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Honey Bee Swarm Prevention

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Bee Swarm Control

Swarm prevention in honey bee colonies is often a goal of beekeepers. But, is it possible to completely control swarming? No, you can not always keep a hive from swarming. To increase your chances of success, it is necessary to understand swarming behavior in bees. This helps create some swarm prevention techniques that may help you manage your beehives better.

picture of swarming honey bees in flight

As Spring approaches, we beekeepers are very excited and looking forward to a new season.  Flowers begin to bloom and honey bee colonies that have lived through Winter start to grow in population.

Now, we must start to think about possible swarming in our beehives. A bee swarm is a marvelous site to behold but it is not always something we beekeepers want to see. 

Yes, catching a swarm gives you a new colony. Having more bee colonies is great but a colony that “throws” a swarm – does so at a cost. Colonies that swarm often produce less honey for the season.

You see, the life’s goal of the honey bee colony is not to produce honey for me and you. Not by a long shot!  

A honey bee colony works to make enough honey for next winter’s survival and to reproduce or swarm.  

Bee Colonies Swarm to Reproduce

It is very exhilarating to watch a bee swarm move through the air. Though I must admit that every beekeeper watches while mumbling under his/her breath…. ” sit down… sit down on a low branch” so I can catch you.

Swarming is reproduction on the colony level. More colonies of honey bees spread out over a larger area-this is the natural life of bees.

In just this way, the honey bee spread across the landscape of America after being brought over by early settlers.

pictures of swarms of honey bees - tips for swarm prevention in bees

The Bee Swarm Issues From the Hive

On a fair, warm day you hear a very loud buzz overhead. Actually, you are hearing thousands of little buzzes combined.

After a few minutes you notice a ball of bees gathering on a nearby tree limb. More and more of the flying bees join them until most of the bee swarm is hanging in the tree.

This is a transition location for the swarm. They usually sit down in a tree or bush, but they can choose some strange places for their transition spot.

picture of my bee swarm sitting on a barrel close to the ground

This small swarm set down on a wooden hay rack about 2 feet off the ground. I am not usually that lucky.

The honey bee swarm will hang here for 30 minutes, several hours or even overnight. They are taking this time to get organized and make sure the queen (or a queen) is with them. 

It is the lucky beekeeper who is able to catch a bee swarm from a low hanging branch. Or maybe the will go to a nearby swarm trap that you have.

But, they may also take off over the hills never to be seen again.  A swarm in the box is worth 2 in the bush. – Literally!

When Do Bees Swarm?

The honey bee colony can swarm at any time during the warm months. You will have swarm that issue from hives during Summer and into late Fall. However, Spring is the time that most swarms happen.

Spring is a normal season for growth and renewal. The colony population builds quickly on fresh incoming nectar from available Spring flowers.

As the days grow warmer and longer during Spring, colony population grows by the thousands each day. New bees are emerging faster than old bees are dying.

With more and more bees being produced , it gets crowded in the there. The queen finds fewer places to lay, swarm preparations may begin. It seems as if the honey bee colony knows – now is the time.

How to Tell if a Hive is Going to Swarm

Beekeepers are often surprised to see a swarm leaving one of their hives. And yes, while they can surprise us there are often swarming signs to look for.

Any strong Spring colony is a candidate for a swarm. However, the Spring beehive needs a closer look for any signs of queen cells or queen cups with larvae.

The presence of multiple queen cells in the hive – especially along the bottoms of the frames is a sure sign of swarming preparation in honey bees.

Other Bee Swarming Signs

There are some things to look for other than queen cells but they are often difficult for a new beekeeper to identify.

  • presence of queen cells in the hive
  • queen is slimmer and laying fewer eggs
  • crowded population with bees covering every inch of comb in brood nest
  • no empty cells for the queen to lay in

Swarm Prevention Techniques

There are many techniques used by beekeepers to attempt preventing or controlling swarming behavior in beehives. They do not always work.

