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.

Things to Do with a Queen Excluder – Harvesting Nurse Bees

There are several reasons why you might want to separate the queen or move brood or nurse bees from one hive to another:

  • To strengthen a weak hive
  • To weaken a hive to try to keep it from swarming
  • To make up nucleus hives – either for direct increase or as mating nucs
  • To make a cell builder for queen rearing
  • Making queenless packages of bulk bees

The thing is, when you move a frame covered with bees there is always the chance that the queen is hiding among them – unless you find her first  it’s really hard to be 100% sure.  But finding the queen when you want to is often very time consuming – when you are not looking for her she often comes out and poses for a picture, but when you really want to find her it seems she is having a shy day.

Fortunately you can use a queen excluder to accomplish most tasks without ever finding the queen – you can also use it to find the queen if you want to.  So…

To keep from having to find the queen when taking brood or nurse bees from a hive – while being  sure that you don’t accidentally move the queen in the process.

You need a queen  excluder.

This works because nurse bees are very attracted to open brood.

Remove all boxes except for the bottom hive body.

One or two quick shakes and a frame covered with bees will go from this…
…to this. Now you can easily make sure that the Queen is not on this frame.

Shake/brush all or almost all of the bees off of most of the frames of open brood one frame at a time and then look hard at them for a moment to make sure that the one bee still clinging to it is not the queen – then put those beeless brood frames in a spare empty box.

If at any point you happen to spot the queen you can stop shaking bees, and depending on what you want to do you might be able to just go ahead and do it.  But if you do you won’t get as high a percentage of nurse bees, and you will need to compensate by getting many more bees than you think you will need for your purpose, because all of the foragers will fly back home.   So if you are harvesting nurse bees then it will usually be best to proceed with the rest of this manipulation – stop shaking bees off of frames in that case but make sure the queen ends up below the excluder and most/all of the open brood is above it.

Now you know that the queen is not in the box of brood, because there are very few bees in there at all, and you made sure that none of the few bees that there are is the queen. This might take 15 minutes.

By the time you finish shaking all of the bees down there might be a lot of them outside of the hive – but don’t worry – even if one of them is the queen she will crawl back in through the entrance along with everyone else.

If your goal is to make a nucleus hive also put a frame or two of capped brood, and some stores  in the beeless box too – these are the frames that you want to use to start a new hive – or strengthen a weak hive.  But still put all – or almost all – open brood in there, even if you don’t want all of it in the hive you are going to make.  You will move the excess back later.

You can put some empty frames of foundation or empty comb in the queenless part of the main hive to replace the brood frames you have removed if you want to – but you don’t really need to because you are going to put them right back in a day or so at the most – suit your self on that. If you put in extracted honey comb your queen will probably lay it full of eggs though.

If your goal is to split the queen out into a smaller nuc then go ahead and arrange  as many of the nuc resources as possible – except not a lot of open brood – in the bottom box of the main hive.

Now you will have one box sitting on the bottom board with a few frames in it – very little if any open brood, and almost all of the bees.  Most importantly the queen will be somewhere in there.  Chances are there will be so many bees that they will be hanging all over the outside as well as crammed inside – but that’s ok it will all work out.

Go ahead and place your queen excluder on top of that box.  Use smoke or a brush or whatever you need to accomplish this without squishing a bunch of bees – one of them is your queen so try to be gentle.  Don’t worry about the queen being outside of the hive at this point – it’s possible, but unlikely – but even if she is she will climb back in through the front entrance along with all of the other refugees, and will end up where you want her anyway.

You will also now have at least one box with most of the open brood, and you might have other boxes with empty comb, honey, pollen etc.  But other than a few curious foragers or robbers there won’t be all that many bees in these boxes.  Stack all of them on top of the excluder with the box of brood on top.

Close up the hive.

Come back in an hour or sometime tomorrow whichever is most convenient.  Do Not leave it like this for more than a day.

When you come back that box of open brood will be full of mostly nurse bees, but the queen will still be below the excluder in the bottom box – so you can use any of the frames or bees above the excluder to make up a split, nucleus hive, or a cell builder, or to strengthen another hive without any fear of moving the queen. Also since most of these bees on the brood frames are nurse bees fewer of them will drift back to the old hive. And since they are nurse bees and not yet oriented to any hive you can just shake them off in front of a hive that you want to strengthen and they will climb right in to it and go to work.

If you want to split the queen out into her own nucleus hive all you have to do is remove the bottom box and place it on a new bottom board in a new location in the yard.   Most of the foragers will return to the original location, and the queenright hive might need to be fortified with a frame or two of brood and/or some shaken off nurse bees.

If you don’t need a whole lot of nurse bees you don’t have to move all of the open brood above the excluder. 2-3 frames will get you quite a few bees.

If you want nothing but nurse bees  (for setting up mating nucs for example.  Take the top box full of nurse bees and open brood to another location in the yard for awhile.  After a few minutes all of the foragers will fly back to the old hive location, and all of the bees left will be nurse bees who have not yet taken an orientation flight.

When you are finished with what you are doing take out the excluder and put everything back more or less like it was.


Removing all of the nurse bees from a hive – which you almost can do with this manipulation – and leaving a lot of open brood behind makes it hard for the babies to get fed. This will stress any hive and can cause the expression of latent European Foul Brood or other stress related diseases under certain situations. Just exercise some judgement.  Feeding the hive for a few days after removing bees will decrease the stress.

This is almost exactly how you can set up a certain kind of queen cell builder for queen rearing – and if you leave the hive in the configuration with the queen below the excluder and all of the open brood on top of the stack for very long there is an excellent chance that they will start queen cells on the open brood.  This is a possibility any time you separate the queen from brood using an excluder – even if the excluder is just a box or two of honey, which a laying queen often will not cross.  The reason is that the absence of some specific queen pheromone from the brood simulates a failing queen and triggers the construction of supersedure queen cells.

Don’t confine the queen in an empty box, a box of only foundation  or one that does not contain at least some resources – comb, food, at least a little bit of brood – if you do it is likely that the bees will just start queen cells on the brood above the excluder and abandon the queen.

If it is swarm season (and it probably is) when you do this, and the queenright part of the hive below the excluder is really populous with bees when you come back to it –  it could mean that they were already preparing to swarm when you started this manipulation – and they probably will proceed to swarm if left to it.   You might be able to head them off by doing a shook swarm or other manipulation – or you might not.  You never can tell with bees.

Swarmy Day in May

Wednesday afternoon I went down to the bee yard and found this:

This is usually called bearding - and it is NOT always a sign of an impending swarm. Often it just means that it's hot, and maybe a little bit crowded inside.

It’s a little early in the season for this degree of bearding, but it is a big strong hive that I hope makes lots of honey.  Anyway, I plan to look into it as soon as I can – in a day or two.

On Friday morning I arrived prepared to do whatever needs to be done to deal with it, but as soon as I got there I saw this:

Fortunately they didn’t go far…

This swarm is about 4 feet long and 10 feet up a tree.

I thought you might find this interesting, but don’t ask me how to keep them from swarming – I wish I knew. I did catch that one though.

So – Bee Keeping in May – Try to keep them from swarming. Also, consider doing a split or two.

Good luck with your bees.

BTW, in case you were wondering how you snag a swarm that is up in a tree like this one. I did it with a bucket-on-a-stick cobbled up in the heat of the moment…

swarm retrieval bucket
drywall mud bucket + paint roller extension handle + a scrap of wood = a handy tool for scraping a swarm from a high place.