Category Archives: Swarm control

Natural vs. artificial swarms

I’ve now covered four of the most frequently used swarm control strategies. These are:

  • Pagden’s artificial swarm – the horizontal splitting of the colony
  • The vertical split – an equipment-frugal variant of the above involving a vertical separation of the colony
  • The nucleus method – in which the queen is removed with sufficient workers to make up a small (nuc) colony, leaving the original colony to rear another queen
  • The Demaree method – which, at its simplest, relocates the queen from the brood and associated nurse bees, but does not physically split the colony

If conducted correctly all should prevent loss of a swarm. However, the individual methods – even the first three which involve the physical separation of the bees in the hive – are not the same.

In addition, these swarm control methods do not recapitulate the separation of bees that occurs when a hive naturally swarms.

The purpose of this post is to contrast the original and new colony composition of the split-based methods of swarm control (i.e. Pagden and vertical) with natural swarms.

Temporal polyethism

I introduced this term when discussing the honey bee colony as a superorganism. It means that adult worker bees have different roles depending upon their age. For the first two and a bit weeks they have duties inside the hive such as cell cleaning, brood rearing and wax production.

They then transition through a period of being guard bees before becoming foragers, flying from the hive and collecting water, nectar and pollen.

For convenience I’ll refer to these two groups of bees as young, nurse or hive bees and flying bees.

Vertical and horizontal splits

The classic Pagden artificial swarm and the vertical split are fundamentally the same process.

If unsealed queen cells are found during a colony inspection the queen, with a frame of emerging brood, is moved to a new box. This box is placed on the site of the original hive.

The remaining bees and brood are moved, either to one side in the case of the Pagden or on top of the queen-containing box (separated by a split board) in a vertical split.

Split board ...

Split board …

Critically, the new box with the brood and bees is provided with a new hive entrance, located off to one side or on the opposite side of the original hive 1.

Flying home

Over the following day or two the flying bees leave the relocated brood box with the new entrance and return to the queen-containing brood box in the original location.

As a consequence of their excellent homing navigational skill, the hive manipulation results in the separation of the bees into two populations:

  1. The flying bees i.e. those over ~3 weeks of age that had orientated to the original hive location, which are now located with the queen.
  2. The nurse bees i.e. those less than 3 weeks old, which remain in the relocated brood box, together with the brood in all stages (eggs, larvae and pupae).
Artificial swarm separation of the colony

Artificial swarm separation of the colony

How does the artificial swarm compare with the age distribution of bees in a real swarm?

Real swarms

I’ve previously discussed prime swarms and casts. The former contain a mated queen. In contrast, casts are produced from very strong colonies after the prime swarm has left. Casts are headed by a virgin queen. These are sometimes called after swarms and are usually smaller than prime swarms.

What about the workers in the swarm? What might be expected?

Perhaps they’re primarily the older flying bees? After all, these are the bees that have finished their hive duties and are now routinely foraging outside the hive. It’s the natural place for them.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

Alternatively, remember that swarms have no ‘homing’ instinct for a day or two after emerging. They can be readily moved and you can safely ignore the less than three feet or more than three miles rule. Perhaps this means that they’re primarily young bees that have yet to go on their orientation flights?

Real experiments and contradictory results

Enough speculation … how do you determine this experimentally?

There have been numerous studies of the age distribution of bees in natural swarms. However, the data tends to be rather contradictory though the methods used are often broadly similar.

How do you determine the age composition of workers in a swarm?

Essentially you ‘spike’ the colony with a set number of marked bees of a known age over about 8 weeks. This is easy to do, but tedious.

Workers are allowed to emerge in an incubator. On the day of emergence (0 days old) they are marked with a colour that distinguishes them from older or younger bees. Every three days 100 identically marked i.e. same age, bees are added to the study hive(s). Over the period May to July this will accumulate red, then yellow, then blue, then mauve, then cyan, then pink etc. cohorts of workers, each representing a known age class.

It must be a nightmare spotting the queen in these hives 😉

The colony is allowed to swarm, the swarm collected and the number of bees of the different age cohorts in the swarm counted.

I missed a step out there. Have you ever tried counting the bees in a swarm? It’s much easier if they don’t move.

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

Perhaps it’s best that I missed that step out 🙁

What you end up with is a count of the total number of bees in the swarm and the numbers of bees of each 3 day cohort over the last several weeks. You can therefore determine the age distribution of the workers in the swarm.

Is it as simple as that?

I’ve actually oversimplified things a bit. There’s a possibility that different age cohorts of bees die within the hive at different rates, perhaps depending upon forage availability or weather or something else.

Think about it. Assume there was a dearth of nectar in late May and the blue and red labelled cohorts added during that period were underfed and died prematurely.

If there were very low numbers of blue and red bees in the swarm you might assume that these ages were ‘left behind’ by the swarm … when actually they weren’t able to swarm at all.

The real question is therefore whether the age distribution of bees in the swarm is similar to that in the parental hive.

OK, OK … is it?

No.

Swarms do contain bees of all ages.

However there are significantly more young bees and many fewer old bees than would be expected from the age distribution of workers in the parental colony.

Age distribution of bees in swarms

Age distribution of bees in swarms

The o and e in the graph above represents the position of the observed and expected median age class for the expected distributions. So, in swarm C the observed median age is ~10 days old, whereas the originating hive median age was ~19 days.

The graph above comes from a 1998 study by David Gilley 2 and supports earlier work 3 by Colin Butler 4 which is often cited as one of the definitive studies on the ages of bees in a swarm.

Additional considerations

Is it surprising that young bees predominate in natural swarms?

Swarms usually emerge from the hive late morning or early afternoon on warm, sunny days. In fact, at exactly the time most older bees aren’t in the hive anyway because they’re out and about foraging.

Remember also that swarming is a precarious activity for the colony. Most swarms do not survive 5. Natural selection will have resulted in swarm populations that maximise their chance of survival.

Once bees start foraging their life expectancy is pretty short. It has been estimated that they experience about 10% mortality per day. If only old bees left in the swarm with the queen the newly established colony would very rapidly dwindle in size, perhaps before significant numbers of new brood emerged (which takes 21 days from the first egg being laid). This would likely limit the chances of survival of the new colony.

What has this got to do with artificial swarms?

As beekeepers (or at least as responsible beekeepers) we spend May and June rushing about like headless chickens trying to control swarming in our bees.

Many of us achieve this using a variety of methods which are generically referred to as artificial swarms. I suspect that many beekeepers think that the artificiality is because of our interventions.

Where have all my young girls gone?

Where have all my young girls gone?

It is … but it’s worth remembering that the artificial swarms we generate are very different in composition to natural swarms. Our artificial swarms predominantly leave the older bees associating with the queen, with the young bees remaining with the brood.

These old bees have to draw new comb and rear the new brood. These are activities they last did weeks ago (a long time in the life of a bee).

Final thoughts

There are artificial swarm control methods that were developed to better replicate the age distribution of bees in a natural swarm. One example of these is use of a Taranov board. I’ll cover this in a future post.

It’s also worth noting that the bees of different ages in a natural swarm have different roles even before they occupy a new location. The older bees form a mantle around the bivouacked swarm that protects it from inclement weather (amongst other things) and the oldest bees are the scouts responsible for finding a new nest site.

Again, both topics for another post … I’ve got bait hives to set out 🙂


 

Demaree swarm control

I’ve covered three swarm control methods in previous posts. These are the classic Pagden artificial swarm, the vertical split that is directly comparable but requires less equipment and more lifting, and the nucleus method.

