Swarm control and elusive queens

Many beekeepers struggle to routinely find the queen, particularly in a very busy colony.

For 90% of the beekeeping season whether you find the queen or not is irrelevant … you can tell if she’s present because there are eggs in the colony (so she must have laid them in the last 3 days) and, often, because the colony is well-tempered.

That should be sufficient.

Whenever I do routine inspections I like to see the queen, but I don’t look for her. If the colony:

  1. is calm and well-behaved
  2. is bringing pollen in
  3. contains no sealed queen cells, and
  4. contains eggs

then I’m 99% certain there is a queen present and everything is OK 1.

Individually, each of those observations isn’t a certain way of determining the queen status of the colony, but together they’re pretty-much a nailed-on certainty.

Not finding the queen

Notwithstanding the surety these four signs provide about the presence of the queen, they still don’t help you (or me 😉 ) find her.

And, for a few colony manipulations, it’s really helpful to find the queen. Indeed, for some it is essential.

I’m not going to discuss ways to help find the queen as I’ve written about it before and refer you there for starters.

The two obvious times it helps to know exactly where the queen are:

  • when you are removing frames, brood and bees from the colony – for example, when making up nucleus colonies
  • during swarm control

Frankly, you probably shouldn’t be doing the first of these if you don’t know where the queen is. There’s a real risk of leaving the parental colony queenless, which is probably not your intention.

Swarm control

The post today is going to deal with the second situation. How do you conduct swarm control when you don’t have a Scooby 2 where the queen is in the colony?

Swarm control is the term used to describe the colony manipulations that a beekeeper conducts to prevent the loss of a swarm. It is usually started after attempts at swarm prevention (e.g. supering early to provide more space) have clearly not worked.

You can tell the swarm prevention has not worked because the colony has started to produce queen cells … don’t panic.

This seemed like a logical post for this time of the season … and for another Covid-blighted spring. Beginners who started last year, or who will be getting their first bees this year, might well have to conduct swarm control without the benefit of a mentor.

And it’s beginners who are most likely to be unable to find the queen in an overflowing colony. These of course are the colonies that are most likely to swarm and – because of their ability to collect lots of honey – the very colonies you want not to swarm 😉

Swarm control when you can find the queen

All of the methods of swarm control I’ve previously discussed here have involved hive manipulations that require the location of the queen to be known:

  • The Pagden artificial swarm – the queen is left in the original location and is joined by all the flying bees. The brood and hive bees end up rearing a new queen.
  • The vertical split – the same as the Pagden artificial swarm, except conducted vertically rather than horizontally. Uses less equipment and more muscle.
  • The nucleus method – a nuc colony is established with the queen, some bees and brood. The parental colony is left to rear a new queen. Very reliable in my experience.

If you’re the type of beekeeper who can routinely find the queen, relatively quickly, however crowded or bad tempered the colony is, however short of time …

… in a downpour.

Congratulations. Apply here. No need to read any further 😉

But, for the rest of us …

Queens and bees

If you think about the contents of a colony it can be divided into three components:

  1. Queen
  2. Brood in all stages (eggs, larvae, pupae; abbreviated to BIAS) and the nurse or ‘hive’ bees
  3. Flying bees – the foraging workforce

Of these, only one is a ‘viable’ entity on its own.

The queen needs bees to feed her, build comb and rear the larvae that hatch from the eggs she lays. The foragers need a queen to lay eggs. Neither alone is viable, by which I mean ‘has the ability to develop into a full colony’.

In contrast, the combination of nurse bees and brood, in particular the eggs and very young larvae, does have the potential to create a complete colony.

I’ve discussed this concept before under the title Superorganism potential.

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Although neither the queen or flying bees alone have any long-term potential to create a new colony, together they can.

Both the Pagden and vertical split exploit this potential by separating the queen and flying bees from ‘all the rest’. It’s similar, but not identical to what happens when a colony swarms 3.

Loads of bees … and there’s a queen in there somewhere!

The method described below is a slight modification of the Pagden artificial swarm.

It exploits the fact that the flying bees return to their original location with unerring accuracy 4.

It couples this with the ‘Get out of jail free’ ability of bees to rear a new queen from eggs or very young larvae if they are queenless.

Together they make swarm control straightforward when you can’t find or don’t know where the queen is.

Or when you don’t have the time or patience or enthusiasm to find her 😉

So, let’s move from generalities to specifics …

During a routine inspection of a colony in late May 5 you find unsealed queen cells. The colony is strong and you’ve not seen the queen for weeks. Or ever. She’s not marked or clipped. There are eggs, larvae and sealed brood in abundance.

