Swarm Management for new Beekeepers

New Beekeepers who are successfully over wintering hives for the first time are likely to see their overwintered colonies build up strongly on the early spring nectar flows.

Unfortunately strong overwintered colonies have a natural tendency to reproduce by swarming.

A new honey bee colony is formed when the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees, a process called swarming. In the primeswarm, about 60% of the worker bees leave the original hive location with the old queen.
Swarming (honey bee) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As you probably know Swarming is something that we beekeepers want to prevent. A swarm can represent hundreds of dollars worth of bees flying away – along with the chances of a good honey crop. Also colonies which swarm often become queenless, and can collapse completely without beekeeper intervention – not always, but too often.

After a swarm issues it will usually hang out like this for a few hours while it decides where to go.  And BTW this is the swarm in the video. At $25-$30 per pound for package bees how much do you think this swarm is worth?

The most important thing a new beekeeper can do to manage swarming and your honey bee colonies is do weekly inspections!  No swarm prevention technique is 100% effective – most aren’t even close to that – but if you do your inspections (* and are prepared to take action when your inspections indicate that it is needed) you will have a much better chance of preventing swarms. And if your colonies do swarm at least you will be able to preventing queenlessness and colony collapse – if you understand what has happened and know what to do.

Most of the techniques which established beekeepers use to manage swarming involve supplying the hive with drawn comb “honey supers”  above the brood nest – not just a little – but enough to store most of the year’s honey crop in. Several boxes full of empty drawn comb for a mature hive.

Unfortunately new frames of undrawn foundation will not work to prevent swarming, and most new beekeepers have little if any extra drawn comb to give their first overwintered hives. So swarm management options for new beekeepers are much more limited.

So, if you are a second year beekeeper in this situation I am going to recommend that you plan to split your hives to prevent them from swarming. There are other things that can be done to manage swarming, but to avoid confusion I’m not going to talk about them at this time, if you are interested in other alternatives you can find them in the footnotes.

The reasons that I am recommending splitting instead of some other swarm management scheme for second year beekeepers are:

  1.  Splitting and making increase will build your skills as a beekeeper.
  2.  “Extra” hives give you the resources that you need to recover from the inevitable mishaps.
  3.  Bee hives die – like anything else. You need to have enough hives to still have a viable apiary even after normal losses – at least 2 ½.
  4.  I have observed that new beekeepers that make increase seem to be more likely to stick with it than those who don’t.
  5. Splitting is almost a “do it once and forget it” swarm management technique – most others are not.
  6.  More hives = More fun! Up to a point.
  7. More colonies will build more comb so that you won’t have this same problem again next year.

You might have read or heard established beekeepers say that you should only split a strong double deep hive – which is true if you want both splits to be production colonies right away. Splitting a strong double deep sized colony results in two hives which are still strong enough to make a honey crop if you have drawn comb to give them. If you can’t give them drawn comb it would still be possible – or likely – that both halves could still swarm.

Splitting for swarm prevention is different from splitting to increase honey production in that it requires the resulting hives be small/weak enough to keep them in establishment mode rather than reproductive/swarm mode – at least  for a while.

The resulting split hives will still build up and draw comb, and may even produce some excess honey – it is certainly more likely than if they swarm and fly away.

 What If you don’t Want More Hives?

If you don’t have at least 2 1/2 hives then you need to increase to at least that number.  Having one hive of bees is a lot like having one chicken – it might be fun to watch and play with, and it might even give you a little something to eat for breakfast sometimes, but it isn’t very sustainable.  If one thing goes wrong you will be out of business.

Splitting your first spring does Not require that you buy a lot of extra equipment.  By the time your 2 1/2 hives are fully developed you will need to have at least 9-13 medium boxes full of frames and foundation plus tops and bottoms for 3 hives.  The only extra things that you need to split during your second year are some extra tops and bottoms, and those can be as simple as flat pieces of plywood if you need to keep it really simple and economical.

Even if you don’t want more hives I still recommend splitting during your first spring with overwintered hives.  If at the end of the season you have more hives than you want to keep then you can combine them back together – and you will then have a lot of the comb that you need. But most new beekeepers really need to make increase. Bee hives die like any other organism, and the only way for you to maintain the number of hives that you actually want is to make increase every year to make up for the ones that die. Or you can buy bees every year.

