Category Archives: Queen rearing

Keeping track

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

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

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

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

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

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

Struggling to keep

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

No honey again 🙁

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

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

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

As does the refund of the £35 deposit 🙁

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

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

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

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

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

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

Struggling to keep up with

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

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

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

Very prolific.

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

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

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

Stock improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping track

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

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

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

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

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

Objective and subjective notes

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

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

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

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

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

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

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

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

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

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

Colony and queen numbering

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

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

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

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… 😉


 

 

 

Queen marking

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

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

Queenright?

Queenright?

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

Seeing is believing

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

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

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

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

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Her majesty …

There are additional advantages to marking the queen.

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

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

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

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

Tipp-Ex, Humbrol or Posca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shock news! Beekeepers in agreement.

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

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

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

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

Any colour as long as it’s white

Or blue.

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

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

I therefore only mark my queens white or blue.

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

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

Failing Posca queen marking pen

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

Easier said than done

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

Beginners can find this a daunting task.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crown of thorns or press in cage

Press in cage

Press in cage

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

This is easier said than done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handheld queen marking cage

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

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

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

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

Hold on.

Wait a minute.

You pick the queen off the frame?

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

The wings.

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

From frame to cage in a few seconds

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

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

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

Let her calm down.

Get your breath back.

Try again.

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

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

There she goes ...

There she goes …

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

Handheld

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

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

Final comments on handling the queen

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

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

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

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

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

Queen marking

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

Not on her head, her abdomen or her wings.

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

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

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

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

Releasing the queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

She will usually calmly walk in and disappear from sight.

Calmly walks in …

Job done.


 

 

Apis mellifera aquaticus

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

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

And so it continued …

Early July 2017 ...

Early July 2017 …

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

A beautiful morning though 😉

Retrospective weather reports

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

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

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010

June 2017 rainfall anomaly cf. 1981-2010 …

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

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

Rosebay willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Prospective weather forecasts

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

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

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

Do I need an umbrella?

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

The forecast in your area might be different 😉

Dark Sky via web browser

Dark Sky via web browser

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

Dark Sky on iOS

Dark Sky on iOS

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

Rain stopped play

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

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

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

Lime can yield well in July

Lime can yield well in July

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

Apis mellifera aquaticus

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

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

Not waving but drowning


Colophon

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

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

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

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

Keep Calm and Have Patience

Around this time of the season§ the discussion forums are awash with questions about virgin queens failing to emerge, or get out to mate, or return from mating flights, or start laying eggs, or any of a myriad of other possible things that can go wrong between a sealed queen cell and a nicely laying queen.

Or where to buy a new queen for a terminally queenless colony.

Followed a week later by a question about what to do with a recently purchased, and soon to be delivered, queen that is now surplus to requirement as – miraculously – a beautiful mated and laying queen is now obviously present and busy in the hive 😉

There she is ...

There she is …

Practice makes perfect

There’s good evidence from recent genetic studies that the honey bee (Apis mellifera) evolved about 300,000 years ago from Asian cavity-nesting bees. This was determined by analysing 140 bees sampled from around the world. The genetic differences between them (over 8.3 million in total) were identified and then – knowing the rate at which differences arise – it was possible to extrapolate backwards to define the approximate time the first honey bee (Eve?) evolved.

Early human ...

Early human …

For comparison, humans – modern man, Homo sapiens – have been around for about the same length of time.

Coincidence? Probably.

300,000 years is a long time when compared to the lifespan of a human, or a bee. However, it’s a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. It also means that bees, and humans, are relatively recent arrivals when compared with fig wasps (34 million years), coelacanths (65 million years) or elephant sharks (420 million years).

Nevertheless, although bees might be evolutionary newcomers, they have been getting it right for about 300,000 years. Which means they’ve been superceding and swarming ever since modern man was recognisably modern man.

Which means they’re reasonably good at it … ‘it’ being reproduction, and more specifically getting the queen mated.

If they weren’t any good at it they’d be long gone by now.