Stage 1 – preparation

  1. Check the colony again for any sealed queen cells. If you find any you should assume that the colony has probably already swarmed 6. If there are no sealed queen cells continue …
  2. Beg, borrow or steal a new floor, brood box, crownboard and roof. While you’re at it, scrounge or build 11 new frames. Of course, I expect all readers of this site are better prepared than me that. You will have spares close to hand – in the apiary shed, or the back of the beemobile, or you can quickly disassemble a nearby bait hive. Congratulations … I hope you’re feeling very smug 😉
  3. Move the soon-to-swarm colony (which I’ll term the old colony in the old hive from now on) away from its original location. Most advice suggests more than a metre. I prefer to move the old hive further away (e.g. to the other side of the apiary). You want to ensure that bees flying from the old hive relocate to the new hive. If you’re short of space at all it helps to rotate the old hive entrance to face in a different direction.
  4. Place the new floor and new brood box in the original location. Make sure the entrance faces the same way as it did when the old hive was in the original location.

You’ll notice that returning foragers will start to enter the new hive almost as soon as you place the floor and brood box in place.

Stage 1 – provision the new hive with eggs and larvae

  1. Remove the roof, crownboard, supers and queen excluder from the old hive and place them gently aside.
  2. Transfer one frame containing eggs and young larvae from the old hive to the new hive.
  3. It is imperative that the selected frame has no queen cells on it. Carefully inspect the frame for queen cells. If you find any, knock them off using your hive tool or fingers. The ability to judge which of the two hives contains the queen at the next inspection is dependent upon there being no queen cells at this stage.
  4. Place the selected frame in the middle of the new hive.
  5. Fill the remainder of the new hive with new frames.
  6. Add the queen excluder to the new hive 7.
  7. Add the supers to the new hive. Close the new hive by adding a crownboard and roof. See the note below about feeding this colony.
  8. Add a new frame to the gap now present in the old hive 8. Replace the crownboard and roof.
  9. Go and make a cup of tea … all done for today.

    Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – stage 1

I’ve assumed that the colony you are manipulating has supers present. If it did not, and particularly if there’s no nectar flow, you will need to feed the colony in the new hive. This ensures that the bees can build comb … which they’ll need to do if the queen is present.

You now leave the colonies for 7 days and then check them again to determine which contained the queen …

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the new hive

Inspect the new hive and look for queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive in stage 1(ii) (above). This hive will be much busier now as all of the flying bees from the old hive will have relocated to it

The new hive contains no queen cells

If there are no queen cells on the brood frame you introduced it is almost certain that the queen is in the new hive (see upper panel A in the diagram below). Look carefully on the frames of adjacent drawn comb for the presence of eggs. If so, you can be certain that the queen is in the new hive. Close the hive and let them get on with things.

The new hive does contain queen cells

If there are queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive then the queen is almost certainly not in the new hive (see lower panel B in the diagram below).

Because they are queenless and you provided them with a frame containing eggs and very young larvae they have started to produce a new queen … or queens.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

You want to make sure they only produce one new queen.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell that contains a big fat larva sitting in a deep bed of Royal jelly (a ‘charged’ cell). Mark the top of the frame with a pin (if you’re organised) or pen (if you’re less organised) or a hive tool (if you’re me 😉 ). Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

Be gentle with this frame. Don’t shake it, don’t drop it etc.

Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – 7 days later

Close the hive up and let the queen emerge and mate and start laying. This will take at least 17 days or so, and often longer.

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the old hive

Inspect the old hive and look for queen cells. This hive will be much less busy as most of the flying bees will have been ‘bled off’ returning to their original location (and boosting the population in the new hive).

The old hive contains no queen cells

With a much reduced population of workers – and if the queen is present – the bees will no longer need the queen cells, so will almost certainly have torn them down and destroyed them (see lower panel B in the diagram above).

If you carefully look through this hive you should find eggs and very young larvae present. These ‘prove’ that there is a queen present, even if you still cannot find her. Where else could the eggs have come from?

Close the hive up and let them get on with things.

The old hive does contain queen cells

Despite the reduced worker population, if this hive does not contain the queen the bees will be busy rearing a replacement … or three.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell. Mark the top of the frame with a pin 9. Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

The goal is the leave one charged queen cell only.

If all the cells are capped don’t worry. The bees are very unlikely to have chosen a ‘dud’. Choose a nice looking cell somewhere near the centre of the brood nest and destroy the others.

