swarm control revisited

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basic principle of swarm control

The principle is to reorganize
(a) the queen,
(b) the brood and young bees
(c) queen cells and
(d) flying bees.

3 methods suit different times to ensure a good harvest. Timing assumes the main flow is late June onwards. For earlier or later flows adjust accordingly. In all cases two colonies are made up, one on the site of the swarming colony (in situ), the other a few metres away in the same apiary. This is called "splitting".

summary: 3 approaches to swarm control

1 The artifical swarm leaves the queen, one frame of brood and attached bees, and the flying bees in situ - the rest is moved away.

2 The new queen nucleus involves leaving one cell, one frame of brood and attached bees with the flying bees in situ - the rest is moved a short distance away.

3 The old queen nucleus is made up with the old queen, one frame of brood and a couple of shakes of bees and moved away - the rest is left in situ.

1 artificial swarm

In the classic artificial swarm, the queen, one frame of brood (emerging), foundation and flying bees (no queen cells) are put in a brood chamber (fresh) on the original site; the rest is moved away to the side or above or on another stand. The colony then often behaves rather like a swarm and will draw foundation well, sometimes furiously, finishing the job in a few days especially if fed with 50:50 sugar syrup. The "split", containing all the queen cells, lots of brood and young bees, can be used later to make up several new queens in nuclei or it can be left to allow one queen to develop and later used to replace the old queen.

The method is useful before mid-May because the daughter queen will mate and make her own brood and bees, and be ready to act as a replacement to the old queen (if desired) by the time of the summer flow. Summer harvest could well be greater, especially if run as a 2-queen system until the main summer flow starts, when the old queen is removed, perhaps to a nucleus and the rest united. A single new-queen colony, fed copiously and taken to the heather early in July after extracting any honey and given extra drawn comb in the supers, is the ideal way to ensure a strong vigorous colony and optimum crop.

The disadvantage of using this method later than mid-May is the potential loss of honey crop. The split will have a laying queen by the time all the brood has hatched, roughly 3 weeks after the split was made, weather permitting. It will also by then have the complement of adult bees it will get from all the hatched bees. The adults which came with the split will initially become the foragers - every day after that, the bees that hatched in the split will become foragers, steadily adding to the total. However, the new queen will get into lay very quickly and demand the attention of the younger bees - indeed all the bees will be able to produce to their full capability (approximately 3 bee larvae each) not having fed many larvae before the split. Most bees will be needed for the first 3 weeks or so to look after the new queen's brood and then get her going again after this brood hatches.

Meanwhile, the artificial swarm will be workng hard to draw new comb and feed the old queen's larvae, and steadily lose the original flying bees as they age. They will be replaced first by bees from the one frame of brood which was kept with the old queen, then as the new brood hatches and ages. In practice the old queen lays rapidly up to the maximum the complement of bees can keep warm and stops until they hatch and expand numbers. During this time there will be little surplus until there are enough bees spare. So, in both colonies, bees are preoccupied or in insufficient numbers to make significant surplus honey.

Imagine making this split at the end of June, when you will expect the bees to be building your honey stocks up, with maximum bee numbers, a queen who slows her laying down and younger bees released and recruited into foraging. So, some time after mid-May, we need a method which will keep the colony largely intact and able to get honey at the peak of our bees' summer (not the school holiday summer!). So, how do we conserve our resources to maximise the honey crop?

2 new queen nucleus

From mid-May to early June, move the old queen and her brood away. They should tear down the remaining cells (flying bees return to the old site leaving no flying bees to swarm with the queen) and continue as normal for 3 or more weeks when there will be a full complement of flying bees again and the swarming impulse may have passed. The lost flying bees will therefore be completely replaced in about 3 weeks and there will be continuity in brood rearing. This means there will be normal continuous replacement of flying bees through the summer flow and a decent crop.

Leave a frame of brood, attached bees and only well fed open queen cells (one week later cull all but the best ONE) with foundation in situ to gain the flying bees. The flying bees will support the new queen when she hatches, meanwhile gathering nectar and storing it. If mating is delayed, an additonal frame of SEALED brood will restrain the bees from leavng in a mating swarm.

