Swarm Prevention and Control

Congratulations if your bees survived the winter. The main honey flow will be upon us in several weeks. To obtain a good honey crop, a honey bee colony must have many bees (about 50, 000). However, a populous colony is also more likely to swarm, leaving you with little or no surplus honey.

Swarming is colony reproduction; all organisms have the urge to reproduce. For a honey bee colony, making more workers is not reproduction. To reproduce, they need to make a new queen; then the colony divides, with one portion getting the old queen and the other having the new queen. This division process is call swarming.

We don’t completely understand the factors that initiate swarming, but crowding of the brood nest and less queen pheromone certainly contribute to the swarming process. Thus, to mitigate swarming, prevent crowding of the brood nest.   A simple procedure is to insert frames of drawn comb into the brood nest (foundation also helps, but use less). Caution: do not insert frames if cold weather is predicted. If the bees cannot maintain 93o F over the entire brood area, brood will chill and die. Repeating this procedure may prevent the development of the swarm urge.

However, many times the bees will decide to swarm despite our best efforts. A queen cup is the beginning of a queen cell usually along the bottom of the comb. An empty queen cup does not indicate swarming will occur. However, once there is an egg or larvae in what was formally a queen cup, it becomes a queen cell, indicating that the colony will swarm. A queen develops more rapidly than a worker, taking only about 16 days to develop from an egg. The egg hatches 3 days after laying, the larvae is fed copiously for 4 days and the queen cell is capped at about 8 days. The prime swarm (one with the old queen) usually departs at about 8 days. Once a queen cell is discovered the colony will swarm in 4 days or less (depending upon the age of the larvae and weather conditions). There are several procedures that usually (but not always) prevent swarming as detailed in the links below. Pick a procedure and bee prepared.

During swarming season (mid-April through May), I suggest that you check your colony for swarm preparation every 7 days. Controlling and preventing swarming, requires a lot of time and effort, but your work will reward you with a large honey crop.

General Information                                                                                           http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/swarmcontrol.html

Pagden method                                                                          http://barnsleybeekeepers.org.uk/pagden.html



Snelgrove method                                                                    http://barnsleybeekeepers.org.uk/snelgrove.html


Demaree method                                                                 http://barnsleybeekeepers.org.uk/demaree.html


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Feeding Early Spring Protein Supplement

Winter has morphed into Spring almost overnight in the Northeast. What is a honey bee to do when nothing is yet blooming, meaning that fresh pollen for brood rearing is unavailable? Feeding a pollen substitute patty inside the hive is an excellent approach. Several companies sell ready-made patties as well as the soy-based powder with which patties can be made by the beekeeper. See Randy Oliver’s comparative study of several of these products: http://scientificbeekeeping.com/a-comparative-test-of-the-pollen-sub/

At the American Beekeeping Federation meeting in January, Randy also spoke about bulk feeding Ultra Bee powder to bees. Below is a picture of my honey bees gathering Ultra Bee from a bulk feeder outside the hive. Note that the Ultra Bee is picked up by hairs on the bees’ body, and the bees pack it into their pollen baskets, just as the bees do with pollen.

Feeding Ultra Bee powder in early March

Protein powder is packed into pollen baskets just like real pollen

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Early winter hive check

This weekend, December 20-22, promises to bring a welcome warmer weather break for Southeastern Pennsylvania honey bees and an opportunity for beekeepers to assess hive stores.  Choose the warmest part of the day and check to see if your bees are flying.   If the temperature is 50 F or above, your bees should be flying.  If there is no flight activity, take a brief peek into the hive to see if the bees are still alive.

Now is also a good time to check your hive’s stores.  I use the lift test: from the back of the hive, grasp the bottom and lift.  If the hive is heavy and your bees are flying, all is well.  Check again at the next warm spell.  If the hive is light, consider feeding fondant or sugar (the latter, using the mount camp method.  Google “mountain camp bee feeding” or go to http://www.honeybeesuite.com/mountain-camp-feeding/).

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Emergency late summer/pre-fall bloom feeding

Please check your bees to determine if they required feeding.  In some locations there are NO flowers in bloom and bees are extremely low on stores.  Several individuals have told me that their bees are on the verge of starving.  If  your bees require feeding, use only pure table sugar prepared by mixing in the ratio of 1 pound of sugar plus 1 pint of water.  Feeding pollen substitute may also be required.

Hopefully, fall flowers will begin to bloom shortly and provide our bees with their required winter stores.

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Queenless hive?

Queenless hive? Don’t panic!  How can you know if your colony is queenless?

