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Baffling swarming behaviour

ok, i know swarming is always a bit…ineffable, i’ve only been keeping bees a year & don’t have much experience to go on, & maybe theres a simple explanation. but if so, i haven’t found it yet.
so, early this year (late april) i started off a nuc with 3 frames & a queen cell in a (vain) attempt to forestall swarming. my new queen emerged, waited a couple of weeks then started laying like a demon. now, other 2 hives are going fine (one with the swarm i failed to prevent, another with the bees that were left), & i really wasn’t expecting trouble from this one. but a few days ago we had a bit of wet weather followed by a glorious sunny afternoon, & i noticed a lack of your bees orienting themselves around this hive, & wondered if something was amiss. & the next day a swarm came out, which i caught, took away all brood from the hive & put the swarm back, thinking they’d treat that as if it was a new nest site.
the removed brood, which i’ve set up somewhere else, consisted of almost a full box of brood, mostly sealed, mostly worker with some drones, & maybe a dozen swarm cells (proper ones, hanging right down, not looking like emergency or supersedure) at stages of development from sealed to approx 2mm larva. she’d started a bit of laying upstairs as well, nearly all sealed & all worker, but the middle frame downstairs was empty apart from a few bits of sealed brood round the edges. other frames had unsealed brood too, including some with very tiny larvae or eggs, showing queenie had been laying til very recently.
so, this swarm didn’t at any stage hang together well; i dropped them into a nuc box, they immediately started dispersing as if they didn’t have a queen in, then i got them into the hive & it was a race to get frames & top on before they’d all wandered off again. then they just sat, some inside the hive in a big ball (was going to fill up with more frames later, when i’d put some together, hence the space), & some all over the outside.
the following day they were still all sitting there, i convinced myself that i’d lost or killed the queen during capture, so i gave them back a frame of brood with a sealed queen cell on it.
today, they issued forth again, i saw them coming out, which was an awesome sight! then i went & looked, they’d demolished the queen cell (hole in the side & no contents left but a blob of royal jelly).
so evidently they did still have a queen after all. but they still don’t seem to know where she is. i got most of the swarm into a box & stood it, upside down & propped up, but a few hours later they’d resolved themselves into the box, half in & half out, plus a bunch about a third of the swarm back in the bush where they’d been. i caught them too, & put the two boxes next to each other with a clear line of sight (or smell?), but another hour & they’re all still sat there, so in the end i just gathered up as many as i could into the one box & took them home again, where last i checked they were sitting all over the hive showing no inclination to go indoors, look for their queen or do anything else to the purpose. by the by, the few bees still in the hive were looking very agitated in the hours after the swarm had left, running about all over the front as if they’d lost something…such as a queen.
so i’m a bit baffled now. they had a young, demonstrably fertile queen, tons of room, plenty of forage, piles of brood, honey & pollen stored. surely the only reason to swarm is, having a good year, lets multiply? but then they act like they haven’t got a queen, or can’t find her or something, as if she’d run out of hormone? so do i try to find & kill her & requeen with one of the daughters, or leave them alone, or try something else i’ve not thought of yet? i’m hoping they won’t come out again, & even less sure what to do if they do. could be whats happening is obvious to someone with a bit more experience, but if not i’d still welcome any insights/ideas anyone might have. i wondered if there might be multiple queens in the swarm, but can’t think how the second one would’ve got there? didn’t see an opened queen cell during inspection, but i wasn’t really looking for one at that stage. but queens don’t wait for their successor to hatch out then swarm out with her…do they…

Hi Rich, I kind of lost the story line about halfway down. However I think I can help with some advice, maybe by telling you what I do with a couple of key words for you to research further.

The main key words are “preemptive swarm prevention”. This is what I do. I try to split a hive before the bees start preparing to swarm. Most times it works. I take the split away from the foraging range times two so that no bees return to the parent hive.

Another thing I do when capturing a swarm is to always give the swarm a frame with lots of mostly open brood. Maternal instincts will draw the bees to that frame, whereas they wont be so drawn to sealed brood. If that swarm happens to be queenless, it wont matter because they can make themselves a new one. Sometimes I’ll rest that frame of brood on or adjacent to the swarm. Then I’ll put that frame in the capture box after the bees have nicely covered it. The rest of the bees will normally follow.

I hope those tips help & feel free to ask any questions on things I missed or the tips I gave.



Hi @richT ,

Do you still have those queen cells?
There is a method normally used when swarm occurs during the main honey flow and the swarm cannot be used to work on it. It is reasonably simple and does not require moving swarm into new hive. We need to separate queen from the swarm and form a nuc to put her there. Then we remove all swarm cells, leaving the best one and put swarm back to the hive it came out from.
Queen in the nuc becomes a “helper queen”. We use her to compensate attrition of bees in the main hive which happens due to interruption in brood production in the main hive while it does not have own laying queen. The purpose is to make sure that the main hive does not become weak before wintering. To do that we move 1 or 2 frames with open brood to the main hive replacing them with empty frames from it. Latter “helper queen” will be disposed of, what is left of nuc combined with the main hive.

