Swarm Prevention With OTS Queen Rearing (Part 1 of 3)

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Part OnePart Two Part Three

Combining easy "On The Spot" (OTS) queen rearing (as coined by Mel Disselkoen) with artificial swarms is a tremendous early spring swarm prevention technique any beekeeper can quickly learn. This post will attempt to help beekeepers understand swarm behavior better and instruct how to combine these two techniques each spring before swarm season begins. The result? — You can raise your own queens, increase your colony count (if desired), and stop losing your time and money to annual swarming.

To begin, let’s talk a little about honey bee swarms...

Anatomy of a swarm

There is much left to learn about swarming behavior but we do know quite a bit. You can find entire books and courses on the subject. I like the following description from my bookshelf that gives a general idea.

From Beekeeper’s Handbook, pg 154:

By reproducing, organisms perpetuate and protect their kind from extinction…honey bee colonies do this by swarming. This activity of dividing the nest with new reproductives is very expensive. A colony divides, and part of it leaves for a new homesite, usually with the old queen, while the remaining members continue at the original site with a newly emerged ― and later mated ― queen. In this manner, a single unit becomes two. An abundance of food, a higher worker population, and the formation of many queen cells, often called swarm cells, indicate that swarming preparations are under way. Shortly after the swarm cells are sealed, the colony will cast a swarm. Bees will exit as a swarm on any warm, windless day; usually between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (earlier or later if the weather is favorable). Occasionally, bees will swarm when the weather is less than favorable.

Like any animal or insect, you can count on them to reproduce when conditions are right. Honey bees are no different. What is intriguing, if you think about it, is that an entire colony is being propagated, not just one individual. The steps involved in colony increase, of which swarming is a part, are incredibly complex and a fascinating topic to contemplate.

Reasons honey bees swarm

There are many reasons beyond reproduction that will cause a colony to swarm. To be accurate, the term “swarm” really doesn’t apply in all cases. Sometimes it can be described as “absconding”, the process of a colony abandoning their existing location for a better one.

Following is a list of reasons, not entirely exhaustive, that would induce swarming:

From Beekeeper’s Handbook, pg 155:

Reasons for swarming
* congestion
* unbalanced numbers of different-aged workers
* overheating
* defective or old combs
* queen’s egg-laying becoming restricted as empty celled filled with honey
* inclement weather keeping bees confined
* failing queen
* the decline of queen pheromone
* genetics or race of bees
* idle nurse bees

As you can see, not all reasons for swarming can be associated with reproduction. That said, the main impetus would be colony increase and that is the focus of this post.

Imminent signs of swarming

It is somewhat difficult to ascertain when a colony is about to swarm, but there are a some clear markers that indicate it’s about to happen.

Each spring you can count on honey bee swarms to begin during a certain window of time. For me, this is around May 1 through the 15th depending on weather, temperatures and colony health.

Back in January or February, my colonies start a slow process of building brood to replace overwintered bees and ramp up for the first nectar and pollen flow. As they get closer to May the queens lay more and more and colony expansion is clearly evident. If left to themselves the larger colonies, if not all of them, will proceed right into swarm mode. Some of those signs are:

From BeeKeeper’s Handbook, pg 155

Signs of imminent swarming:
* after queen cells are sealed over
* when the wax has been removed from tips of queen cells
* when few bees are foraging compared to other hives of the same strength
* when bees are clustered near the entrance, not due to hive congestion or warm temps
* usually on the first warm, sunny, calm day following a short period of cold, wet, cloudy days when congestion in the hive is aggravated

To be clear, the goal for this post and OTS methods is to not let your colonies get to this point but to instead manage them intelligently, using this swarming impulse to your advantage and not lose your bees.

If you already see queen cells with royal jelly then it’s too late and you have a separate issue on your hands to contend with. 

The problem with swarms

This can be a touchy subject for some due to varying perspectives about beekeeping in general. Some think bees should be left to themselves and let swarm. Let me assure you ― you won’t have bees for long and you may incur the wrath of your neighbors terrified with swarms of “killer bees” swirling in their yard. As well, this path of inadequate or non-managed bees will eventually lead to disease and pest issues. This will be a detriment not only to your bees but others near you.

