Reducing congestion in the hive is essential to minimise the risk of swarming.
Responsible beekeeping practices include swarm management and prevention. In some places, it’s also a legal requirement! Approaches to reduce the impulse to swarm fall under two broad categories: Reducing congestion in the hive and queen management techniques.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that any one method will always be successful. After all, these techniques are up against the honey bees’ natural instincts.
Further, all of these techniques only postpone swarming. This means they need to be repeated until the swarming season is over. If the beekeeper does not perform these techniques frequently enough, the colony will swarm. In today’s post, we dive into techniques for reducing congestion in the hive.
- Adding a super to a full single box hive will delay the impulse to swarm for some time
- However, once a double hive is congested, it may be necessary to split the hive (addressed further below), especially if queen cell cups begin to appear
- Making space for workers to fill is important as idle worker bees make a colony more likely to swarm
- Fill up any new supers with new foundation for the bees to work on
Moving Hive Positions
- If there is not enough nectar and you have idle workers, move the colony onto a good flow if/as soon as possible (otherwise consider supplementary feeding with sugar syrup). Always ensure there is foundation or comb ready to be filled as well.
- Alternatively, in an apiary give strong colonies a rest by swapping their position with weaker hives
- However, it is advised that this method should only be practised when there is already a nectar flow available
- The Australian Beekeeping Guide explains that this second technique has the dual benefit of reducing the number of bees in the strong colonies and building up the weaker ones
- This is because the field bees from the stronger colonies return to the original site and join the weaker hive that is there instead
Removing/Extracting Full Frames
- As explained above, providing fresh beeswax foundation or empty comb to strong colonies ensures workers are kept busy, which reduces the impulse to swarm
- It follows that beekeepers should extract honey as soon as it is sealed and replace it with as much comb foundation as the bees can work, provided there is a good nectar flow
- Excess combs of honey can also be given to weaker colonies that are short of honey stores. But, ALWAYS make sure that any frames being transferred are disease free
Artificial Swarming/Splitting the Hive
- According to Amazing Bees, the benefit of creating an “artificial swarm” is that the swarm is always under your control
- This technique involves removing part of the colony to make a new nucleus hive
- This is a more advanced practice and beginners should seek support from a mentor or local beekeeping group
- According to the Australian Beekeeping Guide, the aim is to weaken the parent colony by separating much of the brood and young nurse bees from the queen and the field bees
- The nucleus can be reunited with the original colony after swarming season, or a new queen can be added to start a new hive (splitting the hive)
- In a full double hive, such a division should be done when at the first sign of preparation for swarming
- If you haven’t split a hive before and can’t access support, the Australian Beekeeping Guide describes the technique in detail
- Amazing Bee’s free beekeeping course also covers artificial swarming here https://bcourse.amazingbees.com.au/artificial-swarming.html
Manipulating the Brood
- Brood congestion also promotes swarming as the queen runs out of space to lay eggs
- If the brood is getting full, move two or three capped brood combs above the queen excluder and replace them in the brood nest with empty combs
- This distributes the young bees throughout the hive and gives the queen more egg-laying room
- However, the Australian Beekeeping Guide advises to avoid transferring uncapped brood combs (with eggs or young larvae) above a queen excluder as this can stimulate workers to raise queen cells there instead
- If you have multiple hives you can also transfer disease-free combs of sealed brood to a weaker colony
- A comb containing sealed brood, honey and pollen is suitable for giving to a weak colony
- Avoid transferring unsealed brood to weak colonies. They may be unable to feed the larvae and keep the brood warm
- Again, fill gaps made in brood nest with good empty worker combs or foundation and ensure sufficient nectar flow and pollen is available
- Minimising drone brood is also important, addressed below.
Minimising the number of drones
- Honey bees raise a large number of drones in spring, but too many drones can be a strong stimulus for a colony to swarm
- You can reduce this by removing combs with large patches of drone cells from the hive
- Drone cells are about 2mm larger than worker cells, and capped drone cells have bullet shaped caps (unlike the slightly convex caps on worker cells)
- Make sure these drones have not been laid in worker comb cells, as this is a sign that the queen is getting old or failing
- Replace drone comb in the brood nest with full sheets of worker foundation or combs, or worker brood from another disease-free hive
- You can remove all drone comb from a hive if you wish. It will ideally be replaced with more worker comb and boost worker numbers for honey production
- Otherwise, keep a maximum of 10% drone comb in the brood in spring, if you wish to produce your own drones
- You can render drone combs down for wax, or if short on combs The Australian Beekeeping Guide advises moving the drone combs above the queen excluder so that the queen cannot lay in them
- Cutting out patches of drone comb, or destroying drone cells with a hive tool may delay swarming in the short term, but the bees will soon restore drone comb in a frame where it has existed before