Category Archives: Queen rearing

Hard graft

Regular readers will have seen this image before …

Swarmy weather? I don’t think so …

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

I spoke too soon 🙁

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

Grrrr …

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Good morning America Glenrothes

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

Good morning Morvern …

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

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

Uninterrupted views of the Macdonald’s drive-in

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast, the former makes everything rather hard work.

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

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

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

Queenright cell raising – the Ben Harden system

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

My Ben Harden setup was in the bee shed.

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

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

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

Ben Harden setup and pollen patties

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

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

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

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

Grafting

The day for grafting dawned cool, grey and drizzly.

Great 🙁

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

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

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

Ben Harden cell raiser with clearer and supers

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

10/10 …

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

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

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

Coffee mishaps and colony inspections

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

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

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

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

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

It was a lovely day 🙂

So lovely one of the colonies had swarmed 🙁

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the swarm?

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

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

Poor temper is often a sign of a queenless colony.

Anyway, back to the swarm.

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

Two into one do go

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

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

I checked the willow where the swarm was found. 

Small amounts of wax where a swarm settled

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

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

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

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

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

That opened onto my leg.

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

Ouch 🙁

Getting nuked

The weather the following day started bright but rapidly degenerated.

That lot is about 10 minutes away … and approaching fast

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

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

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

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

Here’s one I produced earlier … or helped produce

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

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

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

I should design a beesuit with an integrated sou’wester

… and the wind lessened, meaning the rain stayed.

And it rained for most of the afternoon.

Rain did not stop play

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

And it was miserable.

For the second time in two days I was soaked.

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

This time my trousers stayed mostly dry … 

Nucs in the rain

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

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

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

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

Had they been outside I would have had to stop.

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

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

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

Half a dozen nucs, all in a row

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

And the swarm?

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

I checked it between downpours. 

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

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

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

Why did they do this?

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

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

The queen was unmarked and (obviously) unclipped.

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

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

I’ll check again next week …

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

Chasing the setting sun

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

And my trousers were finally dry 😉


Note

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

It’s a drone’s life

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

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

Drone

Drone … what big eyes you have …

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

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

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

Spring struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a brighter note …

But it’s not all gloom and doom.

Strong colonies are doing very well.

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

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

… as my swarm prevention strategy 😉

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

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

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

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

Lots of brood, nectar and drones

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

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

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

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

Drones

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

Strong colonies … ample drones

I can count about a dozen in the closeup above. 

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

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

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

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

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

How many drones?

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

Foundationless triptych ...

Foundationless triptych …

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

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

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

The bees only build drone comb when they need it.

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

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

The timing of drone production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decisions, decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colonies therefore regulate drone production through a negative feedback process.

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

Not quite

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

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

Frame sized queen ‘cage’ …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why has this spring been really hard for drones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do workers have excellent long-range weather forecasting abilities?

Probably not 19

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

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

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

Unwanted drone ejected from a colony in early May

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

And at other times when nectar is in short supply …

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

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


 

No risk, no reward

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

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

Not much sign of any April showers last month …

April 2021 sunshine anomaly compared to 1981 – 2010

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

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

Which should be great for beekeeping, right?

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

April 2021 average temperature anomaly compared to 1981 – 2010

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

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

The heady mix of strong colonies, drones and good weather

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

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

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

Or perhaps of producing any queens at all 🙁

Second impressions

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

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

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

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

I also knew which colonies would need to be requeened.

My ‘rule of thirds’

My colony selection for stock improvement is simple and straightforward.

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

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

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

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

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

Queen cells … don’t panic

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

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

It still felt too early and far too cold.

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

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

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

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

Second thoughts

But this was a lovely colony. 

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

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

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

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

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

Plan B

Looking after the queen was straightforward. 

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

A frame of sealed stores … perfect for feeding nucs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One week later

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

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

Not ideal 🙁

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

Notwithstanding the conditions, the bees were well behaved. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More nucs

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

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

Ready to go …

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

Making up two frame nucs

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

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

The majority would have been reared under the emergency impulse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Active queen rearing begins soon

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

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

What’s not to like?

Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing

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

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

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

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

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


 

Acting on Impulse

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse … 

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

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse …

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first, what are the impulses?

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

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

The three impulses are:

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

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

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

If only it were that simple

Wouldn’t it be easy?

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

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

But it isn’t that simple 🙁

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

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

D’oh!

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

Not all queen cells are ‘born’ equal

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

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

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

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

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

Play cups

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

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

Play cups are not the same as queen cells

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

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

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

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

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

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

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

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

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

Emergency queen cells

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

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

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

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

Location, location

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

Queen cell on excluder

Queen cell on underside of the excluder …

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

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

… or a vertical side edge of the frame …

Sealed queen cells

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

Single queen cell in the centre of a frame

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

Location and impulses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

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

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

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

Active queen rearing and the three impulses

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

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

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

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

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

Active queen rearing and the emergency impulse

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

Everynuc

Everynuc …

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

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

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

Active queen rearing and the supersedure impulse

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

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

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

Capped queen cells

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

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

Combining impulses …

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

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

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

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

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

Acting on impulse

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

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

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

Is the colony queenright?

Are there eggs present in the comb?

Does the colony appear depleted of bees?

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

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

But other situations are less clear … 

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

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

How do you distinguish between these two situations? 

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

But not always 😉

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

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

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


 

Lost and found

It was the Welsh Beekeepers’ Convention last weekend 1.

This is a convention I’ve previously enjoyed attending. I remember strolling through the daffodil-filled Builth Wells Showground in lovely spring sunshine to visit the trade show.

And I remember staggering back to the car, laden with items that were:

  • too inexpensive (not cheap … there’s a difference 😉 ) to ignore,
  • exactly what I’d been searching for, or
  • essential. 

Some items qualified on all three criteria, so I’d bought two of them 🙁

And then ‘at the death’ I did a quick trip again around the trade stands buying a few things I’d spotted and dismissed earlier as not absolutely essential, not inexpensive enough or not quite what I’d been looking for.

It would be another year until the next convention … it would have been rude not to 🙂

None of these things were big ticket items.

Although I’m naturally drawn to the gleaming stainless steel extractors, the settling tanks and the wax separators, I’m a small-scale beekeeper and cannot justify (or afford) these sorts of luxuries.

Instead I browse the ‘show specials’ bin, the remaindered items and the shop soiled or ex-demo stock.

And, like a moth to a candle, anything to do with queen rearing.

Non, je ne regrette rien … but

All this purchased ‘stuff’ takes up space.

Normally this isn’t a problem. It migrates from the car to the workshop to the bee bag

Or just as far as the workshop.

Or – I’m ashamed to say – it’s forgotten for years and discovered in the glove compartment when I’m searching for something else entirely.

But I’ve just moved house. 

And when you move house you have to pack everything and, worse, unpack everything and find somewhere for it to be stored 2.

And it became very clear, very quickly, that I had a large amount of beekeeping essentials that were anything but essential. You could tell this because they were still wrapped, still had the price-tags attached, or were otherwise very obviously unused.

And, it turns out, it wasn’t clear how to use some of them … or even what they were used for.

Which begs the question ‘Why did you buy it in the first place?’

I know this because I was asked it.

Several times 😉

So I’ve had a clear out.

Some of the things I unearthed were essential, or at least very useful.

Others were useful, but might be improved upon for this season.

And a soberingly large number of items were now – and in retrospect never had been – any use whatsoever 🙁

The Why did I ever buy that? category

I’m actually going to ignore most of the stuff in this category. Other than teaching me a bit more wallet-control there’s little to learn from it. Also, the stuff with the price tags still attached is a rather pointed reminder that I should increase the price of my honey or risk penury. 

Ventilated queen cages and two spirit levels

Strange oversize ventilated queen cages. These are a bit weird. They have a fixed mesh side and a twist open cover. Inside is a rather ugly plastic queen cup and the other end has a loose-fitting plug. I have no idea how to use these, or even what they are really for. Discarded.

In the same box were two small spirit levels. These are invaluable if you use foundationless frames because the hive needs to be level to get the comb drawn vertically. Most smartphones have a spirit level function, but these are a bit more propolis-resistant and were put into the bee bag … where they should have been in the first place. I’d lost them.

Plastic bits

I have a suspicion these rather lurid plastic bits are from Paradise Honey hives. If so, the boxes have been in use for about a decade (mainly as bait hives) without needing whatever function they provided. They’ve gone for recycling …

Plastic frame runners

These plastic frame runners should be in the Why did I buy so many? category. I suspect they were inexpensive (or, in this case, cheap). You can’t flame them with a blowtorch 3 but they are resistant to acetic acid 4. I use a couple each year when upgrading the feeder on poly Everynucs. I’ve kept them as I’m sure they’ll come in”.