She’s gone …

Make a note in your diary/notebook and expect to wait 17-21 days until this queen is out and mated and laying (or possibly a bit longer). Other than perhaps checking the new queen has emerged there’s no need to disturb the colony in the meantime (and lots to be lost if you do interfere and disturb the virgin queen).

It’s as simple as that … what could possibly go wrong?

I’ve very rarely had to implement swarm control when I can’t find the queen. Usually I’ll just look a bit harder and find her eventually.

However, there are times when knowing what you need to do if you really cannot find her – because the hive is full of uncapped swarm cells and it’s raining hard, or the bees are going postal and you want to be anywhere but in this apiary next to the open hive – is very useful.

Are there any embellishments that might be worth considering?

If the old hive has very little comb with eggs and young larvae you need to ensure that both the old and the new hives have sufficient to draw new queen cells. This is rarely a problem, but be aware that this method only works if both old and new hives have the resources to rear a new queen should they need to.

On the contrary, if there’s ample eggs/larvae you could transfer a couple of frames to the new hive … remembering that there’s also then an increased chance you will also be transferring the elusive queen.

If the old hive is left with ample eggs and larvae you can safely knock back all the queen cells during stage 1. They will only then produce new cells if the queen is not present. This makes deciphering what’s going on at 7 days that much easier.

When I say 7 days, I mean 7 days … not 9, or when it stops raining or when you’ve got some spare time in the future 😉

A queen in a cell capped on the day you complete stage 1 will emerge 9 days later. On the off chance that the bees are queenright but do not tear the unwanted cells down you want to avoid this happening.

Finally, if there’s a dearth of nectar and no filled/partially filled supers on the colonies, you may need to feed them to avoid starvation.

Keep a close eye on them, but don’t interfere unless you have to.



  1. As often as not, if you go through the colony calmly and using little smoke you’ll see her anyway.
  2. Scooby is an abbreviation of Scooby Doo, which is pseudo-Cockney rhyming slang for ‘clue’. Appropriately for a blog based in Scotland, the first recorded use was in the Glasgow Herald in 1993 “Your lawyer telling youse that he husnae a scooby and youse can jist take a wee tirravie tae yersel” (tirravie means fit of rage, the rest you can probably work out!).
  3. Not identical … because the age distribution of bees in a swarm is strongly biased towards the younger bees in the hive.
  4. Actually, it’s not unerring. Drifting of bees between colonies occurs at a significant rate as far as disease management is concerned. But, as far as we’re concerned today it’s unerring.
  5. Or whenever.
  6. If the colony has swarmed there is no point in continuing … you instead need to ensure that only one new queen emerges.
  7. It’s worth shaking all the bees off the queen excluder into either the old or new hives. If you don’t there’s a remote risk the queen might end up above the queen excluder … another case of don’t do as I do, do as I say.
  8. See the note below about knocking back queen cells in the old hive.
  9. Having learnt the hard way that marks made with a hive tool are often difficult to subsequently find.

29 thoughts on “Swarm control and elusive queens

  1. Jenny

    Timely and clear advice! Newbie beekeeper here, who can never find the queen when I need to and only when I don’t need to. Thank you David! Feeling a little tiny bit better prepared now.

    1. David Post author

      Excellent Jenny … it’s always good to have a plan. I commented earlier that when confronted with a box full of bees and a dozen open queen cells, it’s much less stressful if you have a solution in mind from the outset.

      It’s even better if you have the equipment close to hand.

      I usually manage the former but not the latter 🙁

      Have a good season

    2. Jeff jenkins

      Hey David
      3 weeks ago I took a hive from a old building, was a very large hive. I moved the brood into frames along with the bees to brood box with about 40 lbs of honey from the hive. Checked a week later had brood but no eggs and queen cells. Don’t know what happened to queen but now waiting on new queen t emerge. Will they swarm or settle down to business.

      1. David Post author

        Hi Jeff

        As long as only one queen emerges they cannot swarm … if more than one does they might, though they often fight among themselves to leave only one. It’s a not dissimilar situation to what to do with the original hive during an artificial swarm. I always try to thin the QC’s out to leave one. See Queen cells … quantity and quality.