Producing some extra hives during the spring and summer will allow you to have more options when it comes time to cull/combine under performing (or aggressive)  hives in the fall – you really can’t do that without extra hives.  “Taking your losses in the Fall” like this will help you to minimize fall expenses (feed, mite treatments, etc,) cut down on winter losses by eliminating weak colonies, and will allow you to improve your stocks.

A bit about Splitting

Broadly speaking splitting comes in 2 flavors –

  1. Queen Rite – When you furnish the split with a caged queen – which is all ready laying. This method is probably at least 90% successful and both hives start growing immediately.  Queenright splits don’t really have to be particularly strong when you make them.
  2. The other option is to allow the new hive to make a queen for itself. The success rate for making a queen is probably in the 60-75% range and it will be about a month before the new queen starts producing much new brood, and weeks longer before new adult bees emerge .  A split which is going to make a queen for itself needs to be quite strong and contain plenty of nurse bees – and lots of nutrition in the form of both pollen and nectar/honey.  Note: I am not trying to discourage you from splitting and making a new queen – I do it all the time – just laying out the facts.

Note the difference between strong and big:  When beekeepers say a hive is “strong” we mean that it has a dense population of bees – a small hive can be strong, and a big hive can be weak.

A strong hive of honey bees with a dense population.
This is an example of a very “strong” hive.  Your hives don’t need to be this strong for you to split them, but you get the idea. Photo by Lauri Miller

I don’t really want to go too far into the details of how to split hives at this time because it is outside of the scope of this article –  Other than to point out that if you want to make queen rite splits in April you will need to make advanced arrangements to get those queens.

When to Split?

When is a hive strong enough to split – This is going to be somewhat in the eye of the beholder, but if the hive setup is getting crowded with bees, there are about 6 frames of brood, OR the available comb is getting filled up with eggs, brood and stores it is probably strong enough to split.  If you notice backfilling of brood comb – it is time to split – swarming is probably next on the agenda.

honey bee brood nest backfilled with nectar
Under certain conditions nectar will be stored in brood cells as soon as the new bees emerge from it. In the spring this is usually a sign and cause of swarming/swarm prep. In a fall flow it is part of the normal way that a hive prepares for winter. This particular picture was taken in the fall.

Earliest possible split with a purchased Queen – You can make a queenright split as soon as you have a hive which is big enough to make two viable hives – and when you can get a queen to use. As mentioned queenright splits don’t have to be all that strong initially.  Usually by the time you can get a spring queen from the southeast region your healthy hives will be alright to split. Queens usually become commonly available around mid-late March or a month later for local queens. As with everything else agriculturally related it depends on the weather. Be aware though that the demand for queens gets very high during early spring and they can be hard to get when you want them. So order early if possible.

Earliest possible time to split and Make a Queen – When you see capped drone brood in your hives – and when your hives are strong enough to split.

When is the BEST time to split? The timing is much less critical if you are furnishing a queen, but if your new hives will have to make a queen then one of  the best times to start is about April 15 – 2 weeks before the main flow (typically) starts.  However the other conditions for splitting still apply no matter what the calendar says.  If during an inspection you see signs of swarming developing in your hives – congestion, backfilling, cell building – then go ahead no matter what the date is.  April 15 may be too late to head off swarming – so be prepared with both equipment and a plan.

The reasons that mid April is a good time to split and let them make a queen:

  1. By the time your queen will be ready to mate around May 1st the weather is usually settled and mild.
  2. The temperatures are usually fairly moderate by April 15th so the hives are not under stress from either heat or cold.
  3. Plenty of natural food is available – good queens need to be well fed as larva, and there is no substitute for abundant natural forage.
  4. Plenty of drones for new queens to mate with.
  5. Good nectar flows result in higher success rates.
  6. It is the normal time that bees would be producing queens if it was up to them.

When is the last chance to split to prevent swarming?

When you find queen cells during an inspection. In our area it is not all that unusual for strong hives to swarm in March if the weather is mild but the main swarm season is in April – May.  If you don’t do your inspections they may swarm and you will never even know.

