Tag Archives: Ben Harden

Seasonal scheming

Synopsis : Midwinter is the time for planning and preparation for the beekeeping season ahead. In addition to thinking about the normal season’s events – swarming, mite control, honey etc. – now is the time to be more expansive. What arrangements need to be made for the longer term sustainability of your apiary and beekeeping? 1


Introduction

Now is the winter of our discontent.

So said the young Richard 2 in a soliloquy celebrating the upturn in his fortunes.

For a beekeeper, this upturn might seem a little premature as it’s only 17 days since the winter solstice and there are currently less than 7 hours daylight.

The drowsy days of summer filled with the gentle buzzing of bees seem a lifetime away …

Snowing in the apiary

No cleansing flights today

… and it’s snowing in the apiary.

However, the days are slowly getting longer.

Actually, until the spring equinox, the daylength gets increasingly longer each day – by about a minute and a half on January 1st, to over 4 minutes a day by the end of the month and finally reaching a heady 4 minutes 48 seconds by the 20th of March 3.

All of which means that, although not quite ‘around the corner’ the beekeeping season will be here pretty soon.

So it’s not so much Now is the winter of our discontent as Now is the winter and the best time to prepare for the season ahead and build frames.

I’ve previously posted about building frames, so this post is about planning, though frames might get a mention in passing.

Planning for the season ahead

I was going to title this post Cunning plans but I think most of the cunning plans that Baldrick dreamt up were pretty catastrophic. It seemed sensible to choose a different title.

I have an entire talk on the topic of planning for the season ahead and am giving this talk a couple of times in the next few weeks. To avoid stealing my own thunder 4 I’m not going to talk in general terms about preparing for the season.

Instead I am going to concentrate on the things I’ll be doing in addition to all of the usual activities like swarm prevention, the honey harvest and mite control.

At this time of the year we have the luxury to stare idly off into the middle distance while simultaneously dreaming about bees and polishing off the remains of the Christmas cake. Once the season starts we’ll either be too busy, or there won’t be enough time to make some of the preparations.

So what will I be doing this year that differs from last year, or the one before that?

Long distance beekeeping

I finally moved from the east coast to the western extremities of Scotland last February after a couple of years of spending increasing amounts of time here. I’ve still got bees on both sides of the country (including colonies for research in Fife) and travel to and fro as needed to manage the colonies.

And, frankly, the novelty is starting to wear off.

It can get a bit wearing spending the day working with the bees and then driving for 4-5 hours to get home 5. Beekeeping can be hard work. There are lots of boxes to lift and it can get hot and tiring doing this for hours on a sweltering day in June.

Fortunately, this is Scotland, so the sweltering day bit doesn’t happen all that frequently ūüėČ

However, the physical hard work does happen. I’ve previously calculated – using mental arithmatic on one of those long car journeys 6 – that my spring honey harvest might involve manhandling well over a ton of boxes over a couple of days. And that’s on top of the hive inspections.

Doing this ‘at a distance’ means everything tends to get squeezed into a 2-3 day trip every couple of weeks, or more frequently if I’m queen rearing as well.

OK, I’m not expecting much sympathy as you’ve probably also worked out by now how much honey all those supers contained ūüėČ

Nevertheless, one priority this year is to reduce my hive count on the east coast, and increase it on the west coast.

Think of it as increasing the beekeeping : driving ratio.

Latitude and longitude

Don’t get me wrong, there are advantages of having apiaries 150 miles apart.

For a start, the timing of the key seasonal events – swarming and the nectar flows – are very different. Although there is only a fraction of a degree difference in latitude (perhaps equivalent to ~30 miles), the climatic differences are striking.

Warm and wet on the west coast, cold and dry on the east.

Or, more accurately as these things are all relative, warmer and wetter on the west coast, colder and drier on the east ūüėČ

This, coupled with the geography, means that my bees in Fife are surrounded by intensively farmed land, whereas those on the west coast are in the howling wilderness.

A sweltering June day (!) in Fife with late-flowering OSR

And intensively farmed means oil seed rape (OSR). I don’t think there’s a single season I’ve been in Fife when OSR wasn’t available nearby. Even when the bees fail to collect a surplus the boost the colonies get from the bonanza of nectar and pollen is huge.

This means that the colonies are much bigger and stronger earlier in the season. They therefore make swarm preparations sooner and I can start queen rearing earlier.

All of which means that the 4-5 hours separation by car – less than 3¬į of longitude – is manifest as 3-4 weeks of difference in the beekeeping season.

And that means I don’t need the same equipment on both sides of the country at the same time.

Result ūüôā

Local beekeeping

I think what these rambling comments really emphasise is the intensely local nature of beekeeping. The climate, geography and forage experienced by, or available to, colonies determines ‘what happens when’.

Specific advice on beekeeping can only meaningfully be applied if these factors are taken into account.

This is inevitably very confusing for beginners.

If a venerable sage pronounces on the discussion forums that ‘now is the right time’ for oxalic acid treatment, then it must be correct.

Yes?

Er, no.

The ‘right time’ reflects the combination of the mode of action of oxalic acid and the state of the colony. Oxalic acid is only effective against phoretic mites, so the colony should ideally be broodless. The timing of broodlessness will depend upon a host of factors, but will likely differ in different locations.

We’ve had a relatively mild winter (so far). My Fife colonies were broodless from late October through until sometime near mid/late November. A few I checked on the 7th of December had brood, and I expect they all did by Christmas (I’ve not checked since).

Cappings and a couple of mites – early December 2021, Fife

Had I not treated until the Christmas – New Year holiday my mite control would have been much less effective. Many mites would have escaped a drenching in oxalic acid as a consequence of being hunkered down in capped cells.

If you didn’t treat at all, or didn’t treat until the Christmas holidays, or didn’t treat when you know that the colony was broodless 7, keep a close eye on the mite levels as the colonies expand this spring. If the winter remains mild the mites will have ample opportunity to reproduce to disturbingly high levels.

