Tag Archives: swarm

And they’re off …

I posted last week on the relative lateness of the start of the beekeeping season here in Scotland 1. Having been away for a few days I was both surprised and disconcerted to find this waiting for me when I arrived at the apiary to conduct the first inspections of the year.

When is a swarm not a swarm?

When is a swarm not a swarm?

Surprised because I’d missed all the seasonal clues that indicated swarming might be imminent.

Disconcerted because, in the interests of full disclosure, I’d have to admit to it ūüėČ

The colony behind the near-invisible one inch entrance hole through the bee shed wall is a double brood colony in an Abelo poly hive. It was headed by a 2018 queen (or had been ūüôĀ ) and had a nice temperament and good manners.

The queen was marked blue and one wing was clipped to prevent her flying off.

But it wouldn’t have stopped her¬†trying to fly off. Instead she would have ignominiously spiralled to the ground 2.

Usually what then happens is she attempts to climb back up and the swarm gathers around her. In a standard hive this is often this is underneath the hive stand.

My guess was that she’d made it up to the¬†landing board and stopped or got stuck there.

I had a gentle prod about in the beard of well-tempered bees but could see no sign of her.

With about 20 more hives to inspect I quickly decided to walk them into a fresh hive … I’d let them do this while I got on with other colonies in the apiary.

Don’t think, do

Walk this way

Walk this way

I put together a new floor and a brood box of mostly foundationless frames. I put one or two frames of drawn comb in and gently dislodged a couple of clumps of bees into the box.

Within a very short time more bees were marching down the wall of the shed and clustering between the frames of drawn comb in the brood box.

What started as a trickle became – if not a torrent – then certainly a determined stream of bees taking up residence in the new box.

To encourage them I balanced a split board across the tops of the frames to provide a welcoming dark ‘cavity’ for them to occupy. Very soon you could see bees fanning strongly at the opening between the split board and the shed wall.

Fanning workers

Fanning workers

I interpreted this as meaning the queen had entered the box and the workers were encouraging others to join her.

After an hour or so I moved the hive a few inches away from the shed wall, placed a crownboard and roof on and carried on inspecting other hives in the apiary. By this time about 75% of the bees had left the ‘swarm’ and entered the brood box.

Not so fast

And that’s when everything ground to a halt.

There were no bees fanning at the hive entrance. No more bees entered the box through the entrance. Instead they started leaving in dribs and drabs.

I’ve hived swarms like this before, or done the classic ‘walk them up a sheet’ having dumped them from a skep outside a hive. Other than this being a real spectacle, one of the striking features is that what starts as a mass of bees ends being an absence of bees … they all enter the hive.

'Walking' a swarm into a hive

‘Walking’ a swarm into a hive

Clearly something was wrong and I was beginning to suspect that there wasn’t a queen in the ‘swarm’ at all.

So I did what I should have done in the first place. I had a look in the original hive.

Hello there!

Blue skinny queen

Blue skinny queen

I smoked the double brood box gently from the bottom, intending to encourage the queen (if she was there) into the upper box.

The box was busy but not packed with bees 3, there were good amounts of sealed brood (and a really nice tight laying pattern on many frames).

There were quite a few ‘play cups’ and a few had eggs in them. This is one of the early signs of swarming.

I found the queen on the 19th of 22 frames.

Perhaps I was too gentle with the smoke¬†ūüôĄ

She was the queen I was expecting. Marked blue, though the paint was beginning to rub off a bit, and with the left wing clipped.

She looked like she had lost a bit of weight.

Big fat queens in full laying mode (which they should be getting to by late April) aren’t very aerodynamic so workers¬†slim the queen down before swarming to improve her flying ability.

This queen looked to me like she’d been on the F-plan diet (but remember I’d not seen her since last August). In addition, the number of eggs in the colony was relatively low. This would also be expected if the colony had been preparing to swarm as queens reduce their laying rate in the few days before swarming.

