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SWARM CONTROL THROUGH HIVE MANIPULATION

To fill its nectar sac, a worker bee may make between 1,000 and 1,500 individual floret/flower visits. About 60 full sac loads (over 60,000 flower visits!) of nectar are required to produce a thimbleful of honey. For a large hive to store two pounds of honey requires about 5 million individual bee journeys. For a hive with 30,000 workers to make those 2 pounds of honey requires about 167 journeys per worker. A hive with 60,000 workers needs only 83 journeys per bee to make 2 pounds of honey. Numbers count - heavily.

When a hive swarms, up to 60% of the bees leave the hive. And the swarming occurs just before or during the prime nectar flow, leaving no time for the hive to rebuild its numbers. That hive will produce little if any surplus honey that year. If you want honey production, you don't want swarming.

 

My book "The Honey Factory" is now available as a downloadable eBook!  Updated, with many full color photos.

"I find the depth of information contained staggering, this book would be beneficial for anyone starting out with bees, right through to the more experienced beekeeper. It contains diagrams, drawings, photos, personal stories on beekeeping, hints, ideas, thoughts, an annual diary, storage ideas and much much more. You really do need to read the list of chapters to get more of an idea on what they are offering here in this ebook."     Robyn Parry.  Click here to get your copy now.

For a printed or CD edition of "The Honey Factory," click here.

Bees swarm for a variety of reasons. Swarming is nature's way of dividing colonies to create new ones. Thus in the wild, swarming propagates the species. When bees swarm from a hive it is a planned event to correct problems of overcrowding, starvation, or other internal hive problems, but feeling crowded is the primary cause of swarming. Swarms generally emerge on the planned day between 10 AM and 3 PM (maximum sunlight), swirl in the air, then cluster on something such as a limb or bush, generally in the shade. There they wait until the scouts agree on a new hive location.

All those white dots in the air in the photo at left is a swarm descending into the bait hive on the left.  I waded into the swarm to take this photo on June 1, 2004.  The bait hive was deliberately placed on a known flight path for swarms coming from the woods shown behind the hives.

If you want to increase your hive totals, chasing swarms from your own hives is usually not the best way to do it, for too often the swarm, or later "casts," will get away. It also means you are genetically selecting queens more prone to swarm. Making a "split" or "divide" will often solve the swarm problem, and safely expand your colonies under controlled circumstances. And, it is not too difficult or time consuming.

Swarm control is usually a variation of the famous Demaree system, which involves the continuous presence of empty drawn comb in the brood nest. Just one or two empty combs will inhibit swarming, if those combs are placed at the right time in the brood nest.

Maintaining adequate room in the brood chamber involves hive manipulation in one or more ways, such as reversing the hive bodies of the brood chamber, making a "split" or "divide," adding supers at the right time, adding more room with a slatted rack, and possibly requeening the colony.

 

REVERSE HIVE BODIES

Perhaps the most important hive manipulation to control swarming is to reverse the hive bodies in the spring. In the Pacific Maritime Northwest, the usual best time to switch the brood chambers around is about March 15th to April 15th. In the East where the winters are colder and spring is therefore later, Dr. Morse recommends April 15th to the first week in May.

The instinct of the honey bee is to move its cluster upward during the winter into the food (honey) stored for that purpose. But the queen generally does not move back down. Come spring, the brood chamber is about as high as it can go. Adding a queen excluder and supers does nothing to enlarge the brood chamber, so the bees will feel crowded even with 9 or 10 frames of drawn-- but empty--comb right beneath them. By reversing the hive bodies the queen will happily run right up into empty drawn comb and lay eggs by the thousands. When reversing the hive bodies it is always a good idea to clean or replace the bottom board of wax particles, pollen, etc. The easiest, fastest, and best method is to quickly replace the bottom board with a clean one, replace the slatted rack, then the reversed hive bodies. The used bottom board can then be washed, scrubbed, repainted/repaired if necessary, and then used again to replace another overwintered - and therefore dirty - bottom board.

 

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

Divides, just like swarms, should be planned events. If you are not going to increase your colonies, you must decide if you are going to give a weak hive some brood from a super-strong one, thus controlling swarming in one while building up another for a better honey crop. Or perhaps you would take frames of brood with adhering house bees and combine them with a weak but queenright colony using the newspaper method.

Perhaps you want an extra nuc or two to make up for winter losses, or for an increase. Then you should first have built a new hive stand, installed level side-to-side, with a slight drop of " to3/4 inch toward the front, meaning the South or Southeast. And you will have to decide if you want to let the bees make their own queen, or if requeening, make arrangements to buy new queens. And decide what kind of queen, and from whom. Once those issues have been decided, you would pick a day to divide just as the bees do when they decide to swarm: warm, sunny, light or no wind, and from 10 AM to 3 PM. The field bees would be out, leaving the younger house bees in the hive. Often house bees will not fight with those from another colony, so you could combine brood comb with adhering bees from several hives in making the nucs.

If you find swarm cells when making the splits, you must decide if you will use some of them for a new queen, or scrape them off. Supercedure queen cells, usually located 2/3rd of the way up in the middle of drawn comb, are often best left alone, as the bees are requeening themselves in a very controlled fashion which does not involve swarming.

A strong divide for increase should consist of 9 or 10 frames. The outside 2 would be honey-filled. The next two would be pollen and honey. That leaves 4 or 5 frames for brood, and one of fresh eggs just in case an introduced queen is not accepted. Some experienced beekeepers who requeen make sure the old queen goes with the nuc, and requeen the old hive. This method builds up the nuc much faster, as the old queen is (you looked to make sure!) reliable, laying lots of eggs in a good pattern. Dr. Morse recommends this method. Dr. Morse will either requeen the old colony or let them raise their own queen. If swarm cells are not present then he makes sure fresh eggs from his favorite queen are available in the old colony.

Finally, a strong nuc as described above should be watched carefully. It will not have many field bees, so if the weather turns inclement they will need to be fed. Feeding of 60-40 honey/water is best, followed by the same percentage of sugar/water as a last resort.