Beards, Boards and Book Thieves
In the first years of beekeeping, when you might have a spare hive to hand, and the space to put it, the Pagden method of swarm management looks simple and achievable. It also offers an easy way to increase the number of colonies.
Later, a few of the grimmer truths about swarming become apparent. What, at first, looks like one of nature’s handouts quickly becomes a problem. Neither equipment nor space is in infinite supply, and there comes a time when we, our landlords or our neighbours, will admit that enough is enough.
Some resort to desperate measures, and you often see beekeepers rattling feverishly through their hives on a lethal quest for queen cells, bent on expurgating each and every one on each and every frame. Others hunt down their queens and clip their wings in the hope of putting off the fateful day. And a few of our blessed number will simply buy another pallet-load of poly-nucs in the hope of flogging off their cast-offs before they become a nuisance.
But even the most extreme measures don’t work for long. For a start, some colonies just love to swarm, especially those that have been raised from swarms themselves, and they’re always building queen cells, even when we’re not looking. And some colonies specialise in casts, pushing out streams of tiny swarmlets until they’ve swarmed themselves to oblivion. Either way the result is the same – our colonies get weaker and we have to run about after errant clumps, armed with sheets and cardboard boxes, wondering what we’ll do if we catch them.
It’s then that we start thinking less about swarm prevention, or even swarm control, and more about swarm management. And then, if we’re not very careful, we’ll find ourselves reading Snelgrove’s book on “Swarm Management”
It is a thin enough book, but very annoying. Most editions, for a start, have a picture on the front of a man, taken in the days when smirking stunt-mongery was fashionable, wearing a straw hat and a beard of bees, as if the daily scraping of his face to a questionable approximation of pre-pubescence wasn’t enough of a statement.
Inside, it’s not much better. The highlight is a description of a complicated board, known as the Snelgrove board, with six baffling doors and a mesh-covered hole in the middle that looks roughly like this:
The rest is a set of prescriptive recipes, dictating the opening and closing of the doors according to a schedule unmanageable for anyone with a life. Each recipe seems identical to the last, though they’re all cunningly different and have subtly different aims, and they’re all impossible to remember.
But the worst thing about it is that, despite the cover, despite the bafflement and despite it being written a bit old-fashioned, it’s almost impossible to keep hold of. I own two copies that, on account of my unwise kindness, are lurking on the shelves of anonymous associates who remain uncrushed by guilt.
The main idea, if memory still serves, is just like the Pagden method of swarm control. The colony is split into two (queen and foragers left where they are, brood and nurse bees somewhere else), and then, as the nurse bees grow into foragers, their box is moved so that the foragers return to the original box, keeping the numbers, and the honey yields, nicely up, while simultaneously allowing a new queen to be raised. The main difference is that, because the colony is split by a board between boxes on the stack, you don’t need a spare hive or anywhere to put it. Another difference is that, because the Snelgrove board contains a mesh-covered hole, the scent of the bees throughout remains the same, making reuniting a little less risky. So, what’s with the complicated timings? The answer is simply that they work best. Other timings will work, and you can use a Snelgrove board to the same schedule as you’d use with a Pagden-type artificial swarm. The honey yields might be a little less, but that’s the only disadvantage.
There is still a risk that bottom box might still try to raise a queen if they’ve still got the urge, and, being at the bottom, it might be more difficult to inspect than if they were in a separate hive. But it’s the supers, hopefully, that are heavy, not the brood, and it’s really no more work at all to inspect both properly.
But why wait till they’ve got the urge? Why wait for queen cells to appear before doing an artificial swarm? There is an argument that the bees are better-placed to decide when they should start swarm preparations, and making part of the colony artificially queenless before they’re ready might not have the best results. But all queen-rearing operations rely on that, and they’ve served us well enough so far. It’s also the case that, much of the time, the bees are ready before we think they should be. That’s worth thinking about. Admittedly, it’s not as straightforward as it look, and care must be taken to avoid emergency ‘scrub’ queens being raised, so some further reading might be needed. But Snelgrove’s book gives wise advice and, happily, there are at least two copies in circulation, which I’m sure their ‘owners’ would be delighted to pass along.