Going by the book

The development of the queen takes 16 days from egg to eclosed (emerged) virgin. Three days as an egg, a further 6 days as a larva at which point the cell is sealed. Pupation then lasts for a further 7 days. The recently emerged queen needs to become sexually mature. This process takes a further 5 to 6 days before she goes on one (or more) matings flight(s). After mating she then returns to the hive and, after a further 2-3 days, starts laying eggs.

So, under optimal conditions, it takes a minimum of ~23-25 days to go from egg to mated and laying queen i.e. about three and a half weeks.

If a queen is removed from the hive, deliberately or by accident, there could be a new, mated laying queen present about three and a half weeks later.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

In fact, it’s possible the new queen could be mated and laying in less time than this. The queenless colony might start to rear young larvae as queens, so ‘saving’ a few days. It’s generally reckoned that larvae up to about three days old can be selected by the colony and reared as queens, though younger is better as they are better fed for longer.

Bees can’t read

However, things rarely go by the book. Although development time is pretty-much fixed at 16 days from newly laid egg to emerged virgin, there’s plenty of opportunity to lengthen (and rarely shorten, as outlined above) the time taken before the queen starts laying.

Chief amongst these is getting conditions suitable for queen mating. Typically this needs to be warm and settled weather. High teens centigrade, sunny and light winds between late morning and mid/late afternoon. If this doesn’t occur the queen stays put in the hive.

There’s also a time window within which successful mating must occur. This starts when the queen reaches sexual maturity (~5-6 days after emergence) and ends three to four weeks later (~26-33 days after emergence). A few days of poor weather during this period may well delay mating. Three weeks of lousy weather can be catastrophic – she may well turn out to be poorly mated or, if she doesn’t mate, a drone laying queen.

Depending on where you live, it’s rare to get three continuous weeks of terrible weather during the predominant swarming period (late April to late-July perhaps). However, it’s not uncommon to get a week or so of ‘unseasonable’ weather. In 2017, June was the wettest on record in Fife – precisely when I expected my virgins to be going out to mate.

Keep calm and Have Patience

Keep Calm ...

Keep Calm …

All this means is that you need patience when waiting for newly mated and laying queens in your colonies. In my experience it usually takes longer than it could, and it’s almost always longer than I want.

You should be able to calculate when the virgin queen will emerge to within a day or so of the colony becoming queenless. Better still, judge the development of queen cells and add 7 days to the date on which the cell become capped.

I usually check to make sure there’s a virgin queen in the hive. They’re small, skittish and often tricky to spot. They don’t get the same sort of attention from the workers as a mated queen gets. They can fly, and do if you disturb them too much. It’s reassuring to know there’s an emerged virgin present, but don’t keep checking. I try and check on the day after emergence. If you check too late and the weather is good there’s a chance you’ll interrupt her returning from a mating flight, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Then wait.

Observe the bees at the hive entrance and look for them returning laden with pollen. If you must inspect the colony (why?) do so early or late in the day. Don’t bother looking for the queen. Instead look for polished cells in the middle of the central frames … and eggs of course.

Dates from my diary

In June 2017 new queens should have emerged from my vertical splits on or shortly after the 2nd. Under optimal conditions I could hope these virgins would be mated and laying by the 12th at the latest. The splits were all set up on the same day. I didn’t check every hive for the presence of a virgin, and didn’t find one in every hive I checked, but I did find the expected vacated queen cell.

It then started raining. Lots. One of my apiaries flooded.

I had a quick look on the 12th in a couple of hives – no eggs. I checked again around the 22nd. The 18th had near-perfect weather for queen mating – sunny, 20+°C, light winds – and found mated, laying queens in a couple of boxes. But not in all of them. It wasn’t until the 27th that I found evidence that the latest queen was mated and laying well. She’d obviously started a day or so earlier as there were already eggs across two full frames.

All but two splits appears to have been successful – defined by presence of a laying queen. None were mated and laying anywhere near the minimal possible 9-10 days after emergence. One developed laying workers and I suspect the queen got lost on a mating flight quite early on. The second looks promising and I’ve not yet given up hope on this remaining colony.

I don’t keep records of the time it takes for new queens to get mated. However, from emergence (the date of which I usually do know) I wouldn’t be surprised if the average was a little over 21 days.

The shortest mating times I’ve seen occur in ideal weather conditions when using mini-nucs for queen rearing – under these circumstances ~11-12 days is not uncommon. But that’s a post for the future …

Keep Calm and Carry On


§ This was written in mid/late June in Fife, Scotland … about two weeks after the peak of the swarm season.

Wallberg  et al., A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera. Nature Genetics, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/NG.3077

‡ Huber et al., New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature, 2017; DOI:10.1038/nature22336

∞ OK … formally, I know that supercedure might not be considered as ‘reproduction’.

∑ Though how it can be considered unseasonable when it’s not uncommon is a mystery 😉

∏ Of course, the true measure of success when rearing new queens is much more rigorous than this. They need to primarily lay fertilised worker eggs, have a tight laying pattern, mother well-behaved, calm bees that work well in the local environment, do not have a tendency to swarm, are frugal with winter stores and build up well in early Spring. And the rest …

Colophon

Keep Calm and Carry On was the text on a motivational poster produced in 1939 in the run up to World War II. Millions of copies were printed but few were ever displayed … in fact, many were pulped in 1940 to help overcome a serious paper shortage.

There’s an excellent account of the history and (many) compromises made during the design and preparation of the poster (almost 78 years to the day I’m writing this) on the Government history blog – highly recommended.

The poster was largely forgotten until 2000 when it was re-discovered. The rest, as they say, is history … it’s now ubiquitous, corrupted in a load of different ways and used on all sorts of novelty and decorative products.

You can even design your own …

 

Splits and stock improvement

Beekeeping is always more enjoyable if the bees you are handling are good quality. I’ve briefly discussed judging the quality and temperament of your bees when writing about record keeping. With experience, and in particular with comparisons between colonies, it’s possible to identify traits which make working with your bees more enjoyable.

Bad behaviour

Although I keep general records on colony build up, disease resistance and the like, the three behavioural traits I try and accurately score my bees on all relate to how pleasant they are to handle. These are temper, running on the comb and following. I score these on a scale of 1 to 5 (low to high) and any colony consistently at 3 or less will eventually require attention. Bees with poor temper or that run on the comb are unpleasant to inspect, making what should be an interesting activity a chore. Bees that ‘follow’ – dive bombing you dozens of metres away from the hives after an inspection – are a real pain. Aside from making your own post-inspection de-suiting risky they are a potential menace to others going near your apiary and so should not be tolerated.

It’s all in the genes … nearly

If you’re really unfortunate you can find bees showing all three traits simultaneously – stroppy, running, followers – but they’re more usually found individually. With all of these characteristics, assuming they’re not environmental (poor weather, no flow, queenless colonies etc.), requeening is the usual solution. Genetics and environment determine behaviour, and if the environment is OK, then the genetics need changing. You can do this by purchasing a new queen, by rearing your own by grafting, or – as described below – by splitting the colony and providing suitable young larvae for the queenless portion to rear the new queen from. I usually graft and rear queens from my best stock but resources – time largely, due to overseas work commitments – mean that all my queen rearing and replacement is being done by splits this season.

The mechanics of a split

I’ve described the mechanics of a conventional vertical split for swarm control and making increase previously. The colony is divided using a split or division board into two. The queenright ‘half’ gets the flying bees, the queenless ‘half’ starts to make new queen cells from very young larvae. ‘Half’ because this is an imprecise science in terms of bee numbers … top and bottom half of the colony might be a better description, though colony orientation is not proscribed. After one week the colony is manipulated to bleed off flying bees from the queenless half, both strengthening the queenright half and reducing the likelihood of swarming. Three weeks later there should be a new, mated laying queen present.

Like mother, like daughter

Like father, like son is more conventional, but clearly inappropriate for a colony of bees 😉 . As outlined above, the queenless half of the split rears a new queen from larvae already present in the colony. If this is a colony with undesirable characteristics then there’s a distinct possibility you’ll be getting ‘more of the same’. These larvae came from eggs laid by the queen that headed the colony with the very-same undesirable characteristics you’re trying to replace. With open mated queens it’s a lottery, but the deck is already stacked against you – if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. So … stack the deck in your favour by providing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable characteristics.

Splits and stock improvement

Split the colony as previously described. In this case I’d argue that the queenless half should be on the top of the stack of boxes as you’ll be inspecting it a couple of times. Make sure the queenright half has sufficient stores should conditions deteriorate as they’ll be short of foragers for the next week or so. Make sure that the queenless half has the majority of brood – sealed and unsealed – as you’ll need young bees over an extended period to rear new queens.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

At the end of this initial manipulation the queenright half will use an entrance at the bottom of the stack, orientated in the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The split board will have an entrance open at the original front of the hive. This is illustrated in the ‘reversed’ orientation on the right hand side of diagram (right). For a more comprehensive discussion of the orientation of the queenright and queenless portions see the recent post entitled Upstairs, downstairs?

Seek and destroy

One week later you need to carefully inspect the upper (queenless) box. Any and all queen cells must be found and destroyed. You will need to shake the bees off every frame to do this. These potential new queens were all reared from eggs and larvae laid by the original queen. Since 7 days have elapsed there will no longer be any suitable young larvae for the colony to rear a new queen. The maths are straightforward; a newly laid egg hatches after 3 days and larvae must be less than 3 days old to rear queens from.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

When returning the frames to the brood box leave a gap in the middle. Into this gap add a frame containing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable genetics i.e. good tempered, steady on the comb and none of those dreadful followers. Mark the frame so you can identify it again if needed. If you have a choice of frames to transfer use one with fresh new comb as the bees find this easier to manipulate when drawing out queen cells.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Normal service is resumed

With the new frame of eggs/larvae added you’re now back on track to complete the vertical split. I’d suggest reversing the hive at the same time as you add the frame of ‘desirable’ larvae. There should be plenty of young bees in the upper half of the split and it’s these that will rear the new queen. The flying bees will strengthen the queenright half of the hive, helping gather nectar if there is a flow on. Make sure the queenright half of the hive has sufficient supers – you don’t want to be disturbing the colony too much, particularly in about 2-3 weeks which is when the new virgin queen will be going on her mating flight(s).

One week after adding the frame of new eggs and larvae there should be queen cells clearly present on the marked frame. If there aren’t it’s likely you missed a queen cell when shaking through the colony and there might be a newly emerged virgin running about in the hive.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

In which case, let’s hope she doesn’t rear bees that behave like those from her mother 😉

Split boards

Since moving to Scotland my DIY activities have been restricted – by lack of time, by lack of space and by lack of any major shortages in the equipment I use. However, a couple of spare sheets of Correx became available after some non-bee projects and I decided to use them to knock up a few split boards for swarm control and requeening this season.

As an aside … I love Correx. It makes great roofs, temporary floors and landing boards.

Split boards are simple square boards with beespace both sides and – usually – a single entrance. With an entrance door (rather than a simple gap) closed they can double up as crownboards or can be used to stack supers late in the season.

They can also be built with mesh panels to allow the warmth and smell of the lower colony to spread through the hive. However, in this instance these were to be about as simple as possible so I omitted the mesh.

Opposing entrances

For additional flexibility you can provide two opposing entrances with doors. With these the split board is starting to look dangerously like a cut down Snelgrove board. The vertical split method I use involves turning the hive 180° on the seventh day. With opposing entrances on the split board (and a corresponding double-entrance floor) it’s possible to avoid any heavy lifting – simply close the front door and open the rear door on the split board and vice versa on the floor.

Split board ...

Split board …

Assembly instructions

Really? How simple could it be?

I don’t have a table saw (or space to hide store it) so asked the nice people at Haldane’s in Glenrothes to generate some 20mm x 9mm strip wood. They did this from oak (!) offcuts for about a tenth the price one of the DIY chain stores would charge for equivalent softwood. The latter would have been preferable, not least because I got some wicked splinters from the oak, but it was what they had to hand and would have otherwise gone to the wood burner.

The Correx I had was 4mm thick. I’d have preferred 6mm, but as this was ‘spare’ from another project, I had to make do. I was originally going to use two sheets arranged at 90° to each other to provide rigidity. However, the first single-sheet prototype I built was plenty rigid enough so I stuck with that design.

Corner detail ...

Corner detail …

I cut the oak strips to 44cm in length, arranged them around the periphery of the 46 x 46cm Correx sheet and nailed all but two – on opposing sides of the top face – in place. ‘Overlap’ the corners (see image right) to provide additional strength. It’s worth noting here that my nail gun was only just strong enough to penetrate ~20mm of oak. The few nails that protruded were driven home with a hammer, brute force and a lot of ignorance. With care, frame nails (gimp pins) can easily be used instead.

Doors

In preparing the wood for the last two sides I made two slanting cuts to create the ‘doors’, nailed everything down and added a simple hinge from a gimp pin. It’s worth noting that it’s much easier to place the door ‘hinge’ (pivot?) centrally, rather than at one end of the door. Firstly, there’s less chance the end of the door will foul the adjacent wood. Secondly, to open the door you just need to push one end inwards with the hive tool; there’s no need to add a handle (a screw or nail that protrudes) to open the door outwards. This means there’s nothing to protrude and catch on clothing, on adjacent stacked boxes or on the lower lip of the roof when you’re using it as a crownboard. Finally, the bees won’t care.

Doors closed ...

Doors closed …

I gave the wood a couple of coats of (ironically) One Coat Ronseal Fence Life which should protect it from the elements.

Cheapy, cheapy

The Correx was about a tenner a sheet – delivered 5+ sheets at a time – from which I could cut sufficient for 10 split boards, with useful offcuts to build nuc crownboards or landing boards from. The hardwood strip wood was about £2 per board. Therefore, aside from a few nails, the finished boards cost about £3 each. This compares very favourably with the £28-36 charged by most suppliers for a Snelgrove board. Of course, I appreciate that the latter are more complicated and offer additional confusion functionality, but these are perfectly serviceable for a vertical split and there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained by using something you’ve bodged lovingly crafted yourself 😉

By the time this appears these boards might even be in use …


There’s a good explanation of split board construction in a post by Calluna4u on the SBAi discussion forum (“the thinking beekeepers web forum”). Calluna4u has a wealth of experience as a commercial beekeeper and prepares these boards in industrial quantities. His design differs slightly as it’s for use with hives arranged four to a palette. His post contains links to suppliers for 6mm pre-cut Correx in Dundee which might be useful to Scottish-based beekeepers.

Upstairs, downstairs?

There are two common hive manipulations that involve stacking two brood boxes on top of each other – the vertical split and uniting colonies. Should the queenright colony go on the top or bottom when uniting colonies over newspaper? What about when conducting a vertical split? Does it make a difference?

In the following discussion I’m assuming the colonies being stacked are originally in single brood boxes. This is so I don’t have to qualify how many boxes are involved every time. For convenience, let’s also assume that you are uniting a queenless and queenright colony, rather than getting into a discussion of the benefits or otherwise of regicide.

Uniting colonies

There are a number of methods to unite (merge) two colonies. The simplest, the most often taught during beginners courses and – in my view – the (almost) foolproof method if you are not in a rush is uniting over newspaper.

All gone ...

All gone …

To unite over newspaper the roof and crownboard from one colony are removed and one or two sheets of newspaper are laid over the top bars of the frames. One or two small holes are made through the newspaper and the second brood box is placed on top. Replace the crownboard and roof. The only precaution that needs to be taken is to ensure there isn’t brace comb on the bottom of the frames of the top box – this would puncture the newspaper and allow the bees to mix too quickly. This is also why I stressed a small hole in the paper.

Over the next 24-48 hours the colonies slowly chew holes through the paper, allowing the bees to gradually mix. It’s best not to interfere for a few more days. One week after uniting the frames can be rearranged and the bees cleared down to a single box if needed.

What matters and what doesn’t when uniting?

You’ll read three bits of advice about uniting using the method described above:

  1. The queenright colony should be on the bottom.
  2. The weaker colony should go on the top.
  3. The colony moved should be at the top.

Frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference whether the queen is in the top or bottom box. I’ve done it either way many times and never noticed a difference in success rates (generally very high), or the speed with which shredded newspaper is chucked out of the hive entrance. I think you can safely ignore this bit of advice. I can’t even think of a logical explanation as to why it’s beneficial to have the queen in the bottom box. Can you? After uniting I usually find the queen in the top box a week later.

If colonies differ markedly in strength I do try and arrange the top box as the weaker one. I suspect this is beneficial as it stops the foraging bees from the strong hive trying to get out or return mob-handed, potentially overwhelming the weaker colony.

I think it’s also sensible to locate the moved colony at the top of the stack. I think forcing them to negotiate the bottom box encourages the foragers from the moved hive to reorientate to the new hive location.

Vertical splits

A vertical split is a hive manipulation that can be used as a swarm control strategy or as a means of ‘making increase’ – the beekeeping term for generating a new queenright colony. Whatever the reason, the practicalities are broadly the same and have been described in detail previously. Briefly, the queen and flying bees are separated vertically from the nurse bees and brood in two brood boxes with separate and opposing entrances.

Split board

Split board …

As described, the queen is placed in the top box with the split board entrance facing the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The logic here is that the flying bees are depleted from the queenright half of the colony, so both reducing the swarming impulse and boosting the strength of the half rearing a new queen.

After one week the hive is reversed on the stand – the front becomes the back and the back becomes the front. This results in depletion of flying bees from the queenless half, so reducing the chances of them throwing off a cast should multiple virgin queens emerge. Simultaneously the queenright half is strengthened, boosting its nectar-gathering capabilities.

The problem with vertical splits

Although I’m an enthusiastic proponent of the vertical split I acknowledge there are some drawbacks to the process.

Once there are supers involved things can get pretty heavy. Simply reversing a double brood box can be taxing for some (me included). I’m dabbling with building some floors and split boards with opposing entrances to try and simplify (or at least reduce the strain of) this aspect of the process.

A second problem is the need for subsequent inspections of the colonies. When used for making increase (or for that matter replacing the queen) nothing final can be done with the colonies until the new queen – reared in the bottom box – is mated and laying well.

Inspections

Of course, determining whether she is ‘mated and laying well’ involves splitting the boxes and carefully examining the lower colony. This inspection should probably take place about a month after the initial split (up to 16 days from egg to emerged queen, a week or so for her to get mated and a further week for the laying pattern to be established). Depending on colony strength, weather and the temperament of the colonies, this inspection might have to be conducted in a maelstrom of bees returning to the upper colony (which has had to be removed for the inspection). Perhaps not the most conducive conditions to find, mark and perhaps clip the new queen.

During the month that the new queen is being reared and mated there’s probably little or no need to inspect the queenright colony. They have ample laying room if you’ve provided them with drawn comb. If you gave them foundation only, or foundationless frames, they will likely need thin syrup if there’s a dearth of nectar. If you’re using a standard frame feeder this is a pretty quick and painless process.

Under the conditions described above I think it makes relatively little difference whether the original queen is ‘upstairs or downstairs’ at the outset of the split (though see the comments at the end on the entrance). However, having the new queen in the bottom box might dissuade you from inspecting too often or too soon – neither is to be encouraged where a new queen is expected.

More queens from more ambitious vertical splits

You can use a version of the vertical split to rear several queen cells. Rather than then reversing the colony and depleting the queenless half of bees you can use it to create a number of 2-3 frame nucs, each populated with a big fat ripe queen cell. In this way you can quickly make increase – trebling, quadrupling or perhaps quintupling the original hive number. The precise details are outside the scope of this article – which is already too long – but Wally Shaw covers it in his usual comprehensive manner (PDF) elsewhere.

For this you want to make the initial queenless half to be as strong as possible (to rear good queens). You also want it to be as easy to access as possible to facilitate checking on the development of the new queen cells. Under these conditions I think there’s good reason to start with the original mated queen ‘downstairs’.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

A higher entrance

Remember that at the start of a vertical split, and for a couple of days after, bees will be exiting the rear entrance and returning to the ‘front’ of the hive to which they originally orientated.