I seem to have drifted off topic …

Local bees

My Fife bees were all reared locally and the queens are open mated. They do well in Fife and possibly wouldn’t do quite as well on the west coast. They also have Varroa whereas my west coast apiary is in a Varroa-free region.

I therefore cannot simply reduce my east coast colony numbers by moving them.

Instead I’ll have to use a combination of splitting some to produce nucs for sale and uniting others to make strong colonies for the summer nectar flow. Hopefully this should leave me with a few very strong colonies which will be easier to manage and/or hand on when I finally leave altogether.

Like last year I’ll therefore be doing quite a bit of long distance queen rearing. I’ll raise the cells in Fife and then transfer them, once sealed, to my recently completed portable queen cell incubator.

Have incubator, will travel

This frees up the cell raising colony for a second round of grafted larvae. I’ll then keep the cells with me until the queens emerge, maintaining them with a tiny bit of honey and water every day. On my next visit to Fife I’ll then be able to transfer them to introduction cages and place them in mating nucs.

A trial run doing this worked well last year.

There are several advantages of doing things this way:

  • The cell raising colony can be re-used about a week earlier than if I’d left the queens in it – either to emerge, or until they were ready for introduction as mature queen cells.
  • Any dud cells (i.e. those that don’t emerge) are ditched instead of only being discovered when checking the mating nucs a week or two later 8.
  • I can use the queens to fit in with my own travel timetable – which has other things dictating it like pesky meetings – rather than vice versa.

But, of course, it also involves a bit more work in maintaining and caging the queens. In addition, in my experience virgin queen introduction is slightly more risky than adding mature cells to a queenless colony.

However, in my view, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Expansion

I’ve successfully reared queens for several years.

I’m certainly not an expert, but I’m experienced 9 enough to expect it to work. I’m disappointed when graft acceptance is below about 75%, or when less than three quarters of my virgin queens fail to mate successfully.

Capped queen cells

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

Multiplied together (0.752) you get 0.56 … or ~50-60%. I therefore work out how many queens I need and graft twice the number of larvae and it usually works out about right.

So it is very frustrating when it doesn’t.

And it didn’t with my west coast queen rearing last season ūüôĀ

Graft acceptance was low (though not catastrophic), but queen mating was very poor. I think this was due to a number of factors, some self-inflicted and some environmental:

  • Colonies developed much more slowly meaning queen rearing needed to start later in the season.
  • I had too few colonies, and certainly too few drones, to ensure enough ‘Summer lovin’ ūüôā
  • The weather. It can be a bit hit and miss getting sufficient ‘dry, calm, settled’ weather for queen mating this far north and west.

July temperatures in Ardnamurchan

To expand my colony numbers on the west coast, and to generate surplus to help meet the demand for Varroa-free colonies in the area, I need to ‘up my game’ significantly.

Improved mating success 10

There’s nothing I can do to change the weather though I have started to take an unhealthy interest in it.

I’ve now got a personal weather station in the apiary which can generate graphs like that shown above (or for wind speed, sunlight, rainfall etc.). By retrospectively determining the local conditions that occurred during successful mating flights 11 I should be able to plan the timing of queen cell production a little better.

For example, if all that is needed is one half-decent day in an otherwise unsettled fortnight, it would make sense to produce a small number of mature cells over a long period. In contrast, if successful mating needs a longer period of settled weather – that might only occur once a season – then it might be better to have lots of queens (and mating nucs) ready for the time most likely to be suitable.

And the same considerations apply to drones.

Ardnamurchan is a very sparsely populated area … whether you’re counting people or bees. I strongly suspect that a major factor contributing to poor mating success was the relative sparsity of drones. To help compensate for this I am going to boost drone production in colonies by adding at least one full frame of drone foundation.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Regular readers will know I use a lot of foundationless frames. The colony preferentially draws these as worker or drone comb to fit their needs at the time. Consequently, many of my colonies often have more drone brood than a hive just filled with frames of purchased worker foundation.

However, this year I’m not even going to give them the option … I’ll drop a frame of drone foundation into the box so they just have to get on with it!

Finally, I can certainly improve my understanding of colony development on the west coast. Do I need to provide a syrup or pollen (pollen sub) boost early in the season to compensate for a local dearth of nectar and pollen? Are there other ways I could manage the colonies to ensure they are strong enough at the right time for cell raising?

So, part of my planning is to improve a number of things that contribute to successful queen rearing. Some of these will inevitably impact honey production, but that’s something I’m happy to sacrifice (in the short term at least).

A new apiary

For the first time I’ve got bees in the garden … or what masquerades as a garden in this part of the world. More accurately it’s just a patch of rough hillside with some mixed woodland and a really boggy bit (and an unhealthy amount of rhododendron).

For convenience I need to find an additional apiary this year. This avoids overloading an area with too many bees, and provides an additional site for queen mating or simply moving colonies temporarily during certain manipulations.

The usual quote is “less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles” when it comes to moving bees.

However, those rules aren’t absolute.

Mountains and expanses of water both significantly reduce the distances bees will fly (they prefer to go round them rather than over them).

And we have lots of both 12.

Aspen over Loch Sunart

I’ve scouted out a couple of locations already and have a couple more to check. My main apiary will remain in the garden but I’ll have an out apiary when needed.

Learn something new

The motto of perl, my favoured (and now very much out of fashion) computer programming language, is there’s more than one way to do it.

And exactly the same motto could be applied to beekeeping.

If you think about swarm control for example, you could use any one of at least a half dozen widely used methods, each of which has pros and cons.

Pagden, Demaree, nucleus, vertical splits, Taranov, etc. 13. Any of them will do the job if properly applied. Some might be better than others, but they all get there in the end.

