Category Archives: Swarms

Women without men

The title of the post last week was The end is nigh which, looking at the fate of drones this week, was prophetic.

Shallow depth of field

Watch your back mate … !

After the ‘June gap’ ended queens started laying again with gusto. However, there are differences in the pattern of egg laying when compared to the late spring and early summer.

Inspections in mid/late August 1 show clear signs of colonies making preparations for the winter ahead.

For at least a month the amount of drone brood in colonies has been reducing (though the proportions do not change dramatically). As drones emerge the cells are being back-filled with nectar.

Seasonal production of sealed brood in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The data in the graph above was collected over 50 years ago 2. It remains equally valid today with the usual caveats about year-to-year variation, the influence of latitude and local climate.

Drones are valuable …

Drones are vital to the health of the colony.

Honey bees are polyandrous, meaning the queen mates with multiple males so increasing the genetic diversity of the resulting workers.

There are well documented associations between colony fitness and polyandry, including improvements in population growth, weight gain (foraging efficiency) and disease resistance.

The average number of drones mating with a queen is probably somewhere between 12 and 15 under real world conditions. However studies have shown that hyperpolyandry further enhances the benefits of polyandry. Instrumentally inseminated queens “mated” with 30 or 60 drones show greater numbers of brood per bee and reduced levels of Varroa infestation.

Why don’t queens always mate with 30-60 drones then?

Presumably this is a balance between access, predation and availability of drones. For example, more mating would likely necessitate a longer visit to a drone congregation area so increasing the chance of predation.

In addition, increasing the numbers of matings might necessitate increasing the number of drones available for mating 3.

… and expensive

But there’s a cost to increasing the numbers of drones.

Colonies already invest a huge amount in drone rearing. If you consider that this investment is for colony reproduction it is possible to make comparisons with the investment made in workers for reproduction i.e. the swarm that represents the reproductive unit of the colony.

Comparison of the numbers of workers or drones alone is insufficient. As the graph above shows, workers clearly outnumber drones. Remember that drones are significantly bigger than workers. In addition, some workers are not part of the ‘reproductive unit’ (the swarm).

A better comparison is between the dry weight of workers in a swarm and the drones produced by a colony during the season.

It’s worth noting that these comparisons must be made on colonies that make as many drones as they want. Many beekeepers artificially reduce the drone population by only providing worker foundation or culling drone brood (which I will return to later).

In natural colonies the dry weight of workers and drones involved in colony reproduction is just about 1:1 4.

Smaller numbers of drones are produced, but they are individually larger, live a bit longer and need to be fed through this entire period. That is a big investment.

Your days are numbered

And it’s an investment that is no longer needed once the swarming season is over. All those extra mouths that need feeding are a drain on the colony.

Even though the majority of beekeepers see the occasional drone in an overwintering colony, the vast majority of drones are ejected from the hive in late summer or early autumn.

About now in Fife.

In the video above you can see two drones being harassed and evicted. One flies off, the second drops to the ground.

As do many others.

There’s a small, sad pile of dead and dying drones outside the hive entrance at this time of the season. All perfectly normal and not something to worry about 5.

Drones are big, strong bees. These evictions are only possible because the workers have stopped feeding them and they are starved and consequently weakened.

A drone’s life … going out with a bang … or a whimper.

An expense that should be afforded

Some of the original data on colony sex ratios (and absolute numbers) comes from work conducted by Delia Allen in the early 1960’s.

Other colonies in these studies were treated to minimise the numbers of drones reared. Perhaps unexpectedly these colonies did not use the resources (pollen, nectar, bee bread, nurse bee time etc) to rear more worker bees.

In fact, drone-free or low-drone colonies produced more bees overall, a greater weight of bees overall and collected a bit more honey. This strongly suggests that colonies prevented from rearing drones are not able to operate at their maximum potential.

This has interesting implications for our understanding of how resources are divided between drone and worker brood production. It’s obviously not a single ‘pot’ divided according to the numbers of mouths to feed. Rather it suggests that there are independent ‘pots’ dedicated to drone or worker production.

Late season mating and preparations for winter

The summer honey is off and safely in buckets. Colonies are light and a bit lethargic. With little forage about (a bit of balsam and some fireweed perhaps) colonies now need some TLC to prepare them for the winter.

If there’s any reason to delay feeding it’s important that colonies are not allowed to starve. We had a week of bad weather in mid-August. One or two colonies became dangerously light and were given a kilogram of fondant to tide them over until the supers were off all colonies and feeding and treating could begin. I’ll deal with these important activities next week.

In the meantime there are still sufficient drones about to mate with late season queens. The artificial swarm from strong colony in the bee shed was left with a charged, sealed queen cell.

Going by the amount of pollen going in and the fanning workers at the entrance – see the slo-mo movie above – the queen is now mated and the colony will build up sufficiently to overwinter successfully.


Colophon

Men without Women

Men without women was the title of Ernest Hemingway’s second published collection of short stories. They are written in the characteristically pared back, slightly macho and bleak style that Hemingway was famous for.

Many of these stories have a rather unsatisfactory ending.

Not unlike the fate of many of the drones in our colonies.

Women without men is obviously a reworking of the Hemingway title which seemed appropriate considering the gender-balance of colonies going into the winter.

If I’d been restricted to writing using the title Men without Women I’d probably have discussed the wasps that plague our picnics and hives at this time of the year. These are largely males, indulging in an orgy of late-season carbohydrate bingeing.

It doesn’t do them any good … they perish and the hibernating overwintering mated queens single-handedly start a new colony the following spring.

Queen includer

By definition the queen excluder should be an impassable barrier for the queen.

“Why not put one under the brood box 1 to prevent the loss of a swarm?”, asks the beginner beekeeper.

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

A perfectly logical question, and one to which you will hear 2 a variety of answers. These include the adverse effect on pollen collection, the possibility of an undersize virgin getting through anyway (with the loss of a swarm) and the distressing consequences it has for drones in the hive.

The late David Cushman covers these and other reasons.

Just because you probably shouldn’t, doesn’t mean you can’t … and this is what happens when you do.

Hot and bothered

I recently discussed my current thoughts on using a bee shed for teaching purposes. In it I made the point that it can get unbearably hot in a beesuit on a warm day.

Phew!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a sweltering hour or so inspecting the seven colonies in our larger shed.

It’s midsummer. It was a hot sunny day and the shed thermometer was reading over 32°C.

Some of the colonies were on double brood and had at least three supers on. Those that didn’t were recently installed and were a bit “temperamental”. These are research colonies and they came from a collaborator 3.

One colony should have recently requeened and I wanted to find, mark and clip her before the colony built up again.

I worked my way through the single boxes first. I found the queen in each of them except the one that had requeened.

Typical 🙁

My excuse was that I was half-blind with sweat. However, it’s not unusual to not find the queen when you actually need to 4.

I didn’t dally, I still had the 5-6 box towers to get through.

The tower of power

In my dreams

Finally I was left with colony #6. This had been strong from the start of the season and was now probably the strongest hive in the apiary. The double brood box was bulging with bees with at least 18 frames of brood in all stages.

The supers were very heavy.

At the beginning of the afternoon I’d intended to find the queen and prepare the box to be split once the flow was over (any day now). However, after more than an hour in stifling conditions I was struggling and starting to hallucinate about ice cold beer.

Inevitably I couldn’t find the queen 🙁

With sweat stinging my eyes and dripping off my nose onto the inside of the veil I could barely see the comb, let alone the queen. I did find eggs, so I knew she was present (or had been 2-3 days ago) and there were no obvious signs of swarm preparation. The colony was very busy, but the queen definitely still had space to lay.

I decided to pop a queen includer excluder between the brood boxes with the intention of returning 3-4 days later to look for eggs as an indicator of where the queen was.

I packed up, returned home and slaked my thirst.

Oh no they’re not … Oh yes they are …

Two days later my PhD student calls me from the apiary to tell me that colony #6 is swarming.

“Oh no they’re not … I checked them a couple of days ago and all was well”, I replied smugly.

But of course I visited the apiary to check anyway.

They were swarming 🙁

Oh yes they are!

Unlike a ‘typical’ swarm this appeared to have no centre or focus (where I’d usually expect to find the queen). The bees were spread over a wide area, hanging in a large clump under the landing board and on the edges and corners of the shed.

They weren’t clustering in any real sense of the word, but they also weren’t re-entering the hive.

I had a prod about around the entrance looking for the queen, gently removing handfuls of bees. The bees were very calm as you usually expect of swarms 5 and I could move them aside in my search.

But there was no sign of her.

Bees fanning at the hive entrance .. obviously a different hive as I had my hands full with the swarm.

However, there were a number of bees fanning busily at the hive entrance. Each was facing the entrance with the abdomen pointing up and away from the hive and the Nasanov gland exposed at the tip of the abdomen.

The Nasonov pheromone is a mix of terpenoids that attracts workers. It is left as an attractant by honey bees on nectar-rich flowers and – when produced by fanning bees at the hive entrance – it is usually a good indication that the queen is inside. An artificial version forms the commercial ‘swarm lure’ you can buy. 

What’s (probably) in the box?

By now I could make a fair guess at what had happened.