As described on this site, if successful, all achieve the same two things:

  • They prevent a swarm being lost. Don’t underestimate how important this is in terms of not irritating your neighbours, in helping your honey production and in giving you a quiet sense of satisfaction 🙂
  • They result in the generation of a second colony headed by a newly mated queen.

This doubling in colony number, or – more generally – the managed reproduction of colony numbers, is termed making increase.

Managed reproduction

Making increase is of fundamental importance in beekeeping.

Without deliberately splitting colonies, unless you buy in nucs every year (kerrching!), collect swarms or steal hives 1 your colony numbers would never increase.

Making increase is therefore critical if you want more colonies. However, it’s just as important (and a darn sight less expensive than buying nucs) if you want to make up any overwintering colony losses, thereby keeping the same number of colonies overall 2.

Not making increase

Once you’ve got bees, with good management, you can always have bees. However, at some point you reach that sweet spot where you have enough bees and don’t want more colonies.

The Goldilocks Principle is the concept of having just the right amount. Not so few colonies that a really harsh winter causes problems, and not so many that you cannot enjoy your beekeeping at the peak of the season.

When you reach that point you no longer need to make increase, you just want to keep the same number of colonies.

Which means that the swarm control methods that essentially reproduce the colony may not be ideal.

Of course, you can unite colonies having removed the unwanted queen from one of them, but this is additional work. Not a huge amount of work admittedly, but work nevertheless 3.

This is where the Demaree method of swarm control comes in useful. As practised, Demaree swarm control prevents the loss of the swarm without increasing colony numbers.

It has the additional significant advantages of keeping the entire foraging force of the colony together (even better for honey production than not losing a swarm) and needing no specialised equipment.

Demaree swarm control – in principle

George Demaree

George Demaree

The principle of the method is very straightforward.

When queen cells are found during an inspection you conduct a form of a vertical split, separating the original queen and flying bees from the nurse bees and sealed brood. You place the latter above a queen excluder.

A few days later you return and remove any new queen cells from the top box, so preventing swarming. Finally you leave all the brood to emerge from the top box.

Demaree swarm control – in practice

A cartoon diagram of the process is shown below. The only additional equipment required is a brood box with 11 frames of drawn comb or foundation and a queen excluder.

That’s it.

Demaree swarm control

Demaree swarm control

Here’s a bit more detail:

  1. If you find queen cells during an inspection gently remove the brood box and place it on an upturned roof off to one side 4.
  2. Place the new brood box on the original floor. Add 9 frames of drawn comb or foundation, leaving a gap in the middle of the box.
  3. Using minimal smoke, go through the original box and find the queen.
  4. Place the frame with the queen in the middle of the new brood box on the original floor. This frame must contain no queen cells.
  5. Push the frames in the new brood box together and add in the eleventh frame.
  6. Add a queen excluder.
  7. Add the supers above the queen excluder. If there were no supers on the original hive then it’s worth adding a couple of supers now. It will provide better separation of the new and old brood boxes and it will encourage the bees to store nectar in supers rather than the top brood box.
  8. Add a second queen excluder.
  9. Place the original brood box on top of the queen excluder.
  10. Go through the upper brood box and remove every queen cell. Shake the bees off the frames to do this. Push the frames together and add one additional frame. Add the crownboard and roof.

Leave the colony for one week. At the next inspection you should only need to check the top brood box (i.e. the original one).

  1. Carefully inspect every frame and remove every queen cell. Again, you should shake the bees off the frames to do this. If you miss any queen cells there’s a good chance the colony will swarm.
  2. Close up the hive and leave the brood in the top box to emerge.
  3. About 25 days after conducting the first inspection (1 above, where you first found QC’s) you can remove the upper brood box from which all brood will have now emerged.

Explanatory notes

If you have a reasonable understanding of the development cycle of queen and worker bees you will understand how the Demaree Method simultaneously prevents swarming and keeps the entire colony together.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

  • By splitting the colony you separate the queen and the flying bees from the nurse bees and the brood. The queen in the new (now bottom) box has ample space to lay, particularly if you provide her with some drawn comb to use.
  • The bottom box will now be less crowded and the swarming urge will therefore be much reduced.
  • You destroy all of the queen cells in the original (now top) box when you rearrange the hive. This is to stop any new queens emerging in this box in the following week.
  • However, this top box still contains eggs and young larvae. Since it is now located a long way from the queenright box the level of queen pheromone is very low. Consequently, in the week following the hive rearrangement, the bees will create new emergency queen cells in the top box.
  • When you return a week later all the eggs in the top box will have hatched and the youngest larvae left will be about four days old i.e. too old to be reared as new queens. Therefore, when you destroy all the new queen cells in the top box, you prevent the colony swarming.
  • You can remove the top brood box as soon as all the brood has emerged i.e. 25 days after first rearranging the hive 5.

Demaree pros and cons

Pros

  • An effective method of swarm control
  • Relatively simple procedure to implement and understand
  • Only requires a single brood box, frames and a queen excluder
  • Generates big, strong colonies and keeps the entire foraging force together
  • Modifications of the process can be used for queen rearing 6

Cons

  • Necessary to find the queen
  • Critical to remove all queen cells at the start and after one week
  • Generates tall stacked boxes, so some heavy lifting may be involved
  • Drones in the top box get trapped by the queen excluder 7
  • In a strong flow the bees can backfill the top box with nectar. Add sufficient supers when you first rearrange the hive
Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

Historical notes

George Whitfield Demaree (1832–1915) was a lawyer in Kentucky, USA, and a pioneer in swarm control methods. His eponymous method was published in the American Bee Journal in 1892. The original method was subtly different from that described above:

Demaree method

Demaree method

In his description he emphasises the need to keep the colony together to maximise honey production.

I suspect Demaree used a single sized box (as broods and supers) as he describes placing brood frames above the queen excluder in the centre of the super flanked by empty frames. As described, he doesn’t mention returning after one week to destroy queen cells above the queen excluder. Don’t forget to do this!

I particularly like Demaree’s comment that any swarm prevention method that “require a divided condition of the colony, using two or more hives, is not worthy of a thought”.


 

The nucleus method

Almost all beekeeping associations – and most books – teach Pagdens’ artificial swarm as the recommended method of swarm control. It is tried and tested and reasonably dependable. However it can be a bit tricky to grasp for inexperienced beekeepers.

At least part of the problem is you have two hives that look the same, one on the original site, one adjacent. Conducted properly, the adjacent hive is moved to the other side of the original a week or so into the process.

Teaching this in a poorly lit, draughty church hall in late January, facing the audience with the inevitable confusion over left and right, and getting ‘new’ and ‘old’ hives mixed up, often bamboozles the beginner 1. Or the instructor 😉

Here’s an alternative … the nucleus method of swarm control.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

General principles

This method is simplicity itself. When the colony looks as though it’s preparing to swarm you remove the queen, some stores and some bees into a nucleus hive.

This keeps the queen safe in case things go awry with the original colony.

You then return a week later and remove all but one queen cell in the original colony. The virgin queen emerges, mates, returns and starts laying.

A month or so after starting the original colony is headed by a new queen and you have a ‘spare’ building up in the nucleus box. You can overwinter this, sell it, give it away or – after removing the queen – unite it back with the original hive.

And that’s it … I said it was simple 🙂

Here is a more complete account.

