Page 1 of 4 123 ... LastLast
Results 1 to 10 of 36

Thread: Swarming

  1. #1
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Somerset
    Posts
    1,852
    Blog Entries
    35

    Default Swarming

    It's getting near that time of year again so I thought it might be useful to talk about swarming. *Now I'm into year 4, I'm obviously an expert so I'm going to throw myself to the wolves and write what I reckon I know about swarming, pitched here with the assumption that new and prospective beekeepers are the intended readers.

    I'm going to try and break this into three parts:
    What swarming is and how, why it occurs and what can be done about it. (this bit)
    What goes on, and what to look for inside the colony in the build up to a swarm
    Basic Principles behind Managing Swarming with an Artificial Swarm.

    What is swarming?
    Basically reproduction at a colony level, i.e. how bees reproduce. When it comes to honeybees it is more useful to think of the hive/colony (I tend to use both interchangeably) as being the animal rather than individual bees.

    When a colony swarms the existing queen and a good proportion, I'm not going to quote a figure here as different books, websites and groups of beekeepers will give you different percentage numbers, of the existing bees will fill themselves with honey, leave the hive, normally pitch up on a tree branch, fence post or somewhere equally inconvenient to collect them, relatively close by and look for a new home. Left behind is the existing brood, nurse bees and a number of queen cells from which new queens will emerge in approximately 7 days time.

    When do bees swarm
    Anytime from April to July (typically) dependent on a number of factors we'll look at shortly.

    As beekeeper, why should I care if my bees swarm?
    Saw someone post this reasonable question somewhere else recently.

    Possibly the most important reason is consideration for your neighbours. Most people quite like [the notion of] Bees at the moment, but they don't tend to like a swirling mass of several thousand bees descending on their garden while they're sitting in it. Swarms also tend to view chimneys as suitable places to make a new nest and once they're established in a chimney they're a bugger to get back out again.

    From a beekeeping point of view, losing the majority of your flying bees and having no new brood for a few weeks just before the main nectar flow starts also means that you get a lot less honey than you would otherwise.

    So how do I stop them?
    To be blunt, you can't. All things being equal that hive will want to swarm at some point.
    What we try to do is manage that impulse to swarm. Both in terms of reducing their inclination to swarm in the first place and, when they prepare to swarm anyway, managing that so we hopefully don't end up with a big swarm hanging off a neighbour's tree while they're trying to have a BBQ. Dealing with their intention to swarm before they leave the hive not only means we don't have to try and retrieve them out of a tree, but we we have a number of options available to us as to what we do with the bees.

    In our association we use the following graphic:

    In order for bees to swarm, all three sides of the triangle must be true. Break that Triangle and they can't or won't swarm. It is obviously not that practical to remove the queen or the flying bees, so in employing swarm prevention measures we concentrate initially on trying to control conditions.

    As 'conditions' is a pretty vague definition I've attempted to broadly classify some of the range of conditions that can influence the desire to swarm:

    I'm not claiming this as an exhaustive list. The top three however are probably the most commonly cited conditions and can act in conjunction with each other to make a hive think it's time to swarm.

    Lack of laying room
    Talking in very broad generalisations, the books all reckon that queens can lay 2,000 eggs a day, I personally think this number is high and it generally won't apply at all times, but we'll stick with it as an example. At 21 days from egg to emerging that's 42,000 cells required just for brood. A National Brood box has a capacity of approximately 50,000 cells. That doesn't leave much room for pollen and nectar to be stored; which they will at the expense of laying room. If the queen has no room to lay this can trigger the desire to swarm.

    Overcrowding and 'poor'/old queen
    I've linked these together because I believe in some respects that they're quite closely related in terms of what is going on.

    Another picture! This shows the approximate colony population over the course of a year. it's not entirely co-incidental that swarming tends to occur when the colony population is reaching its peak.


    An important factor in the regulation of a bee colony is "Queen Substance", a number of Pheromones secreted by the queen and circulated by the workers around the colony.

    As the queen ages, the potency/quantity (not sure) of this pheromone reduces. In a crowded hive, it can also become more difficult to distribute enough of the pheromone, both therefore can trigger the impulse to swarm.

