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Swarm Control 27/4/24

Queen Cells in my Hive! What do I do?

A talk by Nick Silver 27/4/24

Finding queen cells in your hive is the beginning of a natural process which ends with swarming and the establishment of a new colony in a new location. Hopefully, the old colony will rear a new queen who will mate and continue the existence of the nest.

If your intention is to have a honey crop then you may be out of luck if the bees swarm. These notes should help you understand what the colony is doing and how you can manipulate the swarming urge to your advantage.

When you see empty queen cups, what are the bees thinking? This is usually nothing to worry about. Often, these empty cups are called ‘play cups’.

Queen cups with an egg or larva plus royal jelly (below) shows a definite intent to swarm. Now is the time for the beekeeper to take action to prevent swarming.

Queen cells with one or more sealed means you are probably too late. Swarms tend to depart when the first queen cell is sealed.

If you see a ‘bronze’ tip to a queen cell (below, left), the new queen is about to emerge.

An empty queen cell, possibly with a hinged lid, means the virgin queen has emerged.

Squishing – symptom of a beekeeper with no plan

Destroying queen cells by squishing may be used to buy the beekeeper a bit of time, but the workers will just build more queen cells.

At this point it is as well to remember the life cycle of the developing queen cell.
Egg 3 days – larva 5 days – capped on day 8

A queen cell can be created from a 1, 2 or possibly a 3 day old larva, so by squishing you are just trapping the colony in the 4-7 day zone of queen development. In this state they can go very quickly and you also risk missing a cell. This is very easy to do as they will build emergency cells around the fringe of worker brood which are very hard to spot – even if you shake off all the bees. Repeated squishing will demoralise the bees and can easily lead to a hopelessly queenless situation if the swarm decides to depart anyway.

The Basics of Swarm Control

The colony may be thought of as three parts:

  • The queen
  • The brood (and queen cells)
  • The flying bees

Separating one of these parts from the other two should dispel the swarming urge, making the bees think they have already swarmed.

Some swarm control methods

  • Pagden – flying bees with the Queen
  • Two nuc method – flying bees with Queen Cells
  • Basterfield split – flying bees with Queen Cell

What is your method?
Be ready to use it at any time.
Always have the equipment you need with you.

Pagden (the bench mark method)

This method is good for:

  • Simplicity
  • Learning and Observing
  • Easy inspections

But there are issues:

  • It is expensive for equipment and requires space
  • Opportunities are missed:
    Could get more increase
    Could get more honey

Two nucs (Stewart Spinks – Norfolk Honey Company)

This method is good for:

  • An easy way to get more increase (to sell or use)
  • Nuc boxes are much cheaper than hives
  • Easy inspections
  • Simple swarm control

The issues:

  • Watch for equal split of flying bees
  • Honey crop sacrificed for increase

Vertical Split (Ken & Dan Basterfield)

This method keeps the colony together, so good for:

  • Honey production
  • Minimal equipment needed
  • Single site and single manipulation

Issues are:

  • Slightly more complex
  • Inspection of lower brood box could be problematic

This is the starting configuration. Entrance to the south, queen excluder on original brood box plus two supers.
Remove roof, crown board, supers and queen excluder.

The brood chamber and floor are now turned 180° so they face in the opposite direction. Note that for National hives, the frames should be warm way to present a flat surface for the flying bees to walk up to the new entrance in the split board.

Half the brood frames plus adhering bees are moved to a new brood box, leaving the queen in the original box. Destroy any queen cells in the original box. Proportions in each brood box should be: stores – more in the original box; young to sealed brood – roughly equal. Top up both brood boxes with spare comb. Place the split board on top of the original brood box with only the top entrance open as shown.

Only one good, open queen cell should be left in the new brood box.
Replace queen excluder on top of the new brood box, followed by supers, crown board and roof.

There are variations on this manipulation depending on the starting situation and the desired outcome.

They can be found in the original article describing this method HERE (PDF file)