Category Archives: Queen rearing

Seasonal scheming

Synopsis : Midwinter is the time for planning and preparation for the beekeeping season ahead. In addition to thinking about the normal season’s events – swarming, mite control, honey etc. – now is the time to be more expansive. What arrangements need to be made for the longer term sustainability of your apiary and beekeeping? 1


Introduction

Now is the winter of our discontent.

So said the young Richard 2 in a soliloquy celebrating the upturn in his fortunes.

For a beekeeper, this upturn might seem a little premature as it’s only 17 days since the winter solstice and there are currently less than 7 hours daylight.

The drowsy days of summer filled with the gentle buzzing of bees seem a lifetime away …

Snowing in the apiary

No cleansing flights today

… and it’s snowing in the apiary.

However, the days are slowly getting longer.

Actually, until the spring equinox, the daylength gets increasingly longer each day – by about a minute and a half on January 1st, to over 4 minutes a day by the end of the month and finally reaching a heady 4 minutes 48 seconds by the 20th of March 3.

All of which means that, although not quite ‘around the corner’ the beekeeping season will be here pretty soon.

So it’s not so much Now is the winter of our discontent as Now is the winter and the best time to prepare for the season ahead and build frames.

I’ve previously posted about building frames, so this post is about planning, though frames might get a mention in passing.

Planning for the season ahead

I was going to title this post Cunning plans but I think most of the cunning plans that Baldrick dreamt up were pretty catastrophic. It seemed sensible to choose a different title.

I have an entire talk on the topic of planning for the season ahead and am giving this talk a couple of times in the next few weeks. To avoid stealing my own thunder 4 I’m not going to talk in general terms about preparing for the season.

Instead I am going to concentrate on the things I’ll be doing in addition to all of the usual activities like swarm prevention, the honey harvest and mite control.

At this time of the year we have the luxury to stare idly off into the middle distance while simultaneously dreaming about bees and polishing off the remains of the Christmas cake. Once the season starts we’ll either be too busy, or there won’t be enough time to make some of the preparations.

So what will I be doing this year that differs from last year, or the one before that?

Long distance beekeeping

I finally moved from the east coast to the western extremities of Scotland last February after a couple of years of spending increasing amounts of time here. I’ve still got bees on both sides of the country (including colonies for research in Fife) and travel to and fro as needed to manage the colonies.

And, frankly, the novelty is starting to wear off.

It can get a bit wearing spending the day working with the bees and then driving for 4-5 hours to get home 5. Beekeeping can be hard work. There are lots of boxes to lift and it can get hot and tiring doing this for hours on a sweltering day in June.

Fortunately, this is Scotland, so the sweltering day bit doesn’t happen all that frequently 😉

However, the physical hard work does happen. I’ve previously calculated – using mental arithmatic on one of those long car journeys 6 – that my spring honey harvest might involve manhandling well over a ton of boxes over a couple of days. And that’s on top of the hive inspections.

Doing this ‘at a distance’ means everything tends to get squeezed into a 2-3 day trip every couple of weeks, or more frequently if I’m queen rearing as well.

OK, I’m not expecting much sympathy as you’ve probably also worked out by now how much honey all those supers contained 😉

Nevertheless, one priority this year is to reduce my hive count on the east coast, and increase it on the west coast.

Think of it as increasing the beekeeping : driving ratio.

Latitude and longitude

Don’t get me wrong, there are advantages of having apiaries 150 miles apart.

For a start, the timing of the key seasonal events – swarming and the nectar flows – are very different. Although there is only a fraction of a degree difference in latitude (perhaps equivalent to ~30 miles), the climatic differences are striking.

Warm and wet on the west coast, cold and dry on the east.

Or, more accurately as these things are all relative, warmer and wetter on the west coast, colder and drier on the east 😉

This, coupled with the geography, means that my bees in Fife are surrounded by intensively farmed land, whereas those on the west coast are in the howling wilderness.

A sweltering June day (!) in Fife with late-flowering OSR

And intensively farmed means oil seed rape (OSR). I don’t think there’s a single season I’ve been in Fife when OSR wasn’t available nearby. Even when the bees fail to collect a surplus the boost the colonies get from the bonanza of nectar and pollen is huge.

This means that the colonies are much bigger and stronger earlier in the season. They therefore make swarm preparations sooner and I can start queen rearing earlier.

All of which means that the 4-5 hours separation by car – less than 3° of longitude – is manifest as 3-4 weeks of difference in the beekeeping season.

And that means I don’t need the same equipment on both sides of the country at the same time.

Result 🙂

Local beekeeping

I think what these rambling comments really emphasise is the intensely local nature of beekeeping. The climate, geography and forage experienced by, or available to, colonies determines ‘what happens when’.

Specific advice on beekeeping can only meaningfully be applied if these factors are taken into account.

This is inevitably very confusing for beginners.

If a venerable sage pronounces on the discussion forums that ‘now is the right time’ for oxalic acid treatment, then it must be correct.

Yes?

Er, no.

The ‘right time’ reflects the combination of the mode of action of oxalic acid and the state of the colony. Oxalic acid is only effective against phoretic mites, so the colony should ideally be broodless. The timing of broodlessness will depend upon a host of factors, but will likely differ in different locations.

We’ve had a relatively mild winter (so far). My Fife colonies were broodless from late October through until sometime near mid/late November. A few I checked on the 7th of December had brood, and I expect they all did by Christmas (I’ve not checked since).

Cappings and a couple of mites – early December 2021, Fife

Had I not treated until the Christmas – New Year holiday my mite control would have been much less effective. Many mites would have escaped a drenching in oxalic acid as a consequence of being hunkered down in capped cells.

If you didn’t treat at all, or didn’t treat until the Christmas holidays, or didn’t treat when you know that the colony was broodless 7, keep a close eye on the mite levels as the colonies expand this spring. If the winter remains mild the mites will have ample opportunity to reproduce to disturbingly high levels.

I seem to have drifted off topic …

Local bees

My Fife bees were all reared locally and the queens are open mated. They do well in Fife and possibly wouldn’t do quite as well on the west coast. They also have Varroa whereas my west coast apiary is in a Varroa-free region.

I therefore cannot simply reduce my east coast colony numbers by moving them.

Instead I’ll have to use a combination of splitting some to produce nucs for sale and uniting others to make strong colonies for the summer nectar flow. Hopefully this should leave me with a few very strong colonies which will be easier to manage and/or hand on when I finally leave altogether.

Like last year I’ll therefore be doing quite a bit of long distance queen rearing. I’ll raise the cells in Fife and then transfer them, once sealed, to my recently completed portable queen cell incubator.

Have incubator, will travel

This frees up the cell raising colony for a second round of grafted larvae. I’ll then keep the cells with me until the queens emerge, maintaining them with a tiny bit of honey and water every day. On my next visit to Fife I’ll then be able to transfer them to introduction cages and place them in mating nucs.

A trial run doing this worked well last year.

There are several advantages of doing things this way:

  • The cell raising colony can be re-used about a week earlier than if I’d left the queens in it – either to emerge, or until they were ready for introduction as mature queen cells.
  • Any dud cells (i.e. those that don’t emerge) are ditched instead of only being discovered when checking the mating nucs a week or two later 8.
  • I can use the queens to fit in with my own travel timetable – which has other things dictating it like pesky meetings – rather than vice versa.

But, of course, it also involves a bit more work in maintaining and caging the queens. In addition, in my experience virgin queen introduction is slightly more risky than adding mature cells to a queenless colony.

However, in my view, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Expansion

I’ve successfully reared queens for several years.

I’m certainly not an expert, but I’m experienced 9 enough to expect it to work. I’m disappointed when graft acceptance is below about 75%, or when less than three quarters of my virgin queens fail to mate successfully.

Capped queen cells

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

Multiplied together (0.752) you get 0.56 … or ~50-60%. I therefore work out how many queens I need and graft twice the number of larvae and it usually works out about right.

So it is very frustrating when it doesn’t.

And it didn’t with my west coast queen rearing last season 🙁

Graft acceptance was low (though not catastrophic), but queen mating was very poor. I think this was due to a number of factors, some self-inflicted and some environmental:

  • Colonies developed much more slowly meaning queen rearing needed to start later in the season.
  • I had too few colonies, and certainly too few drones, to ensure enough ‘Summer lovin’ 🙂
  • The weather. It can be a bit hit and miss getting sufficient ‘dry, calm, settled’ weather for queen mating this far north and west.

July temperatures in Ardnamurchan

To expand my colony numbers on the west coast, and to generate surplus to help meet the demand for Varroa-free colonies in the area, I need to ‘up my game’ significantly.

Improved mating success 10

There’s nothing I can do to change the weather though I have started to take an unhealthy interest in it.

I’ve now got a personal weather station in the apiary which can generate graphs like that shown above (or for wind speed, sunlight, rainfall etc.). By retrospectively determining the local conditions that occurred during successful mating flights 11 I should be able to plan the timing of queen cell production a little better.

For example, if all that is needed is one half-decent day in an otherwise unsettled fortnight, it would make sense to produce a small number of mature cells over a long period. In contrast, if successful mating needs a longer period of settled weather – that might only occur once a season – then it might be better to have lots of queens (and mating nucs) ready for the time most likely to be suitable.

And the same considerations apply to drones.

Ardnamurchan is a very sparsely populated area … whether you’re counting people or bees. I strongly suspect that a major factor contributing to poor mating success was the relative sparsity of drones. To help compensate for this I am going to boost drone production in colonies by adding at least one full frame of drone foundation.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Regular readers will know I use a lot of foundationless frames. The colony preferentially draws these as worker or drone comb to fit their needs at the time. Consequently, many of my colonies often have more drone brood than a hive just filled with frames of purchased worker foundation.

However, this year I’m not even going to give them the option … I’ll drop a frame of drone foundation into the box so they just have to get on with it!

Finally, I can certainly improve my understanding of colony development on the west coast. Do I need to provide a syrup or pollen (pollen sub) boost early in the season to compensate for a local dearth of nectar and pollen? Are there other ways I could manage the colonies to ensure they are strong enough at the right time for cell raising?

So, part of my planning is to improve a number of things that contribute to successful queen rearing. Some of these will inevitably impact honey production, but that’s something I’m happy to sacrifice (in the short term at least).

A new apiary

For the first time I’ve got bees in the garden … or what masquerades as a garden in this part of the world. More accurately it’s just a patch of rough hillside with some mixed woodland and a really boggy bit (and an unhealthy amount of rhododendron).

For convenience I need to find an additional apiary this year. This avoids overloading an area with too many bees, and provides an additional site for queen mating or simply moving colonies temporarily during certain manipulations.

The usual quote is “less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles” when it comes to moving bees.

However, those rules aren’t absolute.

Mountains and expanses of water both significantly reduce the distances bees will fly (they prefer to go round them rather than over them).

And we have lots of both 12.

Aspen over Loch Sunart

I’ve scouted out a couple of locations already and have a couple more to check. My main apiary will remain in the garden but I’ll have an out apiary when needed.

Learn something new

The motto of perl, my favoured (and now very much out of fashion) computer programming language, is there’s more than one way to do it.

And exactly the same motto could be applied to beekeeping.

If you think about swarm control for example, you could use any one of at least a half dozen widely used methods, each of which has pros and cons.

Pagden, Demaree, nucleus, vertical splits, Taranov, etc. 13. Any of them will do the job if properly applied. Some might be better than others, but they all get there in the end.

I’m a firm believer in learning to use one method really well before trying something new.

Learn its foibles, its strengths and weaknesses. Get good at it.

Then, and only then, try a different method. If you’re interested 14.

It’s only by being confident and successful with one technique you’ll be able to judge whether a different one might actually be better.

Last year I used a Morris board for the first time. It’s like a Cloake board, but half the width. It didn’t work as well as the queen rearing method I usually use (a Ben Harden system). I think I know why and will be trying again this season.

I’m also going to try cell punching as an alternative to grafting. Cell punching involves cutting out a cell plug containing a larva of a suitable age and then presenting the entire plug to a queenless cell raiser.

I see this (if you’ll excuse the pun, which will become obvious in a second) as a sort of ‘future-proofing’.

You need good eyesight and a steady hand for grafting. My presbyopia is becoming more marked and I’d like to be able to rear queens reliably when I need glasses so thick they don’t fit under my veil 😉

There are more schemes being schemed (including something about frames), but they’ll have to wait until another time as I’ve already written too much …


Note

Coincidentally, on the day I made some notes for the last paragraph, Jeremy Burbidge at Northern Bee Books sent out a flyer announcing Roger Patterson’s new book Queen Rearing Made Easy: The Punched Cell Method. Roger is a strong advocate of this method and has written about it on Dave Cushman’s website. I’ve not read the book, but I have watched a few YouTube videos … what could possibly go wrong?

2021 in retrospect

Déjà vu?

Well … not really.

This time last year I wrote my 2020 in retrospect post. Looking back the last few years I’ve always tried to post these retrospective reviews of the season a week or so before Christmas.

In December 2020 we had a rapidly rising number of Covid cases being diagnosed, peaking in early January at ~68,000 a day. One year later – actually a little less than one year – we’ve just surpassed those worryingly high numbers.

So, not déjà vu at all … as that means the feeling of having already experienced the present situation.

We have experienced it already 🙁

Like chalk and cheese

Covid and the lockdowns of 2020 had a dramatic impact on my beekeeping. I did the bare minimum to maintain the colonies. This involved little more than some rigorous swarm control followed by feeding them up for winter.

2021 has been completely different.

Despite the self-imposed restriction of living 150 miles from the majority of my bees, I had a really busy time and was beekeeping more or less all season.

And it was a very good season.

After a cold, late start to the year 1 I was concerned that the colonies weren’t going to be strong enough to exploit the oil seed rape and other early nectar.

Mean temperature difference in Spring 2021 from 20 year average

I needn’t have worried.

By mid May the colonies were booming and I managed the biggest spring honey harvest since returning to Scotland in 2015 2.

The honey bonanza was repeated again in the summer, again with a record crop.

What was particularly rewarding was that these good harvests were achieved from significantly fewer production colonies than previous years.

This isn’t really a case of Less is more, it just reflects what a good year it was here.

Downsizing

I had lived in Fife since 2015. From 2018 I’d spent increasing amounts of time on the west coast which – with lockdown – had included the majority of 2020.

Ardnamurchan sunrise, late November 2021

For many reasons this was preferable and, with no expectation of Covid (and all it had entailed) disappearing anytime soon, we took advantage of a brief hiatus in government restrictions 3 to sell-up in Fife and move permanently to Ardnamurchan.

The move was in February 2020 … and there are still some things that have yet to be unpacked.

The one thing I didn’t move was any bees.

Bees in Fife, like ~98% of the UK mainland, have Varroa. In contrast, the Ardnamurchan peninsula, together with some parts of neighbouring Morvern and Knoydart, are Varroa-free.

Therefore, in preparation for moving away from Fife altogether, I have been reducing my colony numbers on the east coast this year.

As many beekeepers know, the best way to do this is to split colonies into nucs and pop in a ripe queen cell.

Bingo!