I’m a firm believer in learning to use one method really well before trying something new.

Learn its foibles, its strengths and weaknesses. Get good at it.

Then, and only then, try a different method. If you’re interested 14.

It’s only by being confident and successful with one technique you’ll be able to judge whether a different one might actually be better.

Last year I used a Morris board for the first time. It’s like a Cloake board, but half the width. It didn’t work as well as the queen rearing method I usually use (a Ben Harden system). I think I know why and will be trying again this season.

I’m also going to try cell punching as an alternative to grafting. Cell punching involves cutting out a cell plug containing a larva of a suitable age and then presenting the entire plug to a queenless cell raiser.

I see this (if you’ll excuse the pun, which will become obvious in a second) as a sort of ‘future-proofing’.

You need good eyesight and a steady hand for grafting. My presbyopia is becoming more marked and I’d like to be able to rear queens reliably when I need glasses so thick they don’t fit under my veil ūüėČ

There are more schemes being schemed (including something about frames), but they’ll have to wait until another time as I’ve already written too much …


Note

Coincidentally, on the day I made some notes for the last paragraph, Jeremy Burbidge at Northern Bee Books sent out a flyer announcing Roger Patterson’s new book Queen Rearing Made Easy: The Punched Cell Method. Roger is a strong advocate of this method and has written about it on Dave Cushman’s website. I’ve not read the book, but I have watched a few YouTube videos … what could possibly go wrong?

A New Year, a new start

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

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

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

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

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

Same as it ever was as David Byrne said.

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

Geographical elasticity

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

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

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

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

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

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

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016, Fife … OSR and snow

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

Mid-April 2014, Warwickshire

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

Move on

You cannot make decisions based on the calendar.

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

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

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

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

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

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

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

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

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

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

What are local bees?

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

But what is local?

Does it mean within a defined geographical area?

If so, what is the limit?

Five miles?

Fifty miles?

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

I think that’s an overly simplistic approach.

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

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

The Angus glens

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

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

My bees

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

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

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

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

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

Forgot the scythe

Delivering bees from the Midlands to Fife

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

Passenger hive

Passenger hive

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

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

Treatment Varroa free

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

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

Just imagine the benefits of not having to struggle with¬†Varroa and viruses every season ūüôā

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

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

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

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

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

Is Colonsay ‘local’?

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

Sometimes, in the case of Ardnamurchan, very wet ūüôĀ

My cunning plans

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

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

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

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

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

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

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

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

Something old, something new

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

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

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

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

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

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

Concentrating the bees ...

Concentrating the bees …

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!


Notes

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

 

Circle splits

I’m aiming to raise 12-24¬†five-frame nucs this summer to populate¬†new apiaries and provide bees for my day job. These will also provide the stocks to replace early season¬†sales of overwintered nucs and donations to friends struggling with misbehaving colonies. The first round of grafting started relatively late (16/5/15) due to the protracted cool weather this spring – even had I managed to raise queens, the prospect of getting them successfully mated would have been limited.

Select the best, replace the worst

Larvae were selected¬†for grafting from one of my best colonies – chosen¬†on the basis of the desirable characteristics I’m able to easily subjectively judge. These include disease, good behaviour and performance. Disease and behaviour are straightforward – obvious signs of chalkbrood or deformed wing virus, running excessively on the frame, following, pinging off the veil or attacking a hand slowly moved¬†over an open colony would all preclude¬†a colony from being used as a source of larvae for grafting. Performance is far more difficult to judge when comparing a¬†relatively small number of colonies. I look for colonies that overwinter well, that build up strongly in Spring and that are headed by queens that exhibit a good laying pattern.

Good laying pattern

Good laying pattern …

I chose¬†a strong, healthy colony for queen rearing using the Ben Harden queenright system. Despite their vigour, this colony was also bad tempered and unpleasant to handle.¬†With queens,¬†nature is all-important, whereas¬†nurture is only relevant in terms of feeding the developing larvae¬†‚Ķ using a bad tempered colony to raise cells does not influence the temper of the colony headed by the resulting queens (at least, this appears to be the case and I’ve not seen anything to suggest otherwise). I therefore sacrificed the queen and split the cell raising colony up to populate the nucs for queen mating.

Vince Cook and circle splits

Queen rearing simplified

Queen rearing simplified

A single brood box setup for queenright queen rearing will probably have at least 10 frames of brood at this stage of the season Рmost of these are in the bottom box, with a frame or two of (now likely sealed) brood adjacent to the cell bar frame in the upper box, flanked by the fat dummies. These brood frames, and the adhering young bees, can be divided approximately equally amongst a number of 5/6 frame nucs arranged in an inward facing circle around the original colony (which is disassembled and removed during the process). The returning or displaced foragers should then distribute themselves roughly equally amongst the nucs. This method was developed by Vince Cook, a New Zealand beekeeper, and is described briefly in his small book Queen rearing simplified.

This was something I’d not previously tried.¬†I usually either make nucs up and move them to an another¬†apiary to prevent the loss of returning foragers, or make up mini-nucs for queen mating¬†by¬†harvesting nurse bees. However, the unpleasant temperament of the cell raising colony meant that this was an ideal opportunity to sacrifice the queen and use the entire colony to populate nucs for mating the newly raised queens.

