there. I am convinced that genetics play a significant role in swarming. Some bees just want to swarm, regardless of the queen’s age or the amount of space they have. We have to find the good ones and raise daughter queens from them.
The Demaree is an interesting old method. The article in the American Bee Journal by Demaree in 1892 is about preventing swarms using his method. His suggested manipulations were to be carried out before queen cells are found. However, many people now use the term ‘Demaree’ to mean a vertical artificial swarm, i.e. a manipulation for when queen cells are found. The method actually described by Demaree is to prevent swarms without increasing hive numbers. Many beginners get into trouble with artificial swarms and queen cells. They often don’t want to endlessly multiply their colony numbers – just keep it to a few hives and hopefully collect a small honey crop. For such people, the Demaree could be ideal.
Most commercial beekeepers that I’ve spoken to say that the Demaree works, but it’s too much work for them. They want something more efficient. The problem comes when you start having to rotate brood frames out of the bottom box into the top; that’s a lot of lifting. On the plus side, you prevent swarming and generally get a good honey crop because the colony stays large. Splitting a colony to control swarming means smaller colonies, which means less honey.
I don’t know why, but I’m a sucker for a Snelgrove board. I love them, although I never use the system that he built it for. Mostly I just use the board as a normal split-board to make a vertical artificial swarm. In such cases, the top box is generally making a new queen while the old queen is downstairs.
Peter Little once described what he called a ‘reverse artificial swarm’ in which the queen and brood, including queen cells, go in the top box. The older bees are downstairs with just a single frame of brood on which to make cells, but mostly they carry on piling in the nectar. This reminds me of Snelgrove’s ‘Method 2‘, which he devised for when queen cells are found. There is a scenario where the gate system might actually be helpful. Once you have moved the queen back downstairs because swarm fever has passed, the gates can funnel bees from the top box to the hive below. Eventually, you just have an empty box and can remove it. It’s probably too much effort, now that I think about it.
Some busy beekeepers don’t mess about with funky gadgets and techniques. They remove queen cells and give space and hope for the best. This is quick and no doubt effective if a nectar flow starts at the time – the bees will often switch into ‘foraging mode’ in this case. In the UK, with rain as likely as sunshine, this is taking a risk. R.O.B Manley had an excellent trick for early swarming. He would swap the hives’ positions, the one with queen cells and another one in the apiary. Usually, the ‘swarmer’ is large, so changing places with a smaller one equalises their strengths and stops the building of cells. Clever, eh?
Manley said that the surest thing to kick off multiple swarms was a sudden break in the main honey flow in May/June. In some areas that could be drought, but for me it’s more likely to be rain. He also said, “I have not yet come across a breed of bees worth anything at all as honey producers that did not swarm to a certain extent, and I am not sure that I should care to have a completely non-swarming strain. I think a reasonable amount of swarming, say 15 or 20 per cent, is rather a good thing.” Once queen cells were found, he used the nucleus method when he did not want to make increase. The nuc, minus the old queen, was combined back to the parent once it had a newly mated queen.
When making increase, Manley dealt with colonies with queen cells by creating a shook swarm. The queen and many bees were shaken into a box and moved to another apiary. The remaining colony was left with one queen cell from which they raised a new queen, or a new queen was later introduced. The skill is in shaking enough bees to satisfy their swarming urge without leaving them too depleted. This strategy worked for him because he had large colonies. There is still a loss of honey crop, but that’s what happens with any form of swarming.
I can finish this piece happy in the knowledge that I have written about the legend that was Manley. He was the bees’ knees, as far as I’m concerned.