Making Splits With Swarm Cells

The swarm season arrived at Brookfield Farm about three weeks ago, and the bees have kept me busy.  I try to stop them from swarming.  The bees have ample room with supers above them.  I welcome them into each new super by moving brood into that super.  The girls are not honey bound. They have drawn comb and foundation interspersed. And yet they build swarm cells.  I guess they haven’t read the same books I read.

Honeybees flying to main swarm cluster in a cedar tree

Swarm In Cedar Tree

They don’t need to read.  Swarming is natural.  More colonies mean a better chance to spread the gene pool and keep it going. But we beekeepers want to keep the bees in place, producing honey for us. It’s clearly a conflict of interest.

Swarming is more intense when there is a strong nectar flow.  The tendency increases when that strong flow is accompanied by sunny days intersperced with a few days of rain. It is a perfect swarm combination: Lots of food coming in, then, suddenly, the rain brings everyone inside and crowds the hive.  Food and crowds: signals to swarm.

Of course, there must be queen cells in the making for the swarm, and the after swarms, to emerge.   It seems that the bees constantly build and destroy queen cells.  This makes sense in the world of gene survival.  Something could happen to the queen at any time, an injury, death, or failure.  Or there could just be a lot of food and a crowded hive, thus the need to swarm.

Regardless of the reasons, about two weeks into the big leaf maple flow, swarm cells appear.  Sun, rain, and food: that’s pretty standard here in the spring.  This year I  made splits from every good swarm cell I found.

A nearly sealded or sealed swarm cell means that I’ve a queen ready to emerge in 10 days or less.  If she’s good, and if she mates well, that means I can have a laying queen at least a week sooner than if I give a nuc eggs with which to build a queen.  A frame with a good swarm cell is placed in a nuc with two or three frames of bees, brood, honey and pollen.  These other frames can be taken from the same hive or a combination of hives.

You can cut swarm cells out of the comb and pin them onto the comb in a nuc or queenless hive, but I’m always worried that I will harm the developing queen.  So I put the entire frame with the new queen cell into the nuc. The other swarm cells I distroyed.

But what, to me, makes a good Queen Cell?

Like so many things in this world, I judge by appearance and location. My criteria are:

The outer shell of the queen cell should be crinkly, not smooth.

The shape of the cell should be about ¾ inch long.

If it’s longer, the budding queen, if there is one in there, might be dead, and the bees have just been adding on wax to the cell.

If it’s short and stumpy, it could just be a trial run with nothing inside.

All the photos of queen cells on this page are courtesy of Dr. Zachary Huang (Dept. of Entomology, Michigan State University) from his website (a fabulous website full of great information and photographs).

The location of the swarm cell can also be a clue. Most swarm cells are on the outer edges of the foundation or at the bottom.  But if the queen cell is in the middle of a group of drone cells, the bees may have built a queen cell around a drone.  It happens.  I’ve even found queen cells on the wooden frame of the foundation, with nothing inside.  Sometimes the bees just seem to want to build.

Of course if you see perfect cells in the middle of a frame, those are supercedure cells. If they all look good, I leave them all, may the best queen win.

Some beekeepers think it’s a bad idea to create hives from swarm cells; that the bees produced by these queens will be more inclined to swarm.  I don’t agree with that, but it’s just my opinion.  I think food, weather, and crowding lead to swarms.  If you can grab the swarm cells to create new hives, it’s a blessing.

I did this about 2 weeks ago.  Yesterday I checked the nucs and all but one had laying queens in them and were ready for their second brood box.   For me, this was a success.  New, laying queens just in time for the Cascara to blossum.

About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
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5 Responses to Making Splits With Swarm Cells

  1. Dave says:

    Swarm cells are driving me crazy this year. I made a 3 frame split,added a store bought queen. They superseded her right away. I added 2 more frames of brood and put all 5 frames in a 10 frame brood box. I started feeding 1 to 1 sugar water so they would draw comb. They had different plans and I am assuming swarmed because I can’t find the queen but I can find capped swarm cells. The hive I pulled the 3 frames from also swarmed. I opened that hive and found 3 frames with swarm cells on them. Fearing after swarms, I put all 3 frames in a nuc box with 2 frames from another hive. I waited a couple of hours and put a caged Cordovan queen in the hive that I pulled all the swarm cells from. This is all experimentation for me but I am willing to lose a complete hive to learn. I do a lot of reading on the subject and come to the conclusion that if the bees want to swarm, there is not a thing on God’s green earth that you are going to do to stop them.

    • That’s about right : “if they want to swarm there not a thing…you are going to do to stop them”. That’s because they started making that decision about 8 weeks before the swarm cells are built. The only way I know to slow down swarming is to stay ahead of them. Mine tend to swarm in July (we have a big honey flow in May). So in April and May I start either doing splits or “checker boarding” the honey (more honey in May than April around here) – the checker boarding is putting empty foundation between frames of honey. This also allows an open path for the bees to climb up though as they work – bees will not cross solid honey (I don’t know why), so they get jammed up below a box of honey and think there’s no room above… All that being said, I bet some of mine swarm come July: a bees got to do what a bees to do… Have you tried putting up swarm boxes – or just leaving out hives with some drawn comb in them – to catch them. Works for everyone I know but me. My swarms go to the tops of 70 foot cedars and laugh at me….

  2. Pingback: Bottle Tree Farm | Bee Journal

  3. John Whiteker says:

    I just performed one of these yesterday with a fellow beekeeper and I was just happy to have queen cells in lieu of a queen. Now I’m wondering if that queen cell was just a drone that they built a large cell for. I hadn’t even considered it, but it was a smooth queen cell and not dimpled like you mention. I really hope that I get a queen out of it. I don’t think I had enough young larva/eggs for them to build another queen from. The frames were mostly capped brood, or close to it. This spring has been nuts here in the midwest it seems.

    • If it was long and “dangling” then it was probably a queen cell. Drone sit up-right out of the comb. However (you knew that was coming, eh?) a smooth queen cell implies something’s not quite right with the queen cell – empty, or too old – Just like an oddly shaped or tiny queen cell means something’s wrong. Do you have another hive you can pull some eggs from? If not, perhaps another beekeeper would give you a frame of eggs in exchange for two new frames with foundation…. If there is a queen in there, it won’t matter – just more bees. If the hive went queenless, then they can try to build a queen. Good luck

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