Category Archives: Queen rearing

If it quacks like a duck …

Quack

… it might be a trapped virgin queen.

I discussed the audio monitoring of colonies and swarm prediction last week. Whilst interesting, I remain unconvinced that it is going to be a useful way to predict swarming. 

And, more importantly, that replacing the manual aspects of hive inspections is desirable. I’m sure it will appeal to hands off beekeepers, though I’m not sure that’s what beekeeping is about.

However there was a second component to what was a long and convoluted publication 1 which I found much more interesting.

Listening in

If you remember, the researchers fitted hives with sensitive accelerometers and recorded the sounds within the hive for two years. Of about 25 colonies monitored, half swarmed during this period, generating 11 prime swarms and 19 casts.

In addition to the background sounds of the hive, with changes in frequency and volume depending upon activity, some colonies produced a series of very un-bee-like toots and quacks.

Have a listen …

The audio starts with tooting, the quacking starts around 8-9s, and there’s overlapping tooting and quacking from near the 21s mark.

Queen communication

I’ve previously introduced the concept of pheromone-based communication within the hive. For example, the mated queen produces the queen mandibular and queen footprint pheromones, the concentrations of which influence the preparation and development of new queen cells.

Tooting and quacking is another form of queen communication, this time by virgin queens in the colony.

It’s not unusual to hear some of these sounds during normal hive inspections, but only during the swarming season and only when the colony is in the process of requeening.

If you rear queens, and in my experience particularly if you use mini-mating nucs, you will regularly hear “queen piping” – another term for the tooting sound – a day or so after placing a mature charged queen cell into the small colony.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

How does the queen make these sounds?

Queen piping or tooting

Queen tooting has been observed. The queen presses her thorax tight down against the comb and vibrates her strong thoracic wing muscles. Her wings remain closed. The comb acts as a sounding board, amplifying the sound in the hive (and presumably transmitting the vibrations through the comb as well).

This doesn’t happen just anywhere … the virgin queen is usually near the cell she has recently emerged from. 

And this swarm cell is usually on the periphery of a frame.

This is because the laying queen only rarely ventures to the edges of frames, so the concentration of her footprint pheromone is lower in this area, eventually resulting in queen cells being produced there

In their study, accelerometers embedded in the periphery of comb were able to detect much stronger tooting and quacking signals, supporting the conclusions of Grooters (1987) 2 who had first published studies on the location of piping queens.

Queen tooting and quacking

Queen piping is usually recorded at around 400 Hz and consists of one or more 1 second long pulses, followed by a number of much shorter pulses. In previous studies the frequency of tooting had been shown to be age-related. It starts at ~350 Hz and rises in frequency to around 500 Hz as the virgin queen matures over several days.

Compare the image above with the audio file linked further up the post. The tooting is followed by an extended period of quacking, and then both sounds occur at the same time.

Going quackers

The duck-like quacking is presumably also made by queens vibrating their flight muscles while pressed up against the comb.

I say ‘presumably’ as I don’t think it has been observed, as opposed to heard.

The reason for this is straightforward, the queens that are quacking are still within the closed queen cell.

Quacking is a lower frequency sound (is this because of the confines of the queen cell, the way the sound is produced, or the ‘maturity’ of the queen’s musculature?) but has also been shown to increase in frequency – from ~200 Hz to ~350 Hz – the longer the queen remains within the cell.

Afterswarms = casts

Before discussing the timing of tooting and quacking we need to quickly revisit the process of swarming. I’ve covered some of this before when discussing the practicalities of swarm control, so will be brief.

  1. Having “decided” to swarm the colony produces swarm cells. Usually several.
  2. Weather permitting, the prime swarm headed by the original laying queen leaves the hive, on or around the day that the first of the maturing queen cells is capped.
  3. Seven days after the cell was capped the first of the newly developed virgin queens emerges. 
  4. If the colony is strong, this virgin also swarms (a cast swarm). Some texts, including the publication being discussed, call these afterswarms.
  5. Over the following hours or days, successively smaller cast swarms may leave the hive, each headed by a newly emerged virgin queen.

Not all colonies produce multiple cast swarms, but initially strong colonies often do.

From a beekeeping point of view this is bad news™. It can leave the remnants of the original colony too weak to survive and potentially litters the neighbourhood with grapefruit, orange and satsuma-sized cast swarms. 

Irritating 🙁

Whether it’s good for the bees depends upon the likelihood of casts surviving. The very fact that evolution has generated this behaviour suggests it can be beneficial. I might return to this point at the end of the post.

Tooting timing

The Grooters paper referred to earlier is probably the definitive study of queen tooting or piping. The recent Ramsey publication appears to largely confirm the earlier results 3, but has some additional insights on colony disturbance during inspections 4.

Here is the acoustic trace of an undisturbed colony producing a prime swarm and two casts.

Timing of tooting and quaking in a swarming colony

I’ve added some visible labels to the image above indicating the occurrence of tooting and quacking in an undisturbed naturally swarming colony.

  • The prime swarm exited the hive on the afternoon of the 13th. No tooting had been recorded before that date.
  • On the 17th tooting starts and increases in frequency over the next two days.
  • Quacking starts 6 hours after the tooting starts.
  • The first cast swarm (afterswarm) exits the hive on the 19th and is followed by a three hour break in tooting.
  • Tooting and quacking then continue until the second cast swarm on the afternoon of the 21st.

So, in summary, tooting starts after the prime swarm leaves and stops temporarily when the first cast leaves the hive. Quacking starts after the tooting starts and then continues until the last swarm leaves the hive.

Why all the tooting and quacking?

The timing of queen tooting is consistent with it being made by a virgin queen that has emerged from the cell. The cessation of tooting upon swarming (the first afterswarm) suggests that the virgin left with the swarm. The restarting of tooting a few hours later suggests a new virgin queen has been released from another cell and is announcing her presence to the colony.

In previous studies, Grooters had shown that replaying the tooting sound to mature virgin queens actively chewing their way out of a queen cell delayed their emergence by several hours. This delay allowed the attendant workers to reseal the cell and obstruct her emergence for several days.

These timings and the behaviour(s) they are associated with suggest they are a colony-level communication strategy to reduce competition between queens. 

The newly emerged virgin queen toots (pipes) to inform the workers that there is ‘free’ queen in the colony. The workers respond by holding back emergence of other mature queens. 

If all (or several) of the virgin queens emerged and ran around the hive simultaneously they would effectively be ‘competing’ for the hive resources needed for successful swarming i.e. the workers. 

By controlling and coordinating a succession of queen emergence, a strong colony has the opportunity to generate one, two or more cast swarms whilst sufficient workers remain in the hive. It presumably helps ensure the casts are of a sufficient size to give them the best chance of survival.

At what point does this succession stop or break down? One possibility is that this happens when there are insufficient workers to prevent additional virgin queens from emerging.

Unanswered questions

Why do mature virgin queens within the cell quack? It is clearly a response to tooting, rather than being standard behaviour of a soon-to-emerge queen. 

Hear! Hear the pipes are calling, Loudly and proudly calling (from Scotland the Brave)

Is the quacking to attract workers to help reseal the cell?

I suspect not. At least, I suspect there is a more pressing need to attract the workers. After all, wouldn’t it be easier for the queen to simply stop chewing her way out for a few hours? 

Isn’t there a risk that a quacking cell-bound queen might attract the virgin queen running around ‘up top’ who might attempt to slaughter her captive half-sister? 

Possibly, so perhaps the workers that are attracted to the quacking cell also protect the cell, preventing the loose virgin queen from damaging the yet-to-emerge queens.

This would make sense … if the virgin leaves with a cast, the workers that will remain must be sure that there will be a queen available to head the colony

And finally, back to the tooting. I also wonder if this has additional roles in colony communication. For example, what other responses does it induce in the workers? 

Does the increasing frequency of tooting inform the workers that the virgin is maturing and that they should ready themselves for swarming? Perhaps tooting above a certain frequency induces workers to gorge themselves with honey to ensure the swarm has sufficient stores?

In support of this last suggestion, studies conducted almost half a century ago by Simpson and Greenwood 5 concluded that a 650 Hz artificial piping sound induced swarming in colonies containing a single mobile (i.e. free) virgin queen.

Casts

The apparently self-destructive swarming where a colony generates a series of smaller and smaller casts seems to be a daft choice from an evolutionary point of view.

Several studies, in particular from Thomas Seeley, have shown that swarming is a risky business for a colony … and that the majority of the risk is borne by the swarm, not the parental colony. 

87% of swarmed colonies will rear a new queen and successfully overwinter, but only 25% of swarms survive. And the latter figure must only get smaller as the size of the swarms decrease. 

One possibility is that under entirely natural conditions a colony will not undergo this type of self-destructive swarming. Perhaps it is a consequence of the strength of colonies beekeepers favour for good nectar collection or pollination?

Alternatively, perhaps it reflects the way we manage our colonies. Ramsey and colleagues also record tooting and quacking from colonies disturbed during hive inspections. In at least one of these their interpretation was that there were multiple queens ‘free’ in the hive simultaneously, presumably because workers had failed to restrict the emergence of at least one virgin queen.

So, perhaps hive inspections that (inadvertently) result in the release of multiple virgin queens are the colonies that subsequently slice’n’dice themselves to oblivion by producing lots of casts.

I can only remember one colony of mine doing this … and it started days after the previous inspection, but that doesn’t mean the disturbance I created during the inspection wasn’t the cause.

I’d be interested to know of your experience or thoughts.


Colophon

The title of this post is derived from the Duck Test:

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

This probably dates back to the end of the 19th Century. It’s a form of abductive 6 reasoning or logical inference. It starts with an observation or set of observations and then seeks to find the simplest and most likely conclusion from those observations. In comparison to deductive reasoning, logical inference does not lead to a logically certain conclusion. 

Inevitably, Monty Python stretched the logical inference a little too far in the Witch Logic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

What do you do with witches? Burn them! And what do you burn apart from witches? Wood! So, why do witches burn? ‘cos they’re made of wood? So; how do we tell if she is made of wood? Build a bridge out of ‘er! Ah, but can you not also make bridges out of stone? Oh yeah. Does wood sink in water? No, it floats! It floats! Throw her into the pond! What also floats in water? Bread! Apples! Very small rocks? Cider! Gra-Gravy! Cherries! Mud! Churches? Churches! Lead, Lead. A Duck! Exactly. So, logically… If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood… and therefore… a witch!

The million drones fiasco

Accidents happen.

Sometimes they are due to stupidity, sometimes to forgetfulness, or sometimes they are just the result of plain dumb luck.

They’re also often caused or at least exacerbated by ‘local’ factors – like a rainstorm or a cancelled train preventing timely inspections. 

Or a countrywide lockdown necessitated by a global viral pandemic.

