Beekeeping Basics

Swarm Priorities

- April 1, 2021 - Grant F. C. Gillard - (excerpt)

honey bee swarm

It was about 9:30 a.m. on a very promising day in the middle of May. The skies were sunny and clear with a rising barometer. My weather app promised temperatures in the mid-80s with high humidity and a slight westerly breeze. The table was set for a massive foraging day.

I was in my windowless honey house sorting a stack of supers when my wife came in. “Going out to the bee yards?” she asked.

“Yep. I just need to get a few more supers on the truck,” I responded.

“Well, it should be a great day. The bees in our yard are flying like crazy,” she said in return.

I stopped. My lovely wife of thirty-four years was not one to take special notice of flying bees and doesn’t care to get close enough to a hive to make such observations. I moved to the door wondering if I had a robbing episode on my hands, which is not too likely in May. As soon as the door was ajar, I heard it before I stepped out and saw it. I had a swarm in mid-flight swirling in my bee yard.

My first reaction was disbelief tainted with disdain. Over the years, with a lot of trial and error, I felt rather confident I’d mastered the art of keeping a hive from swarming. I’d embraced every prudent precaution to prevent an event like this, but as I looked to the east, the morning sunlight glinting off every bee in this chaotic cloud, the evidence spoke for itself. Even so, I was hard-pressed not to be impressed. A swarm is a magnificent, first-hand experience.

The swarm began to condense and congregated on a nearby tree branch. In a matter of minutes, the bee yard was rather silent with a few stray bees tracking the pheromonal trail left to the gathering site. I sighed in resignation. My trip to the bee yard would be postponed with a new priority.

Swarm priority #1: prevention

Swarming is a natural instinct deeply ingrained in the DNA and social consciousness of every honey bee, but it doesn’t suit my purposes. From my perspective as a beekeeper, though more candidly a honey producer, a swarm divides and weakens the colony to the point where a surplus honey harvest is not a likely proposition. My intent every spring is to keep the colony intact. My ideal is to redirect the energy of the swarming impulse and convert it into the prospects of raising brood, which become that vast army of foragers to gather nectar. Most times I’m successful, but there’s always a hive or two who claim my message must have ended up in their spam file.

Some beekeepers don’t care if their colonies swarm, and I’m fine with that view. On the other hand, if you want to harvest several supers of honey or split your colony into several nucs, then managing a colony of honey bees to prevent a swarming event needs to be a priority. Then there are beekeepers who insist it’s impossible to keep a colony from swarming, no matter what steps are taken, and any efforts to do so only frustrate the beekeeper as well as the bees.

I’ll concede swarm prevention takes an extra measure of intentional management, with proper timing, incorporated into a system of regular inspections with good record-keeping. It can be done, yet for some beekeepers, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. They accept swarming is part of beekeeping and they can live with the consequences. As I see it, swarm prevention is more of a challenge to reaching my goals of harvesting honey.

There are many different ways to prevent swarming, as well as different reasons to keep a colony from swarming. My highest rationale of making swarm prevention my first priority is because I have neighbors. During my years in Jackson, Missouri, I had neighbors across the back fence. Invariably, when one of my colonies would swarm, the swarm would never respect the confines of my yard. Instead, the swarm would cluster on a convenient shrub right next to the neighbor’s front door. Some swarms selected the low-hanging bird feeder right off the patio.

One time a swarm chose to leave the hive on that day when my neighbor scheduled a back yard birthday party with a dozen eight-year-old boys. Much to my chagrin, my neighbor was not particularly diligent about picking up the small branches that fell out of his trees, and it’s perfectly understandable how a swarm cluster six feet off the ground can be easily misconstrued as a piñata.

My present strategy for preventing swarms reflects my goals of maximizing honey production. The method originates out of the principles taught by Edward Lloyd Sechrist, which he dubbed “the clear brood method.”1 As I describe how I tailor this method to my apiaries, I frequently find all of my hives are expanding at their own pace. It’s a challenge to make this system uniform, but through weekly inspections and detailed record-keeping, this method is remarkably effective.

Step 1: It’s my preference to overwinter in a double-deep, two-brood-box configuration. I’ll have started my late-winter inspections in mid- to late-March, as the weather allows, to ensure there is ample food and a laying queen. I usually feed about a gallon of syrup over the hole in the inner cover to account for the fickle weather. I like to visit my bee yards on a weekly schedule, even though I may not open each hive.

About the time the dogwoods and redbud trees bloom, my area produces a minor nectar flow. The queen is most likely laying eggs in the upper brood box. I’ll add a medium super of drawn comb to account for the incoming nectar; this in itself helps to prevent swarming, and no queen excluder is used at this point.

Step 2: When the early nectar flow shows some consistency, in normal years around the first part of April, I add a brood box of foundation on top of the super. Upon my weekly inspections, when I find a full frame of capped brood in the lower two brood boxes, I swap it out for a frame of foundation from the top brood box. The pupae in this frame are allowed to emerge and the colony may start storing nectar in these cells—a practice called backfilling.

Sechrist relates this process to a similar practice called Demareeing.2 He is also rather adamant that only frames of fully-capped brood are to be moved to the upper brood box and that frames of foundation, not frames of drawn comb, be replaced in the lower brood box where the frames of capped brood were taken.3

The clear brood nest management prevents the brood nest from becoming congested by providing ample cell space for the queen to lay more eggs. Congestion is the competition for cell space between the incoming nectar and the development of brood. When cells are tied up with incoming nectar and the queen is running out of cells to lay eggs, the circumstances trigger the preparations to swarm. 

Step 3: Making my inspections on a weekly schedule, I repeat the process of swapping frames of capped brood with frames of foundation. Every hive is on a different schedule which makes this practice time consuming. I generally don’t get into the bottom brood box. It does not concern me if the queen starts to lay eggs in the medium super.

Step 4: Once the major nectar flow kicks in, usually around Mother’s Day near Kansas City, or about the time most high schools are celebrating Baccalaureate, I’ll add a couple of supers to each hive, and keep the third brood box with the capped brood on top. If I can keep the colony from swarming up to this point, it seems once the major nectar flow comes on in earnest, the colony seems to forego any plans to swarm, provided adequate super space is given. I may, if my time allows, continue to remove frames of capped brood, but at this juncture, it may not be necessary.

At this time I also have the option to install a queen excluder and shift my focus from swarm prevention to honey production. The top brood box can be removed once all the, …