Here is the long-standing reality: Honey bees thrive when intelligently managed by people. They are a unique creation. Both humans and bees benefit. Left to themselves, you would see few bees in your yard each spring, especially these days with various new disease, pest, and pesticide issues we must face, unheard of only 50 to 100 years ago.

I like this frank discussion about letting bees swarm:

From Beekeeper’s Handbook, pg 154

Swarming was once considered a sign of “good and productive” beekeeping, for the beekeepers could increase their holdings from the numerous swarms available. Straw skeps, logs, and other types of cramped hives have been used to house bees since the 1600s, but these containers quickly became overcrowded and thus promoted the swarming of bees. Today, swarming is viewed as a sign of a beekeeper’s negligence because it means a loss of both bees (unless the swarm is captured) and the production of honey. Although most beekeepers make efforts to prevent or control swarming, it is not an easy task. The picture is further complicated by the fact that most methods used for controlling or preventing swarming result in manipulations that reduce the colony size (which is what happens when the colony swarms). Thus, although swarming can be controlled or prevented, in doing so the goal of maintaining populous colonies for the honey flow is somewhat sacrificed. Nevertheless, this is far better than having the colony cast a swarm that may leave the apiary site before you can recapture it.

Fortunately for us, there is a very simple and time-tested method for swarm prevention and colony increase without sacrificing honey flow whatsoever. You can keep your bees and your honey IN your yard! Let’s talk about the specifics.

Preventing Spring Swarms with OTS

At a high level, the plan is simple. In the process we are going to 1) create an artificial swarm one week before swarm season, 2) easily rear one or more queen cells a week later, and then, 3) increase your colony count as desired. You will have options to choose from depending on whether you wish to increase your colonies, harvest honey, or a mixture of both.

Why does this work?

I personally switched to using Mel Disselkoen’s OTS methods in 2012 and haven’t looked back. I’m successful enough to sell overwintered nucs each year to local beekeepers, even in a difficult environment here in the Cleveland area. It just works.

I rarely have a swarm in my apiary any longer. I don’t have to worry about swarms in my neighborhood, even with 30 colonies out back and houses all around.

Mel has been doing bees since the 70’s and has decades of experience to lean on. His book is well worth the expenditure—just think how much you’re spending on replacing bees each year as you consider the book knowing you’ll never buy bees again.

Why does the OTS method work? I think for several reasons but chief among them in my mind:

  1. The beekeeper is proactively preventing swarms and equipped to do so
  2. It is a simple and efficient method of raising quality queens in your own yard
  3. You are creating a brood break in your colonies which disrupts the varroa mite life cycle
  4. The method encourages and facilitates increasing your number of colonies, giving you more latitude for losses and options in your apiary
  5. The method encourages and facilitates entering winter with young queens and healthy bees

There are many other benefits as we consider the benefits of the method such as developing local genetics, not bringing in outside bees, becoming self-sufficient, and more.

Here are the specific steps:

Week One

Step 1.1: Create an artificial swarm one week before swarm season in your area

Download Mel's notching PDF update

Download Mel's notching PDF update

One week or so before your typical swarm season it’s time to visit your hive during a warm, early afternoon. I like to do this on Saturday if at all possible. Your first order of business is to lightly smoke to calm the hive and find the queen. Have a nuc box nearby at your feet to set her in. There is no need to touch or handle her — just simply put the frame she’s on into the box, right in the middle. Next, select two mostly capped brood frames to be included in the new colony, being careful not to injure the queen when transferring them into the box next to her. Keep the brood frames together, and frames with any open larvae in the very middle.

Next, select a frame of honey to insert into the split, preferably one with some pollen as well. Then, give the new split a couple extra shakes of nurse bees (bees covering open larvae and capped cells). Note that the honey frame should be right next to the brood on the outside. Fill up all remaining space with frames and close it up with a lid. If you have frames of comb already pulled out these are great to add in addition to the very outsides for laying expansion soon by the queen without the colony having to expend energy on building comb. If you don’t have this, be prepared to feed the new colony, especially if cool weather or a poor flow exists.

You’re ready to close this new colony up. It should be moved two or more miles away but I find it’s okay to keep it in the same yard if monitored closely. You can shake some additional bees or give it another frame of brood if too many bees get back to the original colony. You can assess this best by examining early morning or late evening when most of the bees are in the hive.