Equipment needed

It goes without saying that the nucleus method of swarm control needs a nucleus (nuc) hive 2. Any sort of 5 frame nuc is suitable. Nucs are incredibly useful, so they are a good investment. If you’re buying one for the first time get polystyrene as they’re lighter, better insulated and much better for overwintering bees in. I’ve reviewed poly nucs a few years ago. There are even more makes to choose from now.

I’d recommend not using a two frame nuc as there’s not really enough room for stores and colony expansion 3.

Two frame nuc box

Two frame nuc box … a bit too small for the nucleus method of swarm control (but usable at a pinch)

In addition to the nuc you’ll need five frames that are compatible with your nuc and hive. Ideally, one or two of these should be drawn comb, but don’t worry if you just have foundation. A dummy board can also be useful. Like nucs, you can almost never have too many dummy boards.

Honey bee development

To properly understand honey bee swarm control you really need to understand the timing of the development cycle of queen bees.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

Queen cells have a characteristic appearance. Unlike the horizontally-oriented worker cells, larvae destined to become queens hatch from eggs laid in vertically-oriented queen cells. After three days as eggs and a further five days of larval development the queen cell is sealed.

A colony will usually swarm on or soon after 4 the queen cells are sealed.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

This is why it is recommended that colony inspections are conducted at seven day intervals. If the colony is thinking of swarming you’ll find an unsealed cell (because there were none last week when you inspected and they take 8 days to be sealed) and you can immediately start swarm control.

Day 1 – Making up the queenright nucleus colony

If you find one or more unsealed queen cells at a routine inspection … don’t panic. You’re prepared, you’ve done your homework and you have the necessary equipment.

  1. Stuff the entrance of a nucleus hive with grass and place it near the colony 5.
  2. Remove one of the outer frames from the colony (you’ve probably already done this to give yourself room for the inspection) as this should have a good amounts of sealed and unsealed stores.
  3. Check again that the queen isn’t on this frame of stores (unlikely) and that it doesn’t contain any queen cells (again unlikely).
  4. Gently transfer the frame of stores plus all the adhering bees to the nucleus box.
  5. Continue the inspection and find the queen. Be gentle, don’t rush, don’t use too much smoke.
  6. Ideally you want the queen on a frame with some sealed and emerging brood. If you are lucky you’ll find her on a suitable frame.
  7. Gently transfer the queen and the frame she is on to the nucleus box. It is very important that this frame has no queen cells on it. Check very carefully. Destroy any you find.
  8. Your nuc colony is now queenright and has two frames of bees. Push the frames against the side wall of the nuc box, leaving a wide gap.
  9. Into this gap shake a further two frames of bees. Foragers are likely to leave the nuc and return to the original hive. You do not want the box to be short of young bees. If in doubt shake a further frame of bees into the gap in the nuc 6.
  10. Add a frame of drawn comb if you have it then fill the box with foundation. Add a dummy board if needed. Gently place the crownboard and roof on the nuc, secure everything with a strap and turn your attention to the colony.

Notes

  • The purpose of this exercise is to establish a small colony with stores, a laying queen, space to lay and sufficient bees to support her and the brood being reared. Remember stores, queen, bees, space and no queen cells you won’t go wrong.
  • You will usually find the queen on a frame with eggs and young larvae. It’s very important that this frame does not have any queen cells on it.
  • Ideally you want the queen on a frame of emerging brood. This offers a number of advantages
    • The young bees will immediately strengthen the population supporting the queen
    • The vacated cells can be used by the queen to lay eggs (so reducing the need for drawn comb, or for the bees to build new comb)
    • The nuc colony will go through a period with no sealed brood and you can take advantage of this for Varroa management if needed (I’ll deal with this in another post)
    • It’s unlikely (due to the age of the other brood) to have a queen cell on it
  • One of the most common problems encountered with this method of swarm control is making up (or ending up) with a nuc that is not strong enough. A weak nuc will be unable to defend itself against robbing or wasps. There’s very little chance of weakening the original hive too much.
  • One way to avoid losing foragers from the nuc is to move it to an out apiary more than 3 miles from the original hive.
  • If you do leave the nuc in the same apiary check it a couple of days later. The bees should have chewed their way out through the dried grass. If they haven’t, pull a bit out at the corner of the entrance to encourage them to fly.

Day 1 – Preparing with the queenless colony

  1. Inspect every frame in the colony. Destroy all large queen cells 7. Anything that looks like the queen cell in the picture above should be destroyed. The idea here is to only leave queen cells containing very small larvae.
  2. Mark the frames containing these remaining selected queen cells using a drawing pin or pen.
  3. Push the frames together, add two frames of foundation, add the crownboard and close up the colony.
Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

One week later – Ensuring the queenless colony does not swarm

The timing and thoroughness of this inspection is important. Don’t do it earlier. Or later. Don’t rush it and don’t leave more than one queen cell.

  1. Inspect the colony and look for queen cells on the frames you marked a week earlier. These had very young larvae in them then and so will now be sealed 8.
  2. Select one queen cell to keep. Just one. Which one? Choose one that is large, well-shaped and has a sculptured exterior.
  3. Destroy all the other queen cells on this frame. All of them! If you need to remove the bees to see the frame better either brush them off gently or blow gently on them. Do not shake the bees off the frame as this might damage the developing queen.
  4. Gently return the frame with the selected queen cell to the box.
  5. Inspect all other frames in the colony (not just the ones you marked last week) and destroy all of the queen cells you find.
  6. You can shake the bees off these other frames to be sure of finding all other queen cells.
  7. Remember that some queen cells will be unsealed 9 … destroy them all.
  8. Return all the frames to the colony. Close it up and leave it for at least two weeks before inspecting again (see below).
Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Notes

  • The purpose of this return visit is to leave the colony with only a single queen cell.
  • Because you removed the queen a week ago there are no other suitably aged young larvae or eggs for the colony to rear queens from. Therefore, the colony cannot produce multiple casts (swarms headed by virgin queens).
  • The nucleus method of swarm control often leaves the queenless colony very strong 10, if you leave more than one queen cell the colony may produce casts.
  • What if the queen gets lost on a mating flight? Shouldn’t I leave two queen cells? Just to be on the safe side? No. If there’s a problem with the queen getting mated you’ve still got the old queen tucked away safely in the nuc box.
  • Queen cells that are large, well shaped and sculptured have received a lot of attention from the workers and so presumably contain a well-fed and good quality queen 11.
  • Don’t be tempted to inspect the colony in less than two weeks. Ideally leave them for three weeks. If you inspect too early there’s a chance that the queen may not have had a chance to mate and start laying (so the point of inspecting is missed) or – worse – that she returns from her mating flight as you have the box open and is then confused or lost.
  • Don’t meddle! Look for pollen being taken into the colony.
  • Have patience. Bees have been around for a few million years. They would not be this successful if they weren’t pretty good at getting queens mated …
  • Finally, particularly if the weather is poor, check the nuc as well. Ensure that it has sufficient stores. With reduced numbers of bees there’s a chance they could starve if the bees cannot forage (in which case the queen in the main colony is going to struggle to get out and mate as well).
Everynuc

Everynuc …

Pros and cons of the nucleus method of swarm control

With the exception of vertical splits almost all of my swarm control uses this nucleus method 12. I particularly like the nucleus method because I have lots of nuc boxes ( 🙂 ) and because it leaves manageable single-entrance hives rather than double height, multiple entrance stacks.

Almost all of the foraging bees are left with the original colony so the nectar-gathering capacity is not significantly reduced.

I almost never use the Pagden artificial swarm, largely because it ties up too much equipment.

