Category Archives: Nucleus colonies

The nucleus option

The definition of the word nucleus is the central and most important part of an object, movement, or group, forming the basis for its activity and growth”.

Therefore a nucleus colony of honey bees is something smaller than a full colony, but that has inherent capability to grow into a full and active colony.

A nucleus colony is usually abbreviated to nuc (pronounced nuke), often prefixed by an indication of its size e.g. five frame nuc or 2-frame nuc. The very fact that the size of the nuc is often included is an indication that they can exist in a range of different sizes. 

If the size is not defined a nuc is likely to have 5 brood frames. In this post I’ll stick to that convention; unless otherwise specified I’ll use the term nuc to mean a 5-frame nuc. 

What’s in a nuc … ?

A nuc is a fully functional colony of honey bees, just on a smaller scale than a full colony. Therefore it will contain stores, adult bees, brood in all stages and a queen.

5 frame nuc colony

5 frame nuc colony …

Of course, when first prepared it may be missing some of these components. However, to be fully functional, and to have the capacity to grow into a full colony, it must contain everything that would be expected in a full hive, just less.

Other than queens. To be functional a nuc, like a full colony, needs no less than one queen 😉

And, of course, no more than one 🙂

Part of the skill in preparing good quality nucs – for whatever purpose – is to ensure they are a balanced and functional mini-colony. They need enough adult bees to rear brood, to defend the colony and to forage effectively. They need sufficient stores to avoid starvation during a bout of bad weather, and they need a mated, laying queen to help the mini-colony expand.

… and what’s it in?

A nuc is usually housed in an appropriately sized nucleus hive, but actually doesn’t need to be. Commercially-purchased nucleus hives almost always take 5 brood frames 1, though there are exceptions. Paynes Beekeeping sell a very widely used 6 frame National nuc. Paradise Honey polystyrene Langstroth nucs also take 6 frames and, to add further confusion, can be divided easily longitudinally into two 3-frame nucs. 

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

Of course, if you make your own – or butcher commercial offerings – a nucleus hive can be any size you want. As the need arises 2 I use two, three, five and eight frame nucs.

Two frame nuc box

Two frame nuc box … a bit too small for the nucleus method of swarm control (but usable at a pinch)

But the nucleus colony does not have to occupy the entire hive.

A well-prepared nuc can expand in size quite quickly. One of the biggest problems in working with nucs is their tendency to get overcrowded. As I discussed a fortnight ago, overcrowding is a well-established trigger for swarming, and a nuc is perfectly capable of swarming … thereby undoing all your efforts in establishing it in the first place.

Therefore, bearing in mind the necessity to produce a functional and balanced mini-colony, it is not unusual to create the nucleus colony smaller than the hive it is housed in, so providing some space for future expansion.

National hive dummy boards DIY

Dummy boards …

As described below, three frames in a five frame hive hive can start a new nucleus colony. You can even put the frames into a full brood box. In both cases the unoccupied space needs to be reduced or at least separated from the developing colony. With the frames pushed against the sidewall of the hive the addition of a dummy board against the ‘open’ face of the colony is usually sufficient.

Warmth and weighty matters

Being smaller than a full colony, and containing fewer bees, a nuc is less able to keep the cluster warm if the weather turns cold. This isn’t usually an issue during the late spring and summer, but is a major concern if you want to overwinter nucleus colonies.

To make things a bit easier for the bees many commercial nucleus hives are made out of expanded polystyrene. These are mass produced from moulds and sometimes include integral feeders or other design ‘features’. Some of the features included are better than others … and some are pretty useless. In my experience 3 none of the poly nucleus hives sold are perfect, but some are very good and almost all are perfectly usable.

MB poly nuc

MB poly nuc …

I’ve discussed several – now rather ageing – commercially-sold poly nucs previously. I may mention them again in passing, but will focus on the contents of the nuc for most of this post.

The low weight of polystyrene nucleus hives is an additional bonus. Less weight to carry when moving them between apiaries, when selling them or when stacking them up empty for the winter.

But nucleus hives don’t have to be made of polystyrene. For summer use only (or when preparing nuc colonies for sale) you can get nucleus hives made of folded Correx for a few pounds. I’ve also got a few lovely cedar nucleus hives built by Peter Little of Exmoor Bees. These have separate open mesh floors, tightly-fitting removable Varroa trays and deep roofs. They’re beautifully made but usually languish unused in the shed in favour of the poly Everynuc’s I routinely use.

Why prepare a nuc?

There are all sorts of reasons to prepare a nucleus colony, but – at least in my beekeeping – the three main ones are:

  • swarm control – the nucleus colony houses the old queen while the original colony requeens. If this is successful the nuc can either be expanded to a full colony or, after removal of the old queen, united with the original colony so strengthening the hive to exploit the summer nectar flows. I wrote about a nucleus method of swarm control last year.
  • making (limited) increase – a strong colony can almost always be used to prepare a nuc without jeopardising the chance of getting a good honey crop. Depending when the nuc is prepared it will either be strong enough to fill a full hive by the season’s end, or can be overwintered as a nuc. Splitting a nuc off a strong colony can also help delay swarming.
  • much greater increase – a variant of the above is to completely split a strong colony into 4 – 8 nucs. The final number depends upon the strength of the original colony 4. Remember that you need a queen or queen cell for each prepared nuc. I’ve discussed this approach previously when queen rearing using a Cloake board and in doing circle splits.

Whatever the reason, the basic mechanics of preparing nucleus colonies is the same. The important point to remember is that the goal is to produce a fully functional colony, just on a smaller scale. Unless it has sufficient stores, enough bees of the right type or a functional (or soon to be functional) queen it will struggle, and it may not survive.

Stores

I start all my nucs with a frame of largely or completely sealed stores pushed up against the sidewall of the box in which I’m going to house them.

During the first or second inspection of the season I am usually able to remove at least one frame of stores from every full colony. This is leftover from the winter and, with the spring nectar flows underway, no longer needed.

Spreading the brood nest

I replace the removed frame(s) with either drawn comb or, more usually, a new foundationless frame. These are inserted at the edges of the brood nest – effectively spreading the brood nest – rather in the space directly occupied by the frame of stores.

The colony benefits from the additional space to draw new comb for the queen to lay, so delaying the urge to swarm. And I benefit from ~2kg (5lb) of stores in the removed brood frames which I carefully hoard until I need them 🙂

Make sure you store them somewhere safe where wasps, bees and rodents cannot get at them.

Bees

This is where things start to get a little more complicated. The amount of bees – both brood and workers – added to the nuc depends upon a number of things, most important of which are:

  • where the nuc is going to be located after it has been made up. If it being moved to an out apiary more than a couple of miles away then you can usually add fewer bees. Conversely, if it is staying in the same apiary (or being moved nearby) you have to expect many of the flying bees will return to the original hive and make allowances for this by adding more at the start.
  • whether the nuc will be started with a laying queen, a virgin queen or a queen cell. A laying queen can and will start laying eggs immediately, with the resulting workers emerging in ~21 days from making up the nuc. A virgin will have to go out and mate and start laying, so adding several days to this period. If you start the nuc with a queen cell there may be a few more days to be added as well.

Remember that the flying worker bees you add as you create the nuc will all likely have died before any new bees emerge from eggs laid in the nuc. Therefore, to ensure there is a continuity of foragers you need to prime the nuc with sealed brood and plenty of young bees.

So, the next thing to add to the nucleus hive, adjacent to the frame of stores is a frame of sealed brood together with all the bees on the frame. Unless you also intend to place the queen from the original hive into the nuc make sure the queen is not on this frame.

If there is also some emerging brood on this frame as well, all the better. These will help bolster the young bee population you add, enabling them to help rear more brood and get established faster.

If the original colony is particularly strong or you want to create a strong nuc you can add a second frame of brood (and adhering bees), but this is not necessary. What is necessary is to ensure there are enough bees to compensate for ageing foragers and the loss of bees back to the original hive.

Flying bees and hive bees

When you remove a brood frame from the hive it has two general sorts of workers on it – the so-called ‘flying’ bees and the ‘hive’ bees. The former are the foragers, the latter the younger nurse bees. You can crudely separate them by deftly shaking the frame once 5. The flying bees are dislodged, the hive bees hang on tight.

Nurse bees will, as they age, mature into guards and foragers. These will be needed before adult workers emerge from any new eggs laid in the nuc. 

Therefore, I almost always shake in a frame or two of nurse bees into the nuc that is being setup. 

Doing this takes just a few moments … 

  • Lift a brood frame from the original colony and check that the queen is not on it 6
  • Shake the frame once over the original hive to displace the flying bees
  • Shake the remaining adhering ‘hive’ bees into the empty gap in the nucleus hive between the frame of brood and the sidewall
  • Return the brood frame to the original hive

Space to expand

The nucleus hive now probably contains two frames (one of stores and one of brood) and, assuming it’s in a 5-frame box, the bees have space to expand as the colony builds up.

But they also need frames to occupy.

Therefore, add a single foundationless frame, or a frame with foundation or – the 5 star deluxe treatment – a frame of drawn comb to the nucleus hive. The last is a real luxury and means the queen will have somewhere to start laying immediately.

Go on … spoil them 😉

My precious …

With the exception of a queen (see below), the nuc is now complete for the moment. Since I predominantly use foundationless frames I usually add a dummy board to isolate the colony from the echoing space in the 5-frame nuc box. For convenience I’ll usually place the two foundationless frames on the far side of the dummy board so I don’t need to remember them when the colony expands.

The arrangement of frames is therefore:

  • Stores
  • Brood (sealed and emerging), plus adhering bees
  • Drawn comb, or undrawn foundation or foundationless frame
  • Dummy board
  • Foundationless frame
  • Foundationless frame
Foam block ...

Foam block …

If the nuc is to be moved to a remote apiary I’ll also add a closed cell foam block to stop the frames moving about during transport.

Queen

When first created nucs are too small and unbalanced (in terms of the composition of bees in the box) to successfully rear a good quality queen from an egg or young larva.

They will try, but it is not a recipe for success. You’ll often end up with an undersized and underperforming scrub queen. 

Don’t let them.

Why bother putting all those valuable stores, brood and bees into a box without giving them the very best chance of flourishing?

Instead, you need to provide them with a queen – either mated and laying, a virgin or as a mature queen cell. I don’t want to cover the sometimes tricky subject of queen introduction here, so will restrict myself to the two most common scenarios:

  • using the mated queen from the hive you split the nuc off
  • making up a nuc with a ripe queen cells 

The first instance is straightforward. Either make sure the frame(s) transferred to the nucleus hive include the queen or find her in the original hive and transfer her to the nuc.

Transferring her on a frame is easy. Adding her subsequently means picking her up and gently placing her on the top bar of the transferred brood frame in the nucleus hive. Do this carefully and quickly and she will be accepted without any issues 7.

Queen cells

Although also needing care, starting a nuc with a mature, ripe queen cell is even easier.

You can make up the nuc with a frame already containing a sealed queen cell. This is simplicity itself. Just ensure you do not bump, jar or bruise the queen cell during the transfer process.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Alternatively you can add a queen cell from another frame. This can be from the original hive, or from another colony altogether 8

  • Cut around the queen cell  to leave a wide margin of comb. A couple of centimeters isn’t too much.
  • Choose a space on the face of the brood frame in the nucleus hive. If there isn’t one, make one by pushing the comb down with your thumb.
  • Place the sealed queen cell vertically in the gap and use the wide margin of wax to fix it in place by squeezing the wax together. 

You want the queen to emerge onto brood, not stores, and you want the cell roughly central in the cluster of bees to ensure it’s well looked after until she emerges. I usually fix the cell under the top bar.

All gone ...

All gone …

Of course, if you rear your own queens (or have a friend/mentor who does), the queen cells are usually attached to small plastic cups which can simply be hung in place between the top bars.

Location and relocation of nucs

If the new nuc is to remain in the original apiary you should expect that many of the flying bees will return to the original hive. Help discourage them by stuffing the nuc entrance with grass for 48-72 hours.

By the time the grass has dried and the bees have pushed their way out they’ll realise things have changed and will reorientate to their new home.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

It’s also worth checking the population of bees a few days after making up the nuc. If your nucleus hive has a perspex crownboard this can be done with minimal disturbance to the bees. If the nuc looks sparsely populated you can shake in more nurse bees from the original colony (see above).

5 frame nuc ...

5 frame poly nuc …

If you move your nuc a few miles from the apiary it was prepared in the bees will be forced to reorientate to the new location. You’ll therefore lose far fewer of the flying bees, so maintaining a reasonable foraging force during the initial establishment of the new colony.

When transporting nucs take all the normal precautions. Seal the entrance, strap the box up tightly and orientate them with the frames in line with the direction of travel.

Maintenance of nucs

Nucs need a little more TLC 9 than full colonies. Particularly when first set up they are less able to defend themselves as the population of bees is unbalanced.

This is a very good reason not to feed nucs syrup from the start. Workers returning to their original hive may take back news of a readily-available source of ‘nectar’ and induce robbing.

Later in the season, once a nuc is established it may still benefit from a reduced size entrance to give the bees less to defend. 

Being smaller than a full hive they have less space for stores and less space for expansion. Unsurprisingly the two major problems are starvation and overcrowding. Both are readily avoided by regular inspection.

Requeening a nuc ...

Requeening a nuc …

Finally, if you start a nuc with a queen cell it makes sense to find and mark 10 her before moving the colony to a larger hive. Queens are always easier to find in nucs than in full colonies.

There are far too many additional tips and tricks to preparing nucs than I have space for here, but at least it’s a start. The key point to remember is that nucs are far more likely to be successful if set up and managed with a balanced population of bees and ample resources.


Colophon

The title of this post is a modified version of the nuclear option. Formally this is a parliamentary procedure in the US senate. More generally, by analogy to nuclear warfare, it means the most drastic or extreme response possible to a particular situation.

Preparing nucleus colonies is nothing like this. Indeed, it is one of the most useful things to do in beekeeping.

I’ve no idea how this post grew to over 3000 words … my version of filibustering which the nuclear option can be used to defeat. Next week we return to science with an exciting new study 11 on the rise and rise of chronic bee paralysis virus as a threat to beekeeping in general, and beefarming in particular.

 

Principles of swarm control

Having introduced swarm prevention last week it’s probably timely to now consider the basic principles of swarm control.

This is going to be relatively high level overview of why swarm control works (which it usually does if implemented properly), rather than a detailed ‘how to’ guide.

That’s because knowing what to do and when to do it is so much easier if you understand why you’re doing it.

That way, when faced with a colony clearly committed to swarming, you can manipulate the colony to avert disaster.

Which it isn’t … though losing a swarm might feel like that to a new beekeeper.

Welcome to the club

All beekeepers lose swarms, even those who rigorously and carefully employ swarm prevention methods. I lost one last year and would have lost another two were it not for a clipped queen in one 1 and some particularly unobservant and cackhanded beekeeping with another.

Mea culpa.

However, it’s called swarm prevention because it usually delays and sometimes prevents swarming.

But at some point the enthusiasm of the bees to reproduce often outstrips the possible interventions that can be applied by the beekeeper to the intact colony.

At that point, swarm control becomes necessary.

How do you know when that point has been reached?

Typically, if you carefully inspect the colony on a regular seven day cycle you will easily identify the preliminary stages of swarming. You will then have ample time to take the necessary steps to avoid losing the majority of your bees.

When is swarm control needed?

At some point in late spring 2 a colony is likely to make preparations to swarm.

Triggers for this are many and varied.

The colony may be running out of space because the foragers have backfilled the brood box with nectar during a strong spring flow.

Pheromone levels produced by the ageing queen are reducing. These usually act to suppress the formation of queen cells.

Alternatively, although mechanistically similar, the colony may be so populous that the queen mandibular pheromone concentration is – by being distributed to many more workers – effectively reduced. As described last week, in such strong colonies the queen rarely visits the bottom edges of the comb. Consequently, the levels of queen footprint pheromone – another suppressor of queen cell formation – in this region of the nest is reduced.

Whatever the trigger – and there are probably others – the colony starts producing queen cells.

Sometimes these are very obvious, decorating the lower edges of the drawn comb.

Sealed queen cells

At other times they are hidden in plain sight … in the middle of the comb, with a moving, wiggling, shifting, dancing curtain of bees covering them 3.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

The production of queen cells indicates that swarm prevention has not been successful and that swarm control is now needed.

More specifically, it is the production of charged queen cells with a larva sitting in a deep bed of Royal Jelly, that indicates prompt swarm control is required.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

And remember, there may well be more than one queen cell and they are not always on the same frame.

Unsealed and sealed queen cells

With experience you can ‘age’ queen cells by their size and appearance. The larva in the queen cell in the photo above hatched from the egg about 3-4 days ago.

When the larva is five days old the cell will be sealed and the larva pupates 4.

Queen development

Queen development …

In a further 8 days i.e. 16 days after the egg was originally laid in the cell, the new virgin queen will emerge.

But the colony will have already swarmed.

That is because, under normal circumstances, a colony usually swarms on the day that the queen cell is sealed

There are two events that often delay swarming beyond the day that the queen cell is sealed.

The first you have no control over. It’s the weather. Colonies usually swarm on lovely warm, sunny days. If it’s cold and wet, or blowin’ a hoolie, the swarm will wisely wait for a day with better weather. Wouldn’t you?

If you have a week of poor weather in mid/late May (the peak swarming season around here at least) then the first day of good weather is often chaos with swarms all over the place 🙂

Swarmtastic!

The second thing that delays swarming is if the old queen has a clipped wing. In this instance the swarm usually waits until the new queen emerges before trying to leaving the colony.

The other event, less routine in my experience, that stops swarming 5 is supercedure. In this, the queen is replaced in situ, without the colony swarming. Queen cells are still produced, usually rather few in number 6. I’ll discuss supercedure at some point in the future.

Destroying queen cells is not swarm control

If you simply destroy developing queen cells the colony will eventually swarm.

Either you’ll miss a queen cell – and they can be very hard to spot in a busy colony – or the bees will start one from an older larva and the colony will swarm before your next 7 day inspection.

Beekeeping is full of uncertainties. That’s why these pages are littered with caveats or adverbs like ‘usually’. However, ‘the colony will eventually swarm’ needs no such qualification. If all you do is knock back queen cells you will lose a swarm. 

I said in the opening section that losing a swarm is not a disaster, though it might feel that way to a beginner.

In reality, for a beekeeper who thinks destroying queen cells is a form of swarm control, losing a swarm can be a disaster 7.

When is ‘not a disaster’ actually a disaster?

Here’s the scenario … on one of your regular inspections (delayed a week because of a long weekend in Rome 8) you open the hive and find half a dozen fat, sealed queen cells decorating the lower edges of a couple of frames.

Using your trusty hive tool you swiftly obliterate them.

Job done 😀

But wait … under normal circumstances when does the colony usually swarm?

On the day the queen cell is sealed.

That colony had already swarmed 😥 

She’s gone …

What’s more, it may well have swarmed several days ago. Therefore there will no longer be any eggs or very young larvae in the hive that could be reared as new queens. Without acquiring a new queen (or a frame of eggs and young larvae) from elsewhere that colony is doomed 😥

So … repeat after medestroying queen cells is not swarm control.

If they are sealed, the colony has probably swarmed already and destroying all that are there jeopardises the viability of the colony.

If they are not sealed, then destroying them will not stop them making more and you will miss one tucked away in the corner of a frame.

And the colony will swarm anyway.

Generally, destroying all the queen cells in a colony is a lose-lose situation 🙁

The principles of swarm control

Disappointingly, almost none of the above has been about the principles of swarm control 9. However, the point I make about colony viability allows me to get back on topic in a rather contrived manner 😉

When a colony swarms, ~75% of the adult bees and the mated, laying queen fly away.

They leave behind a much depleted hive containing lots of stores, some sealed brood, some larvae, some eggs and one or more sealed queen cells.

Swarming is colony reproduction. Therefore, both the swarm and the swarmed colony (the bits that are left behind) have the potential to form a new fully viable colony.

The swarm needs to find a new nest site, draw comb, lay eggs and rear foragers. The swarmed colony needs to let the new queen(s) emerge, for one queen to get mated and return to the hive and start laying eggs.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

But importantly these events take time. Therefore, neither the swarm nor the swarmed colony are likely to swarm again in the same season.

And that, in a nutshell, describes the two defining features of many types of swarm control:

  • the colony is manipulated in a way to retain its potential to form a viable colony
  • the colony is unlikely to swarm again until the following season

So, which parts of the hive population have the potential to form a viable colony?

The bees in the colony

A colony contains a mated, laying queen. The thousands of eggs she lays are part of the developing workforce of larvae and pupae, all of which are cared for by the very youngest adult workers in the hive, the nurse bees. Finally, the third component of the colony are the so-called flying bees 10, the foragers responsible for collecting pollen and nectar.

The principles of swarm control

Of those three components – the queen, flying bees, and the combination of developing bees and nurse bees – only the latter has the potential to form a new colony alone. 

The queen cannot, she needs worker bees to do all the work for her.

The flying bees cannot as they’re unmated and cannot therefore lay fertilised eggs.

But if the combination of nurse bees and developing brood contains either eggs or very young larvae they do have the potential to rear a new queen and so create a viable colony.

Furthermore, thanks to their flexible temporal polyethism 11 the combination of the queen and the flying bees also has the potential to create a viable colony.

Divide and conquer

The general principle of many swarm control methods 12 is therefore to divide the colony into two viable parts:

  1. The queen and flying bees – recapitulating, though not entirely, the swarm 13. We’ll call this the artificial swarm.
  2. The developing brood and nurse bees. This component must contain eggs and/or very young larvae from which a new queen can be reared 14. We’ll call this the artificially swarmed colony.

I’ve described two very standard swarm control methods in detail that fit this general principle.

  • The Pagden artificial swarm, probably the standard method taught to beginners up and down the country. 
  • The vertical split, which is a less resource-intensive variant but involves more heavy lifting.

Both initially separate the queen on a single frame and then exploit the exquisite homing ability of the flying bees to separate them from the nurse bees/brood combination that have been moved a short distance away. 

Both methods are effective. Neither is foolproof. 

The artificially swarmed colony almost always raises multiple new queen cells once it realises that the original queen has gone. If the initial colony was very strong there’s a good chance several queens will emerge and that the colony will produce casts – swarms headed by virgin queens.

To avoid this situation (which resembles natural cast production by very strong colonies) a second move of the artificially swarmed colony is often used to reduce further the number of flying bees 15, and so weaken the colony sufficiently that they only produce a single queen.

Alternatively, the beekeeper does this manually, by removing all but one queen cell in the artificially swarmed colony

And the nucleus method?

Astute readers will realise that the nucleus method of swarm control is similar but different.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

It separates the colony into two viable parts but there is no attempt to separate the majority of the flying bees from the brood/nurse bees.

I like the nucleus method of swarm control. It’s easy to understand, very simple to implement and – done properly – very effective.

In particular, I think it is an easier method for beginners to grasp … in a “remove the queen and the colony cannot swarm” sort of way 16.

However, the queenless part of the split colony is inevitably left relatively strong, with brood, nurse bees and a lot of the flying bees. As a consequence there’s a good chance it will produce cast swarms if it’s allowed to rear multiple queens to maturity.

Which is why you must inspect the queenless part of the split colony one week later. As I said in my original post on this method:

The timing and thoroughness of this inspection is important. Don’t do it earlier. Or later. Don’t rush it and don’t leave more than one queen cell.

Which neatly introduces nucleus colonies which is the topic for next week 😉


 

Keeping track

It’s mid-May and the beekeeping season in Fife has segued from the early spring ‘phoney war’, where there’s not enough to do, to an earlier-than-normal swarming season where there’s not enough time to do everything needed.

I’ve got more colonies than ever, spread across three apiaries. Work, home and the Naughty Corner 1.

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

I’ve previously written about that stage in a beekeepers ‘career’ when he or she makes the transition from struggling to keep one colony to struggling to keep up with all the bees they have.

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

Others are ‘naturals’ – what’s the equivalent of green-fingered for beekeeping? Sticky fingered (er, probably not) or perhaps propolis-fingered? Whatever, these new beginners smoothly progress to a level of competency well above the norm.

Struggling to keep

Beekeeping is easy in principle, but subtly nuanced in practice. The enthusiastic beginner can struggle. They lose their first colony in the first winter. They buy another, it swarms and throws off several casts and they end up queenless in mid-season. A new queen is purchased, but too late for the main nectar flow.

No honey again 🙁

And, it turns out, too late to build up the colony to get through the winter 🙁

Thoroughly demoralised now, they are resigned to more of the same or giving up altogether.

The overwintered nuc of fashionably dark native bees they ordered from Bob’s Craptastic Bees 2 fails to materialise 3.

As does the refund of the £35 deposit 🙁

The empty hive sits forlornly in a patch of weeds at the end of the garden, smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises.

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

And, in mid-May, a huge prime swarm moves in 🙂

The beekeeper has never seen so many bees in their life 4. How on earth do all those bees manage to squeeze into that little box?

Following advice from their new mentor, the beekeeper gently slides 11 frames into the box and is encouraged to treat for Varroa before there is any sealed brood. Considering their previous experience things go surprisingly well, not least because the bees have a lovely temperament.

The bees ignore, or at least gracefully tolerate, the beekeeper’s novice fumblings. Instead they single-mindedly focus on drawing comb, rearing brood and collecting nectar.

Struggling to keep up with

The summer is long and warm, with just enough rain to keep the nectar flowing. The hive gets taller as supers are added. By autumn there’s enough honey for friends and family and a partially capped super to leave for the bees.

The bees are lovely to work with and the confidence and competence of the beekeeper improves further.

After overwintering well, the colony builds up strongly again and by mid-May of the following year the beekeeper has used the nucleus method for swarm control and now has two hives. The bees remain calm, steady on the comb, well tempered and prolific.

Very prolific.

By the end of this second ‘proper’ year the beekeeper has two full colonies and a nuc to overwinter.

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

With good bees, good weather, a determination to succeed and supportive training and mentoring the problem should be keeping up with the bees, not keeping them at all.

Stock improvement

Some bees are better than others. Once you have more than one colony – and you should always have at least two – you start to see differences in behaviour and performance.

Frugal colonies overwinter on minimum levels of stores and, if fed properly, don’t need a fondant topup in Spring.

Well behaved colonies are steady on the comb, only get protective when mishandled and don’t follow you around for 200 yards pinging off your veil.

Some bees are great at making more bees but promptly eat all their stores as soon as the weather takes a downturn. Others regularly need three supers per brood box 5.

These traits become apparent over the course of a season and, of course, are diligently recorded in your hive notes 😉

Primarily these characteristics are determined by the genetics of the bees.

Which means you can improve your stock by culling poor queens and uniting colonies and expanding – by splitting or queen rearing – your better bees.

Keeping track

And in between the swarming, splitting, uniting, moving and re-queening the overworked (but now hugely more experienced) beekeeper needs to keep track of everything.

Or, if not everything, then the things that matter.

Which bees are in which box, where that old but good queen was placed for safety while the hive requeened, which box did the overwintered nuc get moved to?

I’ve discussed the importance of record keeping a few years ago 6. I still score colonies by objective (e.g. levels of stores, frames of brood, number of supers added) and subjective (e.g. temper/defensiveness, steadiness on the frame, following) criteria.

This takes just a minute or so. I don’t write an essay, just a simple series of numbers or ticks, followed if necessary by a short statement “Skinny queen, laying rate ⇓, demaree’d” or “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

Objective and subjective notes

I still use pretty much the same hive record sheet for these notes (available here as a PDF) as it has served me well.

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

What hasn’t served me so well are the numbers painted on the side of some of my hives.

These were supposed to help me identify which colony was which when I’m reading my notes or in the apiary.

Trivial in the overall scheme of things I know, but as colony numbers have increase and my memory goes in the opposite direction I’ve realised that numbers painted on boxes can be limiting.

For example:

  • The colony expands from single to double brood. There are now two numbers on the hive. Which do you use?
  • You do a Bailey comb change, consequently changing one brood box for another. Do you record the changed number or continue to refer to it by the old number?
  • You use the nucleus method of swarm control. The nuc is numbered. All good. The nuc expands and has to be moved into a hive. It’s the same colony 7, does the number change? It has to if the numbers are painted on the boxes.
  • Some hives seem to have never been numbered (or the number has worn off) in the first place. These end up being named ‘The pale cedar box’ or ‘Glued Denrosa’. Distinctive, but not necessarily memorable.

And that’s before we’ve even considered keeping track of queens. For work (and for some aspects of practical beekeeping) queens are sometimes moved.

“Easy” some would say. The characteristics of the colony are primarily due to their genetics. These are determined by the queen. The hive number moves with the queen.

It’s easy to move a queen. It’s a bit more work to move the 60,000 bees she’s left behind to free up the numbered box to accompany her.

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

OK, what about a colony that goes queenless and then rears a new queen? If the logic of hive/colony=queen prevails then logically the requeened colony should be renumbered.

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

I purchased some waterproof plastic numbered cards and some small red engraved disks 9. Both are designed for identifying tables in pubs or restaurants.

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

I use the plastic card numbers to identify colonies. These accompany the bees and brood if they move from one apiary to another, or as colonies are split and/or united. It’s the colony I inspect, so this provides the relevant geographic reference and is the thing I’m writing about to when my notes state “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

I use the red numbers to identify the queen. A queenless colony will therefore have no red disk on it.

When a nuc is promoted to a full hive the number moves with it. If the colony swarms and  requeens, one red number is ‘retired’ and a new one is applied.

My notes carry both the colony number and the queen number. I have a separate record of queens, with some more generic comments about the performance of the colonies they head.

Colony and queen numbering

The numbers are sold in 50’s … I use them at random 10. About half of them are in use at the moment.

If queen rearing goes well, swarming goes badly or things get out of hand, numbers 51-100 and engraved black disks are also available 😉

Finally, to make life a little simpler I bought a box of stainless steel 11 map pins. These are easy to grip with a gloved hand and don’t need to be prised out with a hive tool. They have the additional advantage of being short enough to not project beyond the handhold recess on the sides of most hive boxes so they can be pushed together if they’re being moved.

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… 😉


 

 

 

The nucleus method

Almost all beekeeping associations – and most books – teach Pagdens’ artificial swarm as the recommended method of swarm control. It is tried and tested and reasonably dependable. However it can be a bit tricky to grasp for inexperienced beekeepers.

At least part of the problem is you have two hives that look the same, one on the original site, one adjacent. Conducted properly, the adjacent hive is moved to the other side of the original a week or so into the process.

Teaching this in a poorly lit, draughty church hall in late January, facing the audience with the inevitable confusion over left and right, and getting ‘new’ and ‘old’ hives mixed up, often bamboozles the beginner 1. Or the instructor 😉

Here’s an alternative … the nucleus method of swarm control.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

General principles

This method is simplicity itself. When the colony looks as though it’s preparing to swarm you remove the queen, some stores and some bees into a nucleus hive.

This keeps the queen safe in case things go awry with the original colony.

You then return a week later and remove all but one queen cell in the original colony. The virgin queen emerges, mates, returns and starts laying.

A month or so after starting the original colony is headed by a new queen and you have a ‘spare’ building up in the nucleus box. You can overwinter this, sell it, give it away or – after removing the queen – unite it back with the original hive.

And that’s it … I said it was simple 🙂

Here is a more complete account.

Equipment needed

It goes without saying that the nucleus method of swarm control needs a nucleus (nuc) hive 2. Any sort of 5 frame nuc is suitable. Nucs are incredibly useful, so they are a good investment. If you’re buying one for the first time get polystyrene as they’re lighter, better insulated and much better for overwintering bees in. I’ve reviewed poly nucs a few years ago. There are even more makes to choose from now.

I’d recommend not using a two frame nuc as there’s not really enough room for stores and colony expansion 3.

Two frame nuc box

Two frame nuc box … a bit too small for the nucleus method of swarm control (but usable at a pinch)

In addition to the nuc you’ll need five frames that are compatible with your nuc and hive. Ideally, one or two of these should be drawn comb, but don’t worry if you just have foundation. A dummy board can also be useful. Like nucs, you can almost never have too many dummy boards.

Honey bee development

To properly understand honey bee swarm control you really need to understand the timing of the development cycle of queen bees.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

Queen cells have a characteristic appearance. Unlike the horizontally-oriented worker cells, larvae destined to become queens hatch from eggs laid in vertically-oriented queen cells. After three days as eggs and a further five days of larval development the queen cell is sealed.

A colony will usually swarm on or soon after 4 the queen cells are sealed.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

This is why it is recommended that colony inspections are conducted at seven day intervals. If the colony is thinking of swarming you’ll find an unsealed cell (because there were none last week when you inspected and they take 8 days to be sealed) and you can immediately start swarm control.

Day 1 – Making up the queenright nucleus colony

If you find one or more unsealed queen cells at a routine inspection … don’t panic. You’re prepared, you’ve done your homework and you have the necessary equipment.

  1. Stuff the entrance of a nucleus hive with grass and place it near the colony 5.
  2. Remove one of the outer frames from the colony (you’ve probably already done this to give yourself room for the inspection) as this should have a good amounts of sealed and unsealed stores.
  3. Check again that the queen isn’t on this frame of stores (unlikely) and that it doesn’t contain any queen cells (again unlikely).
  4. Gently transfer the frame of stores plus all the adhering bees to the nucleus box.
  5. Continue the inspection and find the queen. Be gentle, don’t rush, don’t use too much smoke.
  6. Ideally you want the queen on a frame with some sealed and emerging brood. If you are lucky you’ll find her on a suitable frame.
  7. Gently transfer the queen and the frame she is on to the nucleus box. It is very important that this frame has no queen cells on it. Check very carefully. Destroy any you find.
  8. Your nuc colony is now queenright and has two frames of bees. Push the frames against the side wall of the nuc box, leaving a wide gap.
  9. Into this gap shake a further two frames of bees. Foragers are likely to leave the nuc and return to the original hive. You do not want the box to be short of young bees. If in doubt shake a further frame of bees into the gap in the nuc 6.
  10. Add a frame of drawn comb if you have it then fill the box with foundation. Add a dummy board if needed. Gently place the crownboard and roof on the nuc, secure everything with a strap and turn your attention to the colony.

Notes

  • The purpose of this exercise is to establish a small colony with stores, a laying queen, space to lay and sufficient bees to support her and the brood being reared. Remember stores, queen, bees, space and no queen cells you won’t go wrong.
  • You will usually find the queen on a frame with eggs and young larvae. It’s very important that this frame does not have any queen cells on it.
  • Ideally you want the queen on a frame of emerging brood. This offers a number of advantages
    • The young bees will immediately strengthen the population supporting the queen
    • The vacated cells can be used by the queen to lay eggs (so reducing the need for drawn comb, or for the bees to build new comb)
    • The nuc colony will go through a period with no sealed brood and you can take advantage of this for Varroa management if needed (I’ll deal with this in another post)
    • It’s unlikely (due to the age of the other brood) to have a queen cell on it
  • One of the most common problems encountered with this method of swarm control is making up (or ending up) with a nuc that is not strong enough. A weak nuc will be unable to defend itself against robbing or wasps. There’s very little chance of weakening the original hive too much.
  • One way to avoid losing foragers from the nuc is to move it to an out apiary more than 3 miles from the original hive.
  • If you do leave the nuc in the same apiary check it a couple of days later. The bees should have chewed their way out through the dried grass. If they haven’t, pull a bit out at the corner of the entrance to encourage them to fly.

Day 1 – Preparing with the queenless colony

  1. Inspect every frame in the colony. Destroy all large queen cells 7. Anything that looks like the queen cell in the picture above should be destroyed. The idea here is to only leave queen cells containing very small larvae.
  2. Mark the frames containing these remaining selected queen cells using a drawing pin or pen.
  3. Push the frames together, add two frames of foundation, add the crownboard and close up the colony.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

One week later – Ensuring the queenless colony does not swarm

The timing and thoroughness of this inspection is important. Don’t do it earlier. Or later. Don’t rush it and don’t leave more than one queen cell.

  1. Inspect the colony and look for queen cells on the frames you marked a week earlier. These had very young larvae in them then and so will now be sealed 8.
  2. Select one queen cell to keep. Just one. Which one? Choose one that is large, well-shaped and has a sculptured exterior.
  3. Destroy all the other queen cells on this frame. All of them! If you need to remove the bees to see the frame better either brush them off gently or blow gently on them. Do not shake the bees off the frame as this might damage the developing queen.
  4. Gently return the frame with the selected queen cell to the box.
  5. Inspect all other frames in the colony (not just the ones you marked last week) and destroy all of the queen cells you find.
  6. You can shake the bees off these other frames to be sure of finding all other queen cells.
  7. Remember that some queen cells will be unsealed 9 … destroy them all.
  8. Return all the frames to the colony. Close it up and leave it for at least two weeks before inspecting again (see below).

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Notes

  • The purpose of this return visit is to leave the colony with only a single queen cell.
  • Because you removed the queen a week ago there are no other suitably aged young larvae or eggs for the colony to rear queens from. Therefore, the colony cannot produce multiple casts (swarms headed by virgin queens).
  • The nucleus method of swarm control often leaves the queenless colony very strong 10, if you leave more than one queen cell the colony may produce casts.
  • What if the queen gets lost on a mating flight? Shouldn’t I leave two queen cells? Just to be on the safe side? No. If there’s a problem with the queen getting mated you’ve still got the old queen tucked away safely in the nuc box.
  • Queen cells that are large, well shaped and sculptured have received a lot of attention from the workers and so presumably contain a well-fed and good quality queen 11.
  • Don’t be tempted to inspect the colony in less than two weeks. Ideally leave them for three weeks. If you inspect too early there’s a chance that the queen may not have had a chance to mate and start laying (so the point of inspecting is missed) or – worse – that she returns from her mating flight as you have the box open and is then confused or lost.
  • Don’t meddle! Look for pollen being taken into the colony.
  • Have patience. Bees have been around for a few million years. They would not be this successful if they weren’t pretty good at getting queens mated …
  • Finally, particularly if the weather is poor, check the nuc as well. Ensure that it has sufficient stores. With reduced numbers of bees there’s a chance they could starve if the bees cannot forage (in which case the queen in the main colony is going to struggle to get out and mate as well).

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Pros and cons of the nucleus method of swarm control

With the exception of vertical splits almost all of my swarm control uses this nucleus method 12. I particularly like the nucleus method because I have lots of nuc boxes ( 🙂 ) and because it leaves manageable single-entrance hives rather than double height, multiple entrance stacks.

Almost all of the foraging bees are left with the original colony so the nectar-gathering capacity is not significantly reduced.

I almost never use the Pagden artificial swarm, largely because it ties up too much equipment.

Pros

  1. Limited amount of extra equipment needed – five frames and a nuc box … both of which are useful anyway.
  2. The old queen is kept safe and out of the way.
  3. Simple to implement, with just two visits at fixed times.
  4. Reasonably easy to understand the manipulations involved.
  5. No heavy lifting.
  6. You generate a nucleus colony to give away or to build up for overwintering.

Cons

  1. You need to find the queen.
  2. You need to find all the queen cells and use your judgement as to their age and quality.
  3. Unless you remove the nuc to an out apiary there’s a good chance lots of the bees will return to the original hive. Make sure you add enough at the start and be prepared to add more if you check the nuc after a day or two and find it heavily depleted.
  4. If you don’t want to make increase the nuc is a little more difficult to unite back with the original colony 13.

Give it a go … what could possibly go wrong?


 

Taking stock

It’s the middle of the season 1. Hopefully, the timely application of swarm control measures such as a vertical split or Pagden’s artificial swarm, have maintained strong colonies and created additional colonies headed by new queens.

July is the month I review my stocks with the goal of:

  • replacing ageing queens that are unproductive
  • removing bad tempered colonies (though most have already been dealt with)
  • preparing strong colonies to exploit late season nectar flows
  • making up nucleus colonies for overwintering, either as backups or for sale

Of course, this type of taking stock should be a continuous process through the season, but it’s easier to start it now for the winter, rather than leaving it to the shorter days, more variable weather and less dependable nectar flows of late summer.

Two into one does go

A small hole ...

A small hole …

Often the intention is to simply replace an old queen with a new queen. In a vertical split this is simplicity itself. Remove the queen that is unwanted and the split board, replacing the latter with a sheet of newspaper. Make one or two very small holes in the newspaper with the point of a hive tool and leave the colony to it.

Over the course of the next few days the workers will chew through the newspaper, unite amicably and set about building up the stores for winter.

A week or so after uniting I rearrange the frames, usually making space for the queen to lay in the top box with the brood below. If the colonies being united are smaller it’s sometimes possible to remove one box altogether.

There’s discussion online about quick ways to unite colonies by spraying both with air freshener. The smell – which is usually pretty awful 2 – masks the colony scent and so the colony does not fight. I’ve not done this so can’t recommend it (or, for that matter, criticise it).

Since I’ll be returning a week later to check the boxes and rearrange frames I’m happy to stick with newspaper uniting which rarely fails. Air freshener is also one less thing to carry in the bee bag.

Nucs for pleasure and profit

Five frame nucleus (nuc) colonies overwinter well if prepared properly 3. They are really useful in the early spring to make up for any winter losses, to replace colonies with failing queens 4 or to sell.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Overwintered nucs are often appreciably more expensive than those imported later in the season, or in the glut of bees that follows the swarming season.

The queen has proved herself and the nuc is available when demand is highest … at the very beginning of the season.

Whilst I would – and have – argued that it might be better to start beekeeping later in the season working alongside your mentor, there are strong economic imperatives to overwinter nucs for sale.

Splits and nucs

With a successful split (or Pagden) you now have two queens, one strong colony and one building up fast. The latter – with the new queen – can be used to prepare a nuc for overwintering, with the remaining bees and brood strengthening the original colony for the late season nectar flow 5.

It’s easy to prepare a nuc colony to take away to a distant apiary – the new queen, a frame of stores, one or two of emerging brood and a mixed frame of eggs and brood, all with the adhering bees, together with a couple more frames of bees shaken in over the top. Make up to five frames with foundation, seal them up and ship ’em off to your out apiary.

If you don’t have access to an out apiary you should ensure that the majority of the older workers are omitted when preparing the nuc, and you should add in additional young bees to help the new queen get established.

It’s also worth stuffing the nuc entrance with dead grass for a few days to enforce the ‘new environment’ on the bees.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

You exclude the old foragers by giving each frame placed in the nuc a gentle shake before putting it into the box. The old bees fly off, the young ones cling on. Do the same with the ~3-4 additional frames of bees added on top before re-siting the the nuc in the apiary.

Nucs may need feeding, particularly if there’s a dearth of nectar or bad weather. Keep an eye on them. By excluding the old foragers you can feed them without the risk of robbing. However, it’s wise not to feed them for the best part of a week after making up the nuc to allow any carried-over stragglers to return. This is why it’s important to include a full frame of stores from the outset.

Variations

There’s still ample time in the season to rear new queens, so all sorts of other combinations of requeening/uniting and/or splits are still possible. For example, I’ve recently used a particular queen to requeen a colony and will split the box she came from into 2-3 nucs, all of which should build up well for overwintering.

By splitting the box after the new queen cells are raised I ensure they were produced by a well-balanced population of bees, with ample stores under ideal conditions. I think this is better than divvying up the frames from the recently queenless box and hoping to achieve the strong and balanced population in all the nucs. Inevitably some are stronger than others … or, more significantly in terms of queen cell production, weaker.

And in between all of this amateur dabbling I’ve been working with our friends and collaborators in Aberdeen on methods of Varroa control to minimise the levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) as well as starting our studies on chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV) …

Hot day, hard work ...

Hot day, hard work …

… oh yes, and moving into a new house 😉 6


 

 

Overwintering nucs

Rosebay willowherb

Rosebay willowherb …

And suddenly the season is almost over. The lime and bramble are finished, the rosebay willowherb (fireweed for those from the USA) is nearly over, honey has been harvested (but in my case not yet extracted) and queens are starting to slow down their laying rate. There’s almost nothing to do in the apiary. Colonies are unlikely to swarm this late and so inspections can be reduced in frequency. Drones are getting chucked out of the hives and queen rearing becomes a bit hit and miss, with poorer weather, cooler temperatures and the real probability that they won’t get mated properly.

This is when I prepare nucs for overwintering and rationalise my colonies to keep the stocks I want to feed up for winter. I split up my weaker colonies, using the brood and bees to populate 5 frame poly nucs to which I introduce a recently mated queen. Although established queens heading big colonies may well be slowing down, queens mated in the last few weeks will probably be laying really well. It’s therefore possible to start the nuc with just a frame of sealed brood, a frame of stores, a frame of drawn comb together with another frame of bees shaken on top. I use a dummy board to restrict the space the bees have to the three frames and introduce a mated queen in a sealed JzBz introduction cage, hanging from the top bars on a cocktail stick carefully (to avoid impaling the queen!) pushed through the JzBz cage.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

I either move the nuc to another apiary (>3 miles away) or stuff the entrance with grass to stop too many of the flying bees from returning to the colony they were harvested from … the reality being that the colony has almost certainly been split up completely and no longer exists. If you put the nuc boxes back on the original stand one usually ends up being much stronger as the flying bees preferentially return to it. A day or two later I return and remove the cap from the JzBz cage, allowing the workers to release the queen by chewing through the queen candy the cage neck is packed with. By this time the bees will probably have found a way out and will be busy foraging … if they have to struggle through the grass for too long they lose lots of pollen at the colony entrance.

Pollen

Loads of pollen

A week or so later I check the queen is out and laying well, adding two further frames  – usually one of stores and one of drawn comb, depending on the weather. This is the five frame colony that will be overwintered.

5 frame Everynuc

5 frame colony in an Everynuc …

Through late August and early September these nucs need to be monitored reasonably carefully. If there’s no forage they will almost certainly need feeding. They will also need protection from wasps. Finally, once the colony is strong with good numbers of bees for overwintering they need to be fed with syrup. This year I’m using the recently introduced Thorne’s Everynuc with an integral feeder (see the picture above). I’ll use this to feed Ambrosia and work out a way to provide additional fondant in mid-winter if needed.

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Here’s three I prepared earlier