With the exception of the cancelled train my excuse for what follows is “all of the above” 😉

Social distancing

Beekeeping, like other activities involving livestock management, has been a permitted activity during lockdown. Beekeepers have been allowed to travel to their apiaries and to move bees for pollination etc

I was away when lockdown was imposed and opted 1 to stay where I was. For the first half of the season I’ve had to forego weekly colony inspections. I’ve not had the pleasure of watching the colonies build up, of queen rearing or of sweating profusely when shifting nectar-filled supers 🙁

Instead all my beekeeping – the first inspection of the season, the swarm prevention and the swarm control – have been squeezed into two visits, each of a few frantically busy days, in late April and mid-May.

And, inevitably, mistakes have been made.

Well, one mistake … that I’m currently aware of.

First inspections and swarm prevention

We’re late starters in Fife.

It’s not unusual to delay the full first inspection until the very end of April in this part of Scotland. A couple of years ago we had knee-high oil seed rape (OSR) ankle deep in snow at the end of April.

There seems little point in disturbing the colony if it’s too cold to have a leisurely look through the brood box. The bees get tetchy, the brood gets chilled and you don’t have time to look for the important things – like disease, or that elusive queen you failed to mark last autumn.

However, this season started well and I should have started colony inspections in the second week of April.

But by that time the world had changed dramatically …

I finally snatched a couple of days around the 25th of April to do the first inspections and swarm prevention all rolled into one … and coupled this with reducing my colony numbers by 50% to make management over the coming months easier 2.

I’ll discuss how I did all this in a couple of full-on days some other time. The end result was about a dozen united colonies, each topped with three supers, containing a good marked laying queen. Many of the colonies were very strong, with up to 15 frames of brood after uniting 3.

The colonies were strong and healthy. All were headed by a laying queen. I saw all but a couple of the queens 4 and clipped and marked all those I found that weren’t already 5.

Safely back in the hive

Three supers were overkill for the usual spring nectar flow. However, there was already a reasonable flow on and I wanted to give the colonies a good amount of space in the hope of delaying swarm preparations. 

Swarm control

Colonies usually start making clear their intent to swarm in the second half of May here. It varies a bit depending upon how advanced or otherwise the season is – one of those unknown knowns.

I kept in email contact with beekeeping friends about their own colony build up. By the time I received the first email saying charged queen cells were present (~16th of May) I was travelling back to do my own swarm control.

I decided to use the nucleus method whether queen cells were present on not.

Effectively I was going to implement preemptive swarm control on some colonies. By taking the queen out into a nuc the colonies would be forced to requeen, I’d then leave a single charged/capped queen cell and let them get on with it.

All looking good …

And for eleven of the colonies that’s precisely what happened. 

I removed the queen on a frame of emerging brood and shook some of the bees from a second frame into the nuc box. These were to be relatively small nucs but made sure each had a full frame of capped stores (saved from colonies at the first inspection). I also added a frame of drawn comb and two foundationless frames.

I sealed the nucs and moved them to another apiary.

Three of many … and hive number 29

Most of the brood boxes had play cups with eggs and about 50% had charged queen cells. There were no capped cells. I marked frames containing promising looking charged cells and closed the boxes up.

… and still looking good six days later

Six 6 days later I went carefully through every frame in the de-queened colonies.

One good queen cell, an old play cup and some rather old comb

All the boxes had good looking queen cells and I made sure I left just one in each colony. 

The nucs also all looked great when I checked them on the same day. 

New comb with queen already laying it up

The queens were laying well and the bees were drawing new comb. They would be fine for another few weeks. 

Come in Number 29, your time is up

One of the colonies proved more problematic.

Hive #29 … this had been left as a strong single brood colony on the 25th of April.

Three weeks later it was – unsurprisingly – still a strong single brood colony. The bees were busy and the supers were already filling nicely 7.

What was missing from the brood box in mid-May were eggs, larvae or capped brood 🙁

Had I inadvertently killed the queen 8 at the last inspection? The 21-22 day interval would have meant that all worker brood would have matured and subsequently emerged 9.

However, the temperament of the colony suggested it wasn’t queenless. The bees were calm, they were foraging well and bringing in good amounts of OSR pollen.

With a sense of dread I had a look in the supers …

Let there be drones

About 75% of my many super frames are drawn on drone cell foundation. For the same amount of wax – by weight – you store more honey. I also think there may be advantages when spinning it out in terms of honey recovery 10.

In addition, if you use drone cell comb immediately over the brood box, you dissuade a strong colony from storing an arch of pollen over the brood nest in the super … 

Drone comb in super

… though they do often leave cells empty, ready for the queen to lay.

But she can’t do that because she’s trapped under the queen excluder. 

Right?

Wrong 🙁

The middle few frames of the lower couple of supers were wall to wall capped drone brood and drone larvae. The queen was busy laying up some of the remaining space that wasn’t already filled with nectar.

I found the marked and clipped queen on the very first super frame I removed.

Sod it.

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Perhaps.

Here was the dilemma. Hive #29 was strong and healthy but effectively queenless. Time was against me. I didn’t have the luxury of simply plonking her beneath the QE and checking the colony didn’t make swarm preparations in another three or four weeks 11

I’d already united all my other colonies and made up the nucs. I didn’t want to disassemble any of these to accommodate this colony.

With bad weather approaching in a few days I decided to make up a nuc with the queen and, in due course, donate a queen cell from another colony.

Which is what I did. 

An adjacent colony helpfully raised several very good looking cells which I knew were charged. One of these, on a frame holding a sideplate-sized patch of brood, was added to the colony just before the rain arrived.

Open the box, open the box

But on the same day I added the queen cell I also checked the supers thoroughly.

I wanted to make sure that every frame was drone foundation and that I’d not missed a queen cell drawn from any worker comb in the supers. That might have resulted in a virgin queen running about in my supers and, knowing my luck, squeezing through the QE and slaughtering the queen from the cell I’d just introduced. 

There were lots of “queen cells” in the supers. However all were little more than play cups drawn along the top edge of the drone comb, against the top bar. 

Lots of drone brood … but no real queen cells

None contained eggs. It was as though the bees, sensing the colony was now truly queenless, had known what to do but had no primary material to work with.

Over the next fortnight or so this hive was going to generate hundreds thousands lots of drones. Not in itself a bad thing – this was a good colony and the positve influence on local bee genetics might be beneficial.

However, all the drones would emerge in the supers and be prevented from exiting the hive due to the queen excluder.

When this happens the drones die in their droves stuck half way through the excluder.

This is a distressing sight and, for a drone, a demoralising experience (I would imagine 12).

Under normal circumstances I would simply return every 3-4 days, pop the lid off the hive and release them. This wasn’t possible living four hours away … 

… so I played the ‘get out of jail free’ card by adding a thin eke and upper entrance.

Upper entrance

When I next check the colony I expect the drone brood to have all emerged and, largely, left the supers. I hope there’s a mated laying queen in the bottom box and there should be some capped worker brood.

What there’s unlikely to be is three full supers of honey 🙁

With no worker brood being reared for at least 5 weeks the foraging workforce will be significantly depleted. I hope they manage to defend what they’ve already collected … time will tell.

What went wrong?

After finding the supers full of drone brood I wrote “dodgy” on both sides of the queen excluder frame as I replaced it with a plastic spare.

I assumed the queen had found a bent wire and   s  q  u  e  e  z  e  d  her way through to have a field day – actually three weeks – in the supers.

However, I think the explanation is more prosaic than that 13.

My notes indicated I’d not seen the queen in this hive during the April inspection. In this instance evidence of absence was not absence of evidence … there were lots of eggs and brood in all staged. The colony was queenright and the queen was in the right place.

At least before I opened the hive 😉

And this is where stupidity, forgetfulness and plain dumb luck played their part. I … 

  • stupidly botched the inspection, taking the strength and health of the colony as the most important signs that all was well, but …
  • forgot that the next inspection – when I would be making up nucs – would also need worker eggs in the brood box to rear new queens from.
  • There’s more … I also presumably forgot to thoroughly inspect the queen excluder before laying it to the side, allowing …
  • dumb luck to intervene when the queen scooted around to the other side of the excluder and so end up trapped in the supers when I reassembled the hive.

Mea culpa.

That’s my best guess anyway.

Did I do the right thing?

Hive #29 was the last to be inspected after a hard day of beekeeping in late April.

Coincidentally it was also the last to be checked in mid-May 14

This limited my options somewhat and I made a judgement call as to the best course of action. Doing what I describe above risks the queen failing to emerge or mate. It also potentially risks the box being robbed as the workforce diminish, particularly with the upper entrance I’ve added.

Both of these could lead to the loss of the hive, but the loss/problem would be all mine. At the time, standing there swearing sweating in my beesuit, gasping for a beer, it seemed like the safest bet. It also seemed like the responsible course of action in the middle of a global pandemic.

I chose not to just dump the queen back into the brood box, add the upper entrance and leave them to it. Had the colony subsequently swarmed 15 the problem might then have been someone else’s

Did I do the right thing?

We’ll know soon enough … 😉


 

Queenright … or not?

A brief follow-up to the (ridiculously long) post last week about leaving queen cells in the colony after a) it swarms, or b) implementing swarm control 1.

How long does it take for the new queen to emerge, mate and start laying? 

And what if she doesn’t?

How did we get here?

We are approaching the peak of the beekeeping season. Colonies have built up strongly and should now be topped by comfortingly heavy supers of spring honey. 

Mind your back 😯 

The box you inspected in early April and found three frames of brood in is now bursting at the seams with bees and brood. Everything is getting busier and bigger. You may have already run out of supers or – lucky you – are frantically extracting to free-up supers to return to the colonies.

Depending upon your location you may already have discovered that your swarm prevention efforts, whilst temporarily effective, were soon treated with disdain as the colonies started to build queen cells.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

You are now using some form of swarm control and the colony now contains a mature queen cell.

Or they swarmed … leaving a mature queen cell 🙁

Queenless colonies

Is a colony with a charged, capped, queen cell queenless? 

A philosophical question 🙂

I guess the answer is technically no, but practically yes.

There’s clearly a queen in the hive, but she’s really a potential queen. To be useful to the colony (and the beekeeper) she has to emerge, mature, mate and start laying.

It’s at that stage that the colony can be described as queenright.

All of this takes time and all of which significantly changes the tempo of the season.

Colonies that are requeening should generally not be disturbed and the change from full-on to full-off can feel strange.

Doubly so, because the lack of reassuring inspections can make the wait seem interminable. 

It’s tempting to have a quick peek … after all, what harm could it do?

Tick tock

The development of a queen takes 16 days from egg to eclosed virgin. The first three days as an egg, then six days as a larva before a further week as a developing pupa. The rapid development is due to the very rich diet that queens are fed in the first couple of days. This triggers a host of changes in gene expression 2 which dramatically alters the morphology, behaviour and longevity of the queen from the genetically identical worker.

After a virgin queen emerges she needs to mature sexually which takes 5-6 days. During this period they don’t look or behave much like queens. They tend to be quite small and, if disturbed, rush about the frame skittishly. They are also a lot more willing to fly than a mature laying queen – you have been warned! 3

Where have all my young girls gone?