Pros

  1. Limited amount of extra equipment needed – five frames and a nuc box … both of which are useful anyway.
  2. The old queen is kept safe and out of the way.
  3. Simple to implement, with just two visits at fixed times.
  4. Reasonably easy to understand the manipulations involved.
  5. No heavy lifting.
  6. You generate a nucleus colony to give away or to build up for overwintering.

Cons

  1. You need to find the queen.
  2. You need to find all the queen cells and use your judgement as to their age and quality.
  3. Unless you remove the nuc to an out apiary there’s a good chance lots of the bees will return to the original hive. Make sure you add enough at the start and be prepared to add more if you check the nuc after a day or two and find it heavily depleted.
  4. If you don’t want to make increase the nuc is a little more difficult to unite back with the original colony 13.

Give it a go … what could possibly go wrong?


 

Superorganism potential

The term superorganism can be used to refer to a colony of honey bees. The term gained prominence in the mid/late noughties having been reintroduced by the world-renowned myrmecologist 1 E.O. Wilson.

Bees, like ants (myrmex, “ant”, from the Greek μύρμηξ), are social insects in which there are divisions of labour. Different individuals within the colony perform different tasks. Some of these roles are defined by the castes in the colony – queen, worker and drone in a colony of honey bees for example – and some are defined by physiological differences between individual members of the same caste.

The term superorganism describes the entirety of the colony and is defined as a group or association of organisms which behaves in some respect like a single organism.

Essentially, a superorganism has characteristics and behaviours that the individuals within the colony – due to caste or physiological specialisation – do not exhibit.

The superorganism operates as a unified entity, collectively working together to maintain and reproduce the colony.

Division of labour and temporal polyethism

Drones and queens have relatively straightforward roles in the colony. Drones, like teenage boys, lounge around eating and thinking about sex. The queens are egg-laying machines.

An egg laying machine

An egg laying machine

Although there’s undoubtedly work involved in laying your bodyweight in eggs at the height of the season, the real work in the colony is – appropriately – done by the workers.

Worker bees exhibit temporal polyethism i.e. they display different patterns of behaviour depending upon their age. They have a maturational schedule in which they sequentially undertake age-correlated roles in the colony:

  • Young bees work in the hive in a series of roles starting with cell cleaning (days 1-2), nursing developing larvae (nurse bees; days 3-11) and wax production (days 12-17).
  • After two to three weeks the workers undergo significant physiological changes (weight loss, changes in immune function, reduced stress resistance) which prepare them for a productive life outside the hive. During this period the bees transition through a period when they act as guard bees.
  • Older bees (the ‘flying’ bees) perform a range of foraging activities including water carrying, pollen collection and nectar gathering.

And then they die in the field 🙁

Behavioural plasticity

This behavioural maturation is controlled by a so-called negative feedback loop between vitellogenin (Vg 2) and juvenile hormone (JH).

Nurse bees have high Vg levels which are reduced at the transition to foraging. Conversely JH levels increase with the onset of foraging (I know this sounds counterintuitive). These changes are responsible for a range of physiological changes in the worker bee.

Behavioural maturation in worker bees

Behavioural maturation in worker bees

But it’s not as simple as that. High Vg levels can block JH synthesis, so delaying maturation and foraging. Similarly, JH may reciprocally inhibit Vg synthesis and induce early foraging.

Clearly that last couple of sentences indicates that worker maturation is not an invariant process. It doesn’t always occur after 2-3 weeks.

In fact, the maturation or ageing process in honey bees is a very interesting phenomenon.

Ageing exhibits seasonal variability and remarkable plasticity.

Nurse bees can survive for at least 130 days and overwintering bees may survive up to 280 days. Clearly ageing in bees is a remarkably variable process. Overwintering bees ‘mature’ into either nurse bees or foragers. Presumably this has evolved as an effective mechanism of allowing spring colony build up (by having sufficient bees for the different roles) once environmental conditions improve.

In addition, there is another striking feature of the maturation process of honey bees.

Under certain social environmental conditions maturation is reversible.

This reversible maturation can be demonstrated by removing the nurse bees from the hive. Under these conditions some of the younger foragers revert, both behaviourally and physiologically, to nursing tasks. JH levels drop and Vg levels increase.

Old foragers are unable to undergo this rejuvenation.

Reversible maturation in worker bees

Reversible maturation in worker bees

Which finally and in a round the houses way gets me to the subject I meant to cover in the first place this week …

Brood and the superorganism

The honey bee colony superorganism not only contains a queen, workers and drones. It also contains brood. In the following text I’ll use the term brood as a collective noun meaning all the eggs, unsealed larvae and sealed pupae in the colony (unless otherwise specified).

Is the brood a component of the superorganism?

It certainly is.

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

Remember previous discussion of laying workers. These are workers that lay unfertilised eggs which develop into drones. Egg laying by workers is suppressed by pheromones produced from unsealed brood 3. Therefore brood does influence the behaviour of the colony 4.

If the complete colony – brood, workers, drones and a queen – is a superorganism, which components of the colony, individually or together, have the potential to form the superorganism?

And why should this matter?

Swarming and the superorganism

During swarming, either naturally during colony reproduction, or during manipulation by the beekeeper, the ‘superorganism’ is broken up.

During natural swarming the (old) mated queen leaves the colony with 60-75% of the workers to establish a new colony. By the time the swarm leaves, the original colony – which has all the eggs, larvae and brood (obviously) – is usually already well on the way to rearing a new queen. The (new) virgin queen emerges, gets mated, and the colony has successfully reproduced.

Many of the colony manipulation methods that are used to prevent the loss of natural swarms exploit the potential of the components in the colony to form a complete new colony.

Most ‘artificial swarms’ work by breaking the colony – the superorganism – into two parts:

  1. The queen and the ‘flying’ bees. Even young bees can fly, so the term ‘flying’ bees refers to the older bees from the colony that have matured sufficiently to leave the hive.
  2. The nurse bees and all the brood.
Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

These two parts both have the potential to create a new colony.

The queen and the flying bees that form the swarm (or the queenright part of an artificial swarm) occupy a new site (or hive 5), draw comb in which the queen lays, the larvae are fed 6, pupate and emerge. At the same time, foragers collect the necessary nectar and pollen to maintain the new colony.

The swarmed colony (i.e. the queenless part of an artificial swarm) contains ample stores and the nurse bees. What they don’t have is a queen. But they do have eggs and young larvae. The nurse bees select and feed one or more of these young larvae with copious amounts of Royal Jelly. A few days later a virgin queen emerges, matures, mates and returns to the colony to start laying eggs.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Therefore both natural and artificial swarms exploit the potential in both parts of the original colony to eventually reproduce the colony.

No potential

Not all components of the colony have the potential to give rise to a new colony or superorganism. A solitary queen doesn’t even have the ability to feed herself properly, let alone double up for egg laying and nursing larvae duties.

This comes as a surprise to some people. If you frequent any of the online discussion forums you’ll sometime see questions posted like this:

What sort of hive do I need to buy to put a queen bee in to make honey?

Followed by some polite, or not so polite, responses saying that there’s a little bit more to beekeeping than that 7.

The ‘flying’ bees alone, in the absence of a queen, also have no potential. They can lay eggs (as laying workers, see above), but since the eggs are unfertilised the colony will be doomed. It’s not unusual for a queen from an artificial swarm (or from a cast) to fail to return from a mating flight, so condemning the workers in the hive to oblivion.

Swarms and behavioural plasticity

The classic artificial swarm involves moving the nurse bees and the brood to a new site, leaving the queen and the flying bees in the original location.

