March – Ready or Not – Swarm Season begins…

Caution – the videographer utters the s%$t word a couple of times in this video taken in Illinois.

What a swarm! But as you all know, as much as bee keepers might like to catch swarms we don’t want them to issue from our hives. If you plan to do anything to try to prevent swarms from your hives it might be time to take action – if not now, then soon. The mild weather this winter may very well have things ahead of our normal schedule.

Swarming is when the old queen in a strong colony leaves with a big chunk (a really big chunk in the video) of the foragers to establish a new colony – and the existing colony raises a new queen.  When the swarm issues it usually regroups in a nearby tree or bush – or sometimes on the ground or the side of a municipal building – for a while as scouts look for a suitable cavity to become the new home.  Once they agree by means of honeybee democracy on the new address they go to it and set up housekeeping.  As you saw in the video there’s a window of opportunity (usually just a few hours at most) for a beekeeper to put them into a box and convince them that it’s a mansion fit for a queen bee.  If they stay long enough to build comb and produce brood then they are home for good.  Sometimes they don’t, but things like lemongrass oil (or other swarm lure) old comb, or live brood comb from another colony can help to convince them to stay.  Swarms usually produce lots of new comb very quickly.

What can you do to prevent swarms? That’s a good question since swarming is how a colony of bees reproduces itself – attempting to prevent swarming is interfering with ingrained nature, and it is never a sure thing. However we gotta try.

Removing Swarm cells – is only effective if you get every single one of the them, and even then swarms often issue as soon as queen cells are capped – about 8 days after the egg is layed.  Unless you religiously check every few days, and never miss a cell your hive will swarm.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not that good at spotting cells, and checking every single frame of every single hive in my growing apiary at least once a week…  it’s not happening. BTW, if you DO remove queen cells make absolutely sure that you still have a laying queen first The queen may have already left!

Reversing hive bodies – this is probably the most customary method of swarm prevention. Basically all you do is take the box of empty comb from the bottom of the stack and move it above the box that contains the brood nest – don’t do this if there is still brood in the bottom box or you might create a situation where the brood nest is split between the bottom of the box that is now on the bottom and more brood at the top of the box which is now on top – and empty comb in between. If the weather gets cold enough the cluster may abandon one clump of brood and let the other one freeze.

Checker Boarding – As you might remember Mike Haney did a presentation on this method last fall.  Walt Wright – the inventor of Checkerboarding claims that if you do it correctly this method is almost 100% effective – however it requires a good bit of honey and empty drawn comb.  But, if you have the resources you can CB early (Mr. Wright says that he has already done it on some hives in Elkton TN) and it doesn’t involve any manipulations of the brood nest at all.  The purpose of checkerboarding is to get the bees storing nectar above the brood nest instead of in it.

How to checkerboard – to do it correctly you need two boxes of honey and one box of empty drawn comb.  Above the brood box alternate frames of empty comb and honey in two boxes so that the honey in the top box is above empty comb in the bottom box – then on the very top put a full box of honey.    You can not do this with foundation – you must have empty drawn comb, however Mr. wright says that although he hasn’t ever tried it there is no reason that he knows of why it wouldn’t work if you substitute comb filled with heavy syrup for honey.

Adding supers / Giving them more space to store nectar – Some bee keepers just put supers of empty comb on when dandelions start to bloom.  Unfortunately, the word on the street is that doesn’t work very well if you don’t have drawn comb – which second year bee keepers often don’t.  They will ignore foundation and back fill the brood nest and swarm despite all that empty space.

festooning bees
Festooning bees - chains formed by bees when they are preparing to build comb.

Opening the Brood Nest – this is a method endorsed by Michael Bush and which does not require drawn comb – so even Second years can do it.   Once the bees start producing wax you will see a small amt of white wax on top of the frames.  Open the hive down to the brood area.  If the population is strong open a frame sized space in the middle of the brood nest by removing a non-brood frame on the outside.  If the bees start to festoon in the space within a few minutes then put a foundationless frame (a regular empty frame without any comb or foundation but with a comb guide such as Popsicle sticks in the top slot) into the space.  Keep opening spaces, checking for festooning, and inserting foundationless frames (each foundationless frame should have brood frames on both sides of it) until they run out of bees to quickly fill the open spaces.  If you have to remove brood frames to do this then put them together above the middle of the new brood nest and fill the spaces to the sides with comb if you have it or foundation (or foundationless frames) if you don’t.  When you inspect a week later most or all of the empty space will probably be filled with new brood comb.  To be effective you have to continue to open the brood nest in this way throughout the swarm season.  Michael Bush said that this should probably be done about 3 weeks before the hive would have swarmed.  That’s the trick though.  Last year swarming started strongly in our area during the first week of April, but may well be sooner this year.

Splitting – Once drones are present (which they already are in our area)  strong hives can be split to help prevent swarming.  Splitting has a good chance of preventing a hive from swarming even if the hive has already begun making swarm cells – as long as it hasn’t actually swarmed yet – but sooner is better than later.  The most preferable way to make a swarm prevention split is to find the queen and remove her along with the frame she is on to a nucleus hive in a new location in the apiary.  Along with the queen get at least another frame or two of brood (and the bees clinging to it) and a frame or two of stores to fill the nucleus hive.  Then shake the bees off of another frame or two into the nuc.   All of the foragers from the nuc will return to the old hive, but in a few days some of the remaining bees will start foraging, and the nuc will quickly start to grow.  In the mean time the old hive will raise a new queen which will start laying in about a month.  If you want to insure that the old hive is successful in producing a queen then swap a frame of brood from the queenright nuc once a week into the old hive – shake most of the bees off first, and make SURE you don’t accidentally move the queen, and also make sure that you don’t transfer a queen cell into the queenright nuc.  If you do this it is virtually certain that you will end up with two queen right colonies in a few weeks.

If you simply can’t find the queen splitting a strong hive  may still head off swarming.  Just follow the directions above, and when you inspect a week later you can determine which hive has the queen by the presence of young open brood.

I’m sure there are others, but these are the ones I know.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the beginner’s short course yesterday.  I don’t know how many people were there, but it far exceeded my expectations.  We did our best, and I hope that everyone found it helpful.

If you want to participate in the TBA hive grant drawing at the next meeting you must be a first time bee keeper, and you must sign up for 2 years with the TBA before Thursday.  The only way to do it is to go to the TBA website,  print out the form, and mail it in with a check – by Tuesday so that you will be in their system.  You will also have to register (for free) your apiary location with the State using this online  PDF form.  Don’t worry, you won’t be inspected or anything unless you request it, or there is a disease outbreak.  It’s a good thing, and it’s the law.

Also – as previously mentioned – we must have full and final payment for your bee orders at the next meeting which will be this week on Thursday March 1st at the usual location 6:00 PM – hopefully in the big room this time.

Don’t let your bees starve! They have young mouths to feed, and weather can keep them from foraging.


Cut Out Frame

If you ever have to do a cut out – or repair collapsed comb in a top bar or foundationless setup this works great.

Don’t forget the Beginning Bee Keeping Short Course this coming Saturday at 9:00 AM. If you want to get in on the hive grant drawing it (or another like it) is required.

Also, the March meeting will be on Thursday March 1st – Next week! If you’re getting bees you Must have them paid for in full by the meeting. If you can’t make it to the meeting then you need to send a check or make some other arrangement. Seriously, we have to pay for our order in full right after the meeting.

Cookeville Bee Keepers
453 E. Whitehall rd.
Cookeville, TN