After a colony has swarmed, many times beekeepers ‘feel’ that their colony may be queenless because they see no eggs or young larvae.  Before exploring the question of how to tell if a colony is queenless, a review of swarming and the queen rearing process is warranted.    The first indication of swarm preparations that the beekeeper usually detects is the formation of queen cells. The prime swarm, consisting of the hive’s current queen and perhaps 60% of the workers, usually departs shortly after the first queen cell is sealed.  A queen cell is sealed about 8 days after an egg is laid in the queen cup.  Since a queen requires about 16 days to go from egg to adult, the virgin queen will emerge about 8 days after the prime swarm departs.  During this time, all the eggs laid by the previous queen will hatch and most of the worker larvae will be sealed, so that little uncapped brood will be observed.  Once the new queen emerges from her cell, she requires 7 to 8 days to become sexually mature (range 6 to 13 days).  Her mating flights occur over a period of 1 or 2 days.  Following mating, the queen requires several more days before she begins laying eggs.  Dr. Caron observed that only 2% of queens began laying within 1 day of mating and 15% of queens require 5 or more days to commence egg laying activities.  Russian queens may take even longer to begin egg laying.

Thus, following a swarm, there will be a long period during which the beekeeper will see no eggs.  When should eggs be expected?  Let’s add up all the days: 8 days until the queen emerges from her cell, 7 to 8 days until mating, plus 5 days till egg laying, for a total of 20 + days.  Thus, after a swarm you should wait 3 weeks before you consider that your hive is indeed queenless.  Wait even longer if you have Russian bees.  NOTE: never kill sealed swarm queen cells unless you are certain that the old queen is still in the hive.  If you kill swarm queen cells after the swarm has left, there is a strong possibility that your colony will not have young larvae to make additional queen cells.  In that case, your colony will be queenless.  An additional source of a queenless colony is the rare accident of nature in which the queen fails to return to her hive after her mating flight.

Now back to our main question.  A simple test for determining if your colony is queenless, is to place a frame containing eggs and young larvae into your colony.  If the colony is indeed queenless, it can raise a queen from the young larvae.   A few days after you insert the frame of eggs and young larvae, a queenless colony will be building queen cells.  If the colony has a virgin queen or a mated queen that has not yet begun to lay, it will not make queen cells. 

However, things can go wrong so that your colony is actually queenless.  If a colony is queenless for some time after all the brood has emerged, some workers become laying workers.  Laying workers are characterized by laying multiple eggs per cell or eggs that are not at the bottom of the cell.  Additional evidence of laying workers is that the eggs laid in worker comb are capped with the dome shaped caps of drone brood.  Normally, the queen and the brood produce pheromones that reduce egg laying by worker bees.  However, in the absence of a queen and brood, some workers will begin laying eggs and are known as laying workers.  Since workers are physically incapable of mating, all their eggs will be unfertilized, developing into drones.   A colony with laying workers is very difficult to requeen because the laying workers begin to produce pheromones characteristic of a queen, preventing the colony from accepting a new queen.  The best thing to do with a colony with laying workers is to combine (newspaper method) the laying worker colony with a strong queen right colony.  If you want to try to rescue the laying worker colony, it is recommended that one or two frames containing eggs and young larvae be placed in the colony at weekly intervals until the colony starts to rear emergency queen cells.  Once queen cells are observed, it is safe to try to introduce a new queen.

In summary, bees generally know how to manage their own affairs.  Following a swarm, a virgin queen emerges from her cell, destroys her sisters, mates and subsequently becomes the new queen mother.  This process takes 3 weeks or longer; during this time no eggs will be seen in the colony.  Bee patient!  If you want to be sure that your colony has a queen or the capacity to produce a queen, add a frame containing eggs at weekly intervals until the new queen begins laying.

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Now is the time to prepare for summer

For the beginning beekeeper

If you are planning to take up the fascinating hobby of beekeeping this spring, there are several things you need to do now.   You must decide on the type of hive you will use to house your bees.  Most beekeepers use the Langstroth type hive, but topbar and Warre hives are growing in popularity.  Even if you chose the Langstroth hive, you still have further decision as to the hive width (8 or 10 frame) and the depth (deep, medium or shallow).  With the Langstroth, you may chose to use foundation or not.  If you will be using foundation, you may chose beeswax or plastic coated with beeswax foundation.  Foundation has an imprint of the hexagonal cell base which bees use as a guide to build their comb.  Bees of course can and do build comb with out a guide, but foundation guides the bees to build combs within a moveable frame.  In Pennsylvania and many other places, combs that cannot be removed for disease inspection are illegal.  Foundation is now available as small cell (4.9 mm) or regular (5.4mm) diameters.  Some claim that small cell foundation helps the bees to control the pest, Varroa destructor.

