There’s then a further 6-7 days until she becomes fertile and goes on her mating flight(s). These are weather dependent, needing warm, calm and sunny conditions, usually between 2pm and 5pm. These can often be relied on in late May and June, but are a bit more hit and miss late in the season. Fortuitously for a small number of queens in my apiaries it looks like they’ll be enjoying great conditions for their nuptials … yesterday or today.
I’ll check in a week or so and hope to find mated laying queens …
The winter solstice seems like a good time to look back over the 2015 beekeeping year. With the day length about to start increasing, what went right and what went wrong? Back in March I wrote that my plans for the year were different from the usual OSR – swarming – queen rearing – summer flow – harvest – Varroa treatment – feed-’em-up and forget ’em routine as I was moving to Scotland in the middle of the season. Some of these things happened, though perhaps less than in a usual year.
Mid-season memories …
Spring – better late than never
Cloake board …
The OSR yielded poorly as the spring was cold and late. I didn’t even look inside a colony until mid-April. Colonies were only getting strong as the OSR flowers went over meaning that most of it was missed. The weather was unseasonably cold, with mid-May being 2-3ºC cooler than average. Queen rearing started in the third week of May and although grafting went well, queen mating was really hit and miss, with low temperatures and lots of rain lasting through May and June. On a more positive note, I used a Cloake board for the first time and was pleased with the results (I’ll write about this sometime in 2016 after using it a bit more). I didn’t use any mini-nucs this year as I didn’t want the hassle of dealing with them mid-season when moving North. Instead, I did all of my queen mating in 2-5 frame nucs, often produced as circle splits from the cell-raising colonies. This worked well … and considering the lousy weather was probably a lot less effort than using mini-nucs which would have required constant attention and lots of feeding. Using poly-nucs I could prime them with a frame of brood and a frame of stores and adhering bees, dummy them down and leave 3 frames of foundation (or wherever possible, drawn comb) ready to be used on the other side of the dummy board. Once the queen was mated the colony would build up well and if – as often happened this season – the queen failed to get mated or was lost (drowned?) during mating flights it was easy to unite the queenless unit with a queenright one, so not wasting any resources.
Go forth and multiply
Split board …
Beginners often find the coordination of colonies for queen rearing, and the apparent difficulty of grafting (it isn’t), a daunting prospect. When I’ve been involved in teaching queen rearing it’s clear that the relatively small scale approach I use (queenright cell raiser, grafting and – usually – mini-nucs) is often still too involved for the very small numbers of queens most beekeepers with just a couple of hives want. It was therefore interesting to raise a few queens using vertical splits, simply by dividing a strong colony vertically and letting the bees do all the work of selecting the best larvae, raising the queen and getting her mated. It has the advantage of needing almost no additional equipment and only requires a single manipulation of the hive (and even that can probably be simplified). Having documented the process this season I’ve got a few additional things I’d like to try in 2016 to make it even easier and to allow better stock selection. After that it will be incorporated into queen rearing talks and training.
Changes in Varroa treatment
The big change in Varroa treatment in the UK was the licensing of Api-Bioxal. Whether or not you consider the 50-fold or more cost of VMD-approved oxalic acid (OA) over the generic powder is justified is really a separate issue. Oxalic acid is an effective miticide and, if administered appropriately, is very well tolerated by the colony. Despite the eyewatering markup, Api-Bioxal is significantly less expensive than all other approved miticides. For the small scale beekeeper it’s probably only 20% the cost of the – often ineffective – Apistan, or either Apiguard or MAQS. Under certain circumstances – resistant mites, low temperatures or the potential for queen loss – there are compelling reasons why OA is preferable to these treatments. If we hadn’t been using OA for years the online forums would be full of beekeepers praising the aggressive pricing strategy of Chemicals Liaf s.p.a in undercutting the competition. Of course, if we hadn’t been using generic OA for years Api-Bioxal would probably be priced similarly to Apiguard 🙁
Sublimox in use …
I’ve used OA sublimation throughout 2015 and been extremely impressed with how effective it has been. Mite drops in colonies treated early in the season remained low, but increased significantly in adjacent colonies that were not treated. I treated all swarms caught or attracted to bait hives. Some were casts and there were no problems with the queen getting out and mated (though the numbers of these were small, so statistically irrelevant). Late season treatment of colonies with brood also seems to have worked well. Mite drops were low to non-existent in most colonies being monitored through late autumn. Colonies get mildly agitated during treatment with a few bees flying about under the perspex crownboard (you can see a couple in the image above … this was a busy colony) and a few more rapidly exiting the hive after the entrance block is removed. But that’s it. The colony settles within a very short time. I’ve seen no loss of brood, no obvious interruption of laying by the queen and no long-term detrimental effects. Sublimation or vaporisation of OA can – with the correct equipment – be achieved without opening the hive. I expect to use this approach almost exclusively in the future.
