How to Tell if a Hive has Already Swarmed

Honey bee colony populations can increase so rapidly just before swarming that it may not be apparent that a hive has swarmed just by population or entrance activity – although usually both are reduced somewhat. Upon inspection of such a hive you will usually find queen cells along the bottoms of combs (swarm cells) – probably opened where the queen(s) have emerged. There will not usually be a lot of brood in the hive right at the time of swarming because the queen typically runs out – or nearly out – of room to lay eggs in during the run up to swarming. You may find several recently emerged brood cells – which may be filled with nectar. But the main sign of a hive which has recently swarmed are opened swarm cells.

So, what if anything do you do? If there are a lot of unopened swarm cells scattered through the hive you should remove most of them from the hive one way or another. A hive which contains many widely scattered swarm cells is likely to issue multiple virgin swarms which can seriously deplete the hive population.

You can destroy most of them leaving only a few on one or two adjacent frames – so that the first virgin to emerge will kill the remaining ones.

Or you can make up mating nucs with some of them by putting a frame with a queen cell and a frame of stores along with all of the clinging bees into a nucleus hive – good insurance in case another hive becomes queenless. Shake in enough extra bees to cover the frames, and of course fill the box up with frames of comb or foundation.

Either way, don’t leave a big strong hive full of unopened swarm cells.

Once you have taken care of that – if it was called for – be sure to inspect the hive every week to monitor it’s condition and ensure that it is not going to become or remain queenless.  If at any time you don’t see eggs or very young larva in the hive then give it a frame of young open brood and eggs from another hive.  If on your next inspection there are queen cells on that frame then the hive is queenless.  You can either let them make a queen from the cells they have started or you can go ahead and give them a queen if you have one.

If you let them make a queen then you need to continue to monitor the hive to make sure that it doesn’t start to get weak – if it does you need to reduce it’s volume by removing frames or giving frames of stores to other hives.  If it does not have a laying queen by a month after you discover it is queenless the hive will be in danger of being over run by hive beetles, wax moths, robber bees – and ultimately collapsing.  But that won’t happen if you do your inspections and take timely action to remedy queenlessness.

Really Simple Queen Introduction

Queen introduction is fraught with anxiety – A good queen honey bee is pretty expensive as bugs go and of course you don’t want to take any chances with it. I think I’ve tried most of the common tips – push in cages, making the hive queenless for some period of time, etc. But here is the thing – what really works best for me is a standard candy release. Whether you are making a split, fixing a queenless hive, replacing an old queen or drone layer, installing a package, or dealing with a laying worker hive – this simple method works the same for all. It’s almost fool proof if you follow the simple rules.

Honey bee queen cages.
When you buy a queen honey bee she will usually come in a cage like one of these. All of them have some kind of “candy release” mechanism where the bees free the queen by eating through a candy plug. The plastic JZBZs cage on the right should have candy in the tube. The small wooden cage should come with a separate plastic candy tube that you replace the stopper with. The larger wooden cage will be filled with candy in the top round cavity. The yellow plastic cage has a similar cavity in it which should be filled with candy. All of them have a plug of some kind that you remove to expose the candy to the hive bees.  If you receive a caged queen that is missing the candy you can either make some “queen candy” by mixing a drop of corn syrup with powdered sugar to a dough like consistency – or you can use marshmallows.  However soft marshmallows may allow the queen to be introduced too quickly so consider leaving the plug in place for 2-3 days (inside of the new hive) before removing it to initiate the release.  The hive will take care of the queen through the mesh, and her presence will prevent them from starting cells – at least for a few days.

#1 – You need to be 100% sure that the hive is queenless, and the only way to really do that is to remove the old queen yourself when you introduce the new one. If you only THINK the hive is queenless you are likely to waste that $30 bug. If you are adding a queen to a hive that seems to have gone queenless then put a frame of open brood in it when you order your queen – if there are not queen cells on it when your queen arrives in a few days then you have a queen somewhere, and you will need to do something else with your store bought queen – such as use her to start a small nuc. Probably the most common cause of failure is that the hive isn’t really queenless.

#2 – Don’t make holes in the candy or do anything else to speed up the process – The candy release is a tried and true way to delay release just long enough to get good acceptance. If the queen has been banked, caged or spent a long time in shipping – or if the candy is really soft – you can delay the release a little longer by putting a layer of masking tape over the candy hole.

#3 – Hang the cage between two frames of brood if at all possible even if you have to steal the brood (along with clinging nurse bees) from another hive – brood attracts nurse bees which will do the best job of caring for your new queen. Orient the cage so that in case the candy melts it won’t run down on your queen and kill her, and so that dead attendants won’t clog the entrance – in other words with the candy tube to the side. Make sure that nurse bees outside of the queen cage can get access to feed the queen through the mesh.  You might want to remove a frame from the hive box to make room for the queen cage.  I usually just stick the cage into the comb, but you might find it helpful to have some scraps of wire handy to secure the cage where you want it.

#4 – Once you have installed the caged queen leave the hive alone for at least a week – and when you do inspect that first time don’t go nuts looking for the queen, just look for eggs, remove the empty cage and show yourself out. If the queen or hive has been stressed during the process leave them alone for even longer before inspecting. You want the queen to be laying at nearly full speed before you interrupt things.

#5 – Don’t make the hive queenless until you have your new queen in hand and are ready to introduce her – the hive will know almost immediately that they are queenless. If they are hostile to the new caged queen it is probably because they are not really queenless. Also if you make the hive queenless in advance they will often start queen cells which can gum up the process. A queenless hive which contains brood of the appropriate age will often start cells in less than 24 hours – almost immediately in some cases. If you didn’t remove the old queen right before introducing the new one (or if you have any reason to suspect the presence of cells) – inspect for and remove queen cells at the time of introduction.

#6 – You will have the best results in a strong, healthy, happy hive.

#7 – If you are replacing a healthy queen you should seriously consider moving her along with a frame of brood (and clinging bees of course) and a frame of stores to a nucleus hive until you are 100% sure that you have been successful. Whenever you do have queens that you are ready to dispatch you might want to pickle them in a $.99 bottle of plain vodka – it makes a great swarm lure or conversation starting cocktail.

The quickest way to get a new queen laying is the way that doesn’t get her killed – haste makes waste. Over time I finally came to this rather obvious realization, and started following these rules myself with nearly 100% subsequent success. Some caveats – If you are changing races of bees such as by trying to introduce a Russian queen into a hive of Italians or Carnis (or vice-versa) then seek advice from someone who has experience with that process. You can however cross queen Italians and Carnis without problems using the simple method outlined here.

If your new queen has been banked for a long time or has been highly stressed by shipping then you might want to let the hive get used to her for a few days before uncapping the candy. A truly queenless hive will take care of a single caged queen for a long time without any problems.