Swarm Management – The Artificial Swarm

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In this article we will look at one of the most used method of managing swarming, namely the Artificial swarm.  We will pay attention to not only how to  perform the procedure but also why it works!!
In the last article we looked at signs of swarming and how to know if a colony has decided they wish to swarm, namely finding eggs / larvae in queen cells.  Once we find charged queen cells what can we do to ensure we do not loose the swarm.  Read on to discover how to manage the process using the Artificial swarm control methods.
Understanding Swarm control methods
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To understand any swarm control methods it is necessary to look at what makes up a functioning hive and to break these down into manageable parts.  
Here we will break down the colony into three; 
1 – The Queen, 
2 – Forager Bees 
3 – Brood including the nurse bees which take care of the brood.  
These three parts make up a functioning hive and each part needs to be present for a colony to successfully swarm.  In other words to manage swarming we need to separate at least one of these parts from the other(s). This in a nutshell is the basis of swarm control. 

Lets look at these three parts in a bit more detail :- 
As a general rule a colony swarms with their resident queen and leaves behind a number of queen cells from which a new queen (or queens) will emerge.   So does this mean removal of the resident queen can stop swarming.   Well sort of…  or at least for a while , however this will not remove the colony’s swarming urge and this must still be managed.  We will look at the steps to do this later.
Forager Bees
Once a swarm reaches its final home, it needs a foraging force to bring in the required nectar and pollen necessary for the swarms survival.  Without a foraging force a swarm is very unlikely to survive. So the second option is to remove the forager bees from a colony to control swarming.
When a colony swarms they leave behind all the brood (which they physically cannot take).  The brood which remains helps the colony to build up again by ensuring the hive is not overly impacted by the loss of bees while providing the material (queen cells / eggs / young larvae) necessary to make a new queen.  Once this brood emerges and a new queen mates and comes into lay, the number of bees in the hive will quickly return to a functional level ensuring the survival of the colony.  So the third option is removal of the brood.  
OK, so now we understand these three parts, lets concentrate on how we separate the parts to control swarming using the Artificial Swarm.  Remember this process is used once charged queen cells are found, i.e, it is a reactive method of swarm control.   
Artificial Swarm 
This is probably the most popular swarm control method and for good reason.  If done correctly it works and is fairly easy to understand and perform.  
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Diagram 1 – Queen cells found with eggs or larvae
Artificial Swarm  – Points to remember
A few points to remember before we delve further;-
  • Bees will not swarm unless they have three things, 1) a Queen, 2) Foragers, 3) Brood
  • Forager bees learn the position of their hive through orientation flights and navigate back to the location they last learnt.
  • Artificial swarming is the separation of the brood from the queen and foragers.
  • Once a queen cells is sealed (on day 8) a new Queen will emerge in another 8 days (day 16 on average) 
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Diagram 2 – Original hive moved and replacement placed in location of original hive.

Artificial Swarm  – Queen Cells found now what?

During a regular colony inspection we find charged swarm cells, below is one method we can use to ensure we do not loose the swarm but remove the colony’s urge to swarm.  In other words we are artificially swarming the colony but on our own terms.  This ensures the colony remains where we want them (in a replacement hive) and not in our neighbours tree / chimney or somewhere else which is likely cause others (and/or us) inconvenience. 

1. Queen Cells found
The process starts with the discovery of a number of queen cells  of various ages during inspection – As long as you perform regular inspections (every 7 days) none of the queen cells will be sealed at this stage. – diagram 1  

2. Move original hive to one side – Separate the foragers
First steps is to move the Originalhive to one side and a Replacement hive filled with drawn comb (ideally) or foundation put in its place. – diagram 2.

So what have we done?  Earlier we discussed how forager bees learn to navigate back to the location of the hive they orientated from.  Well moving our original hive and, replacing it with a new hive results in the forager bees coming back to our replacement hive.  They do this as  this location is where they know their home is located.  In effect we have separated the forager bees from the queen and brood.   Nothing difficult there then…  

3.  Move queen back with 1 frame of brood – 
We must now move the queen  to our replacement hive to join the the forager bees.  If we do not do this the forager bees will not stay with the replacement hive and will start to look around for their queen.  They do this as the replacement hive has no brood from which a new queen can be made, neither is their ‘old’ queen present, i.e, this hive cannot continue to function without a queen.  Just remember moving the ‘old’ queen keeps the foragers with the replacement hive.

To move the queen we must first find her in the original hive and move her to our replacement hive along with a frame of brood.   The important thing here is to ensure NO queen cells are present on the frame of brood we move back.  If any queen cells are moved  there is a risk the forager bees may still swarm with their ‘old’ queen.  So check this frame very carefully.  

Once the queen is found, I like to put here aside temporarily in a queen cage,  then I’ll shake all bees off the brood frame to be moved to ensure the entire frame can be checked for cells.  Finally once I’m happy no cells are on the frame this is moved to the replacement hive with ‘old’ queen.  

We have now separated the brood in our original hive in a new location,  from the queen and forger bees in our replacement hive at the original site.  

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As per Step 4.  If frames are not shaken free of bees, queen cells will be missed

4. Leave one queen cells in Original hive .    The final action on day 1 takes place in the original hive.   If we leave more than one queen cell the colony may still swarm with the first queen that emerges (and can continue to swarm until only 1 queen/queen cell remains) .    

