The Eternal Question

2013 Swarm hanging off branch
2013 Swarm

How to prevent swarming?

I previously wrote about some potential factors involved in the swarming of honey bees and why swarm prevention and control are so important for the beekeeper. The idea that we can prevent swarms is probably misguided; it is after all what bees are programmed to do, it is how they reproduce, but we must nevertheless educate ourselves and do what little we can in this regard.

The people who are most qualified to advise on swarming, or any other honey bee management topic, are the commercial honey farmers who manage thousands of colonies and rely upon their efforts to earn their living from it. This is why I will be quoting from such people extensively here – they have lived and breathed a life with bees and I would rather take heed of their words than those of a keen hobbyist or a well read scholar.

“If I were to meet a man perfect in the entire science and art of bee-keeping, and were allowed from him an answer to just one question, I would ask for the best and easiest way to prevent swarming.” C.C.Miller, 50 years among the bees

I referred in my last post to a study in New Zealand by I.W. Forster which concluded:

“Four methods of hive manipulation commonly used for swarm prevention failed to reduce its incidence. Colonies with first-year spring-reared queens made no attempt to swarm. The incidence of swarm preparation was less for colonies with first-year autumn-raised queens than for those with second-year queens.”

I have read of beekeepers who have older queens and no swarming issues, but I think that is the exception rather than the rule. We know that there is a strong genetic factor associated with the propensity to swarm so these older “non-swarmy” queens are little treasures to breed from, I would suggest, assuming they have healthy and productive colonies.

Raising Queens at Buckfast late 1960's
Raising Queens at Buckfast late 1960’s

My favourite beekeeping writer is R.O.B Manley, who was the first person in England to manage 1,000 colonies, and my favourite book of his is “Honey Farming” published in 1946. I know that things have changed since then, particularly the arrival of oilseed rape and varroa mites, but honey bees are still honey bees, and swarming still happens. Here is something to ponder from that wonderful book:

“I have no doubt myself that the best hope of reducing the incidence of swarming lies in breeding from non-swarming strains, strains that is, that show much less addiction to swarming than is the case with the average colonies. I believe that if we systematically breed from queens and drones of strains that have swarmed little, and have produced much honey, and have not suffered from disease, we shall in that way lay the foundation of successful honey production.”

“…after a time, unless we are careful how we breed our stock, strains are liable to arise that have the swarming tendency too highly developed, especially as we ourselves have a propensity to breed for profligacy, sometimes without paying enough regard to other traits, and that is why I, basing my opinion upon personal observation of many thousands of colonies, have come to the conclusion that the character of the bees themselves is the most important of all stimuli that set in motion the swarming instinct.”

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that successful honey farmers tend to have their own successful queen rearing operations.

More sage words from Manley on the inevitability of swarming in some circumstances:

“If you want to get your living from honey production you will be wise to ignore the theories of those who say bees ought not to swarm; that they will not swarm if properly managed etc. The reality, well known to every bee farmer in the world, is that they often will. We can never in any circumstances, under any management, in any climate, at any time during what we call the swarming season, rely upon absence of swarming in any strong healthy stock that has not already swarmed. With well bred bees we may expect that the incidence of swarming will not be much greater in most seasons than 10% – 15%, but in some years no method of management whatever will prevent swarming from being more prevalent than that, no matter what the strain of bees. On the other hand, in some seasons swarming will be almost absent, even if the bees are of a “swarmy” breed, and in spite of bad management.”

I’ve got to admit, if swarming in my colonies was down around the 10% – 15% mark then I’d be very satisfied, and would surely have plenty of honey to show for it. I re-queened many of my colonies last August with stock bought from Ged Marshall and Peter Little so I am hoping that these undoubtedly superior genes will help me out in the season to come. For the hobby beekeeper there is certainly merit in breeding from your best queens, for it can only improve your stock, but somebody with hundreds or thousands of potential breeders to choose from will always be ahead, so my strategy is to buy in good queens then breed from the best of them, and perhaps buy in some more every few years just to keep the quality up. This all assumes that you can find a source of good quality queens. I hope to be able to get hold of some of Jolanta’s queens in future to see how Murray McGregor’s bees do in my rainy corner of England.

Overwintering Bees (Murray McGregor)
Overwintering Bees (Murray McGregor)

Genetics and queen age aside, the other strategies used by commercial beekeepers to try to prevent swarming mainly involve providing enough space for the queen to lay eggs and for workers to store incoming nectar.

When I asked Mike Palmer about what he does he said this:

“…we put the supers on early to get the tree bloom and the dandelion bloom, and that acts like a reversing, so the bees can move up onto empty comb. If the queen feels she wants to move up and lay in the supers, so what? I don’t use excluders.

I think queen excluders select for the least prolific queens because prolific queens will swarm with an excluder unless you do something to that colony like split it or take brood away. So they move up and by the end of the dandelion you have honey at the top in the supers, then the brood cluster and then empty space in the bottom box, so now it’s time to reverse the brood boxes to put the empty space above the brood. At that time, if they’ve been working well, we can put another one or two supers on. Once the bees are making honey and they have space to store it, it seems to take care of the swarming impulse, and they just get on with making honey.”

Mike has his bees coming out of Winter on double brood boxes and he puts supers on early to catch the Spring blossom flows and dandelion, then reverses the brood boxes after that and adds more supers as needed.

How can you tell when inspecting a hive that swarm preparations are underway? Back to Manley:

“If you find your bees are building out foundation it is hardly necessary to trouble further, so far as possible queen cells are concerned. If the queen is spreading out onto new comb and covering it with eggs as fast as the workers build it out (laying out, we call it) there will rarely be queen cells. If the queen is very swollen and heavy with eggs, it is very unlikely that cells are present, at any rate cells with larvae in them, though there may be cells with eggs.

If foundation is not being drawn and the brood nest does not appear to be expanding, look carefully over most of the brood combs, for you are likely to find queen cells. The same if the queen is looking light and if she is slackening off in her laying.”

I am flying off to New Zealand tomorrow, although I don’t actually land in Christchurch until Wednesday morning. It is Summer there and the swarm season may well be over, but I’ll certainly be asking commercial beekeepers about what they do. Springtime here in the UK seems a long way off but it is wise to use this downtime to reflect on seasons past and plan for the one ahead. Dealing with swarming must surely be one of the prime considerations of beekeepers, wherever they are on this beautiful planet of ours.

6 thoughts on “The Eternal Question

  1. Michael WALKER

    I bought a queen from Ged Marshall in 2016 and requeened 6 out of my 8 hives with her daughters in Spring 2017. None of those swarmed. The original GM queen has not swarmed.

  2. Murray McGregor

    Swarm control is a whole book by itself…….so many factors, so many methods, and the best way can change between one week and the next. Been told many times to write that book but never will…lol. Nice photo btw………..wonder where you took that?

  3. […] want to at a certain point in the season, usually the month of June. I have written before about swarm prevention, although perhaps “dissuasion” is a more appropriate word. A big part of it is […]

  4. […] considering “swarm prevention” as described by George Demaree and many others since. I wrote about this before and concentrated on the importance of queen genetics and the age of the queen. This article is more […]

  5. […] and also time to raise queens. I love it, but it can get hectic. Theoretically, we can do things to limit the amount of swarming. I don’t believe in raising new queens from swarm cells because it is likely that you are […]

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