You do this so that the flying bees that have orientated to the position of the original hive – whether out in the field actively foraging or in the moved hive – eventually return and so become separated from the nurse bees and the brood.

In doing this you remove the urge to swarm and you weaken the queenless hive.

The majority of those flying bees are foragers.

And this is where behavioural plasticity is essential. remember that the artificial swarm predominantly contains foragers, not the nurse bees needed to feed developing larvae.

Some of these foragers undergo rejuvenation to produce wax or to become nurse bees. These build new comb and, in a few days, feed larvae that have hatched from the eggs laid by the queen.

This behavioural plasticity contributes to the potential of the artificial swarm to produce a new colony or superorganism.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Do the same processes happen in natural swarms?

That requires a discussion of the worker composition of swarms which is not straightforward and will have to wait for another day 😉


 

Taking stock

It’s the middle of the season 1. Hopefully, the timely application of swarm control measures such as a vertical split or Pagden’s artificial swarm, have maintained strong colonies and created additional colonies headed by new queens.

July is the month I review my stocks with the goal of:

  • replacing ageing queens that are unproductive
  • removing bad tempered colonies (though most have already been dealt with)
  • preparing strong colonies to exploit late season nectar flows
  • making up nucleus colonies for overwintering, either as backups or for sale

Of course, this type of taking stock should be a continuous process through the season, but it’s easier to start it now for the winter, rather than leaving it to the shorter days, more variable weather and less dependable nectar flows of late summer.

Two into one does go

A small hole ...

A small hole …

Often the intention is to simply replace an old queen with a new queen. In a vertical split this is simplicity itself. Remove the queen that is unwanted and the split board, replacing the latter with a sheet of newspaper. Make one or two very small holes in the newspaper with the point of a hive tool and leave the colony to it.

Over the course of the next few days the workers will chew through the newspaper, unite amicably and set about building up the stores for winter.

A week or so after uniting I rearrange the frames, usually making space for the queen to lay in the top box with the brood below. If the colonies being united are smaller it’s sometimes possible to remove one box altogether.

There’s discussion online about quick ways to unite colonies by spraying both with air freshener. The smell – which is usually pretty awful 2 – masks the colony scent and so the colony does not fight. I’ve not done this so can’t recommend it (or, for that matter, criticise it).

Since I’ll be returning a week later to check the boxes and rearrange frames I’m happy to stick with newspaper uniting which rarely fails. Air freshener is also one less thing to carry in the bee bag.

Nucs for pleasure and profit

Five frame nucleus (nuc) colonies overwinter well if prepared properly 3. They are really useful in the early spring to make up for any winter losses, to replace colonies with failing queens 4 or to sell.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Overwintered nucs are often appreciably more expensive than those imported later in the season, or in the glut of bees that follows the swarming season.

The queen has proved herself and the nuc is available when demand is highest … at the very beginning of the season.

Whilst I would – and have – argued that it might be better to start beekeeping later in the season working alongside your mentor, there are strong economic imperatives to overwinter nucs for sale.

Splits and nucs

With a successful split (or Pagden) you now have two queens, one strong colony and one building up fast. The latter – with the new queen – can be used to prepare a nuc for overwintering, with the remaining bees and brood strengthening the original colony for the late season nectar flow 5.

It’s easy to prepare a nuc colony to take away to a distant apiary – the new queen, a frame of stores, one or two of emerging brood and a mixed frame of eggs and brood, all with the adhering bees, together with a couple more frames of bees shaken in over the top. Make up to five frames with foundation, seal them up and ship ’em off to your out apiary.

If you don’t have access to an out apiary you should ensure that the majority of the older workers are omitted when preparing the nuc, and you should add in additional young bees to help the new queen get established.

It’s also worth stuffing the nuc entrance with dead grass for a few days to enforce the ‘new environment’ on the bees.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

You exclude the old foragers by giving each frame placed in the nuc a gentle shake before putting it into the box. The old bees fly off, the young ones cling on. Do the same with the ~3-4 additional frames of bees added on top before re-siting the the nuc in the apiary.

Nucs may need feeding, particularly if there’s a dearth of nectar or bad weather. Keep an eye on them. By excluding the old foragers you can feed them without the risk of robbing. However, it’s wise not to feed them for the best part of a week after making up the nuc to allow any carried-over stragglers to return. This is why it’s important to include a full frame of stores from the outset.

Variations

There’s still ample time in the season to rear new queens, so all sorts of other combinations of requeening/uniting and/or splits are still possible. For example, I’ve recently used a particular queen to requeen a colony and will split the box she came from into 2-3 nucs, all of which should build up well for overwintering.

By splitting the box after the new queen cells are raised I ensure they were produced by a well-balanced population of bees, with ample stores under ideal conditions. I think this is better than divvying up the frames from the recently queenless box and hoping to achieve the strong and balanced population in all the nucs. Inevitably some are stronger than others … or, more significantly in terms of queen cell production, weaker.

And in between all of this amateur dabbling I’ve been working with our friends and collaborators in Aberdeen on methods of Varroa control to minimise the levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) as well as starting our studies on chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV) …

Hot day, hard work ...

Hot day, hard work …

… oh yes, and moving into a new house 😉 6


 

 

Queen cells … don’t panic!

You’ve inspected your colony and discovered queen cells on one or more frames.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news is that your colony is building up well and with a little careful management and luck you’ll be able to requeen them in about a month. A new, well-mated queen should ensure a strong colony going into the winter.

Result!

Alternatively, you could increase your colony numbers as – without exception – two is better than one.

The bad news is that your colony is rapidly outgrowing the space it has, it’s going to need some careful management and an appreciation of the development cycle of the queen. Unless you’re very lucky the colony will swarm and you’ll be left with one, significantly weakened, queenless colony.

Result … but probably not one you want.

Swarming isn’t a catastrophe. Things can usually be rescued, albeit with an interruption to colony development and honey production. However, it should be avoided if at all possible, not least because the lost swarm might cause problems for other people.

Play cups, charged queen cells and sealed queen cells

New queens are reared in specially shaped cells that are oriented vertically on the frame. They can be anywhere on the frame, but are often located on the edge of the comb, either at the sides or along the bottom.

Play cups ...

Play cups …

Beekeepers make the distinction between cells of different sizes, different stages of development and – sometimes, though probably less reliably 1 – the type of cell (emergency, supercedure etc.) based upon their location.

Play cups are small cup-shaped cells that might subsequently be developed into queen cells. They’re regularly present in colonies that have no intention of swarming.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

After an egg is laid and hatches in one of these cup shaped cells the workers start feeding the developing larvae. At the same time the cell is extended, usually becoming broader and longer. Cells at this stage of development get a large amount of attention from workers in the hive and usually end up containing a thick bed of Royal Jelly in which the developing larvae floats. These are charged queen cells.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

Finally the cell is sealed and the larvae pupates before emerging as a virgin queen. During this period, particularly just before and after being sealed, the workers often sculpt the outer surface of the cell. Shortly before eclosion a thinner, darker brown ring can appear around the tip of the sealed cell.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Timing is everything

Queen development takes 16 days from egg laying to eclosed (emerged) adult virgin queen bee. The egg is laid in a cup and hatches on the 3rd day. The larva is fed copious amounts of Royal Jelly until day 8 when the cell is sealed or capped. About 16 days after the egg was laid the new queen emerges.

