Bad behaviour

Synopsis : Bad behaviour by bees – aggression, following and stability on the comb – may be transient or permanent. To recognise it you need to keep records and have hives to compare. Fortunately, these traits are easy to correct by requeening the colony.

Introduction

That’s a pretty generic title and it could cover a multitude of sins.

Slapdash disease management, insufficient winter feeding, poor apiary hygiene, siting bait hives near another beekeeper’s apiaries … even bee rustling.

However, I always try and write about a topic from direct practical experience.

If I did ever exhibit any of those examples of bad behaviour:

So, instead of discussing bad behaviour by beekeepers, I’ll write about badly behaved bees.

Nice bees

Most beekeepers have an idea of what ‘nice bees’ are like. It’s a 2 term that encapsulates the various characteristics that a beekeeper values.

These characteristics could include temper, stability on the comb, productivity (in terms of either/both bees or honey), frugality, colour and any number of other terms 3 that define either the appearance or behaviour of individual bees or, collectively, that of the colony.

Of course, all these terms are relative.

Nice bees and a nice queen

My definition of aggressive bees may well differ from what another beekeeper would consider (un)acceptable.

The relatively calm and stable bees in most of my hives could be defined as ’running about all over the place’ by someone who’s bees stick, almost immobile, to the comb.

This relativity is nowhere more apparent than when visiting the apiary of another beekeeper. I’m always a little wary of someone donning a beesuit 100 metres from the hives 4 while simultaneously claiming their bees are ’very friendly’.

These differences don’t matter if you keep your bees in an isolated location where other people – in particularly civilians (i.e. members of the general public) – won’t be impacted if your ’friendly bees’ are actually ’murderous psychopaths’.

However, they do matter if your bees are in an urban garden, or a shared allotment.

They also matter when making comparisons between colonies to determine which to split (so creating a new queen) and which – perhaps urgently – need requeening.

Transient or permanent?

For the purpose of the following discussion let’s consider that the ‘bad behaviour’ is aggression.

Here’s a screenshot from a YouTube video (from CapLock Apiaries) which shows some really unpleasant bees. The final words (in this part of the video) by the beekeeper on the right is ”This queen has to die!”.

‘This queen has to die’ … beekeeping doesn’t have to be like this

The brood boxes were stuck together, presumably because the colony is less regularly inspected and everything gets gummed up with propolis. The first comment 5 was

I’m new to bees and thought I found a hot wild hive today. Went to youtube to find some comparison. The hive I saw was absolutely docile in comparison to these guys, and the first wild hive I extracted are absolute angels!

Which emphasises the relative nature of behaviour.

I dislike aggressive bees so have no videos of my own showing this sort of behaviour 6.

However, that doesn’t mean that my bees never show aggression … 😉

Weather, forage, handling, queenless … all can influence temper

Aggression – or defensiveness – can be a permanent feature of a colony or can appear transiently. In my view, the former is unacceptable under any circumstances 7.

However, in response to environmental conditions or handling, a colony may become defensive. Again, the amount of ‘aggro’ varies. Some bees may just buzz a little more excitedly, others can go completely postal. If you are careful to only select from your better behaved stocks for splits and queen rearing you can usually avoid even transient unpleasantness.

Environmental factors that can influence the behaviour of a colony include the weather, the availability of forage and the gentleness and care exhibited by the beekeeper during inspections.

Queenless colonies may also be more aggressive, but all the comments in the post this week relate to queenright colonies.

Scores on the doors

There are two easy to achieve solutions that allow a beekeeper to make sense of the variation in any of these traits. These are:

  • keeping good hive records to allow undesirable behaviour, or a gradual decline in behaviour, to be identified, and
  • managing more than one colony so comparisons can be readily made

I score temper, running (stability on the comb) and following, but I know some who record a much greater range of characteristics.

Each are recorded on a 1 – 5 scale (worst to best, allowing half points as a ‘perfect 5’ is unattainable as the bees can always be better, whereas a 4.5 is a really good colony).

The bees in hive #34 run all over the place. They are being requeened.

I also make a note of the weather. A colony may consistently score 4’s or better until you inspect them in a thunderstorm, but that’s OK because when you look back you’ll see that the conditions were woeful.

Compare and contrast

With just one colony you have no reference to know whether all colonies in the area are suffering because there’s a dearth of nectar, or if this colony alone is a wrong ‘un.

With two colonies things get easier.

Increasingly – for reasons I’ll discuss in a future post – I think three is probably the minimum optimum number.

The more you have the easier it is to identify the outliers … the exceptional (whether good 🙂 or bad 🙁 ). That should be qualified by stating the more you have in one location as the local environment may differ significantly between apiaries.

The great thing about hive records is that they provide a longer retrospective view. You can overlook the hammering you received from a colony last week 8 if there are a long list of 4’s over the last 3 months.

They also allow you to observe trends in behaviour.

Growing old disgracefully

I’ve recently noticed that a couple of my colonies are markedly less well behaved now we’re reaching mid-season than they were throughout 2021 or the beginning of this year. I think at least one has (actually had, as it was requeened last week) a 2020 queen.

As the queen ages the behaviour of the colony has gradually changed.

I crudely classify my colonies into thirds – good, bad or indifferent. Anything ‘bad’ is requeened as soon as I have a suitable queen available (or the larvae to rear one).

These ‘declining’ colonies were never worse than indifferent last year but, as they’ve expanded this spring, are now firmly in the ‘bad’ category. I presume this is consequence of the combination of the influence of the queen’s pheromones and the size of the colony 9.

Whatever … I think all it really demonstrates is that consistently taking even cursory hive records is useful.

The colonies I’m referring to above haven’t become more aggressive (though this can happen). The characteristic I’ve seen change the most is the steadiness of the bees on the comb.

It’s worth noting here that colony size can fundamentally impact behaviour. A well-tempered nuc can develop into a big, strong and unpleasant colony. In contrast, the nucs I prepare from ‘indifferent’ colonies during swarm control and requeening don’t appear to generally improve much in temperament.

If I’m conducting swarm control on the third ‘bad’ tirtile 10 the queen is despatched so I never get to experience the performance of the resulting nucleus colony 😉

Aggression

I’ve discussed aggression above and covered it in more general terms previously. There are several studies of the genetics of aggression, usually by GWAS (Genome Wide Association Studies) of Africanised bees which can be significantly more bolshy than anything I’ve encountered in the UK 11. The colony shown in the video cited above is Africanised.

A recent study analysed individual aggressive bees 12 and compared them with pollen-laden foragers from the same colony. However, they failed to identify any genetic loci associated with aggression.

In contrast, by ‘averaging’ the genetics of hundreds of aggressive or passive (forager) bees, the scientists identified a region of the genome that – if originating from European honey bees – was more likely to result in gentle bees. Conversely, if this region is Africanised, the colony was more likely to be aggressive 13.

Hive genetics, not individual genetics

This is a really interesting result 14 as it means that, even if individual bees are Africanised and potentially aggressive, if the majority of the colony is European-like (and so gentle) the individual Africanised bees are unlikely to be aggressive.

Aggression is therefore a consequence of hive genetics, rather than individual genetics.

Neat.

Aggression in psychotic UK colonies (which, by definition, are not Africanised) may have a different genetic explanation, though some of the genes involved may be similar. Since aggression can manifest itself in several different forms – jumping up from the frames, buzzing around your head, response to sudden movement, targeting dark colours etc. – I suspect there may be multiple genes involved in the sensing or threat response.

Following

Some aggressive bees – particularly those that buzz agitatedly around your head during an inspection – also have the profoundly unpleasant trait of following you out of the apiary … down the track … back to the car … or even into the house.

The car is packed, you’ve taken you beesuit off … and PING!

The very worst of these lull you into a false sense of security by flying off, only to return in a lightning-fast kamikaze strike as soon as you remove your veil.

Ouch, that hurt.

I consider ‘following’ a worse trait than overt aggression at the hive.

I’m suited and booted’ at the hive. Ready for anything … ’Come on if you think you’re hard enough’.

At least, I am if I’ve remembered to zip my veil up properly 😉

But 15 minutes later, when I should be contemplating a cuppa, I don’t want to be pestered by bees dive bombing my head.

Looking for trouble

Followers don’t necessarily just follow.

They can initiate long-range and unprovoked attacks on individuals just walking near the hive.

I think this is an example of bad behaviour that should not be tolerated.

If you think it’s bad as a beekeeper, just imagine how unpleasant it is for passers by.

Sometimes it’s difficult to identify which of several hives is showing this trait in an apiary. To confirm it, change the order of hive inspections, leaving the likely suspect to last. If the followers don’t appear until the final inspection you have your answer.

If they’re present before that you either guessed wrong or – Eek! – have more than one hive behaving badly.

I’ve seen many aggressive colonies that showed little or no tendency to follow. Conversely, I don’t remember seeing followers that were not from an aggressive colony. I presume this means that the genes involved are distinct but linked.

Whether different or not … they’re unwanted. Any colonies of mine showing overt aggression or following are requeened. Perhaps 5% of my colonies each season are requeened for this reason.

Running

Remember back to your early days of beekeeping when you had to ’find the queen’ and were faced with this … 15

Find the queen

I estimate there are about 1200-1300 bees on the face of that frame 16. There are the same amount on the other side.

All of the bees are moving.

Of course, this makes it much easier to find the queen as she moves differently to the workers on the frame. I’m probably not alone in sometimes struggling to ‘find the queen’ on a photograph of a frame when I rarely have trouble locating her on a frame in my hands 17.

However, the more the workers move, the more difficult it gets.

Spot the queen

See if you can spot the queen on this frame of relatively sedate bees:

And what about this frame of more mobile bees? It’s worth noting there are only about half the total number of bees on this second frame.

OK, I cheated. Only the first frame has a queen on it. She’s in the middle near the bottom of the frame, moving left to right 18.

The top frame is pretty standard in terms of ‘running’ (shorthand for the stability of bees on the frame) in my hives. The bottom video is nothing like the worst I’ve seen, but (if consistently like this) it’s certainly a reason to score the colony down and requeen them from a more stable line.

Inspections

Bees running around on the frame certainly make locating the queen more tricky.

However, as I’ve written elsewhere, you don’t need to find the queen unless you need to do something with her. The presence of eggs is usually sufficient to tell you the colony is queenright (assuming there are no big, fat queen cells or a queen corpse on the open mesh floor 🙁 ).

The reason I dislike bees that are not stable on the comb is because they make inspections more difficult. They prevent you clearly seeing eggs and larvae so you have to shake the bees off the frame, thereby overloading the next frame you look at with agitated bees.

Furthermore, the bees must have somewhere to run to … which usually means they run onto the frame lugs, and then your hands and – in the worst cases – up your forearms.

There was a frame lug there a few seconds ago

In addition, they run over each other, forming heavier and heavier ‘gloops’ 19 of bees that eventually become too heavy, lose their grip and fall … onto the top bars of the frames you have yet to inspect, onto the ground, or into the top of your boots.

A ‘gloop’ forming

Running appears to be a feature which isn’t influenced much by environmental conditions, perhaps other than a chilly and gusty wind 20.

Better bees

There are two good things about aggression, following and running:

  • these behaviours are easy to identify; you can easily tell if the colony is too hot for comfort, or if your neighbour complains repeatedly about getting chased by bees, or you’re plagued with ‘gloopy’ bees that make inspections a pain. Remember, there’s no standard to compare them to, no ‘reference colony’. All that matters is how they’re viewed by anyone that interacts with them. If they’re too defensive, if they bother you away from the hive or are too mobile, then score them down in your hive records. If they remain the same for the next two to three weeks, or don’t improve when the weather/forage picks up, then make plans to do something about it.
  • all these undesirable traits can be easily corrected by replacing the queen. Four to six weeks after requeening the characteristics of the colony will reflect those of the new queen. Of course, this only works if you source a good quality queen – either by rearing your own or purchasing one 21, or by ensuring that the colony raises its own queen from larvae sourced from a high quality colony. While you’re at it do yourself and your neighbouring beekeepers a favour and fork out any drone brood in the misbehaving colony.

It really is as easy as that.

Incremental but steady improvement

Over a few years the quality of your bees will improve.

Of course, with open mating you’ll occasionally get rogue colonies. However, as the average quality improves, you’ll have a greater choice of colonies from which to source larvae.

Over time you’ll need to recalibrate your scoring system. In five years a 3/5 will be a much improved colony over a 3/5 now.

When you next (reluctantly) open a bolshy colony, struggle to find the queen because of the wriggling mass of bees on the frames and are then stung repeatedly as you take your veil off by the car, think of it as an opportunity.

You have now recognised the problem and you already know the solution 😉


Note

I’ve chosen aggression, following and running as three easy to spot traits that can be, just as easily, fixed. There are other examples of bad behaviour that may well be unfixable. There’s a dearth of nectar in my west coast apiary until the lime flowers and robbing is a problem 22. Although robbing is a variable characteristic (amongst different strains of bees) I doubt it could be excluded completely by requeening. Selection would be time consuming, being dependent upon environmental conditions. However, the ‘fix’ is again relatively straightforward … keep very strong colonies, feed late in the evening (if needed) and physically protect colonies with reduced entrances and/or robbing screens. Robbing is an example of bad behaviour by bees where the solution is almost entirely the responsibility of the beekeeper.

More queen rearing musings

Synopsis : What happens when your queenright cell raiser swarms? Are cells being reared under the supersedure response doomed? This and other musings on miscellaneous aspects of queen rearing, together with some comments on clearing supers on queenless hives.

Introduction

I described queen rearing last week as The most fun you can have in a beesuit ™. That’s my opinion. You may prefer making candles, or beeswax wraps or extracting and jarring honey 1 and I wouldn’t argue, though none of them come close to the satisfaction I get from queen rearing.

The term ‘queen rearing’ sometime conjures up images of booming, chest-high queenless cell starters, dozens of grafted larvae on each cell bar frame, incubators and serried rows of mini-nucs waiting for virgins … or even clinical instrumental insemination apparatus.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells on a cell bar frame (produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing approach)

This is the industrial scale production of queens, and it’s rare that enthusiastic but nevertheless small-scale amateur beekeepers need that number of queens.

Or have the resources to produce them.

For convenience I think of queen rearing as an activity that can occur at three different scales:

  1. One or two queens at a time – e.g. adding a frame of selected (i.e. good quality) eggs/larvae to a terminally queenless hive. Surplus cells can be cut out and distributed elsewhere.
  2. Five to ten at a time – often using selected larvae transferred to a cell starter colony by grafting, a Cupkit-type system, cell punching or (fewer manipulations still) the Miller or Hopkins methods.
  3. Dozens of queens at a time – almost always using grafting and a strong queenless cell starter colony.

I’ve run 10-20 colonies for a decade or more and rarely need more than 20 queens a season (a number which includes some spares to make up nucs).

In addition, I live in an area with variable (i.e. often poor) weather where queen mating can be ’hit and miss’.

Little and often

For these reasons I prefer to produce a few queens at a time so I don’t have to devote significant resources to an activity that might be thwarted by a month of lousy weather.

I’d rather try and produce half a dozen queens three or four times a season, than dozens at once.

The latter requires a major commitment of resources (colonies and equipment). Depending upon the weather I might end up with a glut of queens.

Or an apiary-full of laying workers 🙁

In contrast, the methods I use allow me to produce a handful of queens every few weeks. If the weather is kind, all will get mated. If not, it’s not a total disaster.

West coast weather, mid-May to mid-June 2022 (average 13°C, range 6.2°C to 23.9°C)

Over the last month we’ve only had 2-3 days with conditions normally associated with successful queen mating i.e. light winds, sunshine and temperatures of 20°C.

Predicting this type of ‘weather window’ 2-3 weeks in advance is almost impossible.

It’s better to be prepared to repeat things again.

And again 😉

Apiary vicinity mating

In fact, queens don’t need ‘perfect’ conditions for mating. If they did, sustainable beekeeping 2 would be impossible – or at least very difficult – in many northern latitudes. Queens can be successfully mated in sub-optimal conditions 3.

Part of my interest in monitoring the local weather at my apiary is to try and determine just how poor the conditions can be whilst still getting queens mated.

Native Apis mellifera mellifera (black bees) are reported to use apiary vicinity mating (AVM) and so may not need optimal conditions to fly to distant drone congregation areas. Jon Getty has written more about AVM on his website.

However, wherever or whenever they get mated, I prefer to produce repeated batches of queens using queenright cell raisers. By doing this I’m not putting all my ‘eggs in one basket’. Essentially these cell raisers are standard (honey) production hives manipulated in simple ways to provide the conditions needed to rear suitably-presented larvae as queens.

