Beesource POV, 2011
By Rob Koss
Nectar Management, or “checkerboarding” as it is commonly called, does indeed work. Many of you know that Walt Wright devised this swarm prevention method. Over the past ten years or so I have applied Walt’s methods in my own hives and have enjoyed dramatically increased brood nest volumes, colony populations, and honey production as a result. Nectar Management is a low effort, easy to understand swarm prevention technique that everyone, in my opinion, should try.
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to discuss the Nectar Management concept with numerous beekeepers. Reactions have ranged from simple curiosity to “I’d like to try that” to “That will never work!” Well, I’m convinced that Walt’s methods work. The purpose of this article is to talk a little about the swarming process and why I think Nectar Management works.
I was very excited about Nectar Management when I first read about it so many years ago. After corresponding with Walt for a few months I realized that I was most excited about the understanding of the swarm process that Walt provided. I had several “ah ha!” moments as I learned and applied Walt’s methods. I had read and continue to read everything I can get my hands on about bees, and in particular swarming, but in my opinion the available literature just doesn’t do a good job of explaining the swarm process.
As I get into my thinking on swarming and swarm prevention, I should point out that my comments are based on my observations and the conclusions that I draw from those observations. Take them for what they are worth; I am not a scientist. I know that there are many variables that affect all of our operations that are difficult if not impossible to account for. Also remember that I make these observations on the Gulf Coast of Alabama – I know that forage and weather conditions vary greatly across North America and the world. That being said I am sure that many of you will disagree with much of what I say. My hope is that this article will stimulate thought and debate and maybe convince a few of you to give “checkerboarding” a try!
I think that swarming is a year round project for our bees. This statement may seem a little simple to you but I think it is the single most important concept to understand about bees and swarming. With survival as the precondition, the colony is always working toward the long term goal of casting a reproductive swarm next spring. Swarming, in my opinion, is the ONLY goal other than survival that the colony has. Throughout the season there are several important steps that the bees try to accomplish to prepare for the swarm. I call these steps internal operational modes, or “modes”. Given that the long term goal is the swarm, you might look at these steps or modes as individual short term goals accomplished for the purpose of meeting the long term goal of swarming success.
Another very important concept in understanding the swarm process is to understand that the colony does not know ahead of time that you are going to change the internal volume of their cavity by supering. Again, I am betting that sounds rather simplistic to you but I think that it is very important. The bees make decisions based on many variables, not the least of which is the internal volume of the cavity in which they reside. Judgments as to brood nest volume, whether that volume is increasing or decreasing, area devoted to food storage, and adult population are all affected by this one simple variable. And while this “variable” varies from colony to colony, to the individual colony this factor is a constant. They are not and cannot be aware that the volume will be changed.
A colony left to its own devices has a very predictable pattern that it follows throughout the year. If you have not left a colony alone throughout a season and only peeked in occasionally to see what is going on, I recommend it. You will probably lose a swarm as a result, but it’s a very enlightening exercise. This colony will not have to adapt to changing cavity volumes, reversed brood nests, brood and bees being taken away for splits, etc. They will go about their business of producing a reproductive swarm and give you a window through which to observe how they get it done. Understanding this gives you a great foundation for understanding how to work with the bees to prevent the swarm. Let’s follow this colony through a year and talk about the swarm game plan.
To my way of thinking the colony year begins in late spring or early summer. At this point in the season our colony has either (1) cast a reproductive swarm, or (2) has failed to cast a reproductive swarm and has abandoned swarm ambition. This colony has shifted “modes”, or current short term goals, to what I call the storing mode.
In this mode the colony has shifted its focus from this year’s swarm to preparing for next year’s reproductive swarm. In the storing mode the colony takes advantage of seasonally available forage to fill the cavity with stores in preparation for winter. Winter brings with it a lack of available forage and temperatures that inhibit flying. The bees will depend on the food stored during this mode to sustain them through the winter. Beekeepers often refer to this mode as “the flow”, or “the main flow.”
During this mode the colony will constantly assess available forage, food stores available, and many other factors to make decisions with respect to brood nest volume and foraging activity. As available forage tapers off, the colony will shift into the standby mode.
Walt often calls this period the “summer doldrums.” Here on the Gulf Coast available forage tapers away as the real heat of summer asserts itself. During this mode the bees seem to be idling or marking time, conserving stores while awaiting the fall flow. The heavy flight activity associated with the storing mode has slowed considerably and the brood nest volume is reduced significantly. Notwithstanding any agricultural sources that may push the colony back into storing mode, this mode is easily identified here on the Gulf Coast, and can last for two months or longer. I understand that in Northern locations this period may be much shorter, or may not happen at all if the spring and summer sources are overlapped by fall sources. As these fall sources become available the colony shifts to the fall mode.
Although this mode appears to be an extension of the storing mode, I label it separately. There has been much written recently about the bees that are produced in the fall for overwintering, and I suspect that these “fat bees” are as important a part of this mode as food storage. As fall sources become available the bees go about finalizing preparations for winter. As the fall flow begins to fade, the brood nest volume is reduced. Cells that have been vacated by emerging brood are filled with nectar. In many areas the brood nest is eventually closed completely and brood production is halted. In my part of the world on the Gulf Coast, the brood nest does not close completely. My hives usually rear brood through the winter and into the buildup.
