Swarming is a completely natural part of the lifecycle of a colony. For the beekeeper however, the prospect of losing half a colony (and all that honey), is not a good one. It is also not always positive for the bees, as only one in six colonies that swarm, find a new home successfully. The good news is that swarms do not just happen overnight. Swarming is a reactionary behaviour, and also requires some preparation. For the beekeeper wanting to hold on to the colony, there are some important signals to watch out for.
1. The population is exploding
It is completely normal for a population to grow from around 10 000 bees in the winter months, to 60 000 or so as the seasons change. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that a hive will swarm, rapid growth also means less room, which can foreshadow swarming. Watch out for a rapid rise in the number of drones, and for ‘idle’ workers.
2. Lots of food stored in the hive
As the hive becomes constricted, there is less room for brood and food stores. You may witness the backfilling of brood cells with nectar or honey, which is a sign that the hive doesn’t have the space it requires.
3. Eyes on the queen
The queen will reduce her egg laying before the swarm. She will also become much thinner as she prepares for the flight.
4. Higher presence of queen cups and swarm cells
Queen cups are the foundation of the queen cell. While bees will make queen cups from as early as April, the frequency picks up as Spring progresses. There is a distinction between superceder cells and swarm queen cells. Whereas supercedre cells are produced when a queen need replacing to keep up with the egg laying requirements, swarm cells are produced when the colony is getting too large and must swarm, as the current queen will leave with the swarm. Supercedre cells are found on the face of the comb, often hanging downwards. Swarm cells however, protrude from the bottom or margin of the comb. Once the swarm cell has been inseminated and capped, you can be sure that your colony is going to swarm very soon.
So what can you do?
The first step you can take is to make more room for your colony. Swarming is a result of a population outgrowing the space and resources available to it. Add more frames for the colony to expand upon. Or, if you are working with a Longstroth hive, you can add an additional box to your hive stack.
Reverse your hive
If your colony has moved to the top of the hive over the winter period in search of warmth, the queen often stay put in the spring months, and lay brood in this area. Restructuring or ‘reversing’ the hive, is simply placing the now full top box at the bottom of the stack, and the empty lower section at the top. This will provide ample space for the colony to expand upwards.
Make a split
If you recognize some of the signs of a swarm fast approaching, you may have time to avoid the swarm by splitting the hive. The process is quite basic. Start by locating the queen in the colony. Remove her and the frame she is on, and place it in the new hive box. Then surround with brood and honey store combs. And there you go, you now have a new colony. The previous colony will soon recognize that it is without a queen, which will make them instigate the process of raising a new queen. As they now have much more room, and also, a queen, the swarming crisis would have been averted.