Queen development

Queen development …

There’s a little bit of variation in these timings – hours, not days – and several diagrams show the queen cell sealed on the 9th day. In my previous description of queen rearing in a queenright colony (using the Ben Harden method) I’ve stated that the cell is capped on day 9. That’s a convenient number to remember as she’ll emerge a week later.

We’re off !

Under normal circumstances the colony will swarm once the new queen cells are capped. The old queen and about 75% of the workers leave the hive for pastures new.

Poor weather can delay things, but it’s relatively rare to find sealed queen cells and the old queen still in residence … unless she’s clipped which delays things by a few days. However, clipping the queen does not stop swarming, it just buys you time and restricts the distance the swarm can go.

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

If the colony does swarm they often end up underneath the original hive. The queen crashes ignominiously to the ground as she leaves the hive. She then crawls up the leg of the hive stand and is joined by the flying bees beneath the floor. It’s a bit of a palaver, but you can then brush/encourage them into a skep and rehive them.

Weekly inspections

An understanding of the development cycle of the queen and the swarming behaviour of colonies explains why inspections on a seven day cycle make sense. If there are no queen cells on the first inspection there is little or no chance the colony will have swarmed on a sealed queen cell within the following seven days.

Since colonies headed by clipped queens tend to delay a bit before swarming it’s usually reckoned you can inspect on a 10 day cycle. Although most of my queens are clipped 2 I inspect on a 7 day cycle as it fits better with work commitments.

What to do if you find queen cells

Don't panic

Don’t panic …

Don’t panic.

Correctly determining the state of the colony now will ensure you take the correct course of action.

It’s not unusual for an inexperienced beekeeper to find one or more sealed queen cells in the colony and to immediately remove them all 3.

However, if this novice beekeeper subsequently finds there’s no queen in the colony (unsurprising as she’s swarmed), no eggs in the colony (because she swarmed >3 days ago) and no young larvae in the colony (because they actually swarmed nearly a week ago) then the colony has no chance of raising a new queen without further intervention by the beekeeper e.g. by providing a ‘frame of eggs’ from another colony from which a new queen can be reared.

What I do depends upon what I find …

Play cups

I check to see if any have eggs in and then pinch them flat … mainly so I can tell if more have been made since the last inspection.

Charged queen cells

The first time I discover these I usually knock them all down and leave the colony another week.

This is not risk-free 4.

Firstly … I check that the colony is queenright and that the queen is OK i.e. still laying at a reasonable rate, not being hassled by the workers and looking healthy. If I have any concerns about the queen I’ll start some form of swarm control (see below).

Secondly … It’s imperative to destroy all the charged queen cells. I therefore shake the bees off each frame and check the comb carefully … the sides, the bottom, the various nooks and crannies.

Everywhere.

Miss one charged cell and they’ll likely swarm within the next 7 days. Anything that looks like a queen cell gets squidged 5.

Finally … if this is the second consecutive weekly inspection with charged queen cells I’ll start some form of swarm control (see below).

Don’t repeatedly rely upon knocking off every charged queen cell week after week after week.

You will miss one … I guarantee it. They will swarm.

Destroying charged queen cells is not swarm control

This should be engraved on every hive tool sold to new beekeepers 😉

I speak from experience 🙁

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

Sealed queen cells

Oops  🙄

They’ve probably swarmed. It’s therefore too late for swarm control.

However, I check for eggs and the queen. I might be lucky … poor weather may have prevented swarming 6. Alternatively, the presence of eggs tells me they went in the last 3 days so I have an idea of the age of the sealed cell (so can calculate when the new queen will emerge).

Ideally I like to leave a colony with a single cell I know contains a developing pupae. Although you can open and reseal queen cells (Ted Hooper describes doing this in Introduction to Bees and Honey) to check they’re occupied, I’ve never bothered.

Instead, if there are large charged queen cells present I select one, mark the frame and then destroy all the sealed cells and unwanted charged unsealed cells. I can estimate to a day or so when the queen will emerge and so know when there’s likely to be a new mated queen in the hive.

If there are eggs and young larvae but no other charged cells (rare), I’ll knock back the sealed cells and let them rear more, finally leaving them with one known charged cell after the next inspection.

Swarm control

This post is already too long … there are dozens of ways of doing this. Two already described in detail are vertical splits and the ‘classic’ artificial swarm. Both are pretty much foolproof if you can find the queen. Both are conservative and non-destructive … you can reunite colonies if either fails.

Vertical splits use less equipment and need less space, but involve some heavy lifting.

Pagdens’ artificial swarm requires a duplicate hive and more space but is gentler on your back.

Or make up a nuc with the old queen as a backup and leave the colony to rear a new queen. I’ll describe this approach in the future.


 

An Inspector Calls

Hive inspections are the preventative maintenance of the beekeeping year. Conducted properly, they include all the necessary checks to ensure all is well now and will be until the next inspection.

Inspections are an essential part of beekeeping. Beekeepers who don’t conduct inspections probably won’t be beekeepers for long … the colony swarms, goes irretrievably queenless or succumbs to disease.

Or all three 🙁

Actually, there’s another reason … I suspect that beekeepers who don’t regularly inspect colonies are more interested doing something else. They’d prefer to be playing golf or building model railways or potholing. I covered this a few months ago when discussing beekeeping principles and practice.

Shouldn't you be inspecting your bees today?

Shouldn’t you be inspecting your bees today?

Their enthusiasm to properly manage their colonies that is, not potholing 😉

Preventative maintenance

The clue is in the name … the purpose of inspections are to maintain the colony in a productive state and to prevent things from happening that might stop this being achieved.

‘Productive’ usually means collecting nectar for honey 1, but could equally well refer to making lots of bees for nucleus colony production. Or, for that matter, maximising drone production to flood the area with good genes for queen mating.

Essentially you’re checking the colony to ensure it’s best able to do what you want it to do.

And, if there are signs that things are going awry, you’re putting in place the preventative measures that help avoid a partial or complete disaster.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

A beekeeping “disaster” … let’s keep things in perspective. Swarming, queenlessness, laying workers, robbing, wasps, disease, Varroa infestation, brace comb and all the rest.

Quick or thorough but probably not both

Inspections can either be quick or they can be thorough, but rarely both. The definition of the term ‘inspection’ means “looking narrowly into; careful scrutiny or survey; close or critical examination”.

Therefore, unless you’re only checking one thing, for example whether the queen cells are sealed in a queenright queen rearing colony, it’s likely that the inspection will take some time.

Cell bar frame with three day old queen cells, The Apiarist.

3 day old queen cells …

How long depends upon experience. It probably takes me ~12-15 minutes to go through a box thoroughly and I have a reasonable amount of experience and get quite a bit of practice 2. This is a snail’s pace when compared with commercial beekeepers who can conduct a pretty comprehensive inspection in ~4 minutes.

A beginning beekeeper might take significantly longer than 15 minutes to inspect a colony.

But speed is not the issue. 

Why conduct inspections?

The issue – in a routine inspection – is determining the answer to at least the following five key questions (paraphrased from Ted Hooper in his Guide to Bees and Honey):

  1. Has the colony sufficient room?
  2. Is the queen present and laying as expected?
  3. Is the colony building up as expected (early season)? Are there queen cells present (mid season)?
  4. Are there signs of disease?
  5. Has the colony sufficient stores?

All of which, done properly, takes a reasonable amount of time.

So that’s the Why? What about when and how should inspections be conducted? These need to be addressed before considering the questions above 3.

When?

There are several ‘when’ questions to be considered. When should you conduct the first inspection of the year? When – as in what sort of day – should you conduct the inspection? How frequently do the inspections need to be conducted?