The ‘Big mistake’ category

Castellated frame spacers are an abomination. I know because I tried them and abandoned them. But, to emphasise what a failure they were I kept them as a reminder … periodically cutting myself on the sharp corners as I rummaged through the box of bits they were in, looking for something else.

Just say no

Rather than just try them on a super or two, I fitted them to a dozen or more. They do exactly what they’re supposed to; they keep the super frames separated by a set amount.

The problem is they provide no flexibility to space the frames by different amounts. Your super can only be fitted with 8, 9, 10 or 11 frames. With brand new frames I routinely fit 11 in a super until they’re drawn out. But as the nectar flow continues I remove a frame or two, usually ending up with 9 frames per super. 

More honey, less wax … and a convenient extractor-full of frames per super.

I now just manually separate and arrange the frames and the bees helpfully propolise them in place. At £2.04 a pair (there are some with the price sticker still attached) it wasn’t a cripplingly expensive mistake … but it was a mistake. 

Crack pipes and queen marking cages

The final entry in the this ‘mistake’ category are the budget versions of queen marking cages. The budget ones are the two unused looking ones in the middle of the photo above. These work, but less well than the full-fat non-budget version (clearly used, on the left) mainly because they have a coarse inflexible plastic mesh covering them, making marking the queen difficult and clipping her wing nearly impossible.

I now prefer the turn and mark cage … and discovered an unused one (on the right, above) in my spring cleaning.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

The ‘crack pipes’ are what Thorne’s call a plastic queen catcher 5. These actually work pretty well but were replaced by my index finger and thumb several years ago.

Useful discoveries

Not everything I found was an ill-considered purchase or a mistake.

Thankfully 😉

Ratchet straps … tamed for now

I discovered a spaghetti-like mess of ratchet straps and tidied them up with some reusable zip ties. These straps work well when new, or if well maintained. However, there are too many moving parts for my liking and they often eventually fail. They are excellent when transporting hives and allow the hive to be strapped together and attached to something immovable in the van. 

Standard hive straps

Better still, I found some standard hive straps. With no moving parts these are essentially infallible if you can remember how to use them properly 6. Unlike ratchet straps they have the additional benefit of laying completely flat against the side of the hive when in use. This makes stacking hives together much easier.

These four hive straps look almost unused and I suspect they arrived on nucs I collected some time ago … so technically weren’t a purchase in the first place. Lost and now found 🙂

Apinaut queen marking kit

The final item in this category of ‘useful discoveries’ was an Apinaut queen marking kit. These are quite clever. Instead of marking the queen with a Posca water-based pen (or Tippex), you glue a small numbered metal disc to the top of her thorax.

The kit contains the glue, a set of coloured and numbered discs and a pen with a magnetic tip. Rather than chasing the queen around the frame trying to pick her up by the wings you simply use the magnetic pen. By retracting the magnetic tip you can then ‘drop’ or place the queen wherever you want 7

This was an impulse purchase which I’d lost. And forgotten. I rediscovered it, still in the bag it was supplied in, at the bottom of a box containing the components for ~200 frames. D’oh!

Queen introduction cages

Amongst all the queen rearing paraphernalia 8 I’ve collected were a number of items that are used quite often.

I usually use JzBz queen cages for introducing queens to queenless colonies as I inherited a bucketload 9 of them many years ago.

However, with very valuable queens or very unreceptive colonies 10 I prefer to use these Nicot queen introduction cages. These cages are about 13 cm square, with a short plastic leg at each corner that can be pushed into the comb. There is a cap on the front that can be removed to introduce the queen to the cage.

Nicot queen introduction cages

The idea with these is that you fix them over a patch of emerging brood and introduce a mated queen whose acceptance is guaranteed 11 by the newly emerged bees. After a few days the queen has often laid up the empty cells under the cage and has usually been ‘released’ by workers burrowing under the edge of the cage.

The problem is that there’s a tendency to lose the legs and the cap for the cage (I’ve lost one or both for all those above … so these should be in the ‘Lost and lost’ category). I therefore improvise, using a small square of silver foil-backed adhesive tape in place of the cap and strapping the cage to the frame with a couple of elastic bands.

Mini-nucs for queen mating

I’ve got a dozen or so Kieler mini-nucs which I sometimes use for queen mating. These are small top bar hives that are primed with a few hundred bees and a ripe queen cell. I’ve not used these mini-nucs for about three years, but hope to again this season … so the next two finds were most welcome.

Kieler mini-nuc top bar frames and starter strips

The first was a box of Kieler mini-nuc frame bars, some with a small strip of foundation carefully glued in place with melted wax. Except many of the wax strips had become unattached or been damaged 🙁

This year I’ll try using the wooden tongue depressor starter strips I use in my foundationless frames. I see no reason why these won’t work for mini-nucs as well, and they’d have the advantage of being a lot more robust.

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

Kieler mini-nucs are supplied with a polystyrene feeder that occupies one third of the hive volume. That’s an awful lot of food for four tiny isosceles trapezoids of brood. I prefer to replace the poly feeder with a small fondant-filled frame feeder. This only takes one sixth of the hive volume and works very well. I was therefore pleased to find half a dozen well-used frame feeders built to my usual high standards and exacting tolerances 😉 12

Queenless colonies

When a colony is suspected of being queenless (and lacks any eggs or young larvae) the normal advice is to donate a frame of eggs from another colony. If queen cells are produced on the introduced frame the colony is queenless.

Is the colony queenless?

You might not have a frame of eggs to spare, or want to transfer an entire frame from another colony. Instead, these Nicot queen cell cups glued to a small aluminium tab can be used. You graft day old larvae into two or three of these cups and insert them, open end down, near the centre of the brood nest. The aluminium tab (butchered with only minor blood loss from a soft drink can) holds the cell cup in place.

If the colony is queenless they will start to draw out queen cells from the cup.

Conversely, if the larvae in the cup is ignored they are queenright … stop worrying 🙂

Unless, of course, the grafted larvae are duds 🙁

To use this trick – which isn’t my idea 13 – you need to be good enough at grafting to be certain that >50% of the larvae grafted would be accepted in a queenless colony. With a little practice that’s easy enough to achieve.

Putting the cleaning into spring cleaning

The final things unearthed during my tidying was a lot of queen rearing cups, cup holders, cell bar supports and cages.

The cups – the same as shown in the picture above – are usually supplied in 100’s or 500’s and cost a penny each. I use them only once.

Nicot cup holders in the bath

The cup holders, cell bar supports and cages 14 – you need one of each per queen cell – often end up encrusted with wax or propolis. They’re not expensive (~75p for one complete set) but they can easily be reused.

Nicot queen cell protection cages being washed

I simply soak them in very hot water with some mild detergent and then rinse them really well. Most of the wax and propolis is removed.

If you’re worried about the smell of detergent lingering and inhibiting queen rearing you can add the cell bar frame to the hive 24-48 hours before grafting. To be absolutely certain it gets lots of attention from the bees in the hive ‘paint’ it with some sugar syrup. The bees will clean this off and it will then be ready for use.

After a few happy hours sorting through boxes I feel better prepared for the season ahead. I now have a much better idea what I’ve got and where it is.

I’ve also usefully freed up some more space for future conventions 😉

And I know I’ll never need to purchase another rhombus escape 🙁


 

 

Swarm control and elusive queens

Many beekeepers struggle to routinely find the queen, particularly in a very busy colony.

For 90% of the beekeeping season whether you find the queen or not is irrelevant … you can tell if she’s present because there are eggs in the colony (so she must have laid them in the last 3 days) and, often, because the colony is well-tempered.

That should be sufficient.

Whenever I do routine inspections I like to see the queen, but I don’t look for her. If the colony:

  1. is calm and well-behaved
  2. is bringing pollen in
  3. contains no sealed queen cells, and
  4. contains eggs

then I’m 99% certain there is a queen present and everything is OK 1.

Individually, each of those observations isn’t a certain way of determining the queen status of the colony, but together they’re pretty-much a nailed-on certainty.

Not finding the queen

Notwithstanding the surety these four signs provide about the presence of the queen, they still don’t help you (or me 😉 ) find her.

And, for a few colony manipulations, it’s really helpful to find the queen. Indeed, for some it is essential.

I’m not going to discuss ways to help find the queen as I’ve written about it before and refer you there for starters.

The two obvious times it helps to know exactly where the queen are:

  • when you are removing frames, brood and bees from the colony – for example, when making up nucleus colonies
  • during swarm control

Frankly, you probably shouldn’t be doing the first of these if you don’t know where the queen is. There’s a real risk of leaving the parental colony queenless, which is probably not your intention.

Swarm control

The post today is going to deal with the second situation. How do you conduct swarm control when you don’t have a Scooby 2 where the queen is in the colony?

