Lindsay's Apiaries

    About the Apiary

  An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
  The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal

 Keeping hives from swarming  

   About the Apiary - September 2013

What’s flowering? I was notified early last month that pussy willow was already flowering in the warmer areas.

This flowering will stimulate the queens into full brood production and if the colonies are strong, they may store a little honey if there are a lot of trees. The other flow that really stimulates production is the willow flow, which occurs a month after the pussy willow flowers. Unfortunately, in some regions the authorities see these as nuisance trees and have been cutting out this most valuable source.

Swarm control

By September the brood nest will have moved up into the top super following the honey reserves. Bees are reluctant to move down onto frames in the lower supers, so we reverse the position of the top and bottom supers to put the brood nest into the lower super. This provides empty frames above the brood nest for the bees and queen to move up into, thus relieving the first impulse to swarm.

I’ve just returned from an overseas conference where one of the recommendations for all hobby beekeepers is to have two hives and a nucleus box (either a four- or five-frame box). The reason for two hives is so you have a comparison to judge how the hives are developing, and the nuc box is in case one of the hives starts swarm preparations.

If the queen is marked, it’s fairly easy to identify her on the face of a brood frame. Put her and the frame she is on aside so she is not transferred into the nuc box. The swarming urge can usually be negated by removing both brood and bees from the hive, thus reducing any congestion that has caused the bees to start swarm preparations.

With a nuc box it’s easy to remove a couple of frames of emerging brood (one of honey and another of honey and pollen), along with the bees that are covering the frames. Cut out a well-developed queen cell and press it into the surface of the frame near the centre of the brood area where the bees will keep it warm. Remove all the other queen cells in the hive and with a reduced population, this should remove the swarming urge.

If you don’t have a marked queen and can’t find her, select the best frames to make your nuc and shake all the bees off them. Compact the brood nest and fill in the holes left with drawn frames. Place the selected frames (brood in the middle, honey and pollen on the outside) in the centre of an additional super on top of the original hive above a queen excluder. Close the hive and overnight, the nurse bees will return to the brood and honey frames. Now the selected frames are ready to be put into the nuc box along with a queen cell.

The nuc should be closed up with grass in the entrance if it’s not going to be moved to another apiary. Put it slightly away from the existing hives so the new queen can find the nuc again after the mating flight. If it’s a hot day, release the grass a little to allow the bees to ventilate the hive; otherwise, do this in the evening. If the grass is eased out too early, some of the field bees may fly out and go back to their original site, reducing the number of bees in the nuc. Provided there are enough bees in the nuc to comfortably cover both sides of the brood frames, this should be enough to maintain the brood temperature. This is critical as any reduction in brood temperature will result in the bees that emerge dying early. Hence I like to add another shake of bees to the nuc when it’s made up.

Depending upon the age of the queen in the cell, you could be seeing eggs in the nuc within two to three weeks. Once the new queen is laying, the nuc can be developed into another hive if fed, sold to a new beekeeper or added back on top of the original hive when the main flow starts, using two sheets of newsprint so they merge slowly into one unit. Generally the bees from the nuc going down through the newsprint will dispatch the old queen.

Nuc hives can develop quickly. If starting with a full complement of bees, a nuc can soon find itself restricted for laying space or become overcrowded, and this in turn can swarm. I make my nuc boxes with at least a 25-millimetre space below the frames. This is how CC Miller made his nuc boxes. Instead of a single four-frame nuc box, he divided a full-depth super into three compartments: two four-frame nucs on the outside and a single-frame nuc in the middle. If the nuc gets crowded, the excess bees hang below the frames and may draw out drone comb, which delays swarming.

You can, of course, put a queen excluder under the newsprint. This restricts the new queen to her original super, which creates a two-queen unit. This works better if the new queen’s bees have a separate entrance, made by sliding the crown board back a little or lifting one edge by placing a stick under one corner. This puts less pressure on the bees in the nuc (top super) to chew through the newsprint and both queens may survive and continue to lay, creating a bigger hive population and subsequently, greater honey production.

Time to feed your bees

The bees in your hives are reaching a critical stage in their development. For the last two months they have been developing on stored honey and pollen reserves, so honey reserves could now be running low. The usual ‘hefting test’ to judge the weight of the hive is not as accurate as it was a few months ago, as now half the weight could be brood.

A strong hive can chew through three frames of honey in a week if the bees are restricted to the hive by bad weather. Check the number of stored honey frames left. If the hive is down to three full frames of honey, it’s time to start feeding it.

