Tag Archives: queen cells

Acting on Impulse

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse … 

This was the advertising strapline that accompanied the 1982 introduction of a new ‘body mist’ perfume by Fabergé. It was accompanied by a rather cheesy 1 set of TV commercials with surprised looking (presumably fragrant) women being accosted by strange men proffering bouquets of flowers 2.

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse …

And, it turns out that women – or, more specifically, female worker honey bees – also act on impulse

In this case, these are the ‘impulses’ that result in the production of queen cells in the colony.

Understanding these impulses, and how they can be exploited for queen rearing or colony expansion (or, conversely, colony control), is a very important component of beekeeping.

The definition of the word impulse is an ‘incitement or stimulus to action’.

The action, as far as our bees are concerned, is the development of queen cells in the colony.

If we understand what factors stimulate the production of queen cells we can either mitigate those factors – so reducing the impulse and delaying queen cell production (and if you’re thinking ‘swarm prevention‘ here you’re on the right lines) – or exploit them to induce the production of queen cells for requeening or making increase.

But first, what are the impulses?

There are three impulses that result in the production of queen cells – supersedure, swarm and emergency.

Under natural conditions i.e. without pesky meddling by beekeepers, colonies usually produce queen cells under the supersedure or swarm impulse.

The three impulses are:

  1. supersedure – in which the colony rears a new queen to eventually replace the current queen in situ
  2. swarm – during colony reproduction (swarming) a number of queen cells are produced. In due course the current queen leaves heading a prime swarm. Eventually a newly emerged virgin queen remains to get mated and head the original colony. In between these events a number of swarms may also leave headed by virgin queens (so-called afterswarms or casts).
  3. emergency – if the queen is lost or damaged and the colony rendered queenless, the colony rears new queens under the emergency impulse.

Many beekeepers, and several books, state that you can determine the type of impulse that induced queen cell production by the number, appearance and location of the queen cells.

And, if you can do this, you’ll know what to do with the colony simply by judging the queen cells.

If only it were that simple

Wouldn’t it be easy?

One or two queen cells in the middle of frame in the centre of the brood nest? Definitely supersedure. Leave the colony alone and the old queen will be gently replaced over the next few weeks. Brood production will continue uninterrupted and the colony will stay together and remain productive.

A dozen or more sealed queen cells along the bottom edge of a frame? The colony is definitely  in swarm mode and – since the cells are already capped – has actually already swarmed. Time to thin out the cells and leave just one to ensure no casts are also lost.

But it isn’t that simple 🙁

Bees haven’t read the textbooks so don’t necessarily behave as expected.

I’ve found single open queen cells in the middle of a central frame, assumed it was supersedure, left the colony alone and lost a swarm from the hive a few days later 🙁

D’oh!

Or I’ve found loads of capped queen cells on the edges of multiple frames in a hive, assumed that I’d missed a swarm … only to subsequently find the original marked queen calmly laying eggs as I split the brood box up to make several nucleus colonies  🙂

Not all queen cells are ‘born’ equal

It’s worth considering what queen cells are … and what they are not. And how queen cells are started.

There are essentially two ways in which queen cells are started.

They are either built from the outset as vertically oriented cells into which the queen lays an egg, or they start their life as horizontally oriented 3 worker cells which, should the need arise, are re-engineered to face vertically.

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

Queen cells started under the supersedure or swarming impulse are initially created as ‘play cups‘. A play cup looks like a small wax version of an acorn cup – the woody cup-like structure that holds the acorn nut. In the picture above the play cup is located on the lower edge of a brood frame, but they are also often found ‘centre stage‘ in the middle of the frame.

Play cups

A colony will often produce many play cups and their presence is nothing to be concerned about. In fact, I think it’s often a rather encouraging sign that the colony is sufficiently strong and healthy that it might be thinking of raising a new queen. 

Before we leave play cups and consider how emergency queen cells start life it’s worth emphasising the differences between play cups and queen cells.

Play cups are not the same as queen cells

Until a play cup is occupied by an egg it is not a queen cell.

At least it’s not as far as I’m concerned 😉

And, even if it contains an egg there’s no guarantee it will be supported by the workers to develop into a new queen 4.

However, once the cell contains a larva and it is being fed by the nurse bees – evidenced by the larva sitting in an increasingly thick bed of royal jelly – then it is indisputably a queen cell.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

And to emphasise the fundamental importance in terms of colony management I usually refer to this type of queen cell as a ‘charged queen cell’.

Once charged queen cells appear in the colony, all other things being equal, they will be maintained by the workers, capped and – on the 16th day after the egg was laid – will emerge as a new queen.

And it is once charged queen cells are found in the colony that swarm control should be considered 5.

But let’s complete our description of the queen cells by considering those that are produced in response to the emergency impulse.

Emergency queen cells

Queen cells produced under the emergency impulse differ from those made under the swarm or supersedure impulse. These are the cells that are produced when the colony is – for whatever reason – suddenly made queenless. 

Without hamfisted beekeeping it’s difficult to imagine or contrive a scenario under which this would occur naturally 6, but let’s not worry about that for the moment 7

The point is that, should a colony become queenless, the workers in the colony can select one or more young larvae already present in worker cells and rear them as new queens.

