Honey Bee Swarm Prevention-Why it matters.
As Spring approaches, we beekeepers are very excited and looking forward to a new season. However, we must start to think about honey bee swarm prevention. A bee swarm is a marvelous site to behold but it is not always something we beekeepers want to see.
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. Because that’s what swarming is for honey bees, swarming is reproduction on the colony level.
This is where the goals of the beekeeper and the goals of the honey bees often clash. Bee colonies want to make more colonies. Swarming reduces the honey production of most bee colonies. So, the goal of the beekeeper is swarm prevention especially if good honey production is the goal.
What Is a Honey Bee Swarm?
First, lets discuss what when mean by the term honey bee swarm?
Spring is the time that most swarms occur. But, you can have a bee swarm anytime during the warm months. During the days of warmth and increasing daylight hours, it seems the colony knows that it is time to grow. They are working very hard to raise young bees, gather food and even build comb if needed.
As the rate of new bees emerging increases faster than old bees dying, colony population grows. Even when the beekeeper adds new boxes, the colony may feel crowded. So, they make a plan to form a bee swarm. The planning starts weeks before the actual event.
The bees decide that today is the day! On a warm Spring day, the queen (and about half of the work force) leaves the colony in a mass. It looks like a bee tornado. The mass of bees whirls around in the air for a few minutes before alighting on a nearby tree or bush.
The honey bee swarm will hang here for several hours. It is a fascinating ball of bees hanging from the limb. If the swarm is low down you may be able to see activity on the outside of the clump. And some bees will be leaving and returning to the cluster.
If the swarm is low enough to safely collect, this is your opportunity ! Get out there and get those bees. Yes, they might go into a nearby swarm trap that you have but they may also take off over the hills never to be seen again. During this temporary stop for the swarm, scout bees are continuing to decide on the best new location.
It is common for the bees to hang here for several hours and perhaps until the next day. In my experience if the swarm does not leave the temporary location by 5 PM, it will stay until morning.
Then with no obvious trigger to my human eyes, the swarm of bees will take flight and leave for their new home. Where ever that may be. A lucky beekeeper will be able to catch the honey bee swarm while it is in the transition location.
Often they will regroup high in a tree top. I have lost many swarms that were 30 ft up in a Sweet Gum tree. But, sometimes I get lucky and the swarm of bees will sit down in an easily accessible location. A successful program for honey bee swarm prevention can help us reduce those “out of reach” swarms by keeping them in the hive.
Why Honey Bee Swarm Control is Difficult?
A Swarming Trigger – Congestion
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. They want enough food for Winter survival and to produce more colonies. We want to keep colonies on site and often to produce honey.
The most common condition that triggers swarming in honey bees is congestion. (or perceived congestion.) I am talking about crowded conditions in the brood rearing area of the hive.
As Spring progresses and more baby bees are produced, the inside of the colony can get rather crowded. The queen may have trouble finding a place to lay eggs. This congestion in the nesting area of the hive, triggers a signal urging the colony to divide.
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.
Ample Space for The Bees May Help With Swarm Prevention
Even though it does not always work, one method of swarm control is to remove this congestion trigger. Well before the colony becomes over-populous, a beekeeper adds another super box. This doesn’t always work because sometimes, as mentioned before, the bees just don’t spread out like we want.
The idea is that his extra space gives more “elbow room” for the bees. Thereby giving the queen more room to lay and spreading the population and especially brood nest out.
This honey bee swarm prevention technique relies on action by the beekeeper before the bee population grows. 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 for signs of crowding or queen cell development. It is not enough to simply add more boxes and think the situation is handled.
Bee Swarm Control: Opening Up The Brood Nest
A more advanced method is to manipulate frames in the brood section within the existing 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.
If the colony is building fast, you may add more than one frame. Similar techniques include: the Demaree Method and Checkerboarding. 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 do not employ either of the above methods. In the past, I had too many hives and it takes a lot of time. 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.
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. This has worked well for me if it is done early-before the bees are in swarm mode.
Swarm Prevention By Keeping Young Queens
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). 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. Honey bee swarm prevention improves with a young queen in charge.
Why? Most likely this is due to the diminishing pheromone (chemical messenger) levels in old queens and reduced egg laying.
If a colony with an aging queen swarms, the original colony will produce a new queen. The swarm often re-queens itself soon after reaching its new home. In this way, both colonies are productive and ready to grow.
Cutting Out Swarm Cells For Swarm Control
A couple of weeks before a honey bee colony swarms, they will begin the process of making a new queen bee. This new queen will develop inside an easily recognized peanut shaped cell.
Before it is time for the new queen to emerge. The swarm will leave the hive. It is a popular technique among beekeepers to remove these queen cells.
The queen cells are moved to another hive (that needs a queen) or put with other bees into a new box. Or the beekeeper can simply cut out the queen cells and discard them.
This is only a delay tactic and is often a very poor honey bee swarm prevention plan. The colony will select more young larva and begin the process again. The beekeeper has not changed the mind of the colony-just slowed down the process.
It does work sometimes. This tactic may keep a colony from swarming until their reproduction urge subsides. Once Spring passes, (or your build-up time of year), bee colonies will have less of an urge to swarm. However, you must get every queen cell, if you miss one your colony will still swarm.
How a Bee Swarm Affects the Beekeeper
When a honey bee colony expends energy on producing swarms, it affects the size of the honey harvest. Perhaps you live in an area with so much natural nectar that swarming doesn’t affect honey production. You may have an abundance of nectar producing flowers all Summer.
However in my region of the US, a swarm results in a major reduction in my honey harvest. If you keep bees, for honey production – you may not want more colonies. This means more equipment to buy and more work to manage the hives. More honey, rather than more bees could be your goal.
Also, the requeening process is a critical period of time for the old colony. If the mother colony is unable to replace the queen and get her properly mated, the colony will die. It is possible to lose both parts of the original colony. Small fall swarms have little chance of survival.
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 you 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.
Honey Bee Swarm Prevention Tips
1. Provide bee colony with sufficient space – add space early.
2. Keep young well mated honey bee queens in your colony.
3. Delay swarming until the urge passes by cutting queen cells. This will not always work.
4. Some strategies work sometimes and sometimes none of them work
A rough quality video of me doing a spring beehive inspection – .
Swarm Prevention Is Something All Beekeepers Desire
The honey bees have other plans though and sometimes you can not stop the natural process. When swarm prevention does not work and you are unable to keep the honey bees from swarming. What can you do ? Catch’em.
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