Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?
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  1. #1
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    Default Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    I think we could all benefit from discussion of the elements that lead up to a swarm issuing from a colony. I will post some thoughts about the behaviors of bees that lead to swarming. This is about reproductive swarming, not absconding. Swarming is the honey bee's natural method of reproduction so trying to prevent it is going against basic bee biology.

    Genetics is a huge part of swarming. Some races and types of bees are hard wired to swarm every spring. Only extreme measures can normally prevent swarming with these bees. Carniolans and AMM black bees are examples of this biological imperative in strongest form. There remains a huge amount of variation that can be exploited to breed bees with reduced swarming tendency.

    Bees will rarely swarm unless they have an abundance of drones in the hive, but if drone brood is removed from the hive, they will still swarm. I think the drones are a step in swarm preparation, but not a step that can be interrupted to effectively prevent swarming.

    Bees won't swarm unless there is an abundance of nectar available. We had an unusual spring in 2007 with a freeze of -7C on April 7th which is during apple bloom in this area. This killed most of the spring flowers including fruit bloom and chinese privet. That year, there were no swarms. There also was no honey crop to harvest.

    Bees in small hives become congested and swarm. I always heard that giving bees plenty of room to store honey was a huge part of swarm prevention. Well, there is a lot of truth to this statement, but it is not the entire story. A hive with volume of 1500 to 2000 cubic inches will almost always trigger swarming. A volume of 17,000 cubic inches will strongly suppress swarming.

    The age of the queen is a huge factor in swarming. Older queens lay fewer eggs on average than young queens. A huge part of this gets down to formation of a honey dome, reduced queen pheromones, and supersedures that turn into swarms. Keep young queens that lay an abundance of eggs in your colonies and this swarm trigger can be prevented.

    Bees will not swarm until they have "provisioned" the parent colony. This takes the form of constructing a honey dome above the brood nest. Break the honey dome - and keep it broken - and the bees will discontinue swarm preparation most of the time. Walt Wright documented this method of swarm prevention about 10 years ago. I've used it and it is highly effective.

    The honey dome can be prevented from forming in the first place with management steps. This is common practice with "Brother Adam" square Dadant hives. The brood nest is constrained with follower boards so the queen has only enough combs to lay eggs. This forces the bees to store all surplus honey above the excluder which prevents formation of a honey dome except in exceptional circumstances. A prolific queen can keep about 7 modified Dadant frames filled with brood. Give her 8 combs to lay in and now there is room to form a honey dome and the bees will swarm.

    Queen cells must be present before bees will produce a reproductive swarm. Swarms will usually issue sometime around the 10th day of the queen production cycle when the cell is sealed. It is possible to remove queen cells and prevent swarming. Miss just one cell and the bees will be in the air. This method is relied on by many beekeepers. Combining queen cell removal with other steps can be effective but is labor intensive and time consuming.

    There must be an abundance of bees of all ages present in the hive. Swarms rarely issue from colonies with all old bees and no young bees or vice versa. Many beekeepers control swarming by removing the queen for 10 days shortly before normal swarm season, then giving a new young queen. This forced brood break disrupts the brood cycle so that either young or old bees are not present in quantities to enable swarming. Unless carefully timed, removing the queen can limit honey production because bees of the appropriate age to forage won't be present when needed.


    Please add your thoughts about what constitutes effective swarm control. Do you encourage swarming to get more colonies of bees?
    NW Alabama, 50 years, 20 colonies and growing, sideliner, treatment free since 2005, 14 frame square Dadant broodnest

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Thank You, now I know more that will help. How long does a queen usually stay in a hive after the queen cell are sealed before she swarmes?

  4. #3
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    I've had really good luck this year providing space and breaking up the honey dome as needed. One had swarm cells with older larva (not capped yet), couldn't find the queen so I split a couple frames into a nuc. Broke the honey dome and left them be (left their cells in the mother colony because queen might have swarmed already). Came back the next week, they'd exploded up into the supers drawing comb and filling. Tore down all the queen cells they had (they were about a day from capping when I split). I had kind of thrown in the towel on it and figured I was kind of hosed on that one. But it worked out well. There's... well, there's a lot of honey on that hive right now.