Circle splits in practice

In preparation for splitting¬†the colony I’d moved the hive to the centre of a large hive stand (containing no other hives) with a reasonable amount of clear space around it. Division of the colony was then relatively straightforward:

  • On arrival at the apiary I very gently smoked the cell raiser, removed the cell bar frame containing the caged queen cells and placed it – together with a few hundred adhering bees – in a two frame nuc box for safe keeping.
  • I removed the upper brood box and placed it on an adjacent hive stand¬†and¬†then went quickly through the lower brood box, found the queen and put her in a cage in my pocket.
  • I stuck a spare hive tool into the ground directly underneath the entrance to the colony destined for division – by marking this spot I was then able to distribute half a dozen 5/6 frame poly nucs approximately evenly around a circle centred on the hive tool. Due to space restrictions in the apiary (the farmer ploughed all the field margins this year) the entrances to the nucs were all about 1.2 metres (i.e. about twice the length of a Langstroth poly nuc lid, which was my measuring device)¬†from the ‘donor’¬†hive entrance. Furthermore, due to a lack of suitable hive stands the nucs were actually arranged two per side on a rough equilateral triangle. I doubt any of this really matters, but a perfect circle it was not ūüėČ
  • Each nuc box already contained a frame of stores, a frame of foundation and a dummy board.
  • It was then a simple case of going through the brood boxes distributing sealed brood and associated bees approximately evenly around the circle of nucs. I didn’t shake any bees into the boxes. Some bees were milling around, but – perhaps because it was relatively late in the day and I used the minimum amount of smoke and was as gentle as practical – the majority stayed on the frames. With something like 11-13 frames of brood – some all sealed, some drone, some frames only recently laid up – this was not an exact science.
  • Having distributed the brood and frames from the donor colony I then retrieved the sealed queen cells and placed one in each of the nucs, pushed into the comb an inch or two from the top bar, using the ‘ears’ on the Nicot cup holder embedded in the comb¬†and trapped in place with the adjacent frame.
  • Finally, I made up each nuc box with additional frames of foundation or drawn comb, pushed the frames gently together and replaced the crownboard and roof. Each was then firmly strapped onto the hive stand.

After care

A day or two after the virgin queen should have emerged (but well before any mating flights might occur i.e. 5-6 days after emergence) I checked the Рapproximate Рcircle of nucs to ensure they were reasonably well balanced in terms of strength. Using the gentlest waft of smoke I separated the frames and retrieved the Рnow vacated Рqueen cell. All the queens had emerged and should get mated over the next couple of weeks … during which time they will be left undisturbed.

All gone ...

All gone …

It was interesting to note that the nucs were all very well behaved when I checked them, despite originating¬†from a colony that has been consistently¬†unpleasant all season. This isn’t unusual – small colonies are almost always better behaved than full colonies and the presence of a queen, even a newly emerged virgin, often noticeably settles a colony down.

What’s next ‚Ķ ?

Queen rearing using a Cloake board, something I’ve not used before.

 

First grafts of the year

The weather continues to be unseasonably cool, with this week being pretty typical of what we’ve recently been experiencing.

More of the same

More of the same

Nevertheless, I’m assuming it will pick up when we get to June so have finally started queen rearing. In previous years I’ve had mated queens in the first week of May, so we’re nearly a month late. I set up a strong colony (with poor temper – these are destined for requeening as a priority) as a queenright cell raiser using the Ben Harden system,¬†grafted on Saturday and checked them 24 hours later.

Mixed success

Mixed success …

Seven or eight of the 10 grafts appear to have taken, with a 3-4mm collar of fresh wax around the lip of the plastic cell cup. In the image above the two covered with bees and #4 and #6 have this collar. If you look inside the cell you can see a larva floating in a bed of Royal Jelly. In contrast, #3 and #5 have only a very short wax collar and the cells are empty – for whatever reason these larvae have been rejected. I’m a little concerned¬†that #4 and #6 aren’t getting a lot of attention from bees ‚Ķ time will tell if these have worked.

These cells should be capped on Thursday. Until then, despite the remaining OSR in the surrounding fields, I’ll feed the colony with thin syrup. As I write this it’s raining again …

Here we go again ...

Here we go again …

Queen rearing and the June gap

Cloud

Here we go again

The oil seed reap (OSR) and hawthorn have finished here and there’s very little forage available for colonies. To make matters worse the weather has been changeable, restricting the time available for colonies to forage. Small colonies, such as casts that have been attracted to bait hives, have lacked sufficient numbers of foragers to store any nectar and have needed feeding. Small, weak, nucleus colonies have starved unless supplemented with syrup. In contrast, large swarms have fared much better – it’s almost as if there’s some sort of size threshold below which the¬†colony isn’t able to cope with adverse conditions.

This poor weather has caused significant problems for queen rearing.

  1. Virgin queens are taking ages to get mated, far longer than happens in settled weather. Many of the days have had warm, clear mornings, but with thunderclouds building up around lunchtime leading to a deluge in the afternoon – the peak time for queen mating. Many mating hives have gone queenless over the last fortnight.
  2. Without a significant flow, getting cells started Рat least in the queenright queen rearing system I use (the Ben Harden method) Рmeans the colony must be fed syrup for the few days between adding the grafted larvae to the cell raising colony and the 9th day (after egg laying) when the cells are sealed.

There’s not much that can be done about improving the chances of getting queens mated, other than ensuring a supply of freshly emerged virgin queens ready to take advantage of¬†any suitable breaks in the weather. After more than three weeks in a 2-3 frame nucleus I’m usually pessimistic about the chances of getting the queen successfully mated.

In contrast, with relatively little effort you can feed syrup to the cell raising colony, thereby ensuring the larvae are given the best chance of success. If the cell raising colony has supers on I temporarily remove them to another hive to prevent the bees simply storing syrup in with nectar.

Queenright queen rearing colony

Remove the supers …

In practice the easiest way to achieve this is to set up the queenright cell raiser the day before grafting (as described in detail previously) with a clearer board on top of the upper brood box, beneath the supers. When you come to add the grafted larvae, first remove the supers which are now cleared of bees and put them aside, gently slide the cell bar frame between the frame of unsealed larvae and pollen, add 150-200ml or 1:1 w/v (thin) syrup to either a fat dummy feeder or frame feeder in the upper brood box, then put the crownboard and roof back. Add the removed supers to other strong colonies in the apiary.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

Unless the weather dramatically improves I then check the colony¬†daily, adding a further 150-200ml of thin syrup to the feeder. This just takes a few minutes and results in minimum disruption ‚Ķ a quick waft of smoke at the entrance, the same amount through a slight gap beneath the raised corner of the crownboard and then gently remove the crownboard. The day after grafting I check the larvae¬†to see how many have been accepted. There’s no need to check the cells on the next 3 days (despite the picture shown here), simply add a bit more syrup to the feeder. On the fifth day after grafting the cells should be sealed and there is no longer any need to continue feeding. In addition to preventing tainting the honey supers with syrup, removing the supers also concentrates bees into the brood¬†boxes.

Ben Harden queen rearing – cell raising

[See previous posts on introduction, setup and grafting for queenright queen rearing]

With any queen rearing it is critical to be aware of the timetable. Eggs are laid, hatch on day three, grafted on day 4, queen cells are sealed on day 9 and the virgin queens emerge on day 16. There’s not much variation around these timings; if you graft a larva that is too old it will still be sealed into the cell on day 9 (after the egg was laid), but will have had less opportunity to feed well and so may generate a sub-standard (‘scrub’) queen. If you thought the larva was 18-24 hours old, but it was actually 48-60 hours old, it will emerge up to a day and a half before you expect it to.

Oops … too late

Oops … too late

This is¬†“not a good thing” as the newly emerged virgin will run amok through the colony destroying all the other queen cells which will then be partly or completely torn down. Alternatively, if all of the larvae are a little older than you thought they’ll all emerge and have a melee in the upper brood box of your colony setup for Ben Harden queen rearing. If you’re really unlucky an undersized virgin will squeeze through the queen excluder and slaughter your mated, laying, queen in the bottom box. All of this can be avoided by understanding the timing of events involved in queen development and keeping good records.

Queen rearing diary

Tom’s Tables ‚Ķ

BIBBA provide¬†a copy of Tom Robinson’s table, essentially a queen rearing diary in Excel format. It’s designed for using Jenter or Cupkit systems, rather than grafting, but the underlying development timetable – the dates when the cells are sealed and when the queen emerges – are of course identical. I’ve modified a copy to suit my own queen rearing programme, using grafting and mini-nucs. By simply entering¬†the grafting date, the remainder of the timetable is automagically completed, so there should be no reason to miss one of the critical dates. In the same way that good records are required to select stock to graft from, you should keep a record of both the queen rearing activity and the performance of the resulting queens.

Getting the timing right

How can you avoid early-emerging queens? Pretty easily in practice, as long as you do the following:

  1. Graft young larvae only – following the guidance in the earlier post on grafting.
  2. Check the larvae within 24 hours to ensure they have been accepted.
  3. Check on the day the cells should be sealed.
  4. Check them finally 24-48 hours before expected emergence. By this time the sealed cell may show signs of being crowned Рa sort of thin darkened ring around the tip of the cell which is a good indication that emergence is going to happen shortly.
  5. Cage the cells in a hair roller to trap any virgin queens that emerge earlier than expected (you can do this anytime after they’re sealed).
  6. Use the cells before the queen emerges.
  7. Keep good records and remember that queen development is unaffected by the vagaries of the weather or your social diary … graft young larvae and use the resulting queen cells 10 days later.

Looking after grafted larvae

Success!

Success!

With a little practice a success rate of at least 80% should be achievable when grafting. As described previously, you can easy tell whether the grafting has worked by examining the cell cups about 24 hours later. You’re looking for a 3-4mm relatively smooth, slightly curved wax rim added to the cell. It’s very thin and fragile at this stage. Accepted grafts will also be covered with workers building the cells and feeding the larvae – you may not be able to see the spigot or cell cup at all. Gently move these bees aside if necessary (don’t shake or brush them off) with your finger.¬†It’s actually possible to determine whether the larvae are accepted as little as a couple of hours after grafting but I usually prefer not to disturb the colony again (and often graft late afternoon, so it’s usually getting too late in the day).

Ben Harden cell raiser

Ben Harden cell raiser …

Assuming the cell raising colony is wells stocked with bees I rearrange the boxes at this first inspection so that the Ben Harden brood box is on the top of the stack.¬†The main¬†reason to do this is to save your back. Only do it if there are ample bees in the colony; you do not want the cells to get chilled by placing them over a couple of near-empty supers. In a strong colony, I’ve had three or four supers separating the queenright bottom brood box and the cell raising brood box. In the picture (right) the hive nearest the camera is a Ben Harden cell raising colony. There are three near-full supers between the lower and upper (BH setup) brood box. In addition, since the OSR is nearly over and the stores are capped, I’ve moved one full super ¬†over¬†a clearer board above the upper brood box, emptying it¬†ready for extraction.

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …

The next few days are critical. The larvae need to be well fed and the cells need to be drawn out fully. If there’s no flow the cells may be ignored. To prevent this feed a small amount of thin syrup (1:1 w/v) in a frame feeder in the upper box. This is where a fat dummy with an integrated feeder is useful. Arrange this so that the feeder is next to one of the two pollen frames and add about 100-150ml of syrup daily until the cells are sealed. You barely need to disturb the colony to do this ‚Ķ a waft of smoke, lift or slide aside the crown board, add the syrup and close up again. There’s no need to check the cells, the frame of unsealed brood or the bottom box (we’ll come back to these two shortly).

If there is a good flow it is not necessary to feed the colony. Since this is essentially a standard production colony (with an additional upper brood box) the bees should continue to store nectar in the supers.

Are they sealed?

Brace comb and sealed cells

Brace comb and sealed cells

Five days after grafting the cells should be sealed or about to be sealed. The cells will by now be reasonably well sculpted, with a characteristic pitted appearance. The exception is the cell tip which will be pale smooth wax. When checking the cells don’t shake or jolt the cell bar frame and don’t keep the cells out of the colony longer than necessary. Once sealed the colony no longer needs feeding.¬†In a good flow the bees are¬†likely to build brace comb in spaces on the cell bar frame and to fill this with nectar.

Colony inspections

Ben Harden rogue queen cells

Knock ’em off …

Queens emerge on day 16 (counting from the day the eggs were laid), about twelve days after grafting. This is sufficient time for the colony to swarm, so you must continue with your standard weekly inspections. Simply lift off the upper brood box, gently put it down on an adjacent hive roof, or the upturned roof of the queen rearing colony. Remove the supers if present. Remove the queen excluder, check the bottom box for queen cells in the normal way, then reassemble. Do not forget to put the queen excluder back (or the newly sealed cells will all be torn down). You must also check the frame of unsealed brood in the upper box as they may be making queen cells on it. If so knock them all off. You only need to do this once as there should be no young larvae left once your grafted larvae are in sealed cells.

v1 … too narrow, too shallow

Two frame nuc box

If there are queen cells in the bottom box (but they haven’t swarmed) I make up a small nuc with the queen, a small amount of brood and a frame of stores in a two frame nucleus box. I then knock all of the queen cells back. If they generate more they’ll be well behind your own grafted larvae. That being the case, use one of the sealed grafted cells to requeen the colony.¬†If the bottom box swarm it’s not a major problem as long as there are enough bees left to keep the grafted cells warm and well fed. If you want to use other swarm control measures remember that the cell raiser has done its job now ‚Ķ you can remove the sealed cells and place them in a suitable incubator until you use them for requeening (just before or after emergence).

Caging the cells

Cupkit

Nicot Cupkit

The advantage of the Nicot Cupkit system is that push-fit “hair roller” cages are available to protect the cells and to prevent an early emerging queen from destroying the rest of your hard work. These can be added soon after the cell is sealed, but I usually leave them a few extra days during which time the workers provide all the care the cells need. During this period they will usually sculpt the cell extensively. The only problem is if they build lots of brace comb between cells before you get a chance to fit the cage. If they do, a little gentle surgery with a sharp knife should be sufficient to trim them down to fit into the cage. Don’t force things. You don’t want to squeeze or crush the developing queen.¬†

Using the cells

You should use the cells about 10 days after grafting, which gives you sufficient leeway should a queen emerge a little early. They can be added to mini-nucs, 2-5 frame nuc colonies or full colonies … all of which will be covered in the future.

YBKA Spring Conference

York College

York College

I’m delighted to be talking ¬†– twice (!) – at the Yorkshire Beekeepers Association Spring Conference in York on Saturday. With Stephen Martin (bee recognition and the Asian hornet), Jay Evans (beenomics – is that a real word?), Ben Jones (nutrition) and Liz Collison (neonicotinoids) also on the programme it promises to be an enjoyable day.

Update – it was a very enjoyable meeting and I’d like to thank the YBKA, Roger Chappel and Michael Badger for their excellent hospitality. My talk on queenright queen rearing using the Ben Harden system was well attended and generated some interesting questions. Abelo had a small trade stand selling all sorts of ‘essentials’ including some competitively priced radial extractors.

Grafting

‘Grafting’ is the transfer of selected larvae from a donor colony into artificial cups from which new queens will be raised. It is probably the aspect of queen rearing that beginners find most daunting in prospect – perhaps not surprisingly as it involves manually moving a less-than day-old larvae (about the size of a comma in 12 pt. Times New Roman font) to a new location. However, it’s a lot easier to do than to describe, is easy to practice and you can tell if you’ve been successful within 24 hours.

In my opinion the preparation and maintenance of the cell raising colony and the use of mini mating nucs both require more skill than actually grafting the larvae for queen rearing.

Things that are needed for successful grafting

  • a source of suitable larvae
  • good lighting and good eyesight (help is available with both)
  • a grafting tool of some sort
  • a cell bar frame with cell cups to transfer larvae into
  • a warm, damp cloth and somewhere to sit

Source of suitable larvae

There are essentially two criteria that are important here – the age and the genetic quality of the¬†selected larvae. The first of these is straightforward – you need to use larvae that are as young as possible, perhaps 12-18 hours after hatching from the egg. How do you determine the age of the larva? The easiest way is to choose the smallest¬†larvae possible from a frame containing brood in all stages. Because the queen generally lays in rings you’ll usually find the smallest larvae right next to the oldest eggs on the frame. Fresh eggs stand up from the bottom of the cell, older eggs lie horizontally. Look around the cells containing the horizontal eggs. Suitable larvae are the same size as an egg, or perhaps even fractionally smaller. These larvae are so small they haven’t yet adopted the fully curved ‘c’ shape.

Keep good records

Keep good records

One of the reasons to rear your own queens is to have bees with the characteristics you want. This is the genetic quality of the starting material. This means you need to keep records of the behaviour of your colonies, scoring them for desirable or undesirable traits. This can get very complicated, but doesn’t need to be. In addition to general aspects of colony health (chalkbrood, viral diseases, Varroa levels) I keep records of temper, following and running on the frame as my primary interest is working with bees that are docile and easy to handle. Temper and running are scored on a simple 5 point scale and I use colonies with consistently the best scores for grafting. Following is scored as a simple yes/no ‚Ķ and any that score yes are re-queened.

Good lighting and good eyesight

Specs

Specs

Suitable larvae are small and you need to be able to see them clearly. You need both hands free, so do not rely on a magnifying glass. Buy a cheap set of strong reading glasses. Don’t be self-conscious about this ‚Ķ style doesn’t matter (anyway, you probably wouldn’t be a beekeeper if you worry too much about appearance) but strength does. Check the strength you need by looking for commas on a page in a standard paperback book, probably at a closer distance than you would read a book. I don’t need reading glasses for reading, but have +2.5 dioptre glasses for grafting.

Good lighting is critical. Don’t rely on the sun for this ‚Ķ you’ll inevitably be grafting on dull overcast days at some point. Get a battery powered LED head torch as used by campers. Ideally get one with at least 4 white LEDs and 2 red LEDs. The white ones are usually divided into two highly directional ones, and two providing general illumination. Use them all on together. You’ll need the red LEDs later …

Grafting tools

Use size 00 or 000

Use size 00 or 000

There are all sorts of tools available for grafting, ranging from the cheap and cheerful – and nearly ubiquitous – Chinese grafting tool to very expensive cranked, left or right hand-specific specialist items with exotic wood handles. Try a range of different types (at least the affordable ones) to see which you get on with best. However, I recommend you first try a 00 sable artists brush. Of all the grafting tools I’ve used, this is by far the easiest in my view. Protect the bristles using the sleeve¬†stripped¬†from a short piece of electric flex when it’s not in use.

Cell bar frame

Nicot Cupkit system

Nicot Cupkit system

You can make artificial wax cups from melted beeswax and a rounded dowel former. Far easier though are the plastic cups available from beekeeping suppliers like JzBz. Better still are those provided as part of the Nicot Cupkit system, consisting of a dark brown spigot, a cream coloured socket, translucent brown cups and a ‘hair roller’ cage. These are available separately from suppliers like ModernBeekeeping and are inexpensive.

The cell bar frame consists of a standard brood frame with one or two cross-bars to which the cups for grafting are attached. You need to be able to easily access the base of the cups. Therefore either hold the cross bar in place with a single gimp pin at either end (so it rotates), or make the cross bars slot in and out of the side bars.

For the Ben Harden queenright method of queen rearing I usually graft 10-20 larvae in rows of five or ten. Firstly this type of cell raiser isn’t as strong as the sort of three box queenless monstrosities some people use, secondly I can only conveniently get about a dozen or so queens mated at any one time.

Cell bar frame

Cell bar frame

Attach the spigot firmly to the cross-bar with gimp pins. Push-fit the socket onto the spigot and push the cell cup into the socket. If you have two cross-bars and intend to use the hair roller cages to protect the sealed cells make sure there is enough ‘headspace’ to fit them easily – remember the bars will be covered with bees when you do this. Probably the best way to achieve this is to have the cross-bars rotate along their axis.

Are you sitting comfortably … ?

Take a seat

Take a seat

The goal of grafting is to move good larvae from the cell in which the egg was laid into a new artificial cell, without damaging or chilling the larva. To do this you need to work quickly, carefully and efficiently. Find somewhere to sit near the donor hive that it is in light shade. Take a stool or folding chair to sit on and a piece of thin wood to lay in your lap on which the cell bar frame and the frame with larvae can be placed. Take off your veil. Make sure the things you need are close to hand – a hive tool or scalpel, your grafting tool of choice, glasses and head torch. Lay a damp cloth across the board to keep both the frame with larvae and the grafted larvae in a humid environment. I usually leave the cloth hanging over each end of the board, and fold these ends over to protect the frames.

Grafting in practice

Retrieve the acclimatised cell bar frame from the cell raising colony. Don’t bother putting anything in its place – you’ll be returning it within 30 minutes or so (but do close the hive up). Go through the donor hive until you find a frame with eggs and young larvae on it. I try and avoid shaking the frame hard, so give it a gentle shake to remove the flying bees, then brush off the adhering nurse bees (again, don’t push the frames together, but do close the colony). Take the frame to the location where you’re going to be grafting. Arrange your glasses and head torch, the wooden ‘table’, damp cloth and cell bar frame. Relax! Find a patch of suitable larvae …

  1. Arrange the frame with the top bar towards you – that way the cells also slope towards you making it easier to see into the base.
  2. Cut down the cells using a scalpel or your hive tool – the aim here should be to improve access to the larvae in the base of the cell. I usually simply lever apart a row of cells.
  3. Working calmly and efficiently pick individual larvae from the donor frame and transfer them to the cell bar frame.
  4. The precise way you manipulate the larva differs depending upon the particular type of grafting tool in use. If you’re using a paintbrush dampen and straighten the bristles (in your mouth), slide it underneath the larva, lift it out, lower it to the base of the new cell cup and release the larva by gently rotating the brush.
  5. When you’re not searching for suitable larvae from the donor frame keep it covered with the damp cloth. Likewise, keep the grafted larvae covered other than when you’re transferring them. This way you minimise the chance of them drying out.
  6. If you have trouble transferring a larva, if you end up rolling it around the cell cup, if it sticks to the side wall or if there’s any doubt at all about it then flick it away, lick the brush again and choose another.

80% take

80% take

It probably takes 30-45 seconds per larva when they’re easy to find. You can minimise this time by cutting down the wall of a row of cells and then working your way along the row, grafting each in turn. Don’t worry if it takes longer. The more practice you get the more efficient you will become at finding and transferring larvae. An acceptance rate of 80-90% should be expected with a little practice.

Gently return the cell bar frame with the grafted larvae to the cell raising colony. Use minimal smoke … you want the larvae to be accepted straight away and fed with copious amount of jelly. Remember that the cell cups containing the grafted larvae must be vertical.

Don’t forget to return the frame of unused larvae and eggs to the donor colony.

Did they work?

24 hours later

24 hours later

You can (and indeed should) check whether the grafted larvae have been accepted 24 hours after introducing them to the cell raising colony. Open the colony with the minimum use of smoke, gently raise the cell bar frame and look for a 3-4mm wax ‘collar’ around the edge of the plastic cell cup. If you look into the cell there will be a good bed of Royal Jelly with the larva floating on top. Grafts that have not been accepted might have a thin trace of wax around the cup edge, but nothing like 3-4mm.

If the overall acceptance level is low consider grafting again straight away. There is no need to reacclimatise the frame, simply pull out the cell cups and replace them with fresh ones. You even know which frames have day old larvae in them ‚Ķ they’re the ones which had horizontal eggs yesterday.

Ben Harden queen rearing – setup

The Ben Harden queenright method for queen rearing (introduced previously) has relatively few requirements for specialist equipment. Most beekeepers will already own the necessary bits and pieces, and will be able to build, borrow or steal the things they lack as appropriate.

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …

The colony is prepared by adding a second brood box to a standard production colony, separated by a queen excluder. The upper box contains just four frames – two containing ample levels of pollen, one containing unsealed brood and one containing your precious grafted larvae. The remaining space in the upper box is occupied by two oversize ‘fat dummies‘ that concentrate the bees onto the frame containing the grafts.

Equipment needed

Assuming you’re starting with a standard colony consisting of a floor, brood box, crownboard and roof the additional equipment needed are as follows:

  1. brood box
  2. queen excluder
  3. two ‘fat dummies
  4. three additional frames, preferably of drawn comb
  5. cell bar frame and tools for grafting (see separate post on grafting)
  6. thin (1:1 w/v) syrup if there’s no nectar flow

The cell raising colony – the one you’re going to setup the Ben Harden system in – needs to be strong, healthy and not about to swarm. The genetics of the colony don’t matter – they’re not going to contribute anything other than hard work to raising your grafted larvae.

Inspect the colony

Cell bar frame

Cell bar frame

Before using the cell bar frame for grafting paint it liberally with thin syrup and leave it to acclimatise in the cell raising colony for 24 hours. This isn’t critical; you can graft directly into cells that haven’t got the scent of the hive from having workers clean all the syrup off for a day or so. I’ve not noticed any real difference in the proportion of grafts that are successful. However, I think an additional advantage of setting things up a day in advance is it means the colony isn’t too disrupted by an inspection and frame rearrangement on the day the grafts are added.

Therefore, on the day before grafting, inspect the colony to make sure they’re queenright – you don’t need to see the queen, just make sure there are recently laid eggs present. Check for queen cells to be sure they’re not making preparations to swarm. The cell raising process takes a little over a fortnight, so make sure they have enough space to expand into during this time. To encourage the nurse bees up into the upper box you need a frame of unsealed brood – this can come from another hive if needed (just shake the adhering bees from it) or from the bottom box.

You also need to provide ample amounts of pollen and so need two additional frames well stocked with pollen. Again, these can come from the bottom box or from another colony. If pollen-filled frames are in short supply but you have a source of pollen available (for example, collected and frozen from a previous year) you can sprinkle it liberally across the face of two drawn frames and use these.¬†Any frames removed from the bottom box should be replaced with drawn comb – you don’t want to distract the bees with having to draw out foundation.

Reassembling the colony

Ben Harden setup

Ben Harden setup

With the bottom box filled with a full complement of frames add the queen excluder and the empty top box. Put the two ‘fat dummies’ on either side, filling the gap in the middle with a pollen frame, the syrup-coated cell bar frame, the unsealed brood and the second pollen frame. Make sure the pollen frames have the faces most heavily loaded with pollen towards the cell bar frame.

If the colony has supers on it these can be added directly on top of the upper brood box. One of the advantages of the Ben Harden method is that it has minimal impact on nectar gathering … in fact, the only real drawback of having a stack of supers on top is all the heavy lifting you have to do to access the grafted larvae.

So, from the top, the colony setup is like this:

  1. Roof
  2. Crown board
  3. Supers (only if they were on the original colony or there is a strong flow)
  4. Upper brood box containing two fat dummies, two frames of pollen, the cell bar frame and a frame of unsealed brood
  5. Queen excluder
  6. Lower brood box containing the queen
  7. Floor

That’s it ‚Ķ hope for good weather the following day when you’ll be grafting.

Ben Harden queen rearing – intro

Locally bred queen

Locally bred queen

The ‘Ben Harden’ method is an approach used to raise queen cells in a queenright colony. It offers a number of advantages that make it particularly suitable for relatively small-scale beekeepers, for beekeepers who want only a limited number of queens (10’s rather than 100’s, though the latter is possible if well organised) or for beekeepers who are taking their first steps in queen rearing. Consequently, it is also suitable for using within an association during queen rearing courses.

The advantages include:

  • it requires only a limited amount of additional equipment, including a spare brood box and two overwidth “fat dummies
  • it uses honey production colonies in a way that has little or no impact on foraging, and hence nectar collection
  • it uses a queenright colony which does not need to be “boiling with bees” and which is both easier and more pleasant to handle
  • it requires only limited manipulations of the colony

The general principles of this approach are straightforward and are reasonably well described by the late Dave Cushman modified from an article by Ben Harden in Bee Improvement (the BIBBA magazine). Further information is available in A simple method of raising queen cells written by Ben Harden (#59 in the Beekeeping in a Nutshell series available from Northern Bee Books).

This is the first in a short series of posts covering the basics of queen rearing using the Ben Harden queenright method. Each post covers one of the key stages in the method, which are:

  1. Preparation of the equipment and setup of the colony for queen rearing (part 2; Ben Harden queen rearing Рsetup)
  2. Grafting larvae (part 3; Grafting) and production of queen cells (part 4)
  3. Getting virgin queens mated (part 5)

It is possible to use this method to raise queens if you start with a single colony, using it as a source of larvae, the cell raising colony and the colony used to harvest nurse bees for populating the mini-nucs from which the virgin queens will be mated. This is not really recommended … at the very least you need a range of colonies to judge and choose the best as the donor for the larvae.

It is a also very good method to use in associations running queen rearing courses. Individuals taking part prepare a colony for cell raising, grafting is done communally using good stock and cells are distributed 24 hours after grafting.

Checking grafted larvae

Checking grafted larvae