Beekeeping Information Centre

Artificial Swarm

The Artificial Swarm

Queen-cellsAny healthy, happy honey bee colony will swarm. From the beekeeper’s point of view swarms can be a nuisance. They can cause difficulties with neighbours and losing a swarm will drastically reduce the number of bees in a colony which in turn will mean less honey and a smaller colony to overwinter. The swarming instinct is a strong one but the beekeeper can manage swarming and even turn it to advantage, by means of the artificial swarm.

This is one of the first complex manipulations many new beekeepers will need to undertake and it is described in detail in many beekeeping books. There are variations on the theme but in all cases it is important to understand what the bees are trying to do and how your manipulations will affect them.

Carry out regular weekly swarm checks

The classic artificial swarm will ideally be carried out once the colony has decided to swarm and has started to raise healthy queen larvae in good-looking queen cells, but before any of those cells have been capped. To achieve this, the colony must be inspected weekly from mid-April or whenever the weather is warm enough and the colony strong enough to be thinking of swarming. (We once lost a swarm on 31st March.) You need to check each frame of brood for queen cells, or the start of queen cells (and check to see if they have an egg or a larva inside). The frames should not be shaken to remove the bees, as this will dislodge any queen larvae from their food source and they will die. Instead, blow gently on any clusters of bees to persuade them to move aside. They are very adept at hiding their queen cells.

If you find any capped queen cells DO NOT REMOVE THEM until you are sure that you still have a queen and/or healthy queen larvae in uncapped cells.

eggs and young larvaeA capped queen cell could mean the queen has already swarmed. If you cannot find her, do you have eggs? Are they standing upright in the bottom of the cells? A freshly laid egg will stand upright. By the third day when it is about to hatch it will be lying flat on the bottom of the cell and the bees will have started to place milky food in the cell with it. If you are convinced you still have your queen but cannot find her, you can still do  an artificial swarm without finding the queen . If your swarm has already gone you should choose one good open queen cell with a large, well-fed larva and destroy all the other queen cells to prevent the colony sending off cast swarms with virgin queens. Put the colony back together and leave them well alone for 5 weeks before checking to see if you have eggs laid by your new queen.

When you find queen cells

queen larva in cup for webHaving found open queen cells with healthy looking larvae, you need to be prepared to carry out your artificial swarm at once. Your equipment (a spare hive) should be ready and waiting. Your aim is to separate the queen from most of the brood (including all the queen cells) and leave her with mostly flying bees. To this end, the queen needs to be left on the original hive site, but in a new box with just one frame of brood and no queen cells. All the flying bees will return to this hive as it is on the original site. The one frame of brood should have its fair share of nurse bees still on it. They will also need some stores, so leave the supers on this side of the split.*

*Alternatively, put the supers on the old brood box and feed the queen in the new brood box.

The old brood box with the remaining brood, the nurse bees and all the queen cells, should be set up to one side and fed with plenty of syrup. Reduce the entrance size while feeding. It is important that this side of the split has at least one open queen cell with a well-developed, well-fed larva..

Preventing Casts

It is possible that the brood side of your split will raise more than one queen and may send off cast swarms with virgin queens. To prevent, this some artificial swarm methods suggest moving the box containing the brood side to the other side of the original colony after 7 days. This will make any flying bees from this colony go back to the original colony, weakening the brood side so it is less likely to send off casts. If you do this, you must be sure to have destroyed all capped queen cells when carrying out the artificial swarm, or you may find you have moved the box while your new queen is out on her mating flight. Another way to prevent casts is to choose just one good, open queen cell and destroy all the others.


The ‘no lifting’ artificial swarm method.