Three weeks later you should have a mated queen and two to three weeks after that you will have a nuc ready for sale.

Have you seen the price of nucs recently?

All of which meant that I spent much of the first half of the season rearing queens.

Queen rearing in Fife

I probably enjoy queen rearing more than any other aspect of beekeeping.

I think I’ve previously recounted first reading Hooper’s Bees and Honey book and skipping over the queen rearing chapter thinking ‘Why on earth would I want to do all that?’.

Have you seen the price of nucs recently?

As Hooper said, there are few things more satisfying than working with a calm and productive colony headed by a queen you have reared.

And he was right.

Queen cells from grafted larvae … somewhere under all those bees

I started queen rearing on the 10th of May. In retrospect, despite getting good acceptance (10/10) of the larvae, this was a bit early as subsequent queen mating was patchy and slow.

If at first you don’t succeed …

The second and third batches of queens (on the 1st and 7th of June) were much more successful and the better weather in June improved mating success. Overall, almost 75% of grafted larvae resulted in mated queens 5 with queen rearing on the west coast.

Record keeping

To help me remember what didn’t work last season – or to aid my recall of the few successes I did enjoy – I keep records.

In previous years I’ve done this with bits of paper that I carry around with me from apiary to apiary in my bee bag.

However, the combination of the house sale and my shockingly bad organisation 6 had resulted in me starting the 2020 season with no blank printed forms on which to keep records.

Colony records on a spreadsheet

I therefore cobbled together a slightly expanded version of the form on a spreadsheet and used this for all my record keeping.

I always have a laptop with me when travelling and the majority of my bees on the east coast are in apiaries with at least some shelter. Therefore, rather than taking notes and transcribing them to the spreadsheet I just typed them up, there and then, during the inspections.

The downs and ups of being a digital nomad

The N, M and comma keys are now sufficiently gummed up with propolis that the laptop is almost unusable.

D’oh!

The essential tech for the queen rearing digital nomad

However, keeping records like this has been a revelation. Not only are my records more complete than usual, they are also a lot more useful.

For example, they are directly searchable. If I search for ‘OA’ I can find the 18 instances when I referred to this during the year – all of which are in the Treatment column.

With a little Pivot Table magic I can see how busy I was during the season.

Colony inspections per week 2021

I’ve not broken this down into east and west coast apiaries, and I’ve exclude instances when the brood box wasn’t opened or when I did nothing but add syrup/pollen patties etc.

Over the season I inspected something like 340 colonies, but as is clear from the graph above, the bulk of the work was in May and June. Several colonies haven’t been fully inspected since late July, though all those on the east coast have had the Apivar strips added and removed.

Big deal … show me something useful

OK, I agree the graph above is of little use. Perhaps more beneficial is the ability to easily get an idea of various aspects of colony performance.

For example, when I’m queen rearing I only want to select larvae from my best colonies.

That’s not necessarily the colony I thought was best last week.

Perhaps I was particularly clumsy that week with an even better colony?

Maybe I have simply forgotten how psychotic the apparently good colony was in previous weeks?

It really should be the colony that has, over the range of characteristics I score, performed best over the season.

Come in number 21, your time is up

My queens are numbered, or at least the boxes they are in carry a unique queen number.

Therefore, by being careful not to duplicate queen numbers during the season, it’s possible to get an idea of which colonies (queens) have performed best … again with a little Pivot Table magic.

The scores are on the doors

These are cumulative averaged scores of three separate criteria e.g. temper or steadiness. I don’t keep records of honey weights, or longevity, or swarminess, or any number of other criteria … but I could if I wanted 7.

Next season I’ll have a pretty good idea which queens to select larvae from when I start queen rearing.

Mid-season scare

At some point late in July I received the dreaded ‘AFB within 5 km’ email from the National Bee Unit.

Irrespective of how careful you are in previous inspections, or of how rigorous you are with apiary hygiene 8, these emails are always worrying.

At least they are to me 🙁

I sold my first-borne child and purchased a load of AFB test kits, ordering them en route to Fife and collecting them from Brian in Thorne’s of Newburgh before arriving at the apiaries.

I then spent an entire day going through every frame 9 in every hive in the ‘at risk’ apiary and another site that I use.

Congratulations

It was a busy day.

After looking at a few hundred thousand cells you start to get paranoid.

Inevitably you’ll find a few partially capped cells … after all, they can’t go from open to capped without – at some point – being partially capped. I didn’t lateral flow test every one, but I did the ropey larva test on a large number … everything was negative.

Phew!

I was subsequently told that, although additional apiaries (one or more, bee inspectors are, rightly, careful not to disclose confidential information) were found with AFB, all were directly linked to the index site i.e. AFB transmission involved the beekeeper-mediated transfer of bees or contaminated equipment, rather than through drifting or robbing by the bees alone.

Forewarned is forearmed … next season I’ll be careful to check the colonies as they build up in the spring.

The dying of the light

I’m writing this as we approach the shortest day of the year which, here on the west coast, is about six and three quarter hours long.

There’s not much light, but what there is can be stunning …

Ardnamurchan sunset, looking towards Mull

It’s a good time to look back over the season.

To work out what worked and what didn’t.

Overall 2021 was pretty good as far as my bees were concerned. The season contained a normal range of surprising successes and abject failures, caused – in equal measure – by my usual insightful interventions and appallingly cackhanded meddling.

It was fun.

I learnt a few new things.

I probably re-learnt a lot more 😉

And, like every season, I saw things I’d either never seen before or not been alert enough to notice.

Herding drones

I’ll end this retrospective with a photo taken on the last day of August as I transferred a colony to a new brood box.

Herding drones

It’s not a particularly good photo as I had to carefully put down the frame I was holding and scrabble around for my camera.

In the far back corner of the hive, diametrically opposite the entrance (which was reduced to help the colony repel wasps), there was a ‘clump’ of drones. They were tightly wedged into the corner of the hive and – at least to me – it looked as though they were being herded there by the workers.

We all know that drones are evicted from the colony as autumn approaches.

Their job is done.

Actually, to be pedantic, if they are still alive in early autumn they have singularly failed to do their job 😉

Whatever … they are surplus to requirements as far as the colony is concerned.

Usually you see the drones being turfed out of the entrance of the hive.

I think this photo shows what happens to the drone inside the hive. The workers pester and harry them. Either they try and hide in the corners of the hive, or they are effectively herded there by the workers.

It can’t be a lot of fun being a drone in late August 🙁


 

Portable queen cell incubator

One of the earliest posts on this site, back in January 2014, described my honey warming cabinet.

Both that post and the cabinet are still going strong.

The cabinet has been used to process a lot of honey … and the post has been read tens of thousands of times and still remains in the top 10% of most read pages (of ~450 now) in 2021.

I attribute the popularity of the post to two things:

  • it was an erudite article written in an elegant and entertaining style 1
  • the design reflected the sort of inspirational genius rarely seen outside a Dyson factory 2
  • almost all beekeepers find that a honey warming cabinet is very useful
  • similar 3 commercial honey warming cabinets are a daft price

Today’s post is on a niche DIY project … a portable queen cell incubator. However, like the honey warming cabinet, it is something that can be built for significantly less than a similar commercial model.

Portable queen cell incubator version 2

Unlike the honey warming cabinet, this is something that will be of interest to only a subset of beekeepers.

Or perhaps fewer.

The fraction of a fraction of a small proportion

Firstly, only a small proportion of beekeepers actively 4 rear queens. Quite how big or small that proportion is I don’t know … perhaps 10%.

Secondly, only a fraction of that 10% of beekeepers will want to use an incubator for queen emergence or short-term storage 5.

And finally, only a fraction of that fraction might need the queen cell incubator to be portable.

But I’m one of them, and I know there are a few others who are regular readers … 6.

It also seemed appropriate to balance the article on frames – of general relevance, if not interest – last week with something of very specialist interest … reflecting the wonderful diversity of our hobby.

Design criteria

I discussed some general features of a portable queen cell incubator when I described my first attempt at building one back in July.

Broadly the design criteria were as follows: 

  • automatic temperature controlled environment maintained at between 33.3 °C (92 °F) and 35.5 °C (96 °F) 7
  • ideally with the temperature controlled to between 34.4 °C to 35 °C (94-95 °F)
  • high humidity
  • able to accommodate at least 10 queen cells in Nicot cages
  • portable and powered by a 5V or 12V supply so it could be used in a car (or from a battery)

Version 1 was a case of ‘close, but no cigar’.

It worked up to a point. Queens emerged in it and I successfully transported virgin queens across Scotland (including hotel stops), maintaining them for up to a week before introducing them (also successfully) into hives. 

Version 1 … a bit primitive if I’m honest … but it did work (more or less)

But it was a bit of a botch-up.

It consisted of a polystyrene box with a 5 V vivarium heat mat. Temperature control was not automatic, but was more sort of ‘hit and hope’.

If at first you don’t succeed … 

However, I’ve spent some time since then making version 2 which – remarkably – meets all of the design criteria listed above 🙂

I don’t intend to provide a step-by-step guide to building this portable queen cell incubator. You might want a bigger one, or one for mains power only, or to house bare cells rather than queens in Nicot cages, or one coloured red or whatever. 

But what I will show are the general ways I met my design criteria, with a list of parts and lots of pictures showing how it was put together. I’ll highlight the critical features that actually made it work as intended. I’ll also discuss testing and performance, which are as important as the design and construction.

Overview

The portable queen cell incubator consists of an insulated picnic box with a 12 V 15 W heating element. Supported above the element is a block of foam insulation to hold the Nicot cages. Temperature control is automatic and a very stable temperature is achieved by circulating the air in the incubator with a small fan. Ten Nicot cages can be accommodated at a suitable temperature for hours/days at a time in ~90% humidity.

It’s winter … so this hasn’t been tested with queens or queen cells.

Caveat emptor.

A list of parts is followed by cross-sectional diagram and lots of photos, with comments, of some of the components. Towards the end of the post I describe the testing process and the results.

OK, for the six readers who have not already moved on … buckle up. Here goes.

Materials

This is what I used. I didn’t shop around much for bargain prices, so you might be able to do better. Note that I struggled to find anywhere other than RS Components that sold suitable heating mats.

  • Insulated picnic box – e.g. an Andes 5 litre coolbox at £14.99
  • Piece of wooden laminate flooring (from my spares bin)
  • Silicone 15 W heating mat – e.g. one from RS Components at ~£30
  • A5 6mm aluminium sheet – purchased from eBay for £4.50
  • Offcuts of a cheapo plastic queen excluder (from my spares bin)
  • 20 mm M4 roofing nuts and bolts (from my spares bin)
  • Closed cell foam – the stuff they pack computers in when shipping (from my spares bin)
  • 40 mm 12 V computer fan – e.g. a Noiseblocker BlackSilent Fan XM-1-40mm at ~£4.50 8
  • STC-1000 12 V temperature controller – e.g. an Aideepen at £14. Make sure you choose a 12 V model.
  • Plastic food container for the electrics – stolen from the kitchen (from my spares bin)
  • Velcro tape, Sugru, zip ties, cable gland, thin bits of foam, some wire and a few electrical connectors (from my – yes, you guessed it – spares bin)
  • 12 V mains power supply with 5.5 x 2.1 mm male connector (from a woefully poor BT broadband modem via my spares bin)
  • 5.5 x 2.1 mm female power jack sockets (about £9 for half a dozen)
  • 12 V car cigar lighter adaptor with 5.5 x 2.1 mm male connector (about £8) 9

Testing, testing

For development and testing I used a Raspberry Pi Zero with DS18b20 external temperature sensor(s) and DHT22 temperature/humidity sensor to monitor the environment in the incubator. For the technically-minded these recorded internal and external temperatures and/or humidity at 1 minute intervals, displaying the results via ThingSpeak. Perl or python scripts were run via cron jobs and data was saved to CSV-format files for subsequent analysis.

Computer geekery used for testing purposes – Raspberry Pi Zero, two DS18b20 and one DHT22 sensors

You don’t need this type of computer geekery, but you do need to be able to accurately determine the temperature (at least) inside the incubator and to calibrate the STC-1000 thermostatic controller.

Ideally you want a thermometer small enough that you can place it in different locations to determine how even the heating is within the incubator.

Cross-sectional diagram of the queen cell incubator

Early attempts just placing the foam (holding the Nicot cages) directly above the heating element were an abject failure. Temperature control was all over the place.

It turns out that you need a 1 cm gap between the foam and the element and you need a fan to circulate the air. That was the breakthrough … after which it was pretty much plain sailing.

Queen cell incubator schematic

A very humid environment is not ideal for electrical things like fans or thermostats. I therefore opted to house everything except the fan in a plastic food container velcro’d to the outside of the insulated picnic box.

Mission control

Not pretty … but functional.

If I was doing this again I’d do exactly the same thing … it works perfectly well.

Calibrate the STC-1000

The STC-1000 is a widely used and inexpensive thermostatic controller. It has a power input, a temperature sensor (probe) and separate controllable heating and cooling circuits. Both 12 V and 240 V models are available. 

You set the control temperature on the STC-1000 and a delta (offset) temperature of, say, 0.3 °C. Every time temperature drops below the set temperature minus delta the heating circuit switches on. When the sensor reports the temperature exceeds the set temperature plus delta the cooling circuit switches on. In the narrow range of set temperature ± delta the STC-1000 just keeps track of the temperature. 

This project did not use the cooling circuit.

The STC-1000 temperature sensor is on a long piece of wire. It is almost certain that the displayed temperature is not the actual temperature.

Calibrating the STC-1000

I worked out the temperature difference by placing the sensor in a Thermos flask (no lid) of hot water (~50 °C), together with thermometer(s) I trusted. I then recorded the temperatures at 10 minute intervals as the water slowly cooled and plotted the results.

STC-1000 calibration

My STC-1000 consistently over-read by ~1 °C across the tested range (28 – 49 °C). The STC-1000 has a function (F4 in the menu) to calibrate the unit so that the display – and therefore the thermostat settings – reflect the accurate temperature.

It’s worth doing this before embarking on the build, though you will need to adjust it again later (see below).

The F2 function on the STC-1000 sets the temperature delta (offset) away from the set temperature. Set this to the minimum, which is 0.3 °C. You want the temperature to fluctuate over a limited range.

The heating element

This is the single most important and expensive component.

I used a 12 V 15 W 100 x 150 mm silicone heating mat from RS Components. 

WARNING – these heat pads MUST be thermostatically controlled. Without thermostatic control these pads can reach ~200°C. Not only will this cook your queens, it will probably also melt your car, burn your house down and run off with your spouse. You have been warned!

Of course, I immediately wired it up (without a thermostat) to a 12V source and determined that it didn’t reach anything like 200°C particularly fast … though I dare say it would reach it eventually.

It did get too hot to touch, but you have to try these things, don’t you? 10

Silicone heating pad, wooden insulation and aluminium plate

To avoid damaging the inner floor of the box 11 I placed it on top of a ~1.5cm thick offcut of wood laminate flooring. I stopped this moving about with some fillets of closed cell foam.

To help dissipate the heat more evenly I stuck the heating mat to the underside of a 6mm thick piece of aluminium. The heating mat I purchased had an adhesive pad on one side of it.