I assumed the queen was somewhere in the double brood box, either because she was clipped and had returned there or because she was trapped above the queen excluder.

Or, of course, both 6.

They’d presumably swarmed because I’d missed a queen cell. D’oh!

I therefore expected to find both a queen and one or more queen cells in the box … and I needed to quickly make a decision about how to resolve the situation.

Swarm control rescue

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

Swarm control usually refers to a hive manipulation that prevents the colony from swarming. For example, the classic Pagden artificial swarm.

Despite the fact that this colony had swarmed 7, if I could find the queen I could divide the colony like a Pagden artificial swarm and (hopefully) rescue the situation.

I removed the supers and put them to the side. I assembled a new floor and brood box with 10 mixed frames 8 and substituted this for the original floor and double brood box.

I took the double brood box outside 9, separated the two boxes and went through them carefully.

The upper box contained the queen … above the queen excluder. I put her on the frame she occupied back into the new empty brood box in the shed.

The lower box had a handful of queen cells along the edge of a partially drawn foundationless frame. I’d missed these in the previous inspection. I’ll blame it on the heat, but I may need to visit Specsavers

I added a queen excluder to the new brood box and carefully placed the supers back on top. All the flying bees, which includes the foragers, would return to the original location within a day or two so the supers were there if the flow continued.

All’s well that ends well

I inspected the colonies a few days later. The queenright colony in the original location in the shed was busy, the queen was laying the well 10 and there was still nectar coming in.

I carefully went though the queenless colony to see if there were any additional queen cells and knocked all back except one which I know was charged (i.e. contained a developing larvae).

With a bit of good weather there should be a new mated queen in the box by mid/late August. If there isn’t I’ll unite the colony back with the one containing the original queen.

Lessons learned

As always there are lessons to be learned. The lessons this time are reasonably obvious:

  • Expiring from heat exhaustion is no reason to cut corners when inspecting a colony. I wasn’t aware that I’d cut corners, but the queen cells were reasonably obvious and would have been more than play cups at inspection 11. Perhaps I should have left it for a cooler day? But perhaps they would have then swarmed anyway … ? Beekeeping might appear like a gentle pastime (and it can be), but it can also be very hard work.
  • Moving a strong colony away from its original location usually helps reduce the bee numbers, so making inspections easier. This was undoubtedly helped by the absentee swarming bees as well 12.
  • Be prepared. Keep spares in the apiary so you can deal with the unexpected without making a return trip. I always try and keep a bait hive in the apiary and happily steal any or all of it to deal with these sorts of situations. You can always replace the bait hive at your leisure. Inevitably a busy swarm season can deplete your spares and it’s always worth remembering that the bees will cope with all sorts of sub-standard accommodation for a short period. A piece of ply as a roof, a crownboard as a floor (assuming it has a hole in it!), two stacked supers rather than a brood box, no crownboard (perhaps because it’s being used as a floor), an incomplete box of frames etc. Improvise if you need to … the bees will not mind.

Queen includers

Instead of a queen excluder, Thorne’s sell a “swarm trap” that consists of a box to fit over the hive entrance which has both a queen excluder and an exit for drones. They market it as being developed with the hobby beekeeper in mind who finds weekly inspections to remove queen cells almost impossible.

Swarm trap

I’ve not seen one in use so cannot comment on it. However, in my opinion there’s “no gain without pain” … if you are going to keep bees you need to appreciate that the principles of the hobby involve the need for regular inspections. It would probably be better to just purchase local honey rather than relying on this type of swarm trap for missed inspections.

Some beekeepers place a queen excluder under a brood box after hiving a captured swarm onto undrawn foundation. This helps prevent the colony from absconding while the bees draw some comb. After that the queen will start laying and the risk of the swarm disappearing is much reduced.

I’ve never used a queen excluder like this as I don’t routinely collect swarms. Those I acquire generally arrive under their own steam in a bait hive. Since these already have one drawn comb a mated queen can start laying without delay.

I don’t ever remember having a swarm from a bait hive abscond. Casts (a swarm with an unmated queen) also seem to stay if they have chosen their destination and moved there voluntarily.

The alternative way to encourage a hived swarm to stay put is to give them a frame of open brood. I have done this but prefer not to 13 as I treat all swarms with a miticide soon after they are hived to reduce Varroa levels. To ensure this treatment is really effective I want to be certain there is no sealed brood in the hive.


 

BOGOF

The swarm season this year has been atypical. At least here in the coolish, dampish, East coast of Scotland.

I hived my first swarm of the year on the last day of April and – as I write this – my most recent one in the middle of July.

The intervening period has been pretty quiet as the weather in May and June was – after a warm early spring – rather poor 1. The weather picked up a week or so ago, but it’s not been consistently good.

What we have had recently are some very warm and sunny days. The combination of some iffy weather, a bit of nectar coming in and then a few hot days are great conditions to trigger swarming.

Bait hives

For this reason I keep bait hives in my apiaries and one in my back garden throughout the season. These consist of a brood box with a solid floor, one old black frame anointed with lemongrass oil on the top bar, ten foundationless frames, a plastic crownboard and a roof of some sort.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

Any interest in these by scout bees suggests that there’s a colony nearby thinking of swarming. Scouts clearly check out potential locations before the colony swarms, but the scout activity increases significantly if they find your offering attractive and once the colony swarms and sets up a temporary bivouac from which it subsequently relocates.

Watching scout bee numbers increase allows you to guesstimate when a swarm might arrive. It’s an inexact science. A few scout bees are nothing to get excited about. Dozens are good and a hundred or two are very promising.

However, what’s best of all are a hundred or so scouts that rather suddenly disappear leaving the bait hive suspiciously quiet.

Which is more or less what happened on Sunday at the bait hive in my garden.

Walking wounded

Scout bees had discovered the bait hive sometime on Friday (or at least, this was when I first noticed them).

The weekend started warm with thunder threatened. I finished my colony inspections and returned for lunch to find a couple of dozen scouts checking out the bait hive 2. As the cloudy and muggy conditions continued scout bee numbers increased during the afternoon and then eventually tailed off as the evening cooled.

Sunday dawned warm and bright. Scouts were up and about before I’d made my first mug of coffee at 7 am. Numbers increased significantly during the morning.

While taking a few photos for talks I noticed a handful of corpses and walking wounded bees crawling around on the ground by the bait hive.

Missing in action

On closer inspection it was clear that there were intermittent fights between scouts at the hive entrance. There were more fights than cripples or corpses, and most fights ended with the scrapping bees breaking apart and continuing to, er, scout out the suitability of the bait hive.

Scout bees fighting from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

This behaviour seemed a bit unusual, but there wasn’t an obvious explanation for it. I wondered if I’d inadvertently used a frame with some stores tucked away in the top corners, with the fighting being between scouts and robbers perhaps 3.

Gone but not forgotten

Scout numbers continued to increase …

The calm before the storm

By Sunday lunchtime I was confidently predicting a swarm would be arriving ‘shortly’.

This prediction was upgraded to ‘very shortly’ once I realised – around 3 pm – that the scout bee activity had suddenly dwindled to just a few.

This happens when the scouts assemble en masse and persuade the bivouacked swarm to take flight and relocate. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley has a full explanation of this fascinating behaviour.

And, sure enough, ten minutes later a swirling maelstrom of bees approached purposefully down the street at chimney height, spiralling down to the bait hive.

You hear it first. Is it? Isn’t it? You look up and around. You can’t place the direction the noise is coming from. Then, at walking pace, they appear.

Hundreds, then thousands, milling around, getting lower, festooning the hive front, landing all around, taking flight and settling again.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

At the hive entrance are hundreds of bees fanning frantically. The queen must have already entered the box. Slowly, over an hour or so, the bees settle, enter the box and just leave a few stragglers around the entrance.

One hour later from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Swarms are a fantastic sight in their own right. They’re even better when you have some insights into how ten thousand individuals with a brain the size of a pin head are corralled and coordinated to rehouse the queen, the flying workers and a few dozen drones that are ‘along for the ride’.

Again, I cannot recommend Honeybee Democracy highly enough as a very accessible guide to swarms and swarming.

Late evening, another move

The evening slowly cools. I can’t resist gently hefting the box to guesstimate the size of the swarm. Small to middling perhaps … a view pretty-much confirmed when I peek under the roof to see about 5-6 seams of bees occupying the back of the box.

We have a new puppy and it was clear (i.e. I was told in no uncertain terms) that the occupied bait hive must be moved to a less accessible spot.

I plug the entrance with some tissue and gently carry them around to a puppy-free location on the other side of the house.

Swarms suffer short-term geographic memory loss. They can be moved any distance you want for the first day or two after hiving them. After that they’ll have reorientated to the new location and the standard 3 feet/3 miles rule applies (which isn’t a rule at all).

Early morning, more activity

Monday dawned calm, warm and bright.

It was clearly going to be a fabulous day.

One of the great things about being an academic is the flexibility you have once the students have disappeared to Ibiza or Machu Picchu or wherever for the summer 4.

I was therefore looking forward to a day of wall-to-wall meetings, at least 3 hours of which would be in a basement room with no windows 🙁

At 7:30 am I checked the relocated and occupied bait hive. All good. Almost no entrance activity but a contented gentle buzzing from inside suggested that all was well.

