Born to Bee Wild

150310 Polinator PlateBee School has been snowed out the past two weeks, so I was happy to attend the March meeting of the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association yesterday. The topic was Swarm Prevention and Control, and the room was packed with 50 or 60 people.

Before swarming discussions began, we were introduced to Manassas Park Vice Mayor Bryce E. Park. Apparently keeping bees has been a lifelong dream, and with the kids getting older he thought he would look into the idea. Imagine his surprise when he learned that beekeeping is illegal in Manassas Park. Hopefully he’ll be able to change this ordinance.

Also of interest is a newly approved license plate for the state of Virginia, shown as the image for this post. The Protect Pollinators plate became official just last month. The idea was started by Samantha Gallagher to promote a dialog about pollinators, and Virginia is the first state to approve such a plate. I am looking to buy a pickup truck, and just may need a new plate soon….

After these introductions, Karla Eisen discussed the basics of swarm control. Karla is one of our bee school instructors, and she said swarming is a symptom of a healthy colony. So we can never really prevent swarming, but we can work to stay a step ahead of them. Karla shared three ways to manage swarming: give the bees more space, change the queen dynamics, or really mess with the hive.

On the first, the simplest method is to literally add space by placing more supers on a hive. For our region, Karla says she adds one or two boxes to her hives around April 1. She suggested timing it to bloom dates for the local cherry blossom festival in Washington, DC as they announce the expected bloom dates each year. Another space approach is to reverse the hive bodies, though Karla warned that this should not be done if the cluster spans more than one box. Basically, you place the top box on the bottom and the bottom on top.

As to manipulating the queen, the simple approach here is to requeen. With a new queen, the hive generally will not swarm. Karla also shared that you can clip the queen’s wing so she can’t fly away or remove queen cells as they form. Clipping the queen seems a bit mean and finding every queen cell sounds hard, so I’m not so sure about these two approaches.

After Karla’s introduction, Chris Hewitt and Tim Vaughn present two ways to mess with the bees. Chris compared swarm prevention to stopping a fire. A fire needs oxygen, fuel, and heat. Remove one of these ingredients and the fire goes out. Similarly, bees need a queen, flying bees (foragers), and young bees (brood and nurse bees). Take away one of these, and the swarm instinct usually dissipates.

Chris is also one our instructors, and you may remember him as the Russian bee breeder from my post Song of the Queen Bee. He presented a live demonstration of the Pagden Method, also called Artificial Swarming. By live I mean he had empty hives that he moved about the room, it was pretty instructive. James Pagden was a Victorian beekeeper that first published the approach in the 1860’s. As a  side note, Pagden’s house is now a coffee shop in the Sussix villiage of Alfriston.

For details on artificial swarming please go find a good link, as I certainly have not tried this yet. As I understand it, you move the hive to a new location and place an empty hive at the old location. The flyers, or foraging bees, return to the old location and take up residence in the new hive. The young bees who have never flown remain at the new location. You then find and move the queen to the old location and voila, the bees have swarmed. Rather elegant in its simplicity, and when complete you can keep the new hive or recombine the bees.

The discussion finished with a presentation by Tim Vaughn on the use of a Snelgrove board. A picture of this device in shown here. The device allows you to create an artificial swarm on a single hive stack by manipulating the hive entrances on the board to trick both flying and young bees into thinking they have swarmed without actually swarming. I’m not sure I totally understand the details, let alone how to explain it, so follow this link for details.

I am really enjoying the local association, learning new ideas and connecting with local beekeepers. What a fun hobby this is bee-coming, and I don’t have any bees yet!


You may know of the 1968 song Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf. The title was also the name of two films, one in 1938 and the other in 1995. The popular song appears in the soundtrack for a number of movies and as background for numerous TV episodes. The Wikipedia entry has a rather extensive list.

For this post, swarming seems to capture the idea of bees as wild creatures, and the notion that healthy hives eventually swarm fits with the notion that creatures are born to reproduce. Of course, bees do not reproduce individually, the colony swarms as a superorganism. See my post To Bee or Not To Bee for a discussion of this idea.

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2 thoughts on “Born to Bee Wild

  1. My preferred method is the Pagden artificial swarm when you see queen cells. You must act as soon as you find uncapped queen cells because the bees tend to swarm around day 8 when the cells are capped (weather permitting).

    I dislike the approach of destroying queen cells as you find them, it’s the lazy option and must depress the bees too – also you will probably eventually miss one. Giving bees more room is not guaranteed to repress the swarming instinct, as you say it’s instinctive for the colony to want to reproduce, no matter how much room they have.

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    • Yes, I can’t see destroying queen cells either. I hear Russians build queen cells all the time, so you have to check them regularly for eggs/larva. Could get interesting. Thanks for your comment.

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