15 min read

Enough bees

How to keep hive numbers to a manageable number, whatever that number is. Balancing the needs of swarm control and replacement of winter losses with the time, energy, equipment and enthusiasm available.
Enough bees
Enough bees, or too many?

Using a typically cryptic title - Beekeeping backups - I recently explained why I thought three colonies provided a beginner with the leeway to get things wrong, more opportunities to get things right and, importantly, to learn more and faster in the process.

Not three from the 'get go'.

Don't go buying three of the overwintered nucs I saw advertised today at an eye-watering £300 each 😱. If you've also bought the necessary hives, protective gear, tools and smoker, together with all the other unnecessary items advertised in the catalogues, you'll be both heartbroken and broke if they all swarm early, and then it rains for the rest of the summer.

But three colonies by the end of your second year is a reasonable target, and one that can be achieved by splitting one colony and/or setting out a couple of bait hives.

But what happens in your third year, or your fourth or fifth? Are you going to allow hive numbers to increase further, or is there a point where you think "Enough!"

In which case, how do you stop expanding your hive numbers?

Although some beginners might think it's a combination of witchcraft and outrageous good fortune, it doesn't take all that many years of experience to be able to rear lots more bees, almost without effort.

The sweet spot

We all lead busy lives {{1}} and beekeeping should be a pleasure, not a chore.

Remember, that {{squiggly}} thing is a footnote. These are viewable on a web browser, but not in an email newsletter. Here endeth the lesson.

It's supposed to be an entertaining diversion that provides a few jars of honey for gifting or sale, together with the pleasure of working with the bees to produce it.

Diversion sign
A diversion measured in feet, not miles

Of course, diversions can be of different sizes, and 'few' is a relative, not absolute, term. In comparison to some beekeepers, I produce relatively small amounts of honey, but I still seem to get through a pallet-load of jars quickly.

For honey production, queen rearing, interest and 'dabbling' with beekeeping methods, I've found that ~20 colonies is a good number for me. More than that and I struggle to keep up. Fewer, and I might lament not being able to make up some extra nucs, or investigate an alternative queen rearing method in our all-too-short summers.

But, for others, 3, or 13, or 1300 colonies is the most they want. What do they do once they've reached the 'sweet spot' and don't want their hobby becoming a chore?

I'm not going to write anything about getting, managing or keeping 1300 colonies. I'm impressed with the dedication and hard work of those that do, and I can't think of a faster way to destroy my enjoyment of bees and beekeeping ... or my back.

The early years

At least some of what follows is partially autobiographical, but it also comes from observing a lot of new beekeepers training with associations and taking their first tentative steps to becoming independent.

Many beekeepers start with the very best of intentions, invest heavily - both time and money - but then suffer disappointment after disappointment.

Their first colony swarms, takes ages to requeen, goes into the winter weak and succumbs during a cold spell in February.

Alternatively, the colony goes into the winter looking strong but, as a consequence of mistimed miticide applications, the winter bees die off fast and, by early January, all the beekeeper has are fading memories and an empty hive.

Or perhaps the weather is just relentlessly rubbish.

They're pouring syrup into the hives when they should be harvesting kilograms of golden honey. And then the autumn equinoctial gales arrive and it's all over for another year.

That was the 2023 summer for me ... though I had the compensation of a great spring crop and some fabulous heather honey from my bees on the West Coast.

If a beginner is unlucky enough to suffer a combination of these disappointments, then beekeeping can seem a lot more trouble than it's worth.

Many quietly give up.

There's a very high 'churn' of novice beekeepers; they train during the winter, have one or two poor seasons and then take up something apparently less challenging, like solving the black hole information paradox.

But it's not always like that

If their inevitable clumsiness, the weather gods and the myriad of other things that can go wrong, do not conspire to ruin things, then things can be very different.

Schematic of fluctuating hive numbers
Schematic of fluctuating hive numbers (entirely made up data!)

Yes, colonies are lost in the first winter or two (1w, 2w) as they get to grips with the timing and treatments necessary to control mites and viruses in the colonies.

But, in the good - or at least reasonable {{2}} - summer (2s) they quickly get the hang of exploiting the need for swarm control to make up these losses.

And there is success - creating in equal amounts of amazement and joy - with a bait hive. They even have to borrow half a dozen supers from their mentor during the summer nectar bonanza.

In the third year things go a little crazy.