Commercial beekeepers stimulate queens into laying by feeding a two-to-one mixture of water and sugar. But we want to bring up the reserves, so feed a two-to-one mixture of sugar and water (by volume). A hobbyist can fill a tin or large screw-top jar 7/8ths full with sugar, then pour boiling water into the container, stirring all the time until the sugar is dissolved.

Punch half a dozen holes in the lid with a fine nail and upend the container over the top bars of the hive. A small amount will dribble out over the frames until the pressure in the container and the air pressure equalise.

Place a couple of twigs across the frames to hold the container proud of (slightly above) the top bars so the bees can get at the holes in the container. The small amount that dribbles out will alert the bees to the food supply. A strong hive can take down one to two litres overnight, so be prepared to refill the container in a day or so.

Once you start feeding a hive, you have to continue until the main honey flow starts. If there is a break in feeding and the bees run out of stores, they could cannibalise the brood, causing a brood break that will eventually lead to fewer bees to bring in the honey than there would have been if the bees had continued laying.


Generally when the bees occupy half the frames in the top super, it’s time to add another (unless of course you live in the colder regions). If you have only foundation frames, encourage the bees to move up into the new super by lifting two fully drawn frames (frames two and nine) in the super below up into the new super. If there is a surplus of nectar coming in or you are feeding the hive, the bees will start to draw out the foundation frames beside the drawn frames. Once these are three-quarters drawn, move these frames out one frame so the foundation frames are again next to the two frames that were moved up into the super. Repeat this exercise as these get drawn out. Another cause of swarming is that nectar is stored in the top of the brood frames, restricting the queen from moving upwards into the next super. This upper super could still be full of honey. To give space and encourage the queen to lay in the next super, interspace empty frames between the full ones so that the super has one full/one empty; one full/one empty, etc.

Varroa control

Most will have started treating for mites this month. I will be removing drone brood as part of my mite control. Mark/paint (for easy identification) an empty unwired frame and place this beside the outside brood frame in the brood nest. The bees will start to draw out drone foundation on the frames that can be cut out 18–20 days later, thus removing a good proportion of mites (varroa mites prefer to reproduce in drone brood). These drone frames have another advantage also. With drone brood present, the bees will draw out your foundation frames fully as worker cells.

This technique of mite reduction by drone brood removal won’t work if the hive has more than 10 percent drone cells on other frames. If you want to practice this technique, it may be necessary to cull the frames with excess drone brood cells in them. Some of these may already contain worker and drone brood. I tend to fork out or cut out this drone brood when I introduce the empty drone frame and move the now-worker brood frame to the outside of the brood nest so I can remove it from the hive on my next visit. By then the brood in this frame should have emerged, so there shouldn’t be any loss of brood production.

Whatever method you use to reduce mite numbers, it’s important to monitor to determine the success of the treatment. Sugar shake or alcohol wash are the best techniques to determine varroa mite numbers, but you can also monitor varroa drop over three to five days to determine numbers. If you can, get the numbers down to one or two percent so that your bees have a free run up to the honey flow.

Another way is to treat with organic acids once or twice a month to keep mite numbers below five percent. Above this figure, the mites will spread viruses that can debilitate the colony.

Things to do this month

AFB check: on a warm day, go through every frame in the hive, shaking off most of the bees to see the face of the comb clearly. Check the brood pattern: only a few missed cells per 100 cells indicates a good queen. If more than 15 percent are missed, consider replacing the queen.

If you find any AFB, notify AsureQuality Limited and separate the stored supers that came from that particular hive and destroy them. If you can’t identify the individual supers but know which supers came from that apiary, put an apiary quarantine on that particular apiary for 18 months, using those supers only in that apiary. If you suspect disease but are not sure, consult another beekeeper.

Feed hives if necessary: hives should have a minimum of three frames of honey in them at all times.

Spray or weed whack the vegetation surrounding hives. This allows you to observe the ground surrounding the hive.

Check stored supers for wax moth. Scrape out any found or freeze frames to kill moth larvae. Cull old frames from the brood nest or work them gradually to the outside if they contain brood so they are replaced within a month.

Get the wax dipper going to dip new and reconditioned supers so that replacement hive parts are ready for another season.

Put in early mite treatments or check mite levels using a cappings fork, sugar shake or a strip in a jar for 30 minutes or natural fall over a week with mesh bottom boards. Check your varroa manual to calculate mite numbers and treatment options. Don’t forget to rotate treatments to prevent resistance developing.

I have been away for a few weeks and haven’t caught up with what’s happening in my hives. Some had nearly three supers of bees before I left, so could be making preparations for early swarming due to the mild winter.

Frank Lindsay