  2. Matthew Harris

    If the old hive contains the queen, and queen cells, then surely there is the possibility it just swarms once those cells are capped. I know in theory it won’t have flying bees, but it will promote some pretty quick, no? I can’t see any mention of this possibility in your description, but did I miss it? Thanks

    1. David Post author

      Hi Matthew

      They’ll lose flying bees quickly. Essentially every bee that leaves the hive will return to the old location (now containing the new hive), very quickly depleting the moved hive of flying bees. Even assuming a laying rate of 1500 eggs per day, the new flying bee population will not increase anything like as fast as the old flying bee population moves (if that makes sense). It’s probably not quite as simple as that because they can probably ‘promote’ bees to foraging roles a bit faster from the hive bees that remain. I’d need to think about that more. If you’ve ever used a Cloake board or similar, which redirects bees to an upper box during queen rearing, you’ll know that the upper box very rapidly fills with bees … that’s the rate that the moved old hive will empty.

      Are there any conditions the scenario you suggest might occur? Probably (because bees don’t read the books) but the only one I can think of is if you rearranged the hives during very poor weather, leaving the Q and all of the flying bees in the moved hive. If the weather stayed poor for a day or two and then suddenly got much better you might have a situation in which you could lose a swarm. It’s unlikely, not least because most beekeepers would rearrange the hives on a ‘good flying day’.

      I’d offer to test this theory later in the season … but won’t 😉


  3. Matthew Harris

    Second question – sorry.

    In the new box (on the old location), surely they will draw QCs from larvae, not eggs? So you could have a capped queen cell after 3 or 4 days, not 7? And thus have missed a swarm if you wait till day 7 to inspect?

    Thanks again

    1. David Post author

      Hi Matthew

      Yes … they pick larvae in cells to draw out into new queen cells. However, they’ll only do this if there’s NOT a queen in the box. Since there’s no queen in the box they cannot swarm 🙂


  4. Dave Stokes

    I can relate to this; my 30th year of bee keeping was marked by me finding a queen for the very first time. I’ve no idea how I achieved this feat or why I have, subsequently, had no difficulty. As you say, there are ways around the problem and I find the main advantages are that I now know if a queen is superseded and that I can dispose of an unsatisfactory queen.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Dave

      When it comes to finding the queen the best advice is …

      May the force be with you

      … but once you can find them, you wonder how you ever missed them before.


  5. Paul Lindstrom

    Thanks David. Last year we couldn’t find the queens in any of our three colonies, despite many thorough and eventually desperate tries. So this post comes very timely for us. If we can’t find the queens in the remaining two colonies (one colony upped and left mid December for some reason) this Spring, we will follow this procedure to make a controlled splits/artificial swarms.

    As usual I smiled several times when I read the article – witty and entertaining – perfect on a Friday afternoon.

    1. David Post author

      Hello Paul

      Losing a colony in midwinter is unusual other than from disease/starvation/’natural disaster’.

      I’ll write something about simple splits (as opposed to swarm control) this Spring. The method above is really designed to deal with a colony that is already making swarm preparations. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work of course …

      Pleased you enjoyed the post. The bees here were flying well yesterday and there’s a tangible feeling of excitement that the season is (finally) about to start.


  6. Paul Kirk

    many thanks for a clear and informative explanation. I don’t interfere with my bees other than for Varroa control and last year I lost a swarm too high up in an apple tree. So this year I’ll try this swarm control method. Process seems easy enough, but then there’s all those bees that haven’t read the books :)…

    1. David Post author

      Hi Paul

      Yes … things don’t always quite work exactly as the books say.

      I don’t know what percentage of managed colonies attempt to swarm each year. For wild/feral colonies it’s about 80% and my experience suggests it’s at probably about the same for my colonies. That being the case I expect to do some sort of swarm control on almost all the hives. I’d much prefer to ‘interfere’ like this than scrabble around trying to hive a bivouacked swarm I’d lost (quite possibly up a tall tree). I still set out bait hives to try and recapture any I do miss.


      1. paul kirk

        Hi David, probably interference was a poor word choice. I’m just minimalistic about routine management, preferring not to disturb colonies unnecessarily. I have been keeping bees since 2012 in Gower, South Wales and had some success and some failures. I use top bars in national boxes now, having experimented with different systems. I like the method you’ve described for swarm control and will probably try it this year as a method of increasing the number of colonies. In the past when swarms occurred, if I could catch them I would and my swarmed hives have always done well to date.
        I haven’t had a swarm survive to date though (despite feeding), but that may be due to a number of factors including how late in the year the swarm occured and what the subsequent weather was like etc.
        I’ve read many books and attended a local beekeeping course, and although I found a queen once or twice in 8 years, I wouldn’t give up the day job….So yor method is very helpful.