However Once a hive has “decided to swarm” it can be much more difficult to prevent it from happening. So the earlier you plan to split the better your chances of preventing a swarm. Of course you have to balance that with your judgment of when the hive is strong enough to split. If you aren’t inspecting your hives then you won’t know if they are getting in shape to swarm or not – so you really do need to do inspections during swarm season.

Bearding during swarm season – when it isn’t hot – can be a sign that a swarm is eminent. This is like seeing a car in a driveway with the trunk open and suitcases sitting next to it.

What to look for to gauge swarm prep

  • Production of drone brood signals the beginning of the reproduction season.  Drones are expensive in hive resources, and reproduction is their only purpose. Drone brood is not a sign that a hive is about to swarm however.
  • You may notice at some point that there is suddenly a Lot of capped brood. A week later you will notice a surge in population as that brood emerges. Watch closely at this time for nectar being stored in recently emerged brood comb. Swarm prep is probably about to begin – this is a good sign that it is time to split.
  • High population – congestion in the brood area. Even if you add a box of foundation the bees may refuse to use it – leaving the populated part of the hive crowded.  Moving a frame or two of brood up into the super of foundation will often help lure the bees into using the space – but not always.
  • Lots of adult drones
  • Backfilling – nectar being stored in the brood area – this is a sign that the hive is beginning – or about to begin – swarm prep.
  • Queen cells – If you find cells you need to take action immediately – that same day if at all possible. Queen cells develop in only 10-12 days.  It is difficult to tell if a capped queen cell is ready to emerge immediately or in a week. But when the swarm cells do emerge the hive will swarm.
  • Bearding – if there are a lot of bees hanging on the outside of the hive during swarm season (and it isn’t hot) the hive may be only hours or a few days from issuing a swarm.
  • If you know that you are planning to split then in my opinion you should go ahead and do it around April 15 even if you haven’t seen any signs of swarm prep – as long as the hive is strong enough.

Something Worth mentioning – Don’t use a queen excluder to keep the queen out of honey supers until you have ample drawn comb to fully outfit the hive – maybe not even then.  In other words don’t put a box of bare foundation above a queen excluder unless you are sure you know what you are doing – the bees won’t usually go through it to  get to bare foundation – and it can contribute to swarming.  I’m not saying don’t ever use a queen excluder, just don’t use it like that.

You Can Split AND Make a Honey crop

If one really had their heart set on making some honey their second spring – if the weather co-operates, and you have more than one strong overwintered hive – with a bit of luck – you could split all of your hives and still make some honey. For example:

  1. You have at least 2 strong hives.
  2. Make queenright splits as early as you can get queens – say early April.
  3. Keep all of the hives side by side on one long hive stand.
  4. April weather can be unsettled and prevent your bees from foraging so supply supplemental feeding to keep them growing as fast as possible.
  5. Push all of the hives together on the hive stand until they are almost touching.
  6. Around the last week of April choose one hive to be your honey producer.
  7. Take a frame of capped brood and clinging bees from each of the other nucs and give it to the honey hive. More than one if they can afford it. Don’t accidentally move a queen!
  8. On May 1st (or the beginning of the main nectar flow – when locust or poplar blooms for most of us) Move all but the designated honey hive to a new stand location – they can stay in the same yard, but you want to move them at least 15-20 feet.  Slide the honey hive to the middle of the old stand. This will cause almost all of the foragers from all of the hives to orient on the honey hive – making it very strong.
  9. Stop feeding the honey hive.
  10. Because the nectar flow is on the other hives will be fine – they will start orienting new foragers right away – but keep feeding them for at least a few days.
  11. Consolidate most of the frames from the other hives which are either empty comb, partially filled, or contain mostly open nectar – if there are any – into a honey super and give it to the honey hive.
  12. Once the honey hive starts storing nectar in the honey super give it another super of foundation.
  13. Keep the honey hive from swarming by whatever means you choose. Plan to work hard to stay on top of it until the nectar flow is over around the middle of June.  It might be a challenge to prevent this hive from swarming, but even if it does you could still get some honey, and anyway you still have 3 more hives chugging along.
  14. If all goes well and it is a good year you should make a decent amount of honey off of the one strong hive because one strong colony will far out produce the combined yield of 4 smallish ones.
  15. In the meantime the other 3 hives should build up nicely on the main flow, and swarming shouldn’t be hard to prevent – but still do your inspections and be ready to take action if you see signs of swarming in them.
  16. After you harvest honey you will probably want to redistribute resources to equalize all hives as much as possible.