Again there is summer success (3s) with a bait hive or two, but some queen cells are missed, resulting in the loss of a swarm and a couple of casts, all of which are eventually recaptured in the skep they got for Christmas. Hive numbers 'grow like Topsy' {{3}} and planter trays are being pressed into service as hive roofs, with stacked supers as brood boxes.

Bait hive made of two supers and a planter tray
How did you guess I've run out of equipment?

This beekeeping lark is easy.

But the following winter (3w) is carnage. A combination of missed Varroa treatments due to work commitments, poorly mated queens and too many undersized colonies mean many hives are lost.

It's an important and sobering lesson.

In beekeeping, as in easier occupations like developmental psychology, astronomy and engineering, the Goldilocks principle applies ... there is a 'right amount' of something (in our case, colonies). The number will differ between beekeepers, and might also differ for the same beekeeper as they get older, or have more time, or get more/less interested.

Years four, five and six etc.

That roller-coaster ride in the first few years of beekeeping, the annual boom and bust, not only taught you (or me, since it was vaguely autobiographical) how many colonies could comfortably and effectively managed ... it also taught the methods that were needed to manage them.

By comparison, these later years are now more sedate (though, again, these things are relative).

Colony losses overwinter are negligible and largely due to factors outside your control - like a poorly mated queen, or a falling tree. The expansion of colony numbers in the summer is tempered by the need to keep strong colonies together to maximise the honey crop and prevent losses from robbing.

There's still a lot of work to do, but - perhaps other than the heavy lifting during the honey harvest - you can do it comfortably and effectively. You can expand colony numbers more or less as needed, and you know how to minimise your losses.

No more boom and bust.

And, importantly, it's still enjoyable.

In fact, if anything, it's more enjoyable 😃.

Staying in that sweet spot

Whatever the number, maintaining colony numbers involves a combination of:

  • minimising avoidable losses, and
  • reducing unnecessary expansion

I'll deal with them in that order.

I deliberately use the terms avoidable and unnecessary.

Some losses are unavoidable. They might not happen every year, but when they do, you'll need to expand colony numbers to compensate for the loss.

In fact, it makes sense to prepare for a small proportion of losses by having spares already available. You could consider this as necessary expansion.

An insurance policy.

In addition, because strong colonies - which are exactly what you should be aiming to keep - will probably try and expand themselves (i.e. reproduce/swarm) in the Spring or Summer, there will probably be some necessary temporary expansion to accommodate this, rather than losing swarms.


Losses can occur at any time of the season but predominantly occur overwinter.

If you look at the COLOSS winter surveys, they broadly fall into three categories; disease, queen failure and natural disasters.

Avoidable losses

Of these, the first (disease) is largely avoidable with rational Varroa control. I've written extensively about this topic on this site, and so don't intend to rehash things here. Not only would I largely be repeating myself, but it's also not really an appropriate time of the season to be discussing things which are most relevant in late summer and early winter.

However, although Varroa control might predominantly be needed in the latter parts of the season {{4}}, Varroa vigilance is needed all the time.

Monitor mite drop periodically, check phoretic mite levels {{5}} and keep a close lookout for bees exhibiting deformed wing virus symptoms.

If mite levels are high, deploy some appropriate midseason mite management, or consider combining a shook swarm with miticide treatment. Both can be extremely effective.

During the summer, colonies may be lost due to robbing by wasps or other bees. These losses are probably all avoidable if you maintain strong colonies {{6}}.

If you minimise avoidable losses you reduce the need to subsequently expand colony numbers, so damping down the boom and bust fluctuations.

Unavoidable losses

Queen failures and natural disasters are not necessarily unavoidable. If the queen is getting on, say 2-3+ years, she's more likely to fail. Similarly, siting your hives in an area susceptible to flooding is a recipe for disaster.

Hive on barrow in flooded field
Rescued from the flood

I don't know how to spot poorly mated queens (before the obvious absence of brood, or clustered drone brood in worker cells), but might suspect problems if the queens were mated very late in the season, or during a period of very poor weather.

But, mainly, these things are outside your control.

As they say, stuff happens.

Expansion to replace lost colonies

If you have any losses, you will need to replace them if your overall colony numbers are to remain the same {{7}}.

You can do this retrospectively, the following season, by splitting a colony and/or not reuniting colonies after swarm control.

Alternatively, and perhaps better, you can prospectively overwinter a nucleus colony which can be promoted to a full hive if needed.

