Into Spring & Swarm Season: What to do if You Can’t Find the Queen.

Willow

It’s officially spring today on April 1st; yippee! My five-years-on-one-page nature journal announces this, and the garden birds believe it too. I hear their familiar spring sounds; the song thrush’s melodious fruity trill, and the sound of it bashing snail shells open under the hedge. Several thrushes have returned to the garden to nest. Some cunning corvid has been raiding an early blackbird nest and I see egg shells on the driveway with holes in the sides.

At last the day is quiet with no ferocious winds marking out March as the windiest month on my records. The bees have been battling against it daily to collect pollen from this abundant tree not many hundred yards along the road. As I stand in the field chatting to a neighbour earlier this week, I notice a steady stream of bees returning from the tree. One flies past at nose level keeping low down to avoid the turbulence, and another collides with my forehead so I move aside as I’m clearly in the flight path. As I watch and pay attention, there’s a steady stream of them following the same line and heavily weighed down with around 15 mg of yellow willow pollen with the wind buffeting them off course. I’m reminded of waiting on the tarmac at Schipol airport watching the steady stream of big jets come down out of the clouds to land as I leave for New York on my last big trip away to visit the Catskill Mountain Beekeeepers in 2019.

Frogs by Jane Geddes.

Like a few people around here and further afield, I’ve never seen so much frog activity; ditches, ponds and puddles are wobbling full of frog spawn. If anyone knows why there might be such an abundance this year, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Our new red squirrel visitor has finally worked out how to use its own feeder and is becoming more used to people. Last week I sat relaxing in the sun among the bee hives as squirrel sat too perhaps contemplating the nut situation only a few feet away.

Warm windy days are great for getting those winter woollies washed, dried and packed away. This one attracted a lot of interest and reminded me why the bees need lots of water just now as the queen ramps up laying, and the brood food factory cranks up production. I haven’t done the hive inspections yet and it is only around 7 degrees Celsius today with another week of cold weather forecast. So, by the time I get in there they may be needing a lot more space in the brood boxes. Swarm season will be here again before we know it!

Photo by Linton Chilcott.

Advice to New Beekeepers.

Photo by Tony Harris.

Even if you had marked the queen how would you find her in this colony? Would you even try? What if you get a phone call in a few weeks from a new beekeeper asking for help? He’s just found queen cells and can’t find the queen. Ok, so maybe they already swarmed but let’s say they haven’t. Either way, what I suggest will work for both scenarios.

Firstly, I would reassure the beekeeper that this can happen to anyone and not just beginners. There’s nothing worse in beekeeping that being made to feel a chump by the local association “expert” because you haven’t quite grasped swarm control, or you never can find the queen.

Demaree Variation.

My Bailie eke as it would sit above the supers in this scenario. (made by Stewart Smith).

This method is simple and you are going to end up with the queen and flying bees in the bottom brood box (BBB). Any supers will be in the middle separating the BBB from the top brood box (TBB) which will contain brood and nurse bees, and ONE unsealed queen cell. These are all on the same site so little extra equipment is needed but you do need 2 queen excluders and a new deep brood box. A new floor is needed, and what we call a Bailey eke which is essentially a queen excluder with a new entrance. You should use if possible some freshly drawn foundation that has been fumigated with 80% acetic acid previously. If not then you will need 10-11 frames of foundation, depending upon wether you use dummy boards or not, and on what type of hive you use.

At the end of the first week your hive configuration will look like this.

To start, dismantle the hive and move it just to the side. On the original site, place the new floor with queen excluder on top. Then place the new BBB with a few frames of foundation at the sides leaving a gap in the middle to shake the bees into. Because you are going to shake all the bees into the new BBB, I put the queen excluder in place to avoid them absconding if there is no drawn foundation and they don’t like the set up. Some people reckon that they will not abscond due to having the brood above, so, placing the QE above the floor is optional.

What you do next is start shaking all the frames from the old BB into the new one, APART FROM THE FRAME WITH THE CHOSEN QUEEN CELL. Remove all queen cells apart from your chosen one. You need to find one queen cell (QC) which is open and contains a plump white larva that will become the new queen. This frame can be shaken by turning it upside down so as not to dislodge the larva, or brush the bees off it. Bees don’t much like being brushed in my experience but nurse bees tend to stick like velcro and I sometimes brush them off. In this situation, it doesn’t matter if there are nurse bees on these brood frames because you want them to move up to the TBB anyway.

When you have shaken in all the bees the queen should be there in the BBB. Place a queen excluder over the BBB, and if there were supers put them on top. On top of the supers place the TBB which contains all the brood frames and one frame with the QC that you have marked with a coloured drawing pin/thumb tack on top of the frame. You removed all the other queen cells after you shook the bees off to clearly see all QCs, both the obvious and hidden ones.

In a few hours the nurse bees will go upstairs to the TBB to care for the brood while the flying bees will carry on working from the BBB and storing nectar in the supers.

In a week, check that the queen in the BBB is laying and remove the QE above the floor if you haven’t already done that (pollen can get removed by QEs). If you see eggs then you were successful.

Go through the TBB and remove any emergency queen cells that may have been produced. After a week there will be no more suitable larvae to make queens from. This is where the Bailey eke comes into use so place it above the supers and replace the TBB, but have the entrance to the side or back. The reason for this is that the new queen in the TBB will be ready to emerge soon and you want her to go on her mating flights and return through a different entrance. If she comes back to the BBB she may get killed, or kill the queen in residence.

After around 3 weeks, depending on weather etc, there should be a new laying queen in the TBB. If you want to make increase you can assess the new queen and separate the TBB to make up a new hive. Or, you can remove the old queen from the BBB when you are happy with the new one and unite the brood boxes. You would gradually rotate the top entrance to align it with the front one before removing the supers and uniting. You could also try running a colony with a 2 queen system (one in TBB and one in BBB) keeping the supers in the middle.

Welcome.

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8 thoughts on “Into Spring & Swarm Season: What to do if You Can’t Find the Queen.”

  1. It is not easy to explain the Demaree, but you have made it really simple to follow, Ann. You can use it on a big colony even before the have produced queen cells too, so I’m glad you reminded us, as two of our colonies are already very strong; s you say colonies could swarm this month if we don’t manage them well. Thank you, Ann.

  2. As Margaret says a timely reminder. After this next cold snap I might just do this on my very strong colony which is already filling two brood boxes. 😊

    1. A good example of swarm prevention and a method that Graeme Sharpe uses and recommends.What you do will be similar but slightly different to what I have described for swarm control when the queen cannot be found.

  3. Swarm control can seem quite an intimidating set of processes for beginners but very satisfying when all goes to plan. I wonder though whether, in light if the move to less interventionist beekeeping methods like this may become quite niche. However, as beekeeping increases in built up areas and the nightmare of aggressive, temporarily queenless colonies becomes a larger problem should this method not become a staple for urban beekeepers in particular. The more managed the wider environment is the more management the bees require.

    1. We live in such a crowded island here in the UK with approximately 60,000 hobbyist beekeepers, and 500 bee farmers with over 260,000 colonies of honey bees between them. Most of us don’t have the option to leave colonies to get on with swarming.

      1. I agree but that does seem to be the direction the herd is moving in. It will inevitably lead to controls on beekeeping.

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