    For this reason a lot of standard Swarm prevention advice suggests keeping Young queens in the colony.

    For both Overcrowding and lack of laying room, supering early can help alleviate congestion inside the hive and ensure that they have plenty of room to store nectar. WHen I have 8-9 frames of bees in the brood box I start preparing supers, when a similar number of frames in the first super are drawn and contain stores I start to add additional supers moving frames with stores up to keep empty frames immediately above the brood nest.

    I tend to give a box of comb in the first instance (easier said than done if this is your first season) and then give them empty frames. I've absolutely no evidence for this at all but I suspect that busy bees with wax to draw might be slightly less inclined to think about swarming.

    Time of Year/Weather
    Jimbo reckons his colonies start thinking of swarming around the third week of May and consistently have done for the past 10 years. With a broad window of opportunity between mid April and July, having a sense of when your bees tend to get it into their heads to swarm comes in handy. The weather can have an impact both in terms of the build up and when a swarm will actually leave. This has been the wettest spring I've seen since I started and only one of my hives is strong enough as a result that I'd think them worth watching out for.

    Genetics
    I think this is a hard one to quantify but lots is made of "swarmy" bees and eyebrows are frequently raised if you've acquired your bees from a swarm to begin with. Quite why we're quite so willing to blame the bees for being swarmy rather than pointing the finger at the beekeeper I'm not sure but there we go.

    I think we can probably safely assume that some bee colonies are more inclined to start preparing to swarm than others though.

    Drones
    I've included drones as a condition simply because in my limited experience I've never seen a colony try and swarm that hadn't raised their own drones and there weren't drones from other colonies hanging around.

    While I do use Drone culling as part of my Varroa IPM I do like to let my bees raise drones. They want to for a start so I don't think that attempting to manage Drones as part of Swarm prevention is likely to have much effect, but it can be an indicator that they might be thinking about it.

    Part II - What to look for inside the hive, coming next, comments, criticisms, corrections etc, in the meantime welcome.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Somerset
    Posts
    1,852
    Blog Entries
    35

    Default

    Ok, so we know what swarming is, when it's likely to happen and what sort of conditions we're looking for so I want to try and look at in more detail what we're looking for when we inspect a colony for signs that they're preparing to swarm.

    Play Cup
    Before we do any of that though, I want to talk about play cups.

    What's a play cup? It's a potential queen cell. It looks kind of like an Acorn cup and you'll often find them when inspecting a hive, they can crop up all over the place and will look something like:

    What you can't see from the photo, unfortunately is the bottom of the cup, which is empty. On it's own this is NOT an indication that a colony is preparing to swarm. When I first started I used to knock these down, nowadays I tend to leave them in place. If you knock them down they'll just make more and probably in different places so you spend every inspection finding play cups in different locations to last time all still empty.

    But you should check them anyway, just to make sure. Sometimes bees like to mess with you, especially if you're new to beekeeping

    So you're into April/May, maybe even June. Your colony is building up nicely, your brood box is all drawn, perhaps you've got 7-8 frames of brood, you've stuck a super on nice and early to give them lots of space and you're inspecting on a weekly basis. During each inspection you should be looking for signs that they're thinking of swarming. The easiest thing to look for are queen cells.

    It might be an obvious point to make, but trying to see queen cells looking at frame that looks like this:

    Isn't going to be easy. At time of writing I have a colony not far off looking like that in terms of numbers and you'd better believe that I'm looking closely for queen cells.

    So you need to get the bees off the frames. When I inspect I take out the dummy board and the next frame and put them to one side, this gives me plenty of room in the brood box to give the frame a short, sharp shake. You don't need to get every bee off the frame, but you need to be able to inspect the combs.

    What are you looking for?
    Here's one of mine from a couple of years ago, I think this is a fairly typical pattern on a frame of queen cells for a colony preparing to swarm:

    Don't just look at the bottom of frames though as most of the advice suggests (see below). In my experience they will build swarm cells anywhere that there are gaps in the comb so on the bottom, up the sides, in that big hole that happened when they gummed two frames together.