What a beauty

Virgin queens are not lavished with attention by a retinue of workers, all of which often makes them more difficult to find in the hive.

The queen goes on one or more mating flights which usually take place on warm, calm, sunny early afternoons.

She then returns to the hive and, 2-3 days later, starts laying eggs. A queen that has just started laying sometimes lays more than one egg per cell. However, she settles down fast and will usually lay in a reasonably tight pattern in the centre of one of the middle frames in the brood nest.

Have patience

Add all those timings up and you have a minimum of two weeks between the capping of the queen cell and the day when she starts laying.

To be sure, you need to know when the queen cell was capped which is difficult if you’re dealing with a colony that swarmed. Was the cell capped on the day the colony swarmed (not unusual), or was it capped during the lousy weather a few days earlier that then delayed the emergence of the swarm?

It is unwise to disturb a virgin queen.

All sorts of things can go wrong. You might inadvertently crush her during an inspection 4 or scare her into taking flight and getting lost in the long grass.

Equally calamitous would be inspecting the colony on the nice, calm, warm mid-afternoon when she decides to go off on her mating flight. She’ll be off consorting with the local drones for about 10 – 30 minutes, and may go on more than one flight on subsequent days. If she returns to find the roof and supers off, the brood frames out and smoke being puffed everywhere she may never find the hive entrance.

Inspecting a colony

None of the above ends well.

Minima and maxima

The two weeks detailed above is the absolute minimum. I don’t check these things routinely but think the only time I’ve really seen it taking that short a period (from cell sealing to a mated laying queen) is when queen rearing using mini-mating nucs.

Mini-nucs …

Queens tend to get mated in these very fast if the weather is suitable. I don’t know why 5.

But, if the weather is unsuitable, irrespective of the hive type, mating will be delayed.

By ‘unsuitable’ I mean lousy. If it’s raining persistently or blowing a hoolie the queen will not venture forth.

If it’s cool (16 – 18°C) and cloudy she might, particularly if she’s of the darker Apis mellifera mellifera strain. 

But then again, she might not 🙁 

All of which means that the two weeks quoted really is a minimum.

What if it rains for a month? The virgin queen has a ‘shelf life’. If she does not get mated within ~26-33 days of emergence she is unlikely to get successfully mated at all.

Here we go again ...

No queen mating today …

To summarise, it will take a minimum of two weeks from queen cell capping to having a laying queen in the hive. If 40 days elapse before the queen is mated (again from cell capping) it is likely that she will be a dud.

Three weeks

Assuming the weather has been OK for queen mating I usually leave a minimum of three weeks between closing the hive up with a capped queen cell and looking for the mated queen. 

There’s little to be gained by rummaging around the hive before then … and a whole lot to be potentially lost.

If you do open the hive up too early – assuming none of the nightmare scenarios above occur – what can you expect to see?

Lift the dummy board out, prise out the last frame and then split the hive somewhere in the middle of the remaining frames i.e. don’t work through frame by frame, this isn’t a routine inspection, it’s a Royal Checkup.

If you look around the middle of the face of the central frames you can often see polished cells. These have been cleaned and prepared by the workers for the queen to lay in. They’re particularly obvious if the comb is a bit old and dark – then they really do look polished and shiny.

If there are polished cells present, but no eggs, I’m then reasonably confident that there’s a queen in the hive but that she’s not started laying yet (but is probably mated).

There’s no point in looking for her. Close the hive up and leave it another week.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

If she is laying, leave her be. Wait until she’s laid up a few frames and you can tell she has a good laying pattern of worker brood i.e. look at the appearance of the sealed brood, then find her and mark her 6.

Breathe a sigh of relief … your colony is again queenright.

Five weeks

If five weeks 7 have elapsed between leaving a freshly capped cell in the hive and the non-appearance of eggs I start to fear the worst.

The colony will now have no brood – it all emerged about two and half weeks ago – and the lack of brood pheromone means there’s a possibility that the colony will develop laying workers

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

There may be a queen present, but she’s rapidly becoming an ageing spinster

In this situation it is probably wise to decide what Plan B is … how will you ‘rescue’ the colony?

If you leave the colony for another week or fortnight you might find a laying queen, but you probably won’t. During this period the colony will dwindle further in size and strength 8

Plan B

You effectively have four choices:

  1. Unite the colony with a known queenright colony.
  2. Requeen the colony with a mated, laying queen 9.
  3. Add a mature capped queen cell to the colony. Start nervously pacing the apiary again waiting for her to emerge, mature, mate and start laying.
  4. Allow the colony to rear their own queen by providing a frame of eggs (see below).

It is important to find and dispatch the ‘failed’ queen if you are going to do 1, 2 or 3. The queen may have failed to get mated but she might still be able to kill a challenger queen in the hive. 

Uniting the colony is often the best and safest option. It’s quick. It uses the bees remaining in the colony immediately and it strengthens another hive. It’s my preferred option … but I have quite a few colonies to work with. If you have just one (and you shouldn’t have) it’s clearly a non-starter. 

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

Adding an expensive purchased mated laying queen (or a cheap one) can be risky. Terminally queenless and broodless colonies are often tricky to requeen. The most successful way I’ve found to do this 10 is to use a large cage pinned over a frame of emerging brood. And even then it doesn’t always work 🙁 

If you already have laying workers it is not worth trying to requeen the colony – they’ll almost certainly kill her. I usually try once to ‘rescue’ a laying worker hive (details here), but then shake them out.

Adding a capped queen cells can work if the colony is queenless but you will have another long wait ahead of you … and all the time the colony is dwindling in size.

She emerges into a population of geriatric workers. Far from ideal.

But what if you can’t find the queen?

Is the colony really queenless?

Perhaps she mated quite late because of poor weather and is about to get started?

Perhaps she failed to mate and is just lurking in there waiting to slaughter the £40 Buckfast queen you’re about to add 🙁 

Frame of eggs

Most of these questions can be answered by adding a ‘frame of eggs’.

A queenless colony will start to rear a new queen if presented with eggs and larvae.

A queenright colony will not.

If you are unsure whether a colony is queenright add a frame containing a good number of eggs. I usually like to use a full brood frame also containing some larvae and sealed brood. The brood pheromone will help hold back laying worker development. The new young bees that emerge will bolster the hive population and will be there to help the new queen when she returns from getting mated.

If you have the luxury of choosing a frame of eggs on relatively new fresh comb the bees will find it easier to draw queen cells. However, don’t worry if you don’t … if they’re queenless they’ll be thankful for anything.

Check the colony a few days after adding the frame of eggs. If they’ve started queen cells 11 then I just let them get on with it and check again in about a month or so for a laying queen. They won’t swarm or generate casts as – by this time – bee numbers are significantly depleted. 

However, if they don’t start queen cells it means there’s a queen somewhere in the hive. Check the other frames in the hive for eggs. It’s not at all unusual to find the original queen has now started laying. Again, leave her to get on with it.

But if there are no eggs on other frames and no queen cells (on the frame you added) you need to find the non-functioning queen … and we’ll deal with that sometime in the future 😉

Good luck


Colophon

The usual dictionary definition of queenright just references a colony of bees that contains a queen. The OED has references going back to 1911 (When a colony is found that is not queen-right, it is remorselessly broken up, and distributed among other colonies, or united with a weak colony having a good queen, C.C. Miller in Fifty Years among Bees) including some from Wedmore and E.O Wilson.  

However, none specifically state whether the queen is laying. Or what she’s laying. A queenless colony is easy to define. But what about a colony containing a virgin queen? Or a drone laying queen? 

I’d argue that in these situations the colony contains a queen, but things aren’t really ‘right’ (as in correct). In my view, queenright means a mated, laying queen. 

Please, no pedantic questions or comments about a colony containing a well mated queen that, because there’s a nectar dearth, has stopped laying … 😉

Queen cells … quantity and quality

How many queen cells should I leave in my hive?

This question pops up year after year at this time of the season.

Up and down the country we’re all busy implementing swarm control because our swarm prevention, er, didn’t 🙁

The majority of swarm control methods leave part of the colony to rear a new queen. Once she has emerged, matured, mated and proved her worth by laying up a frame or two you can then decide what to do with the old queen. 

Irrespective of the swarm control method you use – e.g. Pagden, nucleus method or a vertical split – the colony often produces quite a few queen cells. 

Similarly, if both your swarm prevention and swarm control failed and a prime swarm disappeared over the fence, there are likely to be several (or possibly lots of) queen cells left in the colony.

Queen cells – the good, the bad and the ugly

How many of these queen cells should you leave in the hive? 

Which one(s) should you leave?

Assumptions

I’m in the middle of my own swarm control at the moment and so intend to keep this relatively short and simple 1.

I am going to assume you start with one hive and you want to finish with one hive at the end of the process (i.e. you do not want to make increase). I’ll briefly mention rescuing queenless colonies and stock improvement as it’s relevant.

I’m also going to keep this as generic as possible. It’s not going to depend upon the method of swarm control employed or – with some caveats to be discussed later – whether the colony has naturally swarmed.

Here’s the starting position.

Your hive is making preparations to swarm. You apply a swarm control method that removes the old queen from the original brood box 2. This box therefore contains brood in all stages (BIAS) – eggs, larvae and sealed brood. This brood probably occupies most of the frames in the brood box. 

Also in the box are a very large number of adult bees, both workers and drones 3

And there will probably be one, several or lots of unsealed queen cells 4 present as well 🙂

Why do anything? or What’s the worst thing that could happen?

When a colony swarms naturally about 75% of the adult bees leave with the old queen. This figure is similar whether the colony is large or small. 

If you start with a large double brood colony it might contain 60,000 bees. Let’s assume a large swarm leaves as the first queen cells are capped (which is when the swarm usually scarpers).

There are still 15,000 bees and perhaps 15-18 frames of brood, several frames of which are close to emerging. The queen laying rate 3 weeks prior to the swarm was probably 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day, meaning that number of adult workers are now emerging per day. 

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

About eight days after the queen cells were capped and the swarm left the new virgin queens emerge (see the bottom row in the picture above). By this time the worker population in the hive might well be over 20,000 again (some adult worker will have died of old age in the intervening period).

20,000 bees is more than enough to swarm again if several queens emerge 5.

These secondary swarms are called casts. They are headed by a virgin queen. They can be quite large if the original colony was very strong. 

However, with a lot of virgin queens emerging around the same time a strong colony can produce several casts, one after another. These are usually successively smaller and smaller 6. Not only are these casts too small to form an effective colony, but the originating colony can be weakened sufficiently to make its survival doubtful.

What’s the alternative?

Imagine the same double-brood colony. The old queen heads for the hills with 75% of the workforce. A week later the colony strength has been boosted by the emergence of a further 7 – 10 thousand workers … but this time there is only one capped queen cell developing.

The queen emerges.

If this queen also disappeared in a cast swarm the original colony would inevitably perish.

Why?