  • to prevent bee swarms – provide the colony with sufficient space BEFORE they feel crowded
  • use young well-mated queens for less swarming in your bee colonies
  • try to delay swarming until the urge passes
  • cutting out queen cells can delay (but not stop) a bee swarm
  • understand that it wont always work – bees will swarm

Reduce Congestion – a Swarming Trigger

Swarm control in honey bee colonies is difficult because we are working against the natural tendencies of the bees.  This is especially true in early Spring.  The bees have a natural urge to produce more colonies. 

The most common condition that triggers swarming in honey bees is congestion. (or perceived congestion.)  I am talking about crowded conditions in the brood nest or young rearing area of the hive.

Perceived congestion occurs when the bees fail to spread out and make use of all room in the hive.  The bees react to a congested brood area by beginning swarm preparations.  

The colony may have any empty super of drawn comb on the hive.  Yet, the bees feel crowded if they fail to extend the brood area. That is why adding boxes does not always aid in honey bee swarm prevention.

Give the Bees Ample Space Inside the Hive

Even though it does not always work, remove this congestion trigger. Well before the colony becomes over-populous, a beekeeper adds another super box.

This must be done before the bees feel crowded and, as mentioned before, the sometimes the bees just don’t spread out like we want.

This honey bee swarm prevention technique relies on action by the beekeeper before the bee population grows crowded. Once the swarming impulse is initiated, this method will not work.

Especially frustrating for a new beekeeper, a super box with foundation is not as effective as drawn comb.  But, you have to use what you have so get that extra space on there before the bees need it. 

You will still need to inspect the brood nest weekly for signs of crowding or queen cell development during the Spring swarm season.

Opening Up The Brood Nest for Swarm Control 

A more advanced method is to manipulate frames in the brood section within the colony. The beekeeper spreads out the frames containing young – making the “nursery area” larger.

The brood area is “opened” by adding a frame of drawn comb between frames of brood. Even a couple of frames can make a difference.

picture of crowded brood nest in a honey bee hive

The removed frames are placed in another box of the same size. If the colony is building fast, you may add more than one frame. 

This method can be successful, however there are risks involved – especially if the weather turns cool.  You may end up killing brood because the bees can not cover them during the cool nights.

I have used a similar method where I will equalize my colonies. Moving a couple of frames of capped brood from a crowded colony and replacing them with empty drawn comb.

The removed frames of capped brood are sprayed with a little sugar water and given to a weaker colony. This method has worked well for me – if it is done early-before the bees are in swarm mode.

Checkerboarding With Experience

Similar techniques include: the Demaree Method and Checkerboarding.  

A beekeeper using this method should be experienced to prevent causing bigger problems. This method requires proper timing and enough nurse bees to keep all the young warm and fed.

Reduce Swarming With Young Queens

Another reason why bees swarm is the presence of an older, or failing queen in the hive. Queen honey bees can live for several years.

However, all beekeepers know that it is unusual to see a queen in a production colony that is over 2 years old (or much less).  

picture of young queen bee marked in the hive

Research studies have shown that a colony with a queen 2 years old is much more likely to swarm– than a colony with a young queen.

For this reason, many beekeepers re-queen their colonies each Spring. The odds of preventing a honey bee swarm improves with a young queen in charge.

Most likely this is due to the diminishing pheromone (chemical messenger) levels in old queens and reduced egg laying. A well-mated young queen will have good pheromones to stabilize the colony.

Cutting Out Queen Cells to Delay Swarming

A couple of weeks before a honey bee colony swarms, they will begin the process of making a new queen bee. Several large peanut shaped cells called – queen cells contain a developing queen candidate.

It is a popular technique among  beekeepers to cut out queen cells to prevent swarming. This is only a delay tactic and is often a very poor honey bee swarm prevention plan. 

Queen cells are not all large and easy to find. If you miss even 1, the hive will still swarm. And if you do cut out all the queen cells ? The colony will select more young larva and begin the process again.

It does work sometimes.   This tactic may keep a colony from swarming until their reproduction urge subsides

However, you must get every queen cell, if you miss one your colony will still swarm. And, NEVER cut out queen cells – unless you KNOW the old queen is still there!

