Beekeeping 101: Strategies to Prevent Hive Swarming

Beekeeping 101: Strategies to Prevent Hive Swarming

If you are not a beekeeper, then your experience with a swarm is quite the opposite of a beekeeper’s experience. For you, it is likely that a very large group of bees has either flown over your head or you have that group of bees hanging in a tree or other part of your property. It’s disconcerting and frightening.

For a beekeeper, a swarm is experienced as a huge group of bees LEAVING his or her beehive with a queen bee that was likely purchased at a hefty price. Neither scenario is often welcome.

swarm of bees hanging from a branch

So What is a Swarm actually?

A swarm is the abrupt issuing of a honeybee colony from its original home either in part or as a whole. We classify at least three types of swarms: Congestive, Absconding, and Reproductive. African colonies also add another type called a Usurpation Swarm, which essentially is a type of reproductive swarm.

Congestive Swarms

This type of swarm is the result of a honeybound hive. When there is no room for the queen to lay eggs the bees will see that as an unsuitable home. Sometimes when there is not enough space during the tail end of a strong nectar flow or sugar feeding the bees will begin filling all empty cells with nectar or syrup. It seems that some colonies do this more readily than others. If you see this happening, simply add more drawn out frames for the bees to fill. You can add another box, or remove some of the honey frames and harvest them. Give those empty frames back to the bees ASAP for them to fill. Congestive swarms, unlike Reproductive swarms leave you with no bees rather than just half a colony.

Absconding Swarms

There will be times when you go out to your hive and find that there are no bees left in your hive. Sometimes there will be honey and brood left behind, and that is a clue that the bees did not find their hive a suitable place any longer. It could be that it had become infested with pests like ants, wax moth larvae or varroa. Other times there may be chemicals or disturbances that forced them out. Do a little detective work to try to mitigate the problem from happening again. If there are thousands of dead bees in and around the hive and chewed open cells, this is likely a robbing situation and not an abscond. Take notes and think back to what was happening in the past month. Beekeeping is much like detective work. All beekeepers experience these things and it gives you insight.

Reproductive Swarms

Reproductive swarms are the natural response of a honeybee colony to the onset of Spring nectar flows. The mother, or original colony has been consuming honey stores all winter long (even in Arizona). The queen has not been laying much because there are limited resources during December and January. Finally, in February the air warms, the rain as sprouted seeds, and flower buds are beginning to swell. This tells the bees that an abundance of food is just on the horizon. Now some pollen stores start to come in and the queen begins to lay thousands and thousands of eggs. In 23 days those eggs will hatch, and in a few weeks those bees will be ready to forage in mass.

Many of the colonies around will be doing this. They will also be producing drones, or male bees to be ready to mate with new queens from other colonies.

In addition to new workers and drones, the queen will also lay eggs in queen cells the worker bees have made on the bottom of the comb in order to reproduce their colony. About a week after the queen lays eggs in those cells, she will leave with nearly half the colony as a swarm to find a new home. (I’m humming Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” song right now). One of the queen bees who emerge from the queen cells will become the new queen mother of the hive. Beautiful and dramatic… and devastating to a new beekeeper. The purchased queen is gone and in her place will be a virgin queen who will mate with the strongest and fastest drones out there, Africanized Drones. That means in a matter of weeks the colony will change from being a docile European hive to a less-than-sweet Africanized colony. Let’s try to keep that from happening.

queen cells on bottom of frame of bees

Understanding the Reproductive Swarming Process:

  • Know Your Bees: What breed of honeybees do you have? Are they genetically prone to swarm readily? According to the book, Swarm Essentials, Russian and Carniolan breeds tend to build up quickly and swarm easily. Italians and Caucasians are moderate swarmers and Buckfast bees are the least ready to swarm.

  • Know Your Environment: Beekeepers need to be always aware of what is happening in the natural world. What are the temperatures? How is the rain impacting plants? What is the usual time that flowers bloom near you? How are your bees responding to that input?
  • Know what the signs of swarming are: Spring swarms often occur when temperatures are around 75-85°F. The presence of new comb being built, drone production, and multliple queen cups and cells on the bottom third of the frames are also good indications that a colony is in prime swarm mode. Take action now to prevent swarming.

Beekeeping Techniques to Prevent Reproductive Swarming:

  • Regular Inspections: I can’t stress enough the importance of frequent hive inspections to monitor colony health. Look for signs of overcrowding, the presence of queen cells, and the overall condition of the hive. This is the only way you can get to know your bees intimately and understand what is going on inside. Timing is everything if you want to slow or prevent swarming.
  • Provide More Space: There are a few ways to give your bees the impression that they have more space for brood and food storage. You can add more space or reduce the number of bees.
  1. Reverse the hive bodies so that the brood nest is in the bottom box if they have moved to the top. Bees store honey above the brood.
  2. Reduce the number of bees in a strong hive by shaking nurse bees in front of a weaker colony. This will benefit both colonies.
  3. You can give the impression of more space by adding one frame of empty drawn comb on either side of a middle brood frame. this is called checker-boarding. This technique should be done a month before the nectar flow.

      caged queen bee
      • Queen Management: Another method to mitigate swarming is to simply manage the queen so that she can not keep increasing the population inside the hive.

      Some ways to do this:

      1. Caging the queen for a period of time

      2. Removing the queen completely, along with brood, in the case of a split.

      3. Using a queen excluder at the entrance to keep the queen from leaving.

      4. Clipping the queen’s wing to prevent her from flying.

      In all cases, you must check your hive at least once a week to remove queen cells that the colony will keep making.

      Key points to remember are:

      1. Honeybees naturally swarm in response to the environment inside and outside their hive.
      2. Be vigilant during during prime swarm season, and get ahead of the swarm impulse well ahead of time by ensuring your bees have adequate space and adjusting anywhere needed.
      3. Inspect hives weekly leading up to nectar flows and know the signs of swarming behavior.
      4. Decide in advance what measures you will take if you find that your bees have initiated swarming so that you have all the tools and equipment needed to act quickly.

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