The beehive is a creature made of many smaller creatures. Some worker bees are the lungs of the super creature, some are the teeth and claws to defend the hive, but they all contribute to the whole. The hive sustains itself from the nectar and pollen of flowers. This creature needs to be large in the summer so that it can send thousands of it’s pieces out to gather hundreds of millions of sips of nectar and little bee loads of pollen to carefully ripen and ferment/preserve in the hive. It needs to be small in the winter when there are no flowers so that it can breath and stay warm without eating all it’s stored rations until the next spring’s flowers bloom. The creature expands in the spring and contracts in the fall.
A colony of bees may or may not live through the dearth of winter (or the hot summer of Phoenix, AZ) and so there is always a need for successful hives to divide them selves into two hives to make up for the losses. The natural animal desire to reproduce is in beehives represented as the desire to swarm. The hive becomes two hives. Both hives need at least a few thousand bees, including a queen bee. The queen is the meristem, the source of continual regeneration. The urge to swarm actually opposes the desire to grow bigger because if the hive swarms it will lose the few thousand bees and the queen that leave, and both hives will have to rebuild their numbers in order to expand and gather their resources. That is why a hive generally tries to swarm early in the flowering time of year so that both the swarm with the original queen and the original hive with the new queen have time to birth many bees and consequently gather the floral resources they will need for the next dearth of flowers in the winter ahead.
You can read more about swarms and swarm control at: Bush Farms Swarm Control
Beekeepers house these creatures in boxes we have made for them. We make the boxes to meet their needs and our own needs. We want the bees to be happy and we want to be able to open the hives easily and take a little of what they produce for our own sustenance. We enter into a relationship with the hive and exert influence over it. Our neighbors will be slightly impacted by our relationship with our hives. Our neighbors will get a little honey and excellent pollination of their gardens and they may get swarms landing in their yards and occupying hollow spaces in their homes. Spring management of a beehive is complex. How we get the hives through the spring determines much of how they survive and thrive the rest of the year. It may also determine how an urban beekeeper gets along with her/his neighbor.
Divides and Preventing Swarms
As beekeeper we feel the same conflict bees feel about expanding the hive or expanding the number of hives. We want the hives to resist swarming and get really big so they can make lots of honey, and we often want to have more beehives so we want to divide or “swarm” them to fill more boxes. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. But often we can let the bees and the flowers decide how to weave our way through the questions of spring by looking in the hives and experimenting.
I feel it is generally best to encourage the hives to expand as much as possible before dividing them. I initially start the spring with swarm prevention in mind. When fresh watery nectar is pouring into the hives and the bees are trying to expand the brood rearing they soon get crowded in the heart of the hive, the brood nest. That crowding incites the hive to swarm. If the beekeeper gives the bees room to build into the full sized hive (back in topbar hives, or down in warre hives, up in langstroth hives) the bees can expand the number of combs and avoid congestion. This may mean getting any honey left from last year out of the way of the expanding brood nest and putting it at the end of the hive that is already populated by the bees. This means the honey goes down and to the sides in langstroth hives, to the front of topbar hives, and to the to the top and sides of warre hives. The room to expand deflates the hive’s desire to cast a swarm.
Sometimes the bees will build up so quickly or have such a strong desire to swarm that all the room to expand the beekeeper can give them doesn’t keep them from swarming. We have to check and see. When bees are raising a lot of drones that is a sign that they are getting in the reproductive mood. When they begin polishing up and “frosting” queen-cells with fresh white wax that signals their intent to swarm. When we find eggs, larvae and royal jelly in queen-cells the hive is well on it’s way to swarming. It is time to make a divide.
The beekeeper can anticipate what the bees were about to do and “swarm them” into an empty hive. Put a comb of honey, two combs of mostly capped brood, another comb of honey, and the queen in an empty hive. Brush in a few extra bees. Leave any occupied queen-cells in the original hive. Now the hive has reproduced and the swarm was not cast into the neighbor’s yard.
A good source for information on splits: Bush Farms Splits
Bush Farms also writes clearly about swarm control here: Bush Farms Swarm Control