Swarming

The Idea

The broodnest is backfilled. They have drones and a queen cell. This hive is preparing to swarm.

If all goes well early summer is a time of swarming. As a colony attempts to propagate itself, a beekeeper has several options:

  • work with the bees and the season’s abundance to make beekeeping easier
  • just let the bees swarm
  • work harder to prevent swarming

The Details

The Swarm Process

Any organism that has enough vigor, resources and motivation reproduces. Bees are no exception.

The first sign of swarming is a shift toward raising drones. This is a good sign indicating a colony is vigorous and has enough resources to reproduce.

Later, after the first drones hatch, queen cups are built. Then the bees fill the broodnest with nectar or diluted honey.  A nectar filled broodnest:

  • restricts brood rearing
  • reduces colony activity and enhances the swarming impulse
  • it reduces the amount of young brood needing care after the swarm departs
  • allows the older queen to get into flying shape
  • provides a ready fuel source for the departing swarm

Two weeks later, the colony splits into two parts even if abundant space is available inside the hive:

  • the old mated queen and half the bees take off for a new home
  • a virgin queen hatches, mates and heads the remaining colony

Work with the Bees

Now, before the bees swarm, it’s time to work with the bees. Let the bee’s vigor and spring’s abundant resources make your beekeeping easier. It’s a great time, when queen cells are capped, for making splits or requeening hives:

  • to replace winter losses
  • to increase hive numbers
  • as a gift to beginning beekeepers

Splits

If any hive increase is needed, it’s a good time to make a split. You have the bees, cells, brood, the food and the mood. If hive dimensions and the design permits, set up a split behind a follower board, at the other end of the tbh. This is an easy way to control swarming and replace queens. It’s also provides a backup should a queen fail.

Do want or can’t use another split? They can make a fine gift to a beginning beekeeper or a beekeeping friend in need.

Requeening

A natural beekeeper requeening? Seems like an un-natural act. And it is. But is a necessary one if a beekeeper wants to keep his equipment full of bees.

All colonies usually perish within 3 to 5 years. Along the way, they will throw off a few swarms. Maybe supercede the queen a couple of times. But in the end, like all living things, the colony dies. Then it’s brood comb and cavity are scavenged. And in the process it’s prepared for new occupation. That’s natures cleansing way.

Without intervention, naturally managed colonies will follow the same path. I’ve found out about this the hard way. Basically:

  • my equipment was full of bees
  • I didn’t want any more hives so didn’t split
  • the natural queens had few problems
  • they all got old and their colonies failed at about the same time
  • I ended up with a few good hives and lots of empty equipment

It’s a much better plan to routinely track the queens and replace them before they fail. I’ll be requeening at the end of the second season.

The best process is to follow the bees. They want to swarm in the spring. So, let them help solve your queen problems. Split a swarming hive. And let them raise a new queen.

Want a more proactive process? Split your worst colonies each spring and requeen them with cells reared from your best colonies.

Let Them Swarm

Another option is to let the bees swarm. It’s a colony’s natural propensity. After the swarming process, the bees quickly focus on preparing for survival. A swarmed colony has a vigor and work ethic that makes swarm prevented hives look lazy.

I’ve let standard colonies swarm. And those hives didn’t experience a decrease in honey production or over wintering success. The only real risk a swarmed colony faces is the successful rearing of a mated queen.

Swarm Prevention

Most management practices that prevent swarming also diminish the colony in some aspect. Checker boarding, the most natural swarm preventative, isn’t possible on a horizontal tbh.

Close attention is needed now. Cells are pinched or cut out. Unlike standard equipment with its multiple comb margins, communication holes, etc., queen cells are easy to find on tbh comb. They are all located along a few comb margins and communication holes in the core area.

A week later, I return and cut cells again. In my location, that’s the end of swarming. I check one more time. Then I’m done with swarm management.

-bwguy