As I left the house I noticed a dozen or so bees milling around the stand where the bait hive had originally been located.

Puppy territory. Oops!

I quickly dumped a floor, a brood box with half a dozen frames and a roof on the stand in the hope that any stragglers from the swarm – which I suspected were scouts that had got lost, or workers that had already reorientated to the occupied bait hive late the previous afternoon – would settle (or clear off).

No signal

Having been trapped underground in an overrunning meeting on the hottest day of the year I missed the following messages that all appeared in a rush when my phone reconnected on surfacing.

11:55 Lots of bees

13:27 Even more bees. I thought you’d moved them last night?

15:06 Bl%^dy hundreds of bees. Where are you?

16:11 HUGE swarm

As I blinked myopically in the bright sunlight, like a lost mole, I realised what I’d seen yesterday were scouts from two separate colonies fighting at the bait hive entrance.

The bees I’d seen the following morning had been scouts from the second swarm.

Another day, another bait hive, another swarm …

Which had now arrived.

Overestimates and underestimates

As a beekeeper I’m well aware that a puppy-protecting non-beekeeper telling me about Lots of bees and Even more bees probably means Some bees.

The term ‘hundreds’ might mean any number less than 100.

It’s worth noting here that the partner of a non-beekeeper is considerably more accurate than the general public. If I get a message from someone with no experience of beekeeping about ‘hundreds of honey bees. Definitely honey bees!’ I know what they’re actually talking about are 12-15 solitary bees … probably Osmia.

Or wasps.

HUGE is tricky though. It has a sort of indefinable unmeasurable quality of largeness about it.

Thousands would have been easy … a small cast perhaps?

But HUGE … ?

It was huge.

Certainly the biggest swarm I’ve seen in recent years 🙂

I had to open the box to add a full complement of frames. The poly hive was heavy. You could feel the swaying mass of bees hanging from the wooden crownboard over the empty space in the box 5. The few frames present were completely covered.

I bumped the bees off the crownboard, lifted it away and the bees formed a very deep layer at the bottom of the brood box 6. The new foundationless frames I added projected well above the frame runners supported by the writhing mass of bees and only gently settled into place as the bees moved out of the way and up the sidewalls.

I strapped the box up and moved it to a puppy-safe location.

The following evening I treated both swarms with a vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide and the morning after that I shifted them to an out apiary.

Look and learn

Only last week I discussed the importance of learning from observation.

Here was another lesson.

What did I learn from these two swarms and what assumptions can I make?

  1. Evidence of fighting between scout bees strongly suggests that there are two different swarms looking for a new home. I’m making the assumption here 7 that the two swarms issued from different hives (rather than being two casts from the same hive 8) because:
    1. I wouldn’t expect scouts from the same hive to fight, even if they were from different swarms. Is this actually known?
    2. I’m told the two swarms approached the bait hive from opposite directions (I saw the first one of course, but not the millions of bees in a huge swarm that arrived the following day when I was – literally – buried in meetings).
  2. Scouts are active well before a hive gets busy in the morning – at least one containing a recently hived swarm. I’ve noticed this before. Perhaps the recently hived swarm is concentrating on drawing comb as a priority?
  3. It is important to have sufficient spare compatible equipment available for all sorts of eventualities. I got away with it this time … just. The first bait hive used a planting tray as a lid. The second used some spare bits kicking around in the back of the car and a handful of foundationless frames just out of the steamer.
  4. I must remember to save time after the swarm arrives by preparing the bait hive properly in advance. This includes giving it a full complement of foundationless frames (and the one dark frame) and – if you intend to move it any distance after swarm arrival – making it ready for transport. In my case this includes using an insect mesh travel screen instead of a crownboard, adding a foam wedge to stop frames shifting about during transport and strapping the whole lot up tight.
Foam block ...

Foam block …

Natural cavities

The whole purpose of putting out bait hives is to attract swarms. As a beekeeper this saves me collecting them from the neighbourhood or – more frequently – politely refusing to collect them from 40′ up a Leylandii, a chimney or the church tower 9.

If something is worth doing you might as well do it properly. The optimal design for a bait hive is well understood (essentially it’s a National hive brood box – Honeybee Democracy again!), so that’s what I offer. Not a nuc 10.

However, to have two swarms essentially fighting for access to a single bait hive suggests there is a shortage of good natural or man-made cavities to which a swarm could relocate.

I live in a small village surrounded by mainly arable farmland. There are lots of hedges, small spinneys, conifer plantations, old farm buildings and houses about 11.

Rather too much arable if you ask me …

I’ve got a fair idea where bees are kept locally. I don’t think there are any within a mile of the bait hive other than my own colonies (and they did not swarm).

I would have expected there to be several suitable local natural or man made cavities that could ‘compete’ with a bait hive to attract swarms.

Clearly not … or they are already all occupied 12.

STOP PRESS Both were prime swarms as they had laying queens when I checked them on Thursday afternoon. I should have also added that a bait hive in the same location attracted another swarm in the preceding week. It’s been a successful spot every year I’ve been back in Scotland.


Colophon

Buy one, get one free (BOGOF) seemed an appropriate title for this post. It dates back to 1985 where it was first used in the journal Progressive Grocer (who knew there was such a thing?). Two for the price of one offers have been blamed for spiralling obesity problems and there has been political pressure to ban such offers in supermarkets.

In draft form this post was entitled twofer. As in two for the price of one. Etymologically this is an older term, but surprisingly the OED does not associate it with cricket.

Twofer is regularly used by cricket pundits to mean two wickets in successive balls. However, I decided to avoid the cricket link so as to not upset any of my valued New Zealand readers who might still be smarting from the double-whammy of a cricket World Cup defeat to England and losing the claim to have the World’s steepest street to Wales.

My commiserations 😉

Off again, on again …

The title of this post could refer to the 2019 season, queen mating, forage availability and the honey supers.

And does …

All are, of course, related to the local weather.

This is my fourth year back in Scotland keeping bees and the season started really well. Scout bees were examining my bait hives by late April and I hived my first swarm on the last day of that month.

Fanning bees

Fanning bees

April had been a good month and overwintered colonies were consequently in pretty good shape and had built up well to (hopefully) exploit the early season forage. Overwintered nucs looked particularly strong …

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The oil seed rape (OSR) appeared as expected – there’s quite a bit in range of both my main apiaries – and the bees started hammering it.

And then the weather reverted to ‘about average’ … which for my part of eastern Scotland in May is a mean maximum daily temperature of 12-14°C. With these lower temperatures came higher than average rainfall.

Nothing dramatic, but enough to – literally – put the dampeners on the first half of the season.

June gap

May segued into June and the OSR came and went. Work commitments kept me away from the apiary which meant the clearers went on about a week later than intended.

Unfortunately this was a week in which the weather deteriorated and strong colonies were stuck ‘indoors’ where they had little to do but scoff the stores. And when they could get out there was a shortage of forage – we’ve had a proper ‘June gap‘ this year 1.

Nevertheless, after extracting I managed just shy of 50% of the total from last spring (which was an exceptional year) so I’m not complaining.

One thing notable about this season was that the majority of the supers extracted were not fully capped. Some weren’t capped at all. I’d left a few ‘drippy’ supers behind and every frame extracted passed the ‘shake test’.

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

After extraction I always check the water content of every bucket and it was all in the 16-17.5% region … no different from capped spring honey extracted in previous years.

Wheely good extraction

I’ve finally got round to mounting my SAF Natura 9 frame radial extractor on castors 2. I re-drilled the end of the three legs to accept an M10 bolt and then fitted castors with a couple of nuts, one of which was nylon-lined so it should not work loose.

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

Two of the castors are braked, but they don’t need to be.

The castors make it a lot easier to move the extractor from storage to my extracting room 3 or to the area where I hose it out after use.

No more jiggling

But much more significantly (and the reason I fitted them in the first place) they prevent a poorly balanced extractor from ‘walking’ across the room if unbalanced and unattended.

I no longer have to cling on for dear life until the machine stops jiggling about 🙂

Of course, I always try and balance my extractor. However, the reality is that you sometimes get frames with crystallised honey which unbalance the extractor late in the run. Or runs in which no amount of juggling of the frames achieves a really satisfactory balance.

Under these circumstances the wheels allow the unbalanced extractor to oscillate from side to side rather than march off down the room.

Adding the little rubber wheels has been a revolution in my extracting if you’ll excuse the lousy pun.

… and away again

Summer has now officially started as the longest day has – like the OSR – been and gone. Today we’ve had rain, thunder and lightning i.e.  a typical summer day and almost perfect conditions to return a towering stack of wet supers to the hives.

The bees were not impressed to be disturbed 4 but were grateful for the wet supers. By dealing with these in the late afternoon on a manky day I avoided the bees getting overexcited and triggering robbing.

It’s clear that the June gap is, if not over then certainly drawing to a close. All colonies have fresh nectar stored in the brood frames and the supers in strong colonies are starting to get heavier.

The rain might even help get a good crop from the lime this year (it was far too dry last season) but we need high temperatures as well.

With a bit of good fortune we’ll also now get some good enough weather for queen mating which has been really hit and miss for the last month.

Where did they come from?

Clearly there are some queens getting reared.