Make sure the heating mat is central and stuck down with no air bubbles. Protect the wiring from the sharp edges of the aluminium pad with some gaffer tape.

With hindsight, a larger heating mat may work better. RS Components do a 30W version which is A5-sized (approximately) and would fit in the insulated picnic box I used. It should heat the box faster and may provide a more evenly heated surface 12.

The box

I chose a small (5 litre) square-sided picnic box designed to take 6 x cans of beer (or Coke … or iced-tea or whatever). The sides and base are foam-filled. The lid appears to be just hollow plastic. 

The box has a carry handle 13. There is no lock or catch to keep the lid shut, but it is quite tight and should be secure enough.

The intention at the start was to mount the STC-1000 through the side-wall of the insulated box, hence the choice of a square-sided model. I quickly abandoned this idea when I realised the humidity level inside the box and just how limited in volume it was.

There are similar, and slightly bigger insulated sandwich/picnic boxes that might well be better insulated and/or a better choice 14.

The internal bits 15

I drilled a hole through the rear wall of the box to take the wiring for the STC-1000 temperature sensor, heating mat and fan. In addition, I drilled a hole for a thermometer for use when testing the unit (subsequently filled in with a bit of foam and taped over, but it’s there if I need it again).

The foam block to hold the Nicot cages needs to be supported ~1 cm above the aluminium sheet. I used an offcut of plastic queen excluder held in place with 6 ‘legs’ created from M4 roofing bolts. These are a reasonably good fit through the holes in the queen excluder, but require a nut and washer each side to hold them firm and square to the plastic.

Legs for the foam support

This support was placed ‘screwhead down’ on top of the aluminium sheet.

Queen excluder support for foam block

The foam block goes on top of the queen excluder. I had to cut small recesses in the underside of the block to accommodate the protruding ends of the M4 roofing bolts. This is important as it keeps the queen excluder and foam properly aligned and flush fitting.

The foam block must be carefully shaped … this needs:

  • the ability to visualise the finished item in 3D
  • a sharp breadknife
  • a steady hand … or Elastoplast

The idea is to maximise the area to accommodate the Nicot cages, but to allow good airflow around the four edges of the block. I achieved this by leaving protruding corners that fitted very snugly into the box, but cut ~1 cm ‘recesses’ in the block on all four sides.

Foam block corner detail

The foam block I started with was ~5 cm thick, but I thinned it to ~3.5 cm to provide space for the Nicot cages.

My greatest smallest fan

The fan is located centrally, supported at the corners on the queen excluder and attached to the underside of the foam block. I cut a 40 mm diameter central hole through the block using a holesaw and then, using a scalpel, cut a recess for the fan. The fan was just taped in place. The airflow is intended to push warmed air from the aluminium plate UP through the central hole, so make sure you get the fan in the correct orientation.

I discovered that it helps to cut away the queen excluder underneath the fan to maximise the airflow. These little fans are pretty puny … don’t obstruct them if you can avoid it. 

The fan I purchased had a speed controller/reader wire which wasn’t needed, so I just cut it off.

The fan fits centrally in a recess cut into the underside of the foam block

I cut eleven suitably-sized (~2 cm diameter) plugs out of the block using a holesaw for the Nicot cages. Rather than cut right through the foam I cut through partially (~2 cm deep) and then used a very thin and sharp scalpel through the side of the block to cut across the bottom of the plug, so releasing it.

The intention was to grip the Nicot cage, but to have the queen cells protruding into the airspace over the foam … where hopefully the temperature would be even and constant.

Almost finished …

Wiring it all up

I’m not going to embarrass myself or risk your electrocution by showing the gory details of the rats nest of wiring I ended up with.

What a mess … 12V makes this a whole lot easier and safer

Suffice to say that working with 12V probably saved my life more than once 😉

It’s worth remembering that the heating (and cooling) circuits on an STC-1000 are not powered but the temperature sensor is, so you need to take a spur off your power input to provide juice to the heating mat.

I based my wiring on the following diagram, ignoring both the yellow/green earth wires as I was using 12 V and the cooling terminals.

STC-1000 wiring diagram. For 12 V omit the yellow/green earth wires.

Actually, it was a little more complicated than that as I also wired the fan directly into the power so that it was always running. Preliminary tests showed that this gave reduced temperature fluctuations than when wired in parallel with the heating mat.

More ‘shockingly bad’ wiring

The temperature sensor and wires to the heating mat and fan are routed via a cable gland from the plastic box on the outside, through the hole in the sidewall of the picnic box. I sheathed the wires in some flexible cable sleeving I had from another project.

Cable gland and sleeve

The power supply feeds into the plastic ‘control box’ via a near-ubiquitous 5.5 x 2.1 mm socket (shown above). 

The temperature sensor needs to be fixed in a central location on the inside of the lid of the picnic box.

Temperature sensor

To ensure repeatable temperature control this sensor must be in a fixed location. Do not just leave it flapping around in the box 16. Make sure you have sufficient wire free to the sensor to allow the lid to open easily, without fouling anything in the box.

Ready for testing

With everything assembled the inside of the box should look something like this:

Almost ready to go

I still have a little more tidying to do with the wiring to the heating pad and the temperature sensor. They will both be held in place with zip ties and I’m intending to construct a smaller seal on the inner wall using Sugru mouldable silicone glue (which is extraordinary stuff).

The recesses to hold the Nicot queen cages are numbered.

Having put everything together I then tested it 17

Temperature testing

The temperature within the Nicot queen cages is not identical in every position in the box.

It varies, in a very reproducible manner, from position to position 18. The variation between positions is mostly with 1°C, so the aim was to adjust the thermostat so as many of the Nicot cages as possible were within the optimum part of the temperature range.

In the following graph the temperature was measured for 1-2 hours with the Nicot cage containing my testing thermometer in each location, with positions #5 (light bars) or #9 (dark bars) occupied by the water source to maintain humidity. Error bars indicate the standard deviation in each position.

Temperature testing

Red lines indicate the lowest (dashed) and highest (solid) temperatures acceptable for incubating queen cells. Blue lines indicate the low and high limits on the optimum range.

Positions #5 and #11 were consistently warmer. The heating mat must have a ‘hotspot’ in this central region. Position #9 was consistently cooler (and was the most variable position).

Using position #9 for the water source, 8 of the remaining 10 positions maintain the temperature within the optimum range of 34.4 °C to 35 °C. The two outside this range (positions #3 and #10) are only ~0.4 °C cooler.

Nice 🙂

Calibration of the STC-1000 … what, again?

But you will not achieve figures like those above without again calibrating the temperature offset in the STC-1000.

With the temperature sensor suspended from the lid of the box there is a temperature differential between the sensor and the location of the queen cell within the Nicot cage.

You therefore need to work out this difference and then recalibrate – via the F4 function – the offset on the STC-1000. 

Accurately measure the temperature where the queen cells will sit and then compare this temperature with that shown – once a steady temperature is reached – by the STC-1000. For example, if the STC-1000 is set at 34.5 °C, but your thermometer reads the Nicot cage temperature as only 33.5 °C, you need to adjust F4 by -1.0 °C.

This takes a little time, but the goal is to end up with the set temperature on the STC-1000 being the temperature at which you want to incubate your queen cells.

Frankly, I was delighted 19 I could get such accurate and reproducible temperatures 🙂

The ambient temperature in my workshop was 15-17 °C throughout these tests, but I also confirmed that the temperature did not fluctuate when the box was moved outdoors (8 °C).

Humidity

Queens need a humid environment. I used a folded up piece of kitchen towel fitted tightly into a Nicot cage and then soaked in water. This sits in position #9. Using this I could maintain humidity at a fraction over 90% as long as the lid of the box was closed.

Humidity measurements

From a ‘cold start’ humidity increases to ~91% after one hour and remains high. The humidity drops to ~70% when the box was briefly opened (after 2 hours 40 minutes, above) but quickly returned to over 90%.

That’s good enough for me and should be good enough for my queens 🙂

Heating and cooling

The graph above shows that the box takes about one hour to reach working temperature. In repeated tests this was very reproducible from an ambient (workshop) temperature of ~17 °C.

Heating and cooling

If the lid was kept closed the temperature drops from ~34 °C to ~25 °C in one hour when the power is turned off. The temperature drops much faster if the lid was left open 20.

All of the temperature measurements shown in the bar chart above involved repeated opening and closing the lid to move the test thermometer about. This is not dissimilar to the manipulations when introducing, checking or feeding queens. Under these conditions the temperature fluctuated by only 1-2 °C and returned to the set temperature within a few minutes.

Again, that’s more than good enough for me and my queens 🙂

What’s in a name?

There is a commercial portable queen cell incubator, the Carricell, made in New Zealand.

Carricell queen cell incubator

This is primarily designed to carry cells … hence the name. I don’t think it’s a queen cell incubator, despite what it says on the side of the unit. It keeps cells warm, but you couldn’t incubate sealed cells until they emerged … but what do I know, as I’ve never seen or used one?

I’ve also never seen any data on the temperature stability of the Carricell. However I do know they cost an eye-watering €636 from Swienty (for the mid-sized 70 cell model).

The Carricell is for professional bee farmers who want to transport lots of cells at a time. 

My incubator is for a small number of cells only (but could be scaled up now the basic design problems are solved).

I need a name for the box I’ve described as ‘portable queen cell incubator’ is much too sensible and unwieldy. 

I currently favour the name PortaQueen 21 … can you think of anything better?

In use

Unless you’re in the fraction of a fraction of a small proportion of beekeepers who actually need one of these you might have read 22 the last 3700 words and be wondering “That’s all very well, but what the hell is it used for?”

Here are the three things I expect to use this for next season:

  1. Incubating queen cells started and capped in my cell rearing colonies. This frees up the cell rearing colony to rear a second batch of queens. A capped cell just needs to be kept warm. The queen emerges and is then introduced to a colony for subsequent mating. Alternatively, the queen cell can be used just prior to emergence to prime a newly made up nucleus colony.
  2. Keeping virgin or mated queens warm and safe during transport between apiaries 23. You can feed virgin queens with honey and water and keep them alive for several days prior to introducing them into a colony. It is always good to have a spare queen or two ‘on hand’ in case of emergencies, opportunities or stupidity.
  3. Transporting eggs or very young larvae for grafting in a distant apiary. I don’t have space to write about this more here, but may cover it in the future.

Here’s one I produced earlier

If you attempt to build one of these I’d be interested to hear how you got on.


Note

Almost forgot … this box needs a 12 V supply, but the heating pad and fan are about 16 W total (and the former is only on ~50% of the time). I calculate it could be powered by a 7 Ah sealed lead acid battery for a few hours if needed. Coincidentally (not) I’ve previously built solar powered battery boxes that house 7Ah SLA batteries to drive my trail cameras which could also be used with the PortaQueen.

Queen introduction

I’m probably less qualified to write about queen introduction than almost any other aspect of beekeeping. This is not because I’ve not introduced any queens. Quite the opposite, it’s something I do more or less routinely many times a season. 

The reason(s) I’m really not qualified to discuss the topic are:

  • I almost exclusively use the method I first used and I’ve not done any side-by-side comparisons with other methods to determine which work ‘best’. I have a method that works well enough i.e. somewhere between most of the time and almost always. That’s good enough for me.
  • I’m not aware of any recent scientific studies on the subject so cannot use those to make informed decisions – or interpretations – of why some methods work and others don’t 1.

Nevertheless, not being qualified has never stopped me before 2 and it’s a topic that some beekeepers struggle with and many beekeepers worry about.

Successful introduction ...

Successful introduction …

So here goes …

Art or science?

David Cushman/Roger Patterson make the point that: 

” … you can have two colonies in the same condition, in the same apiary, on the same day and if you introduce a queen in the same condition into each, one will succeed and the other will fail.”

This doesn’t mean that 50% of introductions fail (although it reads that way). What he/they mean is that there appears to be no rhyme or reason why one succeeds and the other does not.

On another day, both might succeed … or both might fail 🙁

Is it therefore an art or a science?

I don’t know. All you can do is get the basics correct and cross your fingers …

For understandable reasons, beekeepers feel rather precious about their queens. In particular, beekeepers who do not rear their own queens (and so have no spares waiting in the wings) can get a bit paranoid about queen introduction. 

What if it goes wrong?

The colony will potentially be left irretrievably queenless and – if you purchased the queen – you’ll be £40 out-of-pocket 3.

If you do rear your own queens you can perhaps be a bit more blasé about queen introductions. Potentially you can also do the sort of side-by-side comparisons I mentioned above … though there aren’t many studies where this has been done in a rigorous way. 

Most seem to find a method that works for them and then stick with it … which is what I’ve done and what I’m going to describe.

This is what I mean by ‘get the basics correct’.

I’ll also mention an alternate method I irregularly use for what I consider to be really difficult situations and/or really valuable queens.

But before we get into the methodology, it’s worth making some general comments about the state of the recipient colony and the queen being introduced.

Is the colony really queenless?

Trying to introduce a new queen into a colony that is not actually queenless will not end well.

One or both of the queens will probably not survive the experience. Either the workers will reject (and slaughter) the incoming queen, or the queens will fight and may both be damaged and lost.

It is therefore important that the recipient colony is queenless.

By queenless I mean that there is no queen present.

I do not mean no laying queen present. If you try and introduce a new queen into a colony with a failed (non laying) queen or a virgin (unmated) queen you will have problems.

Sod’s Law is explicit in these instances … the valuable new mated laying queen will be lost 🙁

Queen above the QE

A virgin queen (in this instance on the wrong side of the queen excluder)

The very best way to be sure the colony is queenless is to remove the current queen before introducing the new one. That necessitates finding the queen in the first place. 

What if you can’t find the queen but you’re sure that the colony is queenless?

Well, there are only two possibilities if you can’t find the queen, these are:

  1. The colony is queenless … you’re good to go.
  2. The colony is not queenless … but you’ve looked so hard for so long they’re now disturbed and running manically around the frames, getting more and more agitated and angry. Neither the bees or you are any sort of state to allow the queen to be discovered. Close the hive up. Have a cup of tea. Try again tomorrow.

I discussed methods of determining whether the colony is queenright (though not by extrapolation, the opposite i.e. queenless – see below) last season. Towards the end of that post I described the addition of a ‘frame of eggs’ to determine if the colony is queenright or not. I won’t repeat all the details here.

If the colony draw queen cells on the introduced frame then you can be sure that the colony is queenless. See (1) above … you’re good to go 🙂

Not queenless, but not queenright

That same post describes the concepts of queenright and queenless.

A colony that is queenright has a mated queen capable of laying fertilised eggs (though she may temporarily not be laying, for example due to a dearth of nectar).

A queenless colony contains no queen.

But there’s an intermediate stage … or potentially two intermediate stages if you allow me a little leeway.

A colony containing a failed queen that’s either not laying at all (and not going to restart), or only laying drone (unfertilised) eggs is neither queenright not queenless. This colony will not draw queen cells on the introduced frame. You cannot safely introduce a new queen into such a colony before first finding and removing the failed queen.