Swarm control is the term used to describe the colony manipulations that a beekeeper conducts to prevent the loss of a swarm. It is usually started after attempts at swarm prevention (e.g. supering early to provide more space) have clearly not worked.

You can tell the swarm prevention has not worked because the colony has started to produce queen cells … don’t panic.

This seemed like a logical post for this time of the season … and for another Covid-blighted spring. Beginners who started last year, or who will be getting their first bees this year, might well have to conduct swarm control without the benefit of a mentor.

And it’s beginners who are most likely to be unable to find the queen in an overflowing colony. These of course are the colonies that are most likely to swarm and – because of their ability to collect lots of honey – the very colonies you want not to swarm 😉

Swarm control when you can find the queen

All of the methods of swarm control I’ve previously discussed here have involved hive manipulations that require the location of the queen to be known:

  • The Pagden artificial swarm – the queen is left in the original location and is joined by all the flying bees. The brood and hive bees end up rearing a new queen.
  • The vertical split – the same as the Pagden artificial swarm, except conducted vertically rather than horizontally. Uses less equipment and more muscle.
  • The nucleus method – a nuc colony is established with the queen, some bees and brood. The parental colony is left to rear a new queen. Very reliable in my experience.

If you’re the type of beekeeper who can routinely find the queen, relatively quickly, however crowded or bad tempered the colony is, however short of time …

… in a downpour.

Congratulations. Apply here. No need to read any further 😉

But, for the rest of us …

Queens and bees

If you think about the contents of a colony it can be divided into three components:

  1. Queen
  2. Brood in all stages (eggs, larvae, pupae; abbreviated to BIAS) and the nurse or ‘hive’ bees
  3. Flying bees – the foraging workforce

Of these, only one is a ‘viable’ entity on its own.

The queen needs bees to feed her, build comb and rear the larvae that hatch from the eggs she lays. The foragers need a queen to lay eggs. Neither alone is viable, by which I mean ‘has the ability to develop into a full colony’.

In contrast, the combination of nurse bees and brood, in particular the eggs and very young larvae, does have the potential to create a complete colony.

I’ve discussed this concept before under the title Superorganism potential.

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Although neither the queen or flying bees alone have any long-term potential to create a new colony, together they can.

Both the Pagden and vertical split exploit this potential by separating the queen and flying bees from ‘all the rest’. It’s similar, but not identical to what happens when a colony swarms 3.

Loads of bees … and there’s a queen in there somewhere!

The method described below is a slight modification of the Pagden artificial swarm.

It exploits the fact that the flying bees return to their original location with unerring accuracy 4.

It couples this with the ‘Get out of jail free’ ability of bees to rear a new queen from eggs or very young larvae if they are queenless.

Together they make swarm control straightforward when you can’t find or don’t know where the queen is.

Or when you don’t have the time or patience or enthusiasm to find her 😉

So, let’s move from generalities to specifics …

During a routine inspection of a colony in late May 5 you find unsealed queen cells. The colony is strong and you’ve not seen the queen for weeks. Or ever. She’s not marked or clipped. There are eggs, larvae and sealed brood in abundance.

Stage 1 – preparation

  1. Check the colony again for any sealed queen cells. If you find any you should assume that the colony has probably already swarmed 6. If there are no sealed queen cells continue …
  2. Beg, borrow or steal a new floor, brood box, crownboard and roof. While you’re at it, scrounge or build 11 new frames. Of course, I expect all readers of this site are better prepared than me that. You will have spares close to hand – in the apiary shed, or the back of the beemobile, or you can quickly disassemble a nearby bait hive. Congratulations … I hope you’re feeling very smug 😉
  3. Move the soon-to-swarm colony (which I’ll term the old colony in the old hive from now on) away from its original location. Most advice suggests more than a metre. I prefer to move the old hive further away (e.g. to the other side of the apiary). You want to ensure that bees flying from the old hive relocate to the new hive. If you’re short of space at all it helps to rotate the old hive entrance to face in a different direction.
  4. Place the new floor and new brood box in the original location. Make sure the entrance faces the same way as it did when the old hive was in the original location.

You’ll notice that returning foragers will start to enter the new hive almost as soon as you place the floor and brood box in place.

Stage 1 – provision the new hive with eggs and larvae

  1. Remove the roof, crownboard, supers and queen excluder from the old hive and place them gently aside.
  2. Transfer one frame containing eggs and young larvae from the old hive to the new hive.
  3. It is imperative that the selected frame has no queen cells on it. Carefully inspect the frame for queen cells. If you find any, knock them off using your hive tool or fingers. The ability to judge which of the two hives contains the queen at the next inspection is dependent upon there being no queen cells at this stage.
  4. Place the selected frame in the middle of the new hive.
  5. Fill the remainder of the new hive with new frames.
  6. Add the queen excluder to the new hive 7.
  7. Add the supers to the new hive. Close the new hive by adding a crownboard and roof. See the note below about feeding this colony.
  8. Add a new frame to the gap now present in the old hive 8. Replace the crownboard and roof.
  9. Go and make a cup of tea … all done for today.

    Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – stage 1

I’ve assumed that the colony you are manipulating has supers present. If it did not, and particularly if there’s no nectar flow, you will need to feed the colony in the new hive. This ensures that the bees can build comb … which they’ll need to do if the queen is present.

You now leave the colonies for 7 days and then check them again to determine which contained the queen …

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the new hive

Inspect the new hive and look for queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive in stage 1(ii) (above). This hive will be much busier now as all of the flying bees from the old hive will have relocated to it

The new hive contains no queen cells

If there are no queen cells on the brood frame you introduced it is almost certain that the queen is in the new hive (see upper panel A in the diagram below). Look carefully on the frames of adjacent drawn comb for the presence of eggs. If so, you can be certain that the queen is in the new hive. Close the hive and let them get on with things.

The new hive does contain queen cells

If there are queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive then the queen is almost certainly not in the new hive (see lower panel B in the diagram below).

Because they are queenless and you provided them with a frame containing eggs and very young larvae they have started to produce a new queen … or queens.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

You want to make sure they only produce one new queen.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell that contains a big fat larva sitting in a deep bed of Royal jelly (a ‘charged’ cell). Mark the top of the frame with a pin (if you’re organised) or pen (if you’re less organised) or a hive tool (if you’re me 😉 ). Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

Be gentle with this frame. Don’t shake it, don’t drop it etc.

Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – 7 days later

Close the hive up and let the queen emerge and mate and start laying. This will take at least 17 days or so, and often longer.

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the old hive

Inspect the old hive and look for queen cells. This hive will be much less busy as most of the flying bees will have been ‘bled off’ returning to their original location (and boosting the population in the new hive).

The old hive contains no queen cells

With a much reduced population of workers – and if the queen is present – the bees will no longer need the queen cells, so will almost certainly have torn them down and destroyed them (see lower panel B in the diagram above).

If you carefully look through this hive you should find eggs and very young larvae present. These ‘prove’ that there is a queen present, even if you still cannot find her. Where else could the eggs have come from?

Close the hive up and let them get on with things.

The old hive does contain queen cells

Despite the reduced worker population, if this hive does not contain the queen the bees will be busy rearing a replacement … or three.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell. Mark the top of the frame with a pin 9. Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

The goal is the leave one charged queen cell only.

If all the cells are capped don’t worry. The bees are very unlikely to have chosen a ‘dud’. Choose a nice looking cell somewhere near the centre of the brood nest and destroy the others.

She’s gone …

Make a note in your diary/notebook and expect to wait 17-21 days until this queen is out and mated and laying (or possibly a bit longer). Other than perhaps checking the new queen has emerged there’s no need to disturb the colony in the meantime (and lots to be lost if you do interfere and disturb the virgin queen).

It’s as simple as that … what could possibly go wrong?

I’ve very rarely had to implement swarm control when I can’t find the queen. Usually I’ll just look a bit harder and find her eventually.

However, there are times when knowing what you need to do if you really cannot find her – because the hive is full of uncapped swarm cells and it’s raining hard, or the bees are going postal and you want to be anywhere but in this apiary next to the open hive – is very useful.

Are there any embellishments that might be worth considering?

If the old hive has very little comb with eggs and young larvae you need to ensure that both the old and the new hives have sufficient to draw new queen cells. This is rarely a problem, but be aware that this method only works if both old and new hives have the resources to rear a new queen should they need to.

On the contrary, if there’s ample eggs/larvae you could transfer a couple of frames to the new hive … remembering that there’s also then an increased chance you will also be transferring the elusive queen.

If the old hive is left with ample eggs and larvae you can safely knock back all the queen cells during stage 1. They will only then produce new cells if the queen is not present. This makes deciphering what’s going on at 7 days that much easier.