And inevitably, because they’re queenright, things can sometimes go wrong 🙁

Queenright queen rearing

The two methods I’ve used are the Ben Harden approach and a Morris board. Both use a single colony to start and finish the queen cells, and the queen remains present – albeit separated from the developing cells – throughout the 10-12 days from grafting until the cells are used.

The Morris board

A Morris board is essentially the same as a Cloake board. These are boards that separate the queenright lower brood box from an upper brood box in which the queen cells are produced. The board has an integrated queen excluder and the provision to separate the upper and lower box with a metal or plastic divider.

Morris board (lower side)

With the divider inserted queen cells are started in the top box under the emergency response. However, once started, the divider is removed and the cells are finished under the supersedure response.

The Morris board is more complicated than a Cloake board; it is used with a divided upper brood box – allowing separate batches of cells to be started every week or so – and has a series of doors for bleeding off and redirecting returning foragers to the correct compartment.

It’s a clever idea and one that shows considerable promise for my queen rearing.

I’ll write more about my use of a Morris board in due course, or you could track down the article Michael Badger wrote in Bee Craft.

The Ben Harden approach

I’ve discussed the Ben harden approach extensively already – try here for starters. The method, although perhaps popularised by the eponymous Irish beekeeper (and excellent instructors like the late Terry Clare) was also described nicely by the National Bee Unit’s Mike Brown and David Wilkinson twenty years ago in the American Bee Journal 4.

Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing (note the ‘fat dummies’ occupying much of the upper box)

Until the last couple of years this is the method I’ve used for most of my queen rearing.

The queen is confined below a queen excluder to the lower brood box. Grafted larvae are added to the upper box, space within which is often restricted by the use of ‘fat dummies’.

The queen cells are therefore started and finished under the supersedure response.

Supersedure vs. swarming responses and colony swarming

In preparation for swarming a colony naturally produces several charged queen cells 5. Assuming the weather is suitable, the colony usually swarms on the day that the first cells are sealed.

If the weather is poor then swarming is delayed, but they often then go at the first opportunity … so much so that even a borderline day after a period of poor weather during the normal swarming season is often characterised by lots of swarms.

In contrast, newly sealed supersedure cells – and these are usually very few in number (often just one) – are incubated for a further 8 days until emergence of the virgin queen.

The superseding colony does not swarm.

The new queen goes on a few mating flights and starts laying.

At some point after that the old queen simply disappears.

One day you’re surprised to find two laying queens in the hive but at the next inspection (or the one after that) only the shiny new one remains.

The queen is dead, long live the queen.

Advantages (and disadvantages) of queenright queen rearing methods

For the small scale beekeeper – perhaps 2-20 colonies – queenright methods offer a number of advantages (with a few disadvantages) for queen rearing:

  • the quality of the cell starter/finisher is immaterial as long as the colony is strong. You simply provide it with larvae from good quality stock.
  • no interruption 6 to nectar collection. In a good nectar flow you simply keep piling on supers as needed and the bees raise the cells and fill the supers.
  • if there’s no nectar flow you will have to feed the colony, so you must remove any supers to avoid tainting any stored nectar with syrup.
  • if you do simultaneously use the colony for honey production and cell raising the hive can get tall and heavy. Mind your back.
  • you can use a single hive for the entire process if needed; cell starter, sourcing larvae, cell finisher and populating mini-nucs. You might even get some honey as well 😉 7

The queenright methods outlined above exploit the supersedure response for cell raising. This means that the colony will not swarm in response to capping of the cells in the upper box.

But …

That is not the same as saying that the colony will not swarm 🙁

Don’t forget, there’s a laying queen in the bottom box. She will continue to lay while the new cells are being started, fed, nurtured and sealed.

And if she runs out of space the colony can still make swarm cells in the bottom box and so may swarm.

Here are a couple of examples where this has happened … and the consequences for my queen rearing.

A swarming Ben Harden cell raiser

When I lived in the Midlands I routinely started queen rearing during April. Queens produced in April could be mated as early as the first week of May in a good year, and occasionally, even earlier.

Colonies got a massive boost during this part of the season from the oil seed rape. The photo below is from the 19th of April 2014.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

When rearing queens using the Ben Harden approach during a strong nectar flow you can safely relocate the upper brood box above the top super. In a busy hive the developing cells still get more than enough attention.

In addition, this can help increase ‘take’ 8 by reducing the concentration of queen pheromones due to the separation of the bottom brood box (containing the original queen) and the box containing the grafted larvae.

When using this method it is important to check the upper box for queen cells on the day the grafts are added. This box, being separated from the queen-containing brood box, has reduced queen mandibular, and no queen footprint, pheromones.

Consequently, it’s not unusual for the bees to start drawing queen cells. These must be destroyed or – being more advanced than the grafted larvae – they will emerge first and destroy all your hard work.

I had done this and added the grafts which, on checking 24 hours later, had all been accepted.

Chipmunks are Go! 9

Out of sight is out of mind

However, I had failed to check the bottom box for queen cells on the days before I added the grafted larvae.

The colony promptly swarmed, probably before the newly developing queen cells were capped.

This was either before I routinely clipped my queens, or I’d missed this particular queen. Whatever, she and a significant proportion of the bees disappeared to pastures new.

I can’t remember how (or when) I realised the colony had swarmed. It might have been reduced entrance activity during the strong OSR nectar flow, or I might have just (finally!) conducted a regular inspection.

The bottom box contained sealed queen cells, no queen and no eggs 🙁

But, all was not lost.

The cells containing grafted larvae were capped and looked good. They’d clearly received sufficient attention 10 and I was therefore hopeful they’d emerge, mate and produce usable queens.

And they did.

I knocked back all the sealed queen cells in the bottom box and then – on the day I used the cells from the grafted larvae – added one of the latter to the lower brood box.

I removed the queen cells in the lower box for two reasons:

  • it prevented a new queen emerging there while I had cells above the queen excluder, and
  • it allowed me to use a cell raised from larvae sourced from a better quality colony.

So, a swarming cell raiser isn’t necessarily a disaster.

A more recent, but less successful, attempt

My first attempt at queen rearing this season involved using a Morris board.

I added the Morris board and upper brood box on the 18th of May. I then did all of the necessary Morris board manipulations – closing the slide, opening entrances, closing others – to pack the upper box with bees.

On the 25th I did the grafting and – at the same time I added the grafts on the cell bar frame – I destroyed a small number of queen cells in the upper box 11.

On the following day 7-8 of the larvae had been accepted and the cells were capped on or around the 30th.

Cell bar frame festooned with bees

I was off beekeeping elsewhere so didn’t check the hive again until the 1st of June … and was dismayed to find all of the cells had been torn down.

Torn down queen cells. The cell on the right has a gaping hole on the opposite face.

There was no queen in the upper box and the queen excluder was intact. The cells appear to have been torn down by workers. I’ve had this happen before when there’s been a dearth of nectar, but this box was getting 300 ml of thin syrup every 48 hours.

D’oh!

Of course, I eventually checked the bottom box and found:

  • one vacated queen cell. This cell was situated on the lower edge of one of the central frames.
  • a virgin queen running about and no sign of the original clipped and marked queen 🙁

The single queen cell might suggest supersedure. However, its position (though far from a reliable indicator) was more like that of a swarm cell.

A vacated queen cell

In addition, the absence of eggs or any sign of the original queen, strongly suggested that the colony had swarmed. This probably happened – coincidentally – on the day the cells containing the grafts were sealed.

I say ‘coincidentally’ because I suspect the swarming was triggered by emergence of the new queen in the lower box and had nothing to do with my grafted larvae. That would fit with two things – the timing of the previous inspection (18th) and the fact that swarming is delayed when the incumbent queen is clipped.

However, because she was clipped, the colony was not depleted of workers. The original queen was lost, but that was all.

An alternative interpretation would be that the new queen simply did away with the original queen.

But why were the cells containing grafted larvae torn down?

One possibility was that the new queen pheromones were sufficiently strong that the workers realised they didn’t need additional queens. Alternatively – though she wasn’t by the time I saw her – I suppose there’s a possibility that the virgin queen was small enough to squeeze through the queen excluder, slaughter the developing queens, and squeeze back down to the lower box.

Learning from my mistakes 12 

Both examples above were due to my not maintaining a proper inspection schedule on the lower, queenright, brood box.

Guilty, m’lud.

Despite the advantages outlined above, cell rearing colonies should still be treated in the same way – vis-à-vis regular inspections – as any other production hive.

Other than forgetfulness, sloth and stupidity 13 there’s no reason not to inspect the lower brood box properly on a 7 day cycle.

Once the larvae are accepted you can remove the upper box (and all the bees it contains), gently set it aside and go though the bottom box. The workers with the developing queen cells will look after them for the 10 minutes or so this takes.

Conversely, there’s no reason to interfere with the upper box other than to check acceptance and confirm, in due course, that the cells are sealed. If you assemble the queenright cell rearing colony and wait a week before adding grafts to the upper box (as described above) they cannot start new queens from anything other than the larvae you add.

What else would you be looking for?

Just one more thing 14

There were several comments last week about honey production in queenless colonies.

I collected more supers on Monday containing spring honey. This included recovering supers from several queenless (or currently requeening – some may have contained virgins) colonies.

I have previously noticed that supers are cleared less well – using my standard clearer boards overnight – from queenless colonies.

A not-cleared-as-well-as-I’d-like super above a queenless colony

You always get a few bees remaining in the super, but there were consistently lots more in queenless colonies.

I didn’t count them … few is less than some, which is quite a bit less than lots, which – in turn – is appreciably less than ‘did I put the clearer on inverted?’

This was the second batch of supers I’d collected, a week after the first. I’d left the supers on longer because:

  • there were too many to transport
  • some still had unripe nectar which failed the ‘shake test’ over a hive roof (see photo below), indicating that the water content was too high to extract without risking the honey fermenting

Unripe nectar is easy to shake out of super frames.

Luring the bees down from the supers

In an attempt to speed up clearing bees from the supers of queenless colonies I added the clearer underneath the full supers, but on top of a wet super from which I’d already extracted honey.

A wet super being used to ‘lure’ bees down from full supers in a queenless colony

This worked well.

The heady smell of honey 15 in the wet super resulted in significantly fewer bees in the cleared supers.

I have to transport these cleared supers ~200 miles back home for extraction. If I had a trailer or a truck a few stragglers wouldn’t normally be an issue.

But I don’t … these supers are in the car with me.

Biosecurity

Actually … stragglers would still be an issue, even with a trailer/truck.

My Fife bees have Varroa (low levels, but it’s definitely present) but my west coast bees do not. I take biosecurity seriously and don’t like finding any bees in the car after the journey.

I also really don’t like finding bees in the car at 65 mph on the A9 … and, if I do, I stop and let them out.

The combination of the better-cleared supers and a sharp thwack on any frames with adhering bees reduced the stowaways to zero.

And the five hour return journey 16 was notable for stellar views of an osprey, a stunning male hen harrier and the sun setting over Creag Meagaidh 🙂


 

 

Queen rearing miscellany

Synopsis : Queen cell selection by the beekeeper or the bees – which is more reliable? Nectar collection  and comb building by requeening colonies. Three miscellaneous queen rearing topics this week.

Introduction

May to July are the busiest months of the beekeeping season for queen rearing 1. We’re fast approaching the halfway point so I thought I’d write about some related topics, rather than rehash previously covered areas, or pen a magnum opus on just one subject.

This forces me to be a bit less expansive. It means you can skip over less intervening text in the (vain?) hope of finding something of interest … 😉

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Here’s one I made earlier …

It also means I should deal with things in less detail.

Alas – I’m writing this introduction after completing the majority of the post – I’ve failed and wrote a lot more than originally intended on the first topic so the miscellany will spill over to next week as well 🙁 .

A loyal listener reader asks …

Fans of Tim Harford’s incomparable More or Less will be familiar with the concept of loyal listeners 2. Since this isn’t a podcast 3 listeners is clearly inappropriate.

Unfortunately, I’ve singularly failed to come up with a synonym for loyal starting with an ‘R’, so losing the all-important alliteration with ‘readers’.

Never mind … let’s get back on topic.

One of the pleasures of writing regularly – other than forever playing catch-up with my bloated email inbox 4 – is corresponding with beekeepers around the country 5. Sometimes this is in the comments section, but it also involves a considerable volume of email … including many questions or requests for help.

As I’ve previously mentioned, sometimes these exchanges are short and sweet.

Q. What’s the recipe for thin syrup?

A. D’oh! 6

In these instances that might be the only correspondence 7 but in other cases there’s a bit of to and fro.

Regular readers 8 will recognise some names repeatedly appearing in the comment sections. Many of the questions asked are interesting and some are challenging 9, forcing me to do some thinking and/or reading.

A few allow me to expand further on a topic that I’ve covered, explaining something I either ‘meant to, but ran out of space/time/caffeine’ … or ‘completely forgot’.

And Maccon Keane, a regular reader 😉 from the West of Ireland asked just such a question in the comments to the post last week about beekeeper vs. worker selection of queen cells.

Does beekeeper selection of emergency cells reduce quality?

Here’s the question in full:

Thank you for a really interesting post. My question is this. Using the nucleus method of swarm control by queen removal and induction of the emergency response the beekeeper has to select a queen cell to head the original colony. From these data there is a one in 20 chance (5%) that the chosen cell will not emerge. This is a problem but low risk. However there is a one in two (50%) chance that the beekeeper will select a cell that the bees would have torn down and therefore actively select a lesser quality queen. For an individual colony this may not be particularly significant but over a few generations this negative selective pressure (50%) against the best quality Queens will rapidly lead to a deterioration in stock compared to that which would have happened had the queen been chosen by the bees themselves. Can you think of any way to avoid introducing this systematic negative selection pressure to ensure we let the bees choose the queen because as you title the piece ‘the bees know best’?

This is something I’d thought about, but I’d run out of space to discuss it.

Let’s agree from the outset that the 5% non-emergence rate is an acceptable failure rate. It will be compounded by a small percentage of queens that fail to mate 10.

The beekeeper can’t do very much about either of these.

But what about the beekeeper having a 50:50 chance of selecting a queen cell that the bees would have torn down?

Will this lead to a deterioration of the quality of the bees over time?

It’s an interesting question.

Why do the workers cull about 50% of developing queens?

If you remember, 50% of emergency cells were torn down and these generally contained lighter and smaller queens.

I suggested, or hinted strongly, at three reasons why the bees might favour large queens 11 :

  • higher fecundity i.e. laying more eggs and/or laying over a longer period
  • increased polyandry (and hence colony fitness)
  • more likely to survive fights with ‘sister’ queens during polygyny reduction

Fecundity

The researchers addressed this by counting the ovarioles and the volume of the spermatheca. There were no differences between the chosen queens or those that would have been culled. This suggests, though it’s not definitive, that all should have been equally fecund (assuming similar numbers of matings etc.).

You could probably measure this (with sufficient energy, time and money) but it’s not a trivial thing to determine 12. I think the similarity in the number of ovarioles and the capacity of the spermatheca is compelling enough 13.

My assumption is that all, or at least the majority, of queens would be sufficiently fecund to successfully head a colony.

There’s a recent paper on genetic and phenotypic variability of queens that might be useful here, but I’ve not had time to read it properly. If and when I do – if relevant – I’ll update things.

Increased polyandry

I suggested that larger, heavier, queens might fly more strongly, and so spend longer in drone congregation areas or visit more DCAs … and thereby mate with more drones. David Tarpy hints at this in one of the papers cited last week (quoting unpublished results.).

However, I don’t think the work was ever published in a peer reviewed paper as I’ve been unable to find it.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong 14. Again, it would be a time consuming thing to determine. Queen mating numbers are quite variable so there would have to be a very large number of repeats to get statistically compelling results, but it is doable given sufficient time, money and energy.

Of course, larger/heavier queens might fly less strongly. This hasn’t been tested.

Polygyny reduction

I think this trait is essentially irrelevant in the context of our beekeeping.

By definition we cull all but one developing queen, so the one that is selected should never have to fight another queen. However workers may select for this – perhaps to avoid the risk of two queens fighting and both being damaged/killed – but if they do we can safely ignore it.

Are these ‘lower quality’ queens quantifiably worse for beekeeping?

So, of the three potential differences suggested I’d argue we can rule the last out as being irrelevant (for managed colonies), and we can perhaps safely assume that fecundity will be sufficient (assuming the queen mates with enough drones).

Increased polyandry remains an open question.

So, one possibility is that any queen cell should result in a queen that will be good enough, assuming the queen emerges and mates successfully.

A second possibility is that any differences between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ quality queens – selected from a single colony – are so minor that they have little or no material effect on our beekeeping.