Moving colonies from the Midlands to Fife was very straightforward. Insect netting was an inexpensive alternative to building large numbers of travel screens. It’s the same stuff as Thorne’s sell for harvesting propolis so I’ve got enough now to go into large scale propolis production 😉 The colonies all settled in their temporary apiaries well and I even managed a few supers of honey during the latter part of the season.
Small hive beetle reappeared in Southern Italy shortly after the honey harvest was completed there. Che sorpresa. This was disappointing but not unexpected (and actually predicted by some epidemiologists). As I write these notes the beetle had been found in 29 Calabrian apiaries between mid-september and early December. It’s notable that there’s now a defeatist attitude by some contributors to the online forums (when not if the beetle arrives here) and – since not everyone are what they seem on the interweb – there are some playing down the likely impact of the beetles’ arrival (and hence the demand to ban imports) because they have a vested interest in selling early season queens or nucs, either shipped in or headed by imported queens. I don’t think there’s any sensible disagreement that we would be better off – from a beekeeping perspective – without the beetle, it’s just that banning imports of bees to the UK (admittedly only a partial solution) is likely to cause problems for many beekeepers, not just those with direct commercial interests. I remain convinced that, with suitable training and a little effort, UK beekeeping could be far less dependent on imports … and so less at risk from the pathogens, like small hive beetle. Or of course a host of un-tested for viruses, that are imported with them.
And on a brighter note …
Bee shed …
The new development in the latter part of the year was the setting up of a bee shed to house a few colonies for research. This is now more or less completed and the bees installed. It will be interesting to see how the colonies come through the winter and build up in spring. The apiary has colonies headed by sister queens both in and outside the bee shed so I’ll be able to make some very unscientific comparisons of performance. The only problem I’ve so far encountered with the shed was during the winter mite treatment by oxalic acid vaporisation. In the open apiary the small amount of vapour that escapes the sealed hive drifts away on the breeze. In the shed it builds up into a dense acidic hazy smoke that forced me to make a rapid exit. I was wearing all-encompassing goggles and a safety mask so suffered no ill effects but I’ll need an alternative strategy for the future.
Due to work commitments, house, office and lab moves, things were a lot quieter on the DIY front this year. The Correx roofs have been excellent – the oldest were built over a year ago and are looking as good (or as bad, depending on your viewpoint) as they did then. They’ve doubled up as trays to carry dripping supers back from the apiary and I’ll be making more to cover stacks of stored equipment in the future. Correx offcuts were pressed into service as floors on bait hives, all of which were successful.
With well-fed colonies, low mite counts, secure apiaries and lots of plans for 2016 it’s time to make another batch of honey fudge, to nervously (it’s got hints of an industrial cleaning solution) try a glass of mead and to finish labelling jarred honey for friends and family.
Queen mating has been a bit hit and miss for me this year so I was pleased to find a number of mated, laying queens in 5 frame nucs when I checked yesterday evening. The nucs were arranged using a circle split and a couple of queens had clearly failed to return from mating flights (that’s a guess … she had definitely emerged from the cell). These boxes were depleted of bees and the remaining stores were being robbed out. I moved these nucs aside and shook the remaining bees out.