Unless you’re looking very quickly in a hive for a specific reason inspections should only really be conducted when the exposed brood aren’t going to get chilled. This means you should choose a day when the temperature reaches at least the mid-teens (°C). ‘Shirtsleeve’ weather some call it.

This influences both the timing of the first inspection of the year and – particularly early or late in the season – the time of day that the inspection occurs. On the East coast of Scotland I did my first thorough inspection this year on the 19th of April. Last year – although the winter was nominally shorter and warmer – some hives weren’t inspected until early May because there was never a suitable day.

Lots of hive entrance activity …

Use your own judgement about whether the weather is suitable for early season inspections. The bees should be flying well. This is both an indication that the weather is good enough and reduces the hive population making the condition and amount of brood easier to determine.

Hive entrance activity ...

Hive entrance activity …

Don’t base your decision to inspect on reports you read on beekeeping discussion forums (fora?) about others with their hives bulging with brood. They may be beekeeping in a warmer part of the country. They might be in a different country altogether. It’s also worth remembering that there’s a well-documented tendency – as with online reviews – for contributors to over-exaggerate the positives (and negatives) 4.

I also wouldn’t bother inspecting on an unseasonably warm day very early in the year. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to deduce a whole lot about the state of the colony.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish …

The frequency of inspections is largely dictated by the development time of a queen bee, and to a lesser extent by the strength of nectar flow in your locality.

If a colony is going to swarm they first prepare one or several queen cells. These are capped around day 9 after the egg is laid. Once there are capped queen cells and suitable weather the colony is likely to swarm.

That means you need to inspect more frequently than every 9 days during the peak swarming period of the season – in Fife that’s an ~8 week period from early May late June. In warmer regions, or in years with atypical weather, regular inspections might have to start earlier and continue later.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

“Around 9 days” really means anything from 8 days, so a 7 day inspection cycle makes most sense. If a careful inspection one week fails to find evidence of queen cells being developed there’s no chance the colony can swarm for a further 7 days at least (because there are no queen cells that are sufficiently developed).

“fails to find evidence” means you have to inspect carefully. A small charged queen cup, with a day old larva and a bed of Royal Jelly will be capped 6 days later … then they’ll be off 🙂

Generally 5 a colony with a clipped queen will take a little longer to swarm, allowing intervals between inspections to be extended to up to 10 days.

However, don’t rely on this … I’ve seen them (er, mine) swarm earlier than this. Inevitably it’s you’re strongest colony and best honey producer 🙁

Relax, but don’t be complacent

Once the peak swarming season is over the frequency of inspections can be reduced. I’m usually on a two-week cycle by mid-July, with most colonies getting their last inspection in mid/late August. This coincides with the optimum time to start applying Varroa treatments to minimise exposure of winter bees to deformed wing virus.

However, remember that a strong colony can fill a super very quickly during a good nectar flow. Inspections are required to ensure the colony has enough space – for brood expansion and for stores.

How to inspect

We’re running out of space … I’ll deal with this in more detail in a future post (and link to it from here).

Essentially, because the goal is to check the state of the colony, you need to ensure that the inspection is conducted in a way that best allows you to determine this.

An agitated colony or one stirred up to be highly defensive makes inspections much harder. It’s therefore important to be as gentle as possible, to be calm and measured in your movements and to avoid jarring the colony.

Use the minimal amount of smoke possible, don’t wave your hands over the top of the frames and don’t crush bees.

And if it all goes pear-shaped, if despite your best efforts the colony gets really stroppy, if you kick a frame over on the ground, drop your hive tool into the open brood box or the smoker goes out at a critical moment 6 … close up the box and try again another day.

Swarm arriving at bait hive ...

Swarm arriving at bait hive …


Colophon

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls is a play by J.B. Priestley. Set in 1912 and first performed in the mid-1940’s, it involves a man – calling himself Inspector Goole – questioning a well-to-do family about the suicide of a working class woman, Eva Smith. Over three acts it is clear that, independently, all in the family are responsible for her exploitation, abandonment, social ruin and eventual death through poisoning. “Inspector Goole” leaves, but the secrets are now out. Subsequent checks with the police and the infirmary show there is no “Inspector Goole” or recent suicides. The play ends with a phone call from the police about the suspicious death of a young woman by poisoning …

Alistair Sim starred in the 1954 film version of the play, where the surname of the lead character was changed from Goole to Poole.

Pagdens’ artificial swarm

Every beekeeping association that runs a winter course for beginners will teach swarm control. In almost every case they use the artificial swarm method that evolved from that promoted by James Pagden (1814-1878). So universal is this teaching that the terms ‘Pagden’ and ‘artificial swarm’ are used almost interchangeably.

Swarm control – defined below – is an important skill in beekeeping. It saves your bees from bothering the neighbours and by not losing swarms you increase your honey crop. Furthermore, understanding the principles may help apply some related queen rearing techniques.

I’m planning a few posts on swarm control this season and realised I’d never described the ‘classic’ artificial swarm – possibly because I don’t often use it. To avoid referencing other sites with more or less comprehensive (or correct) descriptions I’ve catalogued the ‘bare bones’ of the process here.

Swarm control

A small swarm

A small swarm …

Swarm control and prevention are two different things. The latter are the steps taken to stop a colony from ‘thinking’ about swarming, e.g. young queens and ample space. In contrast, swarm control are what is needed once there are signs that swarming by the colony is imminent. The most common sign is the discovery of unsealed, charged (i.e. occupied) queen cells during an inspection. You practise swarm prevention to prevent, or at least delay, the need for swarm control. Once swarm control is needed many beekeepers use Pagdens’ artificial swarm.

If you discover sealed queen cells during an inspection there’s a good chance your swarm prevention didn’t work and that it’s too late for swarm control. Colonies with unclipped queens usually swarm when the developing queen cells are capped. If there are sealed queen cells and no sign of the queen or eggs then they’re probably hanging in a tree or occupying a bait hive by now.

The artificial swarm

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

The principle of the artificial swarm is to separate the queen and flying bees from the brood and nurse bees. This is achieved by a couple of simple colony manipulations. These exploit the tendency of flying bees to return to the location of the hive they were reared in, or more accurately, the location of the hive from which they took their orientation flights. If you remember this it all makes sense.

The diagram is colour coded. The original hive location is the centreline of the image. The old hive is mid-grey, the new hive is light-grey. Brood-containing frames are red, foundation or drawn comb is black. The queen is indicated Q (black if mated, white if a virgin or recently mated). The timings of the manipulations are indicated.

Day 0 and Day 1

Don't panic

Don’t panic …

During a routine inspection of a strong colony anytime from mid-April to late June (depending upon the season) you discover unsealed, charged queen cells. Don’t panic. Collect the necessary equipment for an artificial swarm – a complete new hive consisting of a floor, brood box and full complement of frames (preferably some or all are drawn comb, the rest can be just foundation – or foundationless frames), a crownboard and a roof. An additional hive stand is also useful, though not essential.

In the diagram I’ve assumed that it takes a day to collect this lot and get back to the apiary … whatever, once you’re ready, proceed as follows.