Similar, but not quite the same thing.

It’s worth noting that the only size characteristics (measured) that differed were weight and either thorax length or width. Other dimensions e.g. wing length, were similar.

Is there other evidence to suggest that differences are likely to be minor (with regard to beekeeping)?

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

In support of this I’d suggest that grafting day-old larvae would not be so universally (successfully) practised if it routinely generated sub-standard queens.

It doesn’t.

When you graft you’re making the selection after less than 24 hours of larval development. The majority of larvae that develop fully, emerge and mate, make perfectly acceptable queens.

But, from a beekeeping perspective, good quality queens are often defined using alternative criteria.

In fact my definition of a good quality queen might well be different from one that the bees would ‘choose’ … or, for that matter, that Maccon would favour.

Selection of good quality stock

And this is where I think selection does have a big influence.

The traits I favour in my bees – steady on the comb, good temper, no following, frugality etc.vary between my colonies.

I score these traits and preferentially rear queens from the colonies that I consider are my ’best’.

I do this by thirds:

  • My ‘worst’ third are always requeened – as soon as is practical – with queens from larvae from my ‘best’ third.
  • I similarly requeen my ‘middle’ third with similarly-sourced queens if I have enough spare, but am happy to requeen the ‘middle’ third from the ‘middle’ third (so to speak).
  • The ‘worst’ third are never used for queen rearing (or allowed to rear queens from their own larvae). The ‘worst’ third are also discouraged from rearing drones.

If the ‘worst’ third need swarm control I allow them to rear emergency cells, knock them all back a week later – leaving them hopelessly queenless – and then add a frame of eggs/larvae from a better colony.

It’s a guaranteed way to easily improve the quality of your bees.

Which I think pretty much brings me to the end of my answer to Maccon’s question.

In summary … I suspect the difference between queens culled or not by the workers is either irrelevant for our beekeeping, so minor as to be unmeasurable, or swamped by other variables in the mating biology of honey bees (e.g. number of drones available, age of those drones and consequent sperm viability).

Over millennia many factors have resulted in the evolution of the worker selection of developing queens, but over a few ‘honey bee generations’ of managed beekeeping I think we can safely ignore them.

Furthermore, in my opinion, the importance of using a good quality colony as the source of larvae for queen rearing far outweighs the inherent variation in the queens reared from any one colony.

It’s a bit like computing … rubbish in, rubbish out.

Queenless colonies – honey and comb

To close this post on miscellaneous items about queen rearing I thought I’d end with an anecdote and an observation.

The former is supported by little more than my dodgy memory and the latter is backed up by some real science 🙂 .

Foraging efficiency and queenlessness

In Fife the spring honey supers are ready for recovery and extraction. I collected the first batch on Monday and have more to get in a couple of days.

The peak nectar flow seems to have been in the last fortnight of May. Much of it is oil seed rape.

Soon ...

Oil seed rape

Inevitably, some of the colonies have already had swarm control applied before the peak of the nectar flow. All of my swarm control this year has been using the nucleus method.

At the first sign of swarm preparation (queen cells, either sealed or charged) I make up a nuc with the old queen, destroy any sealed queen cells and leave one charged cell. I return a week later and knock back all but the one selected cell (which is now sealed). The queen subsequently emerges, mates and starts laying.

This means that several colonies have been queenless throughout the peak nectar flow.

All of these colonies have more and/or heavier supers 🙂 .

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

The queenless colonies seem to have doubled-down on nectar collection and done particularly well this season.

I’ve noticed this before, but it’s really obvious this spring.

My increasingly foggy memory has a dim recollection of beekeepers in the ‘olden days’ removing queens during the nectar flow precisely because they were more productive. I can’t remember when or where I heard/read/imagined this.

Hold on, not so fast

Are they collecting more or just using less because there is no brood to feed? Remember, 8-9 days after applying swarm control, there will be no larvae to feed as all eggs will have developed into sealed brood.

I could do the maths 15 but there’s a bunch of assumptions to make about the amount of unsealed brood when the queen was removed etc.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a queenless colony stores more nectar because the foragers forage more and because there are fewer hungry mouths to feed in the colony.

Perfect … I’ve got a plan for next season.

I’ll preemptively remove the queens 8-9 days before the main flow and buy 20,000 labels and 6 tons of jars in preparation for a bumper honey crop 16.

But, wait a minute … which are the colonies that usually first start swarm preparations?

That’s right … the strongest colonies.

These are the colonies already filling a double brood box, or overflowing a single brood box.

Perhaps they collect more nectar for the simple reason that there are more foragers?

That’s not the impression I have when I compare the performance of what appear to be equally strong colonies with or without queens. However, ’appear’ is a bit of a loose definition and to be sure I’d need to count frames of brood and the number of foragers.

But it’s an interesting thing to think about 17.

Drawing comb

Another thing I noticed is that queenless colonies provided with foundationless frames continued to draw fresh comb. Clearly they don’t need to have eggs or larvae to occupy the new comb to stimulate comb building.

But the vast majority of the comb drawn was drone comb.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone … this frame drawn in a queenright colony

Which, in a roundabout way, led me to this interesting paper:

Smith, M.L. (2018), Queenless honey bees build infrastructure for direct reproduction until their new queen proves her worth. Evolution, 72: 2810-2817.

Michael Smith dequeened colonies and investigated whether they built drone or worker comb. The colonies were provided with frames but no foundation (which would otherwise determine the type of comb drawn).

Comb building in queenless and queenright colonies.

His dequeened colonies built less comb than those with laying queens (A, above), but over 80% of the comb they did build was drone comb (D, above).

Furthermore, they built drone comb even if the colony already contained 25% drawn drone comb (an amount that usually inhibits further drone comb production in a queenright colony).

Finally, he demonstrated that drawing new drone comb only stopped when the colonies contained a new laying queen.

The terminal investment hypothesis

Why should a colony that was queenless or that contained a virgin queen (or for that matter a mated but not laying queen) produce drone comb?

The argument goes something like this.

A colony that is hopelessly queenless can only pass its genes to subsequent generations if it produces laying workers – which lay unfertilised eggs – which consequently develop into drones that mate with virgin queens from other colonies.

The terminal investment hypothesis predicts that the reproductive investment of an individual will change depending upon their reproductive prospects.

Essentially – until there is a laying queen present – the workers pessimistically invest in (i.e. build) drone comb as it offers the only chance of reproductive success should the queen fail to start laying.

Once the queen starts laying they start drawing worker comb again.

As Michael Smith neatly puts it ’When faced with reproductive uncertainty, honey bees may “hope” for the best, but they prepare for the worst’.

And what are the chances of ‘the worst’ happening?

’The worst’ being the failure to replace the queen.

Conveniently Michael Smith also measured the probabilities of successful completion of each of the stages in rearing a replacement queen.

Schematic of the process of rearing a replacement queen, with probabilities of each outcome.

In his studies 98% of queens emerged from the capped cell 18, 95% of virgins returned from mating flights and 95% of those returnees were successfully mated.

0.98 x 0.95 x 0.95 = 0.88 i.e. a queenless colony has an 88% chance of successfully requeening itself, assuming it has eggs/larvae suitable for rearing a new queen.

And the relevance of any of this to practical beekeeping?

  1. Have confidence during swarm control that the bees will predominantly rear good quality queens (so it doesn’t matter which you choose to keep), if …
  2. they are good quality bees. And if they’re not then provide them with eggs/larvae from a better colony. You can easily remove deleterious traits and promote good ones. And, if you’ve not got enough (or good enough) colonies to choose from either a) get more 😉 , or b) ’phone a friend’ and scrounge some suitable eggs/larvae.
  3. Monitor nectar collection by queenright and queenless colonies. Is it different? Many novice beekeepers fret when their colonies are queenless. Maybe at certain times there are benefits 🙂 .
  4. If you want worker comb, don’t provide queenless colonies with foundationless frames.
  5. You should assume ~90% of your virgin queens (0.95 x 0.95) will mate successfully and start laying. Always graft a few more larvae than you actually need.

 

The bees know best

Synopsis : Queens reared under the emergency response are numerous and preferentially started from eggs. The cells are then subjected to strong selection by workers after capping. What does this tell us about good quality queens and can we use this knowledge to improve our own queen rearing?

Introduction

In Eats, sleeps, bees I made a passing comment on the confidence I have in the ability of bees to choose ‘good’ larvae when rearing a new queen. I was justifying why I only leave a single queen cell in a colony that needs requeening. The precise words were:

“I also had total confidence that the bees had selected a suitable larva to raise as a queen in the first place. After all, the survival of the resulting colony depends on it.”

I thought this might be an interesting topic to look at in a little more detail. There is some interesting science on queen cell production.

And subsequent destruction.

Queen cells

Queen cells … have they chosen well?

In addition, there are related observations on what the bees choose as the starting material for queen cells. This should inform our own queen rearing activities. I’ll discuss these (briefly) after presenting the science.

Emergency, supersedure and swarm responses

But first I need introduce the three ‘responses’ under which a colony rears one or more new queens. These are the emergency, supersedure and swarming responses 1

The swarming response

Around this time of the season 2 many beekeepers will be familiar with queen cells produced under the impulse to swarm.

A strong, queenright colony runs out of space. Eggs are laid in specially created vertically oriented cells and are subsequently reared as new queens.

Once these swarm cells are sealed the colony swarms. The old queen and a significant proportion of the workers disappear over the fence. One or more new queens emerge and the colony may produce casts, each headed by a virgin queen. One new queen finally remains, gets mated and heads the original colony.

Swarming is honey bee reproduction … it is the only (natural) way one colony becomes two.

The supersedure response

Supersedure is the in situ replacement of the current queen. The colony produces a small number of supersedure cells – often just one, located in the middle of a central frame 3 – the new queen emerges, mates and starts laying. There may be two queens in the box for an extended period, but eventually the old queen disappears.

Supersedure is probably more common than most beekeepers think. It is the usual explanation for the presence of an unmarked queen at an early season inspection in a hive that had previously contained a marked queen.

The emergency response

If the incumbent queen is removed or killed the colony must rear another or they are doomed. They do this under the emergency response.

Some beekeepers – particularly beginners 4 – inadvertently crush the queen while returning brood frames. They are then surprised at the next inspection to find no eggs but a lot of queen cells.

What’s this? Swarming finished weeks ago!

This is the emergency response at work. The bees select several suitable eggs or larvae, reshape the comb to allow a vertically-oriented cell to be drawn and feed with copious amounts of Royal Jelly.

And voilà, a new queen 5 is produced.

Inducing these responses

The emergency response is triggered by the removal of the old queen – either by physically taking her out of the box, or killing her. Both are easy to achieve 🙁 6

There are ways to induce a supersedure response, but they sometimes involve damaging the queen 7 and are unreliable and – more importantly – ethically dubious. There are more ethically acceptable alternatives.

Lots of beekeepers inadvertently induce the swarming response by not providing the bees with sufficient space, not supering early enough or allowing the brood nest to be backfilled with nectar.

However, doing this in a controlled manner is not a certainty. In one of my apiaries 50% of the colonies have shown no inclination to swarm this season whereas the others all produced swarm cells. All were treated similarly and were – to all intents and purposes – of equivalent strength.

Sealed queen cells produced under the swarming response

For scientific purposes inducing a swarming response cannot be relied upon for studies of queen cell production and selection.

In contrast, the emergency response is 100% reliable. Therefore, in the majority of studies on brood choice, queen cell production and selection, it’s the emergency response that is exploited. That’s certainly the case with the two papers I’m going to briefly discuss this week. 8.

Pick a larva, any larva

Is that what the bees do?

Of course not.

Regular readers will remember from Timing is everything that only larva up to three days old are suitable for producing new queens i.e. six days after the egg is laid.

However, if the queen is laying 1000 eggs per day 9 that still means there are up to 3000 suitably aged larvae in the hive for the production of a new queen, should one be needed.

Eggs and young larvae

Eggs and young larvae

Actually there’s even more choice as the bees can start the queen rearing process – the production of a queen cell – from a cell occupied by an egg … something that has been known for decades, but is relatively rarely discussed.

So, what do they choose?

The first study I’m going to discuss addresses this point and the interesting (and critical) aspect of the quality of the resulting queens that are produced.

Hatch, S., Tarpy, D. & Fletcher, D. Worker regulation of emergency queen rearing in honey bee colonies and the resultant variation in queen quality. Insectes soc. 46, 372–377 (1999).

The study was very straightforward. They induced the emergency response by dequeening strong hives. They then monitored the production and position of queen cells over time, determining the age of the egg/larvae selected by extrapolating back from the day the queen cell was sealed.

Cells that were capped were caged with queen excluder and the resulting emerged queen was analysed to determine her quality. This essentially involved determining her size and weight (the bigger the better) and ovarial number, but they measured additional features as well.

Emergency cell production

In the 8 colonies used, almost all queen cell construction was started within 24 hours of queen removal. A few more cells were produced for up to 48 hours after dequeening, but none were started after that.

There will still be many hundreds of (apparently) suitably aged larvae in the colony at this point. However, these were not selected as all the queen cells that would be made had already been started.

Colonies produced different numbers of queen cells, from 6 to 56 (average 27).

However, the majority of these cells were torn down before emergence, and a few of those that were sealed never emerged. Of the 217 cells started, 115 (53%) were torn down, 11 (5%) did not emerge and the remaining 91 (43%) emerged.

Not only did the number of queen cells produced vary greatly between hives, so did the numbers of queens that emerged – from 3 to 20 (average 11).

The brood nest is roughly spherical or rugby ball-shaped and usually occupies the centre of the hive. About 46% of the cells started were on the central three frames, and these had a much greater chance of producing queens. This was because queen cells started on the central frames of the brood nest were less likely to be torn down (41%) than those on the periphery (71%).

Pick an egg or a larva (in which case, the younger the better)

So if it’s not Pick a larva, any larva’, what do the bees choose to start their emergency queen cells from?

Remember how important this is. Without a new queen the colony cannot survive. The clock is ticking. They only have a few days to make this choice before all the brood in the nest are too old for queen production.

The non-random construction of queen cells.

They predominantly choose eggs.

Almost 70% of queen cells started were initiated when the cell contained an egg, rather than a larva. What’s more, the majority of the eggs chosen were three days old.

If you consider that there were 6 possible choices (1, 2 or 3 day old eggs and 1, 2 and 3 day old larvae), it’s striking that 34% of all the queen cells produced were from 3 day old eggs.

In fact, it turns out that only five choices were made as none of the queen cells were started from 3 day old larvae.

Furthermore, over 60% of queen cells produced from 2 day old larvae were subsequently torn down.

Bees choose to make queens from the oldest eggs or the very youngest larvae.

Are you getting the message?

Since the production of a new queen is essential for colony survival we should assume that the bees have evolved a queen cell production ‘strategy’ that maximises the chances of producing a suitable queen.

Almost 60% of the ‘starting material’ chosen by the bees to ensure colony survival – that resulted in queen production – were 3 day old eggs or 1 day old larvae.

This emphasises the need to provide colonies we use for queen rearing with eggs and larvae of this age range. It also reinforces the importance of only selecting the smallest larvae possible when grafting.

The choice the bees make is presumably because queens reared from older larvae are of poorer quality, perhaps because they have a reduced period for feeding with Royal Jelly.

So how do the queens produced from eggs and young larvae compare?

Queen ‘quality’

Of the 91 queens that emerged only 89 were analysed because two ”escaped capture”.

It’s reassuring to know that it’s not just cackhanded beekeepers that make mistakes 😉

There were no differences in the morphology – weight or size – for queens that emerged from cells on either the central or peripheral frames 10.

However, queens reared from 3 day old eggs were significantly heavier than queens reared from larvae. In addition, queens reared from 3 day old eggs had a longer thorax than queens reared from either younger eggs or larvae.

Other morphological measurement – e.g. wing length or width – did not differ significantly between queens reared from eggs or larvae.

But are these hefty, long-thoraxed, queens better quality?

This isn’t a simple question. What does better quality mean? It’s not the size or productivity of the resulting colony she heads since that is also influenced by the genetics and number of drones she mates with.

It’s also time consuming and impractical to measure scientifically (for 89 queens).

Instead, the scientists measured the number of ovarioles and the volume of the spermatheca as potential indicators of fecundity. There was no relationship between weight and ovariole number, irrespective of the age of the egg or larva when the cell was started.

If not more fecund, what?

So, if bigger queens don’t necessarily have increased fecundity (though remember, this wasn’t shown – all they demonstrated was that the ‘innards’ involved in fertilised egg production were similar) why might the bees select eggs/larvae that resulted in bigger queens being produced?

One possibility is that these bigger queens have greater success in what is termed polygyny reduction.

