John Mellis Swarm Management

There was a fine turnout for the SSBKA visit to John Mellis’s Honey house on Saturday 23rd July.  The event    started with John opening up and commenting on a selection of his hives.  As I had arrived late I was on the outer edge of the spectators and was unable to catch all that was of interest,  but I was immediately alert when John described his method of swarm control.

John makes makes no claim that his method is foolproof.   As a professional beekeeper, he bases his practice on percentage results relative to convenience of the method – so if it is easily done and works most of the time, then it is a good method.   

Scaled Image for Website - View from JMs Apiary

The view from John’s Apiary.

John’s hives are all on a brood and a half, and with many hives to manage, he frequently uses the hinge method of inspection. Having removed the supers, any seal between brood and half brood is broken open with a hive tool and the half brood slid slightly to one side – by about 5cms.   The overhanging edge is then lifted up, using the opposite edge as a hinge.  The lower edge of the half brood and the upper edge of the brood box are the likely location of queen cells which are of course the harbinger of swarming behaviour.  John’s advice is that if only queen cups – acorn like cups -are visible, then the hive may be closed up with no need for immediate action.  Queen cells on the other hand require action as, even if broken down, they are an almost certain indication that a swarm is on its way.

In the event that queen cells are seen the brood and half brood are first moved to a temporary location at one side of the hive.  The half brood is then returned to the original position on a new floor.  On the top of this is placed a deep brood box filled with frames with foundation followed by the queen excluder and one or two of the partially filled honey supers.  The idea at this point is that there is a large reduction in the amount of brood in the hive, usually to just six or seven shallow frames, and that there is a big reduction in the number of bees.  Because the queen cells which were found during the “hinge” inspection are not removed this unit has the wherewithal to produce a new queen in due course but with reduced numbers it is unlikely to swarm.

The logic of placing the foundation above the shallow box is that this gives the bees enough space to cluster right to the bottom of the new frame thereby producing combs which do not have a gap along the bottom edge.

But what about the queen?  John has not spent time looking for her so she may be in this new hive or she may still be in the old deep brood box.  This does not concern John.  If she is in the shallow box then the large reduction in hive population will remove the swarming urge and the bees will pull down the queen cells themselves. If she is in the deep box then that is fine too.

At this point John has two options.  If he does not want to increase his hive numbers then he will use a swarm board.  This is a board placed above the supers of the new hive with bee space on both top and bottom and an entrance/exit on the upper side of the board, so that it faces in the opposite direction of the original hive.  The old brood box is then placed on top of this  and the crown board and roof replaced.  In this case there will be a lot more brood and several queen cells.  That might be expected to lead to a swarm or several casts but the reality is that as the flying bees in that box go out to forage they naturally return to the original entrance and join the colony below.  That has the added benefit of producing a stronger colony below which no longer wants to swarm but has a large population of foragers to gather a large honey crop and draw out foundation rapidly.

For the bees and brood left in the top brood box they either have the queen or they have cells from which they will produce a new queen.  In either case it is important to ensure that this box does not go hungry.  Because the experienced foragers all return to the hive below there will be little income until a new generation become foragers in their own right and bring in what is needed.  If there is doubt then it is possible to keep back one of the original supers and add this to the upper hive. Alternatively a feed of syrup can be applied.

A few weeks later John expects to have two units with laying queens and honey in both.  Assuming he does not need additional colonies then it is a simple operation to put the top unit to one side, lift off the supers from the bottom unit, add a sheet of newspaper with small slits cut in it and place the upper unit on the paper (without its floor).  Bees in supers usually don’t fight but to be on the safe side John adds a further sheet of newspaper on top of the upper box then the supers from the lower unit.  The end product is a double brood chamber with lots of brood and three or four supers on top – an ideal heather going hive.

But what about the two queens?  John does not take time to find them both and kill one, he lets nature take its course and allows the two queens to decide which is the stronger.

Earlier mention was made of there being two options.  The second is when there is a desire for increasing hive numbers.  The same process is followed with respect to the shallow box on the old site but the deep box is treated differently.  In this case there will be 10 frames with a lot of brood, some queen cells and some stores.

The frames are divided equally between two Payne’s nuc boxes so that there is at least one queen cell in each.  It is important to ensure that there are enough bees in each box to keep the brood warm so sometimes it is necessary to shake the bees from one or two super frames into the Payne’s box or alternatively to donate one or two frames of brood to a weaker colony nearby.  (Take great care that there are no queen cells on the donated frames or else that colony will probably swarm).

Add a splash of liquid feed then these two Payne’s boxes can be moved to a different apiary where they will hatch their queen and hey-presto, what was a single colony has become three.

John recommends overwintering the original hive with the half brood in the lower position.  This may then be reversed early in the following season.

It is easy to see how a beekeeper with many hives to manage would find this method appealing.  However, in that it does not require the queen to be found, the method may also appeal to the inexperienced beekeeper with limited time who wishes to keep a small number of hives.


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