What else could be seen?

Stores and pollen levels were good.

The notable absence from the hive was of well developed, sealed or unsealed queen cells.

A colony will normally swarm once developing queen cells are capped. A colony with a clipped queen often delays swarming for a few more days. It’s therefore usual to find sealed queen cells in a swarmed colony. There may also be unsealed cells as well.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

There wasn’t anything close to a sealed queen cell in the colony 4. The best developed were, at the very most, a couple of days old.

So what happened?

Other than the absence of well developed queen cells the colony looked as though it had swarmed.

If it walks like a duck etc.

Since the queen was clipped she had eventually clambered back to the hive and re-entered, leaving many of the workers who had left with her clustered around the hive entrance.

That’s currently my best guess 5.

If that was the case, notwithstanding the current lack of well-developed queen cells, they’d be trying again as soon as the weather was good enough. I therefore decided to preempt them by doing a classic artificial swarm.

I moved the queen on a frame with a small patch of brood into the box I’d used to try and ‘walk’ the swarm into. I then moved the – now queenless – double brood box a couple of metres off to one side in the shed. Finally I placed the queenright box in the place the original colony had occupied.

And what will happen?

Full details are in the description of Pagden’s artificial swarm. The flying bees from the double brood box will return to the box with the queen. The hive bees in the double brood box will start to rear one or more new queens.

And at that point I’ll intervene.

The double brood box has lots of brood and stores spread across 21 frames. The bees are well tempered, stable on the comb and have no significant signs of chalkbrood or other diseases (and¬†Varroa and virus levels are exceptionally low – I’d measured both 6).

They are a good stock to make increase from.

I’ll check them in a ¬†few days and see how queen cells are developing. Once there are good sealed cells I’ll split the colony into several 3-5 frame nucleus colonies. The final number will depend upon the number of good queen cells and the number of bees left in the colony.

It should be possible to generate half a dozen good nucleus colonies from a suitable double brood colony without too much of a problem.

First inspection summary

I got through all my colonies (eventually). With a reasonable number to compare it’s easy to define the good, the bad and the indifferent ones.

It’s much easier to do this once the season is properly underway, which is a good reason not to inspect too soon in the year. Some colonies are very early-starters, others lag bit. If you inspect too early you might consider the slow ones are dud or failed queens.

I was pleased to see that most were good or at least indifferent, with only a couple clearly exhibiting undesirable personality traits – aggression, laziness, running, following – or, in one case, disease (rather too much chalkbrood). These will be destined for prompt requeening and drone brood will be removed to reduce their contribution to the gene pool.

My overwintered 5 frame nucs looked excellent, with a couple needing re-hiving immediately.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The first inspection is really little more than a check that things are all OK. It doesn’t matter whether I see the queen. If there are eggs present I’m happy.

Eggs? Overt disease? Stores? Brood? Space? … next please!

Overwintering losses

I lost 10% of my colonies this winter – two from 20. This includes both full colonies and overwintered 5 frame nucs.

One colony drowned. The lid and crownboard blew away in a severe storm and they were subjected to a three-day deluge over a long weekend when I was away.

Mea culpa. I should have had more bricks on the roof.

Spot the drone laying queen

Spot the drone laying queen

In the second colony the queen failed and turned into a drone laying queen (DLQ). This had been my worst-tempered colony last year and was scheduled for requeening. However, the queen I found wasn’t the clipped and marked one I’d left there in August. Clearly there had been a late-season supercedure and the replacement queen was poorly mated.

Although she was a bee I didn’t keep it is great to be beekeeping again ūüôā


Colophon

And they’re off! is the phrase used by horse racing commentators at the start of a race. It is also the title of a song composed by William Finn from the musical¬†A New Brain. The song is about the damage gambling does to families. There’s a good cover version by Philip Quast on YouTube.

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‚Ä° 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.

‚Ä°¬†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¬† ūüė•

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 … ūüėČ

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


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