Because a week after the original swarm leaves there are no eggs or larvae in the colony young enough to be reared as new queens. 

She’s gone …

Swarming is reproduction of the honey bee ‘superorganism’. The survival of natural swarms is low (~25%) whereas the survival of swarmed colonies is reasonably high (>75%).

From an evolutionary perspective it makes no sense for the only queen to also leave, heading a cast swarm. The colony would have ‘traded’ a ~1:5 chance of producing two viable colonies for a 1:16 chance 7

It’s a no brainer as they say 8.

So, you can probably see where this is going now …

Swarm control

The three relatively generic and representative swarm control methods –  Pagden, a nucleus method or a vertical split – all involve manipulation of the hives one week after the initial intervention.

In the ‘classic’ Pagden method the original hive is moved from one side of the artificial swarm to the other. This has the effect of ‘bleeding off’ some of the workforce, so weakening the hive. The resulting reduced worker population often tear down all but a small number of queen cells. The reduced bee numbers also make the production of casts less likely as the colony is weaker.

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

In a vertical split the hive is reversed on the stand after 7 days, achieving exactly the same outcome on a much smaller footprint with less equipment 🙂 9

In both these methods the flying bees that have reoriented to the initial new position of the queenless hive return to find the hive moved. They then enter the nearest hive, which is the queenright component (i.e. the artificial swarm). 

I’ll get to the nucleus method in a moment.

Sometimes you will see it recommended that you also check the queenless colony at this one week timepoint to ensure that there are not large numbers of queen cells still present 10. It’s not usually necessary but – assuming you are careful – it does not cause any harm. As I explain below, it can help give you confidence.

If you don’t perform the one week hive manoeuvre you really should check for queen cells and reduce the number present.

In the nucleus method I describe the beekeeper must manage queen cell numbers in the queenless hive. Not doing so almost certainly risks losing multiple casts when the queens emerge together.

How many queen cells should you leave?

The queenless component of your swarm control only needs one queen cell

Any less than that and the colony will be non-viable without further intervention from the beekeeper.

Any more and there’s a risk that the colony will generate one or more casts. 

A very strong queenless colony with large numbers of queen cells is a recipe for disaster … or, if not a disaster, then a lot of frustration as you scurry around trying to catch the casts and/or rescue the colony from swarming itself to destruction.

Workers in very strong colonies can ‘hold back’ queens, effectively trapping them in the cell, so that emergence is more-or-less simultaneous. Should you chance to open a colony in this situation all hell breaks loose, with virgin queens dashing about all over the place.

Been there, got the T-shirt 🙂

Although entertaining – at least is retrospect – it’s better to avoid this sort of situation by restricting queen cell numbers.

All your eggs in one basket

And this is where the beginner starts to experience some trepidation.

They have to reduce queen cell numbers … to one.

That queen will head the colony for the next year or three. She’ll mother tens of thousands of workers who will make countless foraging trips and collect tens or (hopefully) hundreds of pounds of honey.

Choosing that one queen cell feels like a lot of responsibility.

The consequences of choosing a dud feel very serious indeed.

Surely leaving two or three would be a ‘safer’ bet? 

Backups, if you will … just in case the first one turns out to be a dud.

How do you know which one to pick?

Trust the bees

And this is where you need to trust the bees. They’ve been doing this pretty well for several million years.

You don’t need to choose a single egg from the thousands possibly present in the colony. The one egg that will be cared for, fed copious amounts of royal jelly and eventually emerge to head the colony.

The bees have already made those decisions 11.

They’ve started several queen cells, the majority of which are likely to be suitable. You just need to choose one of those queen cells to leave in the hive. 

It’s not a one in thousands chance of choosing a ‘winner’, it’s more like one in ten … in which any of the ten would probably be OK.

With a few caveats …

What are the features of a good queen cell?

You open the hive and find a number of sealed and unsealed queen cells.

Which to choose?

What are the features you are looking for?

What are the features you can see?

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Size, shape and appearance are the obvious ones. Position on the comb might also influence your choice.

What are the features you cannot see?

Is is a charged cell i.e. does it contain a developing pupa? Has that pupa been well fed as a larva?

Size, shape, appearance and position

Mature queen cells are large, about 3 cm long. The position on the comb – whether on the face or edge can influence the apparent size. They are generally conical, more or less evenly tapering to a neatly rounded tip. Queen cells that have been well-tended by the bees are often heavily sculpted on the outside. This is generally taken to be a “good thing”, but note that this doesn’t happen until after the queen cell is capped (see the photo above). Uncapped cells are usually smooth (see the next photo).

I think the position on the frame is irrelevant in terms of queen cell quality, but it does influence which I choose. The cell should be drawn from worker comb (!) 12 and – particularly if I’m likely to be either cutting the cell out or moving the entire frame – I like it to be in a position unlikely to get damaged as I manipulate the frames in the hive.

The edge of drawn comb, with space below and to the side, makes things easy. The central face of the comb, especially if it’s on fresh comb and not near a wire in the foundation, is also a good bet. 

The position is more important if you’re going to do something with the cell or frame other than let it emerge in situ.

Charged cells

How do you know there’s a well-fed pupa in the cell?

Ted Hooper (in his Guide to Bees and Honey) describes gently prising the cap off a sealed queen cell to check it is occupied, then re-sealing it to let development run its course. He finishes discussing how to re-seal the cell with the words “you have to do a good job or the bees will tear it down.”

I bet 😉

There are easier ways.

Firstly you can be pretty sure that any well-shaped sealed cell with a good, well sculpted appearance is likely to be occupied. Alternatively, you can identify these cells in advance and only allow those you know contain a developing larva sitting on a thick bed of royal jelly to mature.

A practical example

A few days ago I used the nucleus method for swarm control in all my colonies in one apiary. Due to work constraints and lockdown some colonies were only just starting to make preparations to swarm. None of the colonies had well developed, charged queen cells. Some had ‘play cups’ with eggs present.

Three days after making up the nucs I checked the queenless parent colonies. All had a few developing queen cells.

Here is the same photograph as above, with some cells numbered on the frame.

Queen cells – capped, open and just plain dodgy

Which do you choose?

Here is the view from below of the same frame.

Queen cells – practical example

  1. A sealed cell, perhaps a bit small 13
  2. Is a nice looking unsealed cell with a thick bed of royal jelly supporting a larva inside.
  3. Also unsealed and with a good space underneath for the cell to be drawn out as it develops.
  4. Is very similar to #2. Smooth exterior as it’s only 3 days old and unsealed.
  5. A thickened play cup from a previous season. There is no egg, larva or royal jelly inside it.

Remember that this is only 3 days after implementing swarm control.

I destroyed the sealed cell #1. Since it was already sealed it was probably made from an older larva. Cells are sealed on the eighth day after the egg is laid. Since this was only 72 hours after removing the queen the larva was probably two days old before being reared as a queen – i.e. 8 minus 3 days since queen removal minus the three days it would have already spent as an egg. Alternatively, it might have been present when I removed the queen, though I did check reasonably thoroughly.

I couldn’t be sure of the contents of this cell and I suspected that it may not have been fed on copious amounts of royal jelly during the very early days after hatching from the egg.

Cell #3 was also squidged. If you look closely from below you can clearly see the larva but no thick bed of royal jelly. I doubted it had been fed well enough in the early days. Here’s an enlargement …

Cells #1 to #4 enlarged.

Why risk it? There are better cells on the frame.

I ignored #5. It’s not a queen cell and never will be.

Uncapped cells #2 and #4 were retained. They are the right size, have a good appearance and are well placed on the frame.

I marked the top of the frame with a queen marking pen to remind me where to check, and more importantly where to be careful, when I inspect the colony a week after making up the nuc.

X marks the spot

Note that the photo above is a different hive to the numbered photo of queen cells (which I forgot to photograph).

Hold on … not so fast

Go back and look again at the numbered photo of queen cells.

There is another cell, uncapped and filled with royal jelly, to the left and a little higher than the sealed queen cell #1.

This cell is actually pretty obvious. There are relatively few bees on the frame and it is not particularly well ‘hidden’. 

Miss a couple more like that in a very strong hive and there’s a chance the colony will throw off several casts when the queen emerge. The unlabelled cell, and cells #2 and #4 are all very similar in age and appearance and would likely emerge within hours of each other.

Seven days after implementing swarm control

The hives are checked again 14.

I know which frames have good, charged developing queen cells. They are the ones that are marked. I therefore :

  • treat these frames very carefully. Do not shake the bees off the frame!
  • make sure the cells are now capped and starting to be sculpted by the bees.
  • gently inspect the remainder of the frame for other queen cells.
  • destroy any new cells that I find

I choose one of the queen cells and destroy any others on the frame. If there is more than one marked frame and I don’t need the cell for another colony (see below) then I destroy the cells on the other marked frame as well.

I then thoroughly inspect every frame in the brood box, shaking all the bees off the frames and checking for any queen cells I may have missed previously. There will be some.

All I find are destroyed.

I close the hive up and leave it undisturbed for the queen to emerge, mate and start laying. I’ll discuss this – apparently interminable – period in the future sometime.

I’m confident the cell contains a well fed pupae. It was the the bees that really selected the queen … all I did was whittle down their selection to the final choice.

Using ‘spare’ queen cells

In the photo above there are two marked frames. This is a good colony. Frugal, productive, well behaved etc. 15

There is another colony in the apiary which is poorly tempered. They are also requeening and are at the same stage.

Assuming the cells on both marked frames are good I’ll transfer one to the badly behaved colony when I conduct the seven day inspection. You can transfer the entire frame or you can gently cut the queen cell out and use it directly 16

All of the developing queen cells in the badly behaved colony will first be destroyed. Since there are no eggs or young larvae in that colony (and no queen as she was removed a week ago) they cannot rear another from their own genetic material.

The new queen will be better quality.

Similarly, you can use a ‘spare’ queen from a good hive to rescue a terminally queenless colony, or to replace an underperforming or substandard queen.

A really dodgy queen cell

I wanted to squeeze in a picture of what not to choose. 

Bride of Frankenstein queen cell

There are so many things wrong with this.

Where to start?

It’s drawn from drone comb and is not neatly tapering and conical. It’s poorly sculpted considering its age and size, which is far too big.

Whatever emerges from this cell, if anything, will not be any use to me or the bees 🙁

Seven day only inspection

The process described above involves an additional inspection 3-4 days after implementing swarm control. I think this is a modest amount of additional work for:

  • the peace of mind it gives when selecting the final cell to leave
  • the time saved when going through the colony at the seven day inspection

However, often it’s not possible. In that case I refer you back to the description of what a good sealed queen cell looks like.

Choose one of those.

Just one 😉


Notes

With gale force winds predicted for the next 2-3 days I ended up checking the ‘example’ colony (above) on day 6 after implementing swarm control measures. Here is the same frame:

Just one!

I removed two less convincing queen cells on either side of the one selected (#2 in the labelled photograph further up the page). There were a small number of queen cells elsewhere in the colony. All were removed. I’m leaving just one cell sealed, I know it contains a well fed larva. She’ll emerge in about a week and should be mated – weather permitting – a week or so after that.

