This article was originally published in The Bee Supply monthly magazine
The birds are singing… the flowers are in bloom… and the animal kingdom is all sultry Barry White music and chilled white wine. Love is in the air, y’all, and our bee yards are buzzing in tune. Early season pollen and nectar flow kick off brood rearing, and our healthiest hives are eager to reproduce. Translation: Colony-level reproduction (swarming) can spell challenges for beekeepers. Therefore, learning to identify and stay ahead of spring swarming is a vital skill to be learned. We all know colony-level reproduction as swarms… the original queen leaves with half the bees to find a new home and the workers make a new queen who mates and takes over. All sounds groovy, doesn’t it? But why not just allow our bees to swarm and make a new queen? Aren’t there benefits to a “brood break” to reduce varroa?
First, if we have any interest in producing honey during what most will deem as a short-lived nectar flow, swarming is a huge setback. The time it takes a hive to raise their own queen eats up scant nectar resources at a time when our bees could be making honey. If we are not concerned with honey production, swarming still causes other issues. Open mating in southern states means a high likelihood our virgin queen will mate with feral drones that carry a hybrid of the Scutellata (AKA Africanized) genetic.. the super-defensive bees that migrated from Africa via Brazil and have troubled southern beekeepers since the '90s. As far as a “brood break” to reduce Varroa, the swarm does experience a brood break but that's not your best approach for Varroa management. Let’s face it, you lost half your bees.
How do you know when your bees are going to swarm and when to split? You might be surprised at how quickly and casually the large-scale commercial operations “grade” their hives for quality. They simply lift lids and pry open boxes to eyeball it. Small-scale beekeepers can do the same! Just open the hive and look! If you find you have a double deep hive with lots of bees, open and capped brood, it’s certainly ready to split… or even a single-story hive brimming over can be the source of new colonies. If queens are available, you can schedule queen pickup at your local bee supply. Taking a hive splitting class or working with a mentor is important at this stage, and once you’ve split, you’re ready for the spring flow.
If I’m seeing lots of peanut-shaped swarm cells, that means the white wine has already started flowing and the love songs are cued up on the record player. Uncapped swarm cells can mean I might have already lost my original queen or I’m just too late to get ahead of the swarm. In this case, I need to care for the colony as I would a new Nuc or a split. I mean, it split, just without me, leaving me only half the split! If the swarm cells are intact, I simply split the hive and divide swarm cells from the large colony into new boxes. Emerging queens will open mate, but I won’t lose a lot of bees to a swarm, and I can requeen the new hive later if they’re defensive. Because I can, I thought I'd share a video of a swarm removal I did last year about this time. It's my day job and I love it! For more videos and entertaining footage - check out these links!
What if my hives are boiling over and queens aren’t available yet?
I can simply add another box to my brood chamber. The extra space encourages the bees to keep building instead of swarming. Equalizing strong colonies is another good approach. I take brood from the strong colony and share it with weaker hives. The big hive will have to get back to work building comb and gives me more time and the small hives get a boost.
The hands-off approach to swarm control
A non-involved approach to swarming results in what I call the “Come and Take It” syndrome. It’s a phone call I get more often than I want each year, and it goes something like this: “We got bees a few years ago and just left them alone out back,” says the exasperated beekeeper. “We think they swarmed. Now they’re so mean we can’t even go into our back yard. If you want ‘em, they’re yours! We want out of this bee business!”
Avoid the “Come and Take It” syndrome, do a quick check every week to 10 days. Manage your bees, keep them healthy! Having robust, growing colonies in early spring is a good problem to have, but it is still a problem. So, stay ahead of those swarms for long-term success with your bees. Happy spring, y’all!
Things to watch for:
· Rapid population buildup
· Brood nest becomes constricted ? limiting space for bees, brood and honey
· Presence of drones
· Queen slows laying because of lack of room
· Swarm cells
- Super early - using a honey super as added space for bees can prevent swarms.
- Splits are an excellent way to equalize your bees, brood, and honey creates a brood break, and introduces new queen genetics to your bee yard.
- Add additional wax to new foundation when making splits or adding boxes for quicker buildup.