A colony containing laying workers will also not 4 produce queen cells from the introduced frame of eggs. 

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

A colony with laying workers behaves as though it’s queenright but is actually queenless. It’s not really an intermediate stage, but the consequences are the same. Again, they are highly unlikely to accept an introduced queen.

Deal with the laying workers first and then requeen … and good luck, laying workers can be a nightmare 🙁

OK … let’s assume the colony really is queenless … what’s the easiest way to introduce a new queen?

Add a sealed queen cell

Almost without exception, a queenless colony can be requeened by adding a sealed queen cell. The virgin queen will emerge, go on one or two mating flights and return and head the colony. This method of queen introduction is almost foolproof in my experience. 

Where do you get the queen cell from? Another colony, your mentor, a friend in your beekeeping association, a local queen rearer … necessity is the mother of invention 5.

Assuming the cell is a natural queen cell … cut the queen cell out of the comb with a generous amount of surrounding comb. Don’t risk damaging the queen cell. Keep it vertical … there are stages during development when the pupa is susceptible to damage. Ideally choose and use a cell 24-48 hours from emergence as they’re a lot more robust late in the development cycle.

Use your thumb to make an indentation towards the top of a frame near the centre of the broodnest, above some capped and emerging brood. Using the generous ‘edge’ of comb surrounding your chosen queen cell push this into the indentation so the cell is secure. Close up the colony and a) check for emergence in 48 hours or so 6 and b) a fortnight later for successful mating.

Adding a grafted queen to a colony

If the cell is from a grafted larvae it is even easier … press the plastic cell cup holder into the comb and push the frames together. I describe this in a recent discussion of grafting.

How successful is this method of ‘queen’ introduction?

I’d estimate at least 85%.

A very small percentage of queen cells fail to emerge (or rather, the queen fails to emerge from the cell … but you knew what I meant 😉 ).

A slightly larger percentage of queens fail to mate (or fail to return from a mating flight). But, even in a bad season, it’s rarely more than 10-15%.

The new queen is accepted by the colony because she emerged there and they all live happily ever after 😉 .

What?

I know, I know … that’s not really queen introduction.

You’re right. But it works. Very well.

These are the two methods I use for queen introduction.

Candy-plugged queen cage

I have a large supply 7 of JzBz queen introduction and shipping cages. 

JzBz queen cages

JzBz queen cages

I really like them because they were free they are reusable, they have a tube-like entrance that can be plugged with candy/fondant and they have a central region to protect the queen from aggressive workers outside the cage. 

Some cages offer no areas of refuge for the queen and workers can damage the queen through the perforations. Avoid cages that are all perforations.

The JzBz cages can be purchased with a removable plastic cap (shown below the cage in the image). These fit over the end of the tube and can seal the cage until you judge the colony is likely to gracefully receive the new queen … as described below 8.

JzBz queen introduction and shipping cage

Using a JzBz cage for queen introduction:

  • Plug the tube of the JzBz cage with queen candy or fondant. Queen candy can be purchased commercially and kept frozen for long periods. I almost always use fondant these days as I have spare boxes of the stuff from autumn feeding.
  • Add a short piece of wire or a cocktail stick through the perforations at one end of the cage to hang the cage – entrance tube pointing downwards – between two frames. Do this before adding the queen to avoid risking skewering the queen at a later stage 9
  • Place the queen in the cage without any attendants (see below for comments on removing them). Close and seal the cage. Seal the candy tube with the plastic cap.
  • Hang the cage in the centre of the broodnest, above some emerging brood. Leave the colony for 24 hours.

The idea here is that the colony gets the chance to accept the new queen without getting the opportunity to slaughter her.

Look for signs of aggression

Colonies that have been queenless for a few hours (say 2-24) before adding the new queen are usually very willing to accept a replacement. Adding a queen immediately after removing the old queen is likely to result in some aggression to the caged queen.

Check the colony after 24 hours. I usually lift the cage out and place it gently on the top bars to observe the interaction of the workers and the queen.

Checking for aggression

If the colony show no aggression to the caged queen – look for bees trying to sting through the cage or biting at the cage – then remove the plastic cap and re-hang the cage between the frames.

If they show aggression leave them another 24 hours and check again 10

Once you remove the cap the queen will be released by the workers after they eat through the candy/fondant. This takes just a few hours. 

Check again a week later to ensure the colony has accepted the queen.

Nicot introduction cage

I use the method described above for almost every queen I introduce. 

The only exception is if I have to requeen a colony that has previously not accepted a queen using the method described above. Usually such a colony will also be broodless (just based on the timings of determining they are queenless and failing once to successfully introduce a queen). 

Under these circumstances I use a Nicot queen introduction cage.

Nicot queen introduction cages

I find a frame from another colony with a hand-sized patch of emerging brood. The comb needs to be level so that the cage can sit on top without gaps for the queen to escape.

Then do the following:

  1. Remove all the bees from the frame and place the Nicot cage over the brood using the short plastic ‘legs’ to hold it into the comb 11.
  2. Secure the cage in place using one or two elastic bands.
  3. Introduce the queen through the removable – and eminently losable 12 – door.

In practice it’s easier to do this in the order 3-1-2 … place the queen on the frame, cover with the cage and then secure it with the elastic band.

Add the frame and cage to the hive, locating it centrally. Push the frames together. 

The emerging workers will immediately accept the queen and feed her. Other workers will feed the queen through the edges of the cage.

One corner of the cage has an entrance tunnel that can be filled with candy/fondant. I don’t think I’ve ever used this. In my experience the colony releases the queen by burrowing under one edge of the cage after a few days. If they don’t, check and remove the cage a week later.

I don’t think I’ve ever failed to successfully introduce a queen using one of these cages, but it’s a relatively small sample size.

Thorne’s sell a metal mesh version of this cage that has integral ‘legs’. I’ve not used it, but the principle is the same. Keep it in a box or the sharp cut metal edges will butcher your fingers – it’s difficult picking up queens with heavily bandaged digits.

You could also ‘fold’ your own from mesh floor material. One with deeper ‘sides’ could be pushed down to the midrib of the comb, so reducing the chances of the bees burrowing under the edge of the cage.

Mated or virgin? 

I use the JzBz cage for introducing either mated or virgin queens. I’m not aware of any significant difference in the acceptance rate between them. 

However, it’s worth noting that acceptance is dependent upon essentially ‘matching’ the expectations of the colony with the state of the queen. 

A virgin queen will be less likely to be accepted by a colony from which a mated laying queen has recently been removed. Leave them 24-48 hours. 

Likewise, I remove nearly mature queen cells from a colony I’m requeening with a mated queen. I don’t want to risk an early-emerged virgin queen from ‘raining on the parade’ of the introduced queen.

I’ve only used the Nicot cage for mated queens. Since the latter is usually used for a broodless colony I want the minimum possible delay before there is new brood in the colony.

Alone or with attendants?

If you purchase a queen and receive her by post there will be a few workers caged with her.

I always remove these although some suggest that they do not adversely influence acceptance rates 13. I remove them because I’m a bit paranoid about viruses … these workers come from an ‘unknown’ hive (quite possibly not the same one that the queen came from) and will carry a potentially novel range of Deformed wing virus variants (and possibly others as well).

I don’t want these in my hive so I remove the workers

It’s also worth noting that Wyatt Mangum has an interesting report in American Bee Journal indicating that the presence of attendants significantly increases the acceptance time 14 for an introduced queen 15. In some cases the presence of attendants resulted in the colony showing aggression for longer than it took for the bees to eat through the candy plug … that’s not going to end well for the queen.

The safest way to remove attendants is to open the caged queen in a dim room with a single closed window. The bees will fly to the window (perhaps with a little encouragement).

A mated queen probably will not fly at all and can be re-caged. A virgin queen can fly well and will also end up at the window. Gently grab her by her wings and re-cage her.

You can do all this in the apiary … it requires confidence and dexterity. I know this because I recently tried it with a virgin queen in my apiary, using lashings of overconfidence and hamfistedness.

She flew away 🙁

Inevitably you can buy a gadget to help you with this – the queen muff

Conclusions

There is always a slight risk that queen introductions will not be successful. The queen pheromones have such a fundamental role in colony maintenance that disrupting them – or suddenly changing them – may lead to rejection. 

However, the methods described above are sufficiently successful that I’ve not found the need to look for better alternatives. They’re also sufficiently fast that I’m not tempted to try some of the ‘quick and dirty’ approaches 16 to save time.

Finally, it’s worth noting that it is usually easier to requeen a nucleus colony than a full hive. If I ever bought one of those €500 breeder queens I’d introduce her to a nuc first and then unite the nuc back with the original colony.

But that’s not going to happen 😉


 

DIY queen cell incubator

NOTE: This post is now redundant as I have designed, built and tested version 2 of my portable queen cell incubator. I’m leaving this post here for those who wanted to read some of the background information.


You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time … so said John Lydgate (1370-1450).

And he wasn’t wrong.

This is something I’m particularly aware of writing a weekly post on beekeeping. Much like my talks to beekeeping associations, the ‘audience’ (in this case the readership) ranges from the outright beginner to those with way more experience than me.

An article, like the one last week, on transporting your first nuc home and transferring it to a new hive, is unlikely to be of much interest to an experienced beekeeper.

Conversely, a post on something esoteric – like Royal patrilines and hyperpolyandry – is probably going to be given a wide berth by someone who has recently started beekeeping 1.

There’s no way I can write something relevant, interesting and topical for the entire breadth of experience of the readers 2

Going by the popularity of certain posts it’s clear that many readers are relatively inexperienced beekeepers.

The post entitled Queen cells … don’t panic! contains little someone who has kept bees for five years doesn’t or shouldn’t already know 3. Nevertheless, it is one of the most popular pages over the last couple of years. It has already been read more times this year than all previous years 4.

I suspect the majority of these thousands of viewings are from new(ish) beekeepers.

If you’re in this group then I suggest you look away now 😉 5

I’m going to discuss a pretty focused and specialised topic of relevance to perhaps a fraction of 10% of all beekeepers

The 10%

When I started beekeeping I was certain I would never be interested in queen rearing.

In fact I was so certain that, when repeatedly re-reading Ted Hooper’s book Bees and Honey, I’d skip the chapter on queen rearing all together. 

By ‘queen rearing’ I mean larval selection, grafting, cell raisers, cell finishers, mini-nucs, drone flooding etc. 

Queen cells from grafted larvae … what a palaver!

What a palaver!

All I wanted was a few jars of honey.

Oh yes, and slightly better tempered bees.

And perhaps a nuc to overwinter ‘just in case’.

What about a queen or two ‘spare’ for those swarms I miss?

A year or two later I had the opportunity – through the generosity of the late Terry Clare – to learn the basics of queen rearing and grafting

A week later I had a go on my own.

Amazingly (though not if you consider the tuition) it worked 🙂 . I successfully reared queens from larvae I’d selected, transferred, produced as capped cells and eventually got mated.

It was probably the single most significant event in my experience as a beekeeper. I got my nuc to overwinter and I’ve gradually improved my bees through selecting from the best and requeening the worst. I know how to produce ‘spare’ queens, though need them less frequently as my swarm control has also improved 😉  6

I don’t know what proportion of beekeepers ‘actively’ rear their own queens. I suspect it’s 10% or less.

But even that select group aren’t the target audience for this post.

The target audience are queen rearers who need to incubate queens or queen cells for protracted periods (hours to days) without constant access to mains electricity.

Let me explain

The peripatetic beekeeper

I live on the remote west coast of Scotland 7 but keep the majority of my bees in Fife. 

My apiaries in Fife are 30-40 minutes apart, and I drive past one on my way to my main apiary (in St Andrews). If I need a ‘spare’ queen in an out apiary (and have one in St Andrews) it adds over an hour to what is already a four hour beekeeping commute.

That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back and something I’d really like to avoid 8.

On the west coast beekeepers and bees are very thin on the ground. I’ve just started queen rearing here and (again) have a 45 minute commute between apiaries 9. I’m working with another beekeeper and larvae are sourced from one and the cells are raised in another.

You can move frames of larvae about if you keep them warm and humid – a damp tea towel works well – at least if the times/distances are not too great.

But there’s an added complication … this area is Varroa free and I don’t want to be moving potentially mite-infested frames into the area. Nor do I want to deplete any of the donor colonies of brood frames.

All I want to move are a few larvae … but they’re a lot more fragile and sensitive.

So … two slightly unusual situations.

It seemed to me that my life would be a lot easier if I had some sort of portable queen and queen cell incubator.

My trusty honey warming cabinet

More than most events in beekeeping, the timing of the various stages of queen rearing is very clearly defined. You graft day old larvae and use the cells 10 days later. This timing currently defines the dates of my trips … except that sometimes there are diary clashes.

If my apiary with the cell raising colony was a mile away I could just go later in the day. 

But it’s not … 🙁

Before I started this (temporary) life as a travelling beekeeper I’d sometimes needed to incubate queen cells that were near to emergence. Once the cell is capped you can put it in an incubator, either until you use it as a capped cell, or until the virgin queen emerges. You then requeen a colony using the recently emerged virgin queen.

This was clearly another option to make the diary clashes less of an issue – raise the cells and then incubate them (outside the hive) until emergence, and then use the queens.

I’d already used my trusty honey warming cabinet to incubate queen cells. When I built this I used an Ecostat chicken egg incubator element rather than a 100 W incandescent bulb. The Ecostat heaters are thermostatically controlled and do a pretty good job of maintaining a stable temperature, anywhere between the high 20’s (°C) and about 55°C.

A day in the life of my honey warming cabinet (click for explanation of fluctuations)

There were two minor issues … the incubator needed a 240 V mains supply and was about the size of my car 10.

Honey warming cabinet. The Apiarist

Honey warming cabinet …

However, it’s perfect if you need to incubate 800 queen cells at once 😉

What I needed was a smaller, more portable, ‘battery’ – or at least 12V – powered version … 11

Beekeepers have short arms and deep pockets

One obvious solutions was to use a commercially available hen egg incubator. Brinsea are one of the market leaders and I know several beekeepers who use them as queen cell incubators. 

Although they are usually mains powered, they actually have an integral transformer and run at 12V, so could be powered from a car cigarette lighter socket. Temperature and humidity are controlled. They start at about £80 and would need modifying to accommodate queen cells, or Nicot cages containing queens.

The beekeeping-specific commercial solution is the Carricell.

Carricell queen cell incubator

These are manufactured in New Zealand in three sizes – for 40, 70 or 144 queen cells. Swienty (and presumably others) sell the 70 cell variant 12 over here for €636 13.

Excluding VAT 🙁

Beekeepers are notoriously commendably parsimonious. Since I have an alter ego named Dr. Bodgit, it seemed logical to try and build my own.

For a little less that €636 …

And ideally less than £80 😉

But first I needed to know more about the influence of temperature on queen cell development.

Temperature and development

The usual temperature quoted for the broodnest is about 35°C. Numerous studies have shown that, although the temperature is never constant, it is always in the range 33-36°C 14

It is reasonably well known that temperature can influence the development time of honey bees. At lower temperatures, development takes a little bit longer.