When I say 7 days, I mean 7 days … not 9, or when it stops raining or when you’ve got some spare time in the future 😉

A queen in a cell capped on the day you complete stage 1 will emerge 9 days later. On the off chance that the bees are queenright but do not tear the unwanted cells down you want to avoid this happening.

Finally, if there’s a dearth of nectar and no filled/partially filled supers on the colonies, you may need to feed them to avoid starvation.

Keep a close eye on them, but don’t interfere unless you have to.


 

Waiting

Beekeepers will be familiar with the strange distortion of time that occurs during the season. The months with the shortest days appear to drag on interminably. In contrast, the long days of summer whizz by in a flurry of activity 1.

Beekeepers timewarp – perceived month length in blue and actual day length in red.

This is due to the indirect influence of latitude on our bees.

In winter, they’re largely inactive … and so are we, and time drags.

In summer, they’re busy foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing … and we’re running around like headless chickens 2 trying to keep up. 

A spring swarm in a skep

Not always successfully 🙁

Latitude

The UK is a small country. The distance between the extremities – Jersey 3 and the Shetlands (both islands, some distance from the mainland 4 ) – is only about 800 miles, or a bit less than the long diagonal across California.

Nevertheless, this has a profound effect on daylength and temperature … and therefore on the bees.

On the winter solstice the day length in Jersey is about 8 hr 11 min. On the Shetlands it’s less than 5 hr 50 min. But that is reversed by the summer solstice. The longest day on the Shetlands is over 2.5 hours longer than the 16 hr 14 min that the poor crepuscular folk in Jersey enjoy 5.

For convenience, let’s assume that bees need an average maximum temperature of 10°C to fly freely 6. That being the case, bees in St Helier, Jersey, might fly for 9 months of the year, whereas those in Lerwick, Shetland, fly for less than 6 months of the year 7

Think back to those headless chickens. All of that “foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing is being squeezed into about one third less time in Lerwick than in St Helier.

The winters are not fundamentally different. But the transition to spring happens much earlier in the south.

All of which makes this time of the year hard going for those of us living at northern latitudes … which, in a roundabout way, was what I was pondering while I stared at a depressingly inactive entrance to one of my colonies a fortnight or so ago. 

Ignore Twitter

For a few days Twitter had been littered with short videos of bees piling into hive entrances laden with pollen.

Helpful comments like “Girls are very busy today” or “15°C today and all colonies flying well” accompanied the videos.

I was ankle deep in snow and we’d recently had overnight temperatures below -14°C.

No flying today

Bees from one of my colonies on the west coast had been out on cleansing flights 8 but the other was suspiciously quiet. 

Obviously it was quiet when there was snow on the ground, but this situation continued as the weather warmed and the snow disappeared.

Despite a reasonable amount of experience in keeping bees in Scotland, and an awareness that the Twitter posts might have been from a beekeeper in St Helier, I was starting to get concerned about this second colony 9.

I knew there were live bees in the box as it has a clear crownboard. I could remove the roof and block of insulation and see the bees. However, the bees appeared to still be clustered and, having added a tray under the open mesh floor, there was little evidence of brood emerging.

In contrast, the other colony was flying well, collecting pollen and the cluster was largely dispersed.

Worrying times.

Fretting

Perhaps they’ve gone queenless?

Do queenless colonies tend not to break cluster as early in the season?

Do they not have any need to collect pollen because there’s no brood to be reared?

That’s scuppered my queen rearing plans for the season ahead … is it too late to order a couple more nucs?

Is it too early in the season to unite them and at least use the surviving bees?

Should I have a quick look in the centre of the cluster?

Should I wait until tomorrow when the weather is looking a little better? 10

Waiting

This went on for the better part of a week. The weather was not great, but was steadily improving. I was working outside much of the day.

The flying colony continued to fly. There was ample evidence they were rearing brood. 

The non-flying colony just sat there and sulked 🙁

And then, on the penultimate day of February, out they came …

What a relief …

The day was no warmer than the preceding one, it was certainly no sunnier. If anything it was actually a bit worse. 

But the bees came out as though someone had uncorked a bottle 🙂

First a couple around midday, then a dozen or two by 1pm and finally reaching a few hundred by 2pm (just after the picture above was taken 11 ).

Almost all the flying bees appeared to be taking orientation flights. Only a very few were collecting pollen.

And from that point on it’s been a case of ‘normal service is resumed’.

The colonies have continued to fly on the good less bad days. Both colonies are busy with the gorse pollen. Both – by the look of the trays under the OMF 12 – are rearing reasonable amounts of brood. 

Why the sulking?

Both my west coast colonies were obtained from the same source, though I know the queens are from different lineages. I suspect the fact that one was flying well before the other simply reflects differences in their genetics.

It’s notable that after the first day or two of strong flying activity, both colonies have quietened down significantly. The proportion of bees taking orientation flights compared with foragers has decreased significantly.

I interpret that burst of flying activity as a mix of new bees taking their first flights and older bees reorienting after a long period confined to the hive.

I’m no longer worried that the queen failed in midwinter 🙂

Patience, young grasshopper

This trivial example is just one of many where the beekeeper has to wait for the bees.

You can’t rush them.

They will go at their own pace and, usually (or possibly even, almost always) it will work out OK.

I was concerned about that apparently inactive colony. Had I intervened I would have done more harm than good. 

Since there was little I could do that would constructively help the situation I simply had to wait.

Which made me think about other examples where waiting is usually the best policy in beekeeping.

Queen rearing

I’ve given a couple of talks recently on queen rearing and am already well-advanced with my own plans for the season.

Queen rearing involves several key events, all of which must more or less coincide. The colony (and other colonies in the region) must have sexually mature drones present. There really needs to be a good nectar flow to ensure the developing queens are well nourished. Finally, the weather must be suitable for queen mating.

Again, you can’t rush these things. You might have no influence on them at all …

The swarm in the skep (above) was captured on the last day of April 2019. It was an unusually early spring in Scotland and the earliest swarm I’ve seen since 2015. 

The bees had judged that conditions were right. There were reasonable numbers of drones about and the weather remained pretty good for at least the first half of May. The swarm was a prime swarm, and I fully expect that the virgin queen that emerged in the originating colony got successfully mated 13.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016 … OSR and snow

In contrast, three years earlier the conditions at the end of April are shown above. Colonies contained few drones and swarming first occurred in late May.

Under these conditions, starting queen rearing is a pointless exercise. The colonies aren’t ready, the environment is hostile and there is probably insufficient nectar being collected. 

It pays to wait.

Queen mating

Anyone who has kept bees for a year or two will be familiar with the often interminable wait while a virgin queen gets mated.

Assuming a colony swarms on the day that the developing queen cell(s) is capped 14, the queen that follows her must emerge, mature, go on her mating flight(s) and then start laying.

My calculations are that this takes an absolute minimum of 14 days.

For the first seven days the new queen is pupating, she then emerges and matures for 5-6 days before going on one (or more) mating flights. After mating it then takes a further 2-3 days before she starts laying.

I’ve not looked through my records but cannot remember it ever taking 14 days. In reality, even with ideal conditions, at least 17-18 days is more usual and 21 days is not at all uncommon.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

It’s worth remembering that there’s a time window within which the queen must mate. This opens 5-6 days after emergence (when she becomes sexually mature) and closes at 26-33 days after emergence, after which time she’s too old to dependably mate well.

A variety of factors can influence the speed with which the queen gets mated. 

Bad weather is the most obvious. If the weather is poor (rain, cool, very windy etc.) she won’t venture forth. For Scottish beekeepers, there’s a nice study by Gavin Ramsay 15 of the total number of ‘good’ queen mating days we enjoy in our brief summers … it can be very few indeed.

Queens mate faster from smaller hives. Queens in mini-nucs mate faster than those in 5-frame nucs which, in turn, mate faster than those in full hives. 

And, as far as the beekeeper is concerned, these few days drag by very slowly 16

There’s nothing to be gained by checking and re-checking. There’s potentially a lot to be lost if you get in the way of a queen returning from a mating flight.

Just wait … and more often than not it will all be just fine.

Enthusiastic beginners

The final example where there’s a benefit from waiting is for the beginner beekeeper getting their very first colony 17.

They’ve attended a winter ‘Introduction to beekeeping’ course, they’ve read and re-read the Thorne’s catalogue (and ordered loads of stuff they don’t need) and they are desperate to start keeping bees.

I know the feeling, I was exactly the same when I started.

Every year I get requests for nucs in March, or “as soon as possible” or “so I can install them in the hive at Easter”.

The commercial suppliers offer bees early in the season, often from April onwards. 

Or did, before the ban on imports, though some still do.

But in my opinion I think there are real benefits from waiting until a little later in the season.