So, the point is that you need to decide soon what you plan to do so that you can arrange to have what you need ready when the time comes for action. Go ahead and arrange for those queens and woodenware and study up on splitting – Spring will be here before you know it.

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Footnotes

Be prepared – when you discover that a hive is about to swarm it is too late to order or assemble wooden ware to make splits – or to catch a swarm that has already issued. Beekeepers need to have supers, nucs or hive setups – or at the very least cardboard or plasticell nucs – along with frames assembled with foundation ready to use by March. Ready means ready to use – not ready to assemble.

Other ways to prevent swarming that don’t require extra drawn comb

Opening the Brood nest

  • Open the brood nest by inserting a foundationless frame between two full frames of brood – depending on the strength of the hive you may insert multiple foundationless frames in this fashion – each flanked by two full frames of brood.
  •  Judgement must be exercised not to over do this manipulation- there need to be enough bees to both cover the brood, and to fill the spaces you create by opening the brood nest.  Overdoing it can result in brood being abandoned and  chilled.
  • If done correctly the bees will build nice straight comb in just a few days – which is almost certain to be filled with eggs as soon as it is built.
  • You Must use foundationless frames – foundation will not work.  This may result in drone brood in many hives – which may or may not be a bad thing depending upon how you look at it. In any event drone comb can be used in honey supers.
  • Opening the brood nest will probably need to be repeated several times during the swarm season.

Opening the Sides of the brood nest

  • Several weeks before swarm season, move each outside frame up directly above the Brood nest.
  • Insert a new Foundationless frame with a starter strip on each outside edge of the Brood nest – a frame with foundation will not work!
  • Check them in 2-3 weeks and repeat if frames are drawn.
  • This is a variation of opening the brood nest and works by the same  mechanisms, but opening the sides eliminates some of the risk of setting back the hive and chilling brood that can happen with excessive opening of the brood nest.

Demaree method

In the Demaree method of swarm control frames of  brood are moved to the top of the hive above a queen excluder while making sure that the queen remains below.  Once the brood in the top of the hive has hatched the process can be repeated.  Sometimes (often) queen cells will be built in the top box – which can be destroyed or used to establish a new hive.  When done correctly such a hive should not swarm, and will produce a honey crop AND draw out new comb.  There are many variations of the Demarree method.  Supposedly it fools the hive into thinking it has already swarmed.

Queen cell removal

  • You can prevent a hive from swarming by removing every single queen cell – every 7-10 days during the swarm season.
  • In order to make it work you have to inspect every single frame which could have a queen cell every 7-10 days.
  • If you miss a single cell they will swarm, if you skip an inspection they are almost sure to swarm.
  • This method requires dedication, thoroughness, and a lot of work.
  • Did I mention that you can never miss a single cell?

Removing the queen – this is basically the same thing as splitting the hive. If you remove the queen from a hive which is already preparing to swarm it is likely to swarm anyway – so you need to check for and remove excessive swarm cells at the same time that you remove the queen for this to work.

Internet resources
Simple Queen Introduction
How to tell if a hive has swarmed and what to do if it has 

To Split or not to Split – how to decide

  • No matter what – even if you don’t really plan to split – prepare yourself with wooden ware for splitting and supering – in advance – No later than by March 15 in our area.
  • Do inspections faithfully throughout the season to stay on top of hive conditions and gain experience.
  • Do you want/need new hives?
  • If you want/need more hives then split strong hives on or before April 15 or as soon as you see a queen cell or other signs of eminent swarming.
  • If you discover that either you can’t or Don’t keep up with weekly inspections then you need to accept this flaw in your personality and split no later than April 15 to prevent swarming – even if you don’t really want more hives. Nothing else will even come close to preventing swarming if you can’t do regular inspections – splitting can. You can combine hives later to get back down to your desired hive count.
  • If no more colonies are desired then try one of the other options.
  • If you discover queen cells split.
  • If fall arrives and you have more colonies than you want combine.

Contributors
I posted a thread starter on beesource forums on the subject of swarm management for beginners to get input from other beekeepers and I would like to thank the following people for their participating in this discussion and their contributions to this subject:

 

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