Circle split …
Marked queen …
I’d forgotten my scissors but did find a marking cage and pen in my beesuit, so carefully started queen marking each mated, laying queen. Inevitably when rushed (I’d just got off a delayed flight from Scotland and was running out of evening) I managed to drop one of the queens as I tried to manipulate her into the marking cage. They can fly, just not well and not far … she did a sort of lazy spiral and was easy to spot because of her size. However, I lost sight of her against the low evening sun in the mass of returning foragers. Oops. I stepped carefully outside the circle of nucs – they usually crash to earth nearby – and tidied up the rest of my gear. It would add injury to insult if I’d managed to stand on her … Finally, on my last look around I spotted her clinging to some grasses near the hive entrance. I caged and marked her, reopened the nuc and allowed her to serenely walk back into the colony.
The queen returns …
With the exception of some vertical splits (to be described later) that’s the last of my queen rearing this season. I’ve got all the nucs I need for my move to Fife. The next task is to build a load of travel screens …
Both the churchyard swarm and swarm that delivered itself to a bait hive have mated, laying queens. The initial large drop of phoretic mites – more than 150 from the former – shows how valuable prompt treatment with vaporised oxalic acid is. In 2-3 weeks it will be easy to determine the quality of the laying pattern of the queen and the temper of the colony will start to become apparent. At that point a decision will be made to keep them or unite them with another colony.
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 …
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 … 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
A single brood box setup for queenright queen rearing will probably have at least 10 frames of brood at this stage of the season – most 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 😉
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.
Just starting …
Cell bar frame …
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 – approximate – circle 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 – now vacated – queen 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 …
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 … ?
Queen rearing using a Cloake board, something I’ve not used before.
Thorne’s have introduced two new poly nuc hives recently – one called the Polynuc (~£27) and the other the Everynuc (~£47). Both are available in British National dimensions. I’ve not seen the Polynuc but consider the walls, at 22mm, to be a little on the thin side for overwintering colonies (perhaps about the same as the Paynes poly nucs). However, I have recently taken delivery of half a dozen Everynuc poly nucs with the intention of expanding my stock, by splitting production colonies (after the honey harvest) and using mid/late season-reared queens to take them through the winter. Here are my first impressions.
The Everynuc is an interesting design. It’s available in a range of different sizes; Langstroth, National, Smith, Commercial, 14×12, Dadant etc. All have a rectangular, preformed (i.e. no assembly required) brood box with 40mm thick walls and neat metal runners at each end for frames. I suspect this box is the same size for all frame sizes. To accommodate smaller frames e.g. National in the Langstroth-sized box, they supply a slot-in feeder that takes 2.2 pints. The deeper frames e.g. 14×12 and Commercials also include a 40mm or 60mm eke that presumably goes between the brood box and the removable floor. The latter is sloping, with open mesh and has a removable tray for Varroa monitoring. There is a clear plastic crownboard and a thick roof. The exterior of the box is commendably smooth, so much easier to paint than the Modern Beekeeping/Paradise Honey boxes).
Thorne’s claim the Everynuc is top bee space. Well, it is and it isn’t. In the National size, the top edge of the feeder sits 2-3 mm above the frame runner, meaning that the top bar slopes. To rectify this I’ve cut a couple of millimetres off the bottom of the feeder lugs, effectively lowering the feeder sufficiently to restore top bee space. While we’re on the subject of bee space, it’s definitely wrong at the end of the box without the feeder where I measure the gap at 1.5cm. This is poor and may reflect some sort of compromise to accommodate the different length lugs on National and other types of frames. For the moment I’ve not done anything about this, but if brace comb becomes an issue I intend to skin the inside end panel with some 8mm ply to restore the correct bee space.
Er, no …
The Everynuc is designed for 5 frames and a dummy board. With brand new frames you can just about cram 6 frames in, but as soon as the Hoffman spacers get a bit of propolis on them it’ll definitely be a 5 frame box. With good thick walls and a solid roof this is a good size to overwinter.
