Stop Bees from Swarming

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All beekeepers spend some time wondering “how to stop bees from swarming.” This natural behavior is fascinating but not always in line with the goals of the beekeeper. While you can not always prevent swarming in honey bee colonies – it is possible to have some control. In this guide, I discuss some of the special techniques beekeeper use to at least, slow things down.

Honey bee swarm in flight in air image.

Honey bees work hard to make honey for winter survival and to reproduce or form more colonies of bees in nature. However, swarming honey bees can be a problem for beekeepers.

Watch for Swarm Signals

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.

This is your best hope for controlling swarming in your bee yard. We need to understand their intention before the bees get too far along in preparations – before they leave the hive.

Pre-Swarm Indicators:

  • presence of swarm 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

Any strong colony is a candidate for a swarm. However, the Spring beehive needs a closer look for any signs of queen cells. Seeing the acorn sized cups with no egg or bee larvae inside is not cause for concern.

The presence of multiple queen cells in the hive – especially along the bottoms of the frames is a sure sign of swarm preparations.

There is another sign that the colony is planning to swarm. Seeing a slim queen that was plump and fat last week is a signal that the workers are preparing her for flight. But, this is often difficult for a beginning beekeeper to identify.

Look in the brood nest – are fewer bee eggs being laid – even though you know plenty of nectar and pollen is coming in. This signals that workers are focusing on preparations to leave more so than colony build up.

One of the most recognizable signs of swarm preparation is overcrowding. Frames lifted from the brood box appear to have every possible space filled bees. They may appear to drip or flow from the bottom of the frame.

Swarm Prevention Techniques

There are several practices used by beekeepers to stop bees from swarming. But, they do not always work. Each colony is different due to the type of honeybees (and genetics) of the colony.

Common Practices to Control Swarming

  • provide the colony with sufficient space BEFORE they feel crowded
  • use young well-mated queens
  • 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

One of the most common conditions that trigger swarming is congestion (or perceived congestion).  This means crowded conditions in the brood nest. Not enough room for bees to move freely or the queen to lay.

Perceived congestion occurs when the bees fail to spread out and make use of all room in the hive. The colony may have any empty super of comb on top. But, they will feel crowded if they fail to extend the brood area.

That is why adding beekeeping supers to the hive does not always stop bees from swarming. Especially once you see the signs of swarm preparation – adding another box may be too little too late.

Beekeeper removing frames of brood for swarm prevention.

Give the Colony More Space Early On

This honey bee swarm prevention technique relies on action by the beekeeper before the swarming impulse is initiated, otherwise this method will not work. If you see that they are becoming crowded inside – add another box.

Especially frustrating for a new beekeeper, a super box with newly installed foundation is not as effective as drawn comb. But, you have to use what you have.

It is not enough to simply put another box on and walk away. You still need to inspect the beehive weekly for signs of crowding or queen cell development during the Spring swarm season.

Opening Up The Brood Nest

A more advanced method is to manipulate frames in the brood box section of 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 two frames of brood. Even a couple of frames can make a difference. The removed frames are placed in another colony that may not be as robust.

This is another advantage to a new beekeeper starting with at least two beehives. You have options for sharing of resources according to the needs of the colony.

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.

Equalizing

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.

In some situations, reversing hive bodies can help a colony expand – especially if the beekeeper is using double deeps.

Full frame from honey bee hive with capped brood and workers.

Checkerboarding

Similar techniques of opening up the brood nest include: the Demaree Method and Checkerboarding. With both of these frames of brood are moved to give more usable space in the hive.

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 do not prefer these methods as I am more of a “hands off” beekeeper but they will work when done properly.

Dark queen honey bee on frame in colony image.

Reduce Swarming With Young Queens

Colonies with older queens are more likely to swarm than those with young queens. 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 bee pheromones (chemical messenger) levels in old queens and reduced egg laying. A well-mated young queen will stabilize the colony.

Two queen cells in a hive preparing to swarm.

Cutting Out Queen Cells

It is a popular technique among beekeepers to cut out queen cells to prevent swarming. Queen cells are built a couple of weeks before the swarm leaves.

However, this is only a delay tactic and is often a very poor method of stopping bee swarms. Not all queen cells are 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. Beekeepers can use queen cells for other colonies in need.

However, you must get every queen cell. And, NEVER cut out queen cells – unless you KNOW the old queen is still there!

Using a Queen Excluder

One technique used to stop bee swarms involves locking them in. A queen excluder is cut into a piece small enough to go over the hive entrance. The idea is to keep any possible swarm inside the hive – hoping the queen can not get out.

This is not really a good strategy. Sometimes, the slimmer down queen can squeeze through and drones (male bees) can not come and go from the hive.

Perhaps, a suitable emergency procedure if you need to work and can’t manage your hive until the evening. But, I would not suggest this as a good management technique.

Splitting a Hive

One of the most useful techniques for prevention of swarms is splitting a hive. In this process, a strong colony into 2 smaller hives.

Using all the extra equipment needed, the resources of the colony (bees, brood, honey, pollen, drawn comb) are divided between 2 boxes. This relieves crowding by adding space.

One hive will get the old queen and the other half will get a new purchased queen, or a couple of queen cells from the crowded hive.

The method works when swarm season is over too. If you have several small colonies, perhaps you can use newspaper to combine them back down to a few strong hives before Winter.

FAQs

How to tell if a hive is going to swarm?

Watch for pre-swarm signals in your beehives. The building of numerous swarm cells along the bottom of the frames is one of the most easily recognizable signs.

Why would a beekeeper want to stop swarming bees?

Honey bee colonies that swarm often produce less excess honey for the season. It is also a time of risk for the mother colony during the time of accepting a new queen.

What should the beekeeper do if the colony swarms?

The beekeeper should try to catch bee swarms when possible. And, set up swarm traps near the bee yard.

When do bees swarm?

The honey bee colony can swarm at any time during the warm months. You may even have swarms from your hives in Fall. However, Spring is the time that most swarms happen, in my region April-May.

A Final Word

Many volumes of beekeeping books have been written on swarming. Some of them work – some of the time. None of them work – all of the time. As I tell students in my online beekeeping class – if your bees swarm, 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 bees.