This is what beekeepers call fighting.

If more than one queen is present they fight until only one is left in the hive. This hadn’t been extensively studied in 1999 (when this paper was published) but has been addressed in other studies 11.

Alternatively, and suggested in a tempting but cryptic ’unpublished data’, heavier queens may be able to achieve higher levels of polyandry i.e. mate with more drones, so increasing the genetic diversity, and consequently the fitness, of the colony. I’ve discussed the importance of polyandry and so-called hyperpolyandry for colony fitness and disease resistance previously, so won’t revisit these here.

It’s easy to speculate that a queen with a larger thorax may have better developed flight muscles. These might enable her to stay longer in drone congregation areas for mating.

Why are so many cells started (and queens reared)?

In the emergency response only one queen is needed to ‘rescue’ the colony from oblivion.

Why therefore are so many queen cells – on average 27 per colony – started?

And why do the workers allow an average of 11 queens emerge?

The authors suggest a number of possible reasons:

  1. Colonies raise multiple queens to guarantee the requeening process. This assumes that the ‘cost’ of queen rearing is low, which seems reasonable. Since only 5% of queens raised failed to emerge it is probably not to overcome this limitation.
  2. Multiple queens allow colony reproduction if conditions are suitable. Only colonies that raise multiple queens would be able to (simultaneously) reproduce and requeen, so there might be a selective pressure to allow this.
  3. A consequence of age demographics (brood or workers) in the colony. This is slightly trickier to explain and has not been tested. Queen cells result from an ‘interaction’ of available brood (eggs/larvae) with workers. A colony has variable numbers of both, and there are a variety of worker cohorts, only some of which contribute to cell building. Therefore, the production of multiple cells (and queens) may simply reflect the variation in the factors – ages of brood and workers – involved.
  4. Rearing multiple queens allows workers to select the ‘best’. That’s clearly wrong because the ‘best’ would be just one queen. Perhaps a better explanation would be that it allows workers to either select for better queens by destroying those that are less good.

No single reason

Biology is complicated 12 and it may be that all four of the reasons above are correct. There may be (and almost certainly are) additional reasons that favour the production of multiple queens.

However, of the four reasons above, this paper provides nearly compelling evidence that the workers are selecting which emerge and which do not.

Remember, 53% of the cells that were started were torn down.

In addition, there was both a spatial and temporal bias to the cells that were torn down. This strongly suggests that the process (of cell destruction) was not random.

However, it remains only nearly compelling because we know nothing about the queens that were in cells that were torn down.

By definition those queens don’t exist. The cells were torn down and the queens killed/eaten/discarded so we have no measure of their quality.

If they were indistinguishable from those that did emerge then I’d struggle to convince you that the worker selection was producing ‘better queens’ from the large number of queen cells that were started.

Analysing the non-existent

But fortunately this experiment has been done.

Tarpy, D.R., Simone-Finstrom, M. & Linksvayer, T.A. Honey bee colonies regulate queen reproductive traits by controlling which queens survive to adulthood. Insect. Soc. 63, 169–174 (2016).

The experimental methods were almost identical. However, this time, when they caged the capped queen cells they randomly assigned them to cages that either allowed or prevented worker access (both types of cages prevented the escape of the queen).

They then analysed the queens that emerged from the ‘worker-accessible’ and ‘worker-excluded’ queen cells.

The hypothesis was straightforward, if the workers were randomly destroying a proportion of queen cells there would be no differences in the characteristics of the resulting queens. Conversely, if there was selection, the queens from the ‘worker-excluded’ cells would be different.

The overall numbers of queen cells produced (average 12, range 4 – 22 per colony) and the proportion – 57% – of the ‘worker-accessible’ cells torn down were similar to the study I’ve already described.

Effect of queen treatment on two different measures of queen reproductive potential.

‘Worker-excluded’ queens were significantly smaller than those from ‘worker-accessible’ cages. They also weighed less. This is obvious from the top left panel (above) but confounded 13 by the small size of the study and the significant differences in the weight of queens produced in different colonies 14.

Despite the limited size of this study these results strongly suggest that workers are somehow ‘weeding out’ lower quality (defined here as smaller and probably lighter) queens.

I’ll leave it to you to speculate on how the workers outside the queen cell determine the size/weight/quality of the queen inside the cell … 😉

Does this have relevance to beekeeping?

I think there are a number of interesting points from this study that have relevance to practical beekeeping.

  • Queen cells were started under the emergency response only in the first 3 days after the queen was removed. The vast majority were started within 24 hours. This should help determine when the queen went missing or – if you deliberately removed her – defines the latest date that you need to be concerned about new cells being started.
  • If you are improving your stocks by adding larvae from a separate colony 15 then make sure you add a frame containing eggs and larvae. You want to be sure they have access to 3 day old eggs.
  • It probably makes sense to place this frame in the centre of the brood nest.
  • If you’re grafting larvae for queen rearing – as I’ve already suggested – make sure you choose those under ~18 hours old. The younger and the smaller the better.
  • But, perhaps we should instead think about grafting eggs rather than larvae?

This last suggestion is a topic of a (part-written) future post.

Here are a couple of additional points to think about. Studies have shown that egg transfer results in the largest queens. However, eggs are accepted significantly less well than larvae … and some colonies will not accept them at all. I’ll discuss this in more detail some other time.

And a final caveat …

The final point to remember is that both these studies analysed queen cell production and the resulting queens under the emergency response.

Many queen rearing methods – the so-called ‘queenright’ ones such as my favoured Ben Harden method – exploit the supersedure response. It’s always possible that the bees have different preferences for queens reared under the supersedure (or for that matter the swarming) responses.

But I doubt it 😉

After all … colony survival is dependent upon good quality queens and the bees know best.


 

Correx: cheap, light, useful. Choose any three

Synopsis : From quick fixes to permanent solutions, Correx – extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene – has multiple uses in beekeeping. If you learn how to fold, stick and shape it you can save time, money and space. Here are just a few of the things I use it for.

Introduction

The Spring honey is almost ready to harvest. Supers went from ”filling nicely” to ”Woah! Damn that’s heavy” in the space of a week. They’re now fast approaching ”No more than two at a time” territory which means; a) they’re full, and/or b) I’m less strong than I used to be 1.

The corpulent supers prompted me to rummage through a teetering stack of equipment to try and find sufficient clearer boards to use before removing the honey supers for extracting.

Clearer boards are effectively one-way ‘valves’ that funnel the bees down into the brood box 2.

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

These are two and bit times a season pieces of kit … the Spring and Summer honey harvests and irregular usage to empty the odd brood box when compressing colonies prior to the winter. The rest of the time they sit, unused, unwanted and – not infrequently – in the way.

And, for convenience, you need more than one.

I like to have one for every hive in the apiary, particularly when taking the summer honey off. That way you can strip all the hives simultaneously, so avoiding problems with robbing. None of my apiaries are particularly big, but it still means I’ve needed up to a dozen clearer boards at a time.

That’s a lot of wood and limited-use kit to sit around unused. I therefore build lots of them from Correx.

Clearer boards – one wood and six made from ekes and Correx

This post isn’t about clearer boards. I’ve described those before.

Instead it’s about Correx and the myriad of uses that it can be put to.

If you don’t use it you’re probably missing out.

If you do, you probably have some additional uses to add to the list below.

Correx

Correx is a registered trademark owned by DS Smith. Other trademarks (by other companies) include Cartonplast, Polyflute, Coroplast, FlutePlast, IntePro, Proplex, Twinplast, Corriflute or Corflute … and there are probably some I’ve missed.

It’s all very similar stuff, variously described as corrugated plastic or corriboard, and perhaps more accurately described as an extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’re probably familiar with the material they make For Sale signs from … that’s Correx 3.

Under offer ...

For sale …

Correx is lightweight, impervious to most oils, solvents and water, relatively UV resistant and recyclable. These characteristics make Correx ideal for a range of beekeeping applications.

It is easy to cut and can be folded, with or across the ‘grain’ if you know the tricks of the trade.

Correx is available in a range of thicknesses – typically 1-8 mm. Two millimetre Correx is often used as a protective floor covering in new buildings. However, it’s rather thin and flimsy.

Almost everything I use is 4 mm and so, unless I state otherwise, assume that’s what I’m referring to in the text below.

Almost certainly the stuff I use is not Correx, but I’ll call it Correx for convenience 4.

Before discussing 5 applications I’ll make a few comments on sourcing Correx and cutting, gluing and folding it.

Free Correx

For Sale signs belong to the estate agent selling the house. However, they’re often not collected after the house sale completes and are dumped in a nearby ditch, stuffed down the side of the garage or otherwise discarded. Many still have the 2.4 m wooden post attached.

If they really are unwanted it’s often a case of ’ask and ye shall receive’ … and, if the sign is in a ditch, you don’t probably even need to ask.

When I lived in a semi-urban area I used to carry a handsaw in the car to help my repurposing of these sorts of signs.

Elections are another good source, particularly if the candidate in your ward a) loses ignominiously, and b) immediately retires. It’s unlikely the political party will find another Archibald Tristan Cholmondeley-Warner to stand for them, so the electioneering signs are – like the politician – surplus to requirements.

As always, never walk past a part-filled skip without having a good look at the contents 😉

Never!

Buying Correx

Correx is relatively inexpensive when bought in multiples of 2.4 x 1.2 metre sheets 6. I’ve paid about £10 a sheet delivered for 5 or more, purchased from eBay, but can’t find anything quite that price when I had a quick look this week.

You might not think you need 14 square metres of Correx but you’d be surprised at the things it can be used for. It’s also easy to store behind a bookcase or in the shed.

Correx sheet

Correx sheet …

It’s also worth asking at local plastics and printing companies that may have offcuts or failed print runs. It doesn’t matter what’s printed on the Correx 7. There’s a beekeeper in Northern Ireland that crafted a nuc box out of election propaganda bearing a photo of the candidate. The nuc entrance was arranged to be the politicians mouth.

Be creative.

Finally, Correx is often used to make guinea pig cages or runs, so befriend a cavie-keeper and you might locate the mother lode 8 😉

Correx engineering

Thin Correx (4 mm) is easy to work with. It can be cut with a Stanley knife. All you need is a good straightedge, a steady hand 9 and a sharp blade. Marking up the sheets is easiest in pencil as many pens don’t work on the smooth impervious surface 10. Pencil works equally well on black or white sheets.

I’d recommend you don’t use scissors as they tend to crush the sheet. It’s also difficult to cut large sheets with a small pair of scissors.

Folding Correx

Correx has a ‘grain’ created by the vertical internal ribs that connect the upper and lower faces of the sheet. If you need to fold the sheet you’re working with, the method used depends whether you are folding across or with the grain.

To fold across the grain you need to crush the ribs without cutting through the upper face of the sheet. To achieve this use a pizza cutter and a straightedge. A pizza cutter is usually sufficiently blunt that the sheet isn’t cut. The crushed side of the sheet becomes the inner angle of the fold.

Pizza cutter

Pizza cutter … take care scoring the Correx

Making folded corners requires a little ingenuity but is obvious once you realise how the sheet folds 11.

Corner detail

Corner detail …

To fold with the grain requires a small amount of surgery. First cut on either side of a rib, then fold the sides back leaving a T-shaped piece – formed by the rib and a small piece of the upper face of the sheet – protruding. Then, with a steady hand and a sharp knife, cut the leg of the T away.

Folding Correx with the grain – cut one of the ribs away

The sheet then folds easily with the uncut face forming the outer angle of the corner.

Gluing Correx

This is tricky. I’ve tried every glue in my workshop and none of them work. The surface of Correx has some sort of treatment that means that glues do not adhere. There are tricks that involve flaming the surface to remove the treatment, but – at least in my experience – they are hit and miss.

Usually miss 🙁

There are commercial hotmelt adhesives 12 that can be used – like the ones the estate agents use to stick two signs back-to-back – but they are quite expensive.

Whatever the surface treatment is, it also prevents many sticky tapes adhering properly or permanently.

But there’s one exception … Unibond Power Tape Plus. It’s available in silver and black. Critically for beekeeping it’s both waterproof and temperature resistant. This tape is about a fiver a roll and this represents excellent value for money.

Sticky stuff ...

Sticky stuff …

I’ve got some Correx hive roofs held together with Unibond Power Tape that have been in constant use since 2014, outdoors (obviously) in temperatures ranging from sub-zero to 30°C or more 13.

Highly recommended.

To help the tape stick even better it’s worth gently abrading the surfaces to be taped together using wet and dry sandpaper and then cleaning with a solvent like acetone. Press the tape down firmly and check it in about a decade or so.

Uses

I’m going to concentrate on the uses I make of Correx, because those are the things I have experience of.

There are lots of other things you could use it for … for example, I’ve not built nuc boxes from Correx, but I know you can. They are increasingly used by the bulk commercial nuc suppliers. If you don’t want to build your own you can purchase these boxes for £9 to £12 each 14, flat-packed, in National or Langstroth formats. These boxes tend to use interlocking tabs to hold them together, rather than tape or glue. They might be suitable for short term, summer usage, but not for overwintering a nuc colony.

Roofs

I’ve made lots of Correx roofs and they are still in everyday use, either on hives or on stacks of spare boxes. I’ve described how to build them in detail, together with their pros and cons.

Correx in the frost ...

Correx in the frost …

Everything I wrote 7 years ago is still valid, so I won’t repeat it here.

A single 2.4 x 1.2 sheet of Correx is big enough to produce 8 roofs. Even if you can’t find Correx cheaper than £13 a sheet that’s still less than £1.75 a roof including the cost of the tape holding it together 15.

I routinely successfully overwinter colonies with Correx roofs covering a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan insulation.

Semi-permanent division boards e.g for vertical splits

In my experience these are one of the few things 16 that cannot be satisfactorily made from 4 mm Correx.

These types of boards might be separating brood boxes for a month or more while one half of a vertical split requeens. During this time the board tends to warp. The bee space increases on one side and is destroyed on the other. Consequently the bees build unwanted brace comb above and below the frames.

Split board ...

Correx split board …

I now only use my 4 mm Correx split boards in extremis. I know that some of the commercial beekeepers use 6 mm or 8 mm Correx split boards. The additional rigidity of the thicker Correx presumably withstands warping sufficiently.

If When I run out of equipment I’ve been known to use split boards as crownboards. For the same reasons – warping – I try and avoid using horizontal sheets of Correx in the hive for extended periods.

Temporary division boards e.g. Cloake and clearer boards

In contrast, Correx is ideal when used for limited periods in the hive. One obvious application is the removable slide in a Cloake board for queen rearing.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

Mine was built from a For Sale sign rescued from a skip in Newcastle. It’s one of the thicker pieces of Correx I’ve used (6 or 8 mm) and is significantly more rigid than the standard 4 mm sheets. However, I’m sure that 4 mm would do as the slide is only in place for about 24 hours to induce the emergency response and initiate queen cell production.

As I wrote in the introduction, the majority of my clearer boards are built from Correx. I now zip tie the escapes to the underside of the board 17 and then pair them with a simple eke when I need to use them for clearing supers.

Zip tied escape on a Correx clearer board

These work fast and efficiently, they don’t warp and they can be separated from the eke and stored separately (where they take up little space) if/when the eke is being used for something else (like a spacer to provide an upper entrance, or whilst vaporising from above the brood box).

Floors

The only floors I’ve built with Correx are those for bait hives when paired with two stacked supers. These work really well.

Inside ...

Bait hive floor

Bait hives should have solid floors, so if I want to use an open mesh floor on a bait hive I simply lay a small sheet of Correx on the mesh and remove it once the hive is occupied.

Varroa trays

Most, or at least many, commercial Varroa trays are made of Correx 18. To make counting mites easier it helps to draw a grid on the tray.

Varroa tray gridded to make counting mite drop easier

Of course, to make counting mites really easy it helps if there are few of them. Use miticides properly and at the right time. In that way your Varroa levels will never get too high and you’ll never run out of fingers when counting the mite drop 😉

OK, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it’s certainly easier to count low numbers of mites rather than thousands. I’ve seen post-treatment mite drops so heavy you could trace patterns through the mite corpses with your finger, and the easiest way to count them was with a digital lab balance.

Ewww!

Landing boards

Almost all of my hives have Correx landing boards. Some are integral to the kewl floors I use …

Correx kewl floor landing board

… while others are attached to the outside of my bee shed.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

You can paint Correx with a variety of different types of paint. Radiator enamel or car spray paint works well. Using different colours and/or decorating the landing board with distinctive shapes helps bees orientate to the hive entrance and reduces drifting.

For vertical surfaces, try sprinkling sand onto the semi-dry paint before over-spraying to provide laden foragers better grip when entering the hive.