    Pretty much all my bees have "unlimited" drone rearing space in the form of quite of bit of foundationless drone combs they've drawn out. It's not uncommon for them to have two deep combs worth of drones in production + tons of them in the hive. I never do anything with it (like cut it out). I just let them make baby drones... and give them lots of space.

    But different flow patterns might make that difficult. We have a pretty nice steady flow that hits shortly after swarm season. Keep them from the trees until then and they seem to kick off. This worked this year with triple deeps with package Italian decedents, a package Carniolan decedent that swarmed at least 5 times last year, and feral swarms. All managed the same way. Reversed early... supered early... reversed again if indicated. They've all drawn 4-6 medium supers of foundation, some drew a 3rd deep too, have harvested two supers off of each about 3.5 weeks ago. All 2nd years queens and one 3rd year.
    Last edited by jwcarlson; 06-30-2016 at 08:12 AM.

  5. #4
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    It is my experience that breaking the honey dome in accordance with Walts descriptions is nearly 100% effective. I do not agree with the space requirements you have listed. I have prevented swarming effectively with far less than 17,000 cubic inches of space regularly. i do agree it takes a lot of space. For me generally dictated by the bees efforts to fill in the ceiling with nectar. I am aware that drones are required for bees to swarm. but I have always considered it a matter of drones in the environment not so much as drones present in the hive. again drones don't seem to make a difference in regard to swarm prevention. IF reproductive swarming is prevented there is to me clearly a point the bees abandon the attempt. Just when that is can be hard to recognize. I have simply come to recognize when bees are no longer building up in an attempt to swarm and have switched efforts to producing honey. At that point I can relax about the hive swarming for reproduction. My management becomes about honey production and those efforts seem to prevent additional swarming due to congestion. Swarm management requires a lot of time and attention. once it settled down managing the bees becomes a lot easier and far less disruptive. For me swarm management is largely space and honey management. never let them get a solid ceiling of honey over them. I read Walts book. and then I took the time to study it carefully. So much so that I found details that appear to be contradictory. but the overall general methods works well. I appreciate the detail Walt included, but for the benefit of many that would not even retain them. it is not necessary. if you get the overall general idea of keeping the space above the brood nest open and broken up that is all you really need to know. The bees will move from swarm prep to honey production without you ever needing to realize they did it. you will have prevented swarming. You may never know you prevented it. You will know your hives did not swarm. Would they have without all that effort? In my experience yes. One year nearly 26 swarms. I read Walts book and the following year I had two late season overcrowding swarms. No reproductive swarms. I got lazy and let the hives get to crowded. By the way I think bees supercedure any time there is not adequate brood in the colony. whether that was a brood drop from being queenless. having brood remove or whatever. I believe supercedure is a matter of inadequate minimal brood in the hive. Hence the tendency for packages to supercede perfectly adequate queens. I don't think this should be allowed by beekeepers. Beekeepers disrupted the natural activity of bees. dumped them in a box and then think they will act in a way that is normal and most beneficial to them. I don't believe that for a moment. I don't want to hijack this thread but did want to say my bit on a related subject. thanks for posting a good topic.
    Everything gets darker, as it goes to where there is less light. Darrel Tank (5PM drawing instructor)

  6. #5
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    I started the year with a goal of controlling swarming better than last year. I reversed boxes early when needed and later in the season broke the honey dome above the brood nest a few times on the strong production colonies. The only swarms I know of was one production colony (2nd year queen) and an overcrowded nuc.

    jwcarlson - I also use foundationless and my NWC colonies were drone factories. After going through the hive and finding 3 or more solid combs of drone I got tired of it and cut some of it out. They seem to draw worker comb better if you put in in the middle of the brood nest. The NWC bees are really gentle and healthy but don't produce as much honey for me in my current practices as the Italians and Italian-Carniolan hybrids do. I have a pretty small number of data points though.
    Beekeeping 6 Years - 12 production hives and about 12 nucs - Treatment OAV Only

  7. #6
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Quote Originally Posted by e-spice View Post
    jwcarlson - I also use foundationless and my NWC colonies were drone factories. After going through the hive and finding 3 or more solid combs of drone I got tired of it and cut some of it out. They seem to draw worker comb better if you put in in the middle of the brood nest. The NWC bees are really gentle and healthy but don't produce as much honey for me in my current practices as the Italians and Italian-Carniolan hybrids do. I have a pretty small number of data points though.
    I punted on foundationless early last season. Haven't looked back. But I do still use some just so they can put drone in the combs instead of between the boxes. I don't like dealing with burr comb.

