Swarm Control Nucleus Method

The nucleus method is good if you don’t have much spare equipment and you plan on uniting the colony back to one again.

This method may sound similar to the artificial swarm however its the other way around. In the artificial swarm you moved the parent colony away and left the queen and the flying bees on the original site. In the nucleus method you are removing the queen, a little brood and young bees and leaving the colony where it is.

You need a nuc box or full size hive with dummy board (so you can reduce the space the bees need keep warm). You have queen cells and your queen is still there. Find the queen and take her on the frame she is on, which most likely will have eggs, and also take another frame of sealed brood and a frame of food. If you are using a nuc box fill the rest of box with frames, drawn comb if you have it, foundation if you don’t but remember to feed them with syrup! You will also need to shake in a couple of frames of bees, you need to compensate for the flying bees that will return to the parent colony. Tomorrow check this nuc to ensure you have enough bees to cover the brooda and look after the colony. If one of your frames of brood had emerging brood on it then you will soon have new young bees in here as well.

The parent colony is inspected and all but one good open queen cell is removed. It is best to find your good cell first before you destroy all the others. You will need to check this colony a week later and remove any new queen cells your bees may have started, so do mark the frame that has your good cell on it so you don’t accidentally remove that one! Once you have only 1 queen cell and no way for the bees to make more you can leave the bees get on with it. All being well the new queen will emerge and go on her mating flights and start to lay. This can take a few weeks and you do not want to disturb them during this time. I always leave mine for a good 3 weeks but I do keep an eye on the entrance. If the bees are bringing in pollen this is a good indicator that all is well. When you do check them, you should see some eggs. If you don’t see eggs look for polished cells as this means the queen is imminently going to start laying.

Your nuc will also be growing in size over these three weeks, so you now have the option to keep this as a separate colony and hive it when necessary and increase your number of colonies. Or, you can unite this back with your original colony using the newspaper method.

Quick Update

Thanks to those that pointed out to me about the broken links in Swarming-Management; Prevention & Control. I made an error on timings; the subjects are not yet published which is why the links are not working – rookie error!!

Nucleus Method is due to publish this Wednesday 1st March 2023

Artificial Swarm is due to publish March 6th 2023

Thanks again, hope you are enjoying our blog and that you find useful information within.

Becky and the team

Swarming – Management; Prevention & Control

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.

Winter Loss – What happened to my bees?

If you are reading this the chances are you have lost your bees over winter, you are feeling upset and saddened and you want to know why they have died and most beekeepers think “What did I do wrong?”

There are always winter losses and there are many reasons why colonies don’t make it through winter. It stands to reason that the more colonies of honeybees you have the more likely you are to suffer with winter losses and it may not be anything you have done so before you go blaming yourself see if you can see why the colony has died. It may be that you can’t work out what has happened, below I have given some examples of winter losses.

Starvation – there are two types of starvation, one is beekeeper error, you took too much honey off your bees and didn’t bother to check them through the winter and they have starved. The bees will be found with the heads in the cells because they are desperate for food. This is your fault entirely and yes you should blame yourself, this was completely avoidable and its because you were greedy – sorry but that is exactly what this is. The early spring is often when we see this, the bees become active, the beekeeper sees the bees flying and assumes they are collecting nectar. Well have a look around you, how much flower is there and is it warm enough for the nectar to flow. Yes they are bringing in pollen, but they need nectar and now they are active and the queen is laying they need more and more of it. They will be eating more than they can forage and so they starve.

The other starvation is “Isolation Starvation“. This happens when the winter cluster of bees moves away from food instead of with it. The result is the same, dead bees with heads in cells but you will also have frames of food in the brood box and even more sadder is that the food may only be a couple of inches away from the dead cluster. This is not your fault, do not blame yourself, there is nothing at all that you could have done to help these bees. Sadly nature has a weird way of working at times.

Queen issue – If your colony was queen-less going into winter they are not going to survive, even if there are still some alive in early spring they are not going to live long enough to support the colony until you can get a new mated queen to go in with them. If you are lucky enough to find mated queen early the bees will be too old to support her. It could be that you had a late supercedure happen and she didn’t manage to mate. A colony with a drone layer is not going to make it, again this may make it through winter but, sad as it is, the colony is doomed.

Varroa / Unhealthy colony – An unhealthy or stressed colony is unlikely to make it through winter. Varroa causes much stress on a honeybee colony, to avoid high varroa levels going into winter make sure you treat your bees at the end of the season. I have a post on Varroa which will give you much more information on this topic. Make sure you look at the brood throughout the season to see that it looks healthy. Also look at your bees, do they look healthy? Varroa damage can be seen at larvae stage and also at capped stage, your bees will detect infected cells, they will uncap them and remove the infected larvae, so look for chewed cell capping’s. You could take some blame for this if you didn’t treat your bees.

Unusual winter with temperature changes – With climate change we are seeing winters with more and more temperature fluctuations. The bees cluster in winter during the cold weather, if we have warm days they will break this cluster and maybe even go out to forage in the warmth of the sun. The winter days are short and the temperatures drop quickly, this can have a big affect on the bees, some won’t make it home because they get too cold and in the hive they may not make it back to the main cluster and they may die from the cold. A small weak colony will almost certainly die in a big hive as they won’t be able to generate enough heat. You definitely can’t blame yourself for this, no one can control the weather!

Predators – Mice are big winter predators to honeybees, the bees offer a lovely snug warm environment with lots food for them! If they get into the broodbox they will cause lots of stress to your bees. By fitting a mice guard or simply reducing the hive entrance to a single bee space you can stop mice getting into the brood chamber.

