Swarm Prevention And Honey

Steve with his son Alex
The Mole and The Walrus

After three days in a row of beekeeping, I found myself having a ‘power nap’. It’s hard work after a winter of inactivity. My son, the mole, has been my superstar assistant, which is remarkable because until a week ago, he was terrified of bees. He has faced his fears and seems to be enjoying helping out his walrus father.

Suits You Sir 

One of the most significant factors in this transformation has been the ‘Vented Swienty Breeze Protector Beekeeping Suit’ purchased from Gwenyn Gruffydd. The mole is a medium, and, guess what, I’m large. Still, a while ago, I’d have been an XL size, so the carb reduction has been helping me drop a few pounds. Anyway, the suit is the best I’ve tried, by a mile. I’m not so bothered about the sting-proof side of things, but I love the veil and the ventilation. Plus, it’s tough and hard-wearing.

The Mole Era Has Begun

Having a beekeeping assistant is terrific. I can get so much more done. Marking and clipping queens is easier because the mole passes me the marker then the scissors while I hold her majesty. It’s like being a surgeon and being handed the scalpel and other paraphernalia. We have been to all four apiaries, mostly changing floors and reversing boxes – adding queen excluders along the way. When I spot an unmarked queen, I take the opportunity to mark and clip her. Yes, this is the year that I start clipping my queens. It’s only taken a decade to get around to it.

Outlier: Monster Hive

Most of my bees are in a good place; a good size with 3-4 frames of brood. Today we found the outlier; a boomer with over six frames of Langstroth brood, and they had just started a single queen cell. They were in a ‘double decker’ poly nucleus hive, so we moved them into a bigger space. They now have two full-sized brood boxes and a super, with an excluder between the bottom boxes (some brood above, some below). When I got home and checked my records, it showed that this was a shook swarm from last year, taken from a captured swarm that was about to go again. The swarm is strong in this one. The queen is a machine. I shall have to keep a close eye on them, and if they keep making cells, I’ll change her. Naturally, I couldn’t find her in this hive, so she is neither marked nor clipped. C’est la vie.

It’s That Time Again

I need to be on the lookout for signs of swarm preparations from about now until mid-June. It used to be a month later. In a few weeks, I’ll be stealing brood frames to make up a cell builder so that the glorious phase of the beekeeping year can begin – making queens. But not yet; we need drones of the right age and in high numbers before taking the plunge. I have some nucs to sell, and my main job between now and then is to ensure that they don’t get too strong and start cells. My usual strategy is to stick another box on top for them to expand into.

Swarm Prevention

Here is what I try to do to prevent swarming, although this is more along the lines of aspirations rather than religious compliance:

  • queens in their third season need to be replaced or put in a nuc
  • raise queens from non-swarmy stock, i.e. a queen in her third season
  • any new queens resulting from swarming get replaced at the end of summer
  • give space early and often, including removing honey frames from the brood box
  • remove brood from the strongest hives to be used in cell builders or to make nucs or boost smaller colonies
  • clip queens to buy time (this is a new one for me)

Spreadsheets Again

As a bit of a weird walrus with geek tendencies, I often play with spreadsheet models of honey bee colonies. The idea is that rather than find out the answer to a question by trying it on real bees, I can firstly run simulations in my model. Of course, bee colonies come in all shapes and sizes, but the fundamental mathematics of laying rate and brood life cycle is known. This model has shown me that the oft-quoted laying rate of 2,000 eggs per day is probably not very common. I use a maximum rate of 1,500 in my model as it matches what I see in most of my hives.

Yesterday I was trying to figure out how much brood one should remove from a hive to prevent swarming for the season. It’s something that takes experience with bees, not a spreadsheet, but I was just playing. Also, weakening the strong hives that were never going to swarm is potentially ruining your honey yield for no gain whatsoever. An alternative but more time-consuming method of pre-emptive swarm action is a Demaree

Swarm Window

A typical colony with a peak population of 50,000 bees has a window of around 40 days when it has brood of 30,000 cells or more (peak brood). As you can see from the chart below, when they hit peak brood, the number of bees is about the same as the number of brood cells (intersection of green and orange lines). However, two weeks later, they have 40,000 bees with 30,000+ cells of brood, which is when they are most likely to swarm. The bees will make queen cells 8-10 days before they leave. Peak brood is 6.5 – 7 frames of brood in a Langstroth hive which is something like 10 – 11 frames in a National hive. I’m sure with different bees in different areas, it’s different – these numbers match my bees in my location.

Typical colony over a year

Effect Of Swarming

When you lose a prime swarm, many of the lost bees are quickly replaced by emerging sealed brood left behind in the hive. However, it takes a while for the new queen to be laying, so the amount of brood falls dramatically. The effect is to reduce the maximum colony size and push that point further into late summer.

The effect of swarming on bees and brood

Removal Of Sealed Brood

I tried a few scenarios where I removed 2 or 3 frames of sealed brood to see the effect. Based on my model, removing two brood frames doesn’t do the trick – they could still head for the trees. Three frames should do it, but timing matters. If you go too early, they still swarm. The model says that if you remove three frames of sealed brood at the time when there are 30,000 brood cells (6-7 Langstroth frames), but when the number of bees is also around 30,000, you mess up their swarm plans. We have to go with our experience based on what we see – we can’t count bees in real life. The general point is that just before they start making queen cells, remove three sealed (Langstroth) brood frames, and you get something like the chart below. For a National hive, it would be more like 5 frames removed.

Removing three frames of sealed brood with bees

For a colony to throw off a prime swarm of 20,000 bees but retain enough workers to cover the remaining brood in the hive, they have to wait until mid-July, which is too late in the year. They also want a strong labour force to collect the summer flow to have sufficient stores for winter survival. Apart from averting the swarm, we have also pushed back the time of peak bee population by two weeks, from early to mid-July. This may be important; our fickle climate determines the timing and amount of nectar flow. 

Confining The Queen

I also tried modelling what happens when you cage the queen for two weeks from 5th May. This, incidentally, leaves a small window of no sealed worker brood around 25th May. Confining the queen for two weeks has the same impact as removing frames of brood – the chart shows that it looks like we avert swarming and push back the peak bee population to mid-July. By the way, I’m talking about keeping the queen in the hive – just not able to lay. 

Caging the queen to avert swarming

Removing her majesty would create a more extended brood break as they would have to make a new queen, who may not be laying at full steam for a month or more. This would provide an ideal chance to do a mite wash and treat with oxalic if there are more than 6 mites per 300 bees sampled. There are obvious downsides to clobbering the amount of brood in the build-up to the main summer flow.

Remove Brood Every 3 Weeks

I also looked at a step-by-step approach to brood removal. Taking two frames on 1st May, one frame three weeks later, and another frame three weeks later produces the chart below. It controls swarming but may result in not having enough bees at the right time to make a good crop of honey. Or any. 

Removing brood little and often

Return To Sanity

This spreadsheet stuff is just a way of musing. I found it helpful to know what, in theory, is the right amount of brood to remove to avert swarming and when to do it. I’m not saying it’s a good idea. In fact, I think it’s probably a bad idea. Giving space early and using young queens from good stock is a better way to carry on. Then, in the hopefully few colonies that get queen cells, we just use the nucleus method of swarm control, and all is well. I think it is worth risking the loss of some swarms to keep strong colonies – otherwise, it’s a tail wagging the dog situation. At least in the UK, with unpredictable bursts of intense nectar flow, it’s better to keep strong colonies all summer so that they can make hay when the sun eventually shines, assuming you want lots of hay.

What do you think?

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