The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Honey bees, emergency and the Snelgrove board

Bees at the beehive entrance

Bees going in through the beehive entrance

“There have to be three elements for the bees to swarm: a queen, flying worker bees and honey stores. If you remove one of these elements, they will not swarm.”

Mike was striding down the garden towards the hives.

Despite it being a showery day we were going to divide our colony in two as he suspected that the bees were preparing to swarm. I had mentioned that we had found queen cups and cells on some of the frames ten days earlier. These are special cells the bees make to breed a new queen.

Although we had destroyed them and added another super (supers are where the bees store their honey) to distract the bees and keep them occupied, Mike reckoned that we needed to take more decisive action. As our new colony is so strong it would be best to divide it.

“You have got a Snelgrove board, haven’t you?”

A Snelgrove board is a clever device that sits on top of the colony you want to divide. You place a new brood chamber and super above it. It has several little doors to enable bee exit and entry, which you open and close in a fixed sequence to effect splittng the colony in two. More anon.

Mike is a fan of the method. He has always Snelgroved his colonies. After his first visit, I ordered one from Thorne’s. It has hung in the shed for a year, looking interesting. That was lucky as ihis visit was on Bank Holiday Monday and all bee supply shops were shut.

One major problem was that we still hadn’t seen the queen. Danny and I had seen evidence that she was laying: tiny thread-like eggs in the cells. If Mike and I were going to divide the colony we needed to locate the queen.

Mike had brought his queen marking cage and pen to mark the queen with a white dot, and also a small pair of scissors to clip her wing so that she would not be able to fly away from the hive.

Bees swarm because they have bred a second, new, queen. It is the old queen that leaves the hive If the old queen’s wing is clipped and she tries to lead a swarm, she is unable to fly properly and will drop to the ground. Eventually the swarming worker bees will return to the new fully operational queen in the hive.

Mike carefully examined the sides and body of each frame. On the fifth frame he found her. He gently trapped her in the cage, marked her with a white dot and clipped one wing.

Working very quickly, we divided the colony. Each brood box should contain eleven frames. We left the queen in the old brood box but removed ten of her eleven frames of brood, with hundreds of bees still working on them, and put them into the new brood box. We replaced them with new, empty frames and added a single empty frame to the new box.

The hive is stacked as follows: queen in the bottom brood box, queen excluder, honey super. Then the Snelgrove board, the new brood box, queen excluder and empty super. The queen excluder prevents the queen from laying eggs in the supers as she is larger than workers and cannot squeeze through the grating.

We now had two colonies sitting together separated by a Snelgrove board. We opened a side door on the Snelgrove board. All the older flying bees (the nectar & pollen gatherers) flew out of this door and into the old brood box, through the familiar front entrance. They left behind the young nurse bees who tend the brood and stay in the hive. They will quickly breed a new queen. The nurses will eventually become flying bees as they grow older. Thus an entire new colony will develop.

Within an hour or so all the original flying bees were in the old brood box with the queen. As there is so little brood, they will think that they have swarmed and will be unlikely to swarm again this summer.

So for the next few weeks all should be well bee wise.

There is a good article about swarm control and methods here

  Leave a reply


  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Terry,
    Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Absolutely spot on, It would be useful to detail the sequence of opening the doors and the intervals.

    There seem to be many different interpretations of how to use the Snelgrove board, when and which one to open. As this is our first year using one, we followed our bee mentor’s advice. As yet we do not have the breadth of experience to write the definitive article.

  2. Terry Harris

    A large amount of information is missing from this article it should contain the sequence of opening and closing the doors and the intervals on the Snelgrove board

  3. Fiona Nevile

    We are still beginners on the bee front. The colonies seem to be really active. The apiary is just eight feet from the garden table. I think we might have to screen the bees when we invite friends for a garden lunch!

    Amazing that your cats like cucumber too. Great Aunt Daisy Beatyl, my mum’s dog who is living with us at the moment hates cucumber but wants it to be offered so that she refuse it. The Min Pins grab it within seconds, there is a lot of snarling and snapping.

    I love your blog. It’s a great idea. Introducing your children to cultures and food from around the world. And you make it fun.

  4. Amanda

    Wow! I just read all of your posts on the bees. My friends parents used to have bees and it was the best honey I’ve ever tasted. I loved trying it throughout the year with the different flavours depending on what they’d been feasting on. It makes very interesting reading. I felt sad reading your post about losing the bees. I must come back and read more of your other topics. Thank you for your lovely comment on my blog. Also you said about the min pins loving cucumber, our cats do too. Odd isn’t it? Thanks again, Amanda

  5. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Ash, when I write about beekeeping it seems complicated. In fact the beekeeping posts are the hardest to write. There are so many theories and every beekeeper has adapted these to suit the way they personally work with the bees.

    Beekeepers are well known for finding a myriad of ways to get from a to b.

    What a shame that you are allergic.

    Hi Joanna, I think that the classes and the practical experience of working with a local beekeeper are the best introduction to beekeeping.

    I enjoy working with Mike on our hives. I always learn a lot more than the job we have set out to do.

    Of course you will manage. Having your own bees is fun as you can tend them at your own pace.

  6. Joanna

    SO interesting to read this … I’m hoping to acquire a nucleus this summer, and have been taking classes and working with a local beekeeper … it’s really good to read someone’s first-hand experience – better than a book, because it maes me realise that I will manage, even though I know so much less than all the chaps at the beekeeper’s association!

    Best wishes,

  7. Goodness, this whole bee keeping thing seems awesomely difficult! Isn’t it incredible how they work themselves out? We have bees at the allotment but I’ve never seen anyone tending them. I’d love to have a go myself but I’m allergic!

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