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Swarm control methods
IF bees didn't sting and swarm nearly everyone would want to keep them on their smallholding so that they could enjoy having their own honey for breakfast.
We can't do much about beekeepers getting the odd sting, because it is an occupational hazard, but we can do something about the problem of swarming. It is coping with the bees' habit of swarming that often proves to be the biggest obstacle to new beekeepers making progress.
It is important to understand that it is normal for a strong colony of bees to swarm because it is their method of reproduction. Without swarming, bees would have become extinct long ago.
But for the beekeeper hoping for a big crop of honey, swarming can be a disaster. It means that most of the workforce of bees needed to produce the honey suddenly leaves home and flies away. The part of the colony left behind is a shadow of its former self.
Not only may it mean that the beekeeper gets very little honey that year, but the remaining part of the original colony may not recover and it may even die out altogether. For best results, colony reproduction should not be left to nature but should be part of a controlled programme of management.
The urge to swarm is usually the result of a combination of things but it is most often triggered by overcrowding inside the hive.
Regular weekly checks from May onwards enable the beekeeper to detect the early warning signs of swarm preparations. Once queen cells are being built the beekeeper must act to stop the colony from swarming.
Sometimes taking out a nucleus (which is explained in most text-books) is enough to take the pressure off a colony that would otherwise swarm, but a strong colony will need more drastic treatment.
Because a colony with a new young queen is unlikely to swarm, removing the old queen early in the year and replacing her with a newly mated one would seem to be an ideal solution.
Unfortunately though, in our climate it isn't possible to get new queens mated early enough to do this. There are also restrictions on the importation of queens from warmer countries so we have to look for other methods of swarm control.
When a colony has developed an overwhelming urge to divide, the easiest course of action is for the beekeeper to do the division for them or to make some other radical change to the hive. This satisfies the bees and the beekeeper remains in charge of the situation. This is what swarm control is all about.
You will find many different swarm control techniques described in bee books. The ones that divide the colony are usually referred to by the name of their originator, so you will see Pagden, Demaree, Snelgrove and the like. Although there seems to be a confusing number of options, they are in fact only variations of similar ideas.
The colony cannot swarm without a queen. So when queen cells are found, removing the queen and reducing the queen cells to just one, is a method often used by experienced beekeepers. It sounds easy, but it can be quite difficult for beginners to get right.
As soon as the hive is put back together, the bees may get to work making many emergency queen cells to replace those taken away. The colony must be thoroughly checked again a week later and every one of the emergency cells destroyed. Otherwise the first queen to emerge may take a swarm out.
The other drawback of this method is that from the time of removing the old queen to the time the new queen starts to lay eggs can be three to four weeks. During this time the bees do not usually do much work and may get tetchy. To be on the safe side, it is always a good idea to keep the old queen in a small nucleus colony in case something goes wrong and the new queen is unsuccessful.
A swarm of bees contains only bees. It cannot take any developing brood with it. So if the beekeeper can manipulate the colony by removing the brood, the colony will respond by acting as if it had swarmed naturally and will settle down.
Not surprisingly, this method is referred to as an 'artificial swarm'. Pagden's is the classic method of making an artificial swarm and it is detailed in most text-books. The main problem for new beekeepers is that a second hive is needed, and it works best with drawn comb rather than foundation. This method divides one colony into two and the hives stand side by side.
The colonies can remain separate if you want to increase colony numbers, alternatively the two parts can be reunited later on in the season headed by the new queen. Heddon's method is an improvement on Pagden's, and usually gives a bigger honey crop but it does involve a bit more work.
For strong colonies occupying two brood chambers there are several methods to choose from. The most popular are probably Demaree and Snelgrove.
For both these methods the frames in the brood chambers need to be sorted so that the frames with brood are put into one brood chamber and the frames without brood are placed in the other brood chamber together with the queen. Instead of the brood chambers being placed side by side as in Pagden's method, here they are stacked in a pile.
The queen's box goes at the bottom of the stack (on the same site as before) and the box with brood at the top, separated by the queen excluder and supers.
With Demaree's method the bees can circulate within the whole hive. Queen cells have to be looked for in the top box and removed, and this has to be repeated until no more can be made. The bees continue to work uninterrupted so honey crops can be very large.
For many beekeepers the drawback is that the colony becomes enormously strong so it isn't suitable for beginners or for small back gardens. It does not allow for the production of a new queen, for that you need to use Snelgrove's method.
Snelgrove's system is similar to Demaree's and also usually gives good crops of honey. However, it has the advantage of allowing a new queen to be produced as well. It uses a specially designed division board, called a Snelgrove board, to separate the top brood chamber from the rest of the hive. Little doors in the edges of the board allow bees from the top box to be shunted down to boost the workforce below.
Queen cells will be built in the top box and need to be reduced leaving one to mature. This queen can be allowed to leave the hive by the back door in the board to go out and mate. The top box can become either a separate colony or the two parts can be reunited later to give a really strong force for the main nectar flow.
Why are there so many alternatives? The answer to that is a simple one: along with controlling the swarming, these different methods, work in different ways and serve different purposes.
Some methods allow you to make an increase in colony numbers if you want to, whereas others keep the numbers the same. Pagden gives you the option to do either. Snelgrove's method is good for rearing a new queen but needs attention to the board every few days, so it isn't well suited for use in an out apiary.
Why bother? Many beekeepers miss out because they never allow their bees to achieve their full potential. It's like driving a car but never getting out of second gear.
If you haven't attempted swarm control before I would suggest that you try Pagden's basic method, and use it for a few swarm seasons until you understand it and become comfortable with it. Once you understand Pagden's method you will be able to understand all the others.
No swarming means more honey for the beekeeper. Not a difficult decision to make really.