At some point, some colonies will make swarm preparations, and if the beekeeper wishes to keep his or her bees, and hopefully the lovely honey they will make, he or she needs to do something about it pretty quickly. Once queen cells are found in the hive then the bees are no longer bluffing; they really do want to make a new queen and let the old one leave with many of the workers to establish a new home elsewhere. Queen cells are queen cells when they contain a larva and some royal jelly. A queen cup with an egg in it is not a queen cell.
Of course, there are signs in the hive that things are afoot long before actual queen cells are formed, and the experienced beekeeper can observe these and take steps to change their collective mind, hopefully. A queen cell is like a road sign saying, “you are going to crash, there is nothing you can do about it, we hope you are wearing your seat belt, good luck.” It would be nice to get a few warnings earlier on in the process, and in the case of bees, this takes the form of changes which I have written about previously.
I am a walrus of tender years, beekeeping wise, so I do not presume to lecture anyone on what to do once they find queen cells in their colony. Well, I might do that, but I have no right to. What I have done is to interview commercial beekeepers with many decades of experience to find out what they do. These are the people who have been at the beekeeping game forever, who rely on the production of honey and sales of their queen bees and nucs or packages for a living, and the fact that they are still going is a testament to their skills and perseverance. It may well be that a hobby beekeeper with just a few colonies can do all sorts of weird and wonderful things, but once you scale it up to hundreds and then thousands of hives, the methods that survive are those that are the most time-efficient, cost-effective and they work.
When I asked these great sages of apiculture about swarming, I got a similar answer from most of them, and it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. “It depends,” was the essence of the wisdom they handed down to me.
“It depends?!” thought I, “What do you mean it depends? You mean to say that I’ve spent all this time trying to get hold of you, struggling to get an interview, I travelled all this way, and finally, when I get to ask about this most vexing of phenomena, you can’t be bothered to give me a proper answer!” Actually, I didn’t say that. That would be rude.
So, what are these variables, these things upon which swarm control depends? The time of year is one of them. Late in the season, when the days are becoming shorter and the nights colder, the bees will eventually decide that swarming is a silly idea because Nature’s resources are dwindling and survival ranks higher than population growth. Often all we need to do late in the season is remove ALL of the queen cells (once you know they haven’t swarmed already) and provide more space in the form of drawn comb in the brood nest. Mike Palmer has a video of this here.
Supercedure happens, and by breaking down all queen cells, we would be preventing this, and it’s challenging to spot the difference between supercedure and swarming. Commercial beekeepers have good queens available for requeening their hives, so it’s not a problem. They can detect the colonies that have superceded, or swarmed, by the absence of a coloured dot on the thorax of the queen, because the queens they put in their hives have all been anointed with a mark which changes each year. These “no dot queens” will be assessed and if they are good, as is often the case, they will receive their colours in due course.
Another variable is whether you want to grow your hive numbers or not. Everybody suffers some level of Winter losses, so beekeepers will want to replace the lost colonies with new ones, and the time to do this is when the bees are naturally doing it anyway. This is also the time to make up nucleus colonies which can be sold or kept as a resource within the apiary. Murray McGregor needs his colonies to be ready for their annual trip to the heather in mid-July, so everything is done with that in mind. He told me this regarding making up Winter losses:
“First of all, you have to see how many winter losses you suffered and then exploit any swarming colonies to restock your empty hives. What we do is move the hive that is preparing to swarm across the apiary to a vacant spot, and then we put a new hive in the position where it previously sat. Then we take 1 – 3 frames of brood, depending on how advanced preparations are, and the queen away from the swarming hive and put them in the new hive on the old spot. The swarming hive now has most of the brood nest and the queen cells. You can select a queen cell to keep, you can kill them all and introduce a queen, or you can kill them all and insert a queen cell from a line of your choice. That will make up your winter loss as the queen will emerge, mate and start laying.”
“The safest thing is to knock all of the queen cells down and come back at the next inspection and knock all down bar one after that. It is the safest way, but we need to short-circuit that and not waste those two weeks so we use other methods that are less safe but will produce a stronger colony in time for when we need it.”