In addition to choosing the type of hive, you must also choose the race or strain of bees.  All the honey bees kept in North and South America are strains of Apis mellifera (the Western or European honey bee).  However, there are several strains having differencing characteristics.  I advise that you read about these various strains before choosing.   Some strains may be difficult to obtain.  Most beginners purchase either a package or a nuc (nucleus colony) to populate their new hive.  The most common starting unit is a 3 pound package of bees that may be obtained from (usually) southern beekeepers.  A package may be delivered either by mail or by a beekeeper that drives the packages north.  Packages regularly sell out, so order now.  A few nucs may be available from local beekeepers.  Nucs are usually more expensive than a package, but have the benefit of more rapid development compared to a package.

While waiting for spring, it is essential that you prepare your chosen hive in advance of the arrival of your bees.  Furthermore, you must educate your self on the science and art of beekeeping.  I advise taking an introductory course on beekeeping that may be available locally or on-line.  Additionally, read as much as possible about bees.  Many books are available for purchase, and your local library may also have beekeeping books.  A mentor is very valuable.  Join a local beekeeping club and regularly attend meetings to meet beekeepers.  Most beekeeper are willing to answer questions.  Honey bee management is influenced by local conditions, and local beekeepers can offer local advice.

For the established beekeeper

If you plan on increasing the number of hives you manage, now is the time to act.  Order and assemble all the equipment you will need.  Even better, order some extra equipment to take advantage of an unexpectedly large honey crop or extra swarms!

There are many different ways to increase your numbers: swarms, packages, or splits, with or without purchased queens.

Swarms are wonderful, but they are a chance event and require time and effort.  Thus, although swarms can be valuable for drawing new comb and/or producing comb honey, they cannot be relied on for increasing the number of hives.  Because bees in a swarm may be carrying American Foul Brood (AFB) spores in their honey crop, swarms should always be hived without drawn comb.  When hived on drawn comb, bees in a swarm will transfer their honey to the comb, including any AFB spores present, thus contaminating the comb.  However, if the bees initially have no drawn comb, they will eat the contents of their honey crop and thereby digest the AFB spores.  Hive a swarm on foundation, frames with a wax starter strip or foundationless frames.

Packages are a good way to increase your hive number, but your must place your order for packages now as the number of packages are limited.  Hiving packages on foundation is recommended to reduce the risk of spreading AFB, as mentioned for swarms (above).  Under ideal management, a package of bees will take 8 to 10 weeks to reach a population of 50,000 bees.  This means that a package obtained on April 1, is unlikely to make surplus honey from a nectar flow that occurs in mid-May.  However, a package may produce honey if later nectar flows are available in your area.

Making splits is usually a better way to increase hive number than buying packages, since a split will have brood to sustain the population during the time eggs laid by the new queen develop into adult bees.  If you will be purchasing queens for your splits, place your orders now as queens for the early spring sell out quickly.  It would be ideal if you could obtain a queen 6 weeks (or more) before the main nectar flow in your area.  If you will be raising your own queens, you will have to wait until the spring weather allows colonies to produce sexually mature drones and queens.  Remember that drones take approximately 24 days from egg to adult and then another approximately 14 days to become sexually mature (total about 38 days).  In contrast, queens take only 16 days from egg to adult and then about a week to become sexually mature (total about 23 days).  This means that colonies must start raising drones about 2 weeks before you can start raising queens.  However, colonies will not raise drones until they have adequate food supply, especially of pollen.   Furthermore, if pollen collection is interrupted due to cold and/or rainy weather, the mature drones may be kicked out of the colony, leaving the virgin queen without sufficient numbers of drones.  To ensure an early supply of drones (and queen cells) feeding pollen or pollen substitute is recommended.

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Late fall or winter feeding

If hives need feeding late in the fall or during winter, sugar syrup should not be used, as the extra liquid may promote dysentery.  Too much moisture in the hive can also chill the bees.  Rather, fondant or sugar paste should be used (see recipes at the links below; however, some beekeepers recommend against using high fructose corn syrup in the fondant).  Alternatively, commercial fondant (icing base) can be used if it does not contain cornstarch, which is not digestible by honey bees.

Fondant can be used in two ways in the hive:

  • To provide a carbohydrate reserve for the hive, place the fondant patty on the top bars of the top super of honey, so that as the bees move up through the hive over winter, they move closer to the fondant.  On days when the temperature allows, the bees will come up to feed on the fondant if they need it.
  • For emergency feeding, place the patty directly over the cluster.

In either case, cover the upper side of the fondant patty with waxed paper to retard dehydration.



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