I was called out to a swarm in a neighbours garden late in the afternoon a few days ago. It had been in a low bush for a few hours and was a doddle to drop into a Paynes poly nuc. I’ve yet to see the queen so don’t know whether she’s mated or marked.

What’s puzzling is where the bees swarmed from …

My understanding is that the classic football-sized ball of bees hanging from a branch is a temporary bivouac. The swarm sets up camp there while the scouts do their scouting around looking for a better location to make a permanent residence.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

In my experience the bivouacked bees are usually only a short distance from their original location. By ‘short distance’ I mean 5 to 50 metres. Perhaps 100 at the outside. You don’t just find them randomly dotted around the countryside 5.

Which is what’s odd … the closest apiary to the swarm is mine (perhaps 500 metres away). I’d inspected my colonies the same afternoon. All the queens were present and correct. All are marked and clipped. None of the colonies showed any sign of wanting to swarm 6. It’s definitely not from my colonies.

My village is very small. I don’t know everyone but I know someone who does. There are no other beekeepers here. So where did they come from?

Perhaps they were a swarm from a distant colony that failed to reach their intended destination (like one of my bait hives which had been getting some attention 7). Alternatively they might come from a nearby feral colony.

I’m off to take a closer look at the church tower …


Colophon

The title of this post is truncated from the start of the chorus of a 1921 song by E.R. Edson about a train conductor (Flanagan) and a derailed train … “Off again, on again, gone again, Flanagan”.

Window of opportunity

I’ve recently discussed problems faced by beekeepers trying to control high Varroa levels in colonies during the ‘body’ of the beekeeping season. Essentially the problems are two-fold:

  • Many miticides need to be used for several weeks to target mites in capped cells.
  • The soft or hard chemicals used for Varroa control are – with the exception of the formic acid in MAQS – incompatible with honey production.

This type of midseason mite management should not be needed if parasite levels are controlled in late summer and midwinter.

If it is needed it suggests that the treatment(s) failed or that mites are being acquired through robbing or drifting from other colonies in the neighbourhood (either your own, a nearby apiary or a feral colony).

Opportunity knocks

However, all is not lost. Most seasons offer at least one opportunity to intervene and control mite levels.

Knowing when and how to exploit it requires an appreciation of the development cycle of the bee.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

The important numbers are the 21 and 24 day development cycle of workers and drones respectively, the 16 day development cycle of the queen and the time it takes for eggs to hatch, grow as larvae and pupate in capped cells.

Not shown is the maturation period after emergence for the queen (5 to 6 days) before she goes on a mating flight, or the delay after returning before she starts laying (2-3 days) 1.

Swarms

The easiest scenario to discuss is when the colony swarms.

Consider the swarm first. A prime swarm is broodless, contains a mated queen and ~35% of the mites that were present in the issuing colony. All the mites will be phoretic. Assuming there’s drawn comb available the queen will start laying soon after the swarm is hived (or conveniently moves into your bait hive).

Eight days later the first eggs will have hatched, the larvae grown and the brood will be capped.

At which point the majority of the mites will start to become inaccessible again.

However, during those 8 days it’s ‘open season’ for those phoretic mites.

It is sensible to quarantine swarms from an unknown source and treat for mites in the first 8 days if needed.

If the swarm is a cast with an unmated queen you’ve got a bit more time. The virgin queen needs to get out and mate, mature and start laying. This tends to happen in just a few days if the weather is accommodating, so don’t leave things too long.

The swarmed colony

Now consider what’s left in the colony that swarmed 2. There will be sealed and unsealed brood and – notwithstanding the reduced egg laying by the queen as she’s slimmed down in preparation for swarming – there are also likely to be some eggs.

There will also be a sealed queen cell (and, in a strong colony, several sealed and unsealed queen cells).

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Without intervention the queen(s) will start emerging about 9 days later. If you intervene, knocking down all the sealed cells and leaving just one good charged open cell 3, it will be a couple more days before the queen emerges.

Weather permitting it will be a further 8 days before the newly mated queen starts laying. In reality, this is the absolute minimum and is rarely achieved in a full hive 4.

Simultaneously, in the requeening hive, the open brood is maturing and being capped and the capped brood is emerging (releasing more mites).

About eight days after the swarm leaves all the worker brood in the hive will be capped.

Twenty one (or 24 in the case of drone brood) days after the last egg was laid by the queen all the brood will have emerged.

Consequently all the mites in the colony will be phoretic.

The window of opportunity

So, if you need to treat 5 the window of opportunity is between the last of the brood from the old queen emerging and the first of the larvae from the new queen being capped.

You can determine when this is likely to be based upon the known activities of the old and new queen during the swarming period.

The window of opportunity

The diagram above makes a number of assumptions. As presented, all minimise the duration of the minimum broodless period:

  • The old queen continues laying until the day she swarms
  • The colony swarms on the day the queen cell is sealed
  • The beekeeper does not intervene to leave an open, charged cell of a known age
  • The new queen takes the minimum amount of time to mature, go on a mating flight and start laying

It should be self-evident that more realistic timings applied to these will only increase the length of the minimum broodless period.

For example, the weather will have a significant impact. Swarming may be delayed due to adverse conditions. During this time the slimmed-down queen will probably lay very few eggs.

Similarly, only 8 days are shown for maturing, mating and starting to lay. Mating flights are very weather-dependent and this period could easily take a week longer (or more).

Splits and artificial swarms

If you practice swarm control using the nucleus method, vertical splits or the classic Pagden artificial swarm the same types of calculations apply.

These three methods all share two features:

  • They involve the physical separation of the box with the old queen and the new developing queen
  • The old queen is isolated with a very small amount of brood – either open brood or emerging brood

The queenright component of the split (whether nuc box or new brood box left on the old site) will follow the right hand part of the diagram above i.e. everything to the right of the vertical red line labelled laying. Here it is expanded a bit:

Queenright splits and the window(s) of opportunity

The queen should start laying almost immediately if drawn comb is provided meaning this new brood will be sealed in a further 8-9 days. The timing and duration of the minimum broodless period depends upon whether you prime the queenright split with a small amount of open or emerging brood.

  • Open brood will be capped within about 6 days of the eggs hatching. If the frame contains nothing older than 3rd instar larvae (about mid-size) you will only have about 3 days before the cells are capped – indicated by bracketed region labelled (A) above, with capped pupae shown by the dark shaded arrow.
  • Emerging brood offers a bit more flexibility. If all the brood emerges in the first 2-3 days after the split (shown with the pale shaded arrow) then the duration of the broodless period, shown in (B) above, lasts about 5 days.

Queenless colonies after splitting

The queenless part of the split will behave like the swarmed colony in the upper line diagram. All capped worker brood will have emerged 21 days after the split (drones after 24 days).

Capped brood arising from eggs laid by the new queen in this colony will depend upon the origin of the queen.

If the colony is left to rear its own queen then the timing will be similar to the upper line diagram plus the additional time required to create a capped queen cell (which rather depends upon the state of the colony when split).

However, if you add a mature queen cell a day off emergence you will reduce the time to the appearance of new capped brood by ~8 days. Consequently the colony will probably never go through a phase with no capped brood present. This is the same, but even more so, if you requeen the colony with a mated queen.

The miticide of choice

Of all the (rather limited range of) miticides available, an oxalic acid-containing treatment is the most appropriate. Oxalic acid (OA) is well-tolerated and, if used on a colony that lacks capped brood, over 90% effective. In addition, and critical for treatment in a narrow window of opportunity, only one treatment is required.

OA can be administered by trickling or sublimation. I’ve covered both methods in detail previously so won’t repeat what’s required, or the recipes, here.

Note that in many cases although the colony will have no capped brood it will not be broodless. For example, larvae from eggs laid by the new queen will be present but uncapped.

This is important because trickled oxalic acid-containing treatments are toxic to open brood. Under these conditions the treatment of choice would be sublimated oxalic acid.

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

Finally, note that if you are going to sublimate Api-Bioxal you’ll either have to spend ages cleaning the pan of the vaporiser, or line it with aluminium foil in advance.

The treatments outlined here are not intended for routine use. They should be used only if needed based upon mite counts or overt signs of DWV-mediated disease.

However, if you do need to treat make sure you do it when the treatment will be most effective.


 

A tale of two swarms

Or … why it’s good practice to clip the wing of the queen.

After a cool start to May it’s now (s)warmed up nicely. Colonies are piling in nectar, mainly from the OSR, and building up really strongly.

It’s at times like these that vigilance is needed. A skipped inspection, a missed queen cell, and the season can go from boom to bust as 75% of your workforce departs in a swarm.

Not the entire season … but certainly the first half of it.

All beekeepers lose swarms … but should try not to

Natural comb

Natural comb …

All beekeepers lose swarms.

At least, all honest ones do 😉

However, I can think of at least four reasons why it’s pretty shoddy beekeeping practice to repeatedly lose swarms 1.