My white Correx landing boards are starting to exhibit UV damage after 4-5 years of use. Either avoid white, paint them or put up with having to infrequently (and inexpensively) replace them.

Miscellaneous

Most of my nucs are red 19 or blue. When I’m making up lots of nucs for queen mating I pin Correx shapes above the entrance to help the bees – and particularly the queens – distinguish between the hives. Again this reduces problems with drifting.

Correx signage on poly nucs

Almost all my nuc boxes are Thorne’s Everynucs. These are well designed except for the cavernous entrance. Again, Correx can be used to fix the situation; I use it to block the entrance entirely for travel, or to provide a much reduced entrance that is easier for the small colony to defend.

Correx, the beekeepers friend ...

Correx, the beekeepers friend …

I’m currently busy rearing my first queens of the season. The method I’m using involves sealing the standard hive entrance and redirecting the bees to an upper entrance 20. This process is really speeded up by leaning a sheet of Correx against the front of the hive, directing the returning foragers to the upper entrance.

Correx sheet redirecting returning foragers

Doing this stops the bees milling around the original entrance and is particularly helpful in borderline weather conditions e.g. low temperatures and intermittent showers 21, when it prevents bees getting chilled.

Correx and tape were used to build these ‘fat dummies’

Fat dummies for queen rearing? Correx to the rescue.

I could go on … but I won’t.

You’ve got the general idea by now.

If you’ve found additional uses for Correx then please add a comment below.


 

Eats, sleeps, bees

Synopsis : The beekeeping season is starting to get busy. Swarm control is not only essential to keep your hives productive, but also offers easy opportunities to improve the quality of your bees. Good records and a choice of bees is all you need. This week I discuss stock improvement together with a few semi-random thoughts on honey labelling, colony behaviour and wax foundation. Something for everyone. Perhaps.

Introduction

May is usually a lovely month in Scotland. It is often dry and sunny enough to spend much of the time outdoors, the days are long enough 1 to get a lot done and it’s early enough in the year to avoid the dreaded midges 2.

Usually and often.

Unfortunately, the weather so far this month has been unseasonably cool. It was probably better for much of March than it’s been for the first half of May.

But that good weather in March gave the bees a real boost – particularly in my apiaries on the east coast of Scotland.

Consequently, there’s still a lot of beekeeping to do now – swarm control, preparations for queen rearing, catching up with all the things I didn’t do in the winter ( 🙁 ) – often in between some rather iffy weather 3.

The next couple of months are usually pretty much full on … hence Eats, sleeps, bees 4.

Latitude …

The differences I discussed in Latitude and longitude a month ago are particularly marked now.

Beekeepers in Sussex or Kent have been complaining about running out of supers since mid-April. Other have been proudly displaying their first (or second) round of grafted queen cells.

In contrast, a few of my west coast colonies are still only on 6-7 frames of brood. It will be at least another fortnight until I even think about whether they’ll need swarm control.

Which might be a fortnight before they’ll actually need it.

These are perfectly healthy west coast native bees, adapted to the climate and forage available here.

The wonderful west coast of Scotland

They are classic late developers, evolution having timed colony expansion to fit with the local forage and the availability of weather good enough for queen mating.

There’s insufficient forage to produce oodles of brood in late April and many colonies have yet to produce any mature drones (though they all now have drone brood). Instead, they build up rather slowly, and are probably at the peak in July when the heather starts to yield.

This is all reasonably new to me and I feel I’m still learning how the season develops here on the west coast. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.

Eventually 😉

Going by the rate colonies are currently building up, and their performance last year, I expect to be rearing queens from these colonies in June and early July 5.

… and longitude

Meanwhile, in Fife things are progressing much faster.

My apiaries there are about 160 miles east and at a similar latitude, but most of the colonies are already overflowing their boxes. Swarm prevention is a distant memory and I’m now busy with swarm control.

The genetics are different. My east coast bees are all local mongrels, again adapted to local conditions.

However, I suspect an even greater difference is the early season forage and – although it’ll be finished in the next week or so – the oil seed rape (OSR).

Oil seed rape … and rain

The OSR gives colonies a massive boost. They gorge on it – both the nectar and pollen – quickly filling supers and a multitude of hungry larval mouths. Reasonably strong nucs made up for swarm control on the 1st of May are now in a full brood box and will be more than ready for the summer nectar flow when it starts.

Queen rearing would have started already if the two boxes I’d earmarked for cell raising hadn’t become a little overcooked and produced queen cells at the beginning of the month 🙁 .

The best laid plans etc. 6.

And, to add insult to injury, the (lovely quality) colony I’d intended to source larvae from produced queen cells the following week.

D’oh!

Quality control

One of the (nominal) cell raising colonies – we’ll call it colony #6 for convenience 7 was borderline in terms of temperament.

On a balmy afternoon, with a good nectar flow, the bees were calm, unflustered and a pleasure to handle.

However in cool, damp or blustery weather they weren’t so great.

This is one of the reasons that record keeping is so important. Although I’d not inspected them this season in very poor conditions 8, my records from last year also showed they were, shall we say, ’suboptimal’. Not psychotic or even hugely aggressive, but certainly hotter than I’d prefer and nothing like as stable on the comb as I like 9.

Of course, the simple answer is not to go burrowing through the box in cool, damp or blustery weather’ 🙂

However, I don’t always have a choice as these bees are 160 miles away. Met Office forecasts are good for tomorrow, questionable for next week and essentially guesswork for next month (which is when I’m booking the hotels).

So, having realised that both swarm control and quality control were needed, how have I tried to improve the quality of this colony?

Controlling quality

I discovered open, charged queen cells in colony #6 on the 1st of May. Without intervention the colony would have swarmed before the end of the first week of the month 10. The queen was clipped but, as I hope I made clear last week, queen clipping does not stop swarming.

Swarm control

I used my preferred swarm control method by making up a nuc with the old queen and a couple of frames of emerging brood with the adhering bees. I put these, together with a frame of stores and a couple of new frames into a nuc box and moved them to an out apiary several miles away.

By moving the nuc away I don’t have to worry about losing bees back to the original hive. I can therefore make the nuc up a little weaker than I would otherwise need to. An out apiary (or two) isn’t essential, but it makes some tasks a lot easier.

I then went carefully through colony #6, shaking all the bees off each frame and destroying every queen cell. There were still eggs and young larvae present, so they would undoubtedly make more queen cells before my visit a week later. However, by shaking every frame and being rigorous about destroying every queen cell I ensured:

  • there would be a bit less work to do the following week
  • I’d not missed a more mature cell somewhere that could have left a virgin queen running about at my next visit. This was unlikely, based upon the timing of brood development, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Colony #6 is in a double brood box. While ransacking the brood nest for queen cells I also hoiked out a frame of drone brood and cut out yet more drone brood from a foundationless frame or two. Since the genetics of this colony was questionable it made sense to try and stop these undesirable genes being spread far and wide.

At the same time I rearranged the frames, moving all the unsealed brood into the top box.

One week later

Early on the morning of the 8th of May I checked the colony again. As expected there were more queen cells reared from eggs and larvae I’d left the week before.

The vast majority of these queen cells were in the top box, but – since I’m a belt and braces beekeeper – I checked the bottom box as well. Again, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

All of the queen cells were again destroyed.

Tough love … but if you want to improve the quality of your bees you have to exclude those with undesirable characteristics.

Importantly, by now the youngest larvae in the colony would be at least four days old. This is really too old – at least given the choice (and I was going to give them a choice) – to rear a new queen from.

Room for one more …

I rearranged the frames, leaving a gap in the middle of the top box, closed colony #6 up and completed my inspection of the other colonies in the apiary.

The last colony I checked was my chosen ‘donor’ colony with desirable genetics.

More swarm control 🙂 and a few days saved

The donor colony (#7) had started queen cells sometime during the first week of May and so also needed swarm control. However, very conveniently it had produced two nice looking cells on separate frames.

Both these queen cells were 3-4 days old and so would be capped in the next 24-48 hours.

A three and a bit day old queen cell

I could therefore use my standard nucleus swarm control (to ‘save’ the queen ‘just in case’), leaving one queen cell in colony #7 and donating the other queen cell to colony #6.

Which is exactly what I did.

Having gently brushed off the adhering bees from the frame (you should never vigorously shake a frame containing a queen cell you want 11 ) I gently slotted it into the gap I’d left in the upper brood box of colony #6. I also marked the frame to make my subsequent check (on the 15th) easier.

The frame marked QC is the only one that needs to be checked next week

By adding a well developed, but unsealed, queen cell to colony #6 I’ve saved the few days they would have taken to rear a queen from an egg or a day old larva.

Because the cell was open I was certain it was ‘charged’ i.e. it contained a fat larva sitting contentedly in a deep bed of Royal Jelly 12.

Better to be safe than sorry (again)

There were also eggs and a few larvae on the frame containing the queen cell (which was otherwise largely filled with sealed brood). It was likely that some of these would also be selected to rear new queens.

And they were when I checked on the 15th.

There was my chosen – and now nicely sculpted and sealed – cell and a few less well developed cells on the donated frame.

I know the cell I selected was charged and the larva well nourished.

In addition, I also had total confidence that the bees had selected a suitable larva to raise as a queen in the first place. After all, the survival of the resulting colony depends on it.

Therefore, I didn’t need any backups.

No ’just in case’ cells.

Rather than risking multiple queens emerging and fighting, or the strong colony throwing casts, I (again) destroyed all but the cell I had originally selected.

I’m writing this on the 17th and she should have emerged today … so my records carry a note to check for a laying queen during my first inspection in June.

This shows how simple and easy stock improvement can be.

No grafting, no Nicot cages, no mini-nucs and almost no colony manipulations etc. Instead, just an appreciation of the timings and the availability of a frame from a good colony (and this could be from a friend who has lovely bees … ).

And in between all that

That was about 1400 words on requeening one colony 🙁 . That was not quite what I intended when I sat down to write a post entitled Eats, sleeps, bees.

My east coast beekeeping – including 8-9 hours driving – takes a couple of days a week at this time of the season. On the west coast I have fewer colonies and – as outlined above – they are less well advanced, so there’s a bit less to do 13.

However, there are always additional bee-related activities that appear to fill in the gaps between active colony inspections.

I’ll end this post with a few random and half thought out comments or questions on stuff that’s been entertaining or infuriating me in the last week or so.

In between the writing, inspections, Teams meetings, editing, reviewing and writing … 😉

Honey labelling

I use a simple black and white thermal printer – a Dymo LabelWriter 450 – to produce labels that don’t detract from (or obscure) the jar contents.

Dymo thermal label (and a jar of honey)

I’ve used these for over 6 years and been very happy with the:

  • cost of the labels (a few pence per jar)
  • flexibility of the system. I can change the best before date, the batch number or other details for each print run; whether it’s 1 or 1000.
  • ability to include QR codes containing embedded information, like a website address or details of the particular batch of honey.

However Dymo, in their never ending quest for more profits a ‘better consumer experience’ have recently upgraded their printers and label printing software 14.

The newest incarnation of the printer I use – now the Dymo LabelWriter 550 – only works with authentic Dymo labels.

A more accurate spelling of authentic is  e x p e n s i v e , at least if you only buy labels in small quantities (100’s, not 1000’s).

If you fancied adding a little square label on the cap of 100 jars claiming ”Delicious RAW honey” you’d not only be falling foul of the Honey Labelling Regulation, you’d also have to cough up £18 for a roll of labels.

Dymo labels are great quality. Smudge proof, easy to remove and sharp black on white. In bulk they are reasonably priced (~3p – the same cost as an anti-tamper label – if you buy >3000 at a time).

However, you can get similar labels for a third of the price … but they won’t be usable in the new printer.

The Dymo LabelWriter 450 has no such restrictions and is still available if you look around.

I’m tempted to buy a spare.

Colony to colony variation

I started this post with a discussion of variation due to latitude and longitude. However, individual colonies in a single location can also show variation (in addition to temperament, running, following etc.) that I don’t really understand.

I have three colonies in a row behind the house here on the west coast. I can see whether they are busy or not when I’m making coffee, doing the washing up or pottering in the work room (two of these activities are more common than the other 😉 ).

All in a row (though not the colonies referred to in the text as they’re camera shy)

And they are consistently different, despite being pretty similar in terms of colony strength and development.

One colony typically starts foraging before the others and another, probably the weakest of the three, forages later and in worse weather.

Early in the season these differences were so marked I thought that one of the colonies had died.

I assume – because a) I’ve not got the imagination to think of other reasons, b) it’s the justification I use for anything I don’t properly comprehend, and c) I’ve not done any experiments to actually test what else it could be – that this is due to genetics.

It’s only because I’m fortunate enough to look out on these colonies dozens of times a day that I’ve noticed these consistent behavioural differences. I suspect my other colonies show it, but that I’ve never looked carefully or frequently enough.

Attractive foundation

I’m busy making up nucs for swarm control and sale. Although many of the frames I use are foundationless I also use a lot with standard foundation. The frames are built (or should be built!) in the winter, but I add the foundation once the weather improves and there’s less risk of cracking the brittle sheets due to low temperatures.

I buy foundation once every season or so and carefully store it somewhere cool and flat. Some of these sheets are quite old by the time I get round to using them and they often develop a white powdery ‘bloom’ on their surface.

Before (bottom) and after (top) 30 minutes in the honey warming cabinet

I used to run a hairdryer over the frames containing these bloomed sheets. The warm air brings out the oils in the wax and makes they much more attractive to the bees. They smell great!

Frames in the honey warming cabinet (W = worker foundation, to distinguish them from D = drone)

These days I just stick a ‘box full’ of frames at a time into my honey warming cabinet set at about 40°C for 30 minutes. Not necessarily quicker, but a whole lot easier … so freeing up time to do something else related to bees 🙂


Note

Today is World Bee Day. The 20th of May was Anton Janša’s (1734-1773) birthday. He was a beekeeper – teaching beekeeping in the Hapsburg court in Vienna –  and painter from Carniola (now Slovenia). He promoted migratory beekeeping, painted his hives and invented a stackable hive. 

Is queen clipping cruel?

Synopsis : Is clipping the queen a cruel and barbaric practice? Does it cause pain to the queen? Surely it’s a good way to stop swarming? This is an emotive and sometimes misunderstood topic. What do scientific studies tell us about clipped queens and swarming?

Introduction

After the contention-free zone of the last couple of weeks I thought I’d write something about queen clipping.

This is a topic that some beekeepers feel very strongly about, claiming that it is cruel and barbaric, that it causes pain to the queen and – by damaging her – induces supersedure.

Advocates of queen clipping sometimes recommend it as a practice because it stops swarming and is a useful way to mark the queen 1.

I thought it would be worth exploring some of these claims, almost all of which I think are wrong in one way or another.

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

Here’s one I didn’t lose earlier – swarm with a clipped queen from the bee shed

I clip and mark my queens.

You can do what you want.

This post is not a recommendation that you should clip your queens. Instead, it’s an exploration of the claimed pros and cons of the practice, informed with a smattering of science to help balance the more emotional responses I sometimes hear.

By all means do what you want, but if you oppose the practice do so from an informed position.

Having considered things, I believe that the benefits to my bees outweigh the disadvantages.

And I deliberately used the word ‘bees’ rather than ‘me’ in the line above … for reasons that should become clear shortly.

What is queen clipping?

Bees have four wings. The forewings 2 are larger and provide the most propulsive power.

Each wing consists of a thin membrane supported by a system of veins. The veins – at least the larger veins – have a nerve and a trachea running along them. Remaining ‘space’ in the vein is filled with haemolymph as the veins are connected to the haemocele.

Queen ‘clipping’ involves using a sharp pair of scissors to remove a third to a half of just one of the forewings.

Done properly – by which I mean cutting enough from one wing only whilst not amputating anything else (!) – significantly impairs the ability of the queen to fly.

She will still attempt to fly but she will have little directional stability and is unable to fly any distance.

Easy to see

Easy to see – clipped and marked queen

It shouldn’t need stating 3 but it’s only sensible to clip the wing of a mated, laying queen.

Although you can mark virgin queens soon after emergence – before orientation and mating flights 4 – clipping her wing will curtail all mating activity 5.

How to clip the queen

If I know I want to mark and clip a queen I find my Turn and Mark cage, Posca pen and scissors. The cage is kept close to hand, the pen and scissors are left in a semi-shaded corner of the apiary.