My attempts at controlling swarms using the various methods in most books, such as the Pagden method, have not always worked out well. This is probably due to poor bees, who wish to swarm no matter what, and my incompetence. I have re-queened my hives to deal with the former problem, and hope that time and a desire to learn will address the latter. I was very interested in a method used by Peter Little which I think might work for me, as I like the plan of keeping the colony strong so that it continues to bring in nectar during the swarm control manipulations. Here’s an extract from our interview:
Me “What about swarm control?”
Peter “It all works to the nectar flows as to what you do at what time of the year. We take some nuc boxes out to the apiary, and when we find a big colony in swarming mode, we pull out a couple of frames with the queen, put them in a nuc with a shake of bees and some stores. Then we go through the main colony shaking bees off every frame and breaking down every queen cell. We notice whether or not they are in swarming mode by the size of the queen. When she has slimmed right down and is starting to run around, and her egg laying has reduced they are going to swarm; if she’s still big and fat and laying like mad, you can usually get away with breaking the cells down and giving some more space.”
“We leave it until next week – we inspect every week. The nuc with the queen goes to another apiary. If she’s still good she’ll come back, but if not she can build up the nuc then she’ll be squashed, and a young queen put in.”
Me “You’ve just taken out the queen and knocked down all the cells, so there’s nothing?”
Peter “Nothing except eggs and larvae, and bees, yes.”
Me “So they make emergency cells.”
Peter “Yes. They can’t swarm because they haven’t got a queen. All they can do is make more queen cells. We go back the following week, shake all the bees off the frames, break down every emergency cell. We then take a frame with larvae and eggs on it from another colony, mark the frame with an “X”, and put it into the hive and leave it for another week. After that, we either take a young mated clipped queen back with us, a new queen, or we go to the nuc with the old queen, and now instead of being skinny she’ll have fattened back up again and will be back to laying. If she’s a good queen, we re-cage her and go back to the colony that was swarming. Apart from that one frame we gave them they have no brood, so you’ve now only got to inspect that one frame. Their swarming impulse has passed, long passed, so you take that one frame out, shake the bees and destroy all cells, then put the queen back in there, whether it’s the new queen or the old one.”
“Generally, that’s it for the rest of the season then. They settle down, she’s now got the whole box to lay back up again, plenty of space, the number of bees has dropped as the older ones have died off, and the swarming impulse is gone.”
Me “That really interests me because of the splitting thing, the artificial swarm methods, I think maybe I’m not very good at it, but I always end up with lots of small colonies and no honey.”
Peter “Yes, this keeps it as a big powerful colony. If you want to boost it back up again, you’ve got other colonies so you can plonk a couple more frames of brood in there. They settle, and you have no more swarming problem from that hive for the rest of the season.”
“It’s a bit like the German method, a reverse artificial swarm. You put all empty combs in the bottom box, with one frame of brood, which you mark. You artificially swarm them, vertically, but instead of the traditional way when you put the queen in the bottom box to build up the nest, this way you don’t. You leave all the foragers in the bottom box with just that one frame of brood and no queen. The queen goes in the top box. The older bees leave the top and fly to the bottom, so they aren’t going to swarm from the top because they’ve got no flying bees; it’s just baby bees up there with the queen. Any queen cells up there, they’ll often destroy them themselves, but you can do it if you like. The queen will start laying up there again, and you do this over two cycles.”
“After a week you pull the marked frame out of the bottom box, shake the bees off and remove any queen cells, then give them another frame of brood from the top box. The forager bees are still working like mad collecting honey. They are queenless and trying to make a queen from the one frame of brood. After the second week, you break down the cells on the one frame and unite the boxes together. You are back to a colony that has got past its swarming impulse. We are doing the same sort of thing except we take the queen away and we get a new nuc out of it.”
Enough! Snelgrove wrote a whole book on swarm prevention and control, and I’m just writing a blog. I imagine all non-beekeepers will have departed long ago, but hopefully any of you hardcore bee botherers that read this far found something of interest here. I certainly enjoyed writing it.