  1. Beekeepers like bees, but some of the general public do not. Some are frightened of bees and a few risk a severe (or even fatal) anaphylactic reaction if stung. Beekeepers have a responsibility not to frighten or possibly endanger non-beekeepers.
  2. Most swarms do not survive. Studies of ‘wild’ bees have shown that swarming is an inherently risky business 2. The swarm needs to find a suitable new home and then collect sufficient nectar to draw enough comb to build up the colony and store food for the  winter. The vagaries of the weather, forage availability and disease ensure that most swarms do not overwinter successfully.
  3. Swarms have a high Varroa load. The mites transfer a heady mix of unpleasant viruses within the colony, shortening the lives of the overwintering bees. With high virus and mite loads the swarm colony is likely to be robbed by nearby strong colonies. This effectively transfers the mites and viruses to nearby managed colonies, so risking their survival.
  4. The swarmed colony is left with a new virgin queen. She has to mate successfully to ensure the continued survival of the colony. Again, the vagaries of the weather mean that this isn’t certain.

And you get less honey 🙁

Regular inspections help prevent the loss of swarms. But it’s good to get all the help you can.

Here’s a brief account of two recent events that illustrate the differences between swarms from colonies with clipped queens or unclipped queens.

Swarm in an out apiary

I have an out apiary in a reasonably remote spot containing half a dozen colonies. I keep my poorly behaved bees there 🙂 There are other apiaries in the area as the forage is good.

I went to inspect the hives at the end of April. This was only the second inspection of the year. On arriving I found most colonies were very active, but one was suspiciously quiet.

Thirty metres away there was a swirling mass of bees settling in the low branches of a conifer.

My three initial thoughts were “Aren’t swarms a great sight?”“Dammit, they shouldn’t have swarmed!” and “Perfect timing, where’s the skep?”.

Skep and swarm

Skep and swarm

The skep was in the car. It usually lives there during the swarming season. The bees were spread over two or three branches, all drooping under the weight. After a bit of gardening I managed to drop the majority of the bees into the upturned skep 3.

I inverted the skep over a white sheet laid out on the grass and propped one side up using a bit of wood.

The air was full of bees. While I busied myself inspecting the lively (in more ways than one 😉 ) colonies, the swarm gradually started to settle into the skep.

Skep and swarm

Skep and swarm

There were lots of bees exposing the Nasonov’s gland at the end of the abdomen, fanning frantically at the entrance to the upturned skep. This is a pretty certain indication that I’d managed to get the queen into the skep.

Fanning bees

Fanning bees

An hour later I’d finished all but one inspection – the quiet colony – it was beginning to get cool and the light was fading.

I could no longer see eggs, not because there weren’t any but because I’m not an owl.

The swarm still needed to be hived so I left the quiet colony until the following day, wrapped the skep in the sheet and took it to another apiary.

Brrrr!

And then the temperature plummeted. For the following week the daytime highs barely reached double figures. Nighttime temperatures were low single digit Centigrade.

The swarm would likely have perished and had a virgin queen emerged in the ‘quiet hive’ she’d have not got out to mate.

I didn’t look in another hive until the 7th, but when I did I got a surprise.

The ‘quiet hive’ contained a marked laying queen. I’d requeened this colony late in 2018 and my notes were a little, er, shambolic 🙁

I’d not recorded whether the queen was clipped and marked (the usual situation), marked only (not entirely unusual) or clipped only (not unknown!).

Whatever, they hadn’t swarmed after all 🙂

They were quiet because they had a high Varroa load with overt signs of DWV infection. Mite and virus levels in late September had been checked and confirmed to be very low. Presumably the mites had been acquired by drifting or robbing late in the season 4.

The hived swarm contained an unmarked laying queen and are lovely calm bees 🙂

A swarm in my home apiary

Fewer photos for this one as I didn’t have a camera with me …

I arrange my hives with the frames oriented ‘warm way’ 5 and inspect them standing behind the hive to avoid returning foragers.

Number 29, your time is up.

Number 29, your time is up.

Earlier this week I noticed a few bees flying under the DIY open mesh floor (OMF) from behind one hive. It’s not unusual to have bees at knee height during inspections but since all I was doing was dropping a nuc off in the apiary I didn’t give it much more thought.

Later in the week I returned to do the weekly inspection.

There were more bees going underneath the hive.

With a bit of effort I peered under the floor to find a 5cm deep slab of bees almost entirely filling the space under the OMF.

Better notes means you know what to expect

My notes were much more comprehensive this time 😉

I knew that the colony had a 2018 white marked and clipped queen.

I removed the supers (which were reassuringly heavy) and quickly inspected the brood box.

Lots of bees, lots of sealed brood, some late-stage larvae but no eggs.

In addition I could see two queen cells … one sealed and one about 3-4 days old, unsealed and with a fat larva sitting in a thick bed of Royal Jelly.

Don’t panic

It was pretty obvious what had happened.

The colony had swarmed 6 but the clipped queen, being unable to fly, had crashed to the ground in a very unregal manner, climbed back up the hive stand and sheltered under the OMF. The swarm had then clustered around her.

They had probably been there for a few days.

Another swarm hived

I placed a new floor and brood box next to the swarmed colony, with the entrance facing the ‘back’. I removed the swarmed brood box and, with a sharp shake, dumped the entire slab of swarmed bees from underneath the OMF into the new hive.

Before adding back all the brood frames I peered into the box as a tsunami of bees started moving from the floor up the side walls.

There! A white marked clipped queen 🙂

White clipped and marked queen returning to the colony

You’ll now have a better chance of finding and keeping her if they swarm.

It’s always reassuring to know where the queen is … and to have good enough notes to know what to look for 😉

I assembled and closed up the new hive and put the swarmed hive back in its place. I then carefully went through every frame checking for queen cells again.

There were only two. I destroyed the sealed cell. I didn’t know how old it was and couldn’t be certain it contained a developing queen.

In contrast, I could ‘age’ the unsealed cell (3-4 days) and knew it contained a larva and copious amounts of food.

I prefer to know when a queen emerges rather than save a few days by leaving the sealed cell. I only generally leave one cell to prevent casts being lost.

There were very young larvae in the colony. It is therefore possible the bees could generate more queen cells in the next day or so. Since I know when the queen will emerge I can check the colony before then and destroy any further cells they generate.

Two swarms, the same outcome … lessons learned

As far as this beekeeper (and I hope the bees 7) is concerned both swarms had a satisfactory outcome.

A number of lessons can be learned from events like these:

  • All beekeepers ‘lose’ swarms. Weather, work, emergencies and life generally can conspire to interrupt the 7 day inspection cycle. Sod’s Law dictates that when it does, the colony will swarm. I’m reasonably conscientious about inspections but I completely missed the signs the home apiary colony was about to swarm.
  • The weather can change suddenly. The swarm in the conifer would have probably perished from the cold in early May. If the weather had stayed warm the scout bees would have found a welcoming church tower or roof space to occupy in a day or so. In both cases the swarm would have been truly lost.
  • It’s always good to carry equipment to capture a swarm. A sheet and a skep, or a large nuc box. Secateurs make ‘gardening’ easier (mine are no longer AWOL). Spare equipment (hives) is essential during the swarm season.
  • An obviously smaller-than-expected colony and a nearby swarm may well be completely unrelated. Check why the colony is weak and take remedial action if needed (mine has Apivar strips in now).
  • Colonies near my out apiary appear to have high mite levels. Since that’s where the conifer swarm came from this also now has Apivar strips in.
  • When is a lost swarm not lost? When the queen is clipped. The queen cannot go far so neither can the swarm. If she returns to the hive stand or the underside of the floor, so will the swarm. If she perishes for some reason the swarm usually returns to the original hive.
  • You can keep bees without knowing where the queen is, but it’s easier if you do. Marking her helps find her, clipping her wing helps keep her there 8.
  • Similarly, knowing when the queen will emerge allows you to predict when she will be mated and start laying. You can avoid interrupting her returning from her mating flight and – before then – you can remove other queen cells to prevent the loss of a cast from a strong colony.
  • Good notes help. Keep them 😉

It’s relatively easy to find unmarked queens in smallish colonies early in the season. It’s a lot harder to find them in a strong colony in mid-May.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But it’s worth finding her, marking her and clipping one wing.

If you don’t the swarm you lose might really be lost 😉


 

 

And they’re off …

I posted last week on the relative lateness of the start of the beekeeping season here in Scotland 1. Having been away for a few days I was both surprised and disconcerted to find this waiting for me when I arrived at the apiary to conduct the first inspections of the year.

When is a swarm not a swarm?

When is a swarm not a swarm?

Surprised because I’d missed all the seasonal clues that indicated swarming might be imminent.

Disconcerted because, in the interests of full disclosure, I’d have to admit to it 😉

The colony behind the near-invisible one inch entrance hole through the bee shed wall is a double brood colony in an Abelo poly hive. It was headed by a 2018 queen (or had been 🙁 ) and had a nice temperament and good manners.

The queen was marked blue and one wing was clipped to prevent her flying off.

But it wouldn’t have stopped her trying to fly off. Instead she would have ignominiously spiralled to the ground 2.

Usually what then happens is she attempts to climb back up and the swarm gathers around her. In a standard hive this is often this is underneath the hive stand.

My guess was that she’d made it up to the landing board and stopped or got stuck there.

I had a gentle prod about in the beard of well-tempered bees but could see no sign of her.

With about 20 more hives to inspect I quickly decided to walk them into a fresh hive … I’d let them do this while I got on with other colonies in the apiary.