Tools of the trade – Turn and Mark cage, Posca pen and sharp scissors

Then all you need to do is:

  • Find the queen, pick her up and place her in the cage. Leave the caged queen with the pen/scissors while the frame is returned to the hive 6.
  • Holding the cage in my left hand and scissors in my right I gently depress the plunger and wait until she reverses, lifting one forewing through the bars of the cage. At that point I depress the plunger a fraction more to hold her firmly in place.
  • Cut across the forewing to reduce its length by 1/3 to 1/2. Be scrupulously careful not to touch the abdomen with the scissors, or to sever a leg by accident 7.
  • Mark the queen with a single spot of paint on her thorax then leave the queen in the cage for a few minutes while the paint dries.
  • Return the queen to the hive. The simplest way to do this is to remove the plunger and lay the barrel of the cage on the top bars of the frame over a frame of brood. The workers will welcome her and, in due course, she’ll wander out and down into a seam of bees.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

Don’t real beekeepers just hold the queen with their fingers?

Probably.

Maybe I’m not a real beekeeper 😉

I prefer to cage the queen before clipping and marking her.

I wear nitrile or Marigold gloves (or one of each) to keep my fingers propolis free. If the gloves are sticky with propolis I don’t want this coating the queen. I also prefer to keep my scents and odour off the queen 8.

The other reason I prefer to cage the queen is to reduce the potential for damaging her with the scissors.

You’d have to be even more cackhanded than me 9 to pierce the abdomen of a caged queen with the scissors. In addition, her ability to raise a hind leg up and through the bars of the cage is restricted. In contrast, when held in the fingers, both these can be more problematic.

Mr Blobby goes beekeeping

Finally, briefly caging the queen allows me to use both my hands for other things – like completing the colony inspection without any risk of crushing the queen.

Yes, I could unglove before clipping and marking the queen, but it’s almost impossible to get nitriles back on if your hands are damp.

Does queen clipping stop swarming?

No.

Is that it? Nothing more to say about swarming?

OK, OK 😉

If the queen is not clipped the colony will typically swarm on the first suitable day after the new queen cell(s) in the hive are sealed. The swarm bivouacs nearby, the scout bees find and select a suitable new nest site and the bivouacked swarm departs – often never to be seen again – to set up home.

I’ll return to the subsequent fate of the swarm at the end of this post.

A colony with a clipped queen usually swarms – by which I mean the queen and up to 75% of the workers leave the hive – several days after the new queen cell(s) is capped.

Ted Hooper 10 claims a colony headed by a clipped queen “swarm(s) when the first virgin queen is ready to emerge” 11. This is not quite the same as when the first virgin emerges.

Since queen development takes 16 days from the egg being laid this theoretically means you could conduct inspections on, at least, a fortnightly rota. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple as bees could choose an older larva to rear as a new queen.

Hooper has a page or so of discussion on why a 10 day inspection interval achieves a good balance between never losing a swarm and minimising the disturbance to the colony. 12.

What happens when a colony with a clipped queen swarms?

A clipped queen cannot fly, so when she leaves the hive with a swarm she crashes rather unmajesterially 13 to the ground.

In my experience there are two potential outcomes:

  • the bees eventually abandon her and return to the hive. Usually the queen will perish. They are still likely to swarm when the virgin queen(s) emerge. All together now … “queen clipping does not stop swarming”.
  • the queen climbs the leg of the hive stand and often ends up underneath the hive floor. The bees join her. In this case you can easily retrieve the swarm together with the clipped queen. Temporarily set aside the brood box and supers and knock the clustered bees from underneath the floor into a nuc box.

I spy with my little eye … a clipped queen that swarmed AND was abandoned by the bees. It’s a tough life.

Sometimes both the queen and the swarm re-enter the hive (or I return them to the hive). In my experience these queens often don’t survive, presumably being slaughtered by a virgin queen.

So that addresses the swarming issue 14. What about the more contentious aspect of queen clipping causing pain?

Do queens feel pain?

I discussed whether bees feel pain a couple of years ago. The studies on self-medication with morphine following amputation are relevant here. Those studies were on worker bees, but I’ve no reason to think queens would be any different 15. I’m not aware of more recent literature on pain perception by honey bees though it’s well outside my area of expertise, so I may have missed something.

Therefore, based upon my current understanding of the scientific literature, I do not think that worker bees feel pain and I’m reasonably confident that queens are also unlikely to feel pain.

It’s worth noting here that it’s easy to be anthropomorphic here, particularly since we (hopefully) all care about our bees. Saying that your bees are happy, or grumpy or in pain, because it’s a nice day, or raining or you’ve just cut her wing off, are classic examples of ascribing human characteristics to something that is non-human.

We might think like that 16 but it’s a dangerous trap to fall into.

Is clipping queens cruel and barbaric?

According to my trusty OED, cruel means “Of conditions, circumstances: Causing or characterized by great suffering; extremely painful or distressing.”

Therefore, if clipping a queen’s wing causes pain and distress then it should be considered a cruel practice.

I’ve discussed pain perception previously (see above). If bees, including queens, do not feel pain then clipping her wing cannot be considered as cruelty.

Someone who is barbaric is uncultured, uncivilised or unpolished … which surely couldn’t apply to any beekeepers? In the context of queen clipping it presumably means a practise known to cause pain and distress.

Having already dealt with pain that brings me to ‘distress’.

How might you determine whether a queen with a clipped wing is distressed?

Perhaps you could observe her after returning her to the colony? Does she run about wildly or does she settle back immediately and start laying again?

Returning a marked and clipped queen – no apparent distress, just calmly disappearing into a seam of bees

But, let’s take that question a stage further, how would you determine that it was the clipped wing that was the cause of the distress? 17

That pretty much rules out direct observation. Queens are naturally photophobic 18 so you’d need to use red light and an observation hive. I’m not aware that this has been done.

Instead, scientists have observed the performance of colonies headed by clipped and unclipped queens. I’d argue that this is a convenient and suitable surrogate marker for distress. You (or at least I) would expect that a queen that was in distress would perform less well – perhaps laying fewer eggs, heading a smaller colony that collected less honey etc.

Are clipped queens distressed? Is their performance impaired?

Which finally brings us to some science. I’ve found very little in the scientific literature about queen clipping, but there is one study dating back over 50 years from Dr I.W. Forster of the Wallaceville Animal Research Centre, Wellington, New Zealand 19. I can’t find a photo of Dr. Forster, but there’s an interesting archive of photos from the WARC provided online from the Upper Hutt City Library.

Wallaceville Animal Research Centre staff photo 1972. Presumably Dr. Forster is somewhere in the group.

The paper has a commendably short 37 word results and discussion section 😉  20

The study involved comparing performance of colonies headed by clipped or unclipped queens over three seasons (1968-1970), a total of 124 colony years. They 21 scored colony size (brood area), honey per hive (weight) and the the number of supersedures.

I’ll quote the single sentence in the results/discussion on honey production in its entirety:

There was no significant variation in honey production between hives headed by clipped and unclipped queens.

Forster 22 didn’t specifically comment on colony size/strength in the discussion. Had it differed significantly some convoluted explaining would have been needed to justify the similarity in honey production.

Comparative colony strength of colonies headed by clipped or unclipped queens.

And it doesn’t.

Each column represents the average number of frames of brood in 6-29 colonies headed by clipped or unclipped queens. Statistically there’s no also difference in this aspect of performance (entirely unsurprisingly).

Colonies headed by clipped queens are not impaired in strength or honey production, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that the queen is probably not distressed.

Do clipped queens get superseded (more) frequently?

I suspect most beekeepers underestimate supersedure rates in their colonies.

I clipped and marked a queen last weekend. In early August last year my notes recorded her as ’BMCLQ’ i.e. a blue marked clipped laying queen 23. In mid/late April this year she was unmarked and unclipped … and stayed that way until it was warm enough to rummage through the hive properly.

She’s now a YMCLQ 24 and was clearly the result of a late season supersedure.

Every spring I find two or three unmarked queens in colonies. Sometimes it’s because I’d failed to find and mark them the previous season. More usually it’s because they have been superseded.

The Forster study recorded supersedure of clipped and unclipped queens. It varied from 10-25% across the two seasons tested (’68 and ’69) and was fractionally lower in the clipped queens (20% vs. 22.5%) though the difference was not significant.

So, to answer the question that heads this section … yes, clipped queens do get superseded 25. However, done properly they do not show increased levels of supersedure 26.

Let’s discuss swarming again

In closing let’s again consider the fate of swarms headed by clipped or unclipped queens.

If a colony with the clipped queen swarms the queen will either perish on the ground, or attempt to return to the hive. If the swarm abandons her they will return to the hive … but may swarm again when the first virgin emerges.

If she gets back to the hive she may be killed anyway by a virgin queen.

You might lose the queen, but you will have gained a few days.

If a colony with an unclipped queen swarms … they’re gone.

Yes, you might manage to intercept them when they’re bivouacked. Yes, they might end up in your bait hive. But, failing those two relatively unlikely events, you’ve lost both the queen and 50-75% of the colony.

What is the likely fate of these lost swarms?

They will probably perish … either by not surviving the winter in the first place, or from Varroa-transmitted viruses the following season.

Studies by Tom Seeley suggest that only 23% of natural swarms survive their first winter. Furthermore, the survival rates of previously managed colonies that are subsequently unmanaged – for example, the Gotland ‘Bond’ experiment – is less than 5%.

Let’s be generous … a lost swarm might have a 1 in 4 chance of surviving the winter, but its chances of surviving to swarm again are very slim.

Anecdotal accounts of ’a swarm occupying a hollow tree for years’ are common. I’m sure some are valid, but tens of thousands of swarms are probably lost every season.

Where does that number come from?

There are 50,000 beekeepers in the UK managing 250,000 colonies. On average I estimate I lose swarms from 5-10% of my colonies a season, and my swarm control is rigorous and reasonably effective 27. If there were over 25,000 swarms ‘lost’ a year in the UK I would not be surprised.

Free living colonies are not that common, strongly suggesting most perish.

Where do these ‘lost’ swarms go?

There are four obvious possibilities. They:

  1. voluntarily occupying a bait hive and become managed colonies
  2. occupy a hollow tree or similar ‘natural’ void
  3. set up a new colony in an ‘unnatural’ void like the roof space of a children’s nursery or the church tower
  4. fail to find a new nest site and perish

Natural comb

A colony settled here and subsequently perished

Of these, the first means that it’s likely the colony will be managed for pests and disease, so their longer term survival chances should be reasonably good.

In contrast, the survival prospects for unmanaged colonies are bleak. They will almost certainly die of starvation or disease.

What about the lost swarm that occupies the loft space in the nursery or the church tower? Whether they survive or not is a moot point (and the same arguments used for ‘bees in trees’ apply here as well). What is more important is that they potentially cause problems for the nursery or the church … all of which can be avoided, or certainly reduced, if the queen is clipped.

And if you conduct a timely inspection regime.

Why I clip my queens

Although it is convenient to reduce the frequency of colony inspections, that is not the main reason I clip my queens.

I clip my queens to help keep my worker population together, either to increase honey production or to provide good strong colonies for making nucs (or queen rearing).

This has the additional benefit of not imposing my swarms and bees on anyone else. Whilst I love my bees, others may not.

An additional, and not insignificant, benefit is that the prospects for survival of a ‘lost’ swarm are very low.

By reducing the loss of swarms I’m “saving the bees”.

More correctly of course, I’m preventing the loss of an entire colony. I think clipping queens is therefore an example of responsible beekeeping.

I also think queen clipping is acceptable as I’ve seen no evidence – from my own beekeeping or in the literature – that it is detrimental to the queen or the colony.

Thou shalt not kill

Finally, there are some that argue you should never harm or kill a bee. I have two questions in response to that view;

  • What do you do with a queen heading up a truly psychotic colony? Do you kill her and replace her or do you put up with the aggravation and make the area around the hive a ‘no go zone’ for anyone not wearing a beesuit?
  • How many beekeepers can honestly say that no bees are harmed when returning frames during an inspection, or putting heavy supers back on a hive? 28

I would have no hesitation in killing and replacing a queen heading an aggressive colony.

Again, I think that’s responsible beekeeping.

Similarly, although I’m as careful and gentle as I can be when conducting inspections or returning supers, to think that no bees are ever injured or killed is fantasy beekeeping.


Note

This is an emotive topic and I’ve written far more than I’d intended – that’s due to a couple of days of rain and the ‘expectant father’ wait for my new queens to start laying. I could have written half as much again.

The time spent writing meant I’ve not done an exhaustive literature search. I know that Brother Adam wrote in 1969 that he’d clipped queens for over 50 years without noticing any disadvantages. I realised during the week that my American Bee Journal subscription has lapsed so I’ve not managed to go through back issues, though I have searched almost 30 years of correspondence on Bee-L. If an ABJ turns up more relevant information I’ll revisit the subject.

Timing is everything

Synopsis : The invariant timings of brood development dictate many beekeeping events including colony inspections, queen rearing and Varroa management. It makes sense to understand and exploit these timings, rather than ignore or fight against them.

Introduction

There are some inherent contradictions involving timing in beekeeping that can confuse beginners. Actually, they can confuse anyone – beginner or old lag 1 – who doesn’t appreciate the considerable flexibility of some of the timings and the near-total inflexibility of others.

I think that many of the inherent difficulties in beekeeping e.g. judging when to do what to the colony, comparing seasonal differences or deciding whether intervention is needed or ill advised, are due to a lack of appreciation of the relative importance of some of these timings.

I gave an overview of some of the ‘flexible timings’ a couple of weeks ago when discussing the year to year climatic variation that compounds differences caused by latitude.

The onset of brood rearing in midwinter, the crossover date 2, the start of swarming and the timings of the major and minor nectar flows can all vary from year to year.

To appreciate these you need to be observant, but predicting their impact can be tricky. Some are multi-factorial e.g. colony strength and development in a warm, dry spring can be different to a warm, wet spring.

I’ve probably written enough about some of these flexible events already so will instead focus on some of the ‘inflexible timings’ that dictate the activity of the colony and, by extension and through necessity, the activity of the beekeeper.

In many ways these are easier to understand.

By definition, they are invariable 3.

Less to remember … but remembering them is important 😉

The environment

Those ‘flexible timings’ I refer to above mainly reflect the year-to-year climatic variation – warm springs, Indian summers, hard winters.

In contrast, inside the hive the environment is remarkably stable.

It can vary from 4°C to 40°C outside – even on a single day – but the temperature in the brood nest is controlled within a narrow 33-36°C range.

Hives in the snow

Freezing outside, 34.5°C in the broodnest

In fact, in the very centre of the brood nest – the region where pupal development takes place – it is as near as makes no difference 34.5°C.

The workers thermoregulate the hive, heating the comb where needed 4 or evaporating water to cool the hive.

With hive monitoring equipment and suitably placed thermometers you can tell when a colony shifts into brood rearing mode in the spring – the varying temperature of the clustered bees increases and stabilises to a near-invariant 34 and a bit degrees Centigrade.

Brood rearing starts ...

Brood rearing starts – indicated by stabilisation of brood temperature (arnia.co.uk)

The image above is from Arnia who make hive monitoring equipment. The key phrase in the sentence above is ‘suitably placed thermometers’. You tend to have only one or two and they can’t be everywhere, so it’s easy to miss the onset of brood rearing.

Temperature, behaviour and neuroanatomy

Stable temperatures are important for brood development. Worker bees reared at 32°C are less good at waggle dance communication. They only complete about 20% of the circuits (less enthusiastic) and exhibit more variability in the duration of the waggle phase (the distance component) when compared to bees reared at higher temperatures within the ‘normal’ range 5.

In further studies, bees reared at abnormally low or high temperatures (though varying by only 1-2 °C from normal hive temperatures) exhibited differences in neuroanatomical development 6. Of the regions of the brain studied, the numbers of microglomeruli within the mushroom bodies of the brain, areas involved in memory and learning, differed significantly when the pupation temperature was as little as 1°C over or under 34.5°C.

Despite these behavioural and developmental differences, the emergence rate and the duration 7 of development are somewhat less influenced by brood nest temperature.

Influence of temperature on pupal brood development – duration (left axis) and emergence rate (right axis)

In the graph above the duration of pupal development is 10-11 days between 34.5°C and 37°C, and eclosion (emergence) rates exceed 90% from 31-36°C.

Correct development of honey bee workers therefore requires a stable brood nest temperature.

As a consequence of this stability the duration of the development cycle is highly reproducible and – more to the point – predictable.

Before discussing the development cycle it’s worth noting that queens and drones are reared under similarly stable conditions. I’ve discussed the influence of temperature on queen development before but am unaware of similar studies on drones.

The development of workers

The graph above shows the influence of temperature on the duration of pupal development. This is not the same as sealed brood development. 8. The 10-11 days shown above needs to be extended by 2 days (48 hours) when considering the more beekeeper-friendly concept of sealed or capped brood.