Congratulations — You’ve just created your first artificial swarm! Rather than letting your bees swarm, you are taking control and keeping the bees in your yard.

Step 1.2: Notch below 36-hour larvae in the queenless parent colony

Now, back to the original colony that is queenless. It is important to understand that since you have removed the queen, the bees will readily recognize the situation and enter into queen making mode. You will help them along in this process a bit and raise your own queens!

In this original parent colony, you should have two or more frames of capped brood left including some with open cells with eggs and larvae. Your focus now is to search for and find just hatched larvae. Here you will be "notching" to assist the bees in building out cells. On frames with newer white to light-yellow comb, the bees should have little trouble pulling out queen cells. On older darker comb, they sometimes are reluctant or unable to pull out queen cells.

In either case, we are not going to take any chances and will “notch” below just hatched larvae. These are 36-hour or younger larvae just emerged from the egg and now lying in the tiniest pool of royal jelly on the floor of the cell. They are nearly the same size of an egg but just slightly bent and a little bit fuller. Anything bigger than this is too old. More on notching can be found here.

After notching at least one frame in a couple places, close up the hive and…. you’re done!

All told this is just a couple of steps and takes a beekeeper with some experience just a few quick minutes per hive to accomplish. The first time might seem daunting, but the process will become much more intuitive over time.

Your job now is to wait one week to allow for the colony to build out queen cells, build up large reservoirs of royal jelly, raise larvae to maturity, and cap the cells.

Let’s journey forward one week to the following Saturday and head back to your apiary…

Week Two

Step 2.1: One week later look for queen cells in the parent colony

Okay, it’s around noon the following Saturday and you have returned to the queenless parent colony to check on the status of your queen cells.

As you open the hive, you are focused on locating the frames in the brood area where you had notched a week previously. As you carefully inspect these frames, you should see fully formed and capped queen cells. Congratulations!

Note that sometimes you will find unfinished or uncapped cells ― this could mean that cells were abandoned or were started later by the bees and just not finished yet. This is okay.

You now have a decision to make: 1) Either make multiple splits or 2) keep the colony together. If you aren't making more splits, remove all but two of the largest queen cells and close up the hive. If you are making splits, you'll be making at most 2-3 total colonies from the resources available. Ensure that each colony has at least a couple frames with capped brood, 1-2 queen cells, a frame of honey and pollen, and any empty comb you have for the new queen to lay in. 

Note that queen cells *can* be cut out and placed elsewhere but know this is a delicate task and the queen can be easily injured. I would advise using a razor blade and cutting liberally around the cell before slowly removing. Put the brood frames and cells in the middle of the box. Then, equally distribute the bees among the colonies as best you can and close them up.

What next?

Knowing that it takes approximately 30 days from an egg to a laying queen, you have around 21 days (3 weeks) before you can expect to find eggs in your colonies (approximately 27 days from when you notched). All things being equal, with good weather, most of your queens should emerge and be laying. Like any queen-rearing operation, mating flights have some inherent risk (getting lost, eaten by birds, etc) and you can expect about 10% failed matings.

And, don't forget... you're becoming a better beekeeper by keeping swarms in check and keeping your time, money and effort in your yard ― where it belongs. Check out Part Two of this series, "OTS Queen Rearing and Knowing Your Local Swarm Dates (Part 2 of 3)" In Part Three coming soon, we’ll talk about maintaining bee numbers and honey production, even with the artificial swarms and brood breaks that are a part of OTS.


OTS Queen Rearing and Knowing Your Local Swarm Dates (Part 2 of 3)

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Part OnePart Two Part Three

An essential part of beekeeping is understanding swarming behavior including when, how, and why honey bees swarm. It's important to learn to work with your bees natural tendency to swarm and to understand how to manage bees (a "beekeeper") rather than being caught off-guard and losing your hard work and resources to the wind (a "beehaver" as Mel Disselkoen says).

For those on this blog interested in the On The Spot ("OTS") method and reading Mel Disselkoen's book, "OTS Queen Rearing", you likely understand the importance of planning around the first swarm date in anticipation of an artificial swarm and queen rearing. Part 1 of this 3-part series "Swarm Prevention with OTS Queen Rearing" will explain this more in detail. Part 3 will talk about "Successful Honey Production Using OTS Queen Rearing". This particular post attempts to give you some helpful clues to nail down when bees typically swarm in your area and give you confidence about choosing a date to artificial swarm and notch your colony. 