In the absence of imported packages or nucs, there are only two sources of nuc colonies early in the season:

  • Overwintered nucs. These are usually in very short supply and therefore command a significant price premium. The queen will be from the previous year … not in itself a major problem, though they are probably more likely to swarm than a nuc headed by a current year queen.
  • Bees in a box headed by a queen that was imported. The proportion of bees in the box related to the queen depends upon the time that has elapsed since the queen was added to the box. Think about the timing of brood development … it takes three weeks from adding the queen to have any adult bees related to her. It takes six weeks or more to re-populate the box.

I think the price premium of an overwintered nuc is justified because they have already successfully overwintered. However, a similar box of bees would be perhaps half the price two months later 18.

It’s an expensive way to start if things go wrong.

What could possibly go wrong?

An overwintered nuc will probably build up very fast, perhaps outstripping the skills (or confidence) of the tyro beekeeper. 

If the weather is bad the new beekeeper potentially has a large, poorly-tempered, colony to manage. It’s daunting enough for some beginners doing their first few inspections, but if they’re struggling with a fast-expanding colony – potentially already making swarm preparations – on cool or wet days, then it can become a bit of a chore.

Or worse.

A few stings, a bee or two in the veil and the beekeeper gets a bad fright. The next inspection is missed or delayed. The colony inevitably swarms as the weather picks up.

Suddenly 75% of their £300 investment has disappeared over the fence 19 and they’re left with a hive full of queen cells.

In contrast, the beginner who starts with a nuc later in the season, headed by a ‘this years’ queen, avoids all those problems. 

The new queen is pumping out the pheromones and there’s very little chance the colony will swarm. They’ve arrived in late May or early June, the weather is perfect and the bees are wonderfully calm. 

They still build up at quite a pace, surprising the beginner. They’ve drawn out all the comb in a full brood box within a fortnight and will need a super just about in time for the summer nectar flow.

Beginners often open their colonies too frequently. They dabble, they fuss, they make little tweaks and adjustments. 

My first ever colony – late May. I still feel guilty about that first queen 🙁

Sometimes – like I did with my first colony – they inadvertently crush the queen during a particularly cack handed colony inspection.

D’oh!

It’s still early in the season so mated queens are difficult to get. Pinching a frame of young brood from another colony weakens it at a critical time in its build up, and leaves the beekeeper reliant on excellent weather to get a new queen mated 20.

Altogether not ideal.

So beginners should wait. By all means attend the apiary sessions or tag along with an experienced beekeeper during April and May. You’ll learn a lot.

The wait will do you and, indirectly, the bees good.

At the very least it’s great preparation for the waiting you’ll do for queens to get mated, or for a colonies to start flying well next spring 😉


 

Brexit and beekeeping

The ‘oven ready’ deal the government struck with the EU in the dying hours of 2020 was a bit less à la carte and a bit more table d’hôte.

The worst of the predictions of empty supermarket shelves and the conversion of Essex into a 3500 km2 lorry park have not materialised 1.

But there are other things that haven’t or won’t appear.

And one of those things is bees.

Bee imports

There is a long history of bee imports into the UK, dating back at least a century. In recent years the number of imports has markedly increased, at least partially reflecting the increasing popularity of beekeeping. 

Going up! Imports of queens, nucs and packages to the UK, 2007-2020 (National Bee Unit data)

Queens are imported in cages, usually with a few attendant workers to keep them company. Nucs are small sized colonies, containing a queen, bees and brood on frames. 

Packages are the ‘new kid on the block’ (in the UK) with up to 2500 per year being imported after 2013. Packages are queenless boxes of bees, containing no frames or brood.

Empty boxes after installing packages of bees

They are usually supplied in a mesh-sided box together with a queen. The bees are placed into a hive with frames of foundation and the queen is added in an introduction cage. They are fed with a gallon to two of syrup to encourage them to draw comb.

Installing a package of bees

It’s a very convenient way to purchase bees and avoids at least some of the risk of importing diseases 2. It’s also less expensive. This presumably reflects both the absence of frame/foundation and the need for a box to contain the frames.

But, post-Brexit, importation of packages or nucs from EU countries is no longer allowed. You are also not allowed to import full colonies (small numbers of these were imported each year, but insufficient to justify adding them to the graph above).

Queen imports are still allowed.

Why are were so many bees imported?

The simple answer is ‘demand’.

Bees can be reared inexpensively in warmer climates, such as southern Italy or Greece. The earlier start to the season in these regions means that queens, nucs or packages can be ready in March to meet the early season demand by UK beekeepers.

If you want a nuc with a laying queen in March or April in the UK you have two choices; a) buy imported bees, or b) prepare or purchase an overwintered nuc.

I don’t have data for the month by month breakdown of queen imports. I suspect many of these are also to meet the early season demand, either by adding them to an imported package (see above) or for adding to workers/brood reared and overwintered in a UK hive that’s split early in the season to create nucleus colonies.

Some importers would sell the latter on as ‘locally reared bees’. They are … sort of. Except for the queen who of course determines the properties of all the bees in the subsequent brood 🙁

An example of being “economical with the truth” perhaps?

Imported queens were also available throughout the season to replace those lost for any number of reasons (swarming, poor mating, failed supersedure, DLQ’s, or – my speciality – ham-fisted beekeeping) or to make increase.

And to put these imports into numerical context … there are about 45,000 ‘hobby’ beekeepers in the UK and perhaps 200+ bee farmers. Of the ~250,000 hives in the UK, about 40,000 are managed by bee farmers.

What are the likely consequences of the import ban?

I think there are likely to be at least four consequences from the ban on the importation of nucs and packages to the UK from the EU:

  1. Early season nucs (whatever the source) will be more expensive than in previous years. At the very least there will be a shortfall of ~2000 nucs or packages. Assuming demand remains the same – and there seems no reason that it won’t, and a realistic chance that it will actually increase – then this will push up the price of overwintered nucs, and the price of nucs assembled from an imported queen and some ‘local’ bees. I’ve seen lots of nucs offered in the £250-300 range already this year.
  2. An increase in imports from New Zealand. KBS (and perhaps others) have imported New Zealand queens for several years. If economically viable this trade could increase 3.
  3. Some importers may try and bypass the ban by importing to Northern Ireland, ‘staging’ the bees there and then importing them onwards to the UK. The legality of this appears dubious, though the fact it was being considered reflects that this part of the ‘oven ready’ Brexit deal was not even table d’hôte and more like good old-fashioned fudge.
  4. Potentially, a post-Covid increase in bee smuggling. This has probably always gone on in a limited way. Presumably, with contacts in France or Italy, it would be easy enough to smuggle across a couple of nucs in the boot of the car. However, with increased border checks and potential delays, I (thankfully) don’t see a way that this could be economically viable on a large scale.

Is that all?

There may be other consequences, but those are the ones that first came to mind.

Of the four, I expect #1 is a nailed-on certainty, #2 is a possibility, #3 is an outside possibility but is already banned under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol which specifically prohibits using Northern Ireland as a backdoor from Europe, and #4 happens and will continue, but is small-scale.

Of course, some, all or none of this ban may be revised as the EU and UK continue to wrangle over the details of the post-Withdrawal Agreement. Even as I write this the UK has extended the grace period for Irish sea border checks (or ‘broken international law’ according to the EU). 

This website is supposed to be a politics-free zone 4 … so let’s get back to safer territory.

Why is early season demand so high?

It seems likely that there are three reasons for this early season demand:

  1. Commercial beekeepers needing to increase colony numbers to provide pollination services or for honey production. Despite commercials comprising only ~0.4% of UK beekeepers, they manage ~16% of UK hives. On average a commercial operation runs 200 hives in comparison to less than 5 for hobby beekeepers. For some, their business model may have relied upon the (relatively) inexpensive supply of early-season bees.
  2. Replacing winter losses by either commercial or amateur beekeepers. The three hives you had in the autumn have been slashed to one, through poor Varroa management, lousy queen mating or a flood of biblical proportions. With just one remaining hive you need lots of things to go right to repopulate your apiary. Or you could just buy them in.
  3. New beekeepers, desperate to start beekeeping after attending training courses through the long, dark, cold, wet winter. And who can blame them? 

For the rest of the post I’m going to focus on amateur or hobby beekeeping. I don’t know enough about how commercial operations work. Whilst I have considerable sympathy if this change in the law prevents bee farmers fulfilling pollination or honey production contracts, I also question how sensible it is to depend upon imports as the UK extricates itself from the European Union.

Whatever arrangement we finally reached it was always going to be somewhere in between the Armageddon predicted by ‘Project Fear’ and the ‘Unicorns and sunlit uplands’ promised by the Brexiteers.

Where are those sunlit uplands?

And that had been obvious for years.

I have less sympathy for those who sell on imported bees to meet demand from existing or new beekeepers. This is because I think beekeeping (at least at the hobbyist level) can, and should, be sustainable.

Sustainable beekeeping

I would define sustainable beekeeping as the self-sufficiency that is achieved by:

  • Managing your stocks in a way to minimise winter losses
  • Rearing queens during the season to requeen your own colonies when needed (because colonies with young queens produce brood later into the autumn, so maximising winter bee production) and to …
  • Overwinter nucleus colonies to make up for any winter losses, or for sale in the following spring

All of these things make sound economic sense. 

More importantly, I think achieving this level of self-sufficiency involves learning a few basic skills as a beekeeper that not only improve your beekeeping but are also interesting and enjoyable.

I’ve previously discussed the Goldilocks Principle and beekeeping, the optimum number of colonies to keep considering your interest and enthusiasm for bees and the time you have available for your beekeeping.

It’s somewhere between 2 and a very large number. 

For me, it’s a dozen or so, though for years I’ve run up to double that number for our research, and for spares, and because I’ve reached the point where it’s easy to generate more colonies (and because I’m a lousy judge of the limited time I have available 🙁 ).

Two is better than one, because one colony can dwindle, can misbehave or can go awry, and without a colony to compare it with you might be none the wiser that nothing is wrong. Two colonies also means you can always use larvae from one to rescue the other if it goes queenless.

And with just two colonies you can easily practise sustainable beekeeping. You are no longer dependent on an importer having a £30 mass-produced queen spare.

What’s wrong with imported bees?

The usual reason given by beekeepers opposed to imports is the risk of also importing pathogens.

Varroa is cited as an example of what has happened. 

Tropilaelaps or small hive beetle are given as reasons for what might happen.

And then there are usually some vague statements about ‘viruses’. 

There’s good scientific evidence that the current global distribution of DWV is a result of beekeepers moving colonies about.

More recently, we have collaborated on a study that has demonstrated an association between honey bee queen imports and outbreaks of chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). An important point to emphasise here is that the direction of CBPV transmission is not yet clear from our studies. The imported queens might be bringing CBPV in with them. Alternatively, the ‘clean’ imported queens (and their progeny) may be very susceptible to CBPV circulating in ‘dirty’ UK bees. Time will tell.

However, whilst the international trade in plants and animals has regularly, albeit inadvertently, introduced devastating diseases e.g. Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (ash dieback), I think there are two even more compelling reasons why importation of bees is detrimental.

  1. Local bees are better adapted to the environment in which they were reared and consequently have increased overwintering success rates.
  2. I believe that inexpensive imported bees are detrimental to the quality of UK beekeeping.

I’ve discussed both these topics previously. However, I intend to return to them again this year. This is partly because in this brave new post-Brexit world we now inhabit the landscape has changed.

At least some imports are no longer allowed. The price of nucs will increase. Some/many of these available early in the season will be thrown together from overwintered UK colonies and an imported queen.

These are not local bees and they will not provide the benefits that local bees should bring.

Bad beekeeping and bee imports

If imported queens cost £500 each 5 there would be hundreds of reasons to learn how to rear your own queens. 

But most beekeepers don’t …

Although many beekeepers practise ‘passive’ queen rearing e.g. during swarm control, it offers little flexibility or opportunity to rear queens outside the normal swarming season, or to improve your stocks.

In contrast, ‘active’ queen rearing i.e. selection of the best colonies to rear several queens from, is probably practised by less than 20% of beekeepers.

This does not need to involve grafting, instrumental insemination or rows of brightly coloured mini-nucs. It does not need any large financial outlay, or huge numbers of colonies to start with.

But it does need attention to detail, an understanding of – or a willingness to learn – the development cycle of queens, and an ability to judge the qualities of your bees.

Essentially what it involves is slightly better beekeeping.

But, the availability of Italian, Greek or Maltese queens for £20 each acts as a disincentive.

Why learn all that difficult ‘stuff’ if you can simply enter your credit card details and wait for the postie?

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And similar arguments apply to overwintering nucleus colonies. This requires careful judgement of colony strength through late summer, and the weight of the nuc over the winter.

It’s not rocket science or brain surgery or Fermat’s Last Theorem … but it does require a little application and attention.

But, why bother if you can simply wield your “flexible friend” 6 in March and replace any lost colonies with imported packages for £125 each?

Rant over

Actually, it wasn’t really a rant. 

My own beekeeping has been sustainable for a decade. I’ve bought in queens or nucs of dark native or near-native bees from specialist UK breeders a few times. I have used these to improve my stocks and sold or gifted spare/excess nucs to beginners.

I’ve caught a lot of swarms in bait hives and used the best to improve my bees, and the remainder to strengthen other colonies.

The photographs of packages (above) are of colonies we have used for relatively short-term scientific research. 

I’m going to be doing a lot of queen rearing this season. Assuming that goes well, I then expect to overwinter more nucs than usual next winter. 

I then hope that the bee import ban remains in place for long enough until I can sell all these nucs for an obscene profit which I will use to purchase a queen rearing operation in Malta. 😉

And I’m going to write about it here.


Notes

BBKA statement made a day or two after this post appeared. The BBKA and other national associations are concerned about the potential import of Small Hive Beetle (SHB) into the UK via Northern Ireland. Whilst I still think this breaches the Northern Ireland Protocol, it doesn’t mean it won’t be attempted (and there’s at least one importer offering bees via this route). It’s not clear that the NI authorities have the manpower to inspect thousands of packages.

It’s worth noting that SHB was introduced to southern Italy in 2014 and remains established there. The most recent epidemiological report shows that it was detected as late as October 2020 in sentinel apiaries and is also established in natural colonies.

With a single exception – see below – every country into which SHB has been imported has failed to eradicate it. As I wrote in November 2014:

“Once here it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate SHB. The USA failed, Hawaii failed, Australia failed, Canada failed and it looks almost certain that Italy has failed.”

And Italy has failed.

The one exception was a single import to a single apiary in the Portugal. Notably, the illegal import was of queens, not nucs or packages. Eradication involved the destruction of the colonies, the ploughing up of the apiary and the entire area being drenched in insecticide.

A New Year, a new start

The short winter days and long dark nights provide ample opportunity to think about the season just gone, and the season ahead.

You can fret about what went wrong and invent a cunning plan to avoid repetition in the future.

Or, if things went right, you can marvel at your prescience and draft the first couple of chapters of your book “Zen and the Art of Beekeeping”.

But you should also prepare for the normal events you expect in the season ahead.

In many ways this year 1 will be the same as last year. Spring build-up, swarming and the spring honey crop, a dearth of nectar in June, summer honey, miticides and feeding … then winter.

Same as it ever was as David Byrne said.

That, or a pretty close approximation, will be true whether you live in Penzance (50.1°N) or Thurso (58.5°N).

Geographical elasticity

Of course, the timing of these events will differ depending upon the climate and the weather.

For convenience let’s assume the beekeeping season is the period when the average daytime temperature is above 10°C 2. That being the case, the beekeeping season in Penzance is about 6 months long.

In contrast, in Thurso it’s only about 4 months long.

More or less the same things happen except they’re squeezed into one third less time.

Once you have lived in an area for a few years you become attuned to this cycle of the seasons. Sure, the weather in individual years – a cold spring, an Indian summer – creates variation, but you begin to expect when particular things are likely to happen.

There’s an important lesson here. Beekeeping is an overtly local activity. It’s influenced by the climate, by the weather in an individual year, and by the regional environment. You need to appreciate these three things to understand what’s likely to happen when.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016, Fife … OSR and snow

Events are delayed by a cold spring, but if there’s oil seed rape in your locality the bees might be able to exploit the bounteous nectar and pollen in mid-April.

Mid-April 2014, Warwickshire

Foraging might extend into October in an Indian summer and those who live near moorland probably have heather yielding until mid/late September.

Move on

You cannot make decisions based on the calendar.

In this internet-connected age I think this is one of the most difficult things for beginners to appreciate. How many times do you see questions about the timing of key events in the beekeeping season – adding supers, splitting colonies, broodlessness – with no reference to where the person asking, or answering, the question lives?

It often takes a move to appreciate this geographical elasticity of the seasons at different latitudes.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland 3 in 2015 I became acutely aware of these differences in the beekeeping season.

When queen rearing in the Midlands my records show that I would sometimes start grafting in the second week in April. In some years I was still queen rearing in late August, with queens being successfully mated in September.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

In the last 5 years in Scotland the earliest I’ve seen a swarm was the 30th of April and the latest I’ve had one arrive in a bait hive was mid-July. Here, queen rearing is largely restricted to mid-May to late-June 4.

All of this is particularly relevant as most of my beekeeping is moving from the east coast to the west coast of Scotland this year.

I’m winding down my beekeeping in Fife and starting afresh on the west coast.

The latitude is broadly the same, but the local environment is very different.

And so are the bees … which means there are some major changes being planned.

What are local bees?

I’m convinced about the benefits of local bees. The science – which I’ve discussed in several previous posts – shows that locally-reared bees are physiologically adapted to their environment and both overwinter and survive better.

But what is local?

Does it mean within a defined geographical area?

If so, what is the limit?

Five miles?

Fifty miles?

What is local? Click to enlarge and read full legend.

I think that’s an overly simplistic approach.

The Angus glens are reasonably ‘local’ to me. Close enough to go for an afternoon walk, or a summer picnic. They’re less than 40 miles north as the bee flies 5.

However, they’re a fundamentally different environment from my Fife apiaries. The latter are in intensively farmed, low lying, arable land. In Fife there’s ample oil seed rape in Spring, field beans in summer and (though not as much as I’d like) lime trees, clover and lots of hedgerows.

The Angus glens

But the Angus glens are open moorland. There’s precious little forage early in the season, but ample heather in August and September. It’s also appreciably colder in the hills due to the altitude 6.

I don’t think you could keep bees on the Angus hills all year round. I’m not suggesting you could. What I’m trying to emphasise is that the environment can be dramatically different only a relatively short distance away.

My bees

I don’t name my queens 7 but I’m still very fond of my bees. I enjoy working with them and try and help them – by managing diseases, by providing space or additional food – when needed.

I’ve also spent at least a decade trying to improve them.

Every year I replace queens heading colonies with undesirable traits like running on the comb or aggression or chalkbrood. I use my best stocks to rear queen from and, over the years, they’ve gradually improved.

They’re not perfect, but they are more than adequate.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland I brought my bees with me.

Forgot the scythe

Delivering bees from the Midlands to Fife

I ‘imported’ about a dozen colonies, driving them up overnight in an overloaded Transit van. The van was so full of hive stands, empty (and full) beehives and nucs that I had a full hive strapped down in the passenger seat. Fortunately the trip went without a hitch (or an emergency stop 🙂 ).

Passenger hive

Passenger hive

They certainly were not ‘local’ but I’d invested time in them and didn’t want to have to start again from scratch. In addition, some hives were for work and it was important we could start research with minimum delay.

But I cannot take any of my bees to the west coast 🙁

Treatment Varroa free

Parts of the remote north and west coast of Scotland remain free of Varroa. This includes some of the islands, isolated valleys in mountainous areas and some of the most westerly parts of the mainland.

It also includes the area (Ardnamurchan) where I live.

Just imagine the benefits of not having to struggle with Varroa and viruses every season 🙂

Although I don’t feel as though I struggle with managing Varroa, I am aware that it’s a very significant consideration during the season. I know when and how to treat to maintain very, very low mite levels, but doing so takes time and effort.

It would certainly be preferable to not have to manage Varroa; not by simply ignoring the problem, but by not having any of the little b’stards there in the first place 😉

Which explains why my bees cannot come with me 8. Once Varroa is in an area I do not think it can be eradicated without also eradicating the bees.

A green thought in a green shade … Varroa-free bees on the west coast of Scotland

I’ve already got Varroa-free bees on the west coast, sourced from Colonsay.

Is Colonsay ‘local’?

Probably. I’d certainly argue that it’s more ‘local’ to Ardnamurchan than the Angus glens are to Fife, despite the distance (~40 miles) being almost identical. Both are at sea level, with a similar mild, windy and sometimes wet, climate.

Sometimes, in the case of Ardnamurchan, very wet 🙁

My cunning plans

Although the season ahead might be “same as it ever was”, the beekeeping certainly won’t be.

My priorities are to wind down my Fife beekeeping activities (with the exception of a few research colonies we will need until mid/late 2022) and to expand my beekeeping on the west coast.

Conveniently, because it’s something I enjoy and also because it’s not featured very much on these pages recently, these plans involve lots of queen rearing.

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

In Fife I’m intending to split my colonies to produce nucs for sale. I’ll probably do this by sacrificing the summer honey crop. It’s easier to rear queens in late May/June and the nucs that are produced can be sold in 2021, or overwintered for sale the following season.

If I leave the queen rearing until later in the summer I would be risking either poor weather for queen mating, or have insufficient time to ensure the nucs were strong enough to overwinter.

It’s easier (and preferable) to hold a nuc back by removing brood and bees than it is to mollycoddle a weak nuc through the winter.

And on the west coast I’ll also be queen rearing with the intention of expanding my colonies from two to about eight. In this case the goal will be to start as early as possible with the aim of overwintering full colonies, not nucs. However, I’ve no experience of the timing of spring build up or swarming on the west coast, so I’ve got a lot to learn.

Something old, something new

I favour queen rearing in queenright colonies. This isn’t the place to spend ages discussing why. It suits the scale of my beekeeping, the colonies are easy to manage and it is not too resource intensive.

I’ve written quite a bit about the Ben Harden system. I have used this for several years with considerable success and expect to do so again.

I’ve also used a Cloake board very successfully. This differs from the Ben Harden system in temporarily rendering the hive queenless using a bee-proof slide and upper entrance.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

Using a Cloake board the queen cells are started under the emergency response, but finished in a queenright hive. It’s a simple and elegant approach. In addition, the queen rearing colony can be split into half a dozen nucs for queen mating, meaning the entire thing can be managed starting with a single double brood colony.

One notable feature of the Cloake board is that the queen cells are raised in a full-sized upper brood box. During the preparation of the hive this upper box becomes packed with bees 9. This means there are lots of bees present for queen rearing.

Concentrating the bees ...

Concentrating the bees …

It’s definitely a case of “the more the merrier” … and, considering the size of my colonies, I’m pretty certain I can achieve even greater concentrations of bees using a Morris board.

A Morris board is very similar to a Cloake board except the upper face has two independent halves. It’s used with a divided brood box (or two 5 frame nucleus boxes) and can generate sequential rounds of queen cells. I understand the principle, but it’ll be a new method I’ve not used before.

Since the bees are concentrated into half the volume it should be possible to get very high densities of bees using a Morris board.

And since I like building things for beekeeping 10, that’s what I’m currently making …

Which explains why I’ve got bits of aluminium arriving in the post, chopped up queen excluders on my workbench and Elastoplast on three fingers of my left hand 🙁

Happy New Year!


Notes

I’m rationalising my beekeeping equipment prior to moving. I have far too much! Items surplus to requirements – currently mainly flat-pack National broods and supers – will be listed on my ‘For Sale‘ page.

 

Winter bee production

There are big changes going on in your colonies at the moment.

The summer foragers that have been working tirelessly over the last few weeks are slowly but surely being replaced. As they die off – whether from old age or by being eaten by the last of the migrating swallows – they are being replaced by the winter bees.

Between August and late November almost the entire population of bees will have changed. The strong colonies you have now (or should have) will contain a totally different workforce by the end of the year.

Forever young

The winter bees are the ones responsible for getting the colony from mid/late autumn through to the following spring. They are sometimes termed diutinus bees from the Latin for “long lived”.

These are the bees that thermoregulate the winter cluster, protecting the queen, and rearing the small amounts of brood during the cold, dark winter to keep the colony ticking over.

Midwinter cluster

A midwinter colony

Physiologically they share some striking similarities with so-called hive or nurse bees 1 early in the summer.

Both hive bees and winter bees have low levels of juvenile hormone (JH) and active hypopharyngeal glands. Both types of bee also have high levels of vitellogenin, high oxidative stress resistance and corpulent little bodies.

But early summer nurse bees mature over a 2-3 week period. Their JH levels increase and vitellogenin levels decrease. This induces additional physiological changes which results in the nurse bee changing into a forager. They sally forth, collecting nectar, pollen and water …

And about three weeks later they’re worn out and die.

Live fast, die young

And this is where winter bees differ. They don’t age.

Or, more accurately, they age   v  e  r  y    s  l  o  w  l  y.

In the hive, winter bees can live for 6 months if needed. Under laboratory conditions they have been recorded as living for up to 9 months.

They effectively stay, as Bob Dylan mumbled, forever young.

Why are winter bees important?

Although not quite eternal youth … staying forever young is useful as their longevity ensures that the colony does not dwindle and perish in the middle of winter.

With little or no nectar or pollen available in the environment the colony reduces brood rearing, and often stops altogether for a period.

But what about the kilograms of stores and cells filled with pollen in the hive? Why can’t they use that?

Whilst both are present, there’s nothing like enough to maintain the usual rate of brood rearing. If they tried the colony would very quickly starve.

Evolution has a very effective way of selecting against such rash behaviour 🙁

If you doubt this, think how quickly hives get dangerously light during the June gap. With no nectar coming in and thousands of hungry (larval) mouths to feed the colony can easily starve to death during a fortnight of poor weather in June.

The winter bees ‘hold the fort’, protecting the queen and rearing small amounts of brood until the days lengthen and the early season pollen and nectars become available again.