3 old queen nucleus

One frustrating thing about our bees is that they are prone to swarming just before or even during the summer flow. Now, this is not a good characteristic for honey gathering, nor even survival, but we can get around it easily. Take the queen away to a nucleus with a frame of emerging bees, a food frame, and a shake of bees plus foundation. (Alternatively thank her for her work and squish her). Mark the frames with well fed open queen cells in the main stock so you can identify them when sealed (mark or drawing pin on the top bar above), cull all sealed cells. 7 days later save one of those cells and cull all the other cells, whether swarm or emergency (some new cells may appear to be swarm cells, since the bees can move eggs from a worker cell to a queen cell). You must detect all cells - otherwise you may leave 2 or more and you will most probably lose a swarm! A good way is to brush all bees off every frame before looking for cells. The near full-sized colony will gather nectar better than normal since there is no brood to feed and the brood is rapidly diminishing, reducing the need for bees to stay at home to keep the brood warm.

This method is useful in June or July when the complete split of the artificial swarm takes away bees that would otherwise help to process the harvest and provide flying bees at the peak of the nectar flow. It also works earlier, and can be used in spring instead of (1) or (2) above, especially on a good flow. Some beekeepers use this as the meethod of choice at all times.

This is the method of choice if there is a sealed queen cell and an immanent swarm. Move the old queen nucleus a good distance away - even to a new site as they can find her again, even with a couple of metres space and a different orientation of the entrance and a hive or two in between old and new sites!

You can of course, always replace the final queen cell with one from your own selected stock. This is common practice in my queen rearing programme, since any colony making queen cells is geared up to do the job well.

nucleus boxes

Nucleus boxes for National hives can be 3, 5 or 6-frame jobs. I like to make them with both upper and lower bee space. The roof is a simple flat 9mm ply one with a feeder hole in the centre (the cut out is glued to a cross piece and reinserted into the hole!). The floor has a similar hole towards one end covered with mesh for ventilation. Using 9mm ply and Hoffman frames, 2 6-frame nucs can sit side by side (entrances on opposite ends) and receive a National roof or even, with pieces of queen excluder, a super of honey if needed. An empty super can also take 2 rapid feeders. The 2 boxes can also sit on a National varroa mesh floor, so long as you put in battens to fill the gaps under the nucs so the queens cannot pass between boxes; reorganise the entrances so they are opposite each other. They can also be overwintered on top of a strong colony over a divided mesh floor.

I like 3-frame nucs, as they are versatile and small. They can be used as mating nuclei with a frame of emerging brood and a queen cell with a shake of bees, a frame of brood and one of foundation. They are thus economical with bees and frames of brood and stores. Feeding sugar syrup is easily done with a small rapid feeder or a jar feeder above the hole in the crown board. 3-frame nucs together will make the National footprint if they are tailor made and use a dummy board (460mm/3=153mm; less 18mm leaves 135mm; 3x35mm= 105mm, leaving 30mm to play with, ample for a dummy board and room to move it sideways then out). Removing a dummy board for inspection, means queens on the end faces are safe. A removable flat floor of 9mm ply means that nuc boxes are versatile, readily moveable and can be placed over newspaper or a queen excluder over a colony during queen replacement.

Traditonal 5-frame nucs have thick wall. 6-frame nucs can be made so 2 together will make the National footprint. Anyone with basic carpentry skills and tools can make these up.The design is not as critical as when for permanent occupation.

With care, even 3-frame nucs can be used to over-winter young queens, ready to take off next spring, replace old, failing queens or even be given to a split from a swarming stock, to maintain strength. To improve their chances, place over a strong colony, with a mesh floor to allow warming from below, entrances on the 3 sides other than the one the main colony uses. You can do the same for 6-frame nucs. They will need to be full of stores, fed fondant in winter and sugar syrup in spring. 6-framers may have one frame feeder and 5 frames for the bees.

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