FIve frame poly nuc …
Everynuc feeder …
In addition to lowering the feeder I’m looking at ways to add a metal or plastic runner to the inside edge of the feeder, fitted just proud of the cut ply, to make frame manipulations easier. I’ve also added a thin piece of stripwood across the top of the feeder to stop the frames sliding backwards and forwards when the boxes are being moved. There is a small wooden spacer on the bottom edge of the feeder, but this additional cross brace should add a bit more security and prevent bees getting crushed. On the subject of moving colonies, I routinely make up 2-3 frame nucs for queen mating and then transport them from one apiary to another. Rather than letting the frames slide about side to side I’ve cut small blocks of dense foam to wedge them tightly in place for travel. An additional block of foam will be required for the entrance, which is wide and, with the short ‘landing board’, an awkward shape to block with mesh held in place with drawing pins (my favoured solution to transporting nucs).
Open wide …
First impressions of these nucs are reasonably positive. The beespace might be a problem, the frame feeder really shouldn’t need lowering and the entrance is likely to require some sort of reducing block to prevent robbing. However, the poly is dense and well moulded, with no real nooks and crannies to harbour pathogens. Cleaning should be straightforward. The boxes will stack if it is necessary to unite colonies.
Finally, I wonder how many beekeepers noticed the name of the manufacturer of the clear plastic crown board …
The poly nuc marketed by Paynes can be usefully converted into an eight frame box by getting rid of the internal (infernal) feeder as previously discussed. I’d hoped to divide these into two, adding a second entrance, to use for queen mating. Two or three frame nucs take more bees but need less maintenance than mini-nucs. However, the eight frame box is fractionally too narrow to split down the middle to create two four frame nucs, even using a thin sheet of Correx. The central entrance – at least in the original versions of these boxes – is also poorly designed and would have needed modification.
The final product
Until 2014 there were no generally available National poly nucs other than the Paynes offering (this is in the UK; Thorne’s have recently introduced one). I therefore purchased some Langstroth poly nucs from ModernBeekeeping in the sales. These are very high quality poly nucs. They are the Paradise Honey Bee Box’s, made out of very dense poly, with a separate removable open mesh floor. They also have a good thick roof – far superior to the Paynes box. They have the additional advantage of being designed to be divided, with lugs in the end panels, a shallow slot in the floor and twin entrances at opposite ends. The only drawback to these boxes is the sculptured exterior which makes painting them tiresome. I used 2-3 coats of thinned masonry paint.
I wanted to retain the option to use these as standard 6-7 frame nucs in the future, so designed a removable divider that (non-destructively) created two x three frame nucs. Being Langstroth’s, they’re significantly bigger than a National box. However, with a little ingenuity, this extra space can be used to create an internal feeding compartment for fondant or sugar. In the first boxes I converted I blocked the top of the feed compartment with a removable scrap of perspex and drilled through the end panel. I’m going to try some this year without the perspex … simply allowing the bees to clamber over the end panel to access the fondant.
I used these boxes for queen mating late in the season in 2013. I divided a colony – with the addition of a few frames of stores – to create five three frame nucleus colonies, four of which were queenless and housed in these three frame poly nucs. The queen from the donor hive went into a dummied down standard nuc with a frame of stores and brood. I moved the poly nucs to a separate apiary, added a sealed queen cell and got them all successfully mated. These small colonies were appreciably stronger than a mini-nuc and were better able to defend themselves against wasps (Kieler mini-nucs in the same apiary were robbed out by wasps). The bees did well in these boxes, soon built up and were moved on to larger colonies. Since it’s possible to overwinter colonies in Kielers, I see no reason why a strong three frame nuc – or rather two of them – wouldn’t be OK in anything but the harshest winter in one of these modified hives.
