How to control swarming

Swarm control comes into play after queen cells have been found in the hive, displaying the bees’ determination to leave. As soon as the first cell is capped, and if the weather is conducive, roughly half of the bees will swarm out of the hive, taking the old queen with them. They are leaving to set up a new home somewhere else, and creating another colony, so before going, they will engorge themselves with honey, which they will take with them to ensure a good start in their new abode.

Meanwhile, they have left behind in the old hive, perhaps fifteen or twenty queen cells, ensuring the continuity of the old colony. Sometimes, the first new queen to emerge from her cell will go around killing her rivals by stinging them, while still sealed in their cells, but just as often, when the first queen emerges, a second swarm will issue, taking her with them. This secondary swarm is known as a Cast, and is usually much smaller than the original “prime” swarm. This casting can be repeated two or three times, as subsequent queens emerge, and is disastrous to the beekeeper, who is left with very few bees in the hive, and greatly depleted honey stores.

So how is this mayhem controlled? The first thing to determine on finding queen cells in the hive is whether the old queen is still present, or the prime swarm has already left. Many beekeepers find difficulty in spotting queens during a normal inspection, but in a swarming condition the problem is very much greater, as the queen will have been slimmed down, in order that she can fly, making her more difficult to see. So other signs must be looked for. Usually, the swarm will not leave until the first queen cell has been capped, so if all the new queens are still in the larval stage, in open cells, then the chances are that the swarm has not yet emerged. Also, as mentioned earlier, the old queen has to be slimmed down to fly, as when she is in full lay, her abdomen would be too large to enable her to take off. This slimming is brought about by the worker bees reducing her food intake for a few days, prior to the intended departure. This also has the effect of taking her “off lay”, so if no new eggs can be seen in the brood combs, it is possible that the swarm has left, or emergence is imminent. What is meant by new eggs is those, which are less than a day old, standing upright in the bottom of the cell. If the queen cells are capped, and there is no sign of new eggs, then the swarm has almost certainly gone. One would expect to be able to tell from the number of bees in the hive, but in a populous colony it takes an experienced eye, and then it is difficult to be sure.

If the swarm has not yet left, then the beekeeper is fortunate. The colony can be swarmed artificially (see “How to make an Artificial Swarm”), and the beekeeper retains the bees and the honey. If the swarm has already gone however, then the next consideration must be damage limitation. No casts must be allowed to emerge. This can be achieved by going through the brood combs one by one, and breaking down all the queen cells, leaving just one. Some schools of thought recommend leaving a capped one, while others prefer an open one. The capped one will usually result in the queen emerging earlier, but the uncapped one is safer, as it can be determined with some certainty, that it is a viable cell with a living larva. When going through the process, it is advisable to remove the bees from each comb, as queen cells can easily be missed when covered by bees, and if two cells are left, then the emergence of a cast is a possibility. Before breaking down any cells, the one which is going to be retained, should be selected. When removing bees from this comb, they should be brushed, not shaken, as shaking could dislodge the queen larva in her cell. When this exercise has been completed, the hive should be closed up and left alone for the new queen to emerge, get mated, and take up her egg laying duties as the new mother of the colony.

There are two confusing elements, which are worthy of mention here. The first one concerns queen cups. These are the bases of queen cells, looking like acorn cups, and distributed throughout the brood area of the hive. These present no threat from a swarming point of view, and only become a problem when an egg is found in them, when the bees quickly turn them into full sized queen cells. The presence of queen cups however, does not automatically mean that the colony is going to swarm.

The other confusion is that not all queen cells are swarming cells. Quite often, the bees will want to supersedetheir queen, which necessitates the construction of queen cells in order to produce a new queen. The difficulty is that a supersedure cell looks exactly the same as a swarming cell, the only difference being in the quantity, and the location. If the colony is superseding, it is usually content with four or five queen cells, but if they want to swarm, then twenty or more is not unusual. Also, swarming cells tend to be positioned on the periphery of the comb, across the top, down the sides, and more often, across the bottom. Supersedure cells on the other hand, are usually located in the centre of the comb, where an area of worker cells has been cleared to make way for them. These supersedure cells should be left alone, as a new replacement queen denotes a sound future for the colony.

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