And now the wait begins … 😉

 

Darwinian beekeeping

A fortnight ago I reviewed the first ten chapters of Thomas Seeley’s recent book The Lives of Bees. This is an excellent account of how honey bees survive in ‘the wild’ i.e. without help or intervention from beekeepers.

Seeley demonstrates an all-too-rare rare combination of good experimental science with exemplary communication skills.

It’s a book non-beekeepers could appreciate and in which beekeepers will find a wealth of entertaining and informative observations about their bees.

The final chapter, ‘Darwinian beekeeping’, includes an outline of practical beekeeping advice based around what Seeley (and others) understand about how colonies survive in the wild.

Differences

The chapter starts with a very brief review of about twenty differences between wild-living and managed colonies. These differences have already been introduced in the preceding chapters and so are just reiterated here to set the scene for what follows.

The differences defined by Seeley as distinguishing ‘wild’ and ‘beekeepers’ colonies cover everything from placement in the wider landscape (forage, insecticides), the immediate environment of the nest (volume, insulation), the management of the colony (none, invasive) and the parasites and pathogens to which the bees are exposed.

Some of the differences identified are somewhat contrived. For example, ‘wild’ colonies are defined fixed in a single location, whereas managed colonies may be moved to exploit alternative forage.

In reality I suspect the majority of beekeepers do not move their colonies. Whether this is right or not, Seeley presents moving colonies as a negative. He qualifies this with studies which showed reduced nectar gathering by colonies that are moved, presumably due to the bees having to learn about their new location.

However, the main reason beekeepers move colonies is to exploit abundant sources of nectar. Likewise, a static ‘wild’ colony may have to find alternative forage when a particularly good local source dries up.

If moving colonies to exploit a rich nectar source did not usually lead to increased nectar gathering it would be a pretty futile exercise.

Real differences

Of course, some of the differences are very real.

Beekeepers site colonies close together to facilitate their management. In contrast, wild colonies are naturally hundreds of metres apart 1. I’ve previously discussed the influence of colony separation and pathogen transmission 2; it’s clear that widely spaced colonies are less susceptible to drifting and robbing from adjacent hives, both processes being associated with mite and virus acquisition 3.

Abelo poly hives

50 metres? … I thought you said 50 centimetres. Can we use the next field as well?

The other very obvious difference is that wild colonies are not treated with miticides but managed colonies (generally) are. As a consequence – Seeley contends – beekeepers have interfered with the ‘arms race’ between the host and its parasites and pathogens. Effectively beekeepers have ‘weaken[ed] the natural selection for disease resistance’.

Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with this general statement, I am not convinced that simply letting natural selection run its (usually rather brutal) course is a rational strategy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself … what is Darwinian beekeeping?

Darwinian beekeeping

Evolution is probably the most powerful force in nature. It has created all of the fantastic wealth of life forms on earth – from the tiniest viroid to to the largest living thing, Armillaria ostoyae 4. The general principles of Darwinian evolution are exquisitely simple – individuals of a species are not identical; traits are passed from generation to generation; more offspring are born than can survive; and only the survivors of the competition for resources will reproduce.

I emphasised ‘survivors of the competition’ as it’s particularly relevant to what is to follow. In terms of hosts and pathogens, you could extend this competition to include whether the host survives the pathogen (and so reproduces) or whether the pathogen replicates and spreads, but in doing so kills the host.

Remember that evolution is unpredictable and essentially directionless … we don’t know what it is likely to produce next.

Seeley doesn’t provide a precise definition of Darwinian beekeeping (which he also terms natural, apicentric or beefriendly beekeeping). However, it’s basically the management of colonies in a manner that more closely resembles how colonies live in the wild.

This is presumably unnnatural beekeeping

In doing so, he claims that colonies will have ‘less stressful and therefore more healthful’ lives.

I’ll come back to this point at the end. It’s an important one. But first, what does Darwinian mean in terms of practical beekeeping?

Practical Darwinian beekeeping

Having highlighted the differences between wild and managed colonies you won’t be surprised to learn that Darwinian beekeeping means some 5 or all of the following: 6

  • Keep locally adapted bees – eminently sensible and for which there is increasing evidence of the benefits.
  • Space colonies widely (30-50+ metres) – which presumably causes urban beekeepers significant problems.
  • Site colonies in an area with good natural forage that is not chemically treated – see above.
  • Use small hives with just one brood box and one super – although not explained, this will encourage swarming.
  • Consider locating hives high off the ground – in fairness Seeley doesn’t push this one strongly, but I could imagine beekeepers being considered for a Darwin Award if sufficient care wasn’t taken.
  • Allow lots of drone brood – this occurs naturally when using foundationless frames.
  • Use splits and the emergency queen response for queen rearing i.e. allow the colony to choose larvae for the preparation of new queens – I’ve discussed splits several times and have recently posted on the interesting observation that colonies choose very rare patrilines for queens.
  • Refrain from treating with miticides – this is the biggy. Do not treat colonies. Instead kill any colonies with very high mite levels to prevent them infesting other nearby colonies as they collapse and are robbed out.

Good and not so good advice

A lot of what Seeley recommends is very sound advice. Again, I’m not going to paraphrase his hard work – you should buy the book and make your own mind up.

Sourcing local bees, using splits to make increase, housing bees in well insulated hives etc. all works very well.

High altitude bait hive …

Some of the advice is probably impractical, like the siting of hives 50 metres apart. A full round of inspections in my research apiary already takes a long time without having to walk a kilometre to the furthest hive.

The prospect of inspecting hives situated at altitude is also not appealing. Negotiating stairs with heavy supers is bad enough. In my travels I’ve met beekeepers keeping hives on shed roofs, accessed by a wobbly step ladder. An accident waiting to happen?

And finally, I think the advice to use small hives and to cull mite-infested colonies is poor. I understand the logic behind both suggestions but, for different reasons, think they are likely to be to the significant detriment of bees, bee health and beekeeping.

Let’s deal with them individually.

Small hives – one brood and one super

When colonies run out of space for the queen to lay they are likely to swarm. The Darwinian beekeeping proposed by Seeley appears to exclude any form of swarm prevention strategy. Hive manipulation is minimal and queens are not clipped.

They’ll run out of space and swarm.

Even my darkest, least prolific colonies need more space than the ~60 litres offered by a brood and super.

Seeley doesn’t actually say ‘allow them to swarm’, but it’s an inevitability of the management and space available. Of course, the reason he encourages it is (partly – there are other reasons) to shed the 35% of mites and to give an enforced brood break to the original colony as it requeens.

These are untreated colonies. At least when starting the selection strategy implicit in Darwinian beekeeping these are likely to have a very significant level of mite infestation.

These mites, when the colony swarms, disappear over the fence with the swarm. If the swarm survives long enough to establish a new nest it will potentially act as a source of mites far and wide (through drifting and robbing, and possibly – though it’s unlikely as it will probably die – when it subsequently swarms).

A small swarm

A small swarm … possibly riddled with mites

Thanks a lot!

Lost swarms – and the assumption is that many are ‘lost’ – choose all sorts of awkward locations to establish a new nest site. Sure, some may end up in hollow trees, but many cause a nuisance to non-beekeepers and additional work for the beekeepers asked to recover them.

In my view allowing uncontrolled swarming of untreated colonies is irresponsible. It is to the detriment of the health of bees locally and to beekeepers and beekeeping.

Kill heavily mite infested colonies

How many beekeepers reading this have deliberately killed an entire colony? Probably not many. It’s a distressing thing to have to do for anyone who cares about bees.

The logic behind the suggestion goes like this. The colony is heavily mite infested because it has not developed resistance (or tolerance). If it is allowed to collapse it will be robbed out by neighbouring colonies, spreading the mites far and wide. Therefore, tough love is needed. Time for the petrol, soapy water, insecticide or whatever your choice of colony culling treatment.

In fairness to Seeley he also suggests that you could requeen with known mite-resistant/tolerant stock.

But most beekeepers tempted by Darwinian ‘treatment free’ natural beekeeping will not have a queen bank stuffed with known mite-resistant mated queens ‘ready to go’.

But they also won’t have the ‘courage’ to kill the colony.

They’ll procrastinate, they’ll prevaricate.

Eventually they’ll either decide that shaking the colony out is OK and a ‘kinder thing to do’ … or the colony will get robbed out before they act and carpet bomb every strong colony for a mile around.

Killing the colony, shaking it out or letting it get robbed out have the same overall impact on the mite-infested colony, but only slaying them prevents the mites from being spread far and wide.

And, believe me, killing a colony is a distressing thing to do if you care about bees.

In my view beefriendly beekeeping should not involve slaughtering the colony.

Less stress and better health

This is the goal of Darwinian beekeeping. It is a direct quote from final chapter of the book (pp286).

The suggestion is that unnatural beekeeping – swarm prevention and control, mite management, harvesting honey (or beekeeping as some people call it 😉 ) – stresses the bees.

And that this stress is detrimental for the health of the bees.

I’m not sure there’s any evidence that this is the case.

How do we measure stress in bees? Actually, there are suggested ways to measure stress in bees, but I’m not sure anyone has systematically developed these experimentally and compared the stress levels of wild-living and managed colonies.

I’ll explore this topic a bit more in the future.

I do know how to measure bee health … at least in terms of the parasites and pathogens they carry. I also know that there have been comparative studies of managed and feral colonies.

Unsurprisingly for an unapologetic unnatural beekeeper like me ( 😉 ), the feral colonies had higher levels of parasites and pathogens (Catherine Thompson’s PhD thesis [PDF] and Thompson et al., 2014 Parasite Pressures on Feral Honey Bees). By any measurable definition these feral colonies were less healthy.

Less stress and better health sounds good, but I’m not actually sure it’s particularly meaningful.

I’ll wrap up with two closing thoughts.

One of the characteristics of a healthy and unstressed population is that it is numerous, productive and reproduces well. These are all characteristics of strong and well-managed colonies.

Finally, persistently elevated levels of pathogens are detrimental to the individual and the population. It’s one of the reasons we vaccinate … which will be a big part of the post next week.


 

Who’s the daddy?

I’ve recently discussed the importance and influence of polyandry for honey bee colonies. Briefly, polyandry – the mating of the queen with multiple (~12-18) drones – is critical for colony fitness e.g. ability to resist disease, forage efficiently or overwinter successfully.

Hyperpolyandry, for example resulting from instrumental insemination of the queen with sperm from 30+ drones, further increases colony fitness and disease resistance.

How do you measure polyandry?

Essentially, you genetically analyse the worker bees in the colony to determine the range of patrilines present. Patrilines are genetically distinct offspring fathered by different drones. Essentially they are subfamilies within the colony.

With a finite number of patrilines – which there must be, because the queen does not mate with an infinite number of drones – there will be a point at which the more workers you screen the fewer new patrilines will be detected.

