Timely Colony Management – April

By Clarence Collison, PhD

With the swarming season getting underway, it is important for beekeepers to initiate basic swarm management procedures in their operation.  The control of swarming is essential to successful beekeeping.  Colonies that swarm rarely recover in time to produce a honey crop.  Routine management in the spring usually reduces the incidence of swarming.  March and April are considered to be swarm prevention months.  Ample room in a colony for brood rearing and the ripening and storage of nectar is essential.

In the spring, the queen is normally locked in the uppermost hive body, which limits the size of the brood area.  Reversing hive bodies is a valuable aid in preventing swarming.  Moving the brood nest from the top of the hive to the bottom allows for brood-nest expansion and reduces congestion in the brood area, which is the primary cause of swarming.  Equalizing the strength of your colonies also serves as a form of swarm prevention and makes management easier during the rest of the year.

Strengthen weak colonies by: changing their positions with strong colonies in the same bee yard; adding sealed brood from strong colonies; uniting two weak colonies; or combining a queenless colony with a queenright colony.  When exchanging bees and brood between colonies, be sure the frames do not contain the queen and that the colonies are disease-free.  When adding adult bees to an existing colony, separate them with a sheet of newspaper to permit mingling of colony odors and to keep fighting to a minimum.  Such precautions are not necessary for frames of brood.  Little is gained by adding unsealed brood to a weak colony, since the colony probably does not have enough nurse bees to care for the extra brood.

Colonies with queens more than a year old are more likely to swarm than those with young queens.  Older queens produce less queen substance (pheromone) or enter a cycle with periods of lowered secretion which contributes to swarming.  Therefore, requeening on a regular schedule (minimum of every two years) is an important part of swarm management.

In addition to raising one or more queens, colony preparations for swarming include placing the queen on a diet, rearing more drones, and reducing foraging activity by the field force.  The presence of queen cells in the brood area is the first indication the colony is preparing to swarm or supersede its queen.  Swarm cells commonly are found on or near the bottom bars of the combs in the upper brood chamber(s).  Whereas, supersedure queen cells generally are found on the face of the comb.  To check quickly for queen cells, tip back the top brood chamber(s) and look up between the frames; destroy all swarm cells.  Unfortunately, cutting out queen cells seldom prevents swarming, it only delays it since the bees usually construct more queen cells in a few days.  Once the bees succeed in capping a queen cell, they are committed to swarming.

Once a colony is committed to swarming (queen cells are present), then drastic action is required to control swarming.  One of the best ways to treat a colony with queen cells is to make a division or split the colony within the same hive by using a double screen.  Place the old queen with three to five frames of unsealed brood in the bottom chamber.  Add an extra hive body with empty combs and honey.  Place the double screen on top of the second hive body with the entrance facing to the rear of the hive.  Above it put the second brood chamber containing five or six frames of brood, mostly sealed, and two combs of pollen and honey on each side.  Shake additional bees from the lower hive body into the upper portion, since the field bees will return to the lower brood chamber.  

Bees in the lower hive body destroy any queen cells, while the bees above the double screen raise a new queen.  Colonies treated in this manner rarely swarm.  After the swarming season, reunite the two units by removing the double screen.  This is an excellent way to requeen the parent colony. The top hive body with the new queen may be moved to make a new colony or strengthen a weak hive.  

The use of a double screen is also an excellent way to split colonies before development of the swarming impulse.  When this technique is used to make divisions early in the spring, introduce a new queen or ripe queen cell to the upper portion.