    Once I got to about 10 hives it was too much maintenance deal with the combs. Now with 20+ colonies all expanding like crazy I couldn't imagine having to deal with the combs... I'd go insane. There are much better things for me to be doing with the bees than pissing around with foundationless combs outside of a couple drone combs in production colonies.

  8. #7
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Just a simple question. You state 17000 cubic inches, that is about 5-6 deeps ? Do many people keep hives that big ?? I do plan on trying breaking the dome. I appreciate new knowledge.

  9. #8
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Quote Originally Posted by BeeNurse View Post
    Just a simple question. You state 17000 cubic inches, that is about 5-6 deeps ? Do many people keep hives that big ?? I do plan on trying breaking the dome. I appreciate new knowledge.
    6.5 deeps. I don't think that's a requirement to keep bees from swarming, though. There's a whole lot more to the equation.
    My production colonies are 2.5-3 deeps with 5-7 medium supers on them. I always hate to see numbers specifically assigned to stuff in regards to beekeeping. As though 6 deeps instead of 6.5 is somehow insta-swarm. Some queens might be more than happy piddling away in a single deep or some other configuration never really outgrowing their digs if she's not prolific enough.

  10. #9
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    There is no magic in the 17,000 CI number. It is the internal volume of the Perone hive which was designed in part to prevent swarming by providing a huge volume for colony expansion. The important takeaway is that bees swarm when they get crowded. Give them enough room to avoid crowding and they are much less likely to swarm.
    NW Alabama, 50 years, 20 colonies and growing, sideliner, treatment free since 2005, 14 frame square Dadant broodnest

  11. #10
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    BTW, great topic Fusion_power!
    Beekeeping 6 Years - 12 production hives and about 12 nucs - Treatment OAV Only

  12. #11
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    >The age of the queen is a huge factor in swarming.

    I disagree on this one. If it was a HUGE factor then I would not have any older queens. But I often have three and four year old queens. I may be a SLIGHT factor.
    Michael Bush bushfarms.com/bees.htm "Everything works if you let it." ThePracticalBeekeeper.com 42y 40h 39yTF

  13. #12
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Quote Originally Posted by jwcarlson View Post
    I punted on foundationless early last season. Haven't looked back. But I do still use some just so they can put drone in the combs instead of between the boxes. I don't like dealing with burr comb.

    Once I got to about 10 hives it was too much maintenance deal with the combs. Now with 20+ colonies all expanding like crazy I couldn't imagine having to deal with the combs... I'd go insane. There are much better things for me to be doing with the bees than pissing around with foundationless combs outside of a couple drone combs in production colonies.
    Hi jwcarlson - If you don't mind me asking, what were your biggest problems with foundationless? The worst for me is some colonies building quite a bit of drone comb (and using it over and over). Also, sometimes with several empty combs side by side they'll make one or more fat frames and leave other frames empty. Those are heavy as lead and tough to get those in the extractor. I usually have quite a few blow outs in the extractor too but my wife likes it when that happens - she gets the wax. I don't have much cross comb and they generally build it pretty straight. They seem to love to draw foundationless comb. Out of curiosity what do you use now, plastic?
    Beekeeping 6 Years - 12 production hives and about 12 nucs - Treatment OAV Only

  14. #13
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    What is the honey dome. Talked about in this thread.