Search and ye shall find – detecting rare patrilines

The more you screen, the more you are likely to have detected all the patrilines present.

However, the queen uses sperm randomly when fertilising worker eggs. This compounds the difficulty in determining the full range of different patrilines present in a population. In particular, it makes detecting very rare patrilines difficult.

For example, if 20% of workers belong to one patriline you don’t need to sample many bees to detect it. In contrast, if another patriline is represented by 0.0001% of randomly selected workers you would probably have to screen thousands to be sure of detecting it.

Consequently, rare patrilines in the honey bee worker population are very difficult to detect. Inevitably this means that the number of drones the queen mates (~12-18) with is probably an underestimate of the actual number 1.

Half-sisters and super-sisters

Worker bees are often described as ‘half sisters’ to each other. They share the same mother (the queen), but different fathers.

Actually, as you should now realise, that’s an oversimplification because – with only ~12-18 different fathers contributing to the genetics of the colony – some workers are going to be more related to each other because they share the same father and mother.

Half-sisters share the same mother but have different fathers and share about 25% of their genes.

Super-sisters share the same mother and father and so share about 75% of their genes (25% from the queen and 50% from the drone).

Super-sisters are more likely to help each other in the colony 2.

Emergency queens and nepotism

What’s the most important decision a colony makes?

If the queen is killed (or removed) the workers rear new queens under the so-called ’emergency response’. They feed selected young larvae copious amounts of Royal Jelly to rear a replacement queen.

Arguably, the most important decision the workers make is the selection of the day-old larvae to rear as new queens.

If they get it wrong the colony is doomed. If they get it right the colony will flourish 3.

But as described above, workers are more or less related to each other genetically.

To ensure the continued propagation of at least some of their genes it might be expected that the nurse bees making this selection 4 would choose larvae more closely related to themselves.

Do worker bees exhibit nepotism when rearing emergency queens?

If workers were nepotistic you’d expect the most common patrilines in the nurse/worker bee population would also predominate in the queens reared.

However, for at least 20 years evidence has been accumulating that indicates bees are not nepotistic. On the contrary, emergency queens appear to be reared from some of the rare patrilines in the colony.

A recent paper from James Withrow and David Tarpy has provided some of the best evidence for the existence of these so-called royal patrilines in honey bee colonies 5.

Royal patrilines

Evidence for these goes back to at least 1997 6, with about half a dozen publications in the intervening period. Essentially all used broadly the same approach; they genetically screened worker bees and the emergency queens they reared to determine which patrilines were present in the two groups. 

With certain caveats (size of study, number of microsatellites screened, colony numbers etc.) all concluded that colonies rear emergency queens from some of the rarest patrilines in the colony.

The recent study by Withrow and Tarpy is well explained and probably the most comprehensive, so I’ll use that to flesh out the details.

Experimental details

Six double-brood colonies were each split into a three separate colonies; a queenright single-brood colony and two five-frame nucs. The latter contained eggs and young larvae and so reared emergency queens.

Seven days later the developing emergency queens were all harvested for future analysis. One or two frames from the nucs were then exchanged with frames containing eggs and day-old larvae from the matched queenright colony.

The nucs then started rearing new queens … again.

And again … and again.

This process was repeated until the nucs failed.

In total over 500 queens were reared (to 7 days old) from these six original colonies. These queens were analysed genetically by microsatellite analysis, as were over 500 workers from colonies.

Within the 6 experimental colonies the authors identified a total of 327 patrilines (or subfamilies as Withrow and Tarpy describe them), ranging from 34-77 per colony. 108 patrilines (4-40 per colony) were exclusively detected in worker bees and 130 patrilines (5-55/colony) were exclusively detected in queens.

Cryptic “royal” subfamilies

Over 40% of queens raised per colony were produced from the patrilines exclusively detected in the queen population.

Subfamily distribution per colony.

As shown in the figure above, many queens (black bars) were reared from subfamilies (patrilines) not represented in the worker bee population (grey bars, sorted left to right by abundance).

Since there were different numbers of patrilines per colony (34-77), the bias towards the rarer patrilines is more apparent if you instead split them into tertiles (thirds) based upon worker abundance.

Are the queens predominantly reared from the most common tertile, the intermediate tertile or the rarest tertile?

Frequency distribution of subfamilies.

It’s very clear from this graph that workers select queens from the rarest patrilines within the colony.

It is therefore very clear that worker bees do not exhibit nepotism when choosing which larvae to rear emergency queen from.

Implications for our understanding of honey bee reproduction

Two points are immediately apparent:

  • there is a cryptic population of queen-biased patrilines that have largely been overlooked in genetic studies of honey bee polyandry
  • honey bee queens mate with more drones than conventional studies of worker bee patrilines indicate

Colony 5 had at least 77 distinct subfamilies (there might have been more detected had they screened more than the 94 workers and 135 queens from this colony). By extrapolation it is possible to determine that the effective queen mating frequency (me; the number of drones the queen had mated with) was ~32 if all the samples (worker and queen) were taken into account. If only the worker or queen samples were used for this calculation the effective queen mating frequency would be ~12 or ~65 respectively.

The average effective queen mating frequency over the six colonies was ~33 (total), significantly higher than the oft-quoted (including at the top of this page) me of ~12-18.

So perhaps honey bees really are hyperpolyandrous … or even extremely hyperpolyandrous as the authors suggest.

It’s worth noting in passing that routine mating frequencies over 30 are almost never quoted for honey bees 7, but that the ‘normal’ me ~12-18 is rather low when compared with other species within the genus Apis. The giant honey bee, Apis dorsata, exhibits mating frequencies of greater than 60.

Who’s the daddy?

So, when it comes to emergency queens , although we might not know precisely who the daddy is, we can be pretty certain the particular patriline selected by the workers is most likely to be one of the rare ones in the colony.

Mechanistically, what accounts for this?

Are these larvae selected solely because they are rare?

That seems unlikely, not least because it would require some sort of surveying or screening by nurse bees. Not impossible perhaps, though I’m not sure how this would be achieved.

Perhaps it is not even worker selection?

An alternative way to view it is larval competition. A better competing larvae would be fed Royal Jelly and would be much more likely to pass on her genes to the next generation.

We don’t know the answers to these questions … yet.

Or whether they’re the wrong questions entirely.

Swarming and supercedure

The colony rears a new queen under three conditions; enforced queenlessness (as described above) which induces emergency queen rearing, prior to swarming and during supersedure.

These are fundamentally different processes in terms of the larvae used for queen rearing.

During swarming and supersedure 8 the queen lays the egg in a ‘play cup’ which is subsequently engineered into a queen cell in which the new queen develops.

Play cups

However, it is known that the patrilines of queens reared during the swarming response are similar to those of workers in the same colony 9, implying that there is no overt selection by the workers (or the parental queen).

Queen rearing

Does this insight into how bees rear new queens have any implications for how beekeepers rear new queens?

There are about as many queen rearing methods as there are adult workers in a double-brood colony in late June. Many  exploit the emergency queen rearing response by a colony rendered temporarily or permanently queenless.

Beekeepers often comment on the differential ‘take’ of grafted larvae presented to queenless cell raising colonies.

Sometimes you get very good acceptance of the grafted larvae, other times less so.

Of course, we only show the ones that worked well!

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

Differential ‘take’ is often put down to the state of the cell raising colony or the nectar flow (or the cackhandedness of the grafter, or the phase of the moon, or about 100 other things).

I have never heard of beekeepers comparing the ‘take’ of larvae originating from the cell raising colony with those from another colony. The latter are always going to be ‘rare’ if you consider the patrilines present in the cell raising colony. However, grafts taken from the same colony as used for cell raising 10 are likely to reflect the predominant patrilines.

Are these accepted less well by the nurse bees?

I suspect not … but it is testable should anyone want to try.

My expectation would be that the presentation of larvae in a vertically oriented cell bar frame would likely override any genetic selectivity by the colony. They’re desperate to raise a new queen and – thank goodness – here’s a few that might do.

Alternatively, differential acceptance is more likely to reflect use of larvae of an unsuitable age, or that have been damaged during grafting.

As I listen to the wind howling outside it seems like a very long time until I can test any of these ideas … 🙁


Colophon

Ray Winstone (as Carlin) 1979

Who’s the daddy? is British slang for who, or what, is the best. It originated in a line by Ray Winstone’s character Carlin from the 1979 film Scum. This was not a romantic comedy and I’m certainly not recommending viewing it. Nevertheless, the phrase became widely used over the subsequent couple of decades and seemed appropriate here because the colony is dependent on selecting high-quality larvae for colony survival.

More local bee goodness?

Before the wind-down to the end of the year and the inevitable review of the season I thought I’d write a final post apparently supporting the benefits of local bees. This is based on a recently published paper from the USA 1 that tests whether local bees perform better than non-local stocks.

However, in my view the study is incomplete and – whilst broadly supportive – needs further work before it can really be seen as an example of better performing local bees. I suspect there’s actually a different explanation for their results … that also demonstrates the benefits of local bees.

This is a follow-up to a post three weeks ago that provided evidence that:

  1. Colonies derived from different geographic regions show physiological adaptations (presumably reflecting underlying genetic differences) that seem pretty logical e.g. bees from Saskatchewan express more proteins involved in heat production, whereas Hawaiian bees show higher levels of protein turnover (which would make sense if they had evolved locally to have high metabolic rates).
  2. In a study by Büchler, European colonies survived better overwinter in their local environment; a fact subsequently attributed to the colonies being stronger going into the winter. In turn, this agrees with a recent study that clearly demonstrates the correlation between overwintering success and colony strength.

I suggest re-reading 2 that post as I’m going to try and avoid too much repetition here.

Strong colonies

Strong colonies overwinter better and – if you’re interested in that sort of thing – are much more likely to generate a profit for your honey sales.

So how can you ensure strong colonies at the end of the season?

What influences colony strength?

One thing is colony health. A healthy colony is much more likely to be a strong colony.

In the ambitious 600-colony Büchler study in Europe they didn’t do any disease management. The colonies were monitored over ~2.5 years during which time 84% of colonies perished, at least half due to the ravages of Varroa.

Clearly this is not sustainable beekeeping and doesn’t properly reflect standard beekeeping practices.

Study details

The recent Burnham study makes a nice comparison to the Büchler study.

It was conducted in New York State using 40 balanced 3 colonies requeened in late May.

Queens were sourced from California (~4000 km west) or Vermont (~200km east in the neighbouring state, and therefore considered ‘local’) and colonies were assigned queens randomly.

Unlike some previous studies the authors did not evidence the genetic differences between queens.

A local queen

A local queen

However, the queens looked dissimilar and the stocks were sourced from colonies established in California or Vermont for at least 10-15 generations. I think we can be reasonably confident that the queens were sufficiently distinct to be relevant for the tests being conducted.

Colonies were maintained using standard beekeeping practices, Varroa levels were managed using formic acid (MAQS for European readers) and the colony weight and productivity (frames of bees) was quantified, as was the pathogen load.

