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Swarm Management

Managing swarms after hiving

Before hiving, swarms will usually behave in a similar way, in my experience they are usually docile, but when they are hived they soon take up their own character. Some will be "runners", others will be calm on the comb. The temper can be variable too.

Many beekeepers don't think too much about what happens with a swarm after it takes up residence in a new home, so I will explain. If there is no comb it needs to draw some, initially using the nectar and honey it brought with it, subsequently from nectar the foragers collect. The queen, if fertile, will usually start laying eggs within 24 hours. They hatch into larvae three days later, when they need feeding. Brood is very hungry, so by this time the new colony needs to have stored a reasonable amount of nectar/honey and pollen in case the weather turns bad for a few days. If there is a virgin queen, this process is delayed by about 10-14 days, but in general a swarm (cast) with a virgin queen will be able to store a reasonable amount of food before the brood requires feeding.

A good healthy swarm will work extremely hard when hived and in 3-4 weeks you would hardly know it had recently been a swarm, but with the queen problems that are being experienced by many beekeepers, there are many swarms that don't perform well. Failing queens being the main problem. Owing to poor health, some swarms simply don't do well. These need watching carefully and treated if necessary.

Observing a swarm in the first few weeks after hiving is a good learning experience, especially for beginners and if it is healthy. If there is a nectar flow when hiving, a large swarm will often draw a brood box of foundation into comb and fill it in a week, to the point where it may need a super. A smaller swarm or cast obviously won't do that.

Check the new colony perhaps 3-4 days after hiving. A fertile queen should be laying by now, so if there are eggs and larvae, I would start regular inspections. If there are no eggs, then you either have a failed queen or a virgin. In case she is a virgin don't inspect the colony or those surrounding it between 10am-6pm, in case she is on a flight.

Supering needs to be done sensibly. A natural bees nest is taller than it is wide. If you super before the colony has built out all the foundation in the brood box they will start to draw out the frames above the brood in the super. This often means the bees don't draw out the foundation on the outside of the brood box, so it goes stale and they make a mess of it when they do need it. To avoid this, get them to build out the brood box before adding a super. This can easily be done by turning frames round once the bees have built one side and bringing foundation inboard of the outside combs, so the bees concentrate on drawing them. Don't forget though that bees don't produce wax if there is no income, so be patient.

Even though you may have hived the swarm on foundation to reduce the chances of foul brood if the swarm came from an infected colony, I would inspect the brood very carefully for two brood cycles, just to make sure.

Once the first brood starts to emerge the adult bee population will increase. Don't forget that one frame of brood becomes three frames of bees when it emerges, so the colony can increase in size rapidly. If the swarm is early and the foraging good, you can easily obtain a couple of supers of honey by the end of the summer.

Roger Patterson.