Beekeeping tips for May

Your Bees In May

In last month’s beekeeping tips I warned that there might be some early swarming, and there has been. If your colony swarms, half of your workforce will fly away, which will seriously affect your honey crop for the year. What can be done to prevent swarming? Ultimately, nothing. Swarm prevention is somewhat of a misnomer. It is the natural instinct of your bees to swarm, and what is more, it is the sign of a healthy colony. What can you do then? You can control the bees urge to leave home, and you can also fool them into believing that they have. There are early signs that 50% of your colony is thinking of moving house.

1. If the queen loses weight, she is slimming down to be able to fly better

2. If the queen stops laying eggs, she is saving them for starting the new colony.

3. Queen cups, or play cups indicate that the bees are practising to swarm.

4. Finally, the appearance of queen cells around the perimeter of brood frames, with a larva and royal jelly should tell you all you need to know.

5. If cells are slightly in from the edge, don’t be fooled, as it could be the result of cooler nights, and the bees wanting those precious cells a little bit closer to the brood ball.

A new egg destined to become a queen will be sealed eight days after being laid, and will hatch after another seven to eight days. Remember that once a swarm queen cell is sealed, the bees have made up their minds. They’re off. You can knock it down, but that will only delay the instinct. It is far better to take other steps.

An artificial swarm could be the answer. Reduce the queen cells to two really good looking ones. Some people suggest reducing to one, but I like an insurance policy. You will need a spare hive and a complete set of brood frames with foundation. Place the new hive next to the old one. Remove one frame from the centre of the new hive and leave a gap. Find the queen in the original hive and lift the frame that she is on, complete with the bees. Place that frame in the gap between the frames in the new hive. Close the new hive up. Now close the frames in the old hive and place the last new frame at the back, or front, of the brood box in the old hive. Place the new hive in the position of the old one, and place the old hive at least 3 metres away. If needs be, strap it up before moving it. 

For those who don’t know, you can only move a hive less than 3 feet, or more than 3 miles, without confusing the bees. 

Moving it 3 metres (10 feet) should ensure that the foraging (flying bees) will not relocate to it. It can be moved closer to the original site by increments of 3 feet every other day.When all the older foraging bees leave the old hive, they will return to the new one, which is in the original position, because they consider the location, not the original hive, to be home, and they will rejoin their queen. 

If the weather turns cool, or if you had some stores in a super box on the old hive, you could give that food to the bees in the new hive. If the weather stays fine, there should be no problem. 

A second solution would be to create a nucleus colony. You can either use queen cells, or the existing queen. Bring the nucleus box adjacent to the hive. It should have new frames and foundation in. Remove the new frames. Open the hive and find the frame with the queen. Place that frame in the nucleus box. Lift two or three frames from the hive and shake the bees into the nucleus box. You will have difficulty putting too many in, as the foragers will fly home. Place a frame of brood next to the frame with the queen on and a frame of stores on the other side of it. You can then make up the remaining space with empty frames, but if cold, you will need to feed with thin syrup. 

Using this method, it would be wise to place a queen excluding mesh in front of the entrance. Most polystyrene nucleus boxes have one built into the entrance disc. Now place the nucleus box at least 3 metres away from the original hive. You may need to top up the bees the next day. The alternative is to use Insert photo of swarm cells the frame with the queen cells, rather than the queen, but the colony may decide to swarm again in a week or two. 

Either way, you now have a potential new colony, or a nucleus you can sell, once the queen starts laying again, or the new queen has hatched, mated and started laying fully. Commercial nucleus colonies are selling for between £180 and £250 this year. 

There are distinct advantages to a beekeeper buying a local nucleus. I sell mine for less than the lower price, but they have all been allocated this year... If your queens have had their wings clipped, the likelihood of a successful swarm is minimal. The worst that could happen is that the queen will leave the hive and fall to the ground, as she cannot fly. A group of bees will join her on the ground, but the majority will go home.The final solution is to cull the queen. It’s absolute, but it will solve the problem. No queen, no swarm. I don’t advocate this method at all, and it will be a month before any new queen will be in full lay, unless you buy one.

Insert photo of large swarm That should keep you occupied for the month, but remember to inspect your bees every seven to eight days. It is never more important than at this time of year. If, as a non beekeeper, you see a swarm, you can have it removed by a swarm collector, and the easiest way of finding one is to go to the British Beekeepers’ Association web site at On the home page, there is a pink box to the right hand side of the screen, which says SWARMS - need help? Click on this box, and all will be explained. Using postcodes you will be directed to your nearest swarm collector. BBKA swarm collectors do not collect bumble bees or deal with wasp nests though.

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Thank you, The Ashridge Nurseries Team.

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