In contrast to the Büchler study, Burnham and colleagues only followed colonies over one beekeeping summer season. This was not a test of overwintering survival, but mid-season development.

Results

The take-home message is that colonies headed by the ‘local’ Vermont queens did better. The colonies got heavier faster and brood levels built up better.

Bigger, faster, stronger …

It’s notable that colony weight built up before any brood would have emerged from the new queen (upper panel) and that brood level in colonies headed by the local queen recovered much better after formic acid treatment (arrow in lower panel).

Nosema levels

However, Nosema levels were significantly different (above) as were the levels of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV; below).

Virus loads (DWV, BQCV and IAPV)

There were no significant differences in the Varroa loads before or after treatment (not shown), or in the levels of DWV or Black Queen Cell Virus (BQCV).

Taken together – bigger, heavier, stronger colonies and lower pathogen loads (at least of some pathogens) – seems good evidence to support the contention that local bees are beneficial.

The benefits are precisely what you want for good overwintering – strong, healthy colonies.

That’s a slam-dunk then?

Case proven?

No.

IAPV is a virus rarely detected in the UK. It causes persistent and systemic infections in honey bees and can be found in every caste (drones, workers, queens) and at every stage of the life cycle.

As IAPV is detectable in eggs and larvae – neither of which are Varroa-exposed – it is assumed to be vertically transmitted from the queen. IAPV is also found in the ovaries of the queen, which is additional evidence for vertical transmission.

At the first timepoint (12 days post requeening) the levels of IAPV are different between the two colony types, but not significantly so. However, by 40 days (T2) the levels are very different. At this later timepoint all the bees in the colony will be have come from the introduced queen.

The authors explain the differences in IAPV levels in terms of local bees being more resistant to ‘local’ pathogens … in much the same way that Pizarro’s 168 conquistadors, being more resistant to smallpox, defeated the might of the Inca Empire with the help of the virus diseases they inadvertently introduced to Peru.

I suspect there’s another explanation.

Perhaps the Californian queens were IAPV infected from the outset?

If this was the case they could introduce a new and virulent strain of IAPV to the research colonies and – over time – the levels would increase as more and more workers in the colony were derived from the new queen. IAPV is present in ~20% of US colonies so it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest it might have been largely absent from the Vermont queens and the test colonies, but present in the queens introduced from California.

How should they have tested that?

The obvious thing to do would be to characterise the IAPV present in the colony. IAPV shows geographic variation across the USA. If the predominant virus was of Californian origin it would suggest it was brought in with the queen. This is a relatively easy test to conduct … a sort of 23andme to determine bee virus provenance.

Alternatively, though less conclusively, you could do the experiment the other way round … ship Vermont queens to California and compare their performance with colonies headed by Californian queens on their own territory. If the Californian queens again performed less well it undermines the ‘local bees do better’ argument and suggests another explanation should be sought.

Nosema is sexually transmitted but it is not vertically transmitted, so the same arguments cannot be made there. Why the Nosema levels drop so convincingly in colonies headed by the local queens is unclear. Nosema was present at the start of the study and was lost over time in the stronger colonies headed by the local queens.

One possibility of course is that the stronger colonies were better fed – more workers, more foragers, more pollen, more nectar. Improved diet leads to a more active and effective immune system and an increased ability to combat pathogens. Simplistic certainly, but it is known that diet influences pathogen resistance and colony performance.

So what does this paper show?

I suspect it doesn’t directly show what the authors claim (in the title) … that local queens head colonies with lower pathogen levels.

This largely reflects the lack of proper or complete controls. However, it does not mean that local bees are not better.

More than anything I think this paper demonstrates the impact queen quality has on colony performance.

Perhaps the Vermont-sourced queens were just better queens. Local certainly (on a USA scale definition of the word local), but not better because they were local, just better because they were better.

However, if my interpretation of the source of the IAPV is correct i.e. introduced from the Californian queens, I think the paper indirectly demonstrates one of the most compelling reasons why local bees are preferable.

If they’re local – your apiary, your neighbours, someone in your association – there is little chance they will be bringing with them some unwanted baggage in the form of an undetected exotic pathogen.

Or a more virulent strain of one already circulating relatively benignly.

Extensive bee movements, whether of queens, packages or full colonies, risks spreading parasites and pathogens.

There is compelling evidence that hosts and pathogens co-evolve to reduce the pathogenicity of the interaction. Naive hosts are always more susceptible to introduced pathogens, or novel strains of pre-existing pathogens. After all, look what happened to the Peruvian Inca when they met the measles- and smallpox-ridden conquistadors.

So, when thinking about the claims being made by bee importers (or, for that matter, strong advocates of local bee breeding), it’s worth considering all of the factors at play – queen quality per se, genetic adaptation of the queen to the local environment and the potential for the introduction of novel pathogens with introduced non-local stock.

And that’s before you also consider the benefits to your beekeeping of being self-sufficient and not reliant on others to produce your stocks.

I never said it was simple 😉


 

Keeping track

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

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

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

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

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

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

Struggling to keep

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

No honey again 🙁

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

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

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

As does the refund of the £35 deposit 🙁

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

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

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

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

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

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

Struggling to keep up with

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

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

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

Very prolific.

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

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

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

Stock improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping track

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

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

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

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

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

Objective and subjective notes

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

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

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

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

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

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

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

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

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

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

Colony and queen numbering

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

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

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

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… 😉


 

 

 

Queen marking

You don’t need to see the queen during your weekly inspection of the colony. There are clues that are usually enough to tell you the colony is queenright. These include the general temper and demeanour of the colony, the presence of ‘polished’ cells ready for the queen to lay eggs in and, of course, the presence of eggs.

Of these, temper can be influenced by weather or forage availability 1 so might be less trustworthy.

Queenright?

Queenright?

And, of course, eggs only tell you the queen was present when they were laid … so sometime in the last three days.

Seeing is believing

If you really want to be certain there is a queen present – for example, because you need to put her in a specific place for swarm control using a Pagden artificial swarm or the nucleus method – then you need to find the queen.

I’ve discussed this before so won’t cover the subject again.

Having found her, how can you make it easier to find her again?

The obvious (pun intended) thing to do it to mark her in a way that makes her distinctive. She will therefore be easy to see amongst the thousands of her daughters running around the hive.

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Her majesty …

There are additional advantages to marking the queen.

The presence of a blob of paint also provides some temporal information.

If you find an unmarked queen in a hive that you know was previously occupied by a marked queen then:

  • the colony has swarmed and requeened itself … and your inspections are too infrequent!
  • the marked queen has been superceded 2. It’s not unusual to find an unmarked queen in a hive at the first inspection of the season, suggesting that the colony superceded the queen late in the previous year, or …
  • the paint has worn away 😉

If you use different coloured markings for different years you can even determine the age of the queen.

Tipp-Ex, Humbrol or Posca

You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax.

Tipp-Ex (typing correction fluid) works perfectly well though the usual applicator brush is a bit too broad. It dries rapidly and the aliphatic hydrocarbon solvents it contains do not appear to adversely affect the odour of the queen.

Tipp-Ex is only available in white. Contrasting certainly, but this gives no opportunity to indicate the year the queen was reared.

As an alternative you can use one of the ~180 Humbrol Enamel paints. These are used by model makers to paint their locomotives, toy soldiers or Airfix kits and so are available in a wide range of not very useful shades like Dark Camouflage Grey or RAF Blue.

Fortunately they are also sold in some rather strident yellows, reds and greens that should be visible in the hive.

Humbrol Enamel paints are sold in small, rather fiddly little tins. Not ideal when you’re wearing gloves and a beesuit. They need shaking/mixing before use, open easily with the thin blade of a hive tool and can be applied with the end of a matchstick.

Despite the solvent base of Humbrol Enamel paint, it doesn’t dry particularly fast. I’ve only used it a few times and abandoned it in favour of …

Posca are water-based art pens. Their model PC-5M has a bullet tip ~2.5mm in diameter and so combines paint and applicator in one easy-to-use package. These pens also come in a wide range of colours.

Shock news! Beekeepers in agreement.

Beekeepers use different colours to indicate the year a particular queen was reared. Since queens rarely live more than 3 years a total of 5 different colours are sufficient to age-mark queens without confusion.

Amazingly 3, as far as I’m aware all beekeepers use the same queen marking colour scheme.

Colour Use in Year ending
White 1 or 6
Yellow 2 or 7
Red 3 or 8
Green 4 or 9
Blue 5 or 0

Queens reared this year (2019) should therefore be marked green.

Any colour as long as it’s white

Or blue.

I’m red-green colourblind. This means I struggle to discriminate between some reds and greens. It also means that I ‘trust’ colours (or my ability to distinguish between them) less. Subtle differences are often ignored 4.

A bright yellow dot on the thorax of a queen is easy to see … except in a colony that is piling in lots of OSR pollen, when every fifth worker is loaded down with bright yellow corbiculae.

I therefore only mark my queens white or blue.

These are both colours that I find easy to see, that are rarely present in pollen baskets or elsewhere in the hive, and so are very distinctive.

I used to alternate odd and even years until my blue Posca pen stopped working 🙁

Failing Posca queen marking pen

My white Posca pen has just starting playing up. If you search you can find them for about £5 for three and they last for years.

Easier said than done

I started an earlier section with the words “You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax”.

Beginners can find this a daunting task.

After all, isn’t the queen the most important and precious member of the hive?

What if you squash her by accident? Or the other bees don’t like the smell of the paint and attack her? What if she flies away?

OK, the first of these is a disaster 5, but is relatively easily avoided using one of the methods described below. The second is unlikely if you let the paint dry properly and very unlikely if you use a water-based Posca pen.

The third is also unlikely … (mated) queens are generally reluctant to fly and, if they do, they fly poorly. You can generally pick her up from the grass near your feet 6. If you lose sight of her, close up the hive and carefully leave the area (watch where you step). She will usually return to the hive.

So, although it is easier said than done, marking queens is not that difficult and is a very useful skill to become competent and confident at 7.

To mark the queen she must be immobilised. There are essentially three ways to do this:

  1. On the frame, using a press in cage. Also called a crown of thorns (or crown of thorne’s, depending where you purchased it 😉 ) cage.
  2. Off the frame in a handheld queen marking cage.
  3. Off the frame simply holding her between your thumb and forefinger.

Crown of thorns or press in cage

Press in cage

Press in cage

The press in cage is a wood, plastic or metal ring with spikes protruding from one side. Over the top is a thread (or plastic in cheaper versions) mesh. You find the queen on the frame, place the press in cage over her without spearing her, or her retinue, push down gently to immobilise her and then apply a dab of paint to her thorax.

This is easier said than done.

Firstly, there are usually lots of bees on the frame the queen is on. Isolating her from her daughters can be tricky. The more you chase her around the frame the faster she runs … and then she disappears around the side bar and you have to start all over again.