A few rules-of-thumb to keep in mind and give some context:

  • There is no specific date bees will swarm. ― A good beekeeper learns to observe and understand the great variability in bees and weather that influence this date year to year.
  • There is a great difference of opinion on determining a date and swarming in general. ― When you ask, you're bound to hear divergent views. Don't let this discourage you. Take notes and let the info help frame your learning and decisions.
  • It may take a couple years or more to really get a feel for your area. ― You may find that information is limited or conflicting and require your own testing and deductive processes.
  • Experience is the most helpful teacher. ― Ultimately, what happens in your backyard with your hives as you progress through a couple seasons will be the best lesson, as long as you observe and keep notes for the future.

Following are various ideas and direction to help guide you in finding your swarm dates:

  1. Have a goal to nail down a typical 2-week window for your specific location. You'll be hard-pressed, as mentioned, to actually come up with a specific date each year. It's never the same and, in some areas, there are drastic differences. However, you need a benchmark to help you lay over the other variables such as weather.
  2. Get a log book (I carry a moleskin and pen in my pocket almost all the time) and be determined to take notes.
  3. Talk to the closest bee supply store and ask what dates they use. You'll get some variance, but that's okay ― write it down.
  4. Submit the question to beekeepers in your area on Beesource.com (you'll need to sign up) and you should get good info and ideas. I submitted the question for Cleveland some time ago and gleaned the following suggestions from both beekeepers and supply stores:
    • "Middle of May"
    • "Usually early-to-mid May"
    • "2 weeks after first apple bloom"
    • "20 days after dandelion blooms"
  5. Visit a local bee club meeting (closest one to you) and ask "old-timers" what they think. Try and get information from beekeepers who've been at it for a couple decades or more.  Write down those dates.
  6. Pay special attention to beeks who love chasing down swarms each year. It's in their best interest to get their swarm traps out each year at least a week or so before swarming begins. Write down those dates.
  7. Start following beekeeping groups and Craigslist in your locale and take note of when ads start showing up and when swarms start being discussed. Write down those dates.
  8. Start watching the weather well before, during, and after swarm season and take note what the weather patterns were just before and during the beginning of swarm season. You'll learn a lot. I also like to check on historical data for my zip using TimeandDate.com (ex: https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa/cleveland/historic?month=5&year=2015 ). (By the way, a helpful tool to find your latitude can be found here: https://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/latitudelongitude-finder/) It's intriguing to see both similarities and differences year-over-year.

Some Strategy

Okay, if you invest the time in a few or more of the above ideas, you should have a pretty good idea of what your two-week window is for the start of swarm season. With this info, I think the following basic strategy is helpful:

  1. You want to wait as long as possible, without taking too much risk. You want as much brood build-up with the existing queens before you artificial swarm, but not wait so long that they initiate swarm behavior and you lose your window.
  2. Plan for doing your OTS artificial swarm and notching at the beginning of that window.
  3. Watch the weather a week before that date. If there is some drastic downturn to colder and/or stormy overcast weather, you can wait some time.
  4. Of course, do a check of your bees a week before artificial swarm to make sure you're not caught off-guard.

I trust this helps and gets you started with confidence. As the years progress with your beekeeping, you'll more intuitively understand the ebb and flow of swarming in your apiary and how to understand what signs the weather and bee behavior afford with your decision-making. 


Notes from Dr. Jamie Ellis’ Varroa Presentation and My 2018 Plan

Dr. Jamie Ellis, University of Florida

Dr. Jamie Ellis, University of Florida

It was a pleasure to visit the 40th Annual Tri-County Beekeeper’s conference in Wooster, OH again this March.  I missed last year but made sure to attend this year with both Randy Oliver and Jamie Ellis on board as speakers.

The focus, and rightfully so, for both Jamie and Randy was the Varroa mite. I follow Randy’s website updates throughout the year, especially his “blue towel” notes, with great interest.  