Splitting a Hive to Prevent Swarming

One of the most useful techniques for prevention of swarms is splitting a hive. There are several reasons that beekeepers make employ hive splitting in the apiary but swarm control is a common one.

In this process, the beekeeper splits a large colony into 2 smaller hives. Using all the extra equipment needed, the resources of the colony are divided between 2 boxes.

Each new hive gets bees, brood, honey, pollen, drawn comb – almost everything needed to sustain life.

One hive will get the old queen and the other half will get a new purchased queen, or several of the queen cells from the crowded hive. This gives them the opportunity to have a queen for their family.

Final Thoughts on Honey Bee Swarm Prevention

Sometimes you can wrestle nature but you can never beat her. Many volumes of books have been written on honey bee swarm prevention. 

The numerous strategies are well beyond the scope of this post.  Some of them work – some of the time.  None of them work – all of the time.

If your bees swarm (and you did not want them to), you have not failed.  Laugh it off and move on – they are being – well… bees!

Devise a swarm control plan, work your plan and then accept the fact that honey bees are wild animals (ok insects). You can not completely control them. Swarm prevention does not always work.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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14 Comments

  1. Woo hoo! So excited!!

  2. ken roche says:

    You are right about the difficulties of swarm control. The ones that get away- well, we’re replenishing the wild bee population- not a bad thing- I would mention two other approaches- one being to kill the queen and take this as an opportunity to requeen naturally. Still helps to add a super. And a great time to put a few frames of foundation inbetween drawn combs. Very effective. Or split into two hives, to be recombined later, after the ‘urge.’ Beekeeping as a hobby should be fun, not hard work!

  3. Hi Ken, Yes, I agree. I try to feel that way too about the fly-aways. But, I know that more feral colonies dont survive so I do try to avoid it. I think adding a super might help if it was done well before the urge began. Once it has – I’m not sure space would matter. I too use the strategy of split and then recombine!

  4. Iwan Davies says:

    Hi. Newbee keeper. My name is Iwan and live near chester, uk. Caught a swarm easter weekend, looked good for a time, thriving and laying eggs ans new workers emerging. Old queen was marked last week, a few queen cells. Checked today, old queen can not be seen, new queen laying eggs and churpping/piping at the same time. Does it mean they are ready to swarm? Hope not. Lol. Any ideas. HELP!!!

  5. Hard to say whether or not they will swarm. Give them plenty of room and maybe they will expand and grow. Perhaps they just decided to make a new queen or they rubbed the mark off! I’ve had that happen.

  6. Hi, thank you for the reply. Will leave for now. Their not making swarming queen cells at the moment, just suppression cells. I’ll just leave be bees and wait and see. Cheers.

  7. Hi, thank you for the reply. Will leave for now. Their not making swarming queen cells at the moment, just supersesion cells. I’ll just leave be bees and wait and see. Cheers.

  8. In my opinion, like anyone cares, is that swarming is a good thing. If we allow the bees to swarm there will usually be a few weeks without brood and the mite population will be reduced naturally. Some mites will go with the swarm, some will stay and many will starve during those few weeks for lack of brood to feed on, in both colonies. So swarming may be the bees natural defense against the mite and we are intervening where we shouldn’t. The bees know best.

  9. I agree 100% that there are some benefits to the colony of swarming behavior. For myself, it is about timing. I really don’t want my bees to swarm right before the Sourwood honey flow. If someone does not produce honey and they ensure that the mother hive is successful in requeening itself – swarming is not a bad thing.

  10. Donald Britt says:

    Do you know approximately when the hive will swarm after a queen cell is started?

  11. The timeline can vary by several days. However, once the egg is laid in the swarm cell – the clock starts ticking. For a queen, egg to adult in about 16 days and the swarm often leaves just as the first queen cells are capped on about day 7 1/2 to 8.

  12. Gary L Eubanks says:

    Thanks I appreciate you sharing your wisdom. I’m in Texas. Just had a colony swarm. Thankfully I was able to catch it. I don’t have a lot of space. Should I relocate the swarm colony to a different location?

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