One of the most important jobs of the beekeeper is swarm control. In the swarm season (usually May to July), strong colonies will be very prone to swarming, and this is definitely something you want to avoid if possible.
To understand how to do this, you need to know a bit about the timing of the swarm.
If bees decide to swarm, they will build queen cells – these are easy to spot as they are built on the face or bottom of the frame, point downwards, and are about the size of an acorn. To help prevent swarms, it is important to know the life cycle of the honey bee – and in particular of the queen.
The queen will lay an egg in these queen cups, and when they hatch (at 3 days old) the worker bees will feed the larvae with royal jelly. It is one of the fascinating facts about bees that the egg which grows into a queen is no different to one which grows into a worker bee – the only difference is the diet it is fed on (royal jelly rather than pollen and nectar).
The queen cells are sealed on day 8, and the new queen will emerge on day 16. On the day the queen cells are sealed, the bees will swarm – remember this fact! This is why it is important to open your hive and inspect your bees once per week during the swarm season. If you wait longer than this, you might miss the swarm. So, if there are no queen cells, then there will be no swarm for at least 8 days.
If there are queen cells, and they have eggs or larvae in them, then they will swarm when these are sealed – and you must take action right away.
How To Prevent Swarms
One of the main reason bees will swarm is because of overcrowding. If the brood box is too full of brood and stores (Honey & pollen), then there will not be enough room for the queen to lay eggs – remember she will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day at her peak, one in each cell, so she needs plenty of room.
If there is no room left in the brood box, you have several options. You can remove 1 or 2 frames of honey, and replace them with empty frames, so that the workers have comb to draw out and the queen has somewhere to lay.
If there seems to be too much honey and no room for brood, then add a super – the bees will start to store honey in this, leaving room for the brood in the brood box. Remember to put a queen excluder between the brood box and the super.
Another option, if you have a very strong colony, is to simply add another brood box. Some beekeepers recommend using a super instead of a full brood box, so that there is not too much space – this is known as ‘a brood and a half.’
Swarms gather in the unlikeliest of places!
Sometimes, rather than being an ‘overcrowding’ swarm, bees will have a ‘reproductive’ swarm. If this is the case, their minds are made up to swarm and nothing you do will prevent them from trying. But all is not lost – you can create an artificial swarm, and effectively fool them into thinking that they have already swarmed.
Or of course you can just let them swarm, and then collect them when they do & put them into a new hive. The difficulty with this is that you might miss the swarm, and also in built up areas a swarm of bees can cause problems – especially for non beekeepers!