Tag Archives: swarm

Prime numbers and cast offs

This post was prompted by a recent search used to reach this website. The question posed was can a prime swarm be led by virgin queen if [the] old clipped queen dies trying to lead a swarm?”

Swarming is the natural way that honey bee colonies reproduce. The process is triggered by a number of factors – overcrowding and diminishing levels of queen pheromone being two of the most important.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

Both these are, directly or indirectly, measures of how strong the colony is. If the queen has nowhere to lay because the box is wall-to-wall brood or stuffed with nectar, the colony is effectively overcrowded. In contrast, if the colony has ample space but there are so many bees that the queen pheromone is ‘diluted’, the colony will sense this indirect measure of strength and make swarm preparations.

In addition, as queens age they naturally produce less queen pheromone; colonies headed by older queens are therefore more likely to swarm than those headed by first year queens.

Prime swarms

You’ll see two definitions of prime swarms. Some define it as the swarm headed by the mated, laying queen and others use it to mean the first swarm to issue from a hive.

They’re usually one and the same thing.

Developing queen cells in the hive are capped on the 9th day after the egg they contained was laid. If the weather conditions are suitable – typically early afternoon on a warm, sunny day – the mated queen leaves the hive with up to half the workers.

This swarm – headed by the mated queen and often containing perhaps 20 – 30,000 bees – is the prime swarm. It’s the first to leave the hive … but it might not be the last …

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc …

Casts (or cast swarms)

Seven days after the queen cells were sealed the new, virgin queen emerges (or ecloses). For the continued viability of the original colony this queen needs to be mated and return to the colony. She does this on a warm, sunny day a few days after eclosion.

However, there are often several developing queen cells remaining in a hive after a prime swarm disappears over the fence to the howling wilderness.

This is where things get interesting.

All sorts of things can happen at this point. If the colony is strong enough it will throw off one or more casts. These are small swarms, headed by a virgin queen. Small is a relative term. They’re small in comparison to a prime swarm. Once started a colony can continue to throw off smaller and smaller casts. Some are these small in comparison to a mug of tea.

The continued loss of bees means the colony may effectively ‘swarm-out’, reducing in strength until perhaps only 10% of the original colony remains. If this happens any opportunity of a honey harvest is also lost and there’s a chance the colony will not recover sufficiently in time to overwinter successfully.

To complicate matters further, if multiple queens emerge casts can contain more than one queen. Sometimes you’ll open a hive at the same time as multiple queens are emerging. It can be bedlam trying to catch half-a-dozen virgins scuttling around a busy brood box.

Hiving casts

Large casts – perhaps football-sized – are worth catching and dumping into a nuc. Once the queen gets mated they can develop into a worthwhile colony. Ted Hooper describes ‘rescuing’ smaller casts by uniting them over a queen excluder on top of the supers on a strong hive. The bees unite and the queen is prevented from entering the hive by the excluder. I’ve not had to do this. I’ve lost one or two colonies that swarmed out but missed the ever-diminishing casts altogether.

A cast ...

A cast …

The cast swarm above was collected in a skep and allowed to settle for a few hours. When I lifted the skep from the sheet to dump the bees into a nuc there was a single bee corpse remaining … a dead queen. The cast obviously contained at least two queens. On checking the nuc a week later, after a week of almost continuous rain, I found a single skittish queen running around. Her behaviour suggested she hadn’t yet had an opportunity to get out and mate.

A cast in the skep ...

A cast in the skep …

And the answer is … ?

Consider again the original question … can a prime swarm be led by virgin queen if [the] old clipped queen dies trying to lead a swarm?”. The answer isn’t necessarily straightforward.

I think I’d argue that a swarm led by a virgin queen, despite being the first swarm to leave the hive, is not a prime swarm. It’s viability still depends absolutely on the virgin getting mated.

I would consider it as a cast.

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

Clipped queens have one wing trimmed to restrict their flight. This is a well-established method of swarm control. If the colony swarms the queen drops to the ground and the swarm often clusters with her under the hive. Colonies with clipped queens usually swarm a bit later in the development cycle of the new queen(s) in the colony. However, they are only delayed by a day or two.

I’m therefore puzzled why – as suggested in the question – there was both a clipped queen and an emerged virgin in the colony simultaneously. Or perhaps there wasn’t, but the query was whether a subsequent emerging virgin would head the swarm …

I’m afraid the puzzle will remain. The question came from an internet search … unless the person who posed it reads this and responds all we can do is speculate.