Glued and screwed
Construction is relatively simple, requiring little more than a sheet of 6mm ply, some offcuts from the scraps box, some softwood, a couple of G clamps, wood glue, screws and – inevitably – Elastoplast. I used the central divider as a sort of spine, to which I attached 15mm ply end panels, spaced the correct distance apart to fit a National frame. The easiest way to do this is to add some 8mm – beespace – softwood to the sidebars of a brood frame and then just mark where to attach the end panels to the divider. The four end panels need to be glued and screwed in place, using a set square to ensure they are perpendicular to the divider, and clamped until secure. It is easiest to make all the modifications (below) to these end panels before fitting them in place. The top edge of the divider is widened by the addition of two thin strips of softwood (3mm x 15mm) which extend to create the lugs that separate the original frame rests of the box.
Access to feeder
The ‘entrance’ end panel must be clear of the floor, the other one must reach all the way to the floor. The entrance end panel also needs 6mm softwood spacers on the back to protect the small poly lugs that hold the central divider in place. The other one can have a hole drilled through it and covered with a scrap of queen excluder (though see additional comments above as to whether this is necessary – work in progress). Both end panels will need frame rests on the upper edge – those horrible plastic ones provided with Thorne’s second quality supers are just fine. The original boxes are top bee space and this is the way I’ve arranged mine.
Correx entrance block
Running two colonies side by side is straightforward, but you need to ensure that each side is bee tight and that you can work with one colony without disturbing the other too much. I use a thick plastic crown board, fitted to the central divider with drawing pins. The bees can’t propolise this stuff down too easily, I can see enough through it to see colony expansion and it’s easy to peel back and hold down with you hive tool when you need access. Once it gets too mucky it can easily and cheaply be replaced. Don’t purchase the entrance reducers from ModernBeekeeping (as they’re a daft price) … use Correx offcuts instead, with different colours to help the bees orientate back to the colony.
‘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 smallestlarvae 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
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 … and any that score yes are re-queened.
Good lighting and good eyesight
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 … 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 … 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 …
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
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
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
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 …
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.
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.
Working calmly and efficiently pick individual larvae from the donor frame and transfer them to the cell bar frame.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 … they’re the ones which had horizontal eggs yesterday.
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.
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.
Assuming you’re starting with a standard colony consisting of a floor, brood box, crownboard and roof the additional equipment needed are as follows:
cell bar frame and tools for grafting (see separate post on grafting)
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
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
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:
Supers (only if they were on the original colony or there is a strong flow)
Upper brood box containing two fat dummies, two frames of pollen, the cell bar frame and a frame of unsealed brood
Lower brood box containing the queen
That’s it … hope for good weather the following day when you’ll be grafting.
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:
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.
mating nucs, primed with a grafted cell or a frame with a swarm cell
two frame ‘split’ to protect an old queen while the colony is re-queened
simple box to protect a frame with the queen while manipulating the colony e.g. harvesting nurse bees to populate mini-nucs, Bailey comb changes
transport box for grafted larvae, with the frame wrapped in a damp tea towel and a hot water bottle for warmth
a seat (for grafting, or just avoiding the damp ground)
v1 … too narrow, too shallow
I think this type of box needs the following desirable attributes; wide enough to take two frames (perhaps plus a dummy board which means an internal width of ~85mm), top bee space so you don’t have to worry about crushing bees, ample space below the frames to accommodate a frame containing a long fat queen cell (30-40 mm isn’t too much), open mesh floor and secure entrance block. In addition is should be relatively lightweight and have handles that make it easy to carry. The one addition feature I’d like to have is stability, but this is tricky with such a narrow box … I strap mine to a hive stand if it’s being left unattended. Some of these desirable attributes are obvious, others were learnt the hard way (e.g. gently lowering a frame with a precious queen cell on the bottom bar into a box that was 1cm too shallow … oops). You can build one of these two frame nucs largely with wood from the scraps box and a simple range of tools. Remember “measure twice, cut once“.
Internal dimensions of my two (National) frame nuc box are:
Length – NNN mm
Width – 85 mm
Depth – NN mm
Internal floor frame
The precise measurements of wood needed depend upon the what you have available. The side panels on mine are 8mm exterior plywood. The end panels are build from 18mm and 12mm scrap ply to generate the necessary thickness to accommodate the frame lug. The framed open mesh floor is from 21mm thick softwood. The entrance block is 9mm softwood. The crownboard is a Perspex offcut; although it’s convenient to be able to see through it a simple piece of thin plywood will do fine if you’ve got no Perspex. The roof has 12mm thick end panels but the sides and top are built from thin ply to keep the weight down.
