OBKA Tutors Blog #11 – Managing a colony preparing to swarm – the Pagden method

How to manage a colony which is making preparations to swarm.


Swarming is a natural part of honeybee behaviour, it is how they reproduce. However when they swarm you lose a great deal of your foraging force, and may cause nuisance or alarm to the public, so to avoid that happening here is an explanation of how to do a simple artificial swarm which manages the bees’ instinct to find a new empty home, and manages where the bees end up.


When you inspect a colony and find queen cells are being made, there are a number of different methods you can use to avoid a swarm emerging. Essentially if you keep in mind the 3 entities in the hive of the Queen, the flying bees, and the brood, if you remove one of these entities away from the others then a swarm is averted.


Here is a simple description of the Pagden method which I use a lot.


If you consider that a prime swarm is the old Queen emerging from the hive with a large number of her flying bees looking to set up home somewhere such as a big hollow tree, then this method replicates the conditions that those bees seek but avoids the need for them to leave home to achieve it.


Honeybees will typically swarm when queen cells(s) get capped in the colony. This will happen on day 8 from when those eggs were laid. As a new beekeeper you want to take action when you first spot that queen cells are being made, do not wait for them to be capped as that can often be too late.


You will need a second floor, brood box full of frames of foundation, crownboard, roof and stand. For this method you need to find the queen.


Here are daft pics to try and help it stick in your mind.

This pic shows your colony, complete with Queen, flyers, brood (represented by lots of c-shaped cashew nuts in a bag), and also queen cells (represented by knobbly unshelled peanuts).


Move the original brood box to the side onto your spare floor, and put the new brood box with fresh foundation in the original position. Find the queen and put her in this new box.


As the location of this hive stays the same, all the flying bees which are orientated to this position will join the queen in the fresh box. You have given them a new empty box and moved the brood away, thereby mimicking the effect of the queen and flyers landing up in a tree, but they have actually gone nowhere, so they are happy and you are happy.


The original brood box that contains the brood and the queen cells are now in a fresh location. Any bees that have already learnt how to fly will return to the old queen’s position when they next fly as that is the location to which they are already orientated.

This pic shows the outcome that you are aiming for – the queen and the flyers remain in the same location with a different brood box which is full of foundation. The brood box that contains the brood and queen cells is in a new location.


There are additional considerations, but that is the bare bones.


You need to consider how many queen cells you leave in the new location. If you leave multiple cells then you may suffer from multiple virgin queens hatching out and emerging from the hive as casts ie small swarms of bees with a virgin, which can be excessive and can deplete the colony to nothing. If you have a choice of either open or capped queen cells, the advice is to leave 1 or 2 open queen cells. Leaving 2 allows for ‘an heir and a spare’, i.e. reduces risk of a single cell not successfully hatching at all. Choosing the open cells over capped ones means you can better judge when they will hatch, and also avoid instances of a capped cell not containing what you anticipate eg it’s an empty old one.

If the box of brood & queen cell(s) is to remain in the same apiary then it may be argued that you should shake additional young bees from the supers of the original colony into this brood box to make allowance for all the bees that will fly back to the original site, and ensure that enough bees remain in the brood box to care for all that brood. If however the brood & queen cells are being moved >3 miles away then there is no need for this as the flyers won’t find their way back to the original location and will stay in the new location.



When you moved the queen into the new box you may choose to move her on the frame that you find her. If you do this it is essential that there are no queen cells on that frame, otherwise they will still swarm. Some argue that if the frame contains any eggs and/or very small larva then they might make more queen cells from these and still swarm. Personally I choose to transfer the queen along with a frame of large larva as I take advantage of the opportunity to use that frame as a sink for varroa and dispose of it when capped. Alternatively it could be argued that transferring a frame of sealed brood which will soon hatch will make cells available for the queen to lay in soonest which is advantageous. But all this complicates the bare bones.



You need to consider whether the original brood box has enough food stores. Bear in mind that the flyers in that box will return to the old queen’s position if staying in the same apiary so no nectar will be brought into it until the young nurse bees in there learn to fly – they will be orientated to this new position only. Assess how much stores are in the original brood box. If not much then you can move 1 or more supers across to provide stores to tide them over until their bees are old enough to forage.



Having ensured that the box of brood in the new location has enough stores, and only 1-2 queen cells, you would then try to avoid disturbing them for 3-4 weeks to give the virgin a chance to hatch and get mated and start laying before you inspect them again.



There are further optional complications which you will come across as you progress with your bees, such as moving the brood box & queen cell(s) to the other side of the original hive after a few days, but that is optional and therefore enough said.



Finally here’s some pics of queen cells, they hang vertically whilst worker and drone brood are horizontal. If you only have capped ones to choose from, go for a big one with good dimpling ie it looks like effort and care was taken when building it rather than a smooth small one. If your queen cells are open then they won’t show the dimpling so much. Avoid choosing only a queen cell that is surrounded by drone brood, as sometimes bees make a mistake and will try to create a queen cell from a drone larva so don’t rely on that one.

Good looking sealed queen cell

Oops, lots of swarm cells!

Open queen cells from below

Helen Raine

Urban Beekeeper

Urban Beekeeper

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