  1. Move the old hive a couple of metres away from the original location. If there are supers present remove these and the queen excluder first, putting them aside.
  2. Place the new floor and filled brood box on the original site, with the entrance facing the same way as before.
  3. Remove two frames from the centre of the new brood box.
  4. Gently go through the old hive. Find a frame of open brood. Shake the frame gently to dislodge the flying bees, inspect it carefully, place the queen onto the frame and put it into the centre of the new brood box. There must be no queen cells on this frame.  Push together the adjacent frames and add a spare frame so the hive is full.
  5. If there were supers present at the start place them on the new hive above the queen excluder. If there were no supers you might need to feed this colony some thin syrup to encourage them to draw new comb.
  6. Add the crownboard and roof to the new hive.
  7. Push together the frames in the old hive, add one more frame, put the crownboard and roof back and leave them to get on with things.

What does this first manipulation achieve?

At the end of this first manipulation you’ve manually separated the queen from almost all the brood and nurse bees. The queen is in the original location in the new hive. All the flying bees will return to the original location – because that’s where they first orientated to – over the next day or so. This new hive is viable as it contains a mated queen, bees to support her and lots of empty space for her to lay in.

The old hive is also viable, but only of they first rear a new queen. Since there are open queen cells present these must be sealed to allow pupation and metamorphosis which takes 7 days.

Day 7

Move the old hive to the opposite side of the new hive. A couple of metres away is fine. Flying bees that have matured in the old hive during the preceding week will find the hive missing when they return from foraging. They’ll most likely enter the hive closest to the hive they flew from, which is the one with the queen in it i.e. the new hive on the original hive stand. This boosts the strength of the queenright colony. More importantly, it depletes the old hive of bees, making it less likely that they’ll throw off a cast if more than one virgin emerges§.

It’s important that the old hive is not interfered with after the first 7 days. There will be a new virgin queen present who will be going out on mating flights a few days after emergence. Leave this hive untouched for at least another fortnight. In the diagram above the black frame in the old hive indicates that the oldest brood is emerging, leaving plenty of young bees to tend to the newly mated queen and ample space for her to lay in due course.

Day 21+

The old hive should now contain a newly mated and laying queen. Inspections of this colony can start again. The new colony – on the original site – should be building up well.

If you want to increase your colony numbers (make increase), you’ve done so. If you don’t want to make increase then the two colonies can be united over newspaper. Remove the old queen first, either terminally (!) or by giving her to another beekeeper.


I tend to prefer a vertical split for two reasons – it uses less equipment and it takes up less space. However, the underlying principles of the two processes are very similar as will be discussed in a future post.

 Day 0 and Day 1 can be done on the same day. I’ve separated them on the assumption that you’re as badly prepared as I am and don’t have piles of spare equipment waiting to be used in the apiary. The only thing to be sure of is not to let the queen cells be capped. If necessary knock back all the visible queen cells … once they’ve decided to swarm they will start more.

 I can never write those words without hearing them uttered in the voice of Lance Corporal Jones from the sitcom Dad’s Army. Since this was broadcast between 1968 and 1977 writing that last sentence makes me feel rather old.

§ I’m trying to steer well clear of the thorny problem of how many queen cells to leave in the old hive. That’s a separate topic in its own right. Some suggest letting the bees decide (i.e. do nothing), others leave one or two.

Queen clipping – why?

I sometimes have colonies in my (very) small suburban garden … it’s great to be able to watch the bees before leaving for the lab or to observe them early in the season bringing in pollen from the crocuses. It’s also a convenient staging post between my out apiaries and a whole lot easier than carrying heavy boxes around through waist-high field margins. However, I’m aware that my neighbours may not share my enthusiasm for bees. I therefore do my utmost to only keep well-behaved colonies in the garden by selecting for docility as a priority when queen rearing. In addition, I make sure any queens heading colonies in the garden are clipped. Queen clipping is the trimming of one wing, preventing the queen from flying any distance should the colony swarm. In the absence of a queen, a prime swarm leaving the hive will either return to the hive or will cluster with the queen a very short distance from the hive.

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

A colony in the garden swarmed on open queen cells (QC) last Sunday afternoon. The colony had chosen to ignore the super, so filled the brood box with nectar (I suspect I’d added the super too late and the colony had already started to think about swarming). Consequently the colony ran out of space. The QC’s were about 3-4 days old and unsealed. There’d been none present at the previous inspection (remember that colonies usually swarm once the first QC’s are sealed). The colony was half-way through a vertical split (to be described in the future) with the original queen in the top box and the newly emerged virgin in the bottom box. I’d been away and arrived home to find the top box swarming and the air filled with bees. With an unclipped queen they would usually settle in a nearby tree or bush and then send out scouts to find more desirable accommodation.

I might have been fortunate enough to catch this, but they might have settled somewhere inconvenient like the chimney or on the kids trampoline in the garden next door. However, because the queen was clipped, she couldn’t fly and the bees just milled about for 15 minutes … a fantastic sight and sound. Eventually they returned to the hive … but to the bottom box. Shortly after they’d settled I found the queen and a small retinue of workers on the ground about a metre from the hive entrance (see photo above). I quickly went through the top box, shaking bees off the frames and knocked off all the QC’s. I also swapped out a couple of nectar-filled frames for drawn comb. I then ran the queen back into the entrance. With luck the reduced density of bees and increased space to lay will discourage them from swarming again*.

A queen with a clipped wing generally swarms later than an unclipped queen, potentially giving you a few extra days between inspections. However, as the example above shows, you can’t rely on this so seven day intervals between inspections are still recommended. Had I not found the queen she would have probably crawled back to the hive stand, climbed up the leg and ended up under the open mesh floor. Although this is not ideal, it provides another opportunity to recapture her and it’s far preferable to losing the bees altogether or bothering your neighbours with swarms.

Summer storm ...

Summer storm …

Although the weather was wonderful when the colony swarmed, it rapidly changed later in the afternoon when we were treated to downpour of biblical proportions … any swarm caught out in the torrential rain and hail would have probably fared very badly.

Time to close the hive up ...

Time to close the hive up …

The image above (the densest cloud formed a wide band from the North East to the South West, almost directly above three of my apiaries) is a composite of three images stitched together in Photoshop. I was desperately trying to get through the last few hive inspections but had to abandon things and seek shelter in the car. The rain and hail didn’t last long, but what it lacked in duration it more than compensated for in volume (both sound and fluid ounces).

Perhaps surprisingly, in the 30 minutes or so before the heavens opened the bees were remarkably well behaved.

* Update on checking six days later (today) the blue marked and clipped queen is back and laying again in the top box. It looks like she’s been getting a lot of attention as the blue paint has almost disappeared. There are no signs of any more queen cells but they’re still not taking much notice of the super. Unfortunately, they are showing signs of robbing another colony in the garden, so I’ll shortly be moving them to another apiary.

In the meantime, I prepared a stack of boxes in preparation of moving house and – within 24 hours – another swarm moved in. I’d missed a finger-wide gap in the stack and the bees occupied a chest-high pile of broods and supers. These look like another generous donation from a neighbour … thank you.

Brace yourself

My favoured swarm control involves using the Demaree method, a vertical split of the queen and foragers to the lower brood box, leaving the brood and nurse bees above the queen excluder. After three weeks all the brood in the upper box will have emerged and the box needs to be removed – either to melt out the wax from old comb, or to reuse the drawn comb. If you don’t remove the upper brood box the bees will fill it with nectar if there’s any sort of flow.

Brace comb on underside of clearer board

Brace comb on underside of clearer board

Rather than shake bees out I use a clearer board under the upper brood box when I want to remove it. This only needs to be in place overnight to work. The picture above shows what happens if you fail to remove it during a good flow. Five days later the space is filled with brace comb packed with nectar. The top bars of the upper super were welded firmly to the underside of the clear board.

What a mess

What a mess

This is what happens when work gets in the way of beekeeping.