    How do I know they're thinking of swarming? Some of them are no more than play cups after all.
    Look in them, if you see this:

    They're serious about swarming.
    At this stage the existing queen is still in the hive.

    I think this is a good point to talk about the swarming timeline and thankfully I have an image for that.


    The first line is the most important, that's what happens under normal situations. The second and third lines are to illustrate the answer to the question "What happens if I just keep removing queen cells as part of swarm control?". Under Duress, for want of a better word, your bees will use a larvae to raise a queen and your hive will swarm in between a 7 day inspection period. Just cutting out Queen Cells is NOT managing swarming.

    I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you see a larvae like the one above, on the right, you could assume as a rough idea that your bees started to make queen cells pretty soon after your last inspection (assuming 7 day inspections). That is not a young larvae at least, it's big and fat and can't be more than a couple of days away from being sealed. That is the critical point when managing swarming. Depending on the weather, as soon as the first queen cell is sealed, the colony will swarm. In the context of an inspection, the cell on the left is unimportant, it's a smaller, younger larvae. If those are the only two cells in the colony, it's when the one on the right is sealed that will determine when the colony swarms.

    And for completeness, once you have sealed queen cells:

    Your colony will almost certainly have swarmed. Before we get to the next stage there is one important message:

    Don't Panic
    Put the hive tool down, put the crown board on and take a deep breath. I have the left next section until last for a reason.
    Last edited by Neils; 20-05-2012 at 10:24 PM.

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Somerset
    Posts
    1,852
    Blog Entries
    35

    Default

    I've found queen cells, what do I do?
    First and foremost, I'll say it again.
    Don't Panic
    Put the hive tool down, maybe put the crown board back on and have a think for a few minutes.

    The classic mistake many new beekeepers make is that they see queen cells, panic and start cutting them out. Once they've removed them all they then realise they can't find any eggs, can't find the queen because the hive has already swarmed and they've now rendered it hopelessly queenless.

    So before you do anything else, take stock of your situation. Assume the worst. You missed queen cells last inspection and they've already swarmed. On a 7 day inspection routine and actively looking for them you probably didn't, but for now, expect the worst case scenario.

    First, let's go back to our swarming timeline:


    You're on a 7 day inspection routine, you definitely didn't see queen cells last week, so if we assume that your bees started to make queen cells the second you closed the hive last week, they cannot be any more than 7 days old and you should therefore still have a queen in the hive.

    Before we do anything else, lets also revisit our "Swarm Triangle". Conditions are already met, so we can amend it slightly, now you have queen cells, here are the conditions for a swarm to issue:

    To prevent the swarm issuing, you need to break that triangle and that is the principle behind an Artificial swarm.

    The method I am going use will split the Queen and the Flying bees from the brood. There are lots of methods, lots of variations and lots of options available to you when it comes to artificial swarming, I'm using this one purely because it is simple and, I hope, reasonably easy to explain and illustrate. All of them however work on the same basic principle above.

    You will need
    1 Complete spare hive:
    Roof, Crown Board, Brood box, Frames of foundation, floor and a stand.

    Hopefully you have this already made up and ready to go. If not get busy, you've got a maximum of 2 days before the swarm leaves if you do nothing at all! Now place the stand and the floor a couple of feet to one side of the existing hive.

    So right now, you have something that resembles:

    i.e. your current hive, with a queen, brood and a bunch of queen cells. Before you do anything else, you may want to establish that you still have a queen. Is your queen marked? Can you see her? Can you see eggs? Are all the queen cells open?

    I have a queen
    Good. Take your existing Brood box and place it on the new floor to the side. Where that used to be, place your spare brood box. Remove the central frame of foundation and put it to one side.

    Find your queen and on a frame of brood which has No queen cells on it, place her and the frame in the centre of the foundation frames. If you have them on, the Queen Excluder and supers can be replaced and that hive closed up.

    In the hive that now has all the brood, inspect each frame, choose one open queen cell that you can see has a nice larvae on Royal Jelly in it. Mark its position on the top of the frame with a drawing pin if you like so you know where it is. Remove every other queen cell Except this one.

