Queenright colonies (“finishers”) will build good queen cells, but because they are building them under the supersedure impulse they won’t build very many. Another method is needed to start the Q/Cs (“starters”), so the queenright colony will finish them.
Swarm boxes are one way of achieving this. I have my swarm boxes custom built for me by Starheart hollow, send me an email and I will give you their contact information.
A beeproof box has some young queenless bees put in it. These are well provisioned with stores and pollen, imprisoned in a well ventilated box and placed in a cool place. After an hour or two they realise they are hopelessly queenless, when larvae are introduced. They are removed after 24 hours when the Q/Cs have been started, then transferred to a queenright colony for finishing. The bees and frames are returned to the donor, or given to another colony.
The Swarm Box.
It is probably only the more serious beekeeper who will have a purpose made swarm box, but I have found that a ventilated nuc box is adequate. I think the term “swarm box” is wrong, but that is standard beekeeping terminology, so I will continue to use it.
If you have materials and are reasonably handy at woodwork, it is a good winter job making a dedicated swarm box for the purpose of starting Q/Cs. The design isn’t fussy, providing the critical sizes and beespaces are maintained. I can explain fairly easy what is needed without drawings. Imagine a 5 frame nuc box and my design works well. Cut holes in the floor and sides and cover with mesh to provide ventilation. If these holes are round, with a reasonable space between, the box won’t lose strength as it would if a square or rectangle were cut out. Some beekeepers make their swarm boxes an inch or two deeper than a standard box, so there is room for bees in the bottom below the frames. Although not essential, I think this extra space has benefits and is worth incorporating if you have the materials. I would make it top bee space so the crown board can be flat. A roof is not needed as anything that is waterproof can be used.
The crownboard can be used if you start Q/Cs on a frame, otherwise divise your own lid if you don’t use a cell frame, but wish to start them above the bees. Some ideas may be found here. I have seen some with a sliding section in the crownboard so you can lower or remove a frame, but I have never bothered with these.
Although the swarm box will only be used for short times it will need to be strong, as it will be bumped on the ground to dislodge bees. I have seen some that are made from thin plywood and hardboard, but they are too flimsy. Two strips of wood nailed underneath will allow air to circulate. I gave up on making my own and now buy beautiful wooden ware from Starheart Hollow in Colrain, mass. Shoot me an email and I will give you their information.
How to Use the Swarm Box.
The following is how I have done it, but I admit I have used a lot of other people’s ideas. This suits me but I’m happy to change if I see benefits. As with other aspects of beekeeping there are many ways of achieving the same thing. I have included some options below based on what others do, so you can work out your own way. Providing you understand what is happening and it works, then do it.
Put young bees in your swarm box. I find about 2″ depth of bees in the bottom when the box is bumped down works well. An alternative is to use a swarm with the queen removed. When you have started the Q/Cs you can put the queen back if the bees seem good, otherwise give them another queen.
Add two frames of open stores and pollen, with the pollen on the inside, but a frame width gap between where the frame of introduced larvae will go. Some queen rearers use more frames of food – it won’t harm, but they are probably raising more Q/Cs than I am. These frames can be taken from full colonies where they can often be found on the edge of a broodnest. They can be set up by placing empty drawn combs in full colonies during a nectar flow, next to the outside brood comb in a full colony.
There are differing opinions about whether to include brood or not. Some use only sealed brood, others only unsealed, and some no brood at all! They all work in my experience, so I no longer use brood.
I had my boxes built to accommodate a small dish of water with a sponge in it for the bees to drink. An alternative is to spray water through the ventilation mesh.
Completely close the box up and leave in a cool place. A garage or under a hedge out of the sun will be O.K.
After 2 hours of being queenless and broodless the bees are frantic and ready to accept larvae. Bump the box on the ground to dislodge the bees that have clustered underneath the crownboard. Lower the frame of larvae between combs of pollen and open stores. This is where a deeper box is useful, but if standard depth then lower gently. Or put larvae in the lid, using whatever method you choose.
Some beekeepers feed, but I never have, as I use open stores. In any case I think it is too late then. If there is no nectar flow and you do have to feed, I suggest feeding the donor colony 4-5 days before removing the bees.
I check a couple of hours later and replace larvae that have been removed by the bees. This is probably easier if you are using a lid, as you can remove the cell holder and put your thumb over the hole or close it off. Some use a flanged wine bottle cork for this.
After about 24 hours the Q/Cs will be well started and can be placed in the queenright colony for finishing.
The bees can be returned to the colony they came from, or can be used to boost a small nuc.