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Swarming Season

Swarming is the honeybees natural process of ensuring the survival of the species but there are certain factors that bring the swarming process on quicker than normal and if you have an understanding of this you can stay one step ahead of your bees. The main reason a colony swarms is due to a reduction in the amount of queen substance (Q.S.) being passed around the hive. This can be due to an aging queen who will be producing less Q.S. or due to overcrowding in the hive. Q.S. is a pheromone produced by the queen and it is passed around the hive to each worker by reciprocal feeding, also known as trophallaxis. Q.S. prevents the development of the workers ovaries and inhibits the building of queen cells in the colony. Any congestion (overcrowding) in the hive would interrupt this process of food transfer and thus act as a barrier in the distribution of Q.S.
A minimum threshold amount of Q.S. is required by each worker bee to prevent the building of queen cells. When the supply of Q.S. is below the threshold required for colony cohesion, the queens egg laying rate will rapidly decrease because of reduced feeding of the queen by the workers. Those eggs that have been laid in the queen cups, which are part of every normal colony, will not be removed but will be allowed to hatch out into larvae. Queen cells will result and the colony will be on its way to swarming. Other signs inside the hive:

The queens retinue increases to up to 20 bees
The queen lays in the queen cups
The queen ceases to be fed and decreases in weight by about 30% to enable her to fly
The reduced feeding of the queen leads to reduced egg laying
House bees will be reluctant to accept nectar loads from foragers
Foraging decreases and redundant foragers become scouts and start to look for a new nest
The first queen cell is sealed
The bees gorge themselves with honey ready for departure
Emergence of the swarm is preceded by the whir or buzz dance where the bees run backwards and forwards across the combs in horizontal lines buzzing with half open wings every half to three seconds
The DVAV (or vibration) dance occurs around the queen

What Can Be Done To Prevent/Control Swarming?

Relieving congestion in a hive minimises swarming so it is important to give your bees plenty of space both in the brood chamber and by adding supers in good time. As you examine your bees in April you can remove any honey/pollen clogged brood frames from the outside of the box, or old deformed brood frames (make sure there are no eggs in this comb), and replace them with drawn combs or frames of foundation. The key at this time is to give the queen room to lay, the bees room to spread out while also providing them with comb space to hang nectar in while the water is being evaporated off. When the bees are filing three quarters of the frames in the brood box add a super of drawn comb if you have one. When the bees are occupying two thirds of the first super a second super should be added. The second super can be of foundation and if it is it should be placed below the first super, so the bees have to pass through it to reach the top super they have been working in, while it will also benefit from the heat in the brood chamber. If you don’t have any drawn comb you can add supers of foundation from the start but bear in mind that the bees will only draw it out if there is a honey flow on if there isn’t you will have to feed sugar syrup. Also, use fresh foundation from a sealed pack. If it has been fitted to frames from last season you can warm it with a hair dryer or place it in a greenhouse or even the car to raise its aroma and make it more acceptable to the bees.

The other thing worth noting is that the amount of Q.S. produced by a queen decreases as she gets older so it is important to maintain young queens if you can, ideally no older than two full seasons.

The two management techniques to control swarming are firstly, clipping the queen’s wings early in the season and secondly, rigorously timed inspections to ensure the beekeeper does not miss queen cells, once built up.

Swarm Control

There are techniques used to control natural swarming, that is to engineer an artificial controlled swarm.

Method 1

Once you have found queen cells in your hive, you can carry out an artificial swarm by moving the old hive from its original site to a position more than 3 feet to the right or left, the old queen is removed and put with the frame on which she is found, in a new hive on the original site.

Within a few hours all the flying bees from the old hive will return to the old site and join the queen inside, thus mimicking the situation a natural swarm finds itself in. i.e. there will be a queen, lots of older flying bees and a new spacious home.

