The Life of a Breconshire beekeeper August 2021

What triggers the bees to make queen cells to swarm?

We know some of these triggers, but not all. Here I talk about others

Three hot weeks in July was enough for the bees to collect nectar from bramble, willowherb, clover and wild flowers to provide honey for them and for me. There was a little at the very end of May, beginning of June with the Hawthorn having a rare exceptional year, but by now the bees had consumed it if it wasn’t removed then.

This year my pre-emptive swarm control has concentrated on moving brood above the supers. This is the demaree method as explained by Wally Shaw There are several variations, but I used Wally’s. I started in early May moving 3 or 4 frames and repeated this several times throughout May, June and July, leaving the frames in the upper brood box to be filled with honey. In the lower box I replaced the brood with drawn comb or foundation so that the queen could continue laying without too much interruption. In this way I hoped to remove congestion in the main brood area. Congestion being one of the factors attributed to triggering a swarm. As a result, none swarmed and I had more honey from these colonies.

I can be in my apiaries everyday and don’t miss many swarms; I catch swarms from others of my colonies, but those I demareed still have their original queens to date. I have also had five swarms come into bait hives too.

When demonstrating hive inspection to beginners on our course, I emphasise five things to look for; a. is the colony growing and does it have enough space, b. Is it queenright, c. are the brood and bees healthy, d. do they have enough stores to last until the next inspection should there be no forage, e. are there queencells. These are taken from Ted Hooper’s book Guide to Bees and Honey

Three of these observations relate to swarming; congestion caused by colony growth, being queenright and the presence of queencells, and as a queencell can be capped in 9-10 days, the recommended period of repeated inspection is every week.

In summary, we inspect to see if the bees need feeding, if they have disease, need more space, but mainly we inspect to see if they are they going to swarm very soon in order to take reactive action.

The reality is that we don’t know all of the triggers the bees use to initiate swarming

At what point do the bees start to prepare for swarming before they start to make queencells.

There’s much discussion about the flow of nectar ending causing swarming, a period of bad weather causing them to swarm as well as congestion, and there are good reasons to believe that these are causes, but maybe the bees decide at what point they will swarm a long time before these situations.

In my home apiaries, I have tried many things over the years, and much as I love looking through a colony, I don’t want to have to do it every week. I also don’t want to clip the wing(s) of the queen so that I can inspect every two weeks.

I want to have a better understanding of what triggers bees to swarm and work with them.

If I think about hive congestion, there is a rule of thumb that the emerging bees from one full frame of brood will cover three frames. If there are eight frames of sealed brood, in 12 days time, the pupation time of the worker bee, there will be enough bees to cover 24 frames. That’s two full brood boxes. Yet the queen lays continuously, so in another 21 days those eight frames will produce another 24 frames of bees. Four brood boxes full in about one month at most……

It’s an almost unbelievable growth, no wonder they get so congested and the bees ‘beard’ out of the front of the hive. A great reason to swarm if left alone like this.

Of course as the season gets going the early foragers will die off, but as long as the queen lays up the frames the colony is going to overflow with bees unless extra boxes are supered onto the brood.

So thats what we do, but we tend to add one or two supers at a time.

Is this enough?

Clearly not, as most colonies make swarm preparations at some point if not once, but twice and more in some cases even when we super them. But, even if we give the bees many boxes, they still swarm.

It’s natural for bees to swarm, thats all there is to it. They do love to swarm, but, maybe we can slow them down without the traditional methods of disrupting the brood, splitting then re-adding and without having to inspect every frame in every brood box.

I mentioned the demaree which worked well for me this season, but I want to know more!

Walt Wright talks about a method he uses and the reasons why he does it.

Walt explains that bees start swarming preparations months before they make a queencell.

Bees have survival as a first priority, swarming a second.

Walt’s methods keep the bees in a survival mode even though they are enormous colonies collecting large amounts of nectar.

Its what the demaree method is doing as well, keeping the bees in survival mode, I remove frames full of brood and replace them with empty comb. I keep doing this so that in the brood box the bees don’t realise they have enough bees. Of course I have to keep adding supers so that the upper box and lower box bees don’t start over crowding.

I also have to check that the bees in the upper box don’t make queen cells being so far from the queen. I want to put frames with open brood to lure more young bees up to care for the young and also to make space below.

Walt explains that as the colony grows up to the honey reserve line this is another trigger for them to swarm.

He points out that as the brood reaches this point the bees start to ‘backfill’ the empty brood cells with nectar and the brood reduces to a level that the remaining bees can care for, after the bees have swarmed. As well as slimming the queen down ready for her to fly. It’s only then will they start to make queencells.

This backfilling of brood cells with nectar is something I’ll look for at the teaching apiary next season as a trigger for me to do pre-emptive swarm control.

To counter the honey reserve line, you need to break it up and this is what Walt calls checkerboarding, he alternates full combs of honey with empty combs with at least two supers above the brood nest to start with at a very early stage in the season.

Three beekeepers in England tried Walt’s methods and detailed it in a booklet; Swarm Management with Checkerboarding They started the checkerboarding supers in December before the new season to ensure the bees get used to the ‘broken’ honey reserve. The method doesn’t restrict the queen’s laying and also includes using drone brood foundation on the edges of the main brood chamber. The colonies became massive, but none of their colonies swarmed and they had a lot more honey than usual. They were putting on so many supers they needed a ladder, but revised this by taking full honey supers off instead. As you might imagine, queens tend to be superceded.

I’ll try this method next season on a few hives as well as using checkerboarding with demaree.

I ‘under’ super early on in the season, putting an empty super under the full ones. It’s helpful in getting frames drawn out, and takes the reserve line away from the brood. Next year I’ll try this with checkerboarding.

What I particularly like about these ideas from Walt is that it gets deeper into what triggers bees to swarm and means that I’m not just inspecting all the hives reactively, mainly to look for swarm activity without knowing all the triggers.

I’ll need more boxes and frames of comb, so I’ll use a couple of nucs to produce these for me as I build them up.

Earlier this season I used several colonies in poly nucs with brood lifts on them for queen rearing and for making more nucs up. I didn’t use a queen excluder and the queen laid right up to the top of four brood boxes. At the peak the colonies had 20 brood frames. I would take young bees from them to makeup queencell starter swarm boxes as well as frames of brood with bees to make nucs. By depleting these colonies of bees and brood, they didn’t swarm. Towards the end of the season they filled the upper boxes with honey. This activity was very different to the traditional upkeep of honey colonies, yet they produced a lot of honey.

One observation from this experience is that if you don’t restrict the queen, give them space and/or take bees and brood away periodically, they won’t necessarily swarm and I can raise many queens and nucs into the bargain.

Bee farmers often renew all their queens because a year 1 queen doesn’t usually swarm. Or thats what they think. I have heard of beekeepers near bee farmers who pick up many swarms. It goes back to the enormous growth of brood early on. The reality is that if you don’t look at your colonies on a regular basis you can be of the opinion that they don’t swarm. ‘That colony has supeceded’ is quite a common comment. The reality is that they probably do swarm and you’re not getting as much honey as you could be.

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