As Spring has begun to sprout in fits and starts of 70F weather then snow the next day, winter is reluctantly losing her grip on the world. Our Bees have taken the hint and are building up their numbers. It's an exciting time in Beekeeping; keeping your bees in the hive and not losing a large portion to swarming.
Swarming is how Bees multiply. Being a super-organism, the Bee can't survive on it's own. So to propagate itself, the hive divides. The first sign that they are feeling conditions are right to swarm is loss of brood-laying space. Nectar and pollen are coming in copious amounts so they are having a difficult time finding places to store them, and start to use the brood rearing areas. You often hear the term "Honey-bound hive." This is the condition where you'll find nectar being stored right up to the brood area and they will back-fill brood cells that have hatched with nectar instead of another egg resulting in loss of brood space. Note this condition in the picture of the frame below.
The decision to swarm is made by the collective hive, not just the queen. They will start building swarm queen cups and then allow the queen to lay eggs in them. A strong hive can have numerous swarm queen cells as they prepare to swarm (I've seen as many as 12-20 swarm queen cells). This is a redundancy factor to ensure the success of one. This can also result in several after-swarms. What the hive is doing is splitting itself, Multiplying!
So how do you stop swarming? You can't! it's like telling Humans not to want sex. We are all wired to propagate our species with strong drives to make sure we do. But there are things we can do to tamp down the urge to swarm (kind of like having a chaperon on your date) as well as take advantage of the desire to swarm in order to grow the number of hives you have by helping them swarm or split into your own equipment.
If you want more hives, this is a way to grow your apiary and not have to buy bees. If you don't want more hives, selling your extra bees by making a Nuc (5 frame Nucleus Hive, sells for about $130-150) can be a revenue source to offset your expenses. This removal of frames of brood and bees will cause the need to swarm to abate (most of the time). You need to keep an eye your hive by looking for signs they want to swarm and do something about it before it happens. There is nothing as amazing and frustrating as watching your hive swarm and fly away..
As the early bee season starts ramping up, an easy strategy is to simply swap the brood boxes. This is done early in the spring after they've filled most of the first box up (70%-75% of the available brood space, frames full of honey don't count as brood space). This process works as long as the temperatures are warming and the bee population is growing. You can also do a checker-board procedure where you rotate frames out of two brood boxes by swapping the 3rd, 5th, and 7th frames in each box. This has the effect of giving open brood comb for the queen to lay in so she doesn't feel crowded. You can then add additional hive boxes as needed. If you rotate the first 2 boxes in the spring and keep adding boxes, checker-boarding frames, keeping an eye on swarm queen cells, you can often avoid a swarm altogether. I have successfully been able to do this but does take vigilance. I make sure to check hives that I think might be about to swarm every 7-10 days. Remember, it only takes the bees 16 days to raise a queen from an egg. Once she emerges, you're too late!
Another strategy is to make them think they have swarmed but keep them together in one hive. More about that in the next blog.
When Queen cells are capped but haven't hatched, swarming is imminent and sometimes the hive will sometimes swarm before the new queens emerge. Immediate action must be taken or they will swarm.
Watch for the Next blog to learn more strategies for swarm control, emergency actions to stop or control swarming, and also when it's too late!