More significantly, Jürgen Tautz and colleagues showed almost two decades ago that honey bee workers reared (as pupae) at low temperatures have behavioural deficiencies 15.

For example, workers reared at 32°C showed reduced waggle dance activity when compared to bees reared at 36°C. Not only were they less likely to dance to advertise a particular nectar source, but they would dance less enthusiastically, performing fewer dance circuits.

In tests of learning and memory – for example associating smells with syrup rewards – bees reared as pupae at 32°C were also impaired when compared to bees reared at 36°C.

Tautz also demonstrated that bees reared at the lower temperature were more likely to go ‘missing in action’. They disappeared at a faster rate from the hive than the bees reared at the higher temperature. This strongly suggests their compromised memory or learning also had a negative influence on their survival. For example, in predator evasion, flight duration or the ability to find the hive.

OK … so temperature is really rather important for worker development.

Perhaps very accurate thermostatic control will be needed?

But what about queens?

There are good reasons to think that queen development might not be quite as sensitive to lower temperatures.

Queen cells are relatively rarely found in the centre of the broodnest. Those that are are often considered to be ‘supersedure cells‘, though location alone is probably not definitive.

Where are queen cells more usually found?

At the periphery of the broodnest, decorating the lower edges of the frame and even protruding down into the space below the bottom of the comb.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

Logic suggests that these might well experience lower temperatures simply by being at or near the edge of the mass of bees in the cluster. 

Perhaps queen development is less temperature sensitive?

Fortunately, I don’t need to rely on (my usually deeply flawed) logic or informed guesses … the experiment has been done 16.

Chuda-Mickiewicz and Samborski incubated queen cells at 32°C and 34.5°C. Those incubated at the lower temperature took ~27 hours longer to emerge than those at 34.5°C (which emerged at 16 days and 1 hour after egg laying).

However, of the variables measured, this was the only significant difference observed between the two groups. Body weights at emergence were similar, as were the spermathecal volume and ovariole number.

In both temperature groups ~90% of (instrumentally) inseminated queens started laying eggs.

So perhaps development temperature is not so critical (for queens after all).

The cheque queen is in the post

Finally, I expected my bodged incubator would also be used to transport mated queens. There’s good evidence that these are very robust 17. After all, you can get them sent in the post 18

Again, the experiment has been done 🙂

Survival of adult drones, queens and workers at 25°C, 38°C and 42°C

Jeff Pettis and colleagues investigated the influence of temperature on queen fertility 19 and concluded that incubation within the range 15-38°C are safe with a tolerance threshold of 11.5% loss of sperm viability 20

In addition, Pettis looked at the influence of high or low temperatures on adult viability (see graph above). Queens and workers survived for at least 6 hours at 25°C or 42°C. In contrast drones, particularly at high temperatures, ‘dropped like flies’ 21.

Stand back … inventor at work

Version 1 of the incubator was built and has been used successfully.

Queen cell incubator – exterior view (nothing to see here)

It consists of a polystyrene box housing a USB-powered vivarium heating mat. This claims to offer three heating levels – 20-25°C, 25-30°C and 30-35°C – though these are not when confined in a well-insulated box where it can reach higher temperatures. I’m not sure I believe the amperage/wattage information provided and don’t have the equipment to check it.

I run it from a 2.1A car USB socket, or a similar one that plugs into the mains.

The battery pack in the picture above runs the Raspberry Pi computer that is monitoring the temperature 22. It’s important to have accurate temperature monitoring and to do some trial runs to understand how quickly the box warms/cools. In due course all this wiring can either be omitted or built in … but it wouldn’t be a proper invention unless it looked cobbled together 😉

Not a lot to see here either …

Inside the box is a lot of closed cell foam – some crudely butchered to accommodate Nicot queen cages – sitting on top of a large ‘freezer block’. This acts as a hot water bottle. There’s also a plastic tray holding some soggy kitchen towel to raise the humidity.

Define ‘success’

The box has been used for the following:

  • transfer grafted larvae from an out apiary to a cell raising colony an hour away. Success defined by getting the grafted larvae accepted by the cell raiser.
  • transport queen cells up to 7 hours by car 23. Success defined by requeening colonies with the cells.
  • transport and maintain virgin queens for 7-10 days. These emerged in the incubator and then accompanied me back and forth before being used. All are now in hives and out for mating.

While powered – either in the house or the car – the box is easy to maintain at an acceptable temperature for extended periods, though it takes some time to reach the operating temperature.

An afternoon collecting and distributing queen cells to an out apiary

Even when opening the lid as queen cells are added/removed the temperature fluctuates by no more than 2-3°C. The graph above was generated from temperature readings taking queen cells from one apiary to another.

I’ll describe maintaining queens for extended periods in an incubator (with no attendant bees) in a future post.

The future

This really is a bodged solution.

At the moment the temperature has to be changed manually to keep it within the 32-35°C range. This might only be every few hours, depending upon how frequently the box is opened.

The combination of the insulation and the ‘hot water bottle’ freezer block means it can be left unattended overnight.

However, it really needs to have automatic temperature control. This should be trivial to add but will require more time than I have at the moment and for the box to be empty. It’s accompanying me on an exotic holiday to Glenrothes for the next three days 24 and will be in use for much of July as I start to make up nucs for overwintering.

So … as promised, an inelegant but working solution for a fraction of the 10% of beekeepers who rear queens. 

At a fraction of the price of a commercial one 🙂


STOP PRESS – update 7th September ’21

I now have a working solution with proper thermostatic temperature control. It’s currently going through a final series of tests. I strongly suggest you don’t follow the botch-up design described above, but wait for another post on this subject sometime this winter. It’s possibly to build a queen cell incubator with fully automatic temperature control of ±0.5°C that will work at home or in a vehicle for about £60.

STOP PRESS – update 26th November ’21

Full details of version 2 have now been published and this page is left here for historical reasons only … 

Little dramas

This post was originally titled Drama queens.

Apposite … it’s mostly about queens.

However, the term drama queen refers to someone who overreacts to a minor setback 1 … which is almost the complete opposite of what I’m intending to discuss.

Instead, this post is about the – sometimes unseen – little dramas in the apiary. Things that go wrong, or could go wrong but eventually go OK because you gently intervene … or often because you don’t intervene at all 😉

It’s also about observing rather than doing. It’s sometimes surprising what you see, and – with a little application – you can learn something about your bees 2.

Of course, in the end some things do not end well … but there’s no point in being a drama queen about it 😉

Swarmtastic

There’s a certain predictability to the beekeeping year. It’s dictated by the climate and latitude, by the forage available, by the need for bees to reproduce (swarm) and by our efforts as beekeepers to corral them and keep them producing honey 3.

All of which means that June has been pretty manic. 

After a record-breakingly cold spring things finally warmed up. Here in Scotland this was 2-3 weeks into May.

Since then it’s been a near-constant round of queen rearing, swarm control, making up nucs and adding supers. Most of the OSR supers are now off, meaning that I’ll be hunched over the extractor for hours when I’m not with the bees 🙁

All the OSR near my bees is well and truly over – this lot is sadly just out of range

The rapid warming in late spring triggered a lot of swarming activity. I found my first charged queen cell on the 18th of May and, in at least one or two colonies, at every subsequent inspection since then.

Visits to the apiaries have been hard work. Inspecting a double brood colony with four full supers involves a lot of lifting 4.

And the lifting is necessary because I need to check whether there are any queen cells in the brood chamber.

I know some beekeepers simply prise the two brood boxes apart and expect to see queen cells at the junction.

That certainly works … sometimes.

However, I’ve found several colonies with queen cells in the middle of frames, or otherwise in positions I would not see them if I just looked at the interface between the boxes. 

Queen cell … and what else?

And I would still have to remove the supers to prise the brood boxes apart.

Although I’ve invested in some better quality hive tools, I’d need a crowbar to separate the boxes if there was 80 kg of supers on top 5.

So, if I have to take the supers off, I might as well look through the box carefully.

More haste, less speed

But before I fire up the smoker and start rushing around prising off crownboards I always try and simply observe what’s happening in the apiary.

Are all the colonies equally busy? If it’s the time of day when the new foragers are going on orientation flights are any colonies much less active? Have they had a brood break?

Which direction are the bees flying off or returning from? Has the main forage changed?

Are there any drones on orientation flights yet?

What’s happening at the hive entrances?

Is there pollen going in?

Any sign of fighting?

Or robbing?

It’s surprising what a few minutes observation can tell you about the local forage, the state of the colonies and their relative strength.

If you’ve not already read it (and even if you have) it’s worth finding a copy of At the Hive Entrance by Prof. H. Storch 6. The book’s strap-line is “How to know what happens inside the hive by observation on the outside”. Recommended.

And, now and again, you notice something unusual …

Queen under the open mesh floor

Like – in my peripheral vision – a single bee flying out from underneath an open mesh floor.

My queens are generally clipped. If the colony swarms the queen often finds her way back to the hive stand after crashing – very unregally 7 – to the ground. She crawls up the leg of the stand and ends up underneath the open mesh floor (OMF).

The bees then join her. It’s not unusual to find a large cluster of bees under the hive floor, with lots of activity, and lots of bees flying to and fro from underneath the OMF 8.

But last Friday, by chance I noticed a single bee and this prompted me to investigate.

A quick peek confirmed that there wasn’t a swarm under the OMF.

But there was a queen.

I spy with my little eye … you can just see the marked and clipped queen under this Abelo floor.

Almost completely alone.

I presume the colony had swarmed, the queen had got as far as she could and the swarm had eventually abandoned her and returned to the hive. 

When I inspected the colony I found a single sealed queen cell and confirmed that the queen I found was the one that was missing.

This colony was one of my ‘middle third’ ones 9i.e. destined for requeening with better stock if I had any spares.

There’s a near-to-eclosion queen cell under there …

I did.

I had half a dozen ‘spare’ queen cells almost ready to emerge from grafting at the start of June. I removed the queen cell in the hive and carefully checked I’d not missed any others. I then added the grafted cell, seating it in a thumb-sized depression over some brood. She will have emerged the following day and might even be mated when I check early next week.

Had I not seen the bee emerge from under the floor I’d have never otherwise checked. There are always a few bees under an OMF, but it’s rare to find a queen all alone there.

Queen in the grass

In another apiary the previous week I’d found a satsuma-sized cluster of bees in long grass about 10 metres from the hives. The application of a little gentle smoke and some prodding around with my index finger resulted in a clipped and marked queen calmly walking up onto my hand.

Microswarm? … or more likely the remains of a much larger one …

Again, I wouldn’t have seen this had I not been taking my time checking the hive entrances and the activity in the apiary. I was being even more leisurely than normal as there was rain threatening and I was trying to decide whether to start the inspections or not

Because of the known state of other colonies in the apiary – most were nucs with virgin or recently-mated queens – it was obvious which colony the queen had come from. 

The ‘threatening rain’ looked like it would soon become a certainty. I ran the queen in through the front entrance of the hive and the remaining bees eventually returned to the hive, fanning madly at the entrance.

Bees fanning at the entrance

When I next checked the hive the queen had gone 🙁

There was no sign the colony had swarmed, but there was a recently opened queen cell in there. I assumed there’s a newly emerged virgin queen running about in there with ‘blood on her hands’ having done away with the original queen.

We’ll find out next week.

Again, a few minutes just watching things in the apiary meant I found the queen. Had I not done so I’d have only seen the end result – a queenless colony – not the events that led to it.

Preventative and reactive swarm control

I should emphasise that the majority of my colonies are a little more under control than the two described above, both of which clearly attempted to swarm.

In both cases the clipped queen saved the day, even though she may not have lived to fight another day.

My swarm control (and success thereof) this season has been in stark contrast to last year’s ‘lockdown beekeeping’.

Then the priority was minimising travel and guaranteeing I wasn’t haemorrhaging swarms that might cause problems for the the public or other beekeepers.

I therefore used the nucleus method of swarm control on all my colonies. I implemented it well in advance of the peak swarming period. By doing so, I undoubtedly weakened my colonies. I produced less honey and did no queen rearing.

But I didn’t lose a single swarm 🙂

This year the priority has been to maintain strong colonies. Some are being used for honey production 10 and others are being split to make up nucs.

Inevitably a few have got a little ‘overcooked’ … but the clipped queen has usually ensured the bees remain in the hive.

I don’t think I’ve lost a swarm, but I have lost a few queens.

Queen in the cage

One of my colonies went queenless in mid May. This was well before I’d got any spare queens – mated or otherwise. I’d hoped that they would rear another, but it was too cold for the new queen to mate and the colony started to look a little pathetic.

I considered uniting them but, for a variety of reasons, never got round to it.

When I finally had a spare mated queen (in early June) I popped her into a JzBz introduction cage. I’d already plugged the tube with candy and placed a plastic cap over the end. 

The bees could feed the queen through the cage, but could not release her.

This is my usual method for queen introduction. I check the cage a day or so after hanging it between the frames. If the bees are showing aggression to the queen I leave it and check again 24 hours later.

Once they’re no longer showing any aggression I remove the plastic cap. The bees chew through the candy and release the queen.

Job done 🙂

I then leave the colony at least a week before inspecting, by which time I expect to see eggs and larvae.

JzBz queen introduction & shipping cage with removable plastic cap

On returning a week after removing the plastic cap I was dismayed to find the queen still in the cage. Most of the candy had gone, but there was a plug at one end that was rock hard. Clearly the bees had been unable to release her.

The colony had now been broodless almost a month. Brood pheromone is really important in suppressing laying worker activity in the hive. Queen pheromone is no substitute for brood pheromone 11 and I was very concerned about the additional lost week due to my stupidity 12.

But there was no point in being a drama queen … I opened the cage and gently released the queen onto a seam of bees. Five days later there are eggs and larvae (and the queen) in the hive, though I also think there are a few laying workers as there’s a smattering of drone pupae in worker cells (a classic sign).

Fingers crossed 🙂

Queen failure

The final ‘little drama’ was played out in full view over almost two months. Its eventual unsatisfactory conclusion was largely due to my procrastination … though I suspect a swallow or house martin may have hastened events at the end.

In late April, during one of the rare warm days it was possible to actually open a colony, I noticed some strange egg laying behaviour in one hive. 

The colony was queenright. The queen was marked and clipped and laying. However, although she was laying single eggs in worker comb, she was laying multiple eggs in about 10% of cells, almost all of which were in drone comb.

A fortnight or so later she was still doing the same thing. Even if it wasn’t obvious to me, it was clearly obvious to the bees that the queen was failing as they started a couple of queen cells. Here’s an enlargement of an earlier photo in this post – blue arrows mark single eggs, red arrows indicate multiples.

SIgns of a failing queen

I removed the queen and added a near-mature queen cell from my first round of grafting. She had emerged when I next checked, but was not yet laying (and I didn’t bother looking for her).

But, unlike the queen stuck in the cage, this didn’t have a happy ending.

By early June there was no sign of the queen and I fear she failed to return from a mating flight. There’s a big pond bear the apiary and it’s a magnet for swallows and house martins 13.

I added a frame of open brood (including both young larvae and eggs) in the hive, but they ignored it 14.