If it is needed, it's ready to use well before you'll be doing any swarm control or splits. You may even get a crop of honey from it.

And, if you don't need it, somebody else will (see below).

The UK and US average overwinter colony loss is reportedly in the 20-30% region. With timely and appropriate Varroa control, it should be no more than 5-10%.

But, since you cannot lose 10% of a single hive overwinter {{8}} it makes sense to prepare a nuc 'just in case'.

I always try and overwinter a few nucs (~20% this year), and they are always useful.

If you've not watched Michael Palmer's Sustainable Apiary then I highly recommend it.

Expansion during the season

During the spring and summer season, if you've reached the 'sweet spot' and don't want to make increase, the expansion of colony numbers is all to do with swarming.

Swarm control

The majority of swarm control methods involve separating the queen (with sufficient bees to maintain her) from the young bees, open brood and developing queen cells. Once there is a new laying queen the two parts of the original colony can be reunited again (after removing the old queen first!). You end up with a single, strong, colony ready for the summer nectar flow.

The Pagden method, vertical split and nucleus method can all be used like this, with the colonies subsequently reunited. Of these, the Pagden and vertical split have the advantage of being in compatible boxes, with the vertical split having the additional advantage of already being under the same roof.

However, as with most things in beekeeping, there's more than one way to do it.

As an alternative to the box-juggling involved in doing these forms of swarm control, you could 'simply' requeen the colony. This of course relies on you having spare queens available, which to some seems anything but simple. Hooper describes the process in his Guide to Bees and Honey book.

Honey bee queen
Local queen on fresh comb

Essentially you identify a colony intent on swarming, remove the old queen, make up a nuc from it to which you add a new queen, and then - once the new queen is accepted - re-unite the nuc with the colony {{9}}.

The colony gets a young pheromone-laden queen, the swarming impulse is suppressed and all should be good until the following year.

Swarm prevention

You may be able to hold a colony back and prevent swarming by using the Demaree method, without increasing hive numbers. This is variously described as a swarm prevention or swarm control method.

Before the onset of queen cell production (though it can also be applied after they are started, though - pedantically - this is not a true Demaree) the colony is split, with the queen and a frame or two of sealed brood below an excluder, above which all the open brood is placed.

It's still one colony, just twice the height it was before 😉.

The queen continues laying, and the beekeeper intervenes to remove the emergency cells that are almost always produced in the top box. After 7-10 days the excluder can be removed, though some repeat the entire process until the swarming impulse is over.

It's an appealing method because it keeps the workers together and so does not interrupt the nectar collection.

However, it doesn't allow replacement of the queen (with the benefits that brings in terms of potential stock improvement and increased winter bee production) and you can end up with a lot of (often dead) drones above the excluder. For these reasons, I'm not a big fan of the Demaree method.

You can achieve something very similar using a Snelgrove board {{Which US beekeepers appear to call a 'double screened board', though those I've purchased in the UK seem to have only a single piece of mesh centrally.}} which offers the advantage of allowing an upper entrance for the drones to fly from.

As might be expected from the multiple 'gates' on the Snelgrove board, it's a very versatile piece of equipment ... as long as you keep good records and remember the order and timing of opening and closing the gates.

And have a better memory than me 😞.

Pick one method ...

With any of these swarm prevention and control methods, confidence and familiarity play a big part in there successful application.

If you use a method enough to understand its foibles, strengths and weaknesses, you are more likely to use it successfully.

The opposite of divide and conquer

If swarm control involves a 'divide and conquer' strategy, the maintenance of never-increasing hive numbers depends upon proper uniting of colonies.

If you don't, you're back in Topsy territory.

Uniting colonies is a quick and simple physical process, the success of which depends upon the slow intermixing of colonies which 'smell' differently due to their cuticular hydrocarbon (CHC) profiles.

Classically, the speed at which the two colonies are allowed to mix is controlled by two sheets of the Financial Times (other quality newspapers will do, but I have it on good authority that the Daily Mail is wholly unsuitable {{10}}).

I don't think it makes a difference whether the upper or lower box (of the colonies being united) contains the new queen - as long as she's the only queen present - but I always place the moved box on the top. I want the relocated bees to be aware that things have changed by forcing them through the lower hive to get to the entrance. I think this results in fewer foragers returning to the - now vacant - site the moved box occupied.

You can unite a nuc and a full sized hive in the same way, having transferred the nuc to a spare brood box.