  15. #14
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Bees store honey above the brood nest. That's what they're referring to.
    Beekeeping 6 Years - 12 production hives and about 12 nucs - Treatment OAV Only

  16. #15
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Quote Originally Posted by e-spice View Post
    Hi jwcarlson - If you don't mind me asking, what were your biggest problems with foundationless? The worst for me is some colonies building quite a bit of drone comb (and using it over and over). Also, sometimes with several empty combs side by side they'll make one or more fat frames and leave other frames empty. Those are heavy as lead and tough to get those in the extractor. I usually have quite a few blow outs in the extractor too but my wife likes it when that happens - she gets the wax. I don't have much cross comb and they generally build it pretty straight. They seem to love to draw foundationless comb. Out of curiosity what do you use now, plastic?
    There are a lot of reasons. Fat combs, collapses, TONS (6+ frames) of drone cells, etc... but the main thing was/is TIME.12*6

    I came out of winter with 8 viable colonies (went in with 9... one had queen failure).
    Right now my colonies have drawn something really close to 500 frames of foundation (mostly Acorn plastic, but some Rite Cell) without feeding a single drop of syrup. And I'm now over 20 colonies (25ish, I think?). From four production colonies I harvested just over 200 pounds of black locust honey in freshly drawn comb a few weeks ago. There's no way I can extract that much honey from that new of comb if it's foundationless AND get to put the combs back on and have them now full of clover/alfalfa/basswood/whatever honey like they are now. And I cannot for a second entertain the idea of adding 3-4 foundationless supers the way I added 3-4 with foundation this year in late March in anticipation of a large brood hatch.

    Let's say that of those 500 combs drawn... if they were foundationless let's say that half of them needed to be pinched back straight two times. That's 500 manipulations. In my experience a few... let's say 2% break off... that's 10 collapsed combs that if they fall right can screw up many more frames. My bee time is precious. Let's say 500 manipulations at 20 seconds each... that's over 150 bee minutes that I'm spending fiddling around fixing a problem that someone else fixed over a century ago. I got part way through last year and realized that most of my inspection time wasn't actually inspection... it was pinching combs, trying to straighten bows, shaving down honey bands built 2-3x deeper than they normally would, and putting the jigsaw all back together when I was done...

    To be honest, I felt like a complete idiot when I inspected my first "all foundation hive". It was an absolute JOY compared to what I was used to.

    I really don't mean to derail the thread into a debate about foundation/foundationless. Feel free to PM me... I'll be more than happy to chat about it.

  17. #16
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Bush View Post
    >The age of the queen is a huge factor in swarming.

    I disagree on this one. If it was a HUGE factor then I would not have any older queens. But I often have three and four year old queens. I may be a SLIGHT factor.
    Agreed on my part - Buckfast queens go into their 3rd year before swarming becomes a concern, & then only if they are crowded/goaded. Most often they will quietly supersede in the 3rd, or almost certainly by the 4th year. Twin queens (mother & daughter) are not unusual at this time. Swarming is apparently highly genetic - almost lacking in normal beekeeping practices with Buckfast. When you take the opportunity to observe bees with a "low" tendency to swarm, its difficult to argue otherwise.

    I suppose you could argue that "age is still relative", but if you are running bees that tend to swarm every year, well -hopefully you get the point...
    After 40 years of beekeeping, I've come to realize that the bees can fix most of my mistakes.

  18. #17
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Quote Originally Posted by Colobee View Post
    Swarming is apparently highly genetic - almost lacking in normal beekeeping practices with Buckfast.
    Does anyone know of a resource or have any idea where Brother Adam contributed this trait to? Was it selecting for it or did one of the Am lines he used bring this into the mix? Did the particular combination bring out "hybrid vigor" in the form of low swarming tendency?

    I'll confess that it's been too long since I read Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey. I'll read it this winter again, provided biggraham610's mailed it back by then.
    And if you see this, I'm only joking, G.

  19. #18
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Make the splits, population control is key. Provide the needed space accordingly.

  20. #19
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Brother Adam documented the non-swarming trait as coming from Greek bees A.M. Cecropia.
    NW Alabama, 50 years, 20 colonies and growing, sideliner, treatment free since 2005, 14 frame square Dadant broodnest

  21. #20
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    Default Re: Swarm control, have we been doing it wrong?

    Whether or not something is added to the mix, most of the work of 'selection' is a subtractive process, not an additive one.
    Sometimes the lights all shining on me
    Other times I can barely see. -The Grateful Dead

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