Frames showing the characteristic dispersed bullet brood of laying workers

When I next checked it was clear there were laying workers and I cut my losses and shook the colony out. 

In retrospect what should I have done? 

I should have united the colony in mid-May.

It was obvious then – at least to the bees – that the queen was failing. I’d never seen a queen laying singles in worker comb 15 but multiples in drone cells. 

Uniting would have immediately provided both brood pheromone and a laying queen. This would have suppressed the development of laying workers.

My notes go something like:

  • 18/5 – Still laying singles in worker and multiples in drone. Weird. QC looks like supersedure. Give them a week.
  • 26/5 – Q out. Didn’t check further. Decision time next week.
  • 3/6 – Strange. Increasing drone brood. Behaving queenright. Decision time next week.
  • 12/6 – Laying workers. Shook them out. Will I ever learn? EEJIT 16

The second rule of beekeeping

Anytime I write Decision time next week (or variants thereof, like Give them another weekin two successive weeks then it’s almost always going to end in tears 🙁

If it happens three times in succession it’s a nailed on certainty.

The first rule is – of course – Knocking off queen cells is not swarm control 😉


 

Hard graft

Regular readers will have seen this image before …

Swarmy weather? I don’t think so …

… as I used it (with the same legend) towards the end of the post last week. 

I spoke too soon 🙁

The temperature on the 17th and 18th briefly reached 17.5°C … which was enough.

Grrrr …

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Good morning America Glenrothes

I’m fortunate to live in a stunningly beautiful and remote part of the country. I open the blinds in the morning to panoramic views of the Morvern hills across a narrow sea loch. There are no houses in direct sight and – even when it’s damp 1 – it’s an idyllic scene.

Good morning Morvern …

But although I live here, most of my bees still live in Fife, so I have a commute to look after them and stay in convenient 2 hotels.

Opening the curtains on these trips provides a somewhat less salubrious view.

Uninterrupted views of the Macdonald’s drive-in

But at least I don’t have to cook my own breakfast, which is but a short walk away 🙂

As you can see from the photo above, it’s been raining overnight.

To make these trips economically rational 3 it’s necessary to book them several weeks in advance.

Despite the use of supercomputers, the BBC’s medium to long-range weather forecasts seem little more than guesswork. It’s worth remembering that a weather forecast competition over several weeks was won by a team that predicted ‘tomorrow will be like today’ for the duration of the event 4.

And for beekeeping, there’s a significant difference between 12°C, light drizzle with strong winds and 13°C, intermittent sunshine and gentle breezes.

The latter makes opening hives a relatively straightforward proposition … careful and quick, but the bees will cope just fine.

In contrast, the former makes everything rather hard work.

And this morning we’ll graft delicate larvae no larger than a comma on a page …

And these are exactly the conditions that greeted me when I did my first round of grafting on the 10th of May.

The weather is probably the major problem of long distance beekeeping. You have to be prepared for anything.

Queenright cell raising – the Ben Harden system

I’ve discussed grafting and using the Ben Harden queenright cell raising system extensively before. 

My Ben Harden setup was in the bee shed.

As it turned out, this was a (disappointingly rare) stroke of genius.

A strong, double brood colony had been modified be the replacement of 7 frames in the upper box by two ‘fat dummies‘. These have the effect of concentrating the bees in the gap between them. 

In this space were two frames containing pollen, one frame of young larvae 5 and the cell bar frame, into which I would be grafting larvae.

Ben Harden setup and pollen patties

This box sits on top of a queen excluder, below which was a single brood box (containing the queen) literally overflowing with bees 6. Positively bulging at the seams.

Since I didn’t have frames with sufficient pollen in them I’d also supplemented the colony with pollen substitute (a pollen pattie) which they were happily devouring. 

The hive also had a couple of half-full supers. These contained lots of bees but rather disappointing amounts of nectar.

The queen providing the larvae was in a nuc box in the same apiary. I’d been feeding this colony syrup and pollen to ensure the young larvae were well fed 7.

Grafting

The day for grafting dawned cool, grey and drizzly.

Great 🙁

I ended up doing the grafting in the passenger seat of the car, wearing a headtorch. I kept the larvae warm and humid using a damp piece of kitchen paper draped over those I’d already transferred from the comb to the plastic cups in the cell bar frame.

After gently inserting the cell bar frame into the space in the centre of the Ben Harden setup and filling the feeder in the fat dummy with syrup, I added a clearer board and then replaced the two supers.

The intention was to empty the supers into the cell rearing box, guaranteeing a huge number of bees would be there to help raise the queens.

Ben Harden cell raiser with clearer and supers

After another evening of junk food and a disappointingly similar breakfast I checked the grafts the next day for ‘acceptance’.

10/10 …

You do this by – ever so gently – lifting the cell bar frame from the centre of the Ben Harden setup and looking for a 5-6mm collar of fresh wax built around the lower lip of the Nicot cup into which the larvae have been grafted.

Amazingly, considering the dodgy conditions and the fact that this was my first attempt at grafting for a couple of years, all the larvae appeared to have been accepted 8. I didn’t brush any of the bees off and I certainly didn’t prod about in the densely packed bees on the frame … but things looked good.

So I closed the hive up and went off to inspect some other colonies in the rain before driving back to the west coast.

Coffee mishaps and colony inspections

I returned to the east coast about 8-9 days later to add the queen cells to nucleus colonies.

The ~150 mile journey didn’t go well. In mid-slurp the lid came off my mug, depositing a lap-full of lukewarm coffee over me. 

Never mind. The route I take goes through some ‘modesty-ensuring’ remote countryside. It was a five minute task to leave the trousers drying over the boxes of frames in the back of the car.

Since I had no spares I donned my beesuit and continued on the journey.

The weather improved as I drove east. I checked an apiary in mid-Fife where all was well and finally arrived at my main apiary in mid-afternoon.

It was a lovely day 🙂

So lovely one of the colonies had swarmed 🙁

There were actually two small swarms hanging about a metre apart in the willow trees I’d planted around the apiary 9

I didn’t really have time to think about the swarm … we needed a few hundred early stage drone pupae for work so went through the colonies to find these first.

These were quick ‘n’ dirty inspections … I checked every frame, but not every cell or every nook and crannie … 

  • brood in all stages?
  • eggs?
  • stores?
  • any charged queen cells?
  • temper, behaviour, stable on the comb?
  • anything weird or strange? 10
  • next please …

I didn’t check the hive I’d set up for queen rearing, or any of the nucs on site that contained virgin queens. However, all of the other colonies were queenright as determined by the presence of eggs and the absence of (obvious 11 ) queen cells.

Drone brood was either present in relative abundance – in the strong colonies – or notable by its absence. This should not be unexpected to those of you who read the post on drones last week.

To the tune of ‘Ten green bottles’ … all together now, ‘Ten capped queen cells hanging on a frame …’

And I still had 10 queen cells in the cell raising colony, all now capped and ready to use the following day 🙂

And the swarm?

The swarm (either of them if there were actually two) wasn’t really big enough to be a prime swarm. These contain a mated queen and ~75% of the workforce from the hive. None of the hives appeared short of bees and I’d found no (obvious 12 ) charged queen cells.

However, I’d not checked the queen rearing colony – packed full of bees and fed copious amounts of syrup – and one of the colonies on the site was very bad tempered 13.

Poor temper is often a sign of a queenless colony.

Anyway, back to the swarm.

I dropped each clump of bees into a separate nuc box containing a frame of drawn comb and a couple of additional frames. I left these in the shade until late afternoon when I’d finished with the other colonies.

Two into one do go

By late afternoon most of the swarm bees from one of the nuc boxes had abandoned it and joined the other nuc box. It was pretty clear that there was only one ‘swarm’ and that it had got separated when settling at the bivouac.

The bees were leaving the queenless box and joining the queenright one.

I checked the willow where the swarm was found. 

Small amounts of wax where a swarm settled

There were small amounts of wax deposited on the leaves and stem of the willow. I suspect that the swarm may therefore have been there overnight 14 but can’t be sure.

I ended the afternoon by putting the hived swarm on a hive stand in the apiary.

Before leaving I checked the bad tempered colony (which I was intending to split into nucs the following day).

During my fumblings I managed to get a few bees into my beesuit pocket 15.

The one with the hole in it from my razor-sharp hive tool.

That opened onto my leg.

Which was unprotected by trousers due to my fumblings with the coffee 9 hours earlier 🙁

Ouch 🙁

Getting nuked

The weather the following day started bright but rapidly degenerated.

That lot is about 10 minutes away … and approaching fast

By the time I’d got the nuc boxes prepared – feeders, frames, stores, dummy boards, entrance blocks, labels, straps – it was 11°C and there was rain quickly approaching from the west.

The first four nucs were prepared from the ‘bad tempered’ hive (#6). I decided it was wise to get this over and done with before the heaven’s opened.

Despite going through the box twice I failed to find a queen. Perhaps she went with the smallest prime swarm ever?

I divided the frames (by brood and bees, not number of frames) into four approximately equal nucs and added a queen cell to each. 

Here’s one I produced earlier … or helped produce

Each queen cell was removed from the cell bar frame, the adhering bees gently brushed off (with a handful of weeds) and pressed into a thumb-sized indentation in the comb, just underneath the top bar of the frame.

I then carefully pushed the frames together (avoiding crushing the cell) and closed the nuc box up.

As I opened the next hive to be split the rain started …

I should design a beesuit with an integrated sou’wester

… and the wind lessened, meaning the rain stayed.

And it rained for most of the afternoon.

Rain did not stop play

In the words of the late Magnus Magnusson “I’ve started, so I’ll finish”.

And it was miserable.

For the second time in two days I was soaked.

As those of you who have hunched over open hives in the rain will know, it’s your back, shoulders and hood that catch the worst of it.

This time my trousers stayed mostly dry … 

Nucs in the rain

The high point of the afternoon (and, let’s face it, the bar was pretty low) was the realisation that housing the cell raiser in the bee shed was an inspired choice.

When adding queen cells to nucs you either have to detach them in advance from the cell bar frame and keep them warm somewhere convenient, or collect them in turn.

Five gone, five to go … queen cells reared in a Ben Harden cell raiser

I had nowhere to keep them warm, so was returning to the Ben Harden setup to retrieve them one at a time. Since it was warm and dry in the shed I could leave the frame balanced (as shown above) still festooned with bees and fetch each cell as needed.

Had they been outside I would have had to stop.

It was difficult enough making up the nucs in the rain, one hand holding a frame, the other lifting the roofs on and off. 

It would have been impossible to juggle the cell raiser and cell bar frame as well.

But I eventually finished and moved half a dozen of the nucs to another apiary 16. I put the Varroa trays underneath 17, filled the feeders with syrup and opened the entrances a half inch or so to allow the bees to fly.

Half a dozen nucs, all in a row

And then I returned to the main apiary to tidy up.

And the swarm?

I still don’t know where the swarm came from 18.

I checked it between downpours. 

Despite opening the box very gently, with almost no smoke, the bees ‘balled’ the queen and killed her. I found her in the middle of a golf ball-sized clump of bees on the floor. 

Queen being ‘balled’ … it didn’t end well

After dislodging some of the bees with my fingers I found her, laying on her side, as dead as a dodo. You can just see her in the photo above., slightly below the middle of the image by the edge of the mesh.

Why did they do this?

I’ve inspected dozens of swarms the day after hiving them and don’t ever remember having this happen before.

Perhaps it was the poor weather? Maybe my ‘very gently’ wasn’t gentle enough?

The queen was unmarked and (obviously) unclipped.

To me, she looked like a virgin queen, rather than a slimmed down mated queen 19

There were two nucs in the apiary containing virgin queens. I didn’t inspect either, but a quick peek through the plastic crownboard showed both still appeared to contain bees. The size of the swarm, although small (as swarms go) looked much larger than the size of these nucs.

I’ll check again next week …

I added a queen cell to the swarm and set off for home.

Chasing the setting sun

It’s a beautiful commute, across Rannoch and through Glencoe, chasing the setting sun. 

And my trousers were finally dry 😉


Note

I’ve already grossly exceeded my self-imposed word count this week. This is not meant as a practical guide to queen rearing 20. For those interested in queen rearing – the most fun you can have with a beesuit on 21 – there are lots of articles here with the nitty gritty practicalities. Try these for starters … queen rearing, an introduction to the Ben Harden system, setup and cell raising.

It’s a drone’s life

What has a mother but no father, but has both a grandmother and grandfather?

If you’ve not seen this question before you’ve not attended a ‘mead and mince pies’ Christmas quiz at a beekeeping association. 

Drone

Drone … what big eyes you have …

The answer of course is a drone. The male honey bee. Drones are produced from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen, so formally they have no father. Drones are usually haploid (one set of chromosomes), whereas queens and workers are diploid 1

Anyway, enough quiz questions. With the relaxation in Covid restrictions we may all be able to attend in person this Christmas 2, so I don’t want to spoil it by giving all the answers away in advance.

The long cold spring has been pretty tough for new beekeepers, it’s been a struggle for smaller colonies and it’s been really hard for drones.

Spring struggles

New beekeepers have had to develop the patience of Job to either acquire bees in the first place or start their inspections. Inevitably new beekeepers are bursting with enthusiasm 3 and the cold northerlies, unseasonal snow (!) and low temperatures have prevented inspections and delayed colony development (and hence the availability and sale of nucs).

Small colonies 4 are struggling to rear brood and to collect sufficient nectar and pollen.

This is an interesting topic in its own right and deserves a post of its own 5. In a nutshell, below a certain threshold of bees, colonies are unable to keep the brood warm enough and have sufficient foragers to collect nectar and pollen.

As a consequence, smaller colonies are low on stores and at risk of starvation. 

It’s a Catch-22 situation … to rear sufficient brood to collect an excess of nectar (or pollen) the colony needs more adult workers. 

I don’t know what the cutoff is in terms of adult bees, but most of my colonies with <7 frames of brood have needed feeding this spring.

One feature of these smaller colonies is that, unless they have entire frames of drone comb 6, there is little if any drone brood in the hive.

There might be drones present in the colony, but I don’t know whether they were reared there or drifted there from another hive.

And, for those of us attempting to rear queens, drones are an essential indicator that queen mating will be timely and successful.

On a brighter note …

But it’s not all gloom and doom.

Strong colonies are doing very well.

Several of mine have a box packed full of brood and I’m relying on a combination of …

  • lots of space by giving them more supers than they need
  • low ambient temperatures
  • crossed fingers

… as my swarm prevention strategy 😉

Beginners take note … one of these is likely to help (space), one is frankly pretty risky (chilly) and the last is not a proven method despite being widely used by many beekeepers 😉

I’m pretty confident that colonies will not swarm at 13-14°C.

I am inspecting colonies every 7 days and have only seen two with charged queen cells. One was making early swarm preparations; I used the nucleus method of swarm control and then split the colony into nucs a fortnight ago 7.

The other colony contained my first attempt at grafting this year, which seems to have gone reasonably well 8.

Lots of brood, nectar and drones

A typical brood frame from one of these strong colonies contains a good slab of sealed or open brood, some pollen around the sides and an interrupted arc of fresh nectar above the brood. 

