A Busy Beekeeping Day – Artificial Swarms

We had a good couple of days at the weekend. The sun came out on Friday and I managed to get one step ahead of the weekend by mowing the lawn and tidying the garden. Not a bad start to the weekend and with no Scouts & Explorers this week we had some time to ourselves so I put the moth trap out and had a little night sky observing session, mainly looking at Saturn with the telescope.

Saturday started of fairly relaxed as we waited for the day to warm up so that we could inspect the bees. It wasn’t warm at around 12°C, but there was little wind and the sun was shining. The bees were busily coming and going and we were desperate to see how they were doing as we hadn’t had chance to take a look for a while.

We started off with the hive we called Clettwr. This is the strongest of the hives at our house. It was looking a little quiet, but we could see eggs and larvae, we saw the queen, but there was also a queen cell present. This is a sure sign that the bees are about to swarm. Time for some action, time to perform an artificial swarm.

The Artificial Swarm

The idea behind the artificial swarm is essentially to create a swarm yourself. This means taking the bees that would have swarmed out of the hive and putting them into another one. The bees in the original hive then think that the queen has left taking a swarm with her, so they raise a new queen from the queen cell. Meanwhile, the bees you’ve taken out of the hive into a new hive act as though they have swarmed and start a new colony with the original queen. The theory is that the urge to swarm is then reduced and we as bee-keepers don’t lose any bees when a natural swarm leaves the hive.

The Process

We hadn’t done this before in our bee-keeping career, so we had to think about it a little as we did it, but the process is as follows. Or at least, this is what we did:

Starting with the original hive (Hive A) containing the entire colony; queen, flying bees, nurse bees, brood, food and at least one queen cell.

  1. Set up a new hive (Hive B) next to and facing the same way as Hive A.
  2. Remove one of the empty frames from the middle of Hive B and put it aside.
  3. Remove the supers from Hive A
  4. Find the queen in Hive A, make sure there are no queen cells on the frame that she is on (destroy them if there are) and place the frame complete with the queen and any bees that are on that frame into the gap in Hive B.
  5. Check the Queen cells remaining in Hive A and destroy all but one or two of them.
  6. Close the spacing between the frames in Hive A and place the spare frame from Hive B into the brood box of Hive A.
  7. Swap the postions of Hive A and Hive B by moving the brood boxes from one to the other.
  8. Place the supers onto Hive B (now in the position of Hive A).
  9. Close up both hives.

After doing this you end up with two hives and a split colony.

Hive A (now in the position of Hive B) contains all of the frames from the original hive except the one containing the queen. It therefore has almost all of the brood, all of the nurse bees, the queen cell and any stores that were in the brood box. However, any flying bees that were in it will return to Hive B.

Hive B (now in the position of the original hive) contains the artificially swarmed portion of the colony. This includes the queen, any nurse bees and brood that were on her frame, and all of the flying bees from the colony. The fact that this hive is now in the same location as the original hive means that any flying bees will return to it.

The Results

Parent Colony on far right, swarmed colony in the middle.

Parent colony on far right, swarmed colony in the middle.

We  now have two colonies that can be described as “swarm” and “parent”. The swarm colony on the original site (Hive B) has an old queen, an abundance of flying bees and almost no brood. This is very similar to the circumstances that a swarm is faced with. It also has stores of nectar and honey in the supers and the small amount of brood forms a focus for the bees activities.

Our parent colony has no laying queen, brood of all ages, queen cells that are about to “hatch” and a recently depleted number of bees. This is rather like the state of a colony immediately after a swarm has issued.

Hopefully the two hives will now be very busy for the next several weeks. The swarm colony has to draw out the frames of foundation so that the queen can start laying – just as they would if they had actually swarmed.

The parent colony will raise a new queen from one of the queen cells. She will have to go on a mating flight and hopefully start laying in a few weeks time. Meanwhile, much of the sealed brood will be emerging giving an increase in the population of adult bees.

What Next?

That isn’t quite all. It is possible to balance the number of bees in each hive somewhat and also try to prevent further cast swarms issuing from the parent hive. Over the next couple of weeks, the number of flying bees in the swarm colony will reduce as they die off. These won’t be replaced by new bees for a few weeks as there is very little in the way of brood in this colony.

In contrast to this, the flying force in the parent colony will be increasing as the nurse bees age and start taking flight. As the flying force increases in the parent colony it is quite likely to issue out cast swarms.

So, next week we’ll move the position of the parent colony to the other side of the swarm colony. The idea behind this is that any flying bees from the parent colony will return to their hive to find it gone so will end up going back to the closest hive which will be the one containing the swarm colony. This act will bolster the number of flying bees in the swarm colony (just what they will be needing). It will also reduce the number of flying bees in the parent colony, which should prevent them from issuing a cast swarm.

Back to the inspections.

With that done, we inspected the next hive, Leri. All was well in here, we saw the queen and no queen cells so we left them as they were. All of the hives were very light on stores though so we’ve fed them some syrup as well.

As the sun was still shining and we had been required to artificially swarm the first hive, we thought we had better take the opportunity to drive into Aberystwyth and inspect the bees in our out apiary as well.

This one wasn’t straight forward either. On the first inspection this year I’d seen a supersedure cell. On the last inspection I hadn’t seen the queen so we weren’t sure if she was still there or if a supersedure had taken place. As we looked through the hive we could see eggs and larvae of all stages but couldn’t see the queen. There was also several queen cells in the hive. That was odd, there was no sign of a queen but something had been laying eggs recently and there were signs of swarming.

We had another look through and this time did spot the queen. She was looking a little tired though. However, now that we had her, it was time to perform and artificial swarm on this colony as well.

Taking Stock

So, from three smallish colonies on Saturday morning, we now have 5 small colonies in total.

One remains unchanged, hungry but looking OK. We need to keep an eye on this one as it is likely to show signs of swarming soon as well.

We have two parent colonies. We need to wait for these to re-queen from their queen cells, need to move them next week and need to check for signs of further swarming.

We have two swarmed colonies. We need to check these to make sure that the queen is OK and that they have drawn out some frames so that the queen can start laying.

Phew, what a busy bee-keeping day.



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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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