Bee Culture, June 2011

The advantages of reliability (Feb) and increased production (Apr) have already been treated. This submittal is intended to primarily treat a fringe benefit. CB is much easier and cheaper than other swarm prevention alternatives. For the hobbyist or sideliner with a “day job”, the advantage of simplicity could easily outweigh the two primary honey production benefits.

Colony target swarm issue timing is roughly the last-frost date for the area in the wooded east. Backing up from that timing, swarm commit is about two weeks earlier to start swarm cells. Prior to starting swarm cells is the three weeks of swarm preparation. Adding those together totals five weeks back into late winter to “get ahead” of colony swarm intent.

Opportunities for the part-timers to open colonies are limited to week ends during that period and week ends are often weathered out. Too cold or too rainy. Often, locally, we have not had the chance to check for queenright of the overwintered colonies. The beauty of CB is that it can be done in almost any kind of weather short of a pouring rain. There is very little cluster disruption in gently moving frames of honey overhead. The “investment” mentioned in the April article is just arranging your wintering configuration to insure a box of capped honey overhead to CB. In some areas that may require forfeiture of a super of marketable honey in the preceding season. Not to worry. That forfeiture will pay big dividends for the following season(s).

Once CBed, you can forget all the other Mickey Mouse aspects of swarm prevention/control. It's a one-shot deal. You just need to keep them in empty comb at the top to sustain the effects. In your first trial of the concepts, it will be difficult for you to believe that concentrated bees four or five feet high are not preparing to swarm. If you can tell the difference between swarm and supersedure cells, by all means, take a look. Be advised that you might fracture supersedure cells in the process. This subject will come up again later.

Most swarm prevention techniques are oriented to weakening the colony or slowing colony development. The theory that congestion causes swarming is the foundation for those techniques. Taking strength ranges from taking a split of a frame of brood through equal division of colony assets. Slowing down development includes variations of brood nest disturbance from which the colony takes time to recover and reorganize. The Demaree is the most severe of those techniques, and does stop swarming, but it is labor intensive and doesn't increase honey production much. Reducing population or slowing growth of the colony is the antithesis of maximizing population for improved honey production.

We offer you a new approach that accelerates growth rates and yields much greater populations. We call it checkerboarding (CB). A description of internal colony operations and the CB manipulation appeared here in 2003 and are archived at . It is important that the reader be exposed to those older articles describing internal bee colony techniques for survival and reproduction. I speak a foreign language from typical beekeeper terms. The closest the old literature gets to describing colony internal operations are words like Spring buildup, swarm impulse, and Fall brood nest shut-down.

When we started, it seemed prudent to understand how the colony implemented their full season objectives. As we learned, concepts emerged for which no terms existed in the literature. We had to call them something or use a full page to describe the process each time the subject came up. Example: A full article was devoted to the deliberate reduction of brood nest size in the swarm preparation period. We call that backfilling and the literature makes it sound like a problem for the colony – “No room for the queen to lay.” It has several purposes in the swarm preparation format. We are pleased to report that some of our terms are entering the beekeeper language – at least among the beginners who are eager to learn.

Let's get into the less work thing. We'll start with splitting/nucing. That approach not only takes more work/time but also requires some extra supporting equipment and expense in feeding. Depending on the amount of the total brood available, a couple frames of brood may not be much impact on the donor colony production, but the nuc generated with the split needs constant care and attention for the remainder of the season. Some of the attendant problems include queen issues, and feeding/robbing. In the southeast, with a two month break in forage between Spring and Fall flows, the nuc must be fed generously in that period to keep them growing.

If you are splitting/nucing to replace winter losses or increase hive count, it may be worth the extra time/work/cost to you. But it wasn't to me. Tried it one season and that was enough for me. Later, tried equal colony division after mid summer harvest. Liked that better – no feeding.

Tip, southerly areas: With or without division, you can get more honey in the tanks by selecting frames left to feed them through the summer doldrums. Take fully capped frames to the extracting room and leave partials and uncapped for feed. Let the colony finish those frames on the fall flow for wintering rations.

Another savings in work/time/cost comes from a fringe benefit of CB -automatic spring season supersedure of their year-old queens. No need to requeen, with its problems of acceptance or even the extra work of looking for swarm cells. With nectar building in the supers, boxes are being added regularly and the hive stack is getting taller through the swarm preparation period. That's no time to be going to the bottom to check for swarm cells on a weekly basis. If you rear your own queens, it's an investment in time and support equipment and if you buy queens for requeening it’s a cash outlay. It was learned in the first season test of CB, when several supersedure cells were fractured by inspection, that it's best to stay out of the brood nest during the swarm preparation/issue season.

If you are going to abandon looking for swarm cells, you need some confidence that CB is working for you. We have been remiss in providing that info in past articles. It's quite simple to verify CB is doing what is expected by indications at the top of the hive. Storing nectar at the top is all the confidence you need. If you are adding supers of drawn comb at the top to maintain empty space, that colony has no intent to swarm. For the weaker or slower colony it may be necessary to penetrate to the supers that were checkerboarded. They are okay if they are storing nectar in the interleaved empty frames.

A word of caution: The above is true for the established colony, but there is a 3 week period preceding the new wax of main flow that overhead nectar storage is minimal. The landing board can look quite busy, but little nectar is being added at the top. This is normal and does not reflect swarm intent. If you go a week without adding supers on the established colonies, “main flow” is imminent. To add to the confusion, second year colonies will sometimes store nectar overhead during the lull. The take-home message is not to panic when this happens. CB is still doing its job if the established have been storing nectar at the top in the preceding few weeks. Grit your teeth and watch it happen. It's also the period when the second year colonies are superseding, and checking for swarm cells can lead to queen cell damage. We put a moratorium on penetration to the brood nest during the swarm season in the first season test of checkerboarding. The fact that the colony had been storing overhead prior to the lull provides confidence that CB was working then and that doesn't change during lull.

Hive body reversal of the double deep is a separate case. It does not slow colony development in most cases nor does it take away strength. Reversal interferes with the first action of swarm preparations – that of reducing brood volume by backfilling. When brood to the top bar is raised, the colony starts over with brood nest reduction at the top. This delays commitment to swarm by starting swarm cells. Although reversal is one of the least time-consuming of prevention techniques, shuffling deeps is not fun and the results depend on accurate timing of the manipulation. The timing varies with colonies and the beekeeper must stay on top of each colony’s status.

We have heard many reasons why beekeepers are reluctant to try CB. Most of those excuses will not stand up to scrutiny. One, from a local beekeeper, makes sense. He told me that if he tried all the goofy schemes he had heard about, he was willing to bet that they collectively, would result in a net loss. He is probably right. And I've spent 15 years promoting an offbeat scheme. Should have spent that time enjoying the “golden years.”

We hear the word “proactive” more and more applied to beekeeping. CB is proactive (#2 definition) in that the action is taken before the need. It's the number 1 definition that gives me the most grief. From the study of psychology, it is the word relating to the dominance of first-learned information over subsequently learned information. You long-time beekeepers do not need to make excuses for not trying CB. It's the way your minds work. Since you have little control over your genetic mental programming it's normal for you to continue what you “know”. I have reason to believe that some of what you know is inaccurate. What I “know” is based on what I see, and am inclined to favor that over what I hear or read.

In conclusion, the beekeeper that chooses to checkerboard for swarm prevention can take a “laid back” approach to the swarm season. Relax and enjoy.