Moisture – moisture by way of condensation can cause detrimental effects at any time but especially during the cold winter months. Make sure your hives have appropriate ventilation, many beekeepers make the mistake of covering both holes in the crownboard, this stops the airflow and causes condensation. This may cause the demise of your colony. If you think your bees have died due to excess moisture have a look at the hive ventilation and also look at the location of the hive, does it very wet/damp where the hive is located?

Blocked entrance – Your bees need to be able to get out of the hive, even in winter they will take short cleansing flights if the sun is out. If the entrance is blocked by something they won’t be able to get out. It could be heavy snow fall causing the blockage or it could be early spring, there will have been natural bee deaths over the winter months and if the colony was big going in these numbers will also be big and could block a small entrance.

How much stores do my bees need for winter?

Depending on what strain of bee you have the amount of stores needed by your bees to get through winter will vary. We can apply an average rule that your bees will need somewhere around 18-22kg (40-50lb) to get them through winter, some large colonies headed with prolific queens may use more.

When we harvest the honey off our bees at the end of August we need to ensure we leave enough for our bees. If you run nationals, and you have strong colonies that you have removed all the honey supers from it is very unlikely your bees will have enough space in the brood box to cater for all the stores needed for winter. Remember that your colony will still have quite a bit of brood, especially if they are strong so there will be limited food in the brood box, although the brood nest will be reducing their may not be enough foraging time available for them to fill the hatching brood cells. For this reason it is common practice for those who run nationals to leave their bees a super of honey. The super is usually put under the brood box rather then left on top. The reason for putting it underneath is that when the queen starts to lay, she will most likely lay in the middle and work upwards and therefore when you do your first spring checks you may find that you have brood in your super. If you put the super underneath it is very unlikely that you will have any brood laid in it. When you do your first winter checks you simply rotate the boxes back around and reinstate the queen excluder between them (you will have removed the queen excluder to allow the cluster of bees to move freely around both boxes during the winter months) making of sure that the queen is in the brood box! It is said that a full national super of honey can hold anything between 25 – 40lb of honey. This will of course depend on how your bees have pulled the frames, how full the frames actually are and how many frames you have in your super e.g. are you using dummy boards in your super! But, in any case above if the super appears full and has a good weight to it you will have a substantial amount of honey stores, which in addition to the honey stores they can get into the national brood box, should equate to a good amount they will require for winter.

A British Standard Brood frame full of honey contains around 2.2kg (5lb) of stores. A 14×12 brood frame holds around 3.25kg (7lb). Both Commercial Brood and Langstroth Brood Frames holds around 3kg (6.5lb), the commercial holds just a little more than the langstroth. Using these figures you can assess the amount of stores in your colony and if they are short of stores you can offer you bees some syrup to top them up.

Most beekeepers would offer them a syrup feed, this can be a pre-made bee feed or you can mix your own sugar feed. Syrup can be offered to the bees in various different feeders; rapid feeder – these are placed on the crown board and the bees have access from below by means of hole or slot and a barrier which prevents them from drowning. There are many varieties of rapid feeders, some only take small amounts of feed and others can take large volumes and they are known by different names but all function in the same way – Ashforth, Miller, English, these all take larger volumes of syrup. Contact feeders are plastic buckets with a gauze cover hole in the lid. You need to invert these to create vacuum so you do need a bucket or something to catch the syrup that will come out before the vacuum holds it, the bucket is then positioned, with the gauze directly over the hole of the crownboard. Frame feeders are another type of feeder however you will need to remove at least one frame to make space for the feeder so I would suggest that a frame feeder would not be a good choice if you were trying to get the maximum amount of stores into your bees as the season is drawing to a close, these would perhaps be better used during the season if you find you need to feed during a dearth.

I do know of a few beekeepers who say they only ever offer their bees fondant no matter the time of the year. There is some question as to whether the bees do take fondant down into the brood nest and store it or if they only use it when they need it so do bare this in mind if you are feeding your bees to encourage them to take down stores. We have always only fed fondant over the winter months and syrup at any other times. Certainly if you came across a colony that was on the verge of starvation you would need to offer them syrup. We do cover what to feed bees and when in another post.

How do we check if our bees still have food in the middle of winter?

As we go through winter it is simply not good enough to think your bees will have enough stores, you must check them, if you don’t and they run out of food they will die of starvation. “But we don’t open our hives in the winter so how do we check?” I hear you ask. How we check for stores is by hefting. You heft your hive on three sides and see how heavy it is. We check on three sides because if the food was all stored to one side and we only hefted from the back we would not feel the weight so by checking three sides we will get a better estimate of whether they need extra feed or not.

I always suggest to new beekeepers that they heft their hives during the season after an inspection so they can get a feel for the weight. You will know how many frames you have filled with food, so if you heft it once you have put the roof back on and you will start to get an idea of what weight relates to what food stores they have so when winter comes you will be better prepared.

If you find your hives are feeling light then you can offer them fondant. You cut a hole in the underside of the fondant pack, peel back the wrapper to expose it and place this directly over the hole of the crownboard, your bees only have to come to the underside of the hole to get the feed. The wrapper is see through so to check if they need more all you need to do is remove the hive roof, which can be done quietly and quickly thus not disturbing the bees.

Fondant and Candi on bees February

If you have done all of the above then you can feel assured you have done all you could for you bees. Unfortunately there will always be winter losses and even if your bees do have food stores either in the frames or fondant on the crownboard they may fall victim of starvation. Winter starvation where they have food stores is usually down the bees, when in cluster during very cold periods, moving away from the food and not with it. The diagnosis for death in this case is called isolation starvation and there if nothing you or anyone could have done to foresee this happening or indeed to help.