Meanwhile, in the old hive, there will be a number of queen cells, no flying bees, and the remaining bees will have no option but to wait for the first virgin queen to emerge from the queen cell. Another move of the hive to the other side of the original site further depletes the number of foraging bees and the remaining house bees tear down all but one queen cell.

According to Dave Cushman this procedure will eliminate swarming in about 95% of cases without significantly reducing the honey crop. Once the new unit is queenright (i.e. the newly emerged queen has successfully mated) it can be used for increase or it can be united back to the parent colony at the end of the season.

Equipment Required

Stand, Floor, Brood Chamber, and a full complement of brood frames fitted with foundation, Crown board (inner cover) and Roof (outer cover).

Step by Step stages

1. Remove the complete hive from the original site and place 4 feet to the left on a new stand.
2. Place the floor and the brood box of the new spare hive in exactly the same position on the original site.
3. Check every brood frame in the old hive until the queen is found and then, being careful not to lose her, place the queen and the frame she is on in the new hive on the original site. Any queen cells, either sealed or unsealed on this frame should be destroyed.
4. Place a frame of food (usually one of the outside frames) from the old hive inside the new hive.
5. The remaining spaces in the brood box of the new hive should be filled with frames of foundation or drawn comb.
6. The queen excluder, supers, crown board and roof from the old hive are then placed on the new hive on the original site, and the operation as far as that hive is concerned is complete.
7. Returning to the old hive that is now 4 feet to the left, the beekeeper should check to see if there are frames of pollen/honey for the bees to feed on, and if in any doubt, the bees should be fed sugar syrup. It is best to do this at dusk when the bees have stopped flying and to further help reduce robbing, a reduced entrance block can be fitted.
8. Seven days later (it must be 7 days even if it is cold and raining!), the old hive is moved from the left of the original site to a similar position on the right. This move will ensure that any bees that have become foragers in the last week will find first and enter the hive on the original site, thus depleting the foraging bees further in the queenless hive, and the bees themselves will then destroy all but one queen cell.
9. And finally, leave this hive alone for a minimum of 3 weeks during which time the queen should have emerged, successfully mated and started laying. You can confirm this if you see eggs in the hive after the 3 weeks have passed.

You will now have doubled your number of colonies and they should both build up sufficiently to get through the winter. If however, you do not want to increase your stock, you can kill the old queen and unite the 2 colonies using the newspaper method.

Method 2


Equipment needed: Nucleus hive, (a complete empty hive can be used instead of a nuc hive), dummy board, hive stand.

1st Inspection: If you see queen cups with eggs or young brood inside cut them out. This might be enough to dissuade the bees to swarm (if helped by a change in the weather). It also gives you a week’s grace to get equipment ready.

Inspection a week later: If there are queen cells with well developed brood in them you will need to make up the queen right nucleus. Find the queen (this is why it pays to mark her earlier in the season). Place the frame she’s on in the nuc hive, cutting out any queen cells on the frame.

Back in the hive select a queen cell to raise a queen in. It should be a good size, nice shape and have a well-developed larva in it. Don’t pick a sealed queen cell, as it might be empty. Use a bee brush to brush the bees off the frame and destroy any other queen cells. Mark this frame with a drawing pin on the top of the frame.

In the nuc hive place a frame of brood and one of stores making sure there are no queen cells. Shake in bees from a fourth frame and put the dummy board in and close up the nuc hive. Place it on the hive stand 3 to 4 feet from the parent hive.

In the parent colony, without disturbing the marked frame with the queen cell, shake the bees off the remaining frames and destroy any queen cells. Close up the hive.

A week later: In the parent hive go through and destroy any queen cells apart from the one on the marked frame. Use a brush to remove bees from this frame when checking it so as not to disturb your chosen queen cell.

Two weeks later: The new queen should have emerged and should be starting to lay. If there are no signs of eggs, leave it for another week. If there are still no eggs, you can place a test frame with eggs from the nuc hive in it; if the bees raise queen cells your hive is queenless, if they do nothing your queen is there and hasn’t started to lay yet.

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