During the winter mode the colony is committed to conserving resources. Generally speaking, the colony appears to be idling, relying on the food they stored earlier in the year to sustain them. As temperatures decrease, the bees form a cluster to warm themselves and avoid being frozen to death. The mechanics of how the cluster works and how they manage to regulate temperature is a little beyond me, but suffice it to say that they do it! The cluster is one of the more amazing things that bees do, in my opinion. As I don’t live in a cold part of the world, I don’t have much experience with protracted periods of time during which the bees are unable to fly. As mentioned before, my bees usually maintain a brood nest throughout the winter. It is my understanding that in colder areas colonies begin limited brood rearing during the late stages of the winter mode prior to forage becoming available, but I am unsure as to when or to what extent.
Buildup to Swarm Mode
This is the big one! In this mode the colony builds population in anticipation of casting the reproductive swarm. Everything the colony has done since last spring was done to facilitate this event. It is this impulse to build population that enables the beekeeper to accomplish his goals. Our management of the buildup is crucial to our beekeeping success.
As forage becomes available and weather conditions begin to permit flight in the late winter or early spring, our colony begins to expand the VOLUME of the brood nest. The larger volume permits more eggs to be laid, hence more bees per brood cycle. Overhead honey is consumed to make room for the expanding nest. This expansion plus heavy pollen foraging is evidence that the first phase of the buildup mode is underway. I call this phase of the buildup mode the “pollen phase.” The brood nest continues to expand until it reaches what I call the “honey reserve.” Expansion is halted prior to all of the overhead honey being consumed. It seems that this larder or “reserve” of honey is maintained as insurance against the expansion of the population past that which could be supported should the colony encounter poor foraging conditions. Upon reaching this expansion limit, the second phase of the buildup is triggered. I call it the “nectar phase.”
In the nectar phase of the buildup, the brood nest volume is reduced. Although the population is still increasing during this phase, capped brood cells at the leading edge of the brood nest are filled with nectar instead of a new egg as they are vacated. This process results in a much smaller brood nest that can be supported by the much smaller work force that will remain subsequent to the swarm’s departure. Walt and I use the term “backfilling” for this purposeful process of reducing brood nest volume. Backfilling, along with reduced pollen foraging, are the visual cues to the beekeeper that the nectar phase has begun.
Our colony must complete the nectar phase successfully before they will commit to swarm. Brood nest reduction must be sufficient to meet requirements for parent colony survival, and it must be done in time to give the swarm a fighting chance to meet its requirements for the coming winter. Should either of these requirements not be met, swarm ambition for the current season is abandoned. The peak of nectar availability, at least in my area, seems to be the cutoff date past which the colony will not commit to swarm if they have not already done so. On the other hand, if the nectar phase is successful in meeting these two requirements, queen cells are populated and the colony commits to swarming.
If you have made it this far you may be wondering why I describe these modes. The short answer is that I describe them because I think it is important to understand them. Many of you will question whether these modes really exist, or may have already written me off as crazy. But these modes are observable and predictable in the undisturbed colony. (I know, if I open the hive and take a peek from time to time, the colony is not “undisturbed.” By undisturbed I mean that frames have not been moved or replaced, and that cavity volume remains constant; i.e. no supering.) The most important thing to understand about these modes, or short term goals, is that it appears that the bees are in one, and only one, of these modes at any given time. Current circumstances dictate in which mode the colony is operating, and we can benefit greatly by being able to identify these modes and use that knowledge to work with the colony to achieve our goals.
Industry literature is replete with swarm prevention techniques. I, like most of you, have tried many of these techniques with varying results. It is important to note that once we attempt to prevent swarming by applying nectar management, reversal, splitting, adding supers, or some other technique, we have altered the circumstances in which the bees find themselves. It is the colony reaction to this stimulus that is important. Swarm prevention techniques that work are successful because they interrupt the swarm process. Remember my assertion that the colony operates in only one mode at a time? It appears to me that most swarm prevention techniques such as reversing are successful because the colony is forced to change modes. For example, if the beekeeper reverses a double deep during the nectar phase of the buildup mode, the colony has to respond to this stimulus. The precepts of the nectar phase are no longer applicable as nothing is where it should be and the colony must adapt. I treat this response to changing circumstances as a separate mode unto itself. The colony, in my view, is attempting to recover normalcy, so I call it the recovery mode. If and when the colony is able to put things right given the new situation, and if time permits, the applicable mode will resume. If the beekeeper is successful at interrupting the process long enough, swarm ambition is abandoned and the storing mode begins.
My experience with nectar management as a swarm prevention technique is nothing short of remarkable. The increases in brood volume during buildup, overall population, and honey production I experienced when I started using nectar management were startling. A ladder has been a part of my standard gear when I go to the bee yards for some time now! Here’s why I think it works so well.
The initial manipulation that is applied in the nectar management process (checkerboarding) occurs early in the buildup mode, well before the nectar phase of the buildup is triggered. The colony response to this is interesting. It seems that their adaptation to this technique is to continue to expand the brood nest through what was once the dome of overhead honey and into empty comb above. As long as the beekeeper maintains empty comb above the advancing brood nest he is able to avoid swarming. The difference lies in the massive brood volume that is achieved and the huge populations that result from this oversized brood nest volume. An additional advantage is that, in my experience, the reliability of this method far exceeds anything else I have tried.
I want to again encourage you to leave one of your colonies alone next spring. Take a peek every once in a while and observe what is happening in that hive. Look for the heavy pollen foraging that indicates the pollen phase of the buildup. See if you can pick out the reduction in pollen foraging when the colony switches to the nectar phase. Look inside and see if you can correlate these observations with expansion and reduction in the brood nest volume. Or, you may find that I’ve missed it altogether. Let me know what you see! I also encourage you to give nectar management a try on a few of your colonies this season. If you’d like to learn more about Nectar Management, go to www.beesource.com and look for Walt Wright in the Point of View, or POV section. Once you try it I suspect that you’ll use nectar management on all of your colonies the following season!