This is one way to stop a swarm before it happens — when I don’t have time to pull out every frame.
I tip one of the lower supers. If we’re talking deep supers, I tip the second one from the bottom. For medium supers, I’d go for the third one from the bottom. It’s wherever the core of the brood nest happens to be. Or we can go nuts and tip them all.
In any case, I usually tip a super close to the bottom of the hive. I look underneath the frames and examine whatever queen cups are present. If I can’t see inside them easily, I tear them open with my hive tool.
If the insides of the queen cups are polished to a shine, it often means the cells have been cleaned and prepared for the queen to lay in it.
If the insides of the queen cups have any kind of gooey or wet substance, it’s usually royal jelly because the queen has already deposited an egg in there.
Sometimes, a freshly-laid egg can be seen standing straight up, right smack in the bottom of the queen cup.
Sighting any of the above usually means the colony is preparing to swarm but probably isn’t quite there yet. So now is the time to act.
When I find shiny or wet queen cups (deep sigh), I look carefully through every frame in the brood nest to see what’s going on. I usually have to do this on a hot humid day when I’m cooking in my own sweat for at least half an hour.
Scenario #1: If I find a lot of day-old fresh open brood, I usually have time to stop the swarming process. A laying queen is too heavy to go on swarming a flight.
Scenario #2: If I find capped swarm cells, I’m hooped.
In the first scenario, I can usually destroy or remove the partially-made swarm cells and add drawn comb to the brood nest to give the queen more room to lay. I can add another box. I can create a walk-away split. I can even break up the brood nest with empty frames to knock them back a bit. I can do all kinds of things, but usually I do whatever I can to open up the brood nest so the queen has room to lay.
In the second scenario, finding capped swarm cells, honestly, I usually just remove all the frames with swarm cells, capped and uncapped, and move them to another hive location — minus the queen. (Each queen cell can also be used to make a split.) Or I move the queen and about half of the brood frames to a new location and leave the swarm cells behind, which somewhat emulates the situation the bees would find themselves in if a swarm had occurred. Kinda.
And what about squishing queen cells before I even know if the colony has a queen? What if the colony is queenless and I just squished their one chance of making a new queen?
Yup, that’s possible. But queen cups that become queen cells off the bottom of the frame are usually swarm cells, not supersedure cells made for replacing a dead or dying queen. So it’s usually okay to just give it a squish.
Furthermore, the queen doesn’t usually fly away in a swarm until the swarm cells are capped around day 8 after the eggs are first laid. So if I see a wet queen cup and no capped swarm cells, I have no problem squishing it. I’ve never messed things up by do that.
But we can always be extremely cautious and make sure we have a viable queen in the hive first. I don’t do that, but there’s no harm in it. Have fun with that on a hot day when sweat in stinging your eyeballs every two seconds. But yeah, we can do that.
In any case, I check for shiny or wet queen cups on the bottom of the frames near the bottom of the hive and then go from there.
P.S.: I usually don’t find many queen cups in my hives. Eight or so might be the most I usually find. But if I find a long row of queen cups along one or more frames, even if they’re still dry, I know that no matter what I do, those bees are hankering to make some swarm cells. That’s how I read it anyway. Sometimes even the most complicated orthodox-approved swarm prevention techniques can’t stop a colony from swarming. Life finds a way.