And, just as the winter bees look after the viability of the colony, the beekeeper in turn needs to look after the winter bees … we rely on them to get the colony through to spring.

Lots of bees

Can you identify the winter bees?

But before we discuss that, how do you identify and count the winter bees? How can you tell they are present? After all, as the picture above shows 2, all bees look rather similar …

Counting the long lived winter bees

The physiological changes in winter bees, such as the JH and vitellogenin levels, are only identifiable once you’ve done some rather devastating things to the bee. These have the unfortunate side effect of preventing it completing any further bee-type activities 🙁

Even before you subject them to that, their fat little bodies aren’t really sufficiently different to identify them visually.

But what is different is their longevity.

By definition, the diutinus or winter bees are long lived.

Therefore, if you record the date when the bee emerged you can effectively count back and determine how old it is. If it is more than ~6 weeks old then it’s a winter bee.

Or the queen 😉

And, it should be obvious, if you extrapolate back to the time the first long lived bees appear in the hive you will have determined when the colony starts rearing winter bees.

The obvious way to determine the age of a bee is to mark it upon emergence and keep a record of which marks were used when. Some scientists use numbered dots stuck to the thorax, some use combinations of Humbrol-type paint colours.

I’m not aware that anyone has yet used the barcoding system I discussed recently, though it could be used. The winter bee studies I’m aware of pre-date this type of technology.

Actually, some of these studies date back almost 50 years, though the resulting papers were published much more recently.

This is painstaking and mind-numbingly repetitive work and science owes a debt of gratitude to Floyd Harris who conducted many of the studies.

Colony age structure – autumn to winter

Here is some data showing the age structure of a colony transitioning from late summer into autumn and winter. There’s a lot in this graph so bear with me …

Colony age structure from August to December - see text for details

Colony age structure from August to December – see text for details

The graph shows the numbers and ages of bees in the colony.

The ages of the bees is indicated on the vertical axis – with eggs and brood (the youngest) at the bottom, coloured black and brown respectively. The adult bees can be aged between 1 and ~100 days old 3. The number of bees is indicated by the width of the coloured bar at each of the nine 12 day intervals shown.

All of the adult bees present in the hive at the end of August are coloured blue, irrespective of their age. There are a lot of these bees at the end of August and almost all of them have disappeared (died) by mid-November 4.

The remaining colours indicate all the bee that emerge within a particular 12 day interval. For example, all the bees that emerge between the 31st of August and the 12th of September are coloured yellow.  Going by the width (i.e. the numbers of bees of that age) of the yellow bars it’s clear that half to two-thirds of these bees die by mid October, with the rest just getting older gracefully.

But look at the cohort that emerge between the end of September and early October, coloured like this 5. The number of these bees barely changes between emergence and early December. By this time they are 72 days old i.e. an age that most summer bees never achieve.

Brood breaks and climate

In the colony shown above the queen continued laying reduced numbers of eggs – the black bars – until mid-October and then didn’t start again until the end of November. During this period the average age of the bees in the colony increased from ~36 days to ~72 days and the strength of the colony barely changed.

The figure above comes from a BeeCulture article by Floyd Harris. The original data isn’t directly referenced, but I suspect it comes from studies Harris conducted in the late 70’s in Manitoba, some of which was subsequently published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. In addition, Harris co-authored a paper presenting similar data in a different format in Insectes Sociaux which describes the Manitoban climate as having moderate/hot summers and long, cold winters.

My hives in Scotland, or your hives in Devon, or Denmark or wherever, will experience a different climate 6.

However, if you live in a temperate region the overall pattern will be similar. The summer bees will be replaced during the early autumn by a completely new population of winter bees. These maintain the colony through to the following spring.

The dates will be different and the speed of the transition from one population to the other may differ. The timing of the onset of a brood break is likely to also differ.

However, the population changes will be broadly similar.

And, it should be noted, the dates may differ slightly in Manitoba (and everywhere else) from year to year, depending upon temperature and forage availability.

Colony size and overwintering survival

Regular readers might be thinking back to a couple of posts on colony size and overwintering survival from last year.

One measured colony weight, showing that heavier colonies overwintered better 7. A second discussed the better performance of local bees in a Europe-wide study of overwintering survival. In this, I quoted a key sentence from the discussion:

“colonies of local origin had significantly higher numbers of bees than colonies placed outside their area of origin”

I can’t remember when during the season those studies recorded colony size, but I’m well aware that large colonies in the winter survive better.

The colonies that perish first in the winter are the pathetic grapefruit-sized 8 colonies with ageing queens or high pathogen loads.

In contrast, the medicine ball-sized ‘boomers’ go on and on, emerging from the winter strongly and building up rapidly to exploit the early season nectar.

But what the graph above shows is that the bees in a strong colony in late summer are a completely different population from the bees in the colony in midwinter.

The strength of the midwinter colony is determined entirely by when winter bee rearing starts and the laying rate of the queen, although of course both may be indirectly influenced by summer colony strength.

The influence of the queen

Other than this potential indirect influence, it’s possibly irrelevant how large the summer colony is in terms of winter colony size (and hence survival).

After all, even if the summer bees were three times as numerous, their fate is sealed. They are all going to perish six weeks or so after emergence.

Are there ways that beekeepers can influence the size of the overwinter colony to increase its chances of survival?

I wouldn’t pose the question if the answer wasn’t a resounding yes.

It has been known for a long time 9 that older queens stop laying earlier in the autumn than younger queens. As explained above, the longer the queen lays into the autumn the more winter bees are going to be produced.

Mattila et al., 10 looked at the consequences of late season (post summer honey harvest) requeening of colonies. In these they removed the old queen and replaced her with either a new mated or virgin queen, or allowed the colony to requeen naturally.

Using the ’12 day cohort’ populations explained above, the authors looked at when the majority of the winter bees were produced in the colony, and estimated the overall size of the winter colony.

The influence of new queens on winter bee production.

The influence of new queens on winter bee production. Note shift to the right in B, C and D, with new queens.

With the original old queen, 53% of winter bees were produced in the first two cohorts of winter bees. With the requeened colonies 54-64% of the winter bees were produced on average 36 days later, in the third and fourth cohorts of winter bees.

This indicates that young queens produce winter bees later into the autumn.

This is a good thing™.

In addition, though the results were not statistically significant, there was a trend for colonies headed by new queens to have a larger population of bees overwinter.

Perhaps one reason the requeened colonies weren’t significantly larger was that the new queens delay the onset of winter bee rearing. I’ll return to this at the end.

The influence of deformed wing virus (DWV)

Regular readers will know that this topic has been covered extensively, and possibly exhaustively, elsewhere on this site … so I’ll cut to the chase.

DWV is the most important virus of honey bees. When transmitted by Varroa destructor there is unequivocal evidence that it is associated with overwintering colony losses. The reason DWV causes overwintering losses is that it reduces the longevity of the winter bees.

The virus might also reduce the longevity of summer bees but,

  1. there’s so many of them to start with
  2. there’s loads more emerging every day, and
  3. they only survive a few weeks anyway,

that this is probably irrelevant in terms of colony survival.

Dainat et al., (2012) produced compelling evidence showing that DWV reduces the longevity of winter bees 11. The lifespan was reduced by ~20%.

A consequence of this is that the winter bees die off a little faster and the colony shrinks a little more. At some point it crosses a threshold below which it cannot thermoregulate the cluster properly, further limiting the ability of the colony to rear replacement bees (assuming the queen is able to lay at a low rate).

This colony is doomed.

Even if they stagger through to the longer days of spring they contain too few bees to build up fast. They’re not dead … but they’re hardly flourishing.

Winter bees and practical beekeeping

I think there are three ways in which our understanding of the timing of winter bee production should influence practical beekeeping:

Firstly … The obvious take-home message is that winter bees must be protected from the ravages of DWV. The only way to do this is to minimise the mite population in the colony before the winter bee rearing starts.

The logical way to do this is to treat using an approved miticide as soon as practical after the summer honey is removed 12.

I discuss the importance of the timing of this treatment in When to treat?, which remains one of the most-read posts on this site.

Secondly … Avoid use of miticides (or other colony manipulations) that reduce the laying rate of the queen in early autumn.

When I used to live at lower latitudes I would sometimes use Apiguard. This thymol-containing miticide is very effective if used when the temperature is high enough. However, in my experience a significant proportion of queens stop laying when it is being used. Not all, but certainly more than 50%.

I don’t know why some stop and others don’t. Is it genetic? Temperature-dependent?

Whatever the reason, they stop at exactly the time of the season you want them to be laying strongly.

Thirdly … consider requeening colonies with young queens after the summer honey is removed. This delays the onset of winter bee production and results in the new queen laying later into the year. The later start to winter bee production gives more time for miticides to work.

A win-win situation.