Swarming around day four at the first attempt

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My learning curve hasn't flattened out yet! Here was yesterday's experience. The Perth and District BA persuaded me to offer a couple of hours of my time as one of the items in their early spring auction. Steve, the winner, arrived at 1pm at my main apiary yesterday.

OK, a cast hanging in a tree as I arrived. It happens, especially as my visits have been hurried and slightly less than weekly in the main. Later we found an opened Q cell as well as a sealed Q cell in a split in a Paynes nuc box. My fault. After watching to see what it was thinking (just a little dancing for a couple of possible new homes) I knocked it into an empty Paynes box and all seemed well.

When we were into our second colony inspection we could see a fuss in the air around the last hive in the row. Funny, I thought, I looked at that one less than a week ago and thought it was safe for a while. So we had a grand view of a swarm emerging and settling on a plum tree a short distance away, in another direction from the cast. Great, I thought, what an advert for my beekeeping prowess. We let the swarm settle while we got on with inspections. Later we went over for a peek at the swarm. I realised on the way that the queen in that colony was marked and clipped, so why did the swarm settle in the tree? Sure enough, there she was in the grass a foot in front of the hive, being attended to by half a dozen bees. Let's pick her up and put her in a cage. OK, I predicted that the swarm would be unsettled. It was, the bees were nervous and running about on the clustered swarm. Unlike the cast which was quiet.

Right. I offered Steve the swarm (he lost his bees overwinter) and he went off to his car to get a nuc box. We put one frame (no brood or eggs) in his box, added the queen, moved the old hive aside, and placed his box on the old site. We set about looking very carefully through the old box, expecting the usual loads of Q cells which somehow I must have missed. Lots of queen cups without even eggs in them. One, just one, early stage Q cell. Just an extended Q cup with a tiny larva. Respectable bees never swarm at that stage! It will have been about 4 days from being laid in a Q cup. Weird. Surprisingly it took the swarm in the tree about an hour to take flight again, even though it looked as if it knew it was queenless right away. They went back to Steve's box on the old site, just as I hoped. He now has the old queen, some comb, four frames of foundation, some of the flying bees that didn't join the swarm, and bees from the swarm desperate to make comb and rebuild. Not all went back however.

So we turned our attention to the cast in the Paynes nuc box on a table in the other direction (they both flew a similar distance out, one SW and one SE). Oh dear, bees all over the box. Are they trying to leave, if so why don't they just fly off? Remembering that about a quarter of the swarm had been left on their tree after the main exodus back to Steve's nuc box, I realised these bees could be from the full but queenless swarm. They were all round the Paynes box and fanning like mad. I tentatively lifted the lid and yes, the small cast was still in there! The swarm had been looking out for their lost queen, and could smell one inside the Paynes box. Scouts had gone back, spread the word, got them to take to the air, and 'pointed' the way to the Paynes box. They use a fast zipping back and forwards flight to do that in the middle of the slow moving cloud of bees. By this time the original bees from the cast fanning at the entrance to the Paynes box had settled down so these new arrivals had no clue to get in apart from the smell coming from under the floor.

I carefully carried over the Paynes box with its cast inside and a quarter of the big swarm (and a useful addition to the small cast) on the outside. Shook them all into a wooden nuc box with foundation and left them to get on with it.

Some lessons. Colonies that previously had no sign of swarming preparations can swarm about 4 days after the queen lays her first egg in a queen cup. Jings. In swarms it is the workers (or scouts) that decide where to take the swarm, not the queen. She is supposed to follow. Swarms can be indecisive and split to two locations. Bees in a swarm are on the lookout for signs of a queen and can sniff one out well inside a polystyrene box. Nothing is easy in beekeeping.

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Updated 02-06-2014 at 10:53 PM by gavin



  1. Jon's Avatar
    Never a dull moment in beekeeping!
    Do you think you might have swarmy stock?
    None of mine have made any queen cells yet this year apart from one box which I checked on Sunday which had about 10 sealed emergency cells.
    Something must have happened the queen when I checked the box a week before. (oops, what did I do!) This was one I had just transferred from a nuc to a full size brood box and was only over about 7 frames.
    I have 14 colonies on double brood at the moment and a few more on single brood chambers.
  2. gavin's Avatar

    > Do you think you might have swarmy stock?

    Just perhaps. I'm amazed that yours are so slow to make Q cells. The majority of mine have done so already.
  3. drumgerry's Avatar
    No charged queen cells yet among my lot as well Gavin. I'd be surprised if I don't see any over the course of the next couple of weeks though
  4. Jon's Avatar
    June tends to be slack for queen cells. may is the worst month than another spate in July.