Don’t think, do

Walk this way

Walk this way

I put together a new floor and a brood box of mostly foundationless frames. I put one or two frames of drawn comb in and gently dislodged a couple of clumps of bees into the box.

Within a very short time more bees were marching down the wall of the shed and clustering between the frames of drawn comb in the brood box.

What started as a trickle became – if not a torrent – then certainly a determined stream of bees taking up residence in the new box.

To encourage them I balanced a split board across the tops of the frames to provide a welcoming dark ‘cavity’ for them to occupy. Very soon you could see bees fanning strongly at the opening between the split board and the shed wall.

Fanning workers

Fanning workers

I interpreted this as meaning the queen had entered the box and the workers were encouraging others to join her.

After an hour or so I moved the hive a few inches away from the shed wall, placed a crownboard and roof on and carried on inspecting other hives in the apiary. By this time about 75% of the bees had left the ‘swarm’ and entered the brood box.

Not so fast

And that’s when everything ground to a halt.

There were no bees fanning at the hive entrance. No more bees entered the box through the entrance. Instead they started leaving in dribs and drabs.

I’ve hived swarms like this before, or done the classic ‘walk them up a sheet’ having dumped them from a skep outside a hive. Other than this being a real spectacle, one of the striking features is that what starts as a mass of bees ends being an absence of bees … they all enter the hive.

'Walking' a swarm into a hive

‘Walking’ a swarm into a hive

Clearly something was wrong and I was beginning to suspect that there wasn’t a queen in the ‘swarm’ at all.

So I did what I should have done in the first place. I had a look in the original hive.

Hello there!

Blue skinny queen

Blue skinny queen

I smoked the double brood box gently from the bottom, intending to encourage the queen (if she was there) into the upper box.

The box was busy but not packed with bees 3, there were good amounts of sealed brood (and a really nice tight laying pattern on many frames).

There were quite a few ‘play cups’ and a few had eggs in them. This is one of the early signs of swarming.

I found the queen on the 19th of 22 frames.

Perhaps I was too gentle with the smoke 🙄

She was the queen I was expecting. Marked blue, though the paint was beginning to rub off a bit, and with the left wing clipped.

She looked like she had lost a bit of weight.

Big fat queens in full laying mode (which they should be getting to by late April) aren’t very aerodynamic so workers slim the queen down before swarming to improve her flying ability.

This queen looked to me like she’d been on the F-plan diet (but remember I’d not seen her since last August). In addition, the number of eggs in the colony was relatively low. This would also be expected if the colony had been preparing to swarm as queens reduce their laying rate in the few days before swarming.

What else could be seen?

Stores and pollen levels were good.

The notable absence from the hive was of well developed, sealed or unsealed queen cells.

A colony will normally swarm once developing queen cells are capped. A colony with a clipped queen often delays swarming for a few more days. It’s therefore usual to find sealed queen cells in a swarmed colony. There may also be unsealed cells as well.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

There wasn’t anything close to a sealed queen cell in the colony 4. The best developed were, at the very most, a couple of days old.

So what happened?

Other than the absence of well developed queen cells the colony looked as though it had swarmed.

If it walks like a duck etc.

Since the queen was clipped she had eventually clambered back to the hive and re-entered, leaving many of the workers who had left with her clustered around the hive entrance.

That’s currently my best guess 5.

If that was the case, notwithstanding the current lack of well-developed queen cells, they’d be trying again as soon as the weather was good enough. I therefore decided to preempt them by doing a classic artificial swarm.

I moved the queen on a frame with a small patch of brood into the box I’d used to try and ‘walk’ the swarm into. I then moved the – now queenless – double brood box a couple of metres off to one side in the shed. Finally I placed the queenright box in the place the original colony had occupied.

And what will happen?

Full details are in the description of Pagden’s artificial swarm. The flying bees from the double brood box will return to the box with the queen. The hive bees in the double brood box will start to rear one or more new queens.

And at that point I’ll intervene.

The double brood box has lots of brood and stores spread across 21 frames. The bees are well tempered, stable on the comb and have no significant signs of chalkbrood or other diseases (and Varroa and virus levels are exceptionally low – I’d measured both 6).

They are a good stock to make increase from.

I’ll check them in a  few days and see how queen cells are developing. Once there are good sealed cells I’ll split the colony into several 3-5 frame nucleus colonies. The final number will depend upon the number of good queen cells and the number of bees left in the colony.

It should be possible to generate half a dozen good nucleus colonies from a suitable double brood colony without too much of a problem.

First inspection summary

I got through all my colonies (eventually). With a reasonable number to compare it’s easy to define the good, the bad and the indifferent ones.

It’s much easier to do this once the season is properly underway, which is a good reason not to inspect too soon in the year. Some colonies are very early-starters, others lag bit. If you inspect too early you might consider the slow ones are dud or failed queens.

I was pleased to see that most were good or at least indifferent, with only a couple clearly exhibiting undesirable personality traits – aggression, laziness, running, following – or, in one case, disease (rather too much chalkbrood). These will be destined for prompt requeening and drone brood will be removed to reduce their contribution to the gene pool.

My overwintered 5 frame nucs looked excellent, with a couple needing re-hiving immediately.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The first inspection is really little more than a check that things are all OK. It doesn’t matter whether I see the queen. If there are eggs present I’m happy.

Eggs? Overt disease? Stores? Brood? Space? … next please!

Overwintering losses

I lost 10% of my colonies this winter – two from 20. This includes both full colonies and overwintered 5 frame nucs.

One colony drowned. The lid and crownboard blew away in a severe storm and they were subjected to a three-day deluge over a long weekend when I was away.

Mea culpa. I should have had more bricks on the roof.

Spot the drone laying queen

Spot the drone laying queen

In the second colony the queen failed and turned into a drone laying queen (DLQ). This had been my worst-tempered colony last year and was scheduled for requeening. However, the queen I found wasn’t the clipped and marked one I’d left there in August. Clearly there had been a late-season supercedure and the replacement queen was poorly mated.

Although she was a bee I didn’t keep it is great to be beekeeping again 🙂


Colophon

And they’re off! is the phrase used by horse racing commentators at the start of a race. It is also the title of a song composed by William Finn from the musical A New Brain. The song is about the damage gambling does to families. There’s a good cover version by Philip Quast on YouTube.

Natural vs. artificial swarms

I’ve now covered four of the most frequently used swarm control strategies. These are:

  • Pagden’s artificial swarm – the horizontal splitting of the colony
  • The vertical split – an equipment-frugal variant of the above involving a vertical separation of the colony
  • The nucleus method – in which the queen is removed with sufficient workers to make up a small (nuc) colony, leaving the original colony to rear another queen
  • The Demaree method – which, at its simplest, relocates the queen from the brood and associated nurse bees, but does not physically split the colony

If conducted correctly all should prevent loss of a swarm. However, the individual methods – even the first three which involve the physical separation of the bees in the hive – are not the same.

In addition, these swarm control methods do not recapitulate the separation of bees that occurs when a hive naturally swarms.

The purpose of this post is to contrast the original and new colony composition of the split-based methods of swarm control (i.e. Pagden and vertical) with natural swarms.

Temporal polyethism

I introduced this term when discussing the honey bee colony as a superorganism. It means that adult worker bees have different roles depending upon their age. For the first two and a bit weeks they have duties inside the hive such as cell cleaning, brood rearing and wax production.

They then transition through a period of being guard bees before becoming foragers, flying from the hive and collecting water, nectar and pollen.

For convenience I’ll refer to these two groups of bees as young, nurse or hive bees and flying bees.

Vertical and horizontal splits

The classic Pagden artificial swarm and the vertical split are fundamentally the same process.

If unsealed queen cells are found during a colony inspection the queen, with a frame of emerging brood, is moved to a new box. This box is placed on the site of the original hive.

The remaining bees and brood are moved, either to one side in the case of the Pagden or on top of the queen-containing box (separated by a split board) in a vertical split.

Split board ...

Split board …

Critically, the new box with the brood and bees is provided with a new hive entrance, located off to one side or on the opposite side of the original hive 1.

Flying home

Over the following day or two the flying bees leave the relocated brood box with the new entrance and return to the queen-containing brood box in the original location.

As a consequence of their excellent homing navigational skill, the hive manipulation results in the separation of the bees into two populations:

  1. The flying bees i.e. those over ~3 weeks of age that had orientated to the original hive location, which are now located with the queen.
  2. The nurse bees i.e. those less than 3 weeks old, which remain in the relocated brood box, together with the brood in all stages (eggs, larvae and pupae).
Artificial swarm separation of the colony

Artificial swarm separation of the colony

How does the artificial swarm compare with the age distribution of bees in a real swarm?

Real swarms

I’ve previously discussed prime swarms and casts. The former contain a mated queen. In contrast, casts are produced from very strong colonies after the prime swarm has left. Casts are headed by a virgin queen. These are sometimes called after swarms and are usually smaller than prime swarms.

What about the workers in the swarm? What might be expected?

Perhaps they’re primarily the older flying bees? After all, these are the bees that have finished their hive duties and are now routinely foraging outside the hive. It’s the natural place for them.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

Alternatively, remember that swarms have no ‘homing’ instinct for a day or two after emerging. They can be readily moved and you can safely ignore the less than three feet or more than three miles rule. Perhaps this means that they’re primarily young bees that have yet to go on their orientation flights?