Air freshener

Alternatively, you can ensure the slow mixing of different CHC pongs by masking them with a squirt or two of a cheap and cheerful air freshener.

A quick spray over the top bars of the lower box, and the same over the bottom bars of the moved colony and, hey presto, you're done.

I know the commercials do this with hundreds of hives. I've not, but I've never had it fail with those I have used it for.

Remember, the CHC profile is colony-specific and significantly influenced by microorganisms in the gut of the bee.

You are what you eat
The science of identity - how guard bees recognise nestmates, why drifting bees are accepted into other hives and why robbers are only sometimes rejected.

How do bees recognise nest mates, and what has this to do with microbes?

If you controlled swarming by removing the old queen (and any queen cells) and then requeened a nuc derived from the colony (see above), you can simply add this back to the queenless parental hive. In the week or so the bees will have been separated, the CHC profile will not have significantly altered - there's not yet any new brood in the box from the introduced queen - and the nuc should be accepted without issue.

Other ways of not increasing colony numbers

Whilst preventing colony losses and temporary splits, coupled with prompt uniting, are the primary means to keep within your Goldilocks zone, there are other ways of controlling the numbers of boxes in the apiary.


It's not unusual to be asked to recover bivouacked swarms, even though they - obviously! - aren't from your own colonies {{11}}.

After a prolonged period of poor late Spring weather, a couple of good days can result in a swarmtastic time ... or absolute hell, depending upon your perspective. If the swarms are small, and likely to be casts (with an unmated queen), you can just dump them all into the same box and let the bees sort everything out.

The workers are predominantly young so they'll mix well (see the 'You are what you eat' reference above why this is the case) and you will end up with one larger colony containing one queen. That's a far more sensible outcome than half a dozen boxes all waiting for queens to get mated ... and then what? Yet more bees you might not want.

Or you could just refuse to collect the bivvied swarm ... though doing so almost certainly seals its fate.

Most swarms do not survive.

Selling the surplus

If you overwinter nucs (and you don't need them because your Varroa control is top-notch) there is almost always a market for them the following Spring.

They are available at least a month before new season nucs will be available (unless these have been made up with a very much not local queen from Greece), have already demonstrated their quality by overwintering well, and should sell at a premium.

Though, if you're selling them locally, for example to beginners from your association's Start beekeeping course, then I'd suggest not asking £300. Some associations have set or recommended prices - say £25-30 a frame - and this makes the entire selling and purchasing process a bit easier.

I know some beekeepers sell swarms. Personally, I think this is very poor practice ... the bees are essentially an unknown quantity. They might be good, but occasionally they are rubbish; wholly unsuitable for an experienced beekeeper, let alone a beginner.

Demand for bees is high before the swarming season and much lower afterwards. That's another compelling reason to overwinter nucs (and rear queens from your selected stock for subsequent overwintering).

An inexact science

Some fluctuation in colony numbers is inevitable; stuff happens, queens fail to get mated, your tried and trusted 'infallible' swarm control fails, or your queen rearing goes much better than expected.

Nevertheless, by focusing on the basics - minimising losses and unnecessary expansion - you can usually stay within a relatively narrow, and very manageable, range of hive numbers around your chosen 'sweet spot'.

I'll try and remember to re-read this before late July when I (again) run out of brood boxes.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Informative? Useful? Entertaining? ... choose any three.
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Thank you


This topic was suggested by Doug who has two colonies and an overwintered nuc, but is aiming for no more than 6 colonies. Thanks for the coffee Doug 👍.

{{1}}: Well, you do. Mine is a lot less busy than it used to be.

{{2}}: Let's keep this vaguely realistic.

{{3}}: To grow very fast, particularly in an uncontrolled way. Topsy was a character in the 1851 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

{{4}}: With apologies for my readers in the Antipodes who are just approaching this period. With 75-80% of the readership in the Northern Hemisphere, I have to write for the majority or things stop making sense. Or make even less sense.

{{5}}: Which I'll cover soon after it's warm enough to actually do any beekeeping.

{{6}}: I fear I may have to update this paragraph if Asian hornet numbers continue to increase in the UK.

{{7}}: 'Obvs' as my 7 year old daughter would have said sarcastically with exaggerated rolling of her eyes.

{{8}}: Like you can't be a little bit pregnant.

{{9}}: Don't just follow these brief instructions - read Hooper for the details.

{{10}}: On so many levels.

{{11}}: How could they be? Your swarm control is infallible ... and your queens are clipped.

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