Under normal conditions worker development takes 21 days. Three days as an egg, five as an open larva and 13 capped 9.

During those 21 days bees go through a series of six molts between five developmental stages termed instars. The first molt is the egg hatching, molts 2-4 occur during the first few days of larval feeding. Molt 5 is the change from the pre-pupal capped larva to the pupa and the final molt occurs at emergence.

Once the brood is capped there’s nothing much the beekeeper needs to worry about (or can do). In contrast, the early days of worker development involve at least one notable event 10.

Young larvae and queen rearing

The worker larva is fed progressively, which essentially means almost all the time. Nurse bees visit the larva thousands of times, initially feeding a mix of secretions from the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. The diet is then switched to one lacking the mandibular gland component and is finally supplemented with pollen and honey.

This dietary switch takes place around day three of larval development and effectively seals the fate of the developing bee as a worker.

Before day three of larval development, larvae destined to be workers or queens receive the same diet. After day 3 a series of genetic switches are ‘pushed’ that prevent the larva developing into a queen.

This means that larvae of less than three days old are needed to produce new queens. A terminally queenless colony will sometimes attempt to rear a new queen from an older larva (if nothing else is available) but these are usually substandard – so called scrub queens – or fail.

The adult worker

After emergence the worker fulfils a number of roles for the colony; nurse bee, comb builder, guard, scout, forager etc. The precise timings of these are flexible. Not all bees of the same age have the same role, and they can even be reversed. However, as far as practical beekeeping is concerned 11, the only other timings that really matter are the longevity of workers; in the summer this is about 6 weeks and in the winter, 6 months.

The timings to remember – workers

The full development cycle takes 21 days. Larvae more than 3 days old 12 are unsuitable for queen rearing (and, as I shall discuss in a future post, better queens are produced from younger larvae). The adult worker spends the first half of her 6 week life within the hive, and the last 3 weeks as a forager. Winter bees live for many months.

The development of queens

The development cycle of the queen bee is shorter than that of the worker because their diet is much richer. Of course it’s not quite that straightforward (it wouldn’t be, would it?). Because of the diet there are a number of genetic pathways turned on or off in the developing queen that ensure she is ‘fit for purpose’ on emergence. The developing queen goes through the same number of molts and instars, but they are compressed in time.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell

The queen cell is sealed on the ninth day of development, the fifth day after hatching from the egg, and the queen emerges on the 16th day.

The adult queen

Relative to workers and drones the queen appears almost immortal. A queen may live for at least three years and, if well looked after, longer than that. Most of this aftercare is provided by the hive, but the beekeeper can influence things as well. High quality ‘breeder queens’ are often kept in nucs and discouraged from laying excessive amounts of brood. This prolongs their effective lifespan.

As far as timings are concerned – and assuming we’re not dealing with a $500 breeder queen – the only three things that are important relate to the mating of the queen.

After emergence the queen needs to reach sexual maturity before she can go on her mating flights, this takes 5-6 days. Once mated there is a further delay of 2-3 days before the queen starts laying. The final number to remember is that adult queens older than 26-33 days are too old to mate.

The timings to remember – queens

The full development cycle takes 16 days. The cell is capped on the 9th day after the egg was laid 13. Upon emergence, queens take 5-6 days before they are mature enough to mate. A mated queen starts laying 2-3 days after returning from her last mating flight. If they’re not mated within about 4 weeks of emergence then they’ve blown it.

Therefore, the minimum duration to go from newly laid egg to mated, laying queen is at least 23 days. Alternatively, assuming a 2-3 day old larva is available, this time period is reduced to about 18 days.

From emergence, it’s theoretically possible 14 to have a mated, laying queen within 8 days.

However, in my experience, queen mating usually takes longer than these minima … and always longer than I want. Other than confirming emergence I always leave a new queen a minimum of a fortnight before checking if she’s laying, and longer if the weather has been unsuitable for mating.

The development of drones

Like teenage boys getting up late and then doing nothing other than lounge around eating and thinking about sex 15, the drone takes the longest to emerge. The full development cycle from the laying of an unfertilised egg to emergence takes 24 days.

As before, the number of molts and instars are the same as undergone by queens and workers.

The adult drone

Like the queen, the drone needs to become sexually mature before going on a mating flight. This takes 10-12 days after emergence. The drone has a finite lifespan and usually lives no more than about a month during the summer.

Drones that successfully mate with a queen prematurely die. Those that don’t mate either die trying or are ejected from the hive by the workers at the end of the season.

It’s not unusual to hear beekeepers talk about finding drones overwintering. I’m not aware whether these are exceptionally long-lived drones laid by the queen the preceding summer/autumn, or laid by a failing queen during the winter, or even by laying workers in a queenless colony overwinter 16.

The timings to remember – drones

The full development cycle takes 24 days. It takes about five weeks between the appearance of the first eggs in drone cells and the presence of sexually mature drones in the hive.

Swarming cannot happen until there are drones in the area, so it’s worth keeping an eye of drone brood production.

Hive inspections and queen rearing

So, there you have it, just a few numbers to remember … and, more importantly, to understand their significance for beekeeping.

Unusually I’ve prepared an oversized figure to illustrate these timings 17 with colour-coding worker, queen and drone events in green, blue and red respectively.

Worker, drone and queen development and key post-emergence timings

Note that some timings have dual significance. Worker larvae no more than three days old (day 6 – in green) can be reared as queens with suitable feeding.

Hive inspections … and caveats

It should now be obvious why regular weekly hive inspections are recommended in the time leading up to and during the peak swarming period.

If there are no charged queen cells – those containing eggs or developing larvae – during an inspection then any that do develop in the seven days before the next inspection will still not be sealed (and therefore the colony will not have swarmed).

This assumes that the colony swarms on or after the day that the queen cell is sealed.

Sometimes – rarely – the swarm goes early, apparently leaving only uncapped swarm cells. When I’ve had this happen a thorough examination of the brood frames has sometimes turned up a sealed cell, tucked away against a sidebar, that I’d missed in the previous inspection … the colony had not swarmed early, I’d 18 not been observant enough.

With a well-populated colony it’s sometimes necessary to shake all the bees off each frame to be certain there are no queen cells lurking under the ruffled curtain of workers.

Not all queen cells are this obvious

Colonies containing clipped queens tend to delay swarming (but they certainly still swarm) and you can usually get away with a 10 day interval between inspections. Furthermore, since the clipped queen cannot fly, even if the colony does swarm they usually return and end up clustered underneath the OMF after she has crawled back up the leg of the hive stand.

Outside the main swarming period inspections can be much less frequent. I usually inspect only once or twice between mid-July and the end of the season.

Queen rearing

One of my (few) poorly tempered hives unexpectedly contained several 3+ day old queen cells last Sunday. I made up a nuc with the old queen, destroyed all the queen cells and closed up the hive.

They will produce more queen cells 19, but they cannot swarm as there’s no queen.

At my inspection this Sunday I will destroy all the new queen cells.

The genetics of this colony are (at best) ‘undesirable’ 🙁 

Since there’s been no laying queen in the hive for 7 days there cannot now be any larvae young enough to be reared as a new queen 20. Therefore, having destroyed all the queen cells, I’ll add a frame of eggs and larvae from a (well-behaved and so genetically desirable) neighbouring colony 21.

If they want a new queen 22 they will rear one from this donated frame.

The 23 egg in the graphic above is the earliest you can expect a laying queen. In reality – as explained above – it usually takes longer. A minimum of 30 days from egg to egg-producing queen is perhaps more dependable.

Therefore, in around 24 to 30 days – and most likely the latter – this colony will have a new queen which will hopefully improve their behaviour.

The timing of Varroa treatment(s)

But think about what’s happening to the rest of the brood in that colony.

The last eggs laid in the colony was on the Sunday the 1st of May. By the 21st of May all the worker brood will have completed development and emerged. By the 24th of May all the drones will have emerged.

The colony should therefore be broodless in the last week of May.

Even if the new queen is laying by then (some chance!) she won’t have produced any sealed brood.

If needed I could use this 7 day window of opportunity to treat the colony with oxalic acid and reduce the Varroa levels in the hive.

It’s unlikely I’ll need to as the mite numbers have been low this season. However, it’s very reassuring that I have the option should I need it 24.

Adding a Varroa board to check mite drop

But … hang on a moment.

Why did I write that the colony only should be broodless?

What about the eggs and larvae on the frame I added from the donor colony? 25

These will be up to one week younger than any brood in the queenless colony.

Potentially those young eggs and larvae will close that ’window of opportunity’.

Perhaps the easiest way around this is to excise one good sealed queen cell from the donated frame and leave it in queenless colony, and then remove the donated frame and use it elsewhere.

If the colony produces several good quality queen cells it’s likely that I’ll chop them all out and make up some nucs – queen rearing without all the graft.

Literally 😉

Conclusions

I’ve written far more than I intended but I think this reflects the importance of the – effectively invariant – timings of brood development.

These dictate so many of our beekeeping activities that it makes sense to learn to work with them, rather than forever struggling against them.

With good observation and regular colony inspections – weekly during the the main part of the season – there should be little or no chance of losing a swarm.

Furthermore, should a colony show signs of swarm preparation, timely intervention coupled with an appreciation of the timings of brood development, mean you have the opportunity to conduct both stock improvement and mite management.

Nice one 😉


 

Brood in all stages

Synopsis : The presence of brood in all stages (of development) is an important indicator of the state of your colony. Is it queenright? Is it expanding or contracting? Quantifying the various developmental stages – eggs, larvae and pupae – is not necessary, but being able to determine changes in their proportions is very useful.

Introduction

There’s something very reassuring about the words ’brood in all stages’ to a beekeeper, or at least to this beekeeper.

It means, literally, that there is brood in all stages of development i.e. eggs, larvae and pupae.

Record keeping

Update the notes …

As far as I’m concerned, it’s such an important feature of the hive that it gets its own column in my hive records, though the column heading is conveniently abbreviated to BIAS.

And BIAS is what I’ll mostly use for the remainder of this post, again for convenience.

Why is it so important?

Why, when you conduct an inspection of the colony, is the presence of BIAS so important?

And why should you be reassured if it is present?

Broadly I think there are two reasons:

  • it tells you the likely queenright status of the hive. Is there a laying queen present?
  • (with a little more work) you can determine the egg laying rate of the queen and whether it’s changing. This is important as it provides information of the likely adult worker strength of the colony in a few weeks’ time. Are there going to be enough bees to exploit the expected nectar flow? Will there be sufficient young bees for queen rearing?

Of course, detailed scrutiny of the eggs, larvae or pupae in the hive can provide a wealth of information about the health of the colony. I will mention one specific example later, but it’s not the main focus of this post.

The development cycle of the honey bee

The post last week emphasised the variation – from year to year – in the climate 1. In contrast, despite the temperature fluctuating outside the hive, the environment inside the hive is remarkably stable. Partly as a consequence of this the development of the brood is very predictable.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

Worker bees take 21 days to develop, by which I mean that an egg laid on day 1 will – assuming development is successful – result in an adult worker emerging 2 on day 21. There can be a few hours variation, largely influenced by temperature, but as far as we need to be concerned here worker bee development takes 21 days.

Days 1 to 3 are spent as an egg. The egg then hatches to release a larva which is fed for a little over five days before capping. The developing bee then pupates for about 13 days before emergence.

For simplicity it helps to think of the development cycle as 3 days as an egg, 5 days as a larva and 13 days as a pupa. EEELLLLLPPPPPPPPPPPPP 3 or 3:5:13 … I’ll return to these numbers later.

In fact it’s a little more complicated than that. The larva actually pupates after the cell is capped, so it exists in two states; an open larval stage during which is is fed by nurse bees and a capped larval stage which is more correctly termed the pre-pupal stage. The larva then metamorphoses into a pupa within the capped cell.

None of this really matters as far as your interpretation of the ’brood in all stages’ you see in the colony during a regular inspection. However, it’s reassuring to know that there’s lots of complicated things with weird names and confusing terminology going on in there … which I’ve simplistically distilled to 3:5:13.

But, if you do want to know more you could have a read of this article by Rusty Burlew which also appeared in the American Bee Journal 160:509-511 (2020).

Queenright or not?

So, if there are eggs present there must be a queen present, right?

Wrong 🙁

But it is more than likely 🙂

In fact, if there are eggs, larvae and sealed brood present i.e. BIAS, then you can be pretty confident there is a queen present.

Or, more correctly, that there was a queen present within the last 3 days.

If an egg takes three days to hatch then it is possible that the queen laid the eggs and has subsequently disappeared.

For example, the colony may have swarmed in the intervening period.

Alternatively, during that ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-peek’ you took inside the hive two days ago you inadvertently crushed the queen between the bars of a Hoffman frame.

Oops … eggs but no queen 🙁

Slim Jim Jane and pre-swarming egg laying activity

When a colony swarms the mated, laying queen leaves with the swarm. To ensure that she can fly sufficiently well she is slimmed down in the days before swarming and her egg laying rate slows significantly.

Despite searching – both the literature and my own memory banks 4 – I’ve failed to find any detailed information on how long before swarming her laying rate slows. It appears as though she generally does not stop laying before swarming, but it’s down to just a trickle (if that’s the right word) in comparison to when she’s ‘firing on all cylinders’.

Queen cells and laying workers

The other telltale sign that a swarmed colony leaves is the presence of one or (usually) more queen cells. Typically some of these are capped, with the colony swarming on the first suitable day after the first cell is capped.

Queen cells – good and bad

So, back to your colony that may or may not be queenright … the presence of only a small number of eggs compared to capped brood levels and one or more queen cells suggests that they have swarmed within the last 3 days.

In contrast, If there are ‘normal looking’ eggs present, even if few in number, and you didn’t have a ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-and-actually-a-bit-clumsy-peek’ two days ago, it’s likely that your colony is queenright.

I prefixed eggs (above) with ‘normal looking’ because there is one further situation when the colony has no queen but there are eggs present. That’s when the colony has developed laying workers.

Under certain conditions unmated worker bees can lay unfertilised eggs.

However, in contrast to the queen, workers have short, dumpy abdomens and cannot judge whether the cell already contains an egg. As a consequence they lay multiple eggs in cells and many of these eggs are in unusual positions – rather than being central at the bottom of the cell they are on the sidewalls, or the sloping edges of the base of the cell.

Drone laying workers ...

Multiple eggs per cell = laying workers (usually)

These eggs are usually laid in worker cells. Being unfertilised they can only develop into drones, and since they are in cells that are too small for drones they end up protruding like little bullets from the comb.

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

They are also scattered randomly around the frame, rather than being in the concentric ring pattern used when the queen lays up a frame.

BIAS and the queenright status of the colony

So, let’s summarise that lot before (finally) getting back to 3:5:13.

If:

  • there is BIAS and no queen cells present and you’ve not disturbed the colony in the last few days … then the colony is most likely queenright. Yes, there’s an outside chance she recently dropped dead, but it’s much more likely that you just can’t find her. Don’t worry, the presence of BIAS and the other supporting signs tell you all you need to know … there’s a queen present and she’s laying. All is good with the world. Be reassured 🙂
  • there is BIAS and capped queen cells … then it’s likely they swarmed very recently 🙁
  • eggs are present, possibly together with some small, unsealed queen cells and you had a ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-and-frankly-a-bit-stupid-in-retrospect-peek’ two days ago … then all bets are off. The colony may or may not be queenright. Only inspect when you need to and be very careful returning frames to the hive 5. If you didn’t open the hive in the last few days (and accidentally obliterate the queen) the presence of BIAS and unsealed queen cells usually means that the colony is queenright but is preparing to swarm. Swarm control is urgently needed.
  • multiple eggs are present in strange places in cells, coupled with scattered bullet-shaped capped cells (and oversized larvae in worker cells) … then there are laying workers present. Your colony is not queenright. Technically I suppose there is brood in all stages, but the brood looks odd. But there’s somethings else as well … laying workers develop in the absence of pheromones produced by open brood (larvae). Therefore to develop laying workers a colony transitions through a period when there is not brood in all stages. In my experience laying workers usually develop after a colony experiences a protracted period when it is totally broodless i.e. no eggs, larvae or pupae.

Let’s move on.

3:5:13

If the queen is laying at a steady rate i.e. the same number of eggs per day, then the ratio of eggs to larvae to sealed brood will be about 3:5:13.

This means for every egg present you should expect to find just less than two larvae and slightly more than four capped worker cells.

I’m not suggesting you count them, but you should be able to judge the approximate proportions of the three brood types during your inspections.

This is more complicated than it sounds (and it already sounds quite complicated). The queen lays eggs in an expanding 3D rugby-ball shaped space – the ellipsoid broodnest – moving from frame to frame. Consequently, individual frames will contain different proportions of eggs, larvae and capped pupae, but the overall proportions should work out to be about 3:5:13.

And this is where things start to get a little more interesting 6.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I’ve drawn some simple Excel charts to illustrate some of the points I want to make. For each of the charts I’ve assumed the queen lays at 1000 eggs per day for the first 5 days and then she either stops altogether (perhaps one of those ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-and-frankly-idiotic-peek’ queen-meets-Hoffman-frame scenarios), or either speeds up or slows down her laying rate by 200 eggs per day.

The numbers don’t matter, just focus on the proportions of different classes of brood.

Speeding up

If there are more eggs and larvae expected – when compared to the levels of capped brood – then the laying rate of the queen is increasing. For example, here is what happens when she increases her laying rate from 1000 to 2000 eggs/day over 5 days.

Queen increasing her laying rate

The line graph is perhaps less clear than a simple plot of the percentages of the three types of brood. Note the relative reduction in capped brood (pupae) around day 15.

Changes in percentages of brood as queen increases her laying rate

If this occurs it means that the colony has the resources – pollen and nectar – to expand and that you’ll have more young adult workers in another fortnight or so, and an increased foraging force in 4-5 weeks. These things are important if you are thinking about the ability to exploit a summer nectar flow, or perhaps to rear queens in the colony.

Slowing down

Conversely, if eggs and larvae are much less than about 40% of the total brood 7, then the queen is reducing her laying rate. Perhaps there is a dearth of nectar or pollen? Does the colony have sufficient stores? Do you need to feed – little and often – some thin syrup to stimulate brood rearing?

Queen slowing her laying rate (e.g. prior to swarming)

Or is the colony slimming down the queen in preparation for swarming? Do they have sufficient space? Is the colony backfilling brood cells with nectar?

Changes in percentage of brood as the queen slows her laying rate (e.g. prior to swarming)

Note how 12 days after the Q slows her laying rate (assuming she stops entirely 8 ) then the only things left in the colony is sealed brood.

Queen-meets-Hoffman-frame scenario

This is essentially the same as slowing down, except it all happens more abruptly.

Disappearance of brood after the queen abruptly disappears

If you inadvertently kill the queen the colony very quickly runs out of eggs and larvae. Using the emergency response you would expect the colony to raise queen cells promptly.

Estimating brood area during inspections

I’m not suggesting you count eggs, larvae or sealed brood. Inspections are best when they are relatively non-intrusive. It disturbs the colony, it can agitate the bees and it changes the pheromone concentrations and distribution which control so much of what happens in the hive.

But it is worth learning how to determine whether there is more or less sealed brood than open brood and eggs.

Scientists have developed a number of ways to accurately quantify colony strength and population dynamics.

The classic approach, developed between the 1960’s and 1980’s is termed the Liebefeld Method and was nicely reviewed by Ben Dainat and colleagues in a recent paper in Apidologie 9. More recent strategies include the use of digital photography and image analysis, either using ImageJ or semi-automated python scripts such as CombCount.

But none of those approaches are really practical during a normal colony inspection.

I guesstimate the relative proportions of eggs + larvae and sealed brood, and also try and work out the approximate total levels of BIAS present in the colony.

If about 60% of the brood is sealed and there are 3 full frames and about 6 half frames of brood in all stages I would be happy that the colony was queenright, that the laying rate of the queen was probably stable and I’d record the total levels of BIAS as 6 (full frames in total).

Eyeballing sealed brood levels

When you get a frame like the one below it’s easy to work out how much brood it contains.

That'll do nicely

That’ll do nicely …

It’s as near as makes no difference one full frame (assuming the other side looks similar).

But most frames contain a more or less oval brood pattern, some of which may have already emerged.

Brood frame

In these instances it helps to guesstimate what halves, quarters, eighths look like. Or use the diagrams of brood patches on Dave Cushman’s site to work out the approximate total levels.

It’s also worth remembering that the presence of adult bees on the frames will confound things.

Lots of capped brood … somewhere under all those bees

To properly judges the levels of brood you need to shake the bees off the frames. This adds even more disruption to the inspection and I only ever really do it in two specific situations:

  • when looking for signs of brood disease, such as foulbrood
  • when I have to find every single queen cell in the colony

During normal inspections I work with what I can see … and if I need to see more (eggs, larvae or sealed brood) I gently run the back of my hand over the attached workers, or blow gently on them. Both these methods encourages them to move aside, without the ignominy of being dumped in a writhing heap at the bottom of the brood box.

In conclusion

As described – other than the Liebefeld Method – estimating the amount of brood in all stages (BIAS) is a rather inexact process. However, despite this, it’s a useful exercise that helps you judge the state of the colony, and gives you some insight into what is likely to happen over the next few weeks.

And, let’s face it, anything that gives us a better idea of what to expect is useful 😉


Note

Eagle eyed readers will realise there’s a slight glitch in the numbers graphed above. I realised this as silly o’clock 10 this morning and haven’t had time to go back and butcher the spreadsheet and redraw all the graphs. My error does not fundamentally change the patterns observed, but just alters the percentages slightly. I’ll update them once I’ve had a nap 😉

Latitude and longitude

Synopsis : Bees don’t use a diary. Colony development is influenced by local environmental conditions. These are largely determined by latitude and longitude but also vary from year to year. Understanding these influences, and learning how to read the year to year differences, should help you judge colony development. You’ll be better prepared for swarm prevention and control, and might be able to to identify minor problems before they become major problems.

Introduction

Writing a weekly post on beekeeping inevitably generates comments and questions. Over the last 5 years I’ve received about 2500 responses to posts and at least double that in email correspondence. That works out at ~30 comments or questions a week 1.

Every one of them – other than the hate mail and adverts 2 – has received a reply, either online or by email.

Some are easy to deal with.

It takes just seconds to thank someone for a ”Great post, now I understand” comment, or to answer the ”Where do I send the cheque? question.

Others are more difficult … and the most difficult of all are those which ask me to diagnose something about their hive.

I almost always prefix my response by pointing out that this sort of online diagnosis is – at best – an inexact art 3.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

Think about it … is your definition of any of the following the same as mine?

  • a strong colony 4
  • an aggressive colony
  • a dodgy-looking brood pattern 5
  • a ‘large’ queen cell

Probably not.

Engaging in to and fro correspondence to define all these things isn’t really practical in a week containing a measly seven 24 hour days.

Geography

However, having stated those caveats, there’s still the tricky issue of geography.

Many correspondents don’t mention where the hive is – north, south, east, west (or in a couple of instances that they are in the southern hemisphere 6).

Location has a fundamental impact on your bees. The temperature, rainfall, forage availability etc. all interact and influence colony development. They therefore determine the timing of what happens when in the colony.

And so this week I decided to write a little bit about the timings of, and variation in, environmental events that influence what’s going on inside the hive.

I’ll focus here on latitude and temperature as it probably has the greatest influence. My comments and examples will all be UK based as it’s where a fraction over 50% of the readers are, but the points are relevant in all temperate areas.

Latitude

Temperate climates – essentially 40°-60° north or south of the equator – experience greater temperature ranges through the year and have distinct seasons (at least when compared with tropical areas). Whilst latitude alone plays a significant role in the temperature range – smaller nearer the equator – the prevailing wind, altitude, sea currents and continentality 7 also have an important influence.

For starters let’s consider the duration of the year during which foraging might be possible. I’ll ignore whether there’s any forage actually available, but just look at the temperature over the season at the northern and southern ends of mainland Great Britain.

I arbitrarily chose Thurso (58.596°N 3.521°W) and Penzance (50.119°N 5.537°W) for these comparisons. Both are lovely coastal towns and both are home to native black bees, Apis mellifera mellifera 8.

The lowest temperature I have observed my native black bees flying on the west coast of Scotland was about 8°C 9. So, let’s assume that the ‘potential foraging’ season is defined by an average maximum daily temperature above 8°C.

How do Penzance and Thurso compare?

Thurso – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In Thurso there are eight months (November just squeezed in by 0.1°C) where the average maximum daily temperature exceeds 8°C.

Penzance – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In contrast, every month of the year in Penzance has an average maximum daily temperature exceeding 8°C.

Thurso and Penzance are just 950 km apart as the bee flies.

Forage availability

I don’t have information on the forage available to bees in Penzance or Thurso, but I’m sure that gorse is present in both locations. The great thing about gorse is that it flowers all year, or – more accurately – individual, genetically distinct, plants can be found every month of the year in flower.

Based upon the temperature it’s possible that Penzance bees could forage on gorse in midwinter and so be bringing fresh pollen into the hive for brood rearing.

The gorse is in flower … somewhere under there

However, further north, gorse might be flowering but conditions may well not be conducive for foraging.

Inevitably, warmer temperatures will extend the range of forage types available, so increasing the time during the year in which brood rearing can occur 10.

In reality, at temperatures below 12-14°C bees start to cluster 11 and bees chilled to 10°C cannot fly. It’s unlikely much foraging could be achieved at the 8°C used in the examples above 12.

The point is that different latitudes differ greatly in their temperature, and hence the forage that grows, the time it yields nectar and pollen, and the ability of the bees to access it.

Brood rearing

The availability of forage has a fundamental impact on the ability of the colony to rear large amounts of new brood.

It’s not until foraging starts in earnest that brood rearing can really ramp up.

Similarly, low temperatures in autumn, reduce the availability of nectars and ability of bees to forage, so curtailing brood rearing 13.

And the ability to effectively treat mites in the winter is largely determined by the presence or absence of sealed brood. If there is sealed brood in the colony there will also be mites gorging themselves on the capped pupae. These mites are untouched by the ‘usual’ winter miticide, oxalic acid.

Therefore, effective midwinter mite management should be much easier in Thurso than Penzance.

I’ve not kept bees in either of those locations, but I know my bees in Fife (56°N) are reliably broodless at some point between late October and mid-December. Varroa management is therefore relatively straightforward, and Varroa levels are under control throughout the season.

In contrast, when I kept bees in Warwickshire (52°N) there were some winters when brood was always present, and Varroa control was consequently more difficult. Ineffective control in the winter results in higher levels of mites earlier in the season.

Brood rearing models

To emphasise the differences here are two images generated from Randy Oliver’s online Varroa Model, just showing the amounts of brood in all stages and adult bees 14. The overall colony sizes and amount of brood reared are about the same, but the ‘hard winter’ colony (no foraging for five months) is broodless for a much greater period.

The brood and bee population in hives that experience ‘default’ and ‘hard’ winters

Without knowing something about the latitude and/or the likelihood of there being capped brood present in the hive, it’s impossible to give really meaningful answers to questions about winter mite treatment.

This also has a bearing on when you conduct your first inspections of the season.

It is also relevant when comparing what other beekeepers are discussing on social media – e.g. those ’8 frames of brood’ I mentioned last week. If it’s early April and they’re in Penzance (or Perigord) then it might be understandable, but if you’re in Thurso don’t feel pressurised into checking your own colonies as it may well be too early to determine anything meaningful.

Year on year variation

But it’s now approaching late April and most beekeepers will be starting to think/worry about swarm control.

When should you start swarm prevention and, once that fails, when must you apply swarm control?

Or, if you’d prefer to take a more upbeat view of things, when might you expect your bait hives to be successful and when should you start queen rearing?

Again, like almost everything to do with beekeeping, dates are pretty meaningless as your colonies are not basing their expansion and swarm preparations on the calendar.

They are responding to the environmental conditions in your particular locality and in that particular year.

Which brings me to year on year variation.

Not every year is the same.

Some seasons are warmer than others – the spring might be ‘early’ or there might be an ‘Indian summer’. In these instances foraging and brood rearing are likely to start earlier or finish later.

One way to view these differences is to look at the Met Office climate anomaly maps. These show how different the climate – temperature, rainfall, sunshine etc. – can be from year to year when compared to a 30 year average.

Met Office anomaly charts – spring temperatures 2020 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

Here are the anomaly maps for the last two springs. For almost all of the country 2020 was unusually warm. Penzance was 1.5°C warmer than the 30 year average. In contrast, over much of the country, 2021 was cooler than the 1990-2010 average.

So when considering how the colony is developing it’s important to consider the local conditions.

Those Met Office charts are retrospective … for example, you cannot see how this spring compares with previous years (at least, not yet 15.).

Rainfall

And, while we’re on the subject of anomalies … here are the rainfall charts for the summers of 2012 and 2021.

Met Office anomaly charts – summer rainfall 2012 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

I suspect that both were rather poor years for honey. 2012 was – with the exception of Thurso! – exceedingly wet. My records for that year don’t include honey yield 16.

Last year was generally dry, and very dry in the north and west 17. Since a good nectar flow often needs moisture in the soil it may have been poor for many beekeepers.

It was my first full season on the west coast and the heather honey yield was disappointing (but it’s not a great heather area and I’ve nothing to compare it with … perhaps I’ll be disappointed every year?). However, I managed a record summer honey crop in Fife from a reduced number of hives. Quite a bit of this was from lime which I always think of as needing rain to get a good flow from, so perhaps the little rain we did have was at the right time.

Local weather and longitude

If you really want to know what the weather has been doing in your area you probably need something more fine-grained and detailed than a Met Office chart. There are very large numbers of ‘personal weather stations’, many of which share the data they generate with websites such as windy.com or wunderground.com.

Find one by searching these sites and you’ll be able to access recent and historical weather data to help you determine whether colony build up is slow because it’s been colder and wetter than usual. Or – if the conditions have been ideal (or at least normal) but the colony is struggling – whether the queen is failing, if there’s too much competition for forage in the neighbourhood, or if there might be disease issues.

Of course, judgements like these mean you need to have good records year on year, so you know what to expect.

My main apiary on the west coast has it’s own weather station.

Weather station and a typical west coast sky

To emphasise the local influence of prevailing winds and warm sea currents it’s interesting to note that my west and east coast apiaries – which are at almost the same latitude 18 – experience significantly different amounts of rainfall.

We had >270 mm of rain in November 2021 on the west coast, compared to ~55 mm on the east. In July 2021 the figures were 43 mm and 7 mm respectively.

All of which I think makes a good argument for rearing local bees that are better adapted to the local conditions 19. That’s something I’ve discussed previously and will expand upon further another time.

Phenology

Rainfall charts and meteorological tables are all a bit dull.

An additional way a beekeeper can observe the progression of the season, and judge whether the colony is likely to be developing as expected, or a bit ahead or a bit behind, is to keep a record of other environmental events.

This is phenology, meaning ‘the timing of periodic biological phenomena in relation to climatic conditions’.

  • Are frogs spawning earlier than normal?
  • When did the first snowdrops/crocus/willow flower?
  • Are the arrival dates of migrant birds earlier or later than normal?

I’m poor at identifying plants 20 so tend to focus on the animals. The locals – frogs, slow worms, toads, bats, butterflies, dragonflies – are all influenced by local conditions. Many don’t make an appearance until well into the beekeeping season.

Frogspawn

Or perhaps I just don’t notice them?

In contrast, the avian spring migrants appear in March and April. These provide a good indication of whether the spring is ‘early’ or ‘late’.

For example, cuckoo arrived here in 2020 (a warm spring) on the 18th of April. In 2021, a cold spring, they didn’t make an appearance until the 24th.

This year, despite January to March being warmer than average, they have yet to arrive. The majority of GPS-tagged birds are still en route, having been held up by a cold start to April 21, though some have just 22 arrived in southern Scotland.

Wheatear are also several days later this year than the last couple of seasons, again suggesting that the recent cold snap has held things back.

You can read more about arrival dates of spring migrants on the BTO website.

Beekeeping is not just bees

Much of the above might not appear to be much to do with beekeeping.

But, at least indirectly, it is.

Your bees live and work in a small patch of the environment no more than 6 miles in diameter. That’s a very small area (less than 30 square miles). The local climate they experience will determine when they can forage, and what they can forage on. In turn, this influences the timing of the onset of brood rearing in the spring (or late winter), the speed with which the colony builds up, the time at which winter bees start to be reared and the duration of the winter when it’s either too cold to forage or there’s nothing to forage on (or both).

As a beekeeper you need to understand these events when you inspect (and judge the development of) your colonies. Over time, with either a good memory or reasonable hive records, you can make meaningful comparisons with previous seasons.

If your colony had ’8 frames of brood’ in mid-April 2020 (a warm year) and your records showed they swarmed on the 27th, then you are forewarned if things look similar this season.

Conversely, if spring 2020 and this year are broadly similar (and supported by your comprehensive phenological records 23 ) but your bees have just two frames of brood then something is amiss.

Of course, the very best way to determine the state of the colony is to inspect it carefully. Understanding the environmental conditions helps you know what to expect when you inspect.