    You should now have something that resembles:


    By moving the brood to the side of the existing hive, what we're also going to do is remove any flying bees from the brood to join the queen (and your honey supers!) on the original site which is where they remember home to be:


    After one week when we come to inspect again we are first going to check the brood hive again thoroughly for queen cells, having marked the position last week of the cell we liked the look of, any new queen cells that may have been made since last week can be removed.

    What we're also going to do is move the brood side of the Artificial Swarm again, this time to the other side of the original Hive:


    Why are we doing this? The new flying bees are going to leave the Brood and return to where they remember home to be. But home is no longer there so they go to the next nearest hive which is the Queen on the original hive location. This gives the queen and your honey supers a boost of flying bees.

    More importantly we're now assumed to be on day 14 of our swarm timeline. In about two days time your new queen is going to emerge. What if you missed a queen cell? You now have the potential conditions for a Swarm again so by moving the brood to the other side of the queen we, again, remove the flying bees from the brood. Because there are no flying bees a swarm cannot issue and the first queen to emerge should be allowed to finish off any other rogue queen cells.

    This hive can now be left for 4-5 weeks or so to allow the new queen time to mate and come into lay. If you cannot see any brood or a queen after this time, a donor frame of eggs can be introduced to check if the hive makes emergency queen cells. It can take longer than 4 weeks for a queen to mate and start laying so don't panic just yet.

    Once you have a new laying queen you have a number of options: First, do nothing, congratulations, you had one hive, now you have two.

    You can simply unite both the brood boxes using a sheet of newspaper between them and let the queens sort themselves out.

    You can remove your old queen (into a nuc) and unite the two brood boxes, using a sheet of newspaper between them with the new queen.

    I don't have a queen
    I'm not going to try and cover the various methods for tracking down a queen that you think might be in a hive, but if you are sure that the queen has gone (no eggs, sealed queen cells, she was marked etc) the process is more straightforward.

    First, are any of the queen cells still open? If so can you see one that has a larvae on a bed of Royal Jelly? Mark this cell and remove all the others, again it is important to leave only a single queen cell, if there is more than one you will almost certainly lose a cast swarm.

    If all the cells are already sealed it may be prudent to make up a nuc with another queen cell as insurance, don't assume a sealed queen cell actually has a (viable) queen in it. Then leave it 4-5 weeks before inspecting again to allow the queen time to emerge, mate and come into lay.

    Marking and Clipping Queens
    Artificial swarming is a good reason for marking your queen. You need to be able to find here to effectively carry out an Artificial swarm. If your queen is not marked and you have difficulty finding her it may be prudent to ask for helping making sure she's marked before you need to find her for sure.

    Clipping queens gives you an added layer of insurance against losing a swarm but at the expense of possibly, probably even, losing your queen and hence is no substitute for regular, thorough inspections at this time of year. By removing one wing you remove her ability to fly so while a swarm may still issue, the queen should simply plonk onto the ground while the rest of the bees zoom off. After a few seconds they'll realise that she's not with them and return to the hive.

    Further Reading
    Jon linked this further down the discussion but I think it's worth putting here on the first page.
    http://www.wbka.com/pdf/a012queencells.pdf
    Last edited by Neils; 03-06-2012 at 10:51 PM.

  4. #4
    Member Wraith's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2012
    Location
    Measham, Derbyshire
    Posts
    33

    Default

    Great start to a good subject for begginers. Dare I say sticky already!!

  5. #5
    Senior Member Jon's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Belfast, N. Ireland
    Posts
    5,107
    Blog Entries
    94

    Default

    I think genetics is a massive factor in swarming.
    Beekeepers make up nucs from queen cells harvested from swarmy colonies which is actively selecting for swarmy genetics and selecting against colonies which don't make queen cells. These are the ones you really ought to be breeding from.
    If other BKAs are like mine, the people with the swarmiest bees end up giving extra cast swarms to the new beekeepers to get them started, again perpetuating swarmy genetics.
    I was at our annual BKA dinner last night and one of our members had nearly all his colonies swarm mid April.
    He has already made up a stack of nucs and splits with these queen cells and given away several swarms.
    I have 18 colonies at the moment, 13 of them at full strength, and none of them are making swarm cells yet, touch wood.
    Last year I only had 4 make queen cells out of 14 colonies I had.
    Only one of them actually swarmed and that was on 1st July. I hadn't checked it for a month as it had a clipped queen and she was back in the box when I opened it after the swarm.
    This queen is heading a large colony I set up as a queenright cell raiser on Friday.
    I found 2 supersedure cells which i destroyed. The same colony made two supersedure cells this time last year and i knocked them down as well. (another example of why the bees do not necessarily know best as 1 year on this queen still has a perfect brood pattern.)
    The queen I want to graft from this year is in her third season and her colony has never made a queen cell.
    I reckon it is a big help to be proactive in terms of the queens you breed from.

  6. #6
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Somerset
    Posts
    1,852
    Blog Entries
    35

    Default

    I don't disagree with any of that, I'll just make the point that I'm intending the thread for new beekeepers and I think bogging down too much, at this stage, on genetics overcomplicates matters. I included genetics because I don't think you can ignore it and I do think you raise a valid point when it comes to using those colonies to generate splits from and that perhaps new guys getting colonies might want to bear it in mind. It NEVER hurts to question the guy/gal you're buying/getting bees from about the provenance of the bees. Whilst swarming is actually relatively straightforward once you get the hang of it starting off with bees that want to swarm at the drop of a hat to begin with certainly makes it more challenging than it need be.

  7. #7
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Somerset
    Posts
    1,852
    Blog Entries
    35

    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by Wraith View Post
    Great start to a good subject for begginers. Dare I say sticky already!!
    Thanks for the vote of confidence, I think I'd like some more feedback from the rest of the forum first, tidy it up into something that we generally think is good advice and then I'll sticky it.

  8. #8
    Senior Member Jon's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Belfast, N. Ireland
    Posts
    5,107
    Blog Entries
    94

    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by Nellie View Post
    I don't disagree with any of that, I'll just make the point that I'm intending the thread for new beekeepers
    Fair enough, I nearly mentioned wing morphometry as well.

    Top tips for preventing swarming:

    1. Don't listen to the guys who say feed feed feed, the bees will stop taking it when they don't want it. This advice is dished out all the time and it is a recipe for swarming when applied in the spring. Bees just keep taking syrup or fondant and clog up the entire box. They will move it all up into the supers as soon as you put them on and mix it with your honey crop. I have seen brood boxes so full of syrup that the queen has a total of about 2 frames left to lay in.

    2. Demaree works well, related to the above as the queen always has an unlimited number of cells to lay in.

    3. Clip the queen.

    But seriously, if you start with swarmy stock you are on a hiding to nothing.
    Last edited by Jon; 20-05-2012 at 10:33 PM.

  9. #9
    Senior Member Bridget's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2011
    Location
    On the edge of a mature pine forest, Kingussie, Inverness-shire
    Posts
    523

    Default

    I'm going back home after a weekend away. Weather good and I'm not sure what I'll find. As a newbie this whole swarm stuff is very scary. I have committed several hundred pounds into a Nuc, raised it successfully through the winter to a strong colony and I could loose it all. Due to rubbish weather we have not been able to have a really good inspection. I just hope we don't have to refer to this thread tomorrow. However if we do I hope you are right!!!

  10. #10
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2010
    Location
    Somerset
    Posts
    1,852
    Blog Entries
    35

    Default

    I'd better get a shifty on writing part III then!

    Last weekend was the first inspection I managed on mine and I was convinced one of them had probably swarmed, turns out they aren't as daft as I sometimes think. but you raise a good point.

    If you lose a swarm it is not the end of the world
    You won't lose it all.
    Will it set your plans back a bit? probably.
    Has that queen you wanted to raise new colonies from gone? Probably
    Will you get less honey? almost certainly.
    Am I a Bad Beekeeper? Not yet, you're a new one, that you're even reading a forum like this one suggests otherwise.

    [edit] Part III definitely won't be finished tonight
    Last edited by Neils; 21-05-2012 at 12:04 AM.

Tags for this Thread

Bookmarks

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •