Category Archives: Swarm control

Timing is everything

Synopsis : The invariant timings of brood development dictate many beekeeping events including colony inspections, queen rearing and Varroa management. It makes sense to understand and exploit these timings, rather than ignore or fight against them.

Introduction

There are some inherent contradictions involving timing in beekeeping that can confuse beginners. Actually, they can confuse anyone – beginner or old lag 1 – who doesn’t appreciate the considerable flexibility of some of the timings and the near-total inflexibility of others.

I think that many of the inherent difficulties in beekeeping e.g. judging when to do what to the colony, comparing seasonal differences or deciding whether intervention is needed or ill advised, are due to a lack of appreciation of the relative importance of some of these timings.

I gave an overview of some of the ‘flexible timings’ a couple of weeks ago when discussing the year to year climatic variation that compounds differences caused by latitude.

The onset of brood rearing in midwinter, the crossover date 2, the start of swarming and the timings of the major and minor nectar flows can all vary from year to year.

To appreciate these you need to be observant, but predicting their impact can be tricky. Some are multi-factorial e.g. colony strength and development in a warm, dry spring can be different to a warm, wet spring.

I’ve probably written enough about some of these flexible events already so will instead focus on some of the ‘inflexible timings’ that dictate the activity of the colony and, by extension and through necessity, the activity of the beekeeper.

In many ways these are easier to understand.

By definition, they are invariable 3.

Less to remember … but remembering them is important 😉

The environment

Those ‘flexible timings’ I refer to above mainly reflect the year-to-year climatic variation – warm springs, Indian summers, hard winters.

In contrast, inside the hive the environment is remarkably stable.

It can vary from 4°C to 40°C outside – even on a single day – but the temperature in the brood nest is controlled within a narrow 33-36°C range.

Hives in the snow

Freezing outside, 34.5°C in the broodnest

In fact, in the very centre of the brood nest – the region where pupal development takes place – it is as near as makes no difference 34.5°C.

The workers thermoregulate the hive, heating the comb where needed 4 or evaporating water to cool the hive.

With hive monitoring equipment and suitably placed thermometers you can tell when a colony shifts into brood rearing mode in the spring – the varying temperature of the clustered bees increases and stabilises to a near-invariant 34 and a bit degrees Centigrade.

Brood rearing starts ...

Brood rearing starts – indicated by stabilisation of brood temperature (arnia.co.uk)

The image above is from Arnia who make hive monitoring equipment. The key phrase in the sentence above is ‘suitably placed thermometers’. You tend to have only one or two and they can’t be everywhere, so it’s easy to miss the onset of brood rearing.

Temperature, behaviour and neuroanatomy

Stable temperatures are important for brood development. Worker bees reared at 32°C are less good at waggle dance communication. They only complete about 20% of the circuits (less enthusiastic) and exhibit more variability in the duration of the waggle phase (the distance component) when compared to bees reared at higher temperatures within the ‘normal’ range 5.

In further studies, bees reared at abnormally low or high temperatures (though varying by only 1-2 °C from normal hive temperatures) exhibited differences in neuroanatomical development 6. Of the regions of the brain studied, the numbers of microglomeruli within the mushroom bodies of the brain, areas involved in memory and learning, differed significantly when the pupation temperature was as little as 1°C over or under 34.5°C.

Despite these behavioural and developmental differences, the emergence rate and the duration 7 of development are somewhat less influenced by brood nest temperature.

Influence of temperature on pupal brood development – duration (left axis) and emergence rate (right axis)

In the graph above the duration of pupal development is 10-11 days between 34.5°C and 37°C, and eclosion (emergence) rates exceed 90% from 31-36°C.

Correct development of honey bee workers therefore requires a stable brood nest temperature.

As a consequence of this stability the duration of the development cycle is highly reproducible and – more to the point – predictable.

Before discussing the development cycle it’s worth noting that queens and drones are reared under similarly stable conditions. I’ve discussed the influence of temperature on queen development before but am unaware of similar studies on drones.

The development of workers

The graph above shows the influence of temperature on the duration of pupal development. This is not the same as sealed brood development. 8. The 10-11 days shown above needs to be extended by 2 days (48 hours) when considering the more beekeeper-friendly concept of sealed or capped brood.

Under normal conditions worker development takes 21 days. Three days as an egg, five as an open larva and 13 capped 9.

During those 21 days bees go through a series of six molts between five developmental stages termed instars. The first molt is the egg hatching, molts 2-4 occur during the first few days of larval feeding. Molt 5 is the change from the pre-pupal capped larva to the pupa and the final molt occurs at emergence.

Once the brood is capped there’s nothing much the beekeeper needs to worry about (or can do). In contrast, the early days of worker development involve at least one notable event 10.

Young larvae and queen rearing

The worker larva is fed progressively, which essentially means almost all the time. Nurse bees visit the larva thousands of times, initially feeding a mix of secretions from the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. The diet is then switched to one lacking the mandibular gland component and is finally supplemented with pollen and honey.

This dietary switch takes place around day three of larval development and effectively seals the fate of the developing bee as a worker.

Before day three of larval development, larvae destined to be workers or queens receive the same diet. After day 3 a series of genetic switches are ‘pushed’ that prevent the larva developing into a queen.

This means that larvae of less than three days old are needed to produce new queens. A terminally queenless colony will sometimes attempt to rear a new queen from an older larva (if nothing else is available) but these are usually substandard – so called scrub queens – or fail.

The adult worker

After emergence the worker fulfils a number of roles for the colony; nurse bee, comb builder, guard, scout, forager etc. The precise timings of these are flexible. Not all bees of the same age have the same role, and they can even be reversed. However, as far as practical beekeeping is concerned 11, the only other timings that really matter are the longevity of workers; in the summer this is about 6 weeks and in the winter, 6 months.

The timings to remember – workers

The full development cycle takes 21 days. Larvae more than 3 days old 12 are unsuitable for queen rearing (and, as I shall discuss in a future post, better queens are produced from younger larvae). The adult worker spends the first half of her 6 week life within the hive, and the last 3 weeks as a forager. Winter bees live for many months.

The development of queens

The development cycle of the queen bee is shorter than that of the worker because their diet is much richer. Of course it’s not quite that straightforward (it wouldn’t be, would it?). Because of the diet there are a number of genetic pathways turned on or off in the developing queen that ensure she is ‘fit for purpose’ on emergence. The developing queen goes through the same number of molts and instars, but they are compressed in time.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell

The queen cell is sealed on the ninth day of development, the fifth day after hatching from the egg, and the queen emerges on the 16th day.

The adult queen

Relative to workers and drones the queen appears almost immortal. A queen may live for at least three years and, if well looked after, longer than that. Most of this aftercare is provided by the hive, but the beekeeper can influence things as well. High quality ‘breeder queens’ are often kept in nucs and discouraged from laying excessive amounts of brood. This prolongs their effective lifespan.

As far as timings are concerned – and assuming we’re not dealing with a $500 breeder queen – the only three things that are important relate to the mating of the queen.

After emergence the queen needs to reach sexual maturity before she can go on her mating flights, this takes 5-6 days. Once mated there is a further delay of 2-3 days before the queen starts laying. The final number to remember is that adult queens older than 26-33 days are too old to mate.

The timings to remember – queens

The full development cycle takes 16 days. The cell is capped on the 9th day after the egg was laid 13. Upon emergence, queens take 5-6 days before they are mature enough to mate. A mated queen starts laying 2-3 days after returning from her last mating flight. If they’re not mated within about 4 weeks of emergence then they’ve blown it.

Therefore, the minimum duration to go from newly laid egg to mated, laying queen is at least 23 days. Alternatively, assuming a 2-3 day old larva is available, this time period is reduced to about 18 days.

From emergence, it’s theoretically possible 14 to have a mated, laying queen within 8 days.

However, in my experience, queen mating usually takes longer than these minima … and always longer than I want. Other than confirming emergence I always leave a new queen a minimum of a fortnight before checking if she’s laying, and longer if the weather has been unsuitable for mating.

The development of drones

Like teenage boys getting up late and then doing nothing other than lounge around eating and thinking about sex 15, the drone takes the longest to emerge. The full development cycle from the laying of an unfertilised egg to emergence takes 24 days.

As before, the number of molts and instars are the same as undergone by queens and workers.

The adult drone

Like the queen, the drone needs to become sexually mature before going on a mating flight. This takes 10-12 days after emergence. The drone has a finite lifespan and usually lives no more than about a month during the summer.

Drones that successfully mate with a queen prematurely die. Those that don’t mate either die trying or are ejected from the hive by the workers at the end of the season.

It’s not unusual to hear beekeepers talk about finding drones overwintering. I’m not aware whether these are exceptionally long-lived drones laid by the queen the preceding summer/autumn, or laid by a failing queen during the winter, or even by laying workers in a queenless colony overwinter 16.

The timings to remember – drones

The full development cycle takes 24 days. It takes about five weeks between the appearance of the first eggs in drone cells and the presence of sexually mature drones in the hive.

Swarming cannot happen until there are drones in the area, so it’s worth keeping an eye of drone brood production.

Hive inspections and queen rearing

So, there you have it, just a few numbers to remember … and, more importantly, to understand their significance for beekeeping.

Unusually I’ve prepared an oversized figure to illustrate these timings 17 with colour-coding worker, queen and drone events in green, blue and red respectively.

Worker, drone and queen development and key post-emergence timings

Note that some timings have dual significance. Worker larvae no more than three days old (day 6 – in green) can be reared as queens with suitable feeding.

Hive inspections … and caveats

It should now be obvious why regular weekly hive inspections are recommended in the time leading up to and during the peak swarming period.

If there are no charged queen cells – those containing eggs or developing larvae – during an inspection then any that do develop in the seven days before the next inspection will still not be sealed (and therefore the colony will not have swarmed).

This assumes that the colony swarms on or after the day that the queen cell is sealed.

Sometimes – rarely – the swarm goes early, apparently leaving only uncapped swarm cells. When I’ve had this happen a thorough examination of the brood frames has sometimes turned up a sealed cell, tucked away against a sidebar, that I’d missed in the previous inspection … the colony had not swarmed early, I’d 18 not been observant enough.

With a well-populated colony it’s sometimes necessary to shake all the bees off each frame to be certain there are no queen cells lurking under the ruffled curtain of workers.

Not all queen cells are this obvious

Colonies containing clipped queens tend to delay swarming (but they certainly still swarm) and you can usually get away with a 10 day interval between inspections. Furthermore, since the clipped queen cannot fly, even if the colony does swarm they usually return and end up clustered underneath the OMF after she has crawled back up the leg of the hive stand.

Outside the main swarming period inspections can be much less frequent. I usually inspect only once or twice between mid-July and the end of the season.

Queen rearing

One of my (few) poorly tempered hives unexpectedly contained several 3+ day old queen cells last Sunday. I made up a nuc with the old queen, destroyed all the queen cells and closed up the hive.

They will produce more queen cells 19, but they cannot swarm as there’s no queen.

At my inspection this Sunday I will destroy all the new queen cells.

The genetics of this colony are (at best) ‘undesirable’ 🙁 

Since there’s been no laying queen in the hive for 7 days there cannot now be any larvae young enough to be reared as a new queen 20. Therefore, having destroyed all the queen cells, I’ll add a frame of eggs and larvae from a (well-behaved and so genetically desirable) neighbouring colony 21.

If they want a new queen 22 they will rear one from this donated frame.

The 23 egg in the graphic above is the earliest you can expect a laying queen. In reality – as explained above – it usually takes longer. A minimum of 30 days from egg to egg-producing queen is perhaps more dependable.

Therefore, in around 24 to 30 days – and most likely the latter – this colony will have a new queen which will hopefully improve their behaviour.

The timing of Varroa treatment(s)

But think about what’s happening to the rest of the brood in that colony.

The last eggs laid in the colony was on the Sunday the 1st of May. By the 21st of May all the worker brood will have completed development and emerged. By the 24th of May all the drones will have emerged.

The colony should therefore be broodless in the last week of May.

Even if the new queen is laying by then (some chance!) she won’t have produced any sealed brood.

If needed I could use this 7 day window of opportunity to treat the colony with oxalic acid and reduce the Varroa levels in the hive.

It’s unlikely I’ll need to as the mite numbers have been low this season. However, it’s very reassuring that I have the option should I need it 24.

Adding a Varroa board to check mite drop

But … hang on a moment.

Why did I write that the colony only should be broodless?

What about the eggs and larvae on the frame I added from the donor colony? 25

These will be up to one week younger than any brood in the queenless colony.

Potentially those young eggs and larvae will close that ’window of opportunity’.

Perhaps the easiest way around this is to excise one good sealed queen cell from the donated frame and leave it in queenless colony, and then remove the donated frame and use it elsewhere.

If the colony produces several good quality queen cells it’s likely that I’ll chop them all out and make up some nucs – queen rearing without all the graft.

Literally 😉

Conclusions

I’ve written far more than I intended but I think this reflects the importance of the – effectively invariant – timings of brood development.

These dictate so many of our beekeeping activities that it makes sense to learn to work with them, rather than forever struggling against them.

With good observation and regular colony inspections – weekly during the the main part of the season – there should be little or no chance of losing a swarm.

Furthermore, should a colony show signs of swarm preparation, timely intervention coupled with an appreciation of the timings of brood development, mean you have the opportunity to conduct both stock improvement and mite management.

Nice one 😉


 

Latitude and longitude

Synopsis : Bees don’t use a diary. Colony development is influenced by local environmental conditions. These are largely determined by latitude and longitude but also vary from year to year. Understanding these influences, and learning how to read the year to year differences, should help you judge colony development. You’ll be better prepared for swarm prevention and control, and might be able to to identify minor problems before they become major problems.

Introduction

Writing a weekly post on beekeeping inevitably generates comments and questions. Over the last 5 years I’ve received about 2500 responses to posts and at least double that in email correspondence. That works out at ~30 comments or questions a week 1.

Every one of them – other than the hate mail and adverts 2 – has received a reply, either online or by email.

Some are easy to deal with.

It takes just seconds to thank someone for a ”Great post, now I understand” comment, or to answer the ”Where do I send the cheque? question.

Others are more difficult … and the most difficult of all are those which ask me to diagnose something about their hive.

I almost always prefix my response by pointing out that this sort of online diagnosis is – at best – an inexact art 3.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

Think about it … is your definition of any of the following the same as mine?

  • a strong colony 4
  • an aggressive colony
  • a dodgy-looking brood pattern 5
  • a ‘large’ queen cell

Probably not.

Engaging in to and fro correspondence to define all these things isn’t really practical in a week containing a measly seven 24 hour days.

Geography

However, having stated those caveats, there’s still the tricky issue of geography.

Many correspondents don’t mention where the hive is – north, south, east, west (or in a couple of instances that they are in the southern hemisphere 6).

Location has a fundamental impact on your bees. The temperature, rainfall, forage availability etc. all interact and influence colony development. They therefore determine the timing of what happens when in the colony.

And so this week I decided to write a little bit about the timings of, and variation in, environmental events that influence what’s going on inside the hive.

I’ll focus here on latitude and temperature as it probably has the greatest influence. My comments and examples will all be UK based as it’s where a fraction over 50% of the readers are, but the points are relevant in all temperate areas.

Latitude

Temperate climates – essentially 40°-60° north or south of the equator – experience greater temperature ranges through the year and have distinct seasons (at least when compared with tropical areas). Whilst latitude alone plays a significant role in the temperature range – smaller nearer the equator – the prevailing wind, altitude, sea currents and continentality 7 also have an important influence.

For starters let’s consider the duration of the year during which foraging might be possible. I’ll ignore whether there’s any forage actually available, but just look at the temperature over the season at the northern and southern ends of mainland Great Britain.

I arbitrarily chose Thurso (58.596°N 3.521°W) and Penzance (50.119°N 5.537°W) for these comparisons. Both are lovely coastal towns and both are home to native black bees, Apis mellifera mellifera 8.

The lowest temperature I have observed my native black bees flying on the west coast of Scotland was about 8°C 9. So, let’s assume that the ‘potential foraging’ season is defined by an average maximum daily temperature above 8°C.

How do Penzance and Thurso compare?

Thurso – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In Thurso there are eight months (November just squeezed in by 0.1°C) where the average maximum daily temperature exceeds 8°C.

Penzance – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In contrast, every month of the year in Penzance has an average maximum daily temperature exceeding 8°C.

Thurso and Penzance are just 950 km apart as the bee flies.

Forage availability

I don’t have information on the forage available to bees in Penzance or Thurso, but I’m sure that gorse is present in both locations. The great thing about gorse is that it flowers all year, or – more accurately – individual, genetically distinct, plants can be found every month of the year in flower.

Based upon the temperature it’s possible that Penzance bees could forage on gorse in midwinter and so be bringing fresh pollen into the hive for brood rearing.

The gorse is in flower … somewhere under there

However, further north, gorse might be flowering but conditions may well not be conducive for foraging.

Inevitably, warmer temperatures will extend the range of forage types available, so increasing the time during the year in which brood rearing can occur 10.

In reality, at temperatures below 12-14°C bees start to cluster 11 and bees chilled to 10°C cannot fly. It’s unlikely much foraging could be achieved at the 8°C used in the examples above 12.

The point is that different latitudes differ greatly in their temperature, and hence the forage that grows, the time it yields nectar and pollen, and the ability of the bees to access it.

Brood rearing

The availability of forage has a fundamental impact on the ability of the colony to rear large amounts of new brood.

It’s not until foraging starts in earnest that brood rearing can really ramp up.

Similarly, low temperatures in autumn, reduce the availability of nectars and ability of bees to forage, so curtailing brood rearing 13.

And the ability to effectively treat mites in the winter is largely determined by the presence or absence of sealed brood. If there is sealed brood in the colony there will also be mites gorging themselves on the capped pupae. These mites are untouched by the ‘usual’ winter miticide, oxalic acid.

Therefore, effective midwinter mite management should be much easier in Thurso than Penzance.

I’ve not kept bees in either of those locations, but I know my bees in Fife (56°N) are reliably broodless at some point between late October and mid-December. Varroa management is therefore relatively straightforward, and Varroa levels are under control throughout the season.

In contrast, when I kept bees in Warwickshire (52°N) there were some winters when brood was always present, and Varroa control was consequently more difficult. Ineffective control in the winter results in higher levels of mites earlier in the season.

Brood rearing models

To emphasise the differences here are two images generated from Randy Oliver’s online Varroa Model, just showing the amounts of brood in all stages and adult bees 14. The overall colony sizes and amount of brood reared are about the same, but the ‘hard winter’ colony (no foraging for five months) is broodless for a much greater period.

The brood and bee population in hives that experience ‘default’ and ‘hard’ winters

Without knowing something about the latitude and/or the likelihood of there being capped brood present in the hive, it’s impossible to give really meaningful answers to questions about winter mite treatment.

This also has a bearing on when you conduct your first inspections of the season.

It is also relevant when comparing what other beekeepers are discussing on social media – e.g. those ’8 frames of brood’ I mentioned last week. If it’s early April and they’re in Penzance (or Perigord) then it might be understandable, but if you’re in Thurso don’t feel pressurised into checking your own colonies as it may well be too early to determine anything meaningful.

Year on year variation

But it’s now approaching late April and most beekeepers will be starting to think/worry about swarm control.

When should you start swarm prevention and, once that fails, when must you apply swarm control?

Or, if you’d prefer to take a more upbeat view of things, when might you expect your bait hives to be successful and when should you start queen rearing?

Again, like almost everything to do with beekeeping, dates are pretty meaningless as your colonies are not basing their expansion and swarm preparations on the calendar.

They are responding to the environmental conditions in your particular locality and in that particular year.

Which brings me to year on year variation.

Not every year is the same.

Some seasons are warmer than others – the spring might be ‘early’ or there might be an ‘Indian summer’. In these instances foraging and brood rearing are likely to start earlier or finish later.

One way to view these differences is to look at the Met Office climate anomaly maps. These show how different the climate – temperature, rainfall, sunshine etc. – can be from year to year when compared to a 30 year average.

Met Office anomaly charts – spring temperatures 2020 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

Here are the anomaly maps for the last two springs. For almost all of the country 2020 was unusually warm. Penzance was 1.5°C warmer than the 30 year average. In contrast, over much of the country, 2021 was cooler than the 1990-2010 average.

So when considering how the colony is developing it’s important to consider the local conditions.

Those Met Office charts are retrospective … for example, you cannot see how this spring compares with previous years (at least, not yet 15.).

Rainfall

And, while we’re on the subject of anomalies … here are the rainfall charts for the summers of 2012 and 2021.

Met Office anomaly charts – summer rainfall 2012 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

I suspect that both were rather poor years for honey. 2012 was – with the exception of Thurso! – exceedingly wet. My records for that year don’t include honey yield 16.

Last year was generally dry, and very dry in the north and west 17. Since a good nectar flow often needs moisture in the soil it may have been poor for many beekeepers.

It was my first full season on the west coast and the heather honey yield was disappointing (but it’s not a great heather area and I’ve nothing to compare it with … perhaps I’ll be disappointed every year?). However, I managed a record summer honey crop in Fife from a reduced number of hives. Quite a bit of this was from lime which I always think of as needing rain to get a good flow from, so perhaps the little rain we did have was at the right time.

Local weather and longitude

If you really want to know what the weather has been doing in your area you probably need something more fine-grained and detailed than a Met Office chart. There are very large numbers of ‘personal weather stations’, many of which share the data they generate with websites such as windy.com or wunderground.com.

Find one by searching these sites and you’ll be able to access recent and historical weather data to help you determine whether colony build up is slow because it’s been colder and wetter than usual. Or – if the conditions have been ideal (or at least normal) but the colony is struggling – whether the queen is failing, if there’s too much competition for forage in the neighbourhood, or if there might be disease issues.

Of course, judgements like these mean you need to have good records year on year, so you know what to expect.

My main apiary on the west coast has it’s own weather station.

Weather station and a typical west coast sky

To emphasise the local influence of prevailing winds and warm sea currents it’s interesting to note that my west and east coast apiaries – which are at almost the same latitude 18 – experience significantly different amounts of rainfall.

We had >270 mm of rain in November 2021 on the west coast, compared to ~55 mm on the east. In July 2021 the figures were 43 mm and 7 mm respectively.

All of which I think makes a good argument for rearing local bees that are better adapted to the local conditions 19. That’s something I’ve discussed previously and will expand upon further another time.

Phenology

Rainfall charts and meteorological tables are all a bit dull.

An additional way a beekeeper can observe the progression of the season, and judge whether the colony is likely to be developing as expected, or a bit ahead or a bit behind, is to keep a record of other environmental events.

This is phenology, meaning ‘the timing of periodic biological phenomena in relation to climatic conditions’.

  • Are frogs spawning earlier than normal?
  • When did the first snowdrops/crocus/willow flower?
  • Are the arrival dates of migrant birds earlier or later than normal?

I’m poor at identifying plants 20 so tend to focus on the animals. The locals – frogs, slow worms, toads, bats, butterflies, dragonflies – are all influenced by local conditions. Many don’t make an appearance until well into the beekeeping season.

Frogspawn

Or perhaps I just don’t notice them?

In contrast, the avian spring migrants appear in March and April. These provide a good indication of whether the spring is ‘early’ or ‘late’.

For example, cuckoo arrived here in 2020 (a warm spring) on the 18th of April. In 2021, a cold spring, they didn’t make an appearance until the 24th.

This year, despite January to March being warmer than average, they have yet to arrive. The majority of GPS-tagged birds are still en route, having been held up by a cold start to April 21, though some have just 22 arrived in southern Scotland.

Wheatear are also several days later this year than the last couple of seasons, again suggesting that the recent cold snap has held things back.

You can read more about arrival dates of spring migrants on the BTO website.

Beekeeping is not just bees

Much of the above might not appear to be much to do with beekeeping.

But, at least indirectly, it is.

Your bees live and work in a small patch of the environment no more than 6 miles in diameter. That’s a very small area (less than 30 square miles). The local climate they experience will determine when they can forage, and what they can forage on. In turn, this influences the timing of the onset of brood rearing in the spring (or late winter), the speed with which the colony builds up, the time at which winter bees start to be reared and the duration of the winter when it’s either too cold to forage or there’s nothing to forage on (or both).

As a beekeeper you need to understand these events when you inspect (and judge the development of) your colonies. Over time, with either a good memory or reasonable hive records, you can make meaningful comparisons with previous seasons.

If your colony had ’8 frames of brood’ in mid-April 2020 (a warm year) and your records showed they swarmed on the 27th, then you are forewarned if things look similar this season.

Conversely, if spring 2020 and this year are broadly similar (and supported by your comprehensive phenological records 23 ) but your bees have just two frames of brood then something is amiss.

Of course, the very best way to determine the state of the colony is to inspect it carefully. Understanding the environmental conditions helps you know what to expect when you inspect.


 

Triumphs and tragedies

Synopsis: Having dealt with beekeeping tragedies last week, it’s now time to consider landmark events (‘triumphs’) in beekeeping. These four things – successful overwintering, swarm control, finding the queen and queen rearing – are what I consider the most notable. All beekeepers should be able to achieve these, and their beekeeping will benefit as a consequence.

Introduction

In the second part of the highs and lows of my (or an average beekeepers’s 1 ) beekeeping career I discuss what I consider are the four most significant events in the progression from total beginner to my current level 2.

These highs and lows, or ‘triumphs and tragedies’, stemmed from a question posed during a live-streamed Q&A session with Lawrence Edwards from Black Mountain Honey. I didn’t think I answered it particularly well then – though some of the things below were definitely included – so have had another crack at it.

The tragedies I covered last week – the loss of a queen, a swarm or a colony – aren’t really tragedies. As I said in the introduction then, ” … the observant and well-prepared beekeeper can avoid most of the ‘tragedies’, and recover from almost all of them”.

However, unlike the tragedies that really aren’t tragedies, these triumphs really are landmark events that significantly improve your beekeeping.

Unsurprisingly, some of the triumphs I discuss below are how you recover from – or avoid altogether – the tragedies I mentioned last week.

Successful overwintering

Studies from Tom Seeley (in his book The Lives of Bees) indicate that a swarm from a wild-living colony has about a 23% chance of surviving the winter. Swarms perish for a number of reasons; many starve to death, others die from pathogens 3, a few queens likely fail and some colonies are lost due to ‘natural disasters’ such as lightning strikes or storms or bears.

Although I don’t know the percentage breakdown of these causes of death, I’d be surprised if the combination of queen failures and ‘natural disasters’ account for more than a small percentage.

In contrast, I expect that starvation and disease account for most losses of ‘wild’ colonies.

Hives in the snow

The survival rate of managed colonies is not entirely clear as it differs with the group or individual being surveyed.

The relatively small-scale annual BBKA surveys suggest that about 80% (the average of the last 12 years) of colonies overwinter successfully. The much larger Bee Informed Partnership surveys 4 report a slightly lower figure of 70%.

Finally, the COLOSS surveys – covering Europe and a few other countries 5 – helpfully split winter losses into those due to ‘mortality’ (presumably disease and starvation) from queen failure and natural disasters, and usually report survival rates of 70-80% 6.

COLOSS reports losses due to queen failure and natural disasters are typically about 5-7%.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these are unavoidable, and that they’re as likely to befall a managed hive as a ‘wild’ colony.

Averages, outliers and being ‘better than average’

These losses, when analysed statistically, show considerable variation between individual beekeepers. Some never lose colonies during the winter, others often experience high rates of colony mortality.

When I last checked 7 all my colonies have survived this winter. My average losses over the last decade (about 200 ‘colony winters’) are well below 10%. Many of the experienced beekeepers I know routinely experience losses in the 5-10% range.

In contrast, inexperienced – and sometimes longstanding 8 – beekeepers may lose many or even all the colonies they ‘manage’. Many give up, others make up the losses through splitting, swarms or purchases, and soldier on to the next winter, only to experience the same disappointment again 9.

Winter losses ...

Winter losses … dead bees on the floor of a hive with a failed queen.

Some losses are expected – though perhaps no more than the ‘unavoidable’ 5-7% due to ‘natural disasters’ and queen failures.

However, the remaining 90-95% of colonies should survive, particularly if we assume that their loss would be due to starvation or disease … both of which squarely fall under the term ‘management’ when considering managed colonies.

This management is the responsibility of the beekeeper – s/he must ensure that the mite (and consequently virus) levels are minimised at the right times during the season, and that the colony has sufficient stores to overwinter successfully.

Take your winter losses in autumn

The final point to remember is that the successful management of colonies involves excluding those from going into the winter that are likely to fail.

Weak colonies in late autumn, or early autumn queen failures, are often doomed anyway.

Don’t let them become a (BBKA, BIP or COLOSS) statistic.

If healthy, unite these colonies with strong colonies and then plan for some additional splits the following season to make up the ‘on paper’ loss. Far better you strengthen another colony than condemn a weak colony, or one with a poorly mated queen, to a lingering death in midwinter.

Uniting a strong colony with a weak (queenless) colony

I therefore consider the first landmark event (‘triumph’) in beekeeping is the successful overwintering of the majority (over 90%) of the colonies managed – irrespective of the severity or duration of the winter.

Achieving this involves a combination of skills:

  • successful disease management (which I term ‘Rational Varroa Control’)
  • appropriate feeding in the autumn
  • the ability to judge colonies unlikely to survive before it’s too late to unite them
  • well-sited apiaries unlikely to flood or be hit by falling trees (or visited by rampaging bears)
  • provision of young and well-mated queens to head colonies

A strong and healthy colony is likely to overwinter successfully. It’s also more likely to build up strongly the following spring, and therefore will probably swarm … or at least try to.

Which neatly takes me to the second of the ‘triumphs’ that a beekeeper should aim to achieve.

Successful swarm control

Swarm control is the management of a colony that has started making queen cells, and is therefore likely committed to swarm within a few days.

It is a necessity if (or when!) swarm prevention stops working.

I visited one of my apiaries last week. There were a dozen colonies in the apiary last year and I know I missed one swarm.

‘Missed’, but not ‘lost’.

I’d found the bivouacked swarm, dropped it into a nuc box and successfully re-hived them 🙂

Collecting the stragglers – a captured bivouacked swarm dropped into a nuc box.

However, while taking some willow cuttings I discovered wax deposits on another of the small trees I’d planted.

Clearly a swarm had bivouacked here for a day or so and I’d both missed and lost it 🙁

Missed and lost – signs of a bivouacked swarm on a small willow.

For the last couple of seasons, while living remotely, I’ve usually been very pro-active in my swarm control.

If a few colonies in the apiary start building queen cells I use the nucleus method of swarm control and take the queens out of all the strong colonies and then allow them to requeen.

For swarm control the nucleus method is almost foolproof.

It is very successful in preventing the loss of a prime swarm (one with the mated queen). However, with really strong colonies, there remains the risk that more than one virgin queen emerges. I suspect I’d missed a queen cell and lost a cast headed by a virgin queen. I know that all my colonies requeened successfully and without unexpected delays.

So, this was an example of unsuccessful swarm control, but it was less of a problem than the loss of a prime swarm (as I still had the mated queen tucked away in a nuc somewhere).

Timing and mechanics

Successful swarm control involves the ability to recognise when a colony is actively making swarm preparations i.e. being able to find queen cells, and then knowing exactly what to do (and when to do it) to prevent the colony from swarming.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

The first is observational and will improve the more hives you inspect (or should if ‘seeing’ is coupled with ‘understanding’).

The second – ‘what and when’ – is the mechanics of swarm control:

  • find and isolate the mated queen somehow (Pagden or vertical split, nucleus etc.) in a way that ensures her survival. Her continued availability is important if the original colony does not successfully requeen.
  • find all the queen cells and leave sufficient to ensure the colony can requeen but not so many that the colony generates casts. I usually leave a single charged queen cell (but clearly left more than one in the colony that swarmed onto that willow above).
  • the ability to judge that the colony has successfully requeened and that the new queen is well mated, so guaranteeing the survival of the colony.

There are dozens of different swarm control methods. Most share some common features in terms of actions and timing.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can ‘mix and match’.

  • Learn one method.
  • Know when to apply it. Understand its pros and cons.
  • Have the equipment to hand during the ‘swarm season’.
  • Analyse what went wrong if it doesn’t work.

Achieve all this and you will be successful at swarm control, your colonies will be stronger during the peak nectar flows of the season, you’ll collect more honey and they will overwinter more successfully.

Swarm control – knowing what to do when, and employing it successfully – moves you from hit and hope scrabbling around with “Finger’s crossed they won’t swarm” to a reassuring 10 “What will I do with the additional colony?

It’s a real confidence builder … and while we’re on the topic of confidence.

Finding the queen … quickly, and every time

Watch a new beekeeper look for the queen. They will sequentially and thoroughly inspect every frame in the colony. Each frame is turned and rotated slowly as taught in the winter ’Start beekeeping’ courses. They’re often particularly careful to check the sidebars and the bottom bar of the frames. The underside of the queen excluder (QE) is carefully scrutinised.

A gentle puff of smoke every couple of frames keeps the colony nicely subdued.

Fifteen minutes later they find her, on a frame of stores. The frame had already been inspected at least once 🙁

She’s somewhere in there …

In contrast, an experienced – and good (!) – beekeeper gently lifts the QE, checks it briefly and closely observes the density of bees along the visible seams. She then uses a small amount of smoke to allow the dummy board and outer frame to be removed. These are carefully placed aside.

The beekeeper then splits the remaining frames where the density of young bees is the greatest, opening a 2 cm gap. The nearer frame facing the gap is then carefully removed and the queen will usually be found on it, or on the far side of the other frame facing the gap.

It’s all over in 90 seconds and – to the inexperienced – it looks like magic.

It’s not.

Blue marked queen ...

Blue marked queen …

It’s also not 100% guaranteed, but it happens enough that it’s certainly not chance.

Of course, you don’t need to find the queen to be reasonably certain the colony is queenright.

Usually their behaviour, the presence of eggs and the absence of sealed queen cells is a sufficiently good indication that there’s a queen present.

Gently does it

But, when you do need to find her – for example, to employ one of those swarm control methods that requires the isolation of the queen 11 – the 13.5 minutes saved by the good beekeeper really helps avoid frustration (and agitated bees).

In the example above the beginner found the queen on a frame of stores, almost certainly because he disturbed the colony using too much smoke and by slowly going through the box frame by frame. The queen was ‘chased’ across the box, scuttled across the floor or around the sidewall of the hive and ended up on the outer frame of stores or pollen.

The experienced beekeeper used almost no smoke. The bees barely knew she was there. She split the frames where there were more young bees. These will be tending the queen and the young larvae. If the queen wasn’t on the face of the first frame checked she’s likely to be on the reverse of the facing frame (having moved there to avoid the light streaming in through the gap between the frames).

You can keep bees without being able to find the queen, but certain things are much easier if you can reliably and quickly locate her.

This is a skill that some never acquire and that others seem to naturally possess.

But it can also be learned.

It’s easier to do with a calm and gentle colony.

However, it’s perhaps learned fastest with a double brooded box of suicidal psychotics 😉

And, if you’re good at finding the queen you will be asked 12 to requeen one of those double brooded boxes of suicidal psychotics.

Which is why this third landmark event in your beekeeping is inextricably linked to my final choice … the ability to actively rear high quality queens.

Queen rearing

Of all the things I’ve learned since starting beekeeping – including the huge number of things I’ve subsequently forgotten – queen rearing has been, without doubt, the most useful.

I’m talking here about ‘active’ queen rearing, rather than passively allowing a queenless colony to generate queen cells and requeen itself.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this ‘passive’ approach. I use it every year. However, it doesn’t teach you as much about beekeeping.

I consider the following are the direct and indirect benefits of active queen rearing. These justify inclusion of queen rearing in this list of landmark events in beekeeping:

  • to be successful you need the ability to judge the quality of the bees over the course of the season. There’s no point in rearing queens from poor quality stock.
  • rearing good quality queens means you can readily improve the quality of your colonies, simply by requeening them. You should see the benefits in 2-3 years (or months in the case of some colonies I’ve requeened 😉 ).
  • queen rearing means you need to acquire the skills and confidence to find and (often) handle the queen. Marking and clipping the queen makes your beekeeping easier.

Returning a marked and clipped queen

  • you can readily achieve sustainability in your beekeeping. No need to buy in queens or nucs. No need to rely upon capturing swarms to maintain colony numbers.
  • you can have spare queens and nucs available when you need them, or generate surplus for gift/sale.
  • young queens – which you ensure by requeening – head stronger colonies, are less likely to swarm and overwinter better.
  • queen rearing requires understanding the colony manipulations needed to start queen cell production. This necessitates good observation and skilled beekeeping.

And there are probably as many again that I could include if I hadn’t already written 500 words more than I’d intended 😉

The most fun you can have with a beesuit on?

However, almost as importantly … “of all the things I’ve learned since starting beekeeping – including the huge number of things I’ve subsequently forgotten – queen rearing has been, without doubt, the most”enjoyable.

Perhaps not ‘the most fun you can have with a beesuit on’ 13 but pretty darned close.

Actually, I’ve already thought of a few more things that should be in the list above:

  • the skill to prepare nucs for queen mating (either mini-nucs or 2-5 frame nucs). And subsequently manage them.
  • an ability to have nucs available for overwintering to make up losses or for (profitable) sale early the following season.
  • the confidence to dabble with methods for colony preparation to find strategies that suit your own bees and the local environment.
  • out-of-season projects to entertain you (like building my wildly over-engineered queen cell incubator) during the interminable dark winter months.
  • etc.

Portable queen cell incubator

Only a relatively small percentage of beekeepers actively rear queens.

I suspect many are dissuaded because they think it requires skills they don’t have, and are unlikely to acquire without years of practice.

Au contraire as a Gilles Fert, a well-known French queen rearer, would say.

You may not (yet) have the skills but few of them are ‘mission critical’ and most can be learned relatively easily. 

Of the four things discussed in this post, queen rearing is the skill that has provided the greatest benefit to my beekeeping.

And enjoyment.

Go forth and multiply 🙂


 

Little dramas

This post was originally titled Drama queens.

Apposite … it’s mostly about queens.

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

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

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

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

Swarmtastic

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

All of which means that June has been pretty manic. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That certainly works … sometimes.

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

Queen cell … and what else?

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

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

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

More haste, less speed

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

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

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

Are there any drones on orientation flights yet?

What’s happening at the hive entrances?

Is there pollen going in?

Any sign of fighting?

Or robbing?

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

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

And, now and again, you notice something unusual …

Queen under the open mesh floor

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

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

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

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

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

But there was a queen.

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

Almost completely alone.

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

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

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

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

I did.

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

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

Queen in the grass

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

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

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

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

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

Bees fanning at the entrance

When I next checked the hive the queen had gone 🙁

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

We’ll find out next week.

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

Preventative and reactive swarm control

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

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t lose a single swarm 🙂

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

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

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

Queen in the cage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job done 🙂

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

JzBz queen introduction & shipping cage with removable plastic cap

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

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

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

Fingers crossed 🙂

Queen failure

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

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

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

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

SIgns of a failing queen

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

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

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

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

Frames showing the characteristic dispersed bullet brood of laying workers

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

In retrospect what should I have done? 

I should have united the colony in mid-May.

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

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

My notes go something like:

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

The second rule of beekeeping

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

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

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


 

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 🙂


 

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.


 

Frequently asked questions

The 2020/21 winter has been very busy with online talks to beekeeping associations. I’m averaging about five a month, with only the fortnight over Christmas and New Year being a bit quieter. 

When chatting to the organisers of these talks it’s clear that they are getting increasingly successful 1. Audience numbers are encouragingly high as people become more familiar with online presentations.

Beekeepers know they can lounge around in their pyjamas drinking wine, chat with their friends before and after the talk 2, and listen to a beekeeping presentation … a sort of lockdown multitasking.

Some of you that spend hours each day on Zoom will know exactly what I’m talking about 😉

I still lament the absence of homemade cakes, but I suspect the online format is here to stay. At least for some associations, or at least some of the winter programme each year. 

Talking to myself

There’s little point in doing science unless you tell others about it and, as as a scientist, I have presented at invited seminars and conferences for my entire career. 

Some readers will be familiar with public speaking in one form or another. They’ll be familiar with the frisson of excitement that precedes stepping up to the podium in a large auditorium. 

Assuming there’s a large audience filling the large auditorium of course 😉

Those with little experience of speaking might wish the audience was a bit smaller, or a lot smaller … or not there at all.

But the reality is that the audience is a really important part of a presentation. At least, they are once the speaker has sufficient confidence to calm down, to stop worrying they’ll say something stupid, and to ‘read’ the audience. 

An attentive beekeeping audience

By observing the audience the speaker can determine whether they’re still interested and attentive. Not just in the topic (after all, they’re sitting there rather than disappearing to the coffee shop), but in particular parts of the presentation. 

Are you going too fast?

Have you lost their attention?

Was that fancy animated slide you spent 20 minutes on a dismal failure?

Did that last witty aside work … or did it crash and burn? 3

Almost none of which can be determined when delivering a Zoom-type online presentation 🙁

You can ‘see’ the audience.

Or parts of it.

Postage stamp-sized headshots, with poor lighting, distracting backgrounds 4 and enough pixelation to make nuanced judgements about boredom or even species sometimes tricky.

Is that a Labradoodle in the audience … or just another lockdown haircut?

Has the internet frozen … or has everyone simply fallen asleep?

It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.

Which makes the question and answer sessions even more important than usual.

Mixed abilities

My talks usually include a 5 minute intermission. Talking for an hour uninterrupted is actually quite tiring 5 and it’s good to make a cup of tea and gather my thoughts for ’round two’.

It also allows the audience to raise questions about subjects mentioned in the first half that left them confused.

Fortunately these ‘half time’ questions tend to be reassuringly limited in number 6.

Have a break, have a Kit Kat

However, at the end of the talk there is usually a much more extensive Q&A session. This often covers both the topic of the talk and other beekeeping issues. 

A typical audience contains beekeepers with a wide range of beekeeping experience. Enthusiastic beginners 7 jostle for screen space with ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt’ types who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

Inevitably this means the talk might miss critical explanations for beginners and omit some of the nuanced details appreciated by the more experienced. As the poet John Lydgate said:

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time 8.

Think about this simple statement:

Varroa feed on the haemolymph of developing pupae.”

The beginner might not know what haemolymph is … or, possibly, even what Varroa is.

The intermediate beekeeper might be left wondering whether the mite also feeds on nurse bees when ‘crowdsurfing’ around the colony during the phoretic stage of the life cycle.

And the experienced beekeeper is questioning whether I know anything about the subject at all as I’ve not mentioned fat bodies and their apparently critical role in mite nourishment.

So I encourage questions … to help please a few more of the people 😉

You’re on mute!

In my experience these are best submitted via the ‘chat’ function. The host – an officer of the BKA or a technically-savvy member press ganged into hosting the talk – can then read them out to me.

Or I can … if I can find my glasses.

One or two beekeeping associations have a Zoom ‘add in’ that allows the audience to ‘upvote’ written questions, so that the most popular appear at the top of the list 9. This works really well and helps ‘please more of the people more of the time’.

The alternative, of asking the audience member to unmute their mic and ask the question is somewhat less satisfactory. It’s not unusual to watch someone wordlessly ‘mouthing’ the question while the host (or I) try and explain how to turn the microphone on.

Finally, it’s worth emphasising that the Q&A session is – as far as I’m concerned – one of the most helpful and enjoyable parts of the evening.

Enjoyable, because I’m directly answering a question that was presumably asked because someone wanted or needed to know the answer 10

Helpful, because over time these will drive the evolution of the talk so that it better explains things for more of the audience.

Anyway – that was a longer introduction than I intended – what sort of questions have been asked frequently this winter (and the talks they usually appeared in).

What do you define as a strong colony? (Preparing for winter)

Strong colonies overwinter better than weak colonies. They contain more bees. This means that the natural attrition rate of bees during the winter shouldn’t reduce the colony size so much that it struggles to thermoregulate the cluster

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

I also think large winter clusters retain better ‘contact’ with their stores, so reducing the chances of overwinter isolation starvation.

Strong colonies are also likely to be healthy colonies. Since the major cause of overwintering colony losses is Varroa and the viruses it transmits, a strong healthy colony should overwinter better than a weak unhealthy colony. 

Colony age structure from August to December.

However, you cannot necessarily judge the strength of a colony in June/July as an indicator of colony strength in the late autumn and winter.

This is because the entire population of bees has turned over during that period. 

A hive bulging with bees in summer might look severely depleted by November if the mite levels have not been controlled in the intervening period.

The phrase ‘a strong colony’ is also relative … and influenced by the strain of bees. Native black bees rarely need more than a single brood box. Compare them to a prolific carniolan strain and they’re likely to look ‘weak’, but if they’re filling the single brood box then they’re doing just fine.

When should I do X? (Rational Varroa control and others)

When usually means ‘what date?’

X can be anything … adding Apivar strips, uniting colonies, adding supers, dribbling oxalic acid.

This is one of the least satisfactory questions to answer but the most important beekeeping lesson to learn.

A calendar is essentially irrelevant in beekeeping.

Due to geographic/climatic differences and variation in the weather from year to year, there’s almost nothing that can be planned using a calendar.

Only three things matter, the:

  1. state of the colony
  2. local environment – an early spring, a strong nectar flow, late season forage etc.
  3. development cycle of queens, workers and drones

By judging the first of these, with knowledge of the second and a good appreciation of the third, you can usually work out whether treatments are needed, colonies united or supers added etc.

This isn’t easy, but it’s well worth investing time and effort in.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

The last of these three things is particularly important during swarm control and when trying to judge whether (or when) a colony will be broodless or not. The development cycle of bees is effectively invariant 11, so understanding this allows you to make all sorts of judgements about when to do things. 

For example, knowing the numbers of days a developing worker is an egg, larva and pupa allows you to determine whether the colony is building up (more eggs being laid than pupae emerging) or winding down for autumn (or due to lack of forage or a failing queen).

Likewise, understanding queen cell development means you know the day she will emerge, from which you can predict (with a little bit of weather-awareness) when she will mate and start laying.

How frequently should you monitor Varroa? (Rational Varroa control)

This question regularly occurs after discussion of problematically high Varroa loads, particularly when considering whether midseason mite treatment is needed. 

Do you need to formally count the mite dropped between every visit to the apiary?

Absolutely not.

If you are the sort that does then be aware it’s taking valuable time away from your trainspotting 😉 12

The phoretic mite drop is no more than a guide to the Varroa load in the hive. 

Think about the things that could influence it:

  • A colony trapped in the hive by bad weather has probably got more time to groom, so resulting in an increased mite drop.
  • An expanding colony has excess late stage larvae so reducing the time mites spend living phoretically.
  • A shrinking colony will have fewer young bees, so forcing mites to parasitise older workers. Some of these will lost ‘in the field’ and more may be lost through grooming.
  • Strong colonies could have a much lower percentage infestation, but a higher mite drop than an infested weak colony. You need to act on the latter but perhaps not the former.
  • And a multitude of other things that really deserve a more complete post …

So don’t bother counting Varroa every week … or even every month.

Does what it says on the tin.

I think checking a couple of times a season – towards the end of spring and in mid/late summer – should be sufficient. You can do this by inserting a Varroa tray for a week, by uncapping drone brood and looking for mites, or by doing an alcohol wash on a cupful of workers (but these methods aren’t comparable with each other as they measure different things with different efficiencies). 

But you must also look for the damaging effects of Varroa and viruses at every inspection.

If there are significant numbers of bees with deformed wings – characteristic of high levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) – then intervention will probably be needed. 

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

And if there are increasing numbers of afflicted bees since your last regular inspection it’s almost certain that intervention will be needed sooner rather than later.

I should add that I also count mite drop during treatment. This helps me understand the overall mite load in the colony. By reference to the late summer count I can be sure that the treatment worked. 

What do you mean by a quarantine apiary? (Bait hives for profit and pleasure)

This question has popped up a few times when I discuss moving an occupied bait hive and checking the health of the colony. 

A swarm that moves into a bait hive brings lots of things with it …

Up to 40% by weight is honey which is very welcome as they will use it to draw new comb. If there’s good forage available as well it’s unlikely the swarm will need additional feeding.

However, the swarm also brings with it ~35% of the mites that were present in the colony that swarmed. These are less welcome.

I always treat swarms with oxalic acid to give them the best possible start in their new home.

Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

More worrisome is the potential presence of either American or European foul broods. Both can be spread with swarms. The last things you want is to introduce these brood diseases into your main apiary.

For this reason it is important to isolate swarms of unknown provenance. The logical way to do this is to re-site the occupied bait hive to a quarantine apiary some distance away from other bees. Leave it there for 1-2 brood cycles and observe the health and quality of the bees.

What is ‘some distance?’

Ideally further than bees routinely forage, drift or rob. Realistically this is unlikely to be achievable in many parts of the country. However, even a few hundred yards away is better than sharing the same hive stand. 

If you keep bees in areas where foul broods are prevalent then I would argue that this type of precautionary measure is essential … or that the risk of collecting swarms is too great.

And how do you know if foul broods are prevalent in your area?

Register with the National Bee Unit’s Beebase. If there is an outbreak near your apiary a bee inspector will contact you.

Remember also that the presence of foul broods in an area may mean that the movement of colonies is prohibited.

‘Asking for a friend’ type questions

These are great.

These are the sort of questions that all beekeepers are likely to need to ask at sometime in their beekeeping ‘career’.

Typically they take the form of two parts:

  1. a description of a gross beekeeping error
  2. an attempt to make it clear that the error was by someone (anyone) other than the person asking the question 😉

Here are a couple of more or less typical ones 13.

  • My friend (who isn’t here tonight) forgot to remove the queen excluder and three full supers from their colony in August. Should I, oops, she remove them now?
  • Here’s an an entirely hypothetical scenario … what would you recommend treating a colony with in March if the autumn and midwinter mite treatments were overlooked?
  • Should my friend remove the Apiguard trays he a) added in November, or b) placed in his colonies before taking them to the heather?
  • I’d been advised by an expert beekeeper to squish every queen cell a few days after discovering my colony had swarmed in June. It’s now late September … how much longer should I wait for the colony to be queenright?

These are very good questions because they illustrate the sorts of mistakes that many beginners, and some more experienced beekeepers, make. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making mistakes. The problem comes if you don’t learn from them.

I’ve made some cataclysmically stupid beekeeping errors. 

I still do … though fewer now than a decade ago, largely because I’ve managed to learn from some of them.

Partly I learned from thinking things through and partly from asking someone else … “A friend has asked me why his colony died. Was it the piezoelectric vibrations from the mite ‘zapper’ bought from eBay or was the hive he bought not suitable?


 

2020 in retrospect

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote my retrospective review of the 2019 season.

At the time I was thinking “What a nightmare! If I never again have a year like that it’ll be too soon.”.

This was due to a major fire in my research institute which terminated a 30 year research programme and drowned me in a tsunami of administration.

The little beekeeping I did in 2019 kept me sane. Insurance issues and a new research facility took every waking hour. There was no ‘active’ queen rearing and my swarm control involved littering half of Fife with bait hives.

I piled on the supers, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

And got away with it 🙂

But by February 2020, the anniversary of the fire, it was looking as though those problems were just the hors d’oeuvres.

Coronavirus (Google Trends search terms, 12 months to mid-December 2020)

‘Coronavirus’ was a word transitioning from white-coated virology nerds with expansive foreheads to everyday, and then every minute, usage.

Covid and stockpiling

The word ‘Covid’ was first used in 1686. For its first 333 years it referred to an Anglo-Indian unit of linear measurement 1. On the 11th of February it appeared as a hashtag on Twitter and today it features a dozen times on the BBC homepage.

By early March it was clear that major societal changes were going to be needed to control virus transmission. A couple of days after spring talks to Oban beekeepers, Edinburgh and District BKA and the SNHBS the country went into lockdown …

The wild west

… by which time I was jealously guarding my panic-bought toilet rolls 2 on the remote west coast of Scotland.

The national beekeeping associations negotiated travel arrangements for animal husbandry purposes and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve already written about the practicalities of the small amount of long distance beekeeping I did in 2020. I won’t rehash the gory details here, but will make a few more general comments.

Highs and lows

It was a pretty good beekeeping start to the year. The spring was significantly drier than the 30 year average. This meant that the bees could get out and exploit the oil seed rape (OSR).

Spring 2020 rainfall anomaly

Consequently the honey yield per colony was the best I’ve had in the five years I’ve been back in Scotland. I think it would have been even better had I been present to add the supers in a more regulated manner … and to remove them before they crystallised.

In contrast, the summer was characterised by a series of lows … low pressure systems, bringing more rain than usual.

This probably reduced the time available for foraging, but perhaps was compensated by better nectar flows. My two main production apiaries performed very differently.

One generated almost no honey per hive, the other again generated record yields of outstandingly flavoured summer honey.

Summer honey

Guess which apiary contained more production hives?

Typical 🙁

Putting the control into swarm control

Swarm control usually involves careful observation of colony development coupled with a timely intervention to split the colony and prevent swarming.

The timely intervention is often at different times for different colonies, even in the same apiary.

There was none of that this year.

With only about four inspections all season I implemented swarm control  in the majority of colonies well before queen cells developed.

The method should be termed something like split and hope 😉

In practical terms it involved preemptive application of the nucleus method of swarm control.

The only decision I made for each colony was whether to apply swarm control or not.

I then made up the queenright nucs all on the same day. The nucs were made significantly weaker than usual to delay the time when I’d have to expand them up to a full colony.

Overall the approach worked very well, at least in terms of swarm control, as none of my colonies swarmed 🙂

The colonies that weren’t split were given lots of room and a combination of inspired judgement a long June gap and some iffy midsummer weather meant they stayed together.

Hieroglyphics

I need to go back through my notes to determine how individual colonies performed in terms of honey production. Other than the absence of any summer honey from one apiary, were there differences in terms of the amount nectar collected between colonies that were split or not?

Unfortunately, the (frankly) manic beekeeping that resulted from compressing everything into a few inspections over the season meant my notes are, in places, rather sparse 3.

Too weak to split

+3 supers Q+ good

WMCLQ WTF?

Grrr 4

Deciphering my hieroglyphics will necessitate a large glass of shiraz and a long winter night – two other things, along with the loo roll, I have an abundance of at the moment.

Varroa management

The other reason I need to review my notes is to look at the relationship (if any) between the in-season colony management 5 and end-of-season mite levels.

I do have some reasonably good counts of the mite drop during late summer and midwinter treatments 6. These are particularly reliable for the colonies in the bee shed because the floors I use have a tightly fitting Varroa tray, meaning that anything that drops, stays dropped 7.

Cedar floor and plywood tray …

In addition, I’m confident that the colonies received their ‘midwinter’ treatment – in mid/late November – when totally broodless.

There were significant differences between the mite drops of colonies in the bee shed. Some dropped 250-500 8 while others dropped less than 75. Those figures are totals over 8-9 weeks with Apivar plus the fortnight or so after oxalic acid treatment.

All other things being equal I’ll use the colonies with lower mite levels for queen rearing next season. For whatever reason, those colonies appear better able to manage their Varroa levels. Perhaps this is due to increased grooming or better defence (e.g. turning away potentially mite-laden drifting workers 9). If their temperament is good and they overwinter well they will be a good choice to rear queens from.

Inevitably all things will not be equal, but at least I’ll have tried.

And I’m hoping to be doing a reasonable amount of queen rearing in 2021 … though after a devastating fire and a global pandemic I wouldn’t be surprised if the Earth was obliterated by an asteroid just as I start grafting 🙁

Going Varroa free

I’ve spent almost all year on the west coast, and will be spending increasing amounts of time here in the coming years. The area is remote, very sparsely populated and Varroa free.

It also has spectacular sunrises …

Red sky in the morning …

… and scenery …

View from Ben Laga to Mull

Actually, until I imported 10 a couple of colonies, it appeared to be completely honey bee free. I’ve sourced Varroa-free colonies from an island off the west coast of Scotland.

I’ve often written about the importance of being ‘in tune’ with the local beekeeping environment. It’s already clear that the east and west coasts of Scotland 11, despite being separated by only ~120 miles, have distinct climates, nectar and pollen availability.

What? No oil seed rape?

On the west coast there’s no OSR. In fact, there’s almost no arable farming at all. I’ll be interested to see what the bees access for spring and mid-season nectars. With mixed woodland, and more being planted, and lots of native flowers they should have a good selection.

Early season primroses

There are some huge lime trees just down the road. These need rain to generate good levels of nectar, and rain is something else we have in abundance 😉

The main source of nectar is the heather. This is something 12 I have almost no experience of. In the Midlands I was always too busy to transport hives to Derbyshire for the heather. Fife, despite being in Scotland, has very little heather moorland and most beekeepers have to take their hives to the Angus Glens. I never bothered.

Now there’s acres of the stuff just up the hill at the back of the house. Not particularly good quality heather moorland, but lots of it.

I’ll return to this when I discuss planning for the season ahead, sometime in the New Year.

The Apiarist – online and offline

This is the 51st post of the year.

Regular as clockwork

With a bit of luck I’ll also scribble something for the 25th, so completing a ‘full house’ for 2020. It’s too soon to look at any year-end statistics, but it’s clear that lots of people had lots more time for lots more reading this year.

I wonder why?

Everything came to a grinding halt in mid-June when a post featured on one of the Google news sites. In one afternoon the server was inundated with people eager to read about the June gap.

Thousands and thousands of them 🙁

Since most of them didn’t look elsewhere on the site I suspect the topic was a bit too niche for the majority of the internet illiterati.

After a couple of hiccups and a faltering stagger the server collapsed under the onslaught. I spent an afternoon moving it to a host with four times the capacity (at four times the cost) and it’s hung on gamely ever since.

Not only have beekeepers been doing lots more reading, they’ve also doing lots more listening and watching.

Online beekeeping talks

Many beekeeping associations – both local and national – have developed online winter talk programmes.

I’ve attended lively SBA Q&A sessions, BIBBA webinars by Adam Tofilski on preserving native bees, and I spent yesterday evening learning all about distinguishing Apis mellifera mellifera from ligustica or carnica or Buckfast or mongrels, care of the SNHBS.

And I’ve delivered more talks to bigger audiences this winter than in all of the last few years combined.

These talks – not mine specifically, but all of those available – fill the void between September and April. Although perhaps not the easiest way to establish new friendships 13 they are an excellent way to keep in contact with people from all over the country. In that regards they’re much better than ‘in person’ evening talks, and much more akin to the annual beekeeping conventions.

Though, unlike the conventions, my wallet doesn’t return emaciated from an hour or two going round the trade stalls.

Online talks are also good for keeping in contact with people on the other side of the county, let alone the country. It’s not unusual for my talk to be sandwiched by friendly banter between beekeepers separated by both distance and Covid.

Will this continue? I expect so. I don’t expect in person talks will start until 2022 at the earliest. However, I think – just as remote working will increase – online talks will be a regular feature of the winter beekeeping calendar. The benefits outweigh the slightly impersonal format, and many people appreciate the convenience of not having to travel 14.

Science aside

The enforced downtime, with labs closed and staff furloughed, has enabled me to finally write up a backlog of papers on honey bee virus research. A few of these have featured on this site already, in discussions of whether DWV replicates in Varroa, or in bumble bees, and in the inexorable rise of chronic bee paralysis virus as an emerging pathogen of honey bees.

I’ve yet to find time to write about our green bees because I want to include a really elegant experiment we have yet to complete. These bees are infected with a virus that expresses a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. When visualised under UV illumination the individual cells and tissues in which the virus replicates are easily detected. More about this next year.

Green bees

Several more papers are in the pipeline or in preparation, on rescuing hives with catastrophically high mite loads, on competition between different variants of DWV and on the landscape-scale control of Varroa.

Lessons learned

Considering the paucity of beekeeping this year I’ve still managed to learn a few new tricks and improve a few old ones.

I’ve learned how little intervention is required to manage colonies adequately (defined by good health and no swarms, though undoubtedly at the cost of maximising the honey yield).

‘Adequately’ because I also learned how unrewarding it was keeping bees without beekeeping.

For the first time I used air freshener to unite lots of colonies during a particularly busy long weekend when I requeened the majority of my hives. It’s a new trick to me, though widely used by others. Having used it, I’m now confident it works. I’ll use it again if I’m similarly rushed for time, but expect to usually rely on uniting over newspaper.

I’ve gained more confidence in accurately guesstimating how weak I can make up nucs, without them succumbing to robbing, wasps or starvation. Undoubtedly I was aided with reasonable weather and good nectar and pollen availability, but it will be a skill I’ll be able to use again in future years.

I also learned  – or at least reinforced my appreciation of (as I’ve done this previously) – how to hold back the nucs, so preventing them swarm, by removing lots of brood 15. The brood was used to boost honey production colonies which were requeening themselves. With some good judgement, and a big slice of luck, this all went very well.

The importance of regularly checking bait hives was also emphasised when I found this …

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bee shed …

This season was unusual as I didn’t attract a single swarm to a bait hive, probably the first time that’s happened for a decade. Partly this was because I set so few out, but presumably it also reflected my dalliance with waspkeeping.

Finally, I’ve learned there are quicker ways to prepare spreadable ‘soft set’ honey that the interminable Dyce method. I’ve recently acquired a new honey creamer and the first fifty jars have been distributed to friends and family for Christmas. I expect very positive feedback 16 due to the extensive product testing and quality control applied during its preparation 😉


 

Bigging up nucs

The phrase bigging up [somebody or something] means saying they are very good, usually in public 1. It is slang and used informally and usage has increased significantly in the last couple of decades.

The term bigging in bigging up meaning promotion, is relatively new. However, the same word can be traced back to Middle English and (a bit more more recently) obsolete Scottish, when it meant build.

Two days work bigging a brick wall in the Braidfoots house 2.

Anyone who has used nucs, for queen mating or swarm control for example, is likely to big them up … as in sing their praises. Small enough to need only limited resources to start them, large enough to function as a self-contained and resilient colony etc.

However, in this post I’m going to discuss bigging up nucs in the older meaning of the phrase … building them up from a nuc to a full colony.

Which could also, of course, be considered as promoting them 😉

Problems with history and latitude

One of the perils of writing about beekeeping in the UK is the variation in the season between the south and the north of the country.

Just as you can’t be prescriptive in any one location about when certain events in a particular beekeeping year occur – e.g. swarming, winter bee production, broodlessness – it’s also pretty obvious that the season is longer 3 at lower latitudes.

It’s therefore not possible to say ‘in late May’ or ‘by mid-June’ nucs will start to be overcrowded 4. Not only does this depend upon the local climate, but it is also significantly influenced by how the nucs were prepared.

If the nuc was established for swarm control, started with the old queen and 1-2 frames of brood, it is likely to have built up rapidly and will quickly overrun the box if not dealt with promptly.

Alternatively, if the nuc was used for queen mating, started with a sealed cell (or virgin queen) and a frame of emerging brood, it will build up less fast as the queen has to get out and mate and then start laying.

Overcrowding

Whatever the history (or the latitude), at some point the colony will grow to be too large for the box. Then, but ideally earlier (so you are prepared), you need to decide what you are going to do with them.

With experience you can judge overcrowding by gently popping the lid up and peering through the thin plastic or polycarbonate crownboard. 

I use Thorne’s Everynucs which have an integral feeder at one end of the box. When they start building brace comb in the feeder they need to be given more space.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The colony above is overwintered and very clearly overcrowded. The photo was taken in the third week of April (in Scotland). By mid-season, a colony that crowded would have probably swarmed.

Comb in feeder

The photo immediately above was taken in late June this year. The nuc was set up in mid-May for swarm control with the queen and just one frame of emerging brood.

However, in the intervening six weeks I had already removed two or three frames of sealed brood (but not adhering bees) to boost other colonies, replacing the frames with a mix of drawn comb and foundation, all of which had been drawn and filled again.

Nucs can build up very fast … be warned.

Decision time

Nucs are really versatile. Your choice includes (but isn’t restricted to):

  1. Overwintering the nuc
  2. Expanding the nuc into a full hive
  3. Uniting the nuc with a queenless colony
  4. Removing the queen and uniting the nuc with a queenright colony
  5. Leaving it too late and letting them swarm 🙁

I’m not going to discuss the last option, but it is an inevitability if the colony is healthy and there’s a reasonable amount of forage in the area. 

One more week’ for a nuc is usually not worth risking.

Overwintering nucs deserves a post of its own (and has been covered some time ago 5). It’s worth noting that nucs started in May for swarm control or for queen mating require a lot of maintenance if they are not to outgrow their accommodation by the end of the season. You need to regularly remove bees and brood or the colony will swarm.

It is much better to start nucs later in the season for overwintering.

Before doing anything with the nuc it is worth confirming that the queen appears well mated and is laying well 6. She should be producing frame after frame packed with brood. In new(ish) comb you can easily tell her quality based upon the presence of even sheets of brood, with relatively few missed cells.

Good laying pattern from queen in 5 frame nucleus

The frame above is from a nuc this spring. The majority of the missed cells, at least at the top of the frame, are due to the wires in the foundation.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

And, while you’re at it, use this opportunity of the last inspection of the nuc to mark and clip the queen (if she isn’t already). It’s always easier to find a queen in a nuc – fewer bees, less frames to hide on the other side of etc.

From nuc to a full brood box

This is about as easy as it gets and should take no more than 5 minutes if you have everything to hand.

  1. Move the nuc a metre or so away from its original location.
  2. Place a new floor and a brood box on the original site.
  3. The brood box should contain a couple of frames of drawn comb if you have them, or frames with fresh foundation. Place one next to each side wall (see note below for comment on warm and cold way).
  4. If the floor has open mesh I slide in the Varroa tray. I do not want the bees to be distracted by smells from other ‘potential’ routes into the hive.
  5. Open the nuc using a very small amount of smoke 7.
  6. Remove the dummy board from the nuc and gently separate the frames if they’re propolised together.
  7. Transfer each frame to the new brood box maintaining their position and orientation relative to the neighbouring frames. Arrange the frames from the nuc close to the new hive entrance (see below).
  8. Ideally , make sure the queen is seen … just to give you confidence 🙂
  9. Move the second new frame of drawn comb or foundation to ‘sandwich’ the frames from the nuc.
  10. Fill the rest of the box with frames containing drawn comb or new foundation.
  11. Replace the dummy board removed in #6 above.
  12. Add syrup if needed – see below.
  13. Replace the crownboard and roof.
  14. Reduce the entrance to help the colony defend their new, much larger, residence.

Feeding

If there is a good nectar flow you may not need to feed the colony. If you’ve used new foundation rather than drawn comb then they probably will need feeding. It’s important they draw new comb so the queen can continue laying uninterrupted. This ensures they build up rapidly.

Use thin syrup (1:1 by weight of sugar and water) in a contact feeder. 

I usually give nucs a gallon or so of syrup to help them draw comb. They use this surprisingly fast. Check them every 48 hours. 

Welcome to your new home … nuc ‘promoted’ to hive with contact feeder in place

My crownboards lack holes, so I place the contact feeder directly above the top bars, separated by a couple of spare frame bottom bars. I add a super to ‘house’ the contact feed and then close the hive up.

Defending the hive

All of my full-sized hives are arranged warm way. This means the frames are parallel with the entrance of the hive. The alternative, cold way, has the frames perpendicular to the entrance.

To help the small colony defend the new large box they are in, the nucleus frames should be located close to the hive entrance.

The hive entrance is on the left with the frames arranged ‘warm way’.

Initially, these are the frames that are covered in bees, so providing a deterrent to any potential robbers.

It may also help to reduce the size of the hive entrance so the bees only need to defend an inch wide hole, rather than the full width of the box.

If your hives are organised cold way’ the same requirements apply – arrange the bees near to the entrance and reduce the entrance width. For example, place the frames in the centre of the hive, flanked on each side by three new frames, and leave a narrow central entrance open.

Finally, do not slop syrup around all over the place when feeding them. It’s a near-certain way to encourage robbing (particularly if there’s a shortage of nectar).

Uniting the nuc with a queenright or queenless colony

I can deal these two together because the only difference is where the queen is in the stacked boxes at the end of the procedure.

Collect together the things you will need:

  • A new brood box
  • Two sheets of newspaper
  • Six frames of drawn comb or foundation

Queens

If the hive and the nuc are both queenright you must remove the unwanted queen 8.

Typically this is when you have used the nucleus method of swarm control. The colony has reared a good new queen and the old queen in the nuc is now surplus to requirements.

Alternatively, the colony might have generated a sub-standard or poorly mated queen and you want a single united colony headed again by the original queen.

If the old(er), unwanted queen is still laying OK consider offering her to someone else in your association. Remove the queen, does not necessarily mean sacrifice her. 

Caged queen with attendants

Place the queen in a introduction cage with some attendant workers and some candy. Put her somewhere safe (the breast pocket works for me) and give her to someone who needs her more than you do … perhaps in exchange for a nice bottle of merlot 9 😉

Don’t risk leaving two queens in the same box and hoping the ‘better’ one (i.e. the one you want) will survive the ruckus that will happen. 

Sod’s Law dictates that the queen you want will not make it … particularly if it’s late in the season, she’s particularly good or she’s otherwise precious.

Uniting

I generally move the nuc to the hive it is being united with. Waft some smoke at the hive entrance, remove the roof and gently lift the corner of the crownboard. Add a second gentle puff of smoke into the gap and let the bees move down.

Remove the crownboard and gently lay two intact sheets of newspaper flat over the tops of the frames. It helps to remove brace comb from the top bars as it can puncture the newspaper and lead to premature mixing and a bit of a melee.

In the good old days a single page from a broadsheet 10 newspaper was sufficient. These days I think you have to read the Financial Times to achieve this

Assuming you’re not Gordon Gekko, a hedge fund manager or derivatives trader you will probably need two slightly overlapping sheets. Don’t bother about moving all the bees off the top bars – they’ll move down soon enough once you put the newspaper on.

If it’s windy use your initiative, recruit a helper or evolve at least one additional limb to hold the newspaper in place.

Add a second empty brood box on top.

Make a small hole (about the size of the o in hole) in the sheet using your hive tool, somewhere near the middle, above a gap between two frames. You can just see the hole above the curve of the hive tool here …

Newspaper, second brood box and a very small hole

Add two or three frames of drawn comb or foundation. Transfer all the frames from the nuc to the new brood box, as before, maintaining their order and orientation. Fill the rest of the box with frames, shake in the last bees from the nuc box and close the hive up.

Just checking!

As before, if you are uniting a queenright nuc with a queenless hive, it’s always good to be certain the queen was on one of the frames transferred to the new box.

Have patience

Hives usually have sufficient stores at this time of the season. If both boxes are light you might have to feed them syrup (to help them draw comb) or fondant (just to tide them over until the nectar flow starts).

Leave them to it. There’s nothing to be gained by ‘having a peek’. The bees will chew their way through the newspaper in 24-48 hours.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Look out for a pile of shredded newspaper falling through the open mesh floor and, after a week, continue inspections as normal.

Miscellaneous final thoughts

If the recipient hive is broodless it will end up with lots of space and empty frames. Under those circumstances I usually unite them down to a single box. Rather than adding additional frames to the top box I use a fat dummy to fill the space.

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

A block of polystyrene tightly wrapped in a bin bag works just as well 11.

A week after uniting them rearrange the brood-containing frames with pollen and stores into a single box and remove the empty frames and unwanted second brood box.

Lost bees

How will the bees reorientate to the new location?

Don’t worry. The bees from the nuc will discover that everything is changed when they have to muscle their way through the lower brood box to reach the hive entrance. They will quickly reorientate to the new hive.

Some of the workers from the nuc will have been out foraging when you rudely removed their home. They will, in time, move to a nearby hive and blag their way in 12

Where has the house gone?

You can speed this process up by removing the hive stand the nuc was on. With nowhere to land they quickly find an adjacent hive. If I unite colonies in poor weather (or just before rain starts 13) I’ll try and minimise the number of stranded bees by doing this.

For the same reason I prefer not to unite late in the afternoon to give the bees time to relocate. 

Supers

When I was younger and much better organised I’d clear the supers in advance on the recipient hive. I’d visit the apiary 24 hours before I intended to unite them and add a clearer board. When preparing the recipient colony I’d put the (now emptied) supers aside, unite the colonies and then add the supers back on top (all on the same visit). 

These days I’m definitely older and usually less well organised 🙁

Newspaper and queen excluder

If I’ve forgotten to clear the supers I’ll also unite the bees in the supers over the nuc. I separate them with newspaper as before and add a queen excluder to stop the queen moving up into the supers.

All that then remains to do is tidy up the apiary and go home for a cup of tea.

Time to tidy up and go home