Dr. Jamie Ellis in particular was fun to listen to as I’d not had the opportunity until this conference to hear him speak. He is a professor at the University of Florida, married with four children, one of which sat with us at his presentations watching an iPad with headphones on. :) Here’s a brief bio on him:

Dr. Ellis is the Gahan Associate Professor of Entomology in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida. At the University of Florida, Dr. Ellis has responsibilities in extension, instruction and research related to honey bees. Regarding his extension work, Dr. Ellis created the UF, South Florida, and Caribbean Bee Colleges, and the UF Master Beekeeper Program. As an instructor, Dr. Ellis supervises Ph.D. and masters students in addition to offering an online course in apiculture. Dr. Ellis and his team conduct research projects in the fields of honey bee husbandry, conservation and ecology, and integrated crop pollination. 

There was much value in his presentations, especially for newer beekeepers or those who aren’t paying enough attention to varroa. Jamie started at a high level and attempted to help us understand both some misconceptions and the harsh realities regarding mites in the U.S. that he has tracked carefully since at least 2000.

I might distill down the key takeaways from my perspective as follows: 

  1.  Years of data since 2006 are showing that poor queens, nutrition, and most importantly, MITES are the major players year after year in killing our bees — not CCD, and not pesticides although chem is of course an important factor.
  2. Sample for mites. Sample for mites. Sample for mites.  Alchol wash is best. We should be sampling in Ohio probably every couple months, more in warmer climes. We should be careful to obtain before and after data to ensure our treatments were effective.
  3. As a general rule, treat when you hit 3 mites per 100 bees (3%) and you should sample 20% of your bees in small apiaries, spot checking in a large operation. Above that threshold and you can expect a collapse is coming. 
  4. All the data on treatment options to make educated decisions can be found at in incredible website Honey Bee Health Coalition and in particular their varroa page: Tools for Varroa Management
  5. The PDF found on that page is most helpful,  Tools for Varroa Management
  6. They are learning that varroa mites feed on bee fat, not on bee blood as commonly communicated (this has many implications for future treatment ideas)

Lots of good stuff as you can see! It was well worth the time driving to Wooster and back.

I’ve been thinking long the last 18 months about the OTS methodology (brood breaks, new queens, healthy bees) and if it alone was sufficient for managing mites. At a base level, I could say “yes” but with living with the reality over five years that the best I could expect for a winter survival rate with OTS alone was around 80% and sometimes only 60%. I’m not satisfied with 60% and started playing with oxalic acid knowing that is was more of an “organic” acid that doesn’t leave residue and can be used properly and not compromise honey consumption.

By this Spring my main idea and plan was this: continue doing OTS and take advantage of this break at 21 days to do my oxalic vapor treatment. The benefits are at least three-fold:

  1. All mites by then are phoretic (living on the bodies of bees and not under capping) and thus susceptible to oxalic contact, making the vapor treatment very effective
  2. With all mites phoretic, I only have to apply the treatment once, saving much time and making this quite scalable
  3. Much less colony exposure to oxalic with one treatment, instead of three over many days

During one of his presentations, Jamie pulled up the PDF mentioned above. I skipped ahead while he spoke and, much to my delight, this basic idea was outlined as an acceptable plan for treatment. At the end of the document, the major treatment methods are discussed including their pros and cons. Brood breaks happens to be one of these and is the main power in the OTS method. And, like I have personally experienced, it is sometimes just not enough. The PDF indicates that additional help is needed. Conversely, the information on the oxalic treatment discusses the pros and cons. It’s main issue? Non-phoretic mites within cells out of reach of oxalic! Can you see where we’re headed? :)   

With all that said, I’m confident now in my plan, which I experimented with this past year with 87% survival at this point with colonies expanding. The plan will be OTS brood breaks in April a week before swarm season and again at the end of June around summer solstice. At the 21+ day mark, I will do one treatment of oxalic vapor (with the Provap tool). And, I will up my game with alcohol wash sampling every other month, starting in April.

For those beekeepers wanting to be “treatment free” I think OTS offers one of the best methods, but I don’t think you can slide by without consistent and quality sampling for mites using an alcohol wash. You could be harming other beekeepers around you and, of course, your own bees if you get a mite problem in one or more of your hives. I personally think the responsible thing is to sample and know your mite rates. For those of you okay with oxalic as I am, I think the plan above is solid.