        1. David Post author

          Hello again Paul

          I commented earlier that I’ll write about ‘splits’ to make increase sometime a bit later in the spring. Last year I had (thanks to Covid restrictions) a very ‘hands-off’ beekeeping season. I did pre-emptive swarm control on most colonies, lost no swarms and got a better than average honey crop. The basics of the pre-emptive swarm control was described in Long distance beekeeping – I essentially used a nucleus swarm control method and allowed all the de-queened boxes to rear new queens. It worked very well and I generated more colonies.

          Natural swarm survival is low – perhaps 20% – because the swarm has to build comb and collect sufficient stores etc. If the weather is poor or it’s late in the summer I’d give them a gallon or two of syrup to give them a flying start.


  7. Roger Pool

    To avoid transferring the queen accidentally from the ‘old’ hive to the ‘new’ why not shake all the bees off before transferring the frame?
    This should also help in detecting queen cells that need to be taken down?
    Good plan to be thinking about plans for swarm control before the season starts!

    1. David Post author

      Hi Roger

      Yes, you could certainly do this. If you just transfer eggs and larvae the queen must be in the old box.

      However, I’d worry about how long the shaken frame would remain ‘bee free’ and if there was a risk the brood would get chilled. The method above is designed – not by me I hasten to add, it’s the method also recommended by the National Bee Unit – and ideal for the less experienced beekeeper as it involves very few manipulations. Shaking frames free of bees risks increasing the complexity and chances of things going awry.

      I think you final point is really important … if you already have a plan in mind when swarm control is needed (ideally backed up with the necessary equipment ‘to hand’) then you are unlikely to panic when confronted with a box full of swarm cells.


      1. David Parker

        It doesn’t really matter if you do transfer the queen from the old hive to the new hive as this method works wherever the queen ends up.

        However, if you’re not going to shake the bees off the frame you move from the old hive to the new, there’s a slight risk that if she’s on the frame you might drop her. She might find her own way back (to the new hive as she’ll know where that it is) but just in case I’d use an empty box (with a bottom!) under or enclosing the frame whilst you’re transporting it. It also will keep the frame warm if there’s a cool wind.

        1. David Post author

          Hi David

          If I’m moving queens any distance, or want to protect her while I’m fumbling around in the hive, I use a two-frame nuc box. However, doing the procedure described above I’d probably not bother, trusting that I could walk across the apiary with tripping over and dropping the frame.

          I’m afraid that this cannot always be guaranteed 😉

          In my experience most queens are pretty tenacious about hanging on to the comb … famous last words.

          You could always move the old hive away, assemble the new floor and brood box next to it, transfer the frame and then move the new hive back to the old location. There would be lots of flying bees waiting for you (and some would be sitting on the hive stand in the way) but it would prevent dropping the queen.


  8. Will Merryman

    I don’t want the queen in my sample for varroa check either. She must be located prior to alcohol wash. 😁

    1. David Post author

      Hi Will

      Yes … probably wise 😉

      I did some shook swarms a couple of years ago as part of some experiments. During these the queens were carefully caged by one of the team. We went to requeen the boxes and discovered that one of the queen cages was empty … and one had two queens in 🙁

      It generally helps to look after the queen.


    1. David Post author

      Hi Clare

      You’re very welcome … there are other methods posted online, but this is probably the most straightforward.


  9. Duncan

    Sigh. Finding the queen in one of my hives last year proved impossible! I saw her once, very early in the season but even though I thought I was prepared for a bit of marking, by the time I’d picked things up she’d hidden again. Never once saw her for the rest of the season, despite looking diligently every inspection (so I thought).

    This was in a 14×12 which I’d inherited, so masses of bees, a good number of which seemed to coat the walls of the brood box. Do you have a view on whether the queen could have been off the frames and on the walls? I accept that being there at every inspection is unlikely. But if I assume a very optimistic 30% chance of spotting a queen (I reckon I’m much worse than that), if the queen were off frame 50% of the time, then my chance of spotting her would immediately be down to 15% which is not good odds.

    I should add that the frames on that colony were pretty old and dark which doesn’t help (I think). Bailey change planned for this year which I hope will make it easier.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Duncan

      It’s rare that the Q goes ‘off the reservation’. Unless you smoke the box hard, or otherwise disrupt them a lot, she’ll stick pretty tightly to the central part of the brood nest. You very rarely see Q’s on frames of stores for example. I have found Q’s on the sidewalls, but it’s generally after I’ve chased her across the box frame-by-frame and she’s got nowhere else to go.

      Of course, some Q’s are much more difficult to spot. I think I had one last year I never saw. As long as there are eggs and no queen cells I stop looking for the Q … all is good in the hive and they’ll be fine until the following week.

      It’s often a case of the more you look, the less you see …



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *