Category Archives: Uniting

Cut your losses

The stats for winter losses in the UK, Europe and USA can make for rather sobering reading.

In the UK, losses over the last 12 years have fluctuated between 9% and 34%. This self-selecting survey includes responses from about 10% of the British Beekeepers Association membership (primarily England and Wales, despite the name). The average number of hives maintained by a BBKA member is about 5, meaning – all other things being equal 1 – that most beekeepers should expect to lose about 1 hive every winter.

BBKA winter losses survey

About 30 countries, mainly Northern hemisphere, contribute to the COLOSS survey which is significantly larger scale. The most recent 2 data published (for the ’16/’17 winter) had data from ~15,000 respondents 3 managing over 400,000 hives. Of these, ~21% were lost for a variety of reasons. COLOSS data is presented as an unwieldy table, rather than graphically. Further details, including recently published results, are linked from their website.

In the USA the Bee Informed Partnership surveys losses – both winter and summer – and claims to have results that cover ~10% of all the colonies in the country (so probably between 250,000 and 275,000 hives). Winter losses in the USA are rarely reported at less than 20% and were as high as 35% in the ’18/’19 winter 4.

Bee Informed Partnership annual colony losses

Are these figures to be trusted?

Who knows?

Each survey is accompanied by a variety of statistics. However, since they all appear to be based upon voluntary reporting by a subset of beekeepers, there are opportunities for all sorts of data to be included (and even more to be missed entirely). 

The problem with surveys

Is the successful beekeeper who managed to get all her colonies through the winter more likely to respond?

A form of ‘bragging rights’.

What about the beekeeper that lost all his colonies?

Does he respond out of a sense of responsibility?

Or does he keep quiet because he doesn’t want to be reminded of those cold, quiet, mouldy boxes opened on the first warm day of spring?

One and two year beekeepers

What about the high level of annual ‘churn’ amongst beekeepers? They buy a nuc in May, filled with enthusiasm about the jars of golden honey they’ll have for family and friends in late summer.

To say nothing of all the “saving the bees” they’ll be doing.

But by late summer the colony is queenless and has an unpleasant temperament

Beekeeping should be enjoyable ...

Beekeeping should be enjoyable …

Psychopathic you might say … if you were feeling uncharitable.

Consequently the Varroa treatment goes on far too late,. Or is quietly forgotten. The winter bees have high viral loads and ‘die like flies’ 5, resulting in the colony succumbing by the year end.

But this colony loss is never recorded on any surveys.

The once enthusiastic beekeeper has moved on and is now passionate about growing prize-winning vegetables or cheesemaking or keeping chickens. 

Beekeeping associations train lots of new beekeepers and – although membership numbers are increasing – it’s well below the rate they’re trained at.

Some may not be ‘joiners’ and go their own way.

Many just quietly stop after a year or two.

How many people have you met that say “Oh yes, I used to keep bees”

Did you ask them whether they ever completed a winter losses survey?

I’m not sure any of the surveys listed above do much ‘groundtruthing’ to establish whether the data they collect is truly representative of the population actually surveyed. With large numbers of respondents spread across a wide geographic and climatic range it’s not an easy thing to do.

So, treat these surveys with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Undoubtedly there are high levels of winter losses – at least sometimes – and the overall level of losses varies from year to year.

Losses and costs

The direct financial cost of these colony losses to beekeepers is very high.

Ignoring time invested and ‘consumables’ like food, miticides and foundation these costs in ’16/’17 for just Austria, the Czech Republic and Macedonia were estimated at €56 million 😯  

These figures simply reflect lost honey production and the value of the lost colonies. They do not include the indirect costs resulting from lost pollination.

But, for the small scale beekeeper, these economic losses are irrelevant.

Most of these beekeepers do not rely on bees for their income.

The real cost is emotional 🙁

It still saddens me when I lose a colony, particularly when I think that the loss was avoidable or due to my incompetence, carelessness or stupidity 6.

Little snow, big snow. Big snow, little snow.

Your hives should be quiet in winter, but it hurts when they are silent in spring.

Anatomy of a death

The COLOSS surveys give a breakdown of winter losses in three categories:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • dead colonies

Natural disasters are things like bears, honey badgers, flooding or falling trees.

We can probably safely ignore honey badgers in the UK, but climate change is increasing the weather extremes that causes flooding and falling trees.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

Don’t assume that poly hives are the answer to potential flooding.

They do float, though not necessarily the right way up 🙁

Queen problems cover a variety of issues ranging from reduced fecundity to poor mating (and consequent drone laying) to very early or late – and failed – supersedure 7.

Beekeepers with a lot more experience than me report that queen problems are increasing.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Perhaps the issues with fecundity and drone laying are related to toxic levels of miticides in commercial foundation? It’s certainly known that these residues reduce drone sperm fertility significantly. I intend to return to this topic sometime during the approaching winter … perhaps in time to encourage the use of some foundationless frames for (fertile) drone production 😉

In the ’16/’17 COLOSS data, natural disasters accounted for 1.6% of all overwintered colonies (so ~7.5% of losses), queen problems resulted in the loss of 5.1% of colonies (i.e. ~24% of losses) and the remainder (14.1% of colonies, ~68% of losses) just died.

Just died?

We’ll return to natural disasters (but not bears or honey badgers) and queen problems shortly. What about the majority of losses in which the colony ‘just died’?

If you discuss colony post-mortems with beekeepers they sometimes divide the ‘just died’ category (i.e. those not readily attributable to failed queens, marauding grizzlies or tsunamis) into four groups:

  • disease
  • isolation starvation
  • starvation
  • don’t know 

The most important disease associated with overwintering colony losses is high levels of Deformed wing virus (DWV). This results from uncontrolled or inadequately controlled Varroa infestation. For any new readers of this site, please refer back to many of the articles I’ve already written on Varroa management 8.

I strongly suspect that a significant proportion of the reported isolation starvation is actually also due to disease, rather than isolation per se.

A consequence of high levels of DWV is that winter bees die prematurely. Consequently, the colony shrinks faster than it would otherwise do. It starts the size of a basketball but (too) rapidly ends up the size of a grapefruit … or an orange.

Isolation starvation and disease

The small cluster is then unable to remain in contact with stores, and so starves. 

Yes, the colony died from ‘isolation starvation’, but the cause was the high levels of Varroa and the viruses it transmits.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

What about regular starvation?

Not because the cluster became isolated from the stores, but simply because they had insufficient stores to get through the winter.

Whose fault was that?

And the last category, the “don’t knows”?

I bet most of these are due to high levels of Varroa and DWV as well 🙁

Yes, there will be other reasons … but probably not a huge number. 

What’s more … if you don’t know the reason for the colony loss there’s very little you can do to mitigate against it in future seasons.

And, other than wild and increasingly vague speculation, there’s little I can write about if the reason for the loss remains unknown 9.

Avoiding winter losses

So, let’s rationalise those earlier lists into the probable (known) major causes of overwintering colony losses:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • starvation
  • disease (but probably mainly DWV and Varroa

As the long, hot days of summer gradually shorten and cool as early autumn approaches, you should be thinking about each of these potential causes of overwintering colony loss … and doing what you can to ensure it doesn’t happen to you (or, more correctly, your bees).

Ardnamurchan autumn

Ardnamurchan autumn

Some are easier to deal with than others.

Here’s a whistle-stop tour of some more specific problems and some practical solutions 10. Some, all or none may apply to your bees – it depends upon your location, your climate, your experience and future plans as a beekeeper. 

Natural disasters

These fall into two broad groups:

  • things you can do almost nothing about (but might be able to avoid)
  • things you can relatively easily solve

Flooding, falling trees, lightning, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes etc. all fall into the first group.

If you can avoid them, do. 

Your local council will have information on areas at risk from flooding. There are also searchable maps available from SEPA. Do not underestimate the severity of some of the recent flooding. Some parts of Scotland and Northern England had 600 mm of rain in two days in 2015.

You might be surprised (and from an insurance aspect, devastated) at the classification of some areas now ‘at risk’. 

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Consider moving hives to higher ground before the winter rains start. One consequence of climate change is that heavy rainfall is now ~20% heavier than it was a few decades ago. This means that floods occur more frequently, are more extensive and the water levels rise faster. You might not have a chance to move the hives if flooding does occur,

More rain and stronger winds (particularly before leaf fall) mean more trees will come down. You might be able to identify trees potentially at risk from falling. It makes sense to remove them (or site your hives elsewhere). 

No risk of this larch tree falling on my hives

Lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes … all a possibility though I would 11 probably worry about Varroa and woodpeckers first 😉

Solvable natural disasters

The ‘solvable’ natural disasters include preventing your colonies being robbed by other bees or wasps. Or ransacked by mice or woodpeckers after the first hard frosts start. A solution to many of these are ‘reduced size entrances’ which either enable the colony to better defend itself, or physically restricts access to critters.

The L-shaped ‘kewl floors‘ I use prevent mice from accessing the brood box. They are also easier for the colony to defend from bees/wasps, but can also easily be reduced in size with a narrow piece of hardwood. If you don’t use these types of floor you should probably use a mouseguard.

Polyhives and polythene

Polyhives and polythene …

Woodpeckers 12 need to cling onto the outside of the hive to hammer their way through the side. You can either place a wire mesh cage around the hive, or wrap the box in something like damp proof membrane (or polythene) to prevent them gaining purchase on the side walls.

Keep off Woody

Keep off Woody

Doing both is probably overkill though 😉

Strong colonies

Before we move onto queen problems – though it is related – it’s worth emphasising that an even better solution to prevent robbing by bees or wasps is to maintain really strong colonies.

Strong colonies with a well balanced population of bees can almost always defend themselves successfully against wasps and robbing bees.

Nucs, that are both weaker and – at least shortly after being made up – unbalanced, are far less able to defend themselves and need some sort of access restriction.

By ‘balanced’ I mean that the numbers and proportions of bees fulfilling the various roles in the nucleus colony are reflective of a full hive e.g. nurse bees, foragers, guard bees. 

Reduced entrance ...

Reduced entrance …

But the benefits of strong colonies are far greater than just being able to prevent wasps or robbing bees. There is compelling scientific evidence that strong colonies overwinter better

I don’t mean strong summer colonies, I mean colonies that are strong in the late autumn when they are fully populated with the winter bees.

Almost the entire complement of bees in the hive are replaced between late summer and late autumn. Remember that a really strong summer colony may not be strong in the winter if Varroa and virus levels have not been controlled.

How do you ensure your colonies are strong?

  1. Minimise disease by controlling Varroa levels in early autumn to guarantee the all-important winter bees are reared without being exposed to high levels of DWV.
  2. Try and use a miticide treatment that does not reduce the laying rate of the queen.
  3. Avoid blocking the brood nest with stores where the queen should be laying eggs.
  4. Requeen your colonies regularly. Young queens lay more eggs later into the autumn. As a consequence the colonies have increased populations of winter bees.
  5. Unite weak colonies (assuming they are disease-free) with stronger colonies. The former may well not survive anyway, and the latter will have a better chance of surviving if it is even stronger – see below. 
  6. Use local bees. There’s good evidence that local bees (i.e. reared locally, not imported from elsewhere) overwinter better, not least because they produce stronger colonies.

Uniting – take your losses in the autumn

My regular colony inspections every 7-10 days during May and June are pretty much abandoned by July. The risk of swarming is very much reduced after the ‘June gap’ in my experience. 

I still check the colonies periodically and I’m usually still rearing queens. However, the rigour with which I check for queen cells is much reduced. By July my colonies are usually committed to single-mindedly filling the supers with summer nectar.

They are already making their own preparations for the long winter ahead.

Although the inspections are less rigorous, I do keep a careful watch on the strength of each colony. Often this is directly related to the number of supers I’ve had to pile on top.

Colonies that are underperforming, and – more specifically – understrength are almost always united with a stronger colony.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

Experience has taught me that an understrength colony is usually more trouble than it’s worth. If it’s disease-free it may well overwinter reasonably well. However, it’s likely to start brood rearing more slowly and build up less well. It may also need more mollycoddling 13 in the autumn e.g. protection from wasps or robbing bees.

However, a colony that is not flourishing in the summer is much more likely to struggle and fail during the winter. Perhaps the queen is not quite ‘firing on all cylinders’ and laying at a really good rate, or she might be poorly mated.

Far better that the workforce contributes to strengthening another hive, rather than collect an underwhelming amount of honey before entering the winter and eventually becoming a statistic.

My winter losses are low and, over the last decade, reducing.

That’s partly because my Varroa management is reasonably thorough.

However, it’s probably mainly due to ensuring only strong colonies go into the winter in the first place.

Newspaper

I’ve dealt with uniting in several previous posts.

It’s a two minute job. 

You remove the queen from the weak colony, stack one brood box over the other separated by a sheet or two of newspaper with a very small (~3mm) hole in the middle. Add the roof and leave them to get on with things.

I don’t think it makes any difference whether the strong colony goes on the top or the bottom.

I place the colony I’m moving above the box I’m uniting it with. My – wildly unscientific – rationale being that the bees in the top box will have to negotiate the route to the hive entrance and, in doing so, will help them orientate to the new location faster 14.

If you unite colonies early or late in the day most foragers will be ‘at home’ so not too many bees will return to find their hive missing.

If there are supers on one or both hives you can separate them with newspaper as well. Alternatively, use a clearer the day before to empty the supers prior to uniting the colonies. You can then add back the supers you want and redistribute the remainder to other hives in the apiary.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to check for successful uniting.

Leave them a week. The last thing you want is for the queen to get killed in an unseemly melee caused by you disturbing them before they have properly settled.

Done properly, uniting is almost foolproof. I reckon over 95% of colonies I unite are successful.

That’s all folks … more on ‘Cutting your losses’ next week 🙂


Notes

At just over 3000 words this post got a bit out of control … I’ll deal with more significant queen problems, feeding colonies, the weather and some miscellaneous ‘odds and sods’ next week.

Winter losses

I lost 10% of my colonies this winter.

It’s always disappointing losing colonies, but it’s sometimes unavoidable.

I suspect the two I lost were unavoidable … though, as you’ll see, they weren’t completely lost.

April showers frosts

Late April may seem like mid-season for many beekeepers based in southern England. While they were adding their second super, the bees here in Scotland were only just starting to take their first few tentative flights of the year.

This April has been significantly cooler in Fife 1 than any year ‘since records began’.

However, the records I’m referring to are from the excellent Auchtermuchty weather report 2 which only date back to about 2013 … I like it because it’s local, not because it’s historically comprehensive 😉

The average April temperate has only been 5.5°C with 15 nights with frost in the first three weeks of the month. In contrast, the same month in 2019 and 2020 averaged over 9°C with only 3-4 nights with frosts 3

In both 2019 and 2020 swarming started at the end of April. Several colonies had queen cells when I first inspected them and I hived my first swarm (not lost from one of my colonies 😉 ) on the last day of the month.

First inspections and winter losses

Unsurprisingly, with appreciably lower temperatures, things are less well advanced this season. None of the colonies I inspected on the 19th were making swarm preparations. Instead, most were 2-4 frames of brood down on the strength I’d expect them to have before they started thinking about swarming.

Nevertheless, most were busy on a lovely spring day … lots of pollen (mainly gorse and some late willow by the looks of things) being delivered by heavily-laden foragers, and fresh nectar in some of the brood frames.

Fresh nectar glistening in a brood frame

The first inspection of the season is an opportunity to not only check on the strength and behaviour of the colony, but also to do some ‘housekeeping’. This includes:

  • swapping out old, dark brood frames (now emptied of stores) and replacing them with new foundationless frames
  • removing excess stores to make space for brood rearing
  • removing the first sealed drone brood in the colony to help hold back Varroa replication

And, as the winter is now clearly over, it’s the time at which the overall number of winter losses can be finally assessed.

Winter losses

Winter losses generally occur for one of four reasons:

  • disease – in particular caused by deformed wing virus (DWV) vectored by high levels of Varroa in the hive. DWV reduces the longevity of the diutinus winter bees, meaning the colony shrinks in size and falls below a threshold for viability. There are too few bees to thermoregulate the colony and too few bees to help the queen rear new larvae. The colony either freezes to death, dwindles to the size of an orange, or starves to death because the cluster cannot reach the stores 4.
  • queen failure – for a variety of reasons queens can fail. They stop laying altogether or they only lay drone brood. Whatever the reason, a queen that doesn’t lay means the colony is doomed.
  • natural disasters – this is a bit of a catch-all category. It includes things like flooded apiaries, falling trees and stampeding livestock. Although these things might be avoidable – don’t site apiaries in flood risk areas, under trees or on grazing land – these lessons are often learnt the hard way 5.
  • unnatural disasters – these are avoidable and generally result from inexperienced, or bad 6 , beekeeping. I’d include providing insufficient stores for winter in this category, or leaving the queen excluder in place resulting in the isolation of the queen, or allowing the entrance to be blocked. These are the things that the beekeeper alone has control over. 

The BBKA run an annual survey of winter losses in the UK. This is usually published in midsummer, so the graph below is from 2020.

BBKA winter survival survey

Over the 13 years of the survey the average losses were 18.2% 7. Long or particularly hard winters result in higher levels of losses.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

I’ve no idea how accurate these winter loss surveys are.

About 10% of the BBKA membership reported their losses, and the BBKA membership is probably a bit over 50% of UK beekeepers. 

I would expect, with precious little evidence to back it up, that the BBKA generally represents the more ‘engaged’ beekeepers in the UK 8. It also probably represents a significant proportion of new beekeepers who were encouraged to join while training.

So, like Amazon reviews, I treat the results of the survey with quite a bit of caution. I suspect beekeepers who have low losses complete it enthusiastically to ‘brag’ about their success (despite its anonymity), while those with large losses either keep quiet or are happy to share their grief. 

Unlike Amazon reviews, I’d be surprised if there are many fake submissions to the BBKA and I’m not aware there’s a living to be made from selling fake colony survival reviews in bulk online.

For comparison, the Bee Informed Partnership in the USA runs a similar survey every year.

Bee Informed Partnership loss and management survey

This survey covers about 10% of the colonies in the USA. Again it is voluntary and likely subject to the same inherent biases that may affect the BBKA survey.

The USA winter colony losses average ~28% over the same 13 year survey period.

Are US beekeepers less good at keeping their colonies alive than beekeepers in the UK?

Perhaps the US climate is less suited to honey bees?

Or, possibly, US beekeepers are simply more honest than their UK counterparts?

I doubt it 9.

Running on empty

My two colony losses were due to queen failures.

Old winter bees and no brood

In the first colony there was no evidence the queen had laid any brood since the previous autumn. There were about 6 seams of bees in the hive, but the outer 2-3 frames were solid with untouched winter stores.

Unused winter stores

This is usually a dead giveaway … literally. The colony hasn’t used the stores because they’ve not had any hungry mouths to feed. With no new brood the colony is doomed.

This queen appears to have simply run out of sperm and stopped laying. She was present (a 2019 marked queen and the same one I’d seen in August last year) and ambling around the frame, but she wasn’t even going through the pretence of inspecting cells before laying.

I removed the queen and united what remained of the colony over a nearby strong colony.

Strong colony ready for uniting

Assuming the queen stopped laying at the end of year all the bees in the hive – and there were a good number – were old, winter bees. These won’t survive long, but will provide a temporary boost to the colony I united them with. 

Every little bit helps 🙂

Even more valuable than the bees were the frames they were on.

Most of the comb in the colony with the failed queen was relatively new. By uniting them I can quickly swap out the old comb (from the stronger hive #34) when I next inspect the hive. At the same time I’ll rescue the frames of sealed stores for use when making up nucs during queen rearing.

Drone laying queen

The second failure was a drone laying queen (DLQ).

These are usually unmistakeable … the brood is clustered, with drone pupae occupying worker brood cells. If the queen has been drone laying for some time there may be lots of undersized ‘runt’ drones present in the hive as well.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Again, this colony was doomed. With no new queens available and a lot of pretty old bees in the hive they could not be restored to a functioning colony.

However, many of the bees could be saved …

The colony wasn’t overrun with drones. Going by the amount of stores consumed it had probably been rearing worker brood since the winter solstice.

The queen was unmarked and unclipped. I strongly suspect she was a late-season supersedure queen who was very poorly mated.

The 3-4 weeks of drone brood rearing 10 had wrecked quite a few of the frames, but the bees were worth saving.

Under these circumstances I decided to shake the colony out.

When I do this I like to move the original hive and the stand it’s on. If you don’t move the stand the displaced bees tend to cluster near the original hive entrance, festooned from the hive stand. 

In poor weather, or late in the afternoon, this can lead to lots of bees unnecessarily perishing.

However, the stand was shared with two other colonies, so couldn’t be removed. It was also late morning and the weather was excellent.

I moved the hive away and shook the bees out. 

Sure enough … they returned to their original location.

They then marched along the hive stand to the entrance of the adjacent hive.

This way sisters!

And, by the time I left the apiary in mid-afternoon there were only a few diehard bees clustered near where the original hive entrance was.

Why didn’t I just unite them as I’d done with the other failed queen?

Drone brood is a Varroa magnet

Varroa replicate when feeding on developing pupae. The longer development time of drone pupae (when compared with worker pupae) means that you get ~50% more Varroa from drone brood 11

Unsurprisingly perhaps (or not, because that’s the way evolution works) Varroa have therefore evolved to preferentially infest drone brood. When given the choice between a drone or worker pupa to infest, Varroa choose the drone about 10 times more frequently than the worker.

And that ~10:1 ‘preference ratio’ increases when drone brood is limiting … as it is early in the season.

What this means is that the first burst of drone brood production in a colony is very attractive to Varroa.

Unless there are compelling reasons to keep this very early drone brood – for example, a colony with stellar genetics I’d like to contribute as much as possible to the local gene pool – I often try and remove it.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

If you use foundationless frames this is often as easy as simply cutting out a single panel of drone brood.

But, in the case of this drone laying queen, it meant that the logical action was to discard all of the drone brood to ensure I discarded the majority of the Varroa also present in the colony 12.

Which is why I shook the colony out, rather than uniting them 🙂

Boxes of bees

Several colonies in one apiary went into the winter on double brood colonies. Inevitably, with the loss of bees during the winter months, the colony contracts and the queen almost invariably ends up laying in the upper box.

The first inspection of the season is often a good time to remove the lower box. It can be removed altogether, or replaced (above the other box) for a Bailey comb change if the weather is suitable.

At this stage of the year the lower box is often reasonably empty of bees and totally empty of brood. 

Emptying a box of bees

If the comb in the lower box is old and dark (see the picture above) I place the upper box on the original floor and add an empty super on top. I then go through the lower box, shaking the bees into the empty super. Good frames are retained, the rest are destined for the wax extractor and firelighters.

Using an empty super helps ‘funnel’ the bees into the brood box.

Sometimes the queen has already laid up a frame or so in the lower box. Under these circumstances – particularly if the comb is relatively new – I’ll simply reverse the boxes, placing the lower box on top of the upper one. This results in the queen quite quickly moving up and laying up the space in the upper brood chamber.

It’s then time to add a queen excluder and the first super.

The beekeeping season has definitely started 🙂


Notes

I commented a fortnight ago about the apparent lateness of the 2021 spring. I’m adding this final note on the afternoon of the 23rd and have still yet to see or hear either cuckoo or chiffchaff on the west coast. Last year they were here in the middle of the month. This, combined with the temperature data (see above) show that everything is a week or two behind events last year.

Which means I can expect to start doing some sort of swarm prevention and control in the next fortnight.

Preparing for winter

The beekeeping season is fast receding into the distance as the first frosts of autumn appear and, finally, the wasp numbers start to diminish. By now colonies should be heavy with stores, either collected by the bees or provided by the beekeeper.

Winter is coming … be prepared

There is relatively little actual beekeeping to be done this late in the year.

Colonies do not need to be disturbed unnecessarily. They certainly don’t require the usual weekly inspection … they’re not going to swarm, you’ve already applied your miticide of choice and fed them with fondant or syrup 1.

Late queen mating

With temperatures during the day in the low to mid-teens (°C) it is still warm enough to open a colony if you need to.

One of the few reasons I’d open a colony in very late September/early October would be to check if a new queen that had emerged at the end of August had successfully mated. If she had, then all is good. She will continue to lay late into the autumn and should produce sufficient winter bees to get the colony through to the following Spring.

When I lived in the Midlands I would regularly get queens successfully mated in early/mid September. It was pretty dependable, and in good years I’d be actively queen rearing through much of August.

Now, back in Scotland, late queen mating is not something I would want to rely on. I’m certain it happens now and again, but only in very exceptional years.

It’s a tough life being a drone in late August … but not for much longer

This year, many of my colonies turfed their drones out a month ago, and queen mating is not going to happen unless there are plenty of drones about.

A quick peek

It takes just minutes to check whether the queen is mated and laying. Although you don’t need to see the queen, it’s worth using just a whiff of smoke so you have the option of searching for her if needed. If you smoke the colony heavily she’ll end up rushing about or buried under a mass of disturbed bees.

Just a whiff …

You will need to remove the feeder (if using syrup) or the queen excluder and fondant block. Place these aside gently and remember that there are likely to be large numbers of bees adhering to the underside, so balance them on the rim of an upturned roof. This is the time you realise the benefit of using framed rigid wire QE when feeding fondant … removing the block on a flexible plastic QE is a right palaver.

The hive should be busy with bees. Gently remove the dummy board and outer frame. This should be full, or in the process of being filled, with stores. There’s no need to shake the bees off. Just stand it aside out of the way.

‘Guesstimate’ the approximate centre of the brood nest, based upon the density of bees in the seams. Gently lever the frames apart a centimetre or so, then release one of the frames adjacent to the gap you’ve created from its neighbours.

Lift the frame and look for sealed brood, open brood and eggs. By knowing the development cycle of workers bees (3E,5L,13P 2) you can determine approximately when the queen started laying 3.

If she started laying …

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

… if there are no eggs or larvae by very late September I would assume that the queen had failed to mate.

You need to use your judgement here. If the weather was poor in the first half of September, but excellent since then, it remains a distant possibility that she has only just mated and has yet to start laying.

Look carefully for polished cells where the centre of the broodnest should be.

And cross your fingers.

Polished cells are a sign that the nurse bees are preparing the comb for egg laying. However, in my experience, they do this even if the queen remains unmated, so it is not a reliable sign that all is well.

You therefore need to use your judgement and be realistic.

Miracles do happen, but you can’t depend upon them 4.

If the weather has been consistently poor – windy, low temperatures (for queen mating, which really needs ~18-20°C) or wet – then assume the worst and ‘save’ the colony by uniting it with a nearby strong colony.

A colony without a laying queen in late autumn will not survive the winter in any state that will make it a viable colony the following year 5.

In Scotland, I routinely unite colonies that do not have a laying queen at the end of August. As described in the last couple of weeks, I do my final colony checks with feeding and miticide treatment.

I know the chances of a queen getting successfully mated after that are effectively zero.

Quick uniting – air freshener

If you need to unite two colonies quickly, without the usual week long wait while they gently mingle after stacking them separated by a sheet of newspaper, you can use a few squirts of household air freshener.

  • Open the queenright recipient colony, removing the feeder and carefully placing it aside to avoid crushing bees (see above)
  • Find the unmated/unlaying/uncooperative queen in the broodless box and remove her (permanently I’m afraid)
  • Spray the top of the recipient colony with a a few squirts of air freshener
  • Do the same with the underside of the now queenless broodless colony
  • Stack the latter on top of the recipient colony
  • Add the feeder back, again giving a squirt or two of air freshener at the interface to stop the bees from fighting

The air freshener masks the distinctive pheromone ‘smell’ of the two colonies, allowing the bees to mingle without fighting.

That’s it.

Job done.

Caveat emptor

Like everything else on this site, I only write here from direct experience. I have successfully united quite a few colonies like this, though nothing like the number I’ve united using newspaper 6.

Given time and the choice I’d always use newspaper 7.

But this late in the season you might not have time.

A day after uniting with air freshener you can, if needed, revisit the hive and go through the double brood box to reduce it to a single box for the winter.

Does it matter which air freshener you use?

I have no idea.

I use Glade Citrus Sunny Beat as it was the cheapest I could find at the time I needed it 8.

Securing the queenright overwintering colony

If you consult the COLOSS records for overwintering colony losses they include a small percentage that are lost to ‘natural disasters’. COLOSS record queen failures and things like that separately, and – in an earlier paper – they define natural disasters as:

… rather loosely defined, as the causes can be very different in participating countries, including fire, storm, flooding, vandalism, bears, martens, woodpeckers, falling trees, suffocation from snow and many more.

The small percentage (0.1 – ~5%) lost to natural disasters vary from country to country, and from year to year.

What is notable about several of these natural disasters is that they should be avoidable.

If your colonies are strong and queenright, and if you’ve fed and treated them to give them the best chance of surviving the winter, it makes sense to do what you can to avoid these natural disasters.

The hive

I use a combination of polystyrene and cedar hives. Sometimes I even combine the two together in a single hive. The majority of my poly hives are from Abelo or Swienty which, for reasons explained elsewhere, are compatible with all the woodenware I own.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

I see no difference in the overwintering colony success between poly and cedar hives.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

I’ve only run about 20 colonies for the last decade. That’s ~200 overwintered colonies. If there were wildly different survival rates I would have noticed. Since I haven’t noticed it either means there is no difference or there is a subtle difference but my sample size is too low 9.

All my colonies overwinter on open mesh floors, usually with the Varroa tray removed. The hives in the photo above are being monitored for mite drop in early December following oxalic acid treatment.

DIY insulation over a perspex crownboard

In addition, all of my hives have a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan under the roof, integrated into the roof, or integrated into the crownboard. In the bee shed my hives have no roof, and are just capped with a block of Kingspan over the crownboard.

Look, no roof … but insulation present all year round

Make sure the stack of boxes in the hive are stable and secure. If the apiary is exposed, strap everything together securely. A colony might survive a week or two of summer showers with no roof, but will surely perish if exposed for any length of time to cold, wet winter weather.

Apiary security

It is unlikely that you will visit the apiary much in the winter. Once a fortnight is more than enough.

It might therefore be worth considering whether it is sufficiently secure from the attention of unwanted human visitors. Unfortunately, incidents of vandalism occur throughout the season, but a hive kicked over in midwinter has less chance of being detected quickly.

Or of surviving.

Although it should probably be included within the ‘Varmints’ section below, large animals – cows, deer, elk, bear, rhino, kangaroo 10 – might also inadvertently, or deliberately, overturn a hive.

Apiary gate

Safe and secure

Fences, either a couple of strands of barbed wire, an electric fence or a full-blown razor-wire topped security barrier, are usually sufficient to keep large two and four-legged visitors at bay.

COLOSS mention both falling trees and flooding as natural disasters.

Winter storms can and do wreak havoc in some years, though I always associate the summer with storm-toppled trees because they’re in full leaf and therefore offer more resistance. It’s certainly worth looking to see if trees adjacent to your apiary might threaten the hives.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Flooding appears to be on the increase. I have experienced minor flooding in one of my apiaries. None of the hives were threatened, but it made access inconvenient for weeks at a time. Again, it’s worth imagining the worst and preparing for it.

Hives often float, but not necessarily the right way up 🙁

Varmints

Having dealt with the threat of large animals 11 it’s also worth considering the damage some small animals can do to hives.

The two main culprits are woodpeckers and mice. Both can be a menace once the frosts set in, but rarely before that.

Woodpeckers, and specifically green woodpeckers (yaffles 12), can learn that beehives contain a wonderful bounty of pupae and larvae. It is learned behaviour. Some green woodpeckers never go near hives, others routinely target them.

In Warwickshire, hives needed to be protected from yaffles. Here in Fife the bird is very much less common and I’ve never had any hives targeted.

Wrapped for winter

Wrapped for winter …

Protection is straightforward. If needed, I simply wrap the hives in a single sheet of DPM (damp proof membrane), pinned in place with drawing pins. The bird need to cling onto the vertical side of the hive to easily burrow through to the brood. The DPM stops them doing this. Leaving bits of the roof or sides of the floor exposed is therefore not a problem 13.

Pixie or Dixie?

Pixie or Dixie?

Mice access hives through overly large entrances. I only have problems with the stupidly cavernous maw of my preferred Everynuc. Mice eat pollen and stores, destroy the brood and wee everywhere 🙁  Thoroughly unpleasant.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

A standard mouseguard pinned in place throughout the coldest months of the winter prevents them accessing the hive. Alternatively, on a full-sized colony, the kewl-style underfloor entrances are very effective at excluding rodents.

Kewl open mesh floor showing L-shaped entrance slot

Kewl floor entrance …

That’s not the end of winter-related tasks, but it’s just about all you need to do for your colonies before winter proper starts.

There are some midwinter checks that are needed, but we’ll deal with them nearer the time.


Note

We also have pine martens at one of my apiaries. They are reported to vandalise hives and steal honey (and presumably brood) in late winter. Pine martens are incredibly agile and no fence exists that could keep them out. Time will tell whether they are a problem.

In the meantime, here’s one living up to its name, stealing a pine offcut used to slow down the rate at which they empty the squirrel feeder of peanuts 🙂

Long distance beekeeping

This post was originally entitled ‘lockdown beekeeping’. I changed it in the hope that, at some point in the future, we’ve all forgotten lockdown and are back to the ‘old normal‘. Instead, long distance beekeeping, better summarises the topic and might rank better in future Google searches …

But before I start, here’s some general advice …

Don’t do as I do, do as I say (elsewhere on this site 😉 )

I don’t think what I’m going to describe below was anything like ideal. In the end it worked out pretty well, but probably as much from luck as judgement. I’d do it again if I had to, but I’d prefer not to. I don’t think it is a workable solution for effective beekeeping in anything other than exceptional circumstances.

But 2020 has been an exceptional circumstance …

Mid-March madness

It was abundantly clear in very early March that a lockdown was inevitable 1 to restrict the spread of Covid-19. All the numbers were going in the wrong direction and other countries were already imposing quite draconian restrictions to control virus transmission 2.

I had speaking engagements with Oban & District BKA on the 12th and at the SNHBS event at Kinross on the 14th and, on the following day, I disappeared to my bolthole on the remote west coast of Scotland. 

The wild west

I decided to simply abandon the bees in Fife for at least a month while the country came to terms with movement restrictions, supermarket food deliveries, protecting the NHS and ‘working from home’.

On the day I left I checked that colonies were not too light, that the entrances were clear and that the roofs were secure and everything was strapped down.

March is too early to do anything with bees in Fife and my first inspections are usually not until mid/late April in a normal year, and even early May if there’s been a cold Spring. I therefore had a month to plan for the season ahead, with the expectation that I would have to manage the bees with the minimum possible number of visits for the next few months.

Planning

The beekeeping season contains a number of ‘moveable fixtures’.

By that I mean that certain things happen every season, but the time when they happen is not fixed. The timing depends upon the weather which, in turn, influences forage availability. It depends upon the strength of the colony, the location of the apiary and – for all I know – the phase of the moon.

Warm springs can lead to swarming by the end of April. Conversely, cold springs delay events. Dry summers generally put paid to the lime nectar and a protracted June gap can leave colonies starving in the middle of the season.

In the previous post I called these moveable fixtures the unknown knowns.

The variable timing of these moveable fixtures influences colony management by the beekeeper; this includes the spring honey harvest, swarm control and the summer honey harvest. In addition, it includes more mundane things like comb exchange, feeding the colony up for winter and Varroa management.

Bees and beekeeping are influenced by the environment, not the calendar 3.

The UK government imposed a nationwide lockdown on the 23rd of March 2020. Movement restrictions were imposed, including the distance you could travel from where you live.

Exemptions were made for allowed activities and, after lobbying from national associations and others, beekeeping was included as an exempt activity. Notwithstanding this, it was not going to be practical to conduct the usual weekly inspections from April until late July.

First inspections

I returned to Fife to conduct the first inspections in the third week of April. The spring was well advanced and the strong colonies were really booming. The overwintered nucs had built loads of brace comb in the space over the top bars and urgently needed to be moved to a full hive.

Overwintered nuc with brace comb

There were about 20 colonies spread between my two main apiaries. All were checked for space/strength, temper and the presence of a laying, marked and clipped queen 4. I didn’t have time to mollycoddle any weak colonies so these (having checked they were healthy) were united with nearby strong colonies.

Safely back in the hive

In addition, I didn’t have the luxury of time to see if poorly behaved colonies might pick up later in the season. To be frank, I had more colonies than I needed (or could easily cope with). With the need for swarm control looming, I decided to reduce colony numbers by uniting de-queened aggressive colonies with others in the same apiary. There were only a couple of these (identified the previous season and seemingly unimproved after the winter) … but every little bit helps.

United colonies, three supers, strapped up well … 25th April 2020

Finally, with the oil seed rape about to flower, I added three supers to the majority of the colonies. In a normal season these would have been added incrementally as needed. This year I had to assume (or hope) they might need them.

Swarm control

On my return to the west coast the spring was warming up. The primroses were looking fantastic and we had several weeks of outstanding weather.

Primroses – late April 2020

I enjoyed the good weather and spent the time fretting about the timing of swarm control.

My colonies tend to make swarm preparations between mid-May and the first week of June – a good example of a moveable fixture.

A priority this year was not to lose any swarms.

I did not want to inconvenience other beekeepers (or civilians’ 5) with swarms I managed to lose by ineptly doing my beekeeping from the other side of the country.

With most people trying to keep themselves isolated, 30,000 bees moving into a chimney would be a lot more than unwelcome.

Even in a normal year I do my very best not to lose swarms, and this was anything but a normal year.

I therefore decided to conduct pre-emptive swarm control on every colony in the third week of May. ‘Pre-emptive’ meaning that, whether the colonies showed any signs of swarming or not, I’d remove the queen and let them rear another.

Colonies do not swarm every year. Every now and again a strong colony of mine will show no inclination to swarm. These are great … I just pile another super or two on top and am thankful not to have to intervene.

However, strong colonies are more than likely to swarm and I didn’t feel I had the luxury of waiting around to find which wanted to and which didn’t.

A swarm in May (and how I avoided it … )

With the exception of a couple of our research colonies that seemed to be on a ‘go slow’ I treated all my colonies in the same way.

I used the nucleus method of swarm control. I removed the queen and one frame of emerging brood and put them into a 5 frame nuc box with a frame of foundation or drawn comb and a frame of stores. To ensure there were sufficient bees in the box I then shook in another frame of bees before sealing them up for transport.

All the nucs were moved to distant apiaries so there was no risk of bee numbers being depleted as they returned to the original hive.

And then there were three … nucs for pre-emptive swarm control

The parental colonies were left for 6 days and then checked for queen cells.

Ideally this should have been 7 days. By this time there would be no larvae young enough to generate additional queen cells from. However, there was a large storm moving in from the west and it was clear that there would be no possibility of doing any beekeeping while it moved through.

I therefore checked on the sixth day, knocked back all the queen cells, leaving just one good one, and then scarpered back to the west coast (meeting the storm en route).

However, before I disappeared I also checked all the nucs. All were doing fine. There was a good nectar flow and they had already drawn and laid up the frame out I’d given them. I therefore added two foundationless frames flanking the central frame. With frames either side these are usually drawn straight and true.

New comb with queen already laying it up

If you give the bees lots of foundationless frames together, particularly if the hive isn’t perfectly level, they will often make a real mess of drawing the comb out. By interleaving the new frames with those that were already drawn the bees are forced to maintain the required bee space on either side, so usually draw the frame out satisfactorily.

Getting the timing right … at least partly

When I left Fife on the 22nd of May the OSR was in full flower. It would finish sometime in early June.

My next dilemma was to time the following visit for the spring honey harvest. Too soon and the frames wouldn’t be capped. Too late and, being OSR, it might start to crystallise in the comb.

But I also wanted to deal with all the requeening colonies during the same visit and all of the nucs.

I’ve previously discussed the time it takes for a new queen to develop, emerge, mature, mate and start laying. It always takes longer than you’d like. The absolute minimum time is about two weeks, but it usually takes longer. Ideally I wanted to go through all the requeening colonies, find, mark and clip the queens or re-unite (with the nuc) those that had failed.

At the same time, with a strong nectar flow and a strongly laying queen, there was a real risk that the nucs were going to get overcrowded very fast. The longer they were left, the more chance that they would think about swarming.

I employed a number of local spies (beekeeping friends in the area) and queried them repeatedly 6 about the state of the OSR. Shortly after it finished, I returned to take off the spring honey.

A minor catastrophe

It was the 10th of June; this was exactly 20 days since leaving the requeening colonies with a single freshly-sealed queen cell.

I’ve previously mentioned that one of my apiaries is rather exposed to strong westerlies. Despite the wind-reduction netting and the rapidly growing willow hedge, this apiary had been really hammered by the storm on the 22nd/23rd of May.

Nuked nucs

Two nucs had lost their lids and crownboards and a full strapped-up hive had been blown over, denting the fence on its descent but remaining more or less intact.

How is the queen supposed to find the entrance?

The apiary hadn’t been checked since my last visit, so I’m assuming the damage happened during the storm in late May. That being the case, the nucs would have been open to the elements for about 18 days. Amazingly, both still contained laying queens and – despite looking a little the worse for wear – eventually recovered.

In contrast, the strapped up hive was not ‘open to the elements’. It had fallen entrance-first onto the ground. I think a few bees could fly from a gap where the ground didn’t quite block the entrance, but I was more concerned about getting them upright again to check too carefully.

Despite my best efforts I failed to find a queen in this hive. My frames are arranged ‘warm way’, so all the frames had slid together when the hive fell and it’s possible the queen didn’t survive 7.

Spring honey, nucs and queens

The spring honey harvest went well. The OSR frames were mostly capped. Those that weren’t could still be extracted as the honey would not shake out of the frame.

A fat frame of spring honey

It was my best year for spring honey since returning to Scotland in 2015. With the exception of that one big storm the weather had been pretty good and the bees had had ample opportunity to be out foraging.

However, although a few of the colonies had newly mated and laying queens, the majority did not. In most of them I found evidence that there would be a laying queen sometime soon … I usually infer this from the presence of ‘polished’ cells in the centre of the one or two of the central frames in the hive. This gave me confidence that there was likely to be an unmated, or just mated, queen in the box. There’s nothing much to be gained from actually finding her, so I would have to be a bit more patient.

Just as these things cannot be rushed, an overcrowded nuc cannot be ignored.

Almost all the nucs were fast running out of space. I therefore removed 2-3 frames of brood from each and replaced them with fresh frames. I used the frames of brood to boost the honey production colonies that were ‘busy’ requeening.

Mid-June and the foxgloves are in flower

By the 14th of June I was back on the west coast.

Late June rearrangements

I returned a fortnight later for a very busy couple of days of beekeeping.

By this time the summer nectar flow was starting. The nucs, even those ‘weakened’ by removing brood, were busy filling spaces with brace comb.

Comb in feeder

All of the requeening colonies were checked for a laying queen. A handful had failed, disappeared or whatever and now looked queenless. These were requeened by uniting them with a nuc containing the ‘saved’ queen from earlier in the season.

What could be simpler? That’s one of the main attractions of this method of swarm control.

The colonies with the first of the new laying queens were doing really well, with lovely fresh frames of wall-to-wall brood. It’s only after a queen has laid up a full frame or two that you get a proper impression of her quality. I can never properly judge this in the tiny little frames of a mini-mating nuc, so – despite the extra resources (bees, frames, boxes) needed – prefer to get queens mated and laying in hives with full-sized frames.

Good laying pattern

The remaining ‘unused’ nucs were all expanded up to full hives and given a super. All the strong colonies in the apiaries were again given three supers and left to get on with things.

Expanded nucs on the left, production hives on the right

It was a backbreaking few days, particularly because I spent the evenings jarring honey 8, but it left the apiaries in a good state for the summer nectar flow.

Summer honey

The only beekeeping I did in July was on the west coast of Scotland. I moved a couple of nucs up to full hives and, since the heather wasn’t yet in full flower, I gave them each a gallon or so of thin syrup to encourage the bees to draw comb to give the queen space to lay.

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

I finally returned to Fife to take the summer honey off in late August. I’ve recently posted a brief description of clearing supers during Storm Francis so won’t repeat it here.

In four days I removed all the supers and extracted the honey, fed and treated the bees for the winter, and left the colonies strapped up securely for … goodness knows when.

The summer honey harvest was unusual. One of my apiaries did fantastically well, more than the last two seasons combined, and by far my best year since 2015.

The other apiary was just slightly worse than … utterly pathetic.

This second apiary is usually very reliable. The forage in the area has been dependable and, in some years, the lime has yielded very well. However, not this year and, since I wasn’t about, I don’t know why.

I did it my way … but it wasn’t very satisfying

That last paragraph rather neatly sums up the 2020 beekeeping season.

Overall the season must be considered a success; I didn’t lose any swarms, the majority of colonies were requeened successfully, all of the colonies are going into the winter strong, fed and treated, and the overall honey crop was very good.

However, it’s all been done ‘remotely’, both literally and figuratively. I’ve not felt as though I’ve been able to watch the season and the colonies develop together. I don’t feel as though I was ‘in tune’ with what was happening in the hives. I can’t explain why some things worked well and other things – like the apiary with no honey 🙁 – failed miserably.

My notes are perfunctory at best, “+3 supers, Q laying well”, and contain none of the usual asides about what’s happening in the environment. There’s no indication of what was flowering when, whether the year was ‘early’, ‘late’, or ‘about normal’, when the migrant birds arrived or left.

I’ve done less beekeeping this year than in any year in at least a decade. Since I rather like beekeeping, this means it has been a bit of a disappointment. Since I’ve spent less time with the bees, and I’ve been so rushed when I have been working with them, I feel as though I’ve learnt less this year than normal.

What didn’t get done?

With irregular and infrequent visits some things were simply ignored this season.

I did very little Varroa monitoring. With the Apivar strips now in it’s clear that some hives have higher Varroa counts than I’ve seen in the last few years 9. However, not all of them. Some colonies appear to have extremely low mite loads.

We finally managed to check the levels of deformed wing virus in our research colonies quite late in the season once the labs partially reopened. The levels were reassuringly low. This strongly suggests that the mite levels are not yet at a point threatening the health of the colonies.

I’ve singularly failed to do much in the way of brood comb exchange this season. This means I’m going to have to take a bit more care next year to cycle out the old, dark frames and replace them with brand new ones.

Here’s one I did manage to replace

Again, not the end of the world, but ‘bad beekeeping’ all the same.

As I’m putting the finishing words together for this post the government is re-introducing further curfews and restrictions … maybe next year will be more of the same?


 

Bigging up nucs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems with history and latitude

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

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

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

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

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

Overcrowding

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

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

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

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

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

Comb in feeder

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

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

Nucs can build up very fast … be warned.

Decision time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good laying pattern from queen in 5 frame nucleus

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

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

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

From nuc to a full brood box

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

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

Feeding

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

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

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

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

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

Defending the hive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uniting the nuc with a queenright or queenless colony

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

Collect together the things you will need:

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

Queens

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

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

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

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

Caged queen with attendants

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

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

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

Uniting

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

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

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

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

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

Add a second empty brood box on top.

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

Newspaper, second brood box and a very small hole

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

Just checking!

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

Have patience

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

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

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

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

Miscellaneous final thoughts

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

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

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

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

Lost bees

How will the bees reorientate to the new location?

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

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

Where has the house gone?

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

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

Supers

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

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

Newspaper and queen excluder

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

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

Time to tidy up and go home


 

Cabinet reshuffle

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about the totally dysfunctional state of British politics at the moment 1.

Once the honey supers are removed there’s seemingly little to do in the apiary. There is a temptation to catch up on all those other jobs postponed because I was “just off to the bees”.

Well, maybe temptation is a bit strong. After all, like all good procrastinators, I can usually find an excuse to postpone until next week something that could be left until at least tomorrow.

However, as I said last week, preparations for winter are very important and should not be delayed.

I covered feeding and the all-important late summer mite treatments in that post. Here I’m going to briefly discuss the various late season hive rearrangements that might be needed.

Clearing additional supers

I use very simple clearer boards to get the bees out of my supers. However, there are a couple of instances when not all the supers end up being removed:

  1. If some frames are empty or fail the ‘shake test’ I’ll rearrange these into the bottom super 2. I then clear the bees down into the bottom super and leave it for the bees.
  2. If the colony is really strong and is unlikely to fit into the brood box(es) I’ll often add a super above the queen excluder to clear the bees down into. Sometimes the bees will add a few dribbles of nectar to this … not enough to ever extract, and I’d prefer they put it in the brood box instead.

In both these situations I’ll want to remove the additional super before winter. I don’t want the bees to have a cold empty space above their heads.

Feed & clear together

I usually do this at the same time that I feed the bees.

I rearrange the boxes so that the ‘leftover’ super is above a crownboard on top of the super that is providing the headspace to accommodate the fondant blocks.

Since access to this top super is through a small hole the bees consider it is ‘outside’ the hive and so empty the remaining nectar and bring it down to the brood box 3.

If there are sealed stores in any of these super frames I bruise 4 the cappings with a hive tool and they’ll then move the stores down.

Substandard colonies

A very good piece of advice to all beekeepers is to “take your winter losses in the autumn”. This means assess colonies in the late summer/early autumn and get rid of those that are weak or substandard 5.

Substandard might mean those with a poor temper.

This is the colony which you put up with all season (despite their yobbo tendencies) because you believe that aggressive bees are productive bees’.

Were they?

Was that one half-filled super of partially-capped honey really worth the grief they gave you all summer?

Unless substandard (not just aggression … running, following, insufficiently frugal in winter etc.) colonies are replaced the overall standard of your bees will never improve.

I’ll discuss how to ‘remove’ them in a few paragraphs.

It’s probably a reasonable estimate to suggest that the ‘best’ third of your colonies should be used to rear more queens and the ‘worst’ third should be re-queened with these 6.

Over time 7 the quality will improve.

Of course, a substandard colony might well make it through the winter perfectly successfully. The same cannot be said for weak colonies.

TLC or tough love?

At the end of the summer colonies should be strong. If they are not then there is probably something wrong. A poorly mated queen, an old and failing queen, disease?

The exception might be a recently requeened colony or a new 5 frame nuc.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Colonies that are weak at this stage of the season for no obvious reason need attention. Without it they are likely to succumb during the winter. And they’ll do this after you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of feeding and treating them … 8

There are essentially two choices:

  1. Mollycoddle them and hope they pick up. Boosting them with a frame or two of emerging brood may help (but make sure you don’t weaken the donor colony significantly). Moving them from a full hive to a nuc – preferably poly to provide better insulation – may also be beneficial. In a nuc they have less dead space to heat. An analogous strategy is to fill the space in the brood box with ‘fat dummies‘ or – low-tech but just as effective – a big wodge of bubble wrap with a standard dummy board to hold it in place.
  2. Sacrifice the queen from the weak hive and unite them with a strong colony.

Sentimentalism

Of the two I’d almost always recommend uniting colonies.

It’s less work. There’s no potentially wasted outlay on food and miticides. Most importantly, it’s much more likely to result in a strong colony the following spring.

However, we all get attached to our bees. It’s not unusual to give a fading favourite old queen ‘one more chance’ in the hope that next year will be her last hurrah.

Uniting notes

I’ve covered uniting before and so will only add some additional notes here …

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

  • You cannot generate a strong colony by uniting two weak colonies. They’re weak for a reason. Whether they’re weak for the same or different reasons uniting them is unlikely to help.
  • Never unite a colony with signs of disease. All you do is jeopardise the healthy colony.
  • Find the queen and permanently remove her from the weak or poor quality (substandard) colony.
  • If you can’t find the queen unite them with a queen excluder between the colonies. In my limited experience (I usually manage to find the unwanted queen) the bees usually do away with a failing queen when offered a better one, but best to check in a week or so.
  • I generally move the de-queened colony and put it on top of the strong queenright colony.
  • Unite over newspaper and don’t interfere with the hive for at least another week.
  • You can unite one strong colony and two weak colonies simultaneously.
  • Uniting and feeding at the same time is possible.
  • You can unite and treat with a miticide like Amitraz simultaneously. You will have to make a judgement call on whether both boxes need miticide treatment, depending on the strength of the weak colony.
  • If you’re uniting a strong substandard colony and a strong good colony you will need to use an amount of miticide appropriate for a double brood colony (four strips in the case of Amitraz).

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The goal of all of the above is to go into autumn with strong, healthy, well-fed colonies that will survive the winter and build up strongly again in the spring.

A very small or weak colony 9 in autumn may survive, but it’s unlikely to flourish the following spring.

“It takes bees to make bees.”

And a weak colony in spring lacks bees, so cannot build up fast.

In contrast, an overwintered strong colony can often yield a nuc in May the following year. You’ve regained your colony numbers, but have a new, young queen in one hive with most of the season ahead for her to prove her worth.

I’ve merged three topics here – clearing supers, stock improvement and getting rid of weak colonies before winter – because all involve some sort of hive manipulation in the early autumn. I usually complete this in late September or early October, with the intention of overwintering strong colonies in single brood boxes packed with bees and stores.


Colophon

The heading of the final paragraph is the opening line of To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821). Keats wrote To Autumn exactly two hundred years ago (September 1819, his last poem) while gradually succumbing to tuberculosis. Despite this, and his doomed relationship with Fanny Brawne, the poem is not about sadness at the end of summer but instead revels in the ripeness and bounteousness of the season.

Of course, all beekeepers know that the first stanza of To Autumn closes with a reference to bees.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

 

Keeping track

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

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

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

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

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

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

Struggling to keep

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

No honey again 🙁

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

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

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

As does the refund of the £35 deposit 🙁

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

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

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

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

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

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

Struggling to keep up with

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

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

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

Very prolific.

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

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

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

Stock improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping track

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

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

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

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

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

Objective and subjective notes

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

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

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

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

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

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

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

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

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

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

Colony and queen numbering

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

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

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

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… 😉


 

 

 

The nucleus method

Almost all beekeeping associations – and most books – teach Pagdens’ artificial swarm as the recommended method of swarm control. It is tried and tested and reasonably dependable. However it can be a bit tricky to grasp for inexperienced beekeepers.

At least part of the problem is you have two hives that look the same, one on the original site, one adjacent. Conducted properly, the adjacent hive is moved to the other side of the original a week or so into the process.

Teaching this in a poorly lit, draughty church hall in late January, facing the audience with the inevitable confusion over left and right, and getting ‘new’ and ‘old’ hives mixed up, often bamboozles the beginner 1. Or the instructor 😉

Here’s an alternative … the nucleus method of swarm control.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

General principles

This method is simplicity itself. When the colony looks as though it’s preparing to swarm you remove the queen, some stores and some bees into a nucleus hive.

This keeps the queen safe in case things go awry with the original colony.

You then return a week later and remove all but one queen cell in the original colony. The virgin queen emerges, mates, returns and starts laying.

A month or so after starting the original colony is headed by a new queen and you have a ‘spare’ building up in the nucleus box. You can overwinter this, sell it, give it away or – after removing the queen – unite it back with the original hive.

And that’s it … I said it was simple 🙂

Here is a more complete account.

Equipment needed

It goes without saying that the nucleus method of swarm control needs a nucleus (nuc) hive 2. Any sort of 5 frame nuc is suitable. Nucs are incredibly useful, so they are a good investment. If you’re buying one for the first time get polystyrene as they’re lighter, better insulated and much better for overwintering bees in. I’ve reviewed poly nucs a few years ago. There are even more makes to choose from now.

I’d recommend not using a two frame nuc as there’s not really enough room for stores and colony expansion 3.

Two frame nuc box

Two frame nuc box … a bit too small for the nucleus method of swarm control (but usable at a pinch)

In addition to the nuc you’ll need five frames that are compatible with your nuc and hive. Ideally, one or two of these should be drawn comb, but don’t worry if you just have foundation. A dummy board can also be useful. Like nucs, you can almost never have too many dummy boards.

Honey bee development

To properly understand honey bee swarm control you really need to understand the timing of the development cycle of queen bees.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

Queen cells have a characteristic appearance. Unlike the horizontally-oriented worker cells, larvae destined to become queens hatch from eggs laid in vertically-oriented queen cells. After three days as eggs and a further five days of larval development the queen cell is sealed.

A colony will usually swarm on or soon after 4 the queen cells are sealed.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

This is why it is recommended that colony inspections are conducted at seven day intervals. If the colony is thinking of swarming you’ll find an unsealed cell (because there were none last week when you inspected and they take 8 days to be sealed) and you can immediately start swarm control.

Day 1 – Making up the queenright nucleus colony

If you find one or more unsealed queen cells at a routine inspection … don’t panic. You’re prepared, you’ve done your homework and you have the necessary equipment.

  1. Stuff the entrance of a nucleus hive with grass and place it near the colony 5.
  2. Remove one of the outer frames from the colony (you’ve probably already done this to give yourself room for the inspection) as this should have a good amounts of sealed and unsealed stores.
  3. Check again that the queen isn’t on this frame of stores (unlikely) and that it doesn’t contain any queen cells (again unlikely).
  4. Gently transfer the frame of stores plus all the adhering bees to the nucleus box.
  5. Continue the inspection and find the queen. Be gentle, don’t rush, don’t use too much smoke.
  6. Ideally you want the queen on a frame with some sealed and emerging brood. If you are lucky you’ll find her on a suitable frame.
  7. Gently transfer the queen and the frame she is on to the nucleus box. It is very important that this frame has no queen cells on it. Check very carefully. Destroy any you find.
  8. Your nuc colony is now queenright and has two frames of bees. Push the frames against the side wall of the nuc box, leaving a wide gap.
  9. Into this gap shake a further two frames of bees. Foragers are likely to leave the nuc and return to the original hive. You do not want the box to be short of young bees. If in doubt shake a further frame of bees into the gap in the nuc 6.
  10. Add a frame of drawn comb if you have it then fill the box with foundation. Add a dummy board if needed. Gently place the crownboard and roof on the nuc, secure everything with a strap and turn your attention to the colony.

Notes

  • The purpose of this exercise is to establish a small colony with stores, a laying queen, space to lay and sufficient bees to support her and the brood being reared. Remember stores, queen, bees, space and no queen cells you won’t go wrong.
  • You will usually find the queen on a frame with eggs and young larvae. It’s very important that this frame does not have any queen cells on it.
  • Ideally you want the queen on a frame of emerging brood. This offers a number of advantages
    • The young bees will immediately strengthen the population supporting the queen
    • The vacated cells can be used by the queen to lay eggs (so reducing the need for drawn comb, or for the bees to build new comb)
    • The nuc colony will go through a period with no sealed brood and you can take advantage of this for Varroa management if needed (I’ll deal with this in another post)
    • It’s unlikely (due to the age of the other brood) to have a queen cell on it
  • One of the most common problems encountered with this method of swarm control is making up (or ending up) with a nuc that is not strong enough. A weak nuc will be unable to defend itself against robbing or wasps. There’s very little chance of weakening the original hive too much.
  • One way to avoid losing foragers from the nuc is to move it to an out apiary more than 3 miles from the original hive.
  • If you do leave the nuc in the same apiary check it a couple of days later. The bees should have chewed their way out through the dried grass. If they haven’t, pull a bit out at the corner of the entrance to encourage them to fly.

Day 1 – Preparing with the queenless colony

  1. Inspect every frame in the colony. Destroy all large queen cells 7. Anything that looks like the queen cell in the picture above should be destroyed. The idea here is to only leave queen cells containing very small larvae.
  2. Mark the frames containing these remaining selected queen cells using a drawing pin or pen.
  3. Push the frames together, add two frames of foundation, add the crownboard and close up the colony.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

One week later – Ensuring the queenless colony does not swarm

The timing and thoroughness of this inspection is important. Don’t do it earlier. Or later. Don’t rush it and don’t leave more than one queen cell.

  1. Inspect the colony and look for queen cells on the frames you marked a week earlier. These had very young larvae in them then and so will now be sealed 8.
  2. Select one queen cell to keep. Just one. Which one? Choose one that is large, well-shaped and has a sculptured exterior.
  3. Destroy all the other queen cells on this frame. All of them! If you need to remove the bees to see the frame better either brush them off gently or blow gently on them. Do not shake the bees off the frame as this might damage the developing queen.
  4. Gently return the frame with the selected queen cell to the box.
  5. Inspect all other frames in the colony (not just the ones you marked last week) and destroy all of the queen cells you find.
  6. You can shake the bees off these other frames to be sure of finding all other queen cells.
  7. Remember that some queen cells will be unsealed 9 … destroy them all.
  8. Return all the frames to the colony. Close it up and leave it for at least two weeks before inspecting again (see below).

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Notes

  • The purpose of this return visit is to leave the colony with only a single queen cell.
  • Because you removed the queen a week ago there are no other suitably aged young larvae or eggs for the colony to rear queens from. Therefore, the colony cannot produce multiple casts (swarms headed by virgin queens).
  • The nucleus method of swarm control often leaves the queenless colony very strong 10, if you leave more than one queen cell the colony may produce casts.
  • What if the queen gets lost on a mating flight? Shouldn’t I leave two queen cells? Just to be on the safe side? No. If there’s a problem with the queen getting mated you’ve still got the old queen tucked away safely in the nuc box.
  • Queen cells that are large, well shaped and sculptured have received a lot of attention from the workers and so presumably contain a well-fed and good quality queen 11.
  • Don’t be tempted to inspect the colony in less than two weeks. Ideally leave them for three weeks. If you inspect too early there’s a chance that the queen may not have had a chance to mate and start laying (so the point of inspecting is missed) or – worse – that she returns from her mating flight as you have the box open and is then confused or lost.
  • Don’t meddle! Look for pollen being taken into the colony.
  • Have patience. Bees have been around for a few million years. They would not be this successful if they weren’t pretty good at getting queens mated …
  • Finally, particularly if the weather is poor, check the nuc as well. Ensure that it has sufficient stores. With reduced numbers of bees there’s a chance they could starve if the bees cannot forage (in which case the queen in the main colony is going to struggle to get out and mate as well).

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Pros and cons of the nucleus method of swarm control

With the exception of vertical splits almost all of my swarm control uses this nucleus method 12. I particularly like the nucleus method because I have lots of nuc boxes ( 🙂 ) and because it leaves manageable single-entrance hives rather than double height, multiple entrance stacks.

Almost all of the foraging bees are left with the original colony so the nectar-gathering capacity is not significantly reduced.

I almost never use the Pagden artificial swarm, largely because it ties up too much equipment.

Pros

  1. Limited amount of extra equipment needed – five frames and a nuc box … both of which are useful anyway.
  2. The old queen is kept safe and out of the way.
  3. Simple to implement, with just two visits at fixed times.
  4. Reasonably easy to understand the manipulations involved.
  5. No heavy lifting.
  6. You generate a nucleus colony to give away or to build up for overwintering.

Cons

  1. You need to find the queen.
  2. You need to find all the queen cells and use your judgement as to their age and quality.
  3. Unless you remove the nuc to an out apiary there’s a good chance lots of the bees will return to the original hive. Make sure you add enough at the start and be prepared to add more if you check the nuc after a day or two and find it heavily depleted.
  4. If you don’t want to make increase the nuc is a little more difficult to unite back with the original colony 13.

Give it a go … what could possibly go wrong?


 

Spot the queens

A little over a month ago I opened a recently-united hive to be faced with this …

Spot the queen

Spot the queen …

That’s a ‘bit of a stooshie’ as they might say in Glasgow 1. Somewhere in the middle of that brawling mass of workers is a queen.

She’s unmarked and not clipped.

This was a surprise as the queen I had expected to find in the box should have been marked blue 2.

A potted history

The colony had overwintered with a 2016 white marked and clipped queen. I’d conducted a vertical split on the colony in mid-May and by early July I had two queens in the box, one above and one below the split board.

Neither of them was marked white.

A few days after setting up the split the queenright half looked very much like it was preparing to either supercede the queen or swarm. The white marked queen was still there but there were also charged queen cells present.

Either supercedure or swarming should have eventually resulted in the queen being replaced. However, the quality of her successor could not be relied upon … she might have been great, but she might have been poor. The white clipped queen was pretty good and I didn’t want to lose her 3.

I therefore made up a nuc with the ‘old’ white marked queen for safety and left the box with one charged queen cell.

The upper and lower boxes of the split both eventually – by early July – contained new queens, both of which I’d marked blue and clipped.

On the 7th of July I made up a nuc for overwintering with one of the blue clipped queens. The remainder of the – now queenless – colony I united with the queenright colony below it from the original vertical split. This formed one good strong colony.

We had an excellent nectar flow in July and I got two full supers from the colony by the end of the month.

Pining for the fjords

Nine days after making up the nuc and uniting the colonies I conducted a follow-up inspection. The newspaper was chewed away and most of the bees were behaving as normal. So far, so good.

However, on one frame the bees were agitated and formed a gobstopper-sized clump. I gently teased apart the melee with my forefinger to see if there was a queen buried in the middle … there was.

Unmarked and unclipped. Puzzling.

A little further across the same frame was another queen. To paraphrase Monty Python, this queen was not ‘stunned’ or ‘pining for the fjords’, rather she was very much an ex-queen. And probably relatively recently.

Regicide ...

Regicide …

So, as expected, I’d found the 2018 blue-marked and clipped queen in the united colony.

Unexpectedly, she was a corpse 🙁

If in doubt … wait

What was going on in the colony? Frankly, I didn’t have a Scooby’s 4.

Was the (apparently) new, unmarked queen mated or a virgin? Presumably the latter. However, other colonies in the apiary were requeening and it’s not unknown for a queen to go to the wrong hive when returning from a mating flight.

Would she survive the aggravation she was receiving from the workers in the colony?

Where had the new queen come from? If not from outside she must have come from a queen cell in the split hive. However, both sides of the split had new 2018 mated queens, and the timing wasn’t really right.

Under these circumstances the best thing is often to do nothing. I closed the hive up. My notes simply state “Dead BMCLQ! Virgin?? Left them to it.” 5.

No happy ending

Much as I’d like to be able to report that now, a month later, the colony is headed by a new mated queen laying frame after frame of worker brood … I can’t.

At the last inspection 6 the colony only contained several hand-sized patches of brood. However, it was all drone brood in worker cells.

The combination of drone brood in worker cells, with their characteristically domed cappings on sealed brood, coupled with the clustered arrangement of the brood clearly indicated that the colony contained a drone-laying queen (DLQ).

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Within the patches of drone brood were one or two attempts to make queen cells. These were abnormally shaped – either short, fat and unsculpted or overly long – and are often seen in colonies with DLQs or laying workers.

It’s too late in the year (here in Fife) to get a new queen mated – at least with any certainty. The bees in the colony were old and their numbers were much reduced. I therefore cut my losses and shook the colony out in front of a row of strong hives.

In retrospect

It’s difficult to see where things went wrong with this colony, or what I could have done to rescue the situation.

Perhaps the timing of my inspection – presumably very soon after the blue queen was killed – distressed the colony, causing them to ball (and possibly also kill) the new queen. Sufficient time then elapsed for the colony to rear a new queen (~16 days) from the eggs or larvae originally laid by the blue queen. However, this queen – who I never found – was either unmated or unsuccessfully mated and was a drone layer.

So, if in doubt … wait.

Particularly if it’s not clear what else to do.

But it still might end badly 🙁


 

Taking stock

It’s the middle of the season 1. Hopefully, the timely application of swarm control measures such as a vertical split or Pagden’s artificial swarm, have maintained strong colonies and created additional colonies headed by new queens.

July is the month I review my stocks with the goal of:

  • replacing ageing queens that are unproductive
  • removing bad tempered colonies (though most have already been dealt with)
  • preparing strong colonies to exploit late season nectar flows
  • making up nucleus colonies for overwintering, either as backups or for sale

Of course, this type of taking stock should be a continuous process through the season, but it’s easier to start it now for the winter, rather than leaving it to the shorter days, more variable weather and less dependable nectar flows of late summer.

Two into one does go

A small hole ...

A small hole …

Often the intention is to simply replace an old queen with a new queen. In a vertical split this is simplicity itself. Remove the queen that is unwanted and the split board, replacing the latter with a sheet of newspaper. Make one or two very small holes in the newspaper with the point of a hive tool and leave the colony to it.

Over the course of the next few days the workers will chew through the newspaper, unite amicably and set about building up the stores for winter.

A week or so after uniting I rearrange the frames, usually making space for the queen to lay in the top box with the brood below. If the colonies being united are smaller it’s sometimes possible to remove one box altogether.

There’s discussion online about quick ways to unite colonies by spraying both with air freshener. The smell – which is usually pretty awful 2 – masks the colony scent and so the colony does not fight. I’ve not done this so can’t recommend it (or, for that matter, criticise it).

Since I’ll be returning a week later to check the boxes and rearrange frames I’m happy to stick with newspaper uniting which rarely fails. Air freshener is also one less thing to carry in the bee bag.

Nucs for pleasure and profit

Five frame nucleus (nuc) colonies overwinter well if prepared properly 3. They are really useful in the early spring to make up for any winter losses, to replace colonies with failing queens 4 or to sell.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Overwintered nucs are often appreciably more expensive than those imported later in the season, or in the glut of bees that follows the swarming season.

The queen has proved herself and the nuc is available when demand is highest … at the very beginning of the season.

Whilst I would – and have – argued that it might be better to start beekeeping later in the season working alongside your mentor, there are strong economic imperatives to overwinter nucs for sale.

Splits and nucs

With a successful split (or Pagden) you now have two queens, one strong colony and one building up fast. The latter – with the new queen – can be used to prepare a nuc for overwintering, with the remaining bees and brood strengthening the original colony for the late season nectar flow 5.

It’s easy to prepare a nuc colony to take away to a distant apiary – the new queen, a frame of stores, one or two of emerging brood and a mixed frame of eggs and brood, all with the adhering bees, together with a couple more frames of bees shaken in over the top. Make up to five frames with foundation, seal them up and ship ’em off to your out apiary.

If you don’t have access to an out apiary you should ensure that the majority of the older workers are omitted when preparing the nuc, and you should add in additional young bees to help the new queen get established.

It’s also worth stuffing the nuc entrance with dead grass for a few days to enforce the ‘new environment’ on the bees.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

You exclude the old foragers by giving each frame placed in the nuc a gentle shake before putting it into the box. The old bees fly off, the young ones cling on. Do the same with the ~3-4 additional frames of bees added on top before re-siting the the nuc in the apiary.

Nucs may need feeding, particularly if there’s a dearth of nectar or bad weather. Keep an eye on them. By excluding the old foragers you can feed them without the risk of robbing. However, it’s wise not to feed them for the best part of a week after making up the nuc to allow any carried-over stragglers to return. This is why it’s important to include a full frame of stores from the outset.

Variations

There’s still ample time in the season to rear new queens, so all sorts of other combinations of requeening/uniting and/or splits are still possible. For example, I’ve recently used a particular queen to requeen a colony and will split the box she came from into 2-3 nucs, all of which should build up well for overwintering.

By splitting the box after the new queen cells are raised I ensure they were produced by a well-balanced population of bees, with ample stores under ideal conditions. I think this is better than divvying up the frames from the recently queenless box and hoping to achieve the strong and balanced population in all the nucs. Inevitably some are stronger than others … or, more significantly in terms of queen cell production, weaker.

And in between all of this amateur dabbling I’ve been working with our friends and collaborators in Aberdeen on methods of Varroa control to minimise the levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) as well as starting our studies on chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV) …

Hot day, hard work ...

Hot day, hard work …

… oh yes, and moving into a new house 😉 6