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Thanks both. Since writing that the bees have settled nicely back into their hive…& then another lot swarmed as well, for the second time this year. I’ve ended up doing basically the same again, taking out most brood, including all queen cells & putting the swarm back in, only this time i set the brood up right next to the hive, thinking i can hopefully move it later & persuade the occupants to rejoin their old hive. If i was a better beekeeper i’d’ve definitely tried moving the queen across instead…but how on earth do you go about finding the queen in a swarm? I have enough trouble just in a busy hive. I’d like to use the new queen, assuming one ensues from this nuc, to requeen later in the year, not sure how i’d go about that? I think autumn is the time for supersedure, sort of wondering if i could slip her in in a couple of months, maybe they’d sort it out themselves over winter…
Don’t know if the way i’ve dealt with this is a bit dicey? Neither lot seemed very keen on going back in, maybe because they recognise it as where they’ve just left. I was trying to get the latest lot to crawl back in themselves, but no joy, they just reformed under the board i’d put for them to walk up, in the end i had to dump them bodily back in, but once inside i hope all the empty frames will look unlike home enough that they treat it as a new place & stay.
Thanks for the tip about open brood. I didn’t get to use it this time because there was hardly any about. In fact, across my 3 hives (finally decided i’d better go & check the other one for signs of swarm prep too) there was a very similar pattern; brood box chock full of sealed brood, a couple more frames started upstairs, but only a smattering of open brood. Which is apparently about what you’d expect here for the time of year, but i wasn’t expecting the change in pace to be so abrupt. The one i just inspected didn’t have any filled queen cells, but a fair few cups, & i got the feeling was a bit behind the other 2. Which would make sense given when it was founded- almost exactly 2 months ago. I’m finding it a bit bonkers the rate these bees multiply up, i started with a nuc last july, this year we took out the first couple of swarm cells in april & used them to start another one, then they made more, swarmed & i put the swarm back & moved the rest of the bees & their brood…& now all 3 have built up to a huge colony, only one of which hasn’t yet felt the need to swarm again. Yet…

Well… I did not promise it would be easy :grinning:

If you prefer clean sport, you may do it like this fellow (I wish I had his ability to spot queens…):

Otherwise - cheat!
You will need an extra box, a queen excluder, and something to cover the top of the box. A sheet of fabric is probably the most convenient cover option.
QX goes on top of the hive, empty box on top of the QX. It is more convenient when QX is nailed to the bottom of the empty box. Drop swarm into the top box and cover it with something. When the majority of bees will go down into the hive it will be much easier to spot the queen on QX. A puff of smoke into the top box may speed up the process. Just don’t keep it open. Lifted a corner, blew smoke, closed it. Otherwise, the effect could be absolutletly opposite to the expected one.

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Hi Rich, you’re welcome. It’s great that you’re “finding it a bit bonkers the rate these bees multiply up”. It proves that you must be doing something right & learning as you go.

If you can study up a bit more on bee culture & figure out what they’re likely to be doing next, then you can start to think like a bee colony. This is where my strategy of a “preemptive swarm control strategy” comes in handy. You don’t just look at the strength of the colony as it stands, you also look at the amount of sealed brood a colony has, then you can imagine how strong the colony will be after all that brood has emerged. Even if we ignore how much sealed brood a colony has, the colony itself hasn’t. It WILL prepare to swarm. This is where we can step in & take away some of the sealed brood & bees & replace them with fresh foundation or drawn comb before they start swarm preparations. That keeps one step ahead of them. If you read & digest what I’m saying, then put it into practice, you wont see any more “Baffling swarm behaviour”. :slight_smile: cheers

Thanks again both. Just checked my last unswarmed colony again yesterday, queen cups started here & there, but no proper cells. I pinched a couple of frames of brood anyway & gave them to the latest nuc, & i’m hoping that’ll be it for the year.
Re sealed brood, am i right in thinking one of the reasons bees will swarm is just not having enough room for themselves, as opposed to for all their stuff? I’ve been quite good from the off about checking there was always either some foundation or at least some unused comb in all the hives, but looking in the window of the flow super just before it swarmed, it finally occurred to me there might not be all that much room for the bees themselves when they all come home of an evening. I’m keeping an eye on things now & it seems much less congested in there.
Thanks for the tip about queen catching too. I actually caught my last swarm in an old cistern with a bit of excluder over the top precisely because i kept missing queenie & didn’t know if it was me not getting her or her keeping moving. Didn’t make the leap to using smoke though, i tend not to most of the time, & maybe it didn’t occur to me for that reason.
Yes, the guy in that clip looks a bit of a master, be a long time before you find me catching swarms from a treetop without so much as a veil on! I wonder if he was spotting those queens first time round or with the help of slowed footage? Still pretty impressive if the latter anyway…

Hi Rich, to answer your first question: Think of swarming as the bees method to reproduce. Sometimes that desire can be more overwhelming for some individuals than others. Think of a bee colony as a single individual. Sometimes they’ll swarm well before they run out of room. Other times they’ll wait until they are running out of room. Also be aware of the strength of a colony today on top of a lot of brood that will emerge in the coming days. The bees will be taking that into account when it comes to swarm preparations. That’s why I always remove fully sealed brood frames when it comes to swarm prevention measures.

Hi Jeff,
What do you do with the removed sealed brood frames?

Hi Beck, I use the frames of sealed brood to bolster weaker colonies. A frame full of sealed brood is a real boost to a weak colony, however only one at a time so as to make sure hive beetles don’t get a chance to lay eggs in them, depending on how many workers are in the weak colony.

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