In the photo above you can see pollen on the right hand side of the frame and glistening fresh nectar in the top left and right hand corners.

Typically these strong colonies also have partially filled supers, though it’s pretty clear that the oil seed rape is likely to go over before the weather warms enough (or the colonies get strong enough) to fully exploit it.

Spring honey is going to be in short supply and my fantastic new honey creamer is going to sit idle 🙁

Drones

What you probably can’t really see in the picture above is that these strong colonies also contain good numbers of drones.

Strong colonies … ample drones

I can count about a dozen in the closeup above. 

I like seeing drones in a strong, healthy colony early(ish) in the season 9.

Firstly, the presence of drones indicates that the colony (and presumably others in the neighbourhood which are experiencing a similar environment and climate) will soon be making swarm preparations. This means I need to redouble my efforts to check for queen cells to avoid losing swarms 🙁  … think of it as a long-range early warning system.

But it also means I can start thinking about queen rearing 🙂

Secondly, although these drones are unlikely to mate with my queens, you can be sure they’re going to have a damned good go at mating with queens from other local apiaries.

In addition to being strong and healthy, this colony is well-tempered, steady on the comb and pleasant to work with. The production of a few hundred thousand frisky drones prepared to lay down their lives 10 to improve the local gene pool is my small act of generosity to local beekeepers 11.

How many drones?

Honey bee colonies that nest in trees or other natural cavities produce lots of drone comb. Studies of feral colonies on natural comb show that about 17% of the comb is dedicated to rearing drones (but also used for storing nectar at other times of the season).

Foundationless triptych ...

Foundationless triptych …

Similarly, beekeepers who predominantly use foundationless frames regularly see significantly greater amounts of drone comb (and drone brood and drones) in their colonies. With the three-panel bamboo-supported frames I use it’s not unusual for one third of some frames to be entirely drone comb.

In contrast, beekeepers who only use standard worker foundation will be used to seeing drone comb occupying much less of the brood nest. Under these circumstances it’s usually restricted to the edges or corners of frames.

However, given the opportunity e.g. a damaged patch of worker comb or if you add a super frame into the brood box, the workers will often rework the comb (or build new brace comb) containing just drone cells.

The bees only build drone comb when they need it.

A newly hived swarm will build sheet after sheet of new comb, but it will all be for rearing worker brood. If you give them foundationless frames they only build worker comb and if you provide worker foundation they don’t rework it to squeeze in a few drone cells.

The colony will also not build new drone comb late in the season. Drone comb is drawn early in the season because the drones are needed before queens are produced.

The timing of drone production

Studies in the late 1970’s 12 demonstrated that drone brood production peaks about one month before the the main period of swarming. Similar studies in other areas have produced similar results.

Why produce all those drones when there are no queens about?

The timing is due to the differences in the development time (from egg to eclosion) of drones and queens, together with the differences in the time it takes before they are sexually mature.

Drones take 50% longer to develop than queens – 24 days vs. 16 days. After emergence the queen take a few days (usually quoted as 5-6) to reach sexual maturity before she embarks on her mating flight(s).

In contrast, drones take from 6-16 days to reach sexual maturity.

Swarming tends to occur when charged queen cells in the hive are capped. These cells will produce new virgin queens about a week later and – weather permitting – these should go on mating flights after a further six days. 

Therefore a colony that swarms in very early June will need sexually mature drones available 12-14 days later (say, mid-June) to mate with the newly emerged queen that will subsequently return to head the swarmed colony. These drones will have to have hatched from eggs laid in the first fortnight of May to ensure that they are sexually mature at the right time.

Decisions, decisions

How does the colony know to produce drones at the right time? Is it the workers or the queen who makes this decision?

I’ve recently answered a question on this topic for the Q&A pages in the BBKA Newsletter. In doing some follow-up reading I’ve discovered that (inevitably) it’s slightly more complicated than I thought … which was already pretty complicated 🙁

The workers build the comb and therefore determine the amount of drone vs. worker comb the brood nest contains.

I don’t think it’s known how the workers measure the amount of brood comb in the nest, but they clearly can. We do know that bees can count 13 and that they have some basic mathematical skills like addition and subtraction.

Perhaps these maths skills 14 include some sort of averaging, allowing them to sample empty cells, measure them and so work out the proportion that are drone or worker.

Whatever form this ‘counting’ takes, it requires direct contact of the bees with the comb. You cannot put a few frames of drone comb in the hive behind a mesh screen and stop the bees from building more drone comb. It’s not a volatile signal that permeates the hive.

However they achieve this, they are also influenced by the amount of capped drone brood already present in the colony. If there’s lots already then the building of additional drone comb is inhibited 15.

Colonies therefore regulate drone production through a negative feedback process.

So … does the queen simply lay every cell she comes across, trusting the worker population has provided the correct proportions of drone and worker comb?

Not quite

Studies by Katie Wharton and colleagues 16 showed that the queen could also regulate drone production.

Wharton confined queens on 100% drone or worker comb in a frame-sized queen ‘cage’ for a few days.

Frame sized queen ‘cage’ …

She then replaced the comb in the cage with 50:50 mix of drone and worker comb and recorded the number of eggs laid in drone or worker cells over a 24 hour period (and then allowed the eggs to develop).

Queens that had only been able to lay worker brood for the first four days of confinement laid significantly more drone brood when given the opportunity.

The scientists showed reasonably convincingly that this was a ‘decision’ made by the queen, rather than influenced by the workers e.g. by preparing biased number of drone or worker cells for eggs to be laid in, by preferentially ‘blocking’ certain cell types with honey or by selectively cannibalising drone or worker eggs.

Interestingly, queens initially confined on worker comb laid significantly (~25%) more eggs on the 50:50 comb than those confined on drone comb. I’m not sure why this is 17.

Wharton and colleagues conclude “these results suggest that the regulation of drone brood production at the colony level may emerge at least in part by a negative feedback process of drone egg production by the queen”.  

So it seems likely that drone production in a colony reflects active decisions made by both workers and the queen.

Why has this spring been really hard for drones?

To be ready for swarming, colonies therefore need to start drone production quite early in the season – at least 4-5 weeks before any swarms are likely.

Late May ’21 forecast. Swarmy weather? I don’t think so …

But with consistently poor weather, these drones are unlikely to be needed. Colonies will not have built up enough to be strong enough to swarm.

Producing drones is a high energy process – they are big bees and require a lot of carbohydrate and protein during development.

Under natural conditions 18 a colony puts as many resources into drone production over the season as it does into swarms.

Thomas Seeley has a nice explanation of this in The Lives of Bees – if you take the dry weight of primary swarms and casts produced by a colony it’s about the same as the dry weight of drones produced throughout the season. 

Rather than waste energy in drone production the workers remove unwanted drone eggs and larvae. The queen lays them, but the workers prevent them being reared.

How do the workers decide the drones aren’t going to be needed?

Do workers have excellent long-range weather forecasting abilities?

Probably not 19

If the weather is poor the colony will be unable to build up properly because forage will be limited. As a consequence, the colony (and others in the area) would be unlikely to swarm and so drones would not be needed for queen mating.

Free and Williams (1975) demonstrated that forage availability was the factor that determined whether drones were reared and maintained in the colony. 

Under conditions where forage was limited, drone eggs and larvae were rejected (cannibalised) and adult drones were ejected from the hive.

Unwanted drone ejected from a colony in early May

Beekeepers are familiar with drones being ejected from colonies in the autumn (again, a time when forage becomes limiting), but it also happens in Spring.

And at other times when nectar is in short supply …

Those of you currently enjoying a good nectar flow from the OSR should also look at colonies during the ‘June gap’. With a precipitous drop in nectar available in the environment once the OSR stops yielding, colonies can be forced to eject drones.

It’s tough being a drone … which may explain why one of my PhD students has the name @doomeddrone on Twitter 😉


 

No risk, no reward

“April showers bring May flowers”, or something close to that, is a poem that has its origins in the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

It means that the Atlantic low pressure systems that roll in from the west during April, often bringing rain, also account for the abundance of flowers that bloom in May.

Not much sign of any April showers last month …

April 2021 sunshine anomaly compared to 1981 – 2010

Most of the country was bathed in spring sunshine, with Scotland and the north of England getting 150-170% of the average seen over the last 30-40 years. 

Unsurprisingly, with that amount of sunshine, rain was in short supply. Much of the country experienced only 20-33% of the usual April rainfall.

Which should be great for beekeeping, right?

Well, not if it’s accompanied by some of the lowest temperatures seen for half a century.

April 2021 average temperature anomaly compared to 1981 – 2010

The entire country was significantly colder than normal, with the bit of Fife my bees are in being 3°C colder than the average over the last decade, with frosts on ~60% of the nights during the month 1.

And, for those of us interested in queen rearing, this sort of start to the season can cause frustrating delays … or encourage a bit of risk taking.

The heady mix of strong colonies, drones and good weather

Queen rearing needs three things to occur at more or less the right time – which doesn’t mean simultaneously.

  1. The colony needs to be strong enough to rear new queens. Good queens – whether reared from grafted larvae or naturally under the swarming or emergency impulse – require lots of nurse bees in the hive to lavish the developing larvae with attention. Three or four frames of brood isn’t enough. The hive really needs to be bursting with bees. A long winter, cold spring or bad weather can hold the colony back. 
  2. Drones need to be available to mate with the virgin queens. Drones take 24 days to develop from egg to emerged adult. However, before they can mate, drones need to reach sexual maturity and learn about the environment around the hive. Sexual maturity takes 6 – 16 days and, at the same time, the drones embark on a number of orientation flights which start a week or so after emergence. 
  3. Good weather for queen mating. After emerging the queen also needs to reach sexual maturity. This takes 5-6 days. She then goes on one or more mating flights, before returning to the hive for a lifetime of egg laying 2. Bad weather – either temperatures significantly below 20°C, rain or strong winds – all prevent these mating flights from taking place. 

With no drones, a weak colony, or lousy weather there’s little chance of producing high quality, well-mated queens.

Or perhaps of producing any queens at all 🙁

Second impressions

My Fife colonies were first inspected in mid-April. Most were doing OK, with at least 5-7 frames of brood and some fresh nectar in the brood box. 

Despite the low temperatures they were making the most of the sunshine and foraging whenever possible.

A week later, at their second inspection on the 25th, the majority of colonies had 1-2 supers 3 and were building up well. All had drone brood and some had adult drones.

By this time I’d identified – from my records, the overwinter performance (stores used, strength and build-up) and their behaviour when inspected under frankly rubbish conditions – which colonies I would be using for queen rearing.

I also knew which colonies would need to be requeened.

My ‘rule of thirds’

My colony selection for stock improvement is simple and straightforward.

Colonies that I consider form the worst third of my stocks are always requeened 4. Furthermore, I do my best to avoid these bees contributing to the gene pool. I don’t use larvae from them for grafting and I don’t split them and allow them to rear their own queens 5.

Ideally (in terms of the gene pool, not in terms of their fate 🙁 ) I’d also remove all drone brood from these colonies. These drones will most likely mate with queens from other hives 6, but if their genes aren’t good enough for me they probably aren’t good enough for the unsuspecting virgin queens in the neighbourhood either.

Colonies I consider in my top one third of stocks are used as a source of larvae for grafting, and can be split and allowed to rear their own new queens.

The ‘middle’ third are requeened if I have spare queens, which I usually do.

It’s surprising how quickly this type of selection results in stock improvement. By focusing on a series of simple traits I favour (e.g. frugal with winter stores, calm when inspected in persistent rain) or dislike (e.g. running on the comb, following, stroppiness) in my bees I’ve ended up with stocks that are pretty good 7.

Queen cells … don’t panic

On April 25th many colonies had play cups but only one had charged queen cells

Considering the 10 day weather forecast, my overall level of preparedness to start queen rearing (!) and the relatively early stage of development of the cells (24-48 hour larvae) I nearly squidged the cells and closed the hive up for another week.

It still felt too early and far too cold.

know that knocking back queen cells is not swarm control (and have suggested this is engraved on all hive tools sold to beginners).

However, swarming also requires good weather. If it’s 9-11°C the colony will not swarm … and I was pretty confident that the weather wasn’t going to warm up significantly in the week until the next inspection.

So, in my typical Do as I say, don’t do as I do” style, I reckoned it was a safe bet to destroy the queen cells and check again a week later.

I would have expected to find more queen cells then, but I’d have been astounded if the colony had swarmed in the intervening period.

Second thoughts

But this was a lovely colony. 

It has always been good, had overwintered on a single 12.5 kg block of fondant and was already on 10 frames of brood in all stages 8. And that was a full box as it’s a Swienty brood box that only takes 10 National frames. To give them more room I would have had to add another brood box.

Not only that, but the bees were calm when inspected under miserable conditions. They didn’t run about on the comb and they weren’t aggressive.

The colony was comfortably near the top of my top third …

If the colony had swarmed, despite the queen being clipped, there’s a good chance I’d have lost her. The apiary is ~140 miles from home and that’s not the sort of journey you can make to ‘quickly check the hives’

So, how could I ensure that I didn’t lose the queen and take advantage of the quality of the stock and its apparent readiness to reproduce?

Plan B

Looking after the queen was straightforward. 

I prepared a 3 frame nucleus colony containing the frame the queen was on and a couple of frames of emerging brood. I added a frame of sealed stores and a new frame of foundation.

A frame of sealed stores … perfect for feeding nucs

I stuffed the entrance of the nuc with grass, wedged the frames together with a foam block and pinned a travel screen over the top.

The travel screen really wasn’t necessary. I had to transport the bees to another apiary and, although there was now weak sunshine the temperature was only just double digits (°C) and my beesuit was still damp from an earlier shower. I didn’t fancy driving for 40 minutes with the windows open to keep the bees cool, so opted to ventilate them better and keep me a bit warmer 😉

This is the nucleus method of swarm control. It’s almost foolproof 9.

It is possible to get it wrong, but you have to try quite hard. 

In my experience it’s the most dependable method and has the added advantage of using the minimal amount of additional equipment.

The queen was safe in a new box. She had space to lay and lots of young bees to support her. The queenless colony had ample stores and 7 frames of brood in all stages. 

This nucleus colony will be used as a source of larvae for grafting in mid/late May. I can easily regulate the strength of this colony – to prevent them swarming – by stealing a frame or two of brood periodically. If replaced by a foundationless frame (or a frame with foundation) they will draw lovely new comb with the help of the nectar flow from the oil seed rape.

The original, and now queenless, colony was given three new frames and closed up.

One week later

In early May the cold, sunny weather was replaced by very cold, very wet weather 🙁

On the 3rd of May I drove through snow and heavy rain to get to the apiary. The following day I started inspecting the colonies in intermittent light drizzle and a temperature of 7°C. 

Not ideal 🙁

The weather gradually improved. By the time I finished in the apiary it had reached a balmy 11°C.

Notwithstanding the conditions, the bees were well behaved. 

With some bees, if you open the hive in poor weather they rush out mob-handed.

Before you get a chance to think “Can I smell bananas?” you’ve collected half a dozen stings and they’re recruiting reinforcements 10.

