The release of a swarm from a hive is an impressive sight, but many beekeepers consider it a failure and try to avoid swarming. The reason is clear: if the swarm is released into the air, the colony can lose more than half its population, which will significantly reduce its performance during the season.
To prevent these swarm losses, beekeeping has developed a number of techniques. In this article, we review the most useful systems, methods and advice for preventing swarming, the departure of natural swarms.
1 – Swarming, a problem for the beekeeper
Swarming occurs mainly when the bee colony is too large and has no room to grow or is very uncomfortable in its hive. This usually happens in spring and early summer when the countryside offers plenty of food and there is a strong influx of nectar. Inside the hive there is usually an explosive combination of an energetic adult queen who is running out of space to lay eggs, a predominantly adult forager population that has run out of places to lay eggs, increased heat and growing discomfort for all the bees.
In such a circumstance, the swarming process is triggered. The bees develop queen cells and the old queen, accompanied by a large group of workers and a few drones, goes in search of a new location to form another colony. This outward journey is the swarm and it is not uncommon for them to consist of more than half the population of the original hive.
This outgoing swarm can be captured by the beekeeper, who knows how to catch a swarm. Or they often leave for good, adding to the loss. In addition, other small swarms, the jabardos, often leave the hive, further weakening the colony.
This tendency to swarm is a problem, as it greatly reduces the honey yield. A hive that expels a large swarm takes a long time to recover. Furthermore, swarming is a hereditary trait that many beekeepers try to eliminate from their apiaries by breeding queens from strains that are less prone to swarming.
2 – Early detection of swarms: signs of swarming
The best way to avoid swarms is to anticipate swarms and take measures to suppress bee swarm fever. To do this, it is very necessary to know the signs that a hive is preparing to swarm.
An observant and careful beekeeper will realise that a hive is preparing to swarm by signs such as these:
1 – A large number of bees and little room to grow.
If a hive has almost no room to store reserves and the queen cannot lay eggs because all the space is taken up, it is very likely that she will start the swarming process.
2 – Appearance of queen cells.
The most obvious symptom that the colony is preparing for a swarm is the combination of a high population and lots of brood and, at the same time, the appearance of queen cells. This hive is probably trying to swarm. Queen cells are not always a symptom of a swarm, they can also appear when a colony has an old or defective queen and is about to change her. However, a hive with a bad queen will not have a large population and a large amount of regular brood occupying the whole space, so it is not the same situation.
3 – Idle bees swollen with honey in the comb.
It is common to see bees on the comb that appear larger than normal. These are foragers who have no room to leave nectar or pollen and are waiting for the swarm to leave with their full crop of food.
4 – Formation of the bee beard on the outside.
The most visible external symptom of the impending swarm is the beard. Many workers who can’t stand the heat inside and have nothing to do will emerge from the hive and unfurl at the front or form a conspicuous beard under the entrance. But don’t be too confident: not all swarms form a beard before they emerge.
3 – Avoiding swarming by reducing the vigour of the hive
Carmelo Salvachúa and Elena Robles, beekeepers and specialists at the Marchamalo Beekeeping Centre in Guadalajara, Spain, use the concept of vigour to explain many beekeeping operations. In the case of swarm prevention, they explain that swarms are the consequence of excessive vigour and can be avoided by moderating this vigour.
Thus, they propose several methods for reducing hive vigour and controlling it to avoid swarming. Here are some of them:
1 – Pairing of colonies.
This involves removing two combs of brood without bees from the strong hive and moving them to a weaker colony to strengthen it. In their place, frames with stamped wax sheets are inserted, which will allow the workers to put their energy into developing these combs for the queen to lay. It is best if the donated combs are from broods that are about to hatch. This way they will start working as soon as possible in the weak hive.
2 – Create support hives.
In their book “Zootechnical management of hive vigour”, Salvachúa and Robles recommend using the excess strength of the hives to create other support hives. The idea is to form new colonies by taking a few frames from four hives that are likely to swarm. These are frames with reserves, brood and bees, grouped in a hive that will have eight occupied combs and two empty combs. These hives are not intended to go into production, but to serve as reinforcement and to provide their own vigour to other hives in the future. And, at the end of the season, to dissolve among the other colonies to which it provides strength for the autumn.
3 – Reversible cores.
A very original way of controlling vigour is the reversible nucleus method, which Salvachúa and Robles also explain. It consists of removing a nucleus with three frames of brood from the nest of a hive about to swarm. Its place is filled with stamped wax. This core is placed in a superstructure surrounded by clean combs and the superstructure is placed above the brood chamber, from which it is separated by two exclusion grids. The superstructures are opened in a different direction to the brood chamber. In this way, the nucleus of the overpopulations develops and produces its own queen independently and, if the beekeeper wishes, takes her to a hive. Otherwise, when the brood chamber is “feverish”, the excluders can be removed and the nuc and hive can be reunited. In this way, this vigour can be used or recovered.
4 – Nucs of other types.
Of course, the most common way to limit the vigour of a hive is to make nucs. Producing new small colonies from this excess strength is the most rational and common way to deal with this problem. Nucs can be blind nucs, made by a simple method that does not involve searching for the queen, super nucs, triple split nucs or by the fan-out method. Any format will do and all have their advantages and disadvantages.
4- Avoid swarming by increasing the space in the hive.
Another way to do this is to improve the situation in the hive that is about to swarm. If the problem is lack of space, increasing the space available should be enough to calm the bees and prevent swarming.
The most common method is to add supers, so that the colony has more room to work. This is where queen exclusion comes into play: if it is to be used, the queen may not have room to lie in the brood chamber and the swarm will leave anyway. Therefore, the use of the exclusion excluder requires caution and it is wise to raise some brood combs upwards, adding stamped wax to the lower chamber.
If the excluder is not used, the queen may climb to the top, which can always complicate later management, for example by delaying harvesting.
In any case, before putting the excluder on a hive showing symptoms of swarming, it is advisable to check whether there are any queen hives. If so, it is advisable to break them up. If this is not done, the swarming process may still continue. It is also a good idea to check after a few days whether some of them have been saved or whether they are raising new ones.
In addition to adding space, it is also good to improve ventilation so that the bees do not get too hot. It is necessary to open the entrance to the hive and, if possible, to open the ventilation holes and allow air to circulate easily inside the hive.
Another interesting way to avoid swarming is to use genetic selection and always breed the queens that swarm the least. In this way, the natural tendency to swarm will gradually be reduced, although it will never disappear, because for bees it is a mechanism not only to improve their living conditions, but also to reproduce the species.
Finally, many beekeepers use a very inadvisable technique to prevent swarming: clipping the queen’s wings. This system should be completely rejected as cruel and unnecessary. The best way to avoid swarming is training and good hive management.