Beehive kewl floor landing board and plastic skirt

Kewl floor – fixed …

If you decide to leave the original queen in the lower box this will necessitate reversing the hive at the very start of the process, then placing the split board entrance at the hive front. Bees cope well with this vertical relocation of a hive entrance. Sure, there’ll be a bit of milling about and general confusion, but they’ll very quickly adjust to a hive entrance situated about 25cm above the original one. In the original description of the vertical split they had to make precisely this adjustment at the 7 day hive reversal. It helps to try and restrict bees from accessing the underside of the open mesh floor during these hive reversals – for example with a simple plastic skirt (see above right).

In conclusion

Bees are pretty adaptable to the sorts of manipulations described above. Yes, there are certainly wrong ways to do things, but while being careful to avoid these, there are several different ways to manipulate the process to achieve the desired goal(s).

It’s worth thinking about the goal and the likely behaviour of the bees. Then have a go … what’s the worst that could happen?

 

Finding the queen

One of characteristics that distinguishes inexperienced and experienced beekeepers is the time taken finding the queen. Generally an experienced beekeeper will be much, much faster. Not every time – anyone can have a good day or a bad day – but on average.

A local queen

A local queen

An inexperienced beekeeper will carefully scrutinise every frame, turning it end over end with the half-way rotation they were taught during the midwinter beekeeping beginners course they attended. They’ll examine the end bars and the bottom bar. They’ll look again at either side of the frame and will then slowly return it to the box.

The experienced beekeeper will gently open the hive and lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame. They’ll look across the remaining seams of bees before splitting them somewhere in the middle. They’ll lift out the frame on the nearside of the split and expect to find the queen on it or on the frame on the far side of the split.

And they usually do.

Magic?

No, experience. And not necessarily in actually spotting the queen. Mostly this experience is in better handling of the colony in a way that maximises the chances of seeing the queen.

In the couple of paragraphs above I hinted at these differences. The beginner goes through the entire brood box thoroughly. The experienced beekeeper ‘cuts to the chase’ and splits the box at or near the middle of the brood nest.

The beginner takes time over the scrutiny of every frame. The time taken by the beginner – probably coupled with additional smoking of the hive – disturbs the colony. Disturbance results in the bees becoming agitated, which causes the beginner to give them a couple more puffs of smoke … all of which unsettles the colony (and the queen) further. Ad infinitum.

In contrast, the experienced beekeeper only bothers with the frames on which the queen is most likely to be present. The experienced beekeepers is quick, as gentle as possible and causes as little disturbance as possible … and probably uses only a small amount of smoke.

Focus where needed, skip the rest

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

With minimal disturbance the queen will be in or around the brood nest. She’ll almost certainly be on a frame with eggs, young larvae and ‘polished’ cells. Polished cells are those that have been prepared by the workers ready for the queen to lay in. They usually have a distinctive shiny appearance to the inner walls; this is particularly easy to see if the comb is old and dark.

There’s little chance the (undisturbed) queen will be on sealed brood and even less chance she’ll be wandering around on frames of stores. All that time taken by the beginner examining a frame of sealed stores contributes to the disturbance of the colony and reduces the likelihood of the queen being where she should be.

The experienced beekeeper splits the box at or near where s/he expects to find eggs and very young brood. There’s probably only a couple of frames in the box that are at the right stage and it’s experience – of the concentration of bees in the seams and the behaviour of those bees – that allows most of the other frames to be safely ignored.

Reassuring but unnecessary

The reality is that, during routine inspections, finding the queen is not necessary. The only times you have to find her is when you’re going to manipulate the hive or colony in a way that necessitates knowing where the queen is e.g. an artificial swarm or vertical split.

The rest of the time it’s sufficient to just look for the evidence that the queen is present. The first of these is the general temperament of the colony. Queenless colonies are usually less well tempered. However, this isn’t alone a dependable sign as lots of other things can change the temper of the colony for the worse e.g. the weather or a strong nectar flow stopping.

The key thing to look for is the presence of eggs in the colony. If they are seen the queen must have been present within the last 3 days. In addition, the orientation of the eggs – standing near vertically or lying more horizontally – can provide more accurate timing. Eggs start vertical and end horizontal over the three days before they hatch. This is usually sufficient evidence that the queen is present.

Of course, just finding eggs isn’t sufficient evidence that the colony isn’t thinking of swarming. To determine that there are other things to check for e.g. the rate at which eggs are being laid and the presence or absence of queen cells, but I’ll deal with these in more detail some other time.

Stop looking

If you still feel the need to see the queen on every inspection my advice is to stop looking for her … at least consciously. Instead, concentrate on what really matters. Look for the evidence that the colony is queenright, by comparison with your notes work out whether the queen is laying more or less than at the last inspection, observe the laying pattern and look for signs of brood diseases.

By doing this you’ll predominantly be concentrating on the frames the queen is most likely to be on anyway. By doing this with minimal disruption to the colony the queen should remain undisturbed. Instead of running around frantically she’ll be calmly seeking out polished cells to lay eggs in. Therefore your chances of finding the queen are increased.

Observe the behaviour of bees to other bees on the frame – not by staring at every bee, but by quickly scanning for normal and unusual behaviour. Get used to the rate they walk about on the frames, their pattern of movement and how closely they approach each other.

When undisturbed, the queen is the one that looks out of place. She’s bigger of course, she walks about with more purpose and often more slowly than other bees. The workers make way for her, often parting as she approaches and closing up again as she passes. She may stop regularly to inspect cells or to lay eggs. Bees may be more attentive to her than to other bees. She’s the odd one out.

If you’re intent on finding the queen, stop searching and start seeing.

May the force be with you.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Was it good for you?

Her majesty ...

Her majesty …

Queen development takes just 16 days:

  • she hatches from the egg on day 3
  • the cell is capped on day 7
  • the virgin queen emerges on day 16

There’s then a further 6-7 days until she becomes fertile and goes on her mating flight(s). These are weather dependent, needing warm, calm and sunny conditions, usually between 2pm and 5pm. These can often be relied on in late May and June, but are a bit more hit and miss late in the season. Fortuitously for a small number of queens in my apiaries it looks like they’ll be enjoying great conditions for their nuptials … yesterday or today.

Near-perfect ...

Near-perfect …

I’ll check in a week or so and hope to find mated laying queens …

Spot the queen part 3

In beekeeping courses you’re always taught to look carefully at the underside of the queen excluder (QE) when removing it incase the queen is there. If she’s not you can then gently place it to one side and start the inspection.

It sometimes also pays to look at the top of the QE …

Queen above the QE

Queen above the QE

I inspected this colony last Sunday and my notes said something like “beautifully calm, behaving queenright but looking queenless … frame of eggs?”. The colony was on a single brood with a QE and one super, topped with a perspex crownboard. The ‘frame of eggs’ comment indicated I thought it would be wise to add a frame of eggs to the colony – if they were queenright they’d simply raise them as worker brood. However, if they were queenless they’d use them to raise queen cells.

I was running out of time and anyway wanted eggs from a colony in a different apiary. If the colony were going to raise a new queen I wanted it to come from better stock. Alternatively, I’d wait and provide them with one of a recent batch of mated queens once they had laid up a good frame or two to demonstrate their quality. I closed them up and made a mental note to deal with the colony later in the week.

If they behave queenright, perhaps they are …

I peeked through the perspex crownboard this afternoon while visiting the apiary and saw a distinctive looking bee walking about on the underside of the crownboard. Despite being upside down it was clear, even with a very brief view, that it was a small, dark queen. She was walking calmly about the super and wasn’t being hassled by the workers.

I strongly suspected that she was a virgin that had either wiggled through the QE – perhaps it’s damaged or she was particularly small at emergence – and then got trapped. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, I’d inadvertently placed a brood frame near the super during a previous inspection and she’d walked across. This colony is in the bee shed and space is a bit cramped during inspections.

I know from my notes that the colony had an unsealed queen cell in it a couple of weeks ago so – weather permitting – there should still be sufficient time to get her mated before she’s too old. I removed the super, located her on the QE, gently lifted her off and placed her in the brood box. She wandered quietly down between the brood frames and the bees didn’t seem at all perturbed.

Fingers crossed …