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Artificial Swarming

Several methods available

The principle of the artificial swarm comes from a very old method, going back to the days when many beekeepers were skeppists. It has become known as the "Pagden Method", although it is rather different from the method that Pagden devised. According to Karl Showler in an article in BeeCraft in December 2010, James Pagden first mentioned the method in a small booklet "£70 a year - How I make it by my bees" that was first published in 1868. Pagden's original method dealt with the situation after the colony had swarmed, not before, as the artificial swarm we now know does.

There are a number of variations and subsequent manipulations, but the basic principle is the same. One of the most well known subsequent operations is the "Heddon Method". This is performed by placing the parent colony about 3 feet to one side of the original site. Some insist the entrance should be at 90° to the original, but it doesn't matter. After about a week the parent colony is moved to the other side a similar distance away. The idea is the bees that have become flyers since the original manipulation will be diverted into the new colony on the old stand to boost the foraging force. I have my doubts if this gives much benefit. Some beekeepers do the same again a week or so later.

I have never used artificial swarming on my own bees to control swarming, but I have helped other beekeepers on many occasions. I have, however, used the artificial swarm, or a variation of it, many times for other purposes. There is a technique for using an artificial swarm in a slightly modified form for varroa control. Use the button on the top left to access this page.

With an artificial swarm all you are doing is splitting the colony into two, leaving most of the brood in one colony, with a large number of mainly flying bees in the other. This is achieved by moving the parent colony away some distance in the same apiary, so the flying bees enter the hive on the original stand when they return from foraging. This is supposed to mimic a swarm, hence the term "artificial swarm", but because both colonies are out of balance it hardly replicates a real swarming situation

To be successful with an artificial swarm you need to understand what is happening in a swarming colony and what you are trying to achieve by doing the manipulation. There are things to go wrong and they often do. One common problem is secondary swarming, which of course we were trying to avoid in the first place. There are many accounts of an artificial swarm in books and online, very often written by inexperienced beekeepers, who simply repeat the same mistakes that others make.

The main reasons for subsequent swarming are:-

  1. Leaving more than one queen cell. This is often a problem, whatever the manipulation, where the first queen to emerge takes off with a swarm if conditions are right.
  2. Filling the "new" box on the old stand with frames of foundation. I find secondary swarming rarely happens if drawn comb is used, or at least a few combs adjacent to the single frame.
  3. In my experience, moving a comb with a large patch of brood is more likely to result in a swarm. Use a small patch, or none at all.
  4. Having unclipped queens. If you clip queens they won't go far.

Although there are several methods of artificial swarming, I have detailed two that can be accessed using the buttons on the top left. "Method 1" is the basic method, where the queen is placed in the new colony on the original stand, "Method 2" is a variation where the queen stays in the original colony. They both work equally well, but Method 2 can be used if you can't find the queen.

To perform an artificial swarm you need spare equipment:-

  1. Floor.
  2. Brood box filled preferably with drawn comb, otherwise foundation (or a mixture).
  3. Queen excluder.
  4. Crown board.
  5. Roof.

In view of the amount of spare equipment required, artificial swarming as a means of swarm control is only really a method suitable for out-and-out amateur beekeepers. Those with more than a handful of colonies will probably want their operation to be productive. They simply can't have the required amount of equipment tied up just in case they need it. If they have the equipment they may as well use it for hiving productive colonies. They will use one of the other methods of swarm control that suit their circumstances better.

It is often thought there will be no further swarming preparations made after artificially swarming a colony, so there is no need to bother with either colony. Don't be fooled, as both colonies need attention. Further checks need to be made to make sure there are no queen cells built, either swarm or emergency, and to make sure the young queen mates and comes into lay.

It is often advised to feed one or both colonies, but I very rarely feed syrup in the summer, I prefer to distribute the food in the supers in a way that I don't have to. Don't forget the new colony has most of the foragers, but little or no brood to feed, yet the parent colony has few foragers and all the brood, which is very hungry, so spread the supers out accordingly.

Roger Patterson.