Or perhaps to establish themselves in your neighbours soffits. The same neighbour who has always complained about your bees chasing their dog and stinging their children. Reason enough to try and not lose swarms.

‡ I know this was a cast headed by a virgin queen because it came from a vertical split in which the queenless half was left overly strong. The clipped and mated queen was ‘all present and correct’ in the queenright half of the split – I checked. I’m intending to write a bit more about how to prevent casts in the future … once I’m a little better at it than I’ve been this Spring  😥

Same time, next year

About this time last year a swarm arrived in a bait hive in my back garden in Fife. Almost exactly one year later a different bait hive in the same spot was occupied by another swarm … or, possibly, a very good-sized cast.

The bait hive was being investigated by scout bees for a few days but on 6th, which was a very warm day here in Fife, the numbers increased markedly from a couple of dozen to a hundred or more. On my return from work on the following day the swarm was in residence. My neighbour reported seeing a ‘huge swarm arriving’ at about 11am.

Foundationless frames and bait hives

The hive contained a single old, dark brood frame and about five foundationless frames, together with a cotton bud dipped in lemongrass oil. I’ve previously described why I think foundationless frames are so convenient for bait hives – they provide the bees with guides to build new comb without taking up significant space in the box. It’s worth remembering that the scout bees are seeking out a sheltered, south facing, bee-smelling (ideally), empty space of about 40 litres volume i.e. about the same as a single National brood box. Foundationless frames take up little space, but mean that an arriving swarm can start building new comb immediately … and they do.

I posted a photo last week of a swarm from the bee shed that had clustered because the queen was clipped and so unable to fly. I dealt with the swarm within a couple of hours of it settling. Once cleared, the wall of the bee shed was dotted with small crescents of wax as the bees had already started to build new comb. In the bait hive, when checked on the evening of the 8th (less than 48 hours after the bees arrived) they were well on their way to drawing out the first three foundationless frames, with the first of these being half full of nectar, presumably from the dregs available in the nearby OSR fields.

Mite treatment be needed?

Almost certainly … and there’s no better time. When swarms leave a hive they take with them up to 35% of the Varroa population as phoretic mites. A large swarm from a heavily infested hive can therefore introduce an unhealthy dose of virus-riddled mites to your apiary. These will rapidly spread to your other hives. I therefore routinely treat swarms with suitable miticides soon after they arrive, well before any brood is sealed. I don’t look for DWV symptoms or bother searching for signs of phoretic mites, I just treat. Due to work commitments this swarm had to be treated on the third day after arrival, before I was even certain whether the queen was laying or not. Within the first 24 hours after treatment (with sublimated oxalic acid) there were about 40-50 mites on the board, with more falling over the next couple of days. It’s far easier and more effective to treat when there’s no brood present and so give the colony the very best chance of getting well established without a pathogenic virus load.

Finally, after a day of heavy rain, I took advantage of the bees being all ‘at home’, sealed the entrance and relocated them to another apiary to make space for a replacement bait hive on the same spot … on the off chance that swarming here isn’t over yet.

If it is, then there’s always the same time, next year.


Same time, next year was a 1978 romantic comedy starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn about a couple, married to others, who meet by chance, develop an “instant rapport” or at least “really hit it off” (one of the quotes from the film) and then meet again, year after year, both gradually changing, ageing and dealing with life’s crises.

Spot the queen competition

I’ve posted before about why clipping the queen helps … here’s a rather more dramatic example. This colony from the bee shed – in the middle of a Pagden artificial swarm – decided it was time to go. Since the queen was clipped they regrouped at the colony entrance so – at least as far as beekeeping is concerned – ‘all was not lost’.

Clipped queen swarm

Clipped queen swarm

“Clipping the queen” refers to the slight shortening of one of the queens wings. This prevents her from flying – or at least from flying any distance or with any control. Whilst it’s not possible to determine whether the queen feels any pain when its being done, clipped queens lead long, natural and productive lives, so I don’t think it’s detrimental to them. It’s certainly beneficial for the beekeeper and beekeeping. The wing on a queen is clipped after she is mated … 😉

I’ll discuss swarm control and prevention in the bee shed (when I achieve it)  😉


This is the first of series of irregular midweek photograph posts.