So how do we ensure we only leave one cell?  Firstly we choose one queen cell to keep.  This should be an open queen cell with the youngest larvae you can find, in a position where the bees can keep it warm (not near the side of hive walls) and in a location where it will not get damaged easily (when you come back to recheck the hive).  

Once a cell has been chosen, mark the frame with your chosen cell by putting a drawing pin in the frame above the cell, then carefully check this frame to ensure no other queen cells are hidden.  Bees can be removed from this frame by gently brushing them off with a soft brush / feather or by gently moving them using a small amount of smoke.  This frame must not be shaken to ensure the chosen queen larvae is not damaged.  All other frames should be shaken free of bees and all queen cells found removed.   Leave one queen cell only.

5  – What do the hives look like now

At this stage we have moved the original hive to a new location and have left it with 1 young queen cell, all the brood and the nurse bees.   If adequate stores are available (at least 2 brood frames worth) all is good, else feed the hive after 2 days (not straight away as the forager bees which leave may come back to rob out the hive)

Our replacement hive at the original location contains the forager bees, the ‘old’ queen, 1 frame of brood (with no queen cells) and drawn brood frames or foundation.   If you only have foundation it is advisable to put a queen excluder under the brood box temporarily.  If no excluder is added the replacement hive may still swarm as the queen does not have space to immediately lay and won’t have space until the frames of foundation are drawn .  Once she starts laying again it is safe to remove the excluder.

Artificial Swarm  – One week later.

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Diagram 2 – Move Original hive to final position & check both hives for queen cells – Leave 1 in Original

5. Move Original hive to final position and ensure one queen cell remains  

Many people will now move the original hive to a final position in the apiary. This is done to boost the number of forager bees in the hive with the queen and supers as this hive is the honey production colony so needs a good foraging force.   Diagram 2 shows how the new foragers from our original hive will fly back to the location they now know as home, and finding no hive present will join the closest hive which happens to be our replacement hive.    This step is not strictly necessary but a good way to boost the flyers in our replacement hive.

In Original hive – Ensure only one Queen cell remains 
The most important thing to do now is recheck the original brood box and ensure our chosen queen (from 7 days ago) is still present, it should now be sealed.    

If it is no longer present (the bees can sometimes remove them) then a new one should be chosen (as per Step 4)  and once again all frames (except the one with our chosen cell) shaken free of bees and all other queen cells found, removed.   

The hive will now be left with no larvae young enough for any new queen cells to be started.  The bees will have no choice but to accept the cell you left and once the new queen emerges and mates, the colony will give up the urge to swarm and settle back to build up.

In Replacement hive – Ensure no queen cells are present and queen is laying
It is also a good idea to perform a regular inspection on your replacement hive which contains your ‘old’ queen.  You should find the queen has started laying eggs again, frames are being drawn and the colony has settled back to performing its regular tasks.  

No queen cells should be found in this hive.  If for any reason queen cells are found, as long as your queen is still present these can be safely removed.   Remember to also remove the queen excluder from under the brood box if one was placed there last week.

6. 4–5 Days Later – Recheck original hive for queen cells

This step is not strictly necessary but it’s something I do.  Over the last few years I have noticed the bees can sometimes keep back the age of larvae or they make cells from older larvae.  The traditional thinking about how the bees cannot make a new queen from larvae older then 4 days may need questioning (or my ability to spot all queen cells needs to improve).  Anyway if you wish to be absolutely sure I would suggest after another 3-4 days the original hive (without the queen) is rechecked for any new queen cells.  Once again leave your original and removal all others.   Do not shake frame with chosen cell. 

Now its a waiting game and you should leave the hive alone for a couple of weeks for the queen to emerge and mate  I would advise you check after 2 weeks and if no eggs are found, check again 1 week later.  Queen mating time is  weather dependant,  and also dependant on the size of the hive and amount of brood present.  With large hives mating usually takes a bit more time.   

7.  Final thoughts

If you follow the steps outlined above you have a good chance of managing the bees swarming instinct once charged queen cells are found .  Ensure you learn the method well, know why steps are being performed and stick to the timings outlined.  A few final thoughts

  • Learn and know the caste development timeliness.  This will help with swarm control and many other manipulations.
  • Have all your swarm control equipment (spare hive with frames) ready for when charged queen cells are found.
  • During the swarming season check for cells carefully in all the nooks and crannies.
  • The frames may need to be shaken free of bees to see hidden cells.
  • Leaving more than one queen cell is often a problem and responsible for many swarm control method failing.  If more then one is left there is a high chance the first queen to emerge will take off with a swarm
  • Filling the “replacement ” hive at the original location with only frames of foundation does not give the queen immediate space to lay and may result in the hive trying to swarm again.  This can be mitigated by placing a queen excluder under the hive until some frames are drawn and the queen is laying.
  • Having a few frames of drawn comb gives the queen a place to lay straight away
  • Remember swarming consists of three parts,  1 – The Queen, 2 – brood (with nurse bees), 3 – Forager Bees (flyers), separating one of these parts from the others is the basis of swarm control. Swarming is a natural process
  • We all loose swarms sometimes, if you do, take it as a lesson learnt and try to understand what went wrong.  The bees are ultimately in charge, we can but try…..

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