Formin' a swarm?


On Wednesday, my usual inspection day of late, the farmer was picking up the silage, and so today's was on a lovely sunny Friday. Ⓑ was able to join me. It's been a while since he last came, and it turned out that he only just fit into his bee suit, and not at all into his wellies. He had to watch from the fence until the bees got too grumpy, and the risk of stinging got too great. More on that later. His mother is going to order a new bee suit this week, and he'll be able to participate again.

As I was walking over to the apiary to meet Ⓑ, Dave got in touch. He had been to the apiary a few hours before, because of social distancing. He'd also trimmed the grass around the place which had been getting quite lot. Thanks Dave. He'd also put his new hive down there.

He wrote me a couple of text messages, along the lines of the following.

I think we have lost our queen. Seven new queen cells, not emergency cells, two of them capped and less brood than last week. The cells were on the bottom of the comb. We saw a lot of empty brood cells and they were light on stores. It seemed they were out of sorts and not so many out foraging.

And over in our hive, we saw a similar situation. There was one queen cell — a single peanut-shaped cell, fully formed and capped, dangling from the bottom of the frame. There was tons of brood, loads and loads of drones, quite a lot of cells with tiny eggs, and a lot of stores. The colony is not bursting at the seams — they are occupying their brood box quite fully, but there's even a whole frame left, not drawn out, with stores seemingly being moved upstairs to the super, sometimes even the odd cell of pollen. In the super, lots of comb has been built and a total of two or three frames now contain nectar.

There are usually ten or twenty queen cells in a colony preparing to swarm. The number of them is more typical of supersedure cells, but our cells are on the frame's edge. However, location of the cell determining either swarm or supersedure is not a hard-and-fast rule, and, given all the bees have been through over the winter, this might just be the queen being replaced. The high incidence of drones and drone brood in my colony might even suggest the existing (likely emergency queen) is running out of sperm.

In both colonies, very new eggs were seen, so even though no queen was sighted, it doesn't necessarily mean she isn't at home. Dave and Ⓓ are far better at finding the queen than I am. Even though she is unmarked, them not seeing the queen is fairly unusual.

Finally, the numbers were definitely up in both hives, including in the super. When a colony swarms, up to 75% of the workers go too. But we've both never seen as many workers in our colonies.

As many people have told me, destroying developed queen cells is not swarm control. And neither of us have elected to do that, instead opting to keep a close eye on congestion and other received wisdom on swarm triggers. Furthermore, we think (though would be willing to be convinced otherwise) that these signs don't automatically suggest we need to split, a procedure which, though reversible, is nevertheless an interference to a healthy colony.

The bees were more aggressive this afternoon than any inspection so far. As I worked through the frames they'd buzz louder and louder, and a good number followed me around the field. It was probably a good thing that Ⓑ had to stay back today. Something definitely appears to be up inside that hive. Next week will be interesting. If you're reading this and any of it seems a bit fishy, please get in touch and set me straight!

Colony ID
Queen seen?
Queen cells
Framefuls of stores
Frames available for brood
Estimated mites
Temper / docility
Feed given
Treatment given
Supers added
C11✔ 6¼f? e3¾f? + 3sf1f + 8sf515°C ☀