Although it’s unlikely you’ll keep bees in one of these boxes for long periods (even getting a queen mated and observing how well she lays only takes two to three weeks) pay attention to the beespace, allowing about 6-9mm gap between the frame and the end walls.
Using softwood, with glue and screws holding together simple joints, build a floor frame with suitable external dimensions. The side walls will be attached directly to the floor frame. Cut a piece of mesh to size and nail it down using roofing felt nails or similar. The side walls are simple rectangles of 8-9mm exterior grade plywood. To ensure the crownboard and lid sits flat it is important that the corners of the side walls are exactly 90o.
The end panels are the same width as the floor frame – they are attached ‘inside’ the side walls. The cross-sectional view is shown (right), with the external end piece also acting as a handle for lifting the box. Remember to take account of the need for frame runners and fit these before assembling the box.
Fit the side walls in place using glue and screws, ensuring that the top edges are parallel and level – that way the roof will sit flat. Fit the end panels in place, ensuring that they are vertical, using glue and screws through the side walls. The top of the end panels should be level with the top of the side walls. Don’t worry about minor gaps … once full of bees they’ll use propolis to seal these up.
The easiest way to provide a suitable entrance is to drill a 12-15mm hole through one of the end panels and use a foam plug to block it when it is not required. However, although more work, a better way to provide a secure and removable entrance is to cut the bottom of one of the end panels down by 9mm, thereby leaving a 9mm slot once the end panel is fitted (flush with the top of the side walls). A short piece of 9mm softwood can be used as an entrance block and this can be held securely in place with a bent nail.
Cut a thin piece of ply slightly larger than the surface area of the top of the box and frame the inside with 21mm x 21mm softwood. Add end panels (using slightly thicker ply to make the next step easier) and then add thin side panels, securing them with gimp pins to the edge of the end panels. The roof should be lightweight and shallow. Make the side and end panels of the roof sufficiently short that you can easily access the handholds on the end panels of the box body. I’ve not bothered covering the roof with anything to waterproof it.
Give the entire exterior surface of the box 2-3 coats of something like Ronseal Fence Life or other bee-safe wood preservative.
Finished bottom view
For convenience fit a carrying handle. I used a single piece of braided polyester cord. Drill four suitable diameter holes through the side wall and floor frame, beneath the mesh floor. Run the cord through these via a short offcut of garden hosepipe to make a comfortable grip, knotting the two ends of the cord underneath the box. Before cutting off the unused cord make sure the handle is a) long enough to move completely out of the way, so the top of the open box can be readily accessed, and b) short enough to ensure the box is clear of the ground when being carried.
I usually carry a frame of foundation, a frame of sealed stores and a dummy board in one of these boxes. That covers most eventualities and saves too many trips to and fro to the car, or worse, to and fro the apiary. When I’m queen rearing I use the box to carry grafts from wherever I’ve done the grafting to my cell raising colony (which is often in a different apiary). I wrap the frame of grafts in a damp tea towel. On a cool day I’ll add a large flat pre-warmed “freezer block” into the box to make sure the grafts don’t get chilled. If I’m doing something with the colony and want to ensure the queen stays safe I’ll put the frame she is on into the box, put the lid back on and tuck it in a shady corner somewhere. Finally, I’ve used one of these two frame nuc boxes as mating nuclei, adding a frame of emerging brood, a frame of stores, an additional frame’s worth of nurse bees (shaken on top … actually add these first as the ‘target’ is rather small if the box is full of frames) and primed it with a sealed queen cell hanging between the top bars of the frame.
As indicated at the beginning, these boxes have little lateral stability. If they are going to house bees for any length of time strap them to a hive stand or something secure.
A version of this article appeared in Dr. Bodgit’s DIY column in Bee Talk, the monthly newsletter from Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers.