Category Archives: Nucleus colonies

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