Real experiments and contradictory results

Enough speculation … how do you determine this experimentally?

There have been numerous studies of the age distribution of bees in natural swarms. However, the data tends to be rather contradictory though the methods used are often broadly similar.

How do you determine the age composition of workers in a swarm?

Essentially you ‘spike’ the colony with a set number of marked bees of a known age over about 8 weeks. This is easy to do, but tedious.

Workers are allowed to emerge in an incubator. On the day of emergence (0 days old) they are marked with a colour that distinguishes them from older or younger bees. Every three days 100 identically marked i.e. same age, bees are added to the study hive(s). Over the period May to July this will accumulate red, then yellow, then blue, then mauve, then cyan, then pink etc. cohorts of workers, each representing a known age class.

It must be a nightmare spotting the queen in these hives 😉

The colony is allowed to swarm, the swarm collected and the number of bees of the different age cohorts in the swarm counted.

I missed a step out there. Have you ever tried counting the bees in a swarm? It’s much easier if they don’t move.

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

Perhaps it’s best that I missed that step out 🙁

What you end up with is a count of the total number of bees in the swarm and the numbers of bees of each 3 day cohort over the last several weeks. You can therefore determine the age distribution of the workers in the swarm.

Is it as simple as that?

I’ve actually oversimplified things a bit. There’s a possibility that different age cohorts of bees die within the hive at different rates, perhaps depending upon forage availability or weather or something else.

Think about it. Assume there was a dearth of nectar in late May and the blue and red labelled cohorts added during that period were underfed and died prematurely.

If there were very low numbers of blue and red bees in the swarm you might assume that these ages were ‘left behind’ by the swarm … when actually they weren’t able to swarm at all.

The real question is therefore whether the age distribution of bees in the swarm is similar to that in the parental hive.

OK, OK … is it?

No.

Swarms do contain bees of all ages.

However there are significantly more young bees and many fewer old bees than would be expected from the age distribution of workers in the parental colony.

Age distribution of bees in swarms

Age distribution of bees in swarms

The o and e in the graph above represents the position of the observed and expected median age class for the expected distributions. So, in swarm C the observed median age is ~10 days old, whereas the originating hive median age was ~19 days.

The graph above comes from a 1998 study by David Gilley 2 and supports earlier work 3 by Colin Butler 4 which is often cited as one of the definitive studies on the ages of bees in a swarm.

Additional considerations

Is it surprising that young bees predominate in natural swarms?

Swarms usually emerge from the hive late morning or early afternoon on warm, sunny days. In fact, at exactly the time most older bees aren’t in the hive anyway because they’re out and about foraging.

Remember also that swarming is a precarious activity for the colony. Most swarms do not survive 5. Natural selection will have resulted in swarm populations that maximise their chance of survival.

Once bees start foraging their life expectancy is pretty short. It has been estimated that they experience about 10% mortality per day. If only old bees left in the swarm with the queen the newly established colony would very rapidly dwindle in size, perhaps before significant numbers of new brood emerged (which takes 21 days from the first egg being laid). This would likely limit the chances of survival of the new colony.

What has this got to do with artificial swarms?

As beekeepers (or at least as responsible beekeepers) we spend May and June rushing about like headless chickens trying to control swarming in our bees.

Many of us achieve this using a variety of methods which are generically referred to as artificial swarms. I suspect that many beekeepers think that the artificiality is because of our interventions.

Where have all my young girls gone?

Where have all my young girls gone?

It is … but it’s worth remembering that the artificial swarms we generate are very different in composition to natural swarms. Our artificial swarms predominantly leave the older bees associating with the queen, with the young bees remaining with the brood.

These old bees have to draw new comb and rear the new brood. These are activities they last did weeks ago (a long time in the life of a bee).

Final thoughts

There are artificial swarm control methods that were developed to better replicate the age distribution of bees in a natural swarm. One example of these is use of a Taranov board. I’ll cover this in a future post.

It’s also worth noting that the bees of different ages in a natural swarm have different roles even before they occupy a new location. The older bees form a mantle around the bivouacked swarm that protects it from inclement weather (amongst other things) and the oldest bees are the scouts responsible for finding a new nest site.

Again, both topics for another post … I’ve got bait hives to set out 🙂


 

Bait hive guide

Spring this year is developing well. Even here on the chilly east coast of Scotland colonies are looking good and flying strongly when the sun is out. Large amounts of pollen are being taken in and there’s every sign that the hives are queenright and rearing lots of brood 1.

It’s too soon 2 to open the colonies but it’s not too soon to be thinking about the consequences of the inevitable continued expansion over the next few weeks.

Most healthy colonies will make preparations to swarm, often between late April and mid-June. The timing varies depending upon a host of factors including colony strength, climate, weather, forage, build up and beekeeper interventions.

Swarm prevention and control

You, like all responsible beekeepers, will use appropriate swarm prevention methods. Supers added early, ensure the brood box has space for laying etc.

In due course, once the colony gets bigger and stronger, you’ll notice queen cells and immediately deploy your chosen swarm control method e.g. the classic Pagden artificial swarm, the nucleus method I described last week, Demaree, vertical splits or – if you’re feeling ambitious – a Taranov board 3.

Which will of course be totally successful 😉

But just in case it isn’t …

… and just in case the beekeeper a couple of fields away is forgetful, unobservant, clumsy, on holiday, in prison or has some other half-baked excuse, be prepared for swarms.

As an aside, other than just walking around the fields, you can easily find hives near you by searching on Google maps and you can get an idea of the local beekeeper density 4 using the National Bee Unit’s Beebase.

You might think you know all the local beekeepers through your association, but it’s surprising the number who just ‘do their own thing’.

Swarms

This isn’t the place to discuss swarms in much detail. Here’s a quick reminder:

  1. The colony ‘decides’ to swarm and starts to make queen cells.
  2. Almost certainly, scout bees start to check out likely sites the swarm could occupy in the future 5.
  3. The swarm leaves the hive on the first calm, warm, sunny day, usually early in the afternoon, once the queen cells are capped. The prime swarm contains the mated, laying queen and about 75% of the worker bees 6.
  4. The swarm gathers around the queen and sets up a bivouac hanging from a convenient spot (tree, gatepost, bush, fence etc.) near to the hive. They rarely move more than 50 metres. It’s worth emphasising here that the spot they choose is convenient to the bees, but may be at the top of a 60 foot cypress. It may not be particularly convenient for the beekeeper 😉
  5. Scout bees continue to check out likely final sites to establish the new colony, returning to the swarm and ‘persuading’ other scouts (by doing a version of the waggle dance) so that, finally, a consensus is reached. This consensus is essentially based upon the suitability of the sites being surveyed.
  6. The scout bees lead the swarm to the new location, they move in and establish a new colony.

If you’re lucky you will be able to recapture the swarm if the spot they choose for their bivouac is within reach, not above a stream, in a huge thorny bush or on an electricity pylon.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

I say ‘recapture’ because, since the bivouac is usually near the issuing hive, it’s probably come from one of your own hives (unless you are snooping around your neighbouring apiaries 7).

But what if you miss the bivouacked swarm? Or if your neighbour misses it?

Those bees are going to look for a suitable location to set up home.

If you provide a suitable location, you can get them to hive themselves without the grief of falling off a ladder, toppling into a stream, getting lacerated with thorns or electrocution

This is where the bait hive comes in. Leave a couple in suitable locations and you can lure your own and other swarms to them.

Freebees 🙂

What do scouts look for?

The scout bees look for the following:

  1. A dark empty void with a volume of about 40 litres.
  2. Ideally located reasonably high up.
  3. A solid floor.
  4. A small entrance of about 10cm2, at the bottom of the void, ideally south facing.
  5. Something that ‘smells’ of bees.

What I’ve just described is … a used beehive 8.

More specifically, it’s a single National brood box (or two stacked supers) with a solid floor and a roof, containing one old dark frame of drawn comb pushed up against the back wall.

No stores, no pollen 9, just a manky old dark comb. The sort of thing you should be turning into firelighters.

That’s all you need.

However, you can improve things by giving the bees somewhere to start drawing comb and siting the hive in a location that makes your beekeeping easier.

Des Res

The first thing swarms do when they move in is start drawing comb. You can populate the bait hive with a few foundationless frames so they’ve got somewhere to start.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

In my view foundationless frames are much better than frames with foundation for bait hives. The scout bees measure the size of the void by flying around randomly inside 10. If you have sheets of foundation they’ll crash into it frequently, effectively giving them the impression that the void is smaller than it really is. And therefore making it less attractive to the scouts.

You can improve the smell of the hive by adding a little lemongrass oil to the top bar of one of the frames. Don’t overdo it. A drop or two every 7-10 days is more than ample.

If you do use foundationless frames make sure the hive is level. If you don’t the comb will be drawn at an angle to the frames which makes everything harder work later in the season. Your smartphone probably contains a spirit level function that makes levelling the bait hive very easy.

Location

But not if it’s above head height, or you’re teetering on top of a ladder …

It was Tom Seeley who worked out most things about scout bees and swarms (see his excellent book Honeybee Democracy). This included the observations that they favoured bait hives situated high up.

Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier if the bait hive is on a standard hive stand. It’s easier to level, it’s easier to check and it’s easier – in due course – to retrieve.

Bait hive

Bait hive

I’ve previously discussed how far swarms prefer to move from their original hive. Contrary to popular opinion (and perhaps illogically) they tend to prefer to move shorter distances i.e. 20m >> 200m >> 400m. However, there are also studies that show swarms moving a kilometre or more.

Don’t get hung up on this detail. Stick out a bait hive or two and, if there are swarming colonies in range, they’ll find it.

I always leave a bait hive in my apiaries and one or two in odd corners of the garden. In the last few years I’ve never failed to attract swarms to the bait hives, and know for certain that some have moved in from over a mile away as the bee flies (thanks Emma 😉 ).

Mites and swarms

Assuming you don’t have the luxury of living in Varroa-free areas of the UK (or anywhere in Australia) then the incoming swarm will contain mites. Studies have shown that ~35% of the mite population of a colony leaves with the swarm.

But, for about the first week after the swarm sets up home in your bait hive, what’s missing from the new arrivals is sealed brood. Therefore the mites are all phoretic.

Do not delay. Treat the swarm with an appropriate miticide to knock back the mite population by ~95%. An oxalic acid-containing treatment is ideal. Single dose, relatively inexpensive, easy to administer (trickled or vaporised) and well tolerated by the bees.

Varroa treatment ...

Varroa treatment …

You have eight days from the swarm arriving to there being sealed brood in the colony

Far better to slaughter the mites now. In a few months their numbers will have increased exponentially and the majority will be in capped cells and more difficult to treat.


 

Superorganism potential

The term superorganism can be used to refer to a colony of honey bees. The term gained prominence in the mid/late noughties having been reintroduced by the world-renowned myrmecologist 1 E.O. Wilson.

Bees, like ants (myrmex, “ant”, from the Greek μύρμηξ), are social insects in which there are divisions of labour. Different individuals within the colony perform different tasks. Some of these roles are defined by the castes in the colony – queen, worker and drone in a colony of honey bees for example – and some are defined by physiological differences between individual members of the same caste.

The term superorganism describes the entirety of the colony and is defined as a group or association of organisms which behaves in some respect like a single organism.

Essentially, a superorganism has characteristics and behaviours that the individuals within the colony – due to caste or physiological specialisation – do not exhibit.

The superorganism operates as a unified entity, collectively working together to maintain and reproduce the colony.

Division of labour and temporal polyethism

Drones and queens have relatively straightforward roles in the colony. Drones, like teenage boys, lounge around eating and thinking about sex. The queens are egg-laying machines.

An egg laying machine

An egg laying machine

Although there’s undoubtedly work involved in laying your bodyweight in eggs at the height of the season, the real work in the colony is – appropriately – done by the workers.

Worker bees exhibit temporal polyethism i.e. they display different patterns of behaviour depending upon their age. They have a maturational schedule in which they sequentially undertake age-correlated roles in the colony:

  • Young bees work in the hive in a series of roles starting with cell cleaning (days 1-2), nursing developing larvae (nurse bees; days 3-11) and wax production (days 12-17).
  • After two to three weeks the workers undergo significant physiological changes (weight loss, changes in immune function, reduced stress resistance) which prepare them for a productive life outside the hive. During this period the bees transition through a period when they act as guard bees.
  • Older bees (the ‘flying’ bees) perform a range of foraging activities including water carrying, pollen collection and nectar gathering.

And then they die in the field 🙁

Behavioural plasticity

This behavioural maturation is controlled by a so-called negative feedback loop between vitellogenin (Vg 2) and juvenile hormone (JH).

Nurse bees have high Vg levels which are reduced at the transition to foraging. Conversely JH levels increase with the onset of foraging (I know this sounds counterintuitive). These changes are responsible for a range of physiological changes in the worker bee.

Behavioural maturation in worker bees

Behavioural maturation in worker bees

But it’s not as simple as that. High Vg levels can block JH synthesis, so delaying maturation and foraging. Similarly, JH may reciprocally inhibit Vg synthesis and induce early foraging.

Clearly that last couple of sentences indicates that worker maturation is not an invariant process. It doesn’t always occur after 2-3 weeks.

In fact, the maturation or ageing process in honey bees is a very interesting phenomenon.

Ageing exhibits seasonal variability and remarkable plasticity.

Nurse bees can survive for at least 130 days and overwintering bees may survive up to 280 days. Clearly ageing in bees is a remarkably variable process. Overwintering bees ‘mature’ into either nurse bees or foragers. Presumably this has evolved as an effective mechanism of allowing spring colony build up (by having sufficient bees for the different roles) once environmental conditions improve.

In addition, there is another striking feature of the maturation process of honey bees.

Under certain social environmental conditions maturation is reversible.

This reversible maturation can be demonstrated by removing the nurse bees from the hive. Under these conditions some of the younger foragers revert, both behaviourally and physiologically, to nursing tasks. JH levels drop and Vg levels increase.

Old foragers are unable to undergo this rejuvenation.

Reversible maturation in worker bees

Reversible maturation in worker bees

Which finally and in a round the houses way gets me to the subject I meant to cover in the first place this week …

Brood and the superorganism

The honey bee colony superorganism not only contains a queen, workers and drones. It also contains brood. In the following text I’ll use the term brood as a collective noun meaning all the eggs, unsealed larvae and sealed pupae in the colony (unless otherwise specified).

Is the brood a component of the superorganism?

It certainly is.

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

Remember previous discussion of laying workers. These are workers that lay unfertilised eggs which develop into drones. Egg laying by workers is suppressed by pheromones produced from unsealed brood 3. Therefore brood does influence the behaviour of the colony 4.

If the complete colony – brood, workers, drones and a queen – is a superorganism, which components of the colony, individually or together, have the potential to form the superorganism?

And why should this matter?

Swarming and the superorganism

During swarming, either naturally during colony reproduction, or during manipulation by the beekeeper, the ‘superorganism’ is broken up.

During natural swarming the (old) mated queen leaves the colony with 60-75% of the workers to establish a new colony. By the time the swarm leaves, the original colony – which has all the eggs, larvae and brood (obviously) – is usually already well on the way to rearing a new queen. The (new) virgin queen emerges, gets mated, and the colony has successfully reproduced.

Many of the colony manipulation methods that are used to prevent the loss of natural swarms exploit the potential of the components in the colony to form a complete new colony.

Most ‘artificial swarms’ work by breaking the colony – the superorganism – into two parts:

  1. The queen and the ‘flying’ bees. Even young bees can fly, so the term ‘flying’ bees refers to the older bees from the colony that have matured sufficiently to leave the hive.
  2. The nurse bees and all the brood.
Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

These two parts both have the potential to create a new colony.

The queen and the flying bees that form the swarm (or the queenright part of an artificial swarm) occupy a new site (or hive 5), draw comb in which the queen lays, the larvae are fed 6, pupate and emerge. At the same time, foragers collect the necessary nectar and pollen to maintain the new colony.

The swarmed colony (i.e. the queenless part of an artificial swarm) contains ample stores and the nurse bees. What they don’t have is a queen. But they do have eggs and young larvae. The nurse bees select and feed one or more of these young larvae with copious amounts of Royal Jelly. A few days later a virgin queen emerges, matures, mates and returns to the colony to start laying eggs.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Therefore both natural and artificial swarms exploit the potential in both parts of the original colony to eventually reproduce the colony.

No potential

Not all components of the colony have the potential to give rise to a new colony or superorganism. A solitary queen doesn’t even have the ability to feed herself properly, let alone double up for egg laying and nursing larvae duties.

This comes as a surprise to some people. If you frequent any of the online discussion forums you’ll sometime see questions posted like this:

What sort of hive do I need to buy to put a queen bee in to make honey?

Followed by some polite, or not so polite, responses saying that there’s a little bit more to beekeeping than that 7.

The ‘flying’ bees alone, in the absence of a queen, also have no potential. They can lay eggs (as laying workers, see above), but since the eggs are unfertilised the colony will be doomed. It’s not unusual for a queen from an artificial swarm (or from a cast) to fail to return from a mating flight, so condemning the workers in the hive to oblivion.

Swarms and behavioural plasticity

The classic artificial swarm involves moving the nurse bees and the brood to a new site, leaving the queen and the flying bees in the original location.

You do this so that the flying bees that have orientated to the position of the original hive – whether out in the field actively foraging or in the moved hive – eventually return and so become separated from the nurse bees and the brood.

In doing this you remove the urge to swarm and you weaken the queenless hive.

The majority of those flying bees are foragers.

And this is where behavioural plasticity is essential. remember that the artificial swarm predominantly contains foragers, not the nurse bees needed to feed developing larvae.

Some of these foragers undergo rejuvenation to produce wax or to become nurse bees. These build new comb and, in a few days, feed larvae that have hatched from the eggs laid by the queen.

This behavioural plasticity contributes to the potential of the artificial swarm to produce a new colony or superorganism.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Do the same processes happen in natural swarms?

That requires a discussion of the worker composition of swarms which is not straightforward and will have to wait for another day 😉