You need three hands. You cannot hold the frame, the cage and the pen. The cage needs to be held when you use the pen. You therefore must place the frame down horizontally (usually on the top bars of the other frames) and the bees on the underside may not appreciate this.

As soon as you’ve isolated her the workers clamber on top of the press in cage, obscuring your view of the queen.

Your view isn’t good anyhow as you are hunched over the frame, almost certainly blocking the light and making everything more difficult to see.

Is it obvious I’m not a big fan of the press in cage?

I know I still carry one as I periodically stick the spikes through my fingers when rummaging around in my bee bag. However, I’ve not used it for years and far prefer to use a handheld queen marking cage.

Handheld queen marking cage

The simplest of these consist of a cylinder with one end covered in a thin open mesh made of thread and a foam-topped plunger.

Alternatively, and my favourite, the thread mesh is replaced with a series of horizontal plastic bars that are too narrow for the queen to crawl between.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

You pick the queen off the frame, drop her into the cylinder, insert the plunger, immobilise her gently against the mesh/bars and apply the paint to her thorax.

Hold on.

Wait a minute.

You pick the queen off the frame?

That’s the easy part. Queen bees are naturally equipped with two convenient handles.

The wings.

The thumb and forefinger of an ungloved or thinly gloved hand are fabulously dextrous. It is easy to pick up the queen by one or both wings, move her away from the frame, put the frame down, pick up the queen marking cage and drop her in.

From frame to cage in a few seconds

I’m right-handed and this description is for right-handers.

Hold the frame (usually by the lug) with the queen on it in your left hand. Gently rotate the frame so the face is well-lit 8. Wait for the queen to be away from the edge of the frame. Wait until she’s walking towards you. Gently clench your third, fourth and fifth fingers, extending you ‘pincer-like’ thumb and forefinger. Slowly approach the queen from behind with this hand as she calmly walks across the frame 9.

Without grabbing or snatching calmly grasp her by the wing (or wings) and lift her from the frame. If you miss and just nudge her or she turns away at the last moment don’t harry her across the frame trying repeatedly.

Let her calm down.

Get your breath back.

Try again.

Gently put the frame down. Ideally, place it protruding at an angle in between the frames of the brood box. Take your time. Don’t drop the frame or allow it to tip over. If you balance it nicely with the lug wedged inside the box edge and the bottom bar balanced on the runner you’ll easily be able to reintroduce the queen after marking her.

Once your left hand is free pick up the cylinder of the queen marking cage. Drop the queen in. Cover it with two fingers (holding it between your thumb and fourth and fifth fingers). Pick up the plunger with your right hand and, after gently shaking the queen to the bottom of the cage, insert the plunger. Invert the cage, gently push the plunger up to trap the queen – thorax uppermost – and hold the plunger in place between your fourth and fifth fingers and palm, while holding the cage cylinder between thumb and forefinger (see the image further up the page).

There she goes ...

There she goes …

You can then use your right hand to apply the paint.

Handheld

Once you have learnt to pick the queen off the frame it’s an easy transition to do away with the queen marking cage and simply hold her on the back of your left forefinger, trapping her legs – so immobilising her – with your thumb and third finger. Ted Hooper’s book Guide to Bees and Honey has a good description of this 10.

This is easier without gloves. Even very thin nitrile gloves makes holding the queen immobile more difficult 11. Since I always wear gloves to reduce propolis staining and potential pathogen transmission I use a handheld queen marking cage.

Final comments on handling the queen

Picking the queen up with gloves on is straightforward if the gloves are thin enough. It’s easy with nitrile gloves and possible with Marigold-type washing up gloves.

Don’t try it with the large leather ‘beekeeping gauntlets’ as they give you hands like feet as a PhD student once said of the dexterity of my laboratory skills 🙁

If you hold the queen by both wings she will wave her legs in the air and curl her abdomen, but be unable to do much else.

If you pick her up by one wing she usually manages to swivel round and grab your thumb with her feet. Don’t worry, you won’t pull her wing off.

But thinking that will might make you lessen your grip … at which point she will calmly (or not so calmly) walk up your thumb. Don’t panic. She won’t sting and is very unlikely to take flight.

Queen marking

However you immobilise her the actual marking is straightforward. The goal is to place a small dab of paint on the top of her thorax.

Not on her head, her abdomen or her wings.

Small means 2-3 mm across. Don’t overload whatever you are using to apply the paint.

If it’s a matchstick just touch the surface of the paint (or Tipp-Ex).

If it’s a Posca pen, press the nib a couple of times against a firm surface (hive lid, thumb etc) to load the pen, check that it delivers the right amount with a light touch and then mark the queen.

I like to step away from the hive to mark the queen, perhaps to a corner of the apiary in light shade. This separates me from the flying bees and so I can focus on the job, literally, in hand 12.

Releasing the queen

Allow the paint to dry for a few minutes before releasing the queen.

If you’re holding the queen you’ll have to stay holding her while this happens (or put her in a matchbox). Enjoy your time with her … she’s going to be working hard for you 🙂

With a handheld queen marking cage I move the plunger down an inch or so and place her in the shade while I get on with something else for a couple of minutes.

With a press in cage just leave it a couple of minutes before gently lifting it off. This is the easiest and least traumatic way to release the queen (and one of the only advantages of this marking method). The queen is already on the frame and surrounded by bees, so there are no shocks or surprises.

The important thing to avoid when releasing the queen is to suddenly drop her onto the top bars or into the hive. There’s a possibility the the workers will ball and kill her.

Gently offer her to a gap between the top bars, or to the face of the frame you left protruding from the top of the hive. With the handheld cage it’s easy to just rest it on the top bars and watch.

She will usually calmly walk in and disappear from sight.

Calmly walks in …

Job done.


 

 

Apis mellifera aquaticus

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

June in Fife was the wettest year on record. It started in a blaze of glory but very quickly turned exceedingly damp. The photo above was taken on the 7th of June. One of my apiaries is in the trees at the back of the picture. Six queens emerged on the 2nd or 3rd of June to be faced with a week-long deluge. The picture was taken on the first dry morning … by the afternoon it was raining again, so delaying their ability to get out and mate (hence prompting the recent post).

And so it continued …

Early July 2017 ...

Early July 2017 …

Here’s the same view on the 1st of July. Almost unchanged … ankle deep water en route to the apiary, the burn in flood and some splits and nucs now being fed fondant to prevent them starving.

A beautiful morning though 😉

Retrospective weather reports

Of course, you shouldn’t really worry about weather that’s been and gone, though comparisons year on year can be interesting. At the very least, knowing that the June monthly rainfall in Eastern Scotland was 223% of the 1961-99 average, I’ll have an excuse why queens took so long to mate and why the June gap was more pronounced than usual. Global warming means summers are getting wetter anyway, but even if you make the comparison with the more recent 1981-2010 average we still got 206% of the June monthly total.

The Met Office publishes retrospective summaries nationally and by region. These include time series graphs of rainfall and temperature since 1910 showing how the climate is getting warmer and wetter. If you prefer, you can also view the data projected on a map, showing the marked discrepancies between the regions.

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010

June 2017 rainfall anomaly cf. 1981-2010 …

Parts of the Midlands and Lewis and Harris were drier than the June long-term average, but Northern England and Central, Southern and Eastern Scotland were very much wetter.

It would be interesting to compare the year-by-year climate changes with the annual cycle of forage plants used by bees. Natural forage, rather than OSR where there is strain variation of flowering time, would be the things to record. As I write this (first week of July) the lime is flowering well and the bees are hammering it. The rosebay willow herb has just started.

Rosebay willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Prospective weather forecasts

Bees are influenced by the weather and so is beekeeping. If the forecast is for lousy weather for a fortnight it might be a good idea to postpone queen rearing and to check colonies have sufficient stores. If rain is forecast all day Saturday then inspections might have to be postponed until Sunday.

If you have a bee shed you can inspect when it’s raining. The bees tolerate the hive being opened much better than if it were out in the open. Obviously, all the bees will be in residence, but their temper is usually better. They exit the shed through the window vents and rapidly re-enter the hive through the entrance.

I don’t think there’s much to choose between the various online weather forecast sites in terms of accuracy, particularly for predictions over 3+ days. They’re all as good or as bad as each other. I cautiously use the BBC site, largely because they have an easy-to-read app for my phone.

Do I need an umbrella?

For shorter-term predictions (hours rather than days) I’ve been using Dark Sky. This can usefully – and reasonably accurately – predict that it will start raining in 30 minutes and continue for an hour, after which it will be dry until 6pm.

The forecast in your area might be different 😉

Dark Sky via web browser

Dark Sky via web browser

There’s a well designed app for iOS and Android as well that has neat graphics showing just how wet you’re likely to get, how long the rain will last and which direction the clouds will come from.

Dark Sky on iOS

Dark Sky on iOS

It’s far from perfect, but it’s reasonably good. It might make the difference between getting to the apiary as the rain starts as opposed to having a nice cuppa and then setting off in an hour or two.

Rain stopped play

I’ve posted recently on delays to queen mating caused by the poor weather in June. I’ve now completed inspections of all the splits. Despite both keeping calm and having patience I was disappointed to discover that the last two checked had developed laying workers. Clearly the queen was either lost on her mating flight or – more likely (see the pictures above) – drowned.

I’ve previously posted how I deal with laying workers – I shake the colony out and allow those that can fly to return to a new hive on the original site containing a single frame of eggs and open brood. If they start to draw queen cells in 2-3 days I reckon the colony is saveable and either let them get on with it, or otherwise somehow make them queenright.

One of the laying worker colonies behaved in a textbook manner. A couple of days after shaking them out there were queen cells present. I knocked these back and united the with a spare nuc colony containing a laying queen.

Lime can yield well in July

Lime can yield well in July

The second colony behaved very strangely. I didn’t manage to inspect them until a week after shaking them out. There were no queen cells. Nor was there any evidence of laying worker activity in the frames of drawn comb I’d provided them with. Instead, they’d filled the brood box with nectar from the nearby lime trees. Weird. I united them with a queenright colony and I’ll check how they progress over the next week or two.

Apis mellifera aquaticus

My colonies are usually headed by dark local mongrel queens. My queen rearing records show that some are descended from native black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) from islands off the West coast of Scotland, albeit several generations ago. These bees are renowned for their hardiness, ability to forage in poor weather and general suitability to the climate of Scotland.

Nevertheless, without further natural selection and evolution they will have still needed water wings, a snorkel and flippers to get mated last month 😉

Not waving but drowning


Colophon

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

The taxonomic scheme ‘developed’ by Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) is a rank-based classification approach actually dates back to Plato. In it, organisms are divided into kingdoms (Animals), classes (Insecta), order (Hymenoptera), family (Hymenoptera), genera (Apis) and species (mellifera).

The subspecies is indicated by a further name appended to the end of the species name e.g. Apis mellifera capensis (Cape Honey bees), Apis mellifera mellifera (Black bees)

Apis mellifera aquaticus doesn’t really exist, but might evolve if it remains this wet 😉