If you have honeybees, you have a duty of care for them and that includes some sort of swarm control. You must also assume that your bees will swarm every year. Why? I hear you ask. Well, swarming is the way honeybees naturally produce. Every year I get the odd customer who is buying bees from us, ask me if they can have bees that don’t swarm. The answer is no, all honeybees swarm, it is an essential part of their life cycle, if we were to breed bees that don’t swarm that would lead to there being no honeybees.
So, it is essential that as part of your honeybee management that you plan, learn, understand, and have the equipment to carry out at least one swarm control method. The idea being that if you carry out regular inspections on your bees, give them enough space at the right time, you will reduce the chances of them swarming at all because you will be in control of what is happening within the colony. However, you won’t always get it right so you must be prepared for them to lose a swarm now and then. Even if you do give them all the space in the world, a colony will still swarm as this is their natural way of reproducing just like every other animal on the planet.
Prevention – When we say Swarm Management and use the word “Prevention”, this means controlling what is happening within the colony to give them space, and therefore prevent them from swarming. The most obvious thing, at the beginning of the season, is to add supers so that the bees have storage space to put all that lovely nectar they are foraging for. You also need to keep an eye on the free space in the brood box. A good colony will move honey up from the brood box, into the space above, to allow more free cells for the queen to lay in. However, sometimes we need to help them. If your bees are actively bringing in nectar and filling supers but you have full frames of food in the brood box, which is taking up valuable laying space, you can scrape the capping off these cells which will encourage the bees to move the honey up. Or you can remove them and replace them with drawn comb, if you have it, or if not, then give them frames with new foundation.
If your colony is expanding its brood nest at a rate of knots, you will either need to offer more space for brood to be laid by adding another box, you can double brood or brood and a half: this is where you use a super as part of the brood box. This will allow more space for the brood nest to expand. If, however, you do not want to run the colony this big but want to do something to prevent them from swarming, due to lack of space, you will need to remove some frames of brood and bees and thus reduce the colony size. This will mean making up a new smaller colony as a swarm prevention method – Nucleus method. Leave the queen in the original colony to carry on, either let the nucleus make its own new queen or, if you have another colony that you have had to do swarm control on, you can take a queen cell from that and carefully press it into the top of the brood frames. Personally, I don’t like this method, but it will gain you at least 8 days for this colony to become queen right. You will need to go through the colony and remove any other queen cells they start to make, and of course, there is every chance they may pull down the queen cell you put in. If this happens just let them make their own queen. Alternatively you can introduce a mated queen to this colony, advice on how to do this can be read on my page How to Introduce a Mated Queen.
Control – When we say Swarm Control, this usually refers to how we carry out a control method on a colony that already has swarm cells, and, if left to its own devices, the colony will swarm. By controlling the swarming process, we will allow the colony to swarm, but we have the control. By controlling it we won’t lose the swarm and it will not be a nuisance, or a danger to others. You may laugh at me using the word danger but remember; your neighbours may not be quite as keen on honeybees as you are! To some people a swarm of honeybees will be very scary, so, if you have honey bees, you have a responsibility to control them. Having said that even the most skilled beekeepers and bee farmers will lose the odd swarm here and there.
I have a post that explains an artificial swarm control method that is quite simple, and you should have all the equipment you need. There are other methods such as the Demaree, which can sound quite complicated but in reality it’s not, you just need more specialist equipment. The Demaree has been modified over the years and there are now a few other versions to the original method. We use a modified version ourselves. I will write a post on this another time.
Another control method is to remove the queen from the colony to make up a small nucleus. This may sound like the artificial swarm however it’s the other way around. In the artificial swarm you are removing the colony, and leaving the queen on the original site where the flying bees will return. In the nucleus method you are removing the queen, a little brood and young bees from the colony. The original colony is left with a queen cell, or left for the bees to make a new queen if they haven’t already thrown up queen cells. I don’t use this method as I find it less affective and a lot of the time original colony still swarms a little later in the season. You can read about the Nucleus method of swarm control in a separate post.
Summary – You need to plan ahead as to how you are going to manage swarm prevention. Always remember though, no matter what method of prevention you use, if your bees need to go through a natural reproduction method, no amount of space or manipulation will prevent this. So, make sure you are equipped and ready to carry out a swarm control method. It is not fair on others to just allow your bees to swarm and cause a nuisance.