You know it’s going to be a long and painful day …

However, perhaps because the bees were sick and tired of the low temperatures this spring they just sat on the comb looking mournful … you could almost see their little faces as row upon row of upside down smilies 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 

This ‘calmness in the face of adversity’ (!) makes these bees easy and tractable to deal with in poor conditions. It’s a byproduct of selection from the ‘best’ third of my stocks year after year.

I don’t actively select bees for bad weather beekeeping, but it’s a nice bonus when it happens.

The queenless colony now contained 7 frames of sealed brood, many of which also contained queen cells. They had almost completely drawn the new frames I’d added the previous week when I made up the nuc.

More nucs

I prepared 3 two frame nucs from the hive, leaving the remaining frames – with some new ones – in the dummied down brood box.

Doing this sort of manipulation in poor weather takes preparation and planning. You do not want to be rushing back to the shed for an extra frame, or searching around for entrance blocks, or doing anything that leaves the bees exposed for longer than necessary.

Ready to go …

The poly nucs were all set up, with the entrances sealed, a frame of capped stores, two new frames and a dummy board. The foam travel blocks (to hold the frames tightly together), plastic crownboards, lids and hive straps were piled up within easy reach.

Making up two frame nucs

All of this was done before I’d even opened the queenless hive 11.

The queen cells were all sealed (as would be expected from the timing of the last inspection, 8-9 days earlier) and had been produced in a busy hive, with lots of nurse bees to attend to them.

The majority would have been reared under the emergency impulse.

I quickly and carefully transferred two frames from the queenless hive to each nuc. I ensured that each nuc received a frame containing a good queen cell.

In practice, the nucs and the colony remnants probably all ended up with several queen cells.

Not another “Do as I say, don’t do as I do?” situation?

I usually leave only one queen cell in a hive to ensure a strong colony doesn’t produce multiple casts.

However, this time I did not thin out any of the queen cells. 

This was a pragmatic decision largely based upon the weather. It was too cold to be searching across every frame to select the best cell. The bees would have been distressed and disturbed, and there was a risk of chilling the brood 12.

It was also a rational decision considering the strength of the colonies I was setting up. With a much-reduced population of bees it’s very unlikely the colony will allow all the queens to emerge. I expect most of the cells to be torn down by the workers.

The nucs were all transferred to an apiary over three miles away. This avoids any risk of them reducing in strength due to flying bees returning to the original site.

These nucs were relatively small colonies so will require some TLC. I’ll check them soon after the new queens emerge. If they look understrength I’ll add a frame of emerging brood (harvested from one of the bottom ‘third’ of colonies. They might not be good enough to split but they are still very useful bees 🙂 ).

I’ll then leave them for at least 2-3 weeks hoping that the weather improves significantly for queen mating.

This is the ‘taking a risk’ bit of the whole process. Mid/late May should offer some suitable days for queen mating, but if this weather continues it’s not guaranteed. 

Somewhere between ~26-33 days after emergence the virgin queen becomes too old to mate successfully.

For these queens, that will take us to the week beginning the 3rd of June.

If we’ve not had any good queen mating days by then things will be getting a bit desperate 🙂

Active queen rearing begins soon

Splitting a colony into nucs containing queen cells is one way of rearing new queens. The quality of the resulting colony is dependent – at least partially – on the quality of the colony you start with.

With a high quality starting stock it is effectively ‘passive’ queen rearing … very little effort with potentially good rewards. 

What’s not to like?

Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing

But with the weather slowly but inexorably improving (really!) it’s time to start thinking about ‘active’ queen rearing – cell starters, grafting, cell finishers, mini-nucs etc.

With the good quality queen busily laying away in her nuc box it was time to set up a colony for queen rearing using the Ben Harden approach.

In this instance the quality of the colony is largely immaterial. It needs to be strong and healthy, but its genetics will not contribute to the quality of the resulting queens. 

My final task before leaving the apiary was to add the fat dummies and additional frames in preparation for queen rearing using selected grafted larvae.

And that’s what I hope to be doing next week 🙂


 

Acting on Impulse

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse … 

This was the advertising strapline that accompanied the 1982 introduction of a new ‘body mist’ perfume by Fabergé. It was accompanied by a rather cheesy 1 set of TV commercials with surprised looking (presumably fragrant) women being accosted by strange men proffering bouquets of flowers 2.

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse …

And, it turns out that women – or, more specifically, female worker honey bees – also act on impulse

In this case, these are the ‘impulses’ that result in the production of queen cells in the colony.

Understanding these impulses, and how they can be exploited for queen rearing or colony expansion (or, conversely, colony control), is a very important component of beekeeping.

The definition of the word impulse is an ‘incitement or stimulus to action’.

The action, as far as our bees are concerned, is the development of queen cells in the colony.

If we understand what factors stimulate the production of queen cells we can either mitigate those factors – so reducing the impulse and delaying queen cell production (and if you’re thinking ‘swarm prevention‘ here you’re on the right lines) – or exploit them to induce the production of queen cells for requeening or making increase.

But first, what are the impulses?

There are three impulses that result in the production of queen cells – supersedure, swarm and emergency.

Under natural conditions i.e. without pesky meddling by beekeepers, colonies usually produce queen cells under the supersedure or swarm impulse.

The three impulses are:

  1. supersedure – in which the colony rears a new queen to eventually replace the current queen in situ
  2. swarm – during colony reproduction (swarming) a number of queen cells are produced. In due course the current queen leaves heading a prime swarm. Eventually a newly emerged virgin queen remains to get mated and head the original colony. In between these events a number of swarms may also leave headed by virgin queens (so-called afterswarms or casts).
  3. emergency – if the queen is lost or damaged and the colony rendered queenless, the colony rears new queens under the emergency impulse.

Many beekeepers, and several books, state that you can determine the type of impulse that induced queen cell production by the number, appearance and location of the queen cells.

And, if you can do this, you’ll know what to do with the colony simply by judging the queen cells.

If only it were that simple

Wouldn’t it be easy?

One or two queen cells in the middle of frame in the centre of the brood nest? Definitely supersedure. Leave the colony alone and the old queen will be gently replaced over the next few weeks. Brood production will continue uninterrupted and the colony will stay together and remain productive.

A dozen or more sealed queen cells along the bottom edge of a frame? The colony is definitely  in swarm mode and – since the cells are already capped – has actually already swarmed. Time to thin out the cells and leave just one to ensure no casts are also lost.

But it isn’t that simple 🙁

Bees haven’t read the textbooks so don’t necessarily behave as expected.

I’ve found single open queen cells in the middle of a central frame, assumed it was supersedure, left the colony alone and lost a swarm from the hive a few days later 🙁

D’oh!

Or I’ve found loads of capped queen cells on the edges of multiple frames in a hive, assumed that I’d missed a swarm … only to subsequently find the original marked queen calmly laying eggs as I split the brood box up to make several nucleus colonies  🙂

Not all queen cells are ‘born’ equal

It’s worth considering what queen cells are … and what they are not. And how queen cells are started.

There are essentially two ways in which queen cells are started.

They are either built from the outset as vertically oriented cells into which the queen lays an egg, or they start their life as horizontally oriented 3 worker cells which, should the need arise, are re-engineered to face vertically.

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

Queen cells started under the supersedure or swarming impulse are initially created as ‘play cups‘. A play cup looks like a small wax version of an acorn cup – the woody cup-like structure that holds the acorn nut. In the picture above the play cup is located on the lower edge of a brood frame, but they are also often found ‘centre stage‘ in the middle of the frame.

Play cups

A colony will often produce many play cups and their presence is nothing to be concerned about. In fact, I think it’s often a rather encouraging sign that the colony is sufficiently strong and healthy that it might be thinking of raising a new queen. 

Before we leave play cups and consider how emergency queen cells start life it’s worth emphasising the differences between play cups and queen cells.

Play cups are not the same as queen cells

Until a play cup is occupied by an egg it is not a queen cell.

At least it’s not as far as I’m concerned 😉

And, even if it contains an egg there’s no guarantee it will be supported by the workers to develop into a new queen 4.

However, once the cell contains a larva and it is being fed by the nurse bees – evidenced by the larva sitting in an increasingly thick bed of royal jelly – then it is indisputably a queen cell.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

And to emphasise the fundamental importance in terms of colony management I usually refer to this type of queen cell as a ‘charged queen cell’.

Once charged queen cells appear in the colony, all other things being equal, they will be maintained by the workers, capped and – on the 16th day after the egg was laid – will emerge as a new queen.

And it is once charged queen cells are found in the colony that swarm control should be considered 5.

But let’s complete our description of the queen cells by considering those that are produced in response to the emergency impulse.

Emergency queen cells

Queen cells produced under the emergency impulse differ from those made under the swarm or supersedure impulse. These are the cells that are produced when the colony is – for whatever reason – suddenly made queenless. 

Without hamfisted beekeeping it’s difficult to imagine or contrive a scenario under which this would occur naturally 6, but let’s not worry about that for the moment 7

The point is that, should a colony become queenless, the workers in the colony can select one or more young larvae already present in worker cells and rear them as new queens.

So, although the eggs are (obviously!) laid by the queen 8, they have been laid in a normal worker cell. To ensure that they get lavished with attention by the nurse bees, feeding them a diet enriched in Royal Jelly, the cell must be re-engineered to project vertically downwards.

Location, location

Queen cells can occur anywhere in the hive to which the queen has access.

Queen cell on excluder

Queen cell on underside of the excluder …

But they are most usually found on the periphery of the frame, either along the lower edge …

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

… or a vertical side edge of the frame …

Sealed queen cells

… but they can also be found slap, bang in the middle of a brood frame.

Single queen cell in the centre of a frame

And remember that bees have a remarkable ability to hide queen cells in inaccessible nooks and crannies on the frame … and that finding any queen cells is much more difficult when the frame is covered with a wriggling mass of worker bees.

Location and impulses

Does the location tell us anything about the impulse under which the bees generated the queen cell?

Probably not, or at least not reliably enough that additional checks aren’t also needed 🙁

Many descriptions will state that a small number (typically 1-3) of queen cells occupying the centre of a frame are probably supersedure cells. 

Whilst this is undoubtedly sometimes or even often true, it is not invariably the case.

The workers choose which larvae to rear as queens under the emergency impulse. If the only larvae of a suitable age are situated mid-frame then those are the ones they will choose.

In addition, since generating emergency cells requires re-engineering worker cells, newer comb is likely more easily manipulated by the workers.

Some beekeepers ‘notch’ comb under suitably aged larvae to induce queen cell production at particular sites on the frame 9. The photograph shows a frame of eggs with a notch created with the hive tool. It’s better to place the notch underneath suitably aged larvae, not eggs. Clearly, the age of the larvae is more critical than the ease with which the comb can be reworked. Those who use this method [PDF] properly/extensively claim up to a 70% ‘success’ rate in inducing queen cell placement on the frame. This can be very useful if the plan is to cut the – well separated – queen cells out and use them in mating nucs or for requeening other colonies.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Comb at the bottom or side edges of the frame often has space adjacent and underneath it. Therefore the bees might favour these over sites mid-frame (assuming ample suitable aged larvae) simply because the comb is easier to re-work in these locations.

And don’t forget … under the emergency impulse the colony preferentially chooses the rarest patrilines to rear as new queens 10.

Not all larvae are equal, at least when rearing queens under an emergency impulse.

Active queen rearing and the three impulses

By ‘active’ queen rearing I mean one of the hundreds of methods in which the beekeeper is actively involved in selecting the larvae from which a batch of new queens are reared.

This doesn’t necessarily mean grafting , towering cell builders and serried rows of Apidea mini nucs.

It could be as simple as taking a queen out of a good colony to create a small nuc and then letting the original colony generate a number of queen cells.

Almost all queen rearing methods use either the emergency or supersedure impulses to induce new queen cell production 11.

For example, let’s consider the situation described above.

Active queen rearing and the emergency impulse

A strong colony with desirable traits (calm, productive, prolific … choose any three 😉 ) is made queenless by removing the queen on a frame of emerging brood into a 5 frame nucleus hive. With a frame of stores and a little TLC 12 the queen will continue to lay and the nuc colony will expand.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

But the, now queenless, hive will – under the emergency impulse – generate a number of new queen cells. These will probably be distributed on several frames if the queen was laying well before she was removed.

The colony will select larvae less than ~36 hours old (i.e. less than 5 days since the egg was laid) for feeding up as new queens.

If the beekeeper returns to the hive 8-9 days later it can be split into several 5 frame nucs, each containing a suitable queen cell and sufficient emerging and adherent bees to maintain the newly created nucleus colony 13.

Active queen rearing and the supersedure impulse

In contrast, queenright queen rearing methods such as the Ben Harden system exploit the supersedure impulse.

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

In this method suitably aged larvae are offered to the colony above the queen excluder. With reduced levels of queen pheromones present – due to the physical distance and the fact that queen cannot leave a trail of her footprint pheromone across the combs above the QE – the larvae are consequently raised under the supersedure impulse.

Capped queen cells

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

I’m always (pleasantly) surprised this works so well. Queen cells can be produced just a few inches away from a brood box containing a laying queen, with the workers able to move freely through the queen excluder. 

Combining impulses …

Finally, methods that use Cloake or Morris boards 14 use a combination of the emergency and supersedure impulses.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

In these methods the colony is rendered transiently queenless to start new queen cells. About 24 hours later the queenright status is restored so that cells are ‘finished’ under the supersedure response.

The odd one out, as it’s not really practical to use it for active queen rearing, is the swarming impulse. Presumably this is because the conditions used to induce swarming are inevitably rather difficult to control. Active queen rearing is all about control. You generally want to determine the source of the larvae used and the timing with which the queen cells become available.

Environmental conditions can also influence colonies on the brink of swarming … literally a case of rain stopping play.

Acting on impulse

If there are play cups in the colony then you don’t need to take any action 15, but if there are charged queen cells present then your bees are trying to tell you something.

Precisely what they’re trying to tell you depends upon the number and position of the queen cells, the state or appearance of those cells, and the state of the colony – whether queenright or not.

What you cannot do 16 is decide what action to take based solely on the number, appearance or position of the queen cells you find in the colony. 

Is the colony queenright?

Are there eggs present in the comb?

Does the colony appear depleted of bees?

If there are lots of sealed queen cells, no eggs, no sign of the queen and a depleted number of foragers then the colony has probably swarmed. 

Frankly, this is pretty obvious, though it’s surprising the number of beekeepers who cannot determine whether their colony has swarmed or not.

But other situations are less clear … 

If there are a small number of charged queen cells, eggs, a queen and a good number of bees in the hive then it might be supersedure.

Or the colony might swarm on the day the first cell is sealed 🙁

How do you distinguish between these two situations? 

Is it mid-May or mid-September? Swarming is more likely earlier in the season, whilst supersedure generally occurs later in the season.

But not always 😉

Is the queen ‘slimmed down’ and laying at a reduced rate?

Much trickier to determine … but if she is then they are likely to swarm.

Decisions, decisions 😉 … and going by the number of visits to my previous post entitled Queen cells … don’t panic! there are lots of beekeepers trying to make these decisions right now 🙂