So, although the eggs are (obviously!) laid by the queen 8, they have been laid in a normal worker cell. To ensure that they get lavished with attention by the nurse bees, feeding them a diet enriched in Royal Jelly, the cell must be re-engineered to project vertically downwards.

Location, location

Queen cells can occur anywhere in the hive to which the queen has access.

Queen cell on excluder

Queen cell on underside of the excluder …

But they are most usually found on the periphery of the frame, either along the lower edge …

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

… or a vertical side edge of the frame …

Sealed queen cells

… but they can also be found slap, bang in the middle of a brood frame.

Single queen cell in the centre of a frame

And remember that bees have a remarkable ability to hide queen cells in inaccessible nooks and crannies on the frame … and that finding any queen cells is much more difficult when the frame is covered with a wriggling mass of worker bees.

Location and impulses

Does the location tell us anything about the impulse under which the bees generated the queen cell?

Probably not, or at least not reliably enough that additional checks aren’t also needed 🙁

Many descriptions will state that a small number (typically 1-3) of queen cells occupying the centre of a frame are probably supersedure cells. 

Whilst this is undoubtedly sometimes or even often true, it is not invariably the case.

The workers choose which larvae to rear as queens under the emergency impulse. If the only larvae of a suitable age are situated mid-frame then those are the ones they will choose.

In addition, since generating emergency cells requires re-engineering worker cells, newer comb is likely more easily manipulated by the workers.

Some beekeepers ‘notch’ comb under suitably aged larvae to induce queen cell production at particular sites on the frame 9. The photograph shows a frame of eggs with a notch created with the hive tool. It’s better to place the notch underneath suitably aged larvae, not eggs. Clearly, the age of the larvae is more critical than the ease with which the comb can be reworked. Those who use this method [PDF] properly/extensively claim up to a 70% ‘success’ rate in inducing queen cell placement on the frame. This can be very useful if the plan is to cut the – well separated – queen cells out and use them in mating nucs or for requeening other colonies.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Comb at the bottom or side edges of the frame often has space adjacent and underneath it. Therefore the bees might favour these over sites mid-frame (assuming ample suitable aged larvae) simply because the comb is easier to re-work in these locations.

And don’t forget … under the emergency impulse the colony preferentially chooses the rarest patrilines to rear as new queens 10.

Not all larvae are equal, at least when rearing queens under an emergency impulse.

Active queen rearing and the three impulses

By ‘active’ queen rearing I mean one of the hundreds of methods in which the beekeeper is actively involved in selecting the larvae from which a batch of new queens are reared.

This doesn’t necessarily mean grafting , towering cell builders and serried rows of Apidea mini nucs.

It could be as simple as taking a queen out of a good colony to create a small nuc and then letting the original colony generate a number of queen cells.

Almost all queen rearing methods use either the emergency or supersedure impulses to induce new queen cell production 11.

For example, let’s consider the situation described above.

Active queen rearing and the emergency impulse

A strong colony with desirable traits (calm, productive, prolific … choose any three 😉 ) is made queenless by removing the queen on a frame of emerging brood into a 5 frame nucleus hive. With a frame of stores and a little TLC 12 the queen will continue to lay and the nuc colony will expand.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

But the, now queenless, hive will – under the emergency impulse – generate a number of new queen cells. These will probably be distributed on several frames if the queen was laying well before she was removed.

The colony will select larvae less than ~36 hours old (i.e. less than 5 days since the egg was laid) for feeding up as new queens.

If the beekeeper returns to the hive 8-9 days later it can be split into several 5 frame nucs, each containing a suitable queen cell and sufficient emerging and adherent bees to maintain the newly created nucleus colony 13.

Active queen rearing and the supersedure impulse

In contrast, queenright queen rearing methods such as the Ben Harden system exploit the supersedure impulse.

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

In this method suitably aged larvae are offered to the colony above the queen excluder. With reduced levels of queen pheromones present – due to the physical distance and the fact that queen cannot leave a trail of her footprint pheromone across the combs above the QE – the larvae are consequently raised under the supersedure impulse.

Capped queen cells

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

I’m always (pleasantly) surprised this works so well. Queen cells can be produced just a few inches away from a brood box containing a laying queen, with the workers able to move freely through the queen excluder. 

Combining impulses …

Finally, methods that use Cloake or Morris boards 14 use a combination of the emergency and supersedure impulses.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

In these methods the colony is rendered transiently queenless to start new queen cells. About 24 hours later the queenright status is restored so that cells are ‘finished’ under the supersedure response.

The odd one out, as it’s not really practical to use it for active queen rearing, is the swarming impulse. Presumably this is because the conditions used to induce swarming are inevitably rather difficult to control. Active queen rearing is all about control. You generally want to determine the source of the larvae used and the timing with which the queen cells become available.

Environmental conditions can also influence colonies on the brink of swarming … literally a case of rain stopping play.

Acting on impulse

If there are play cups in the colony then you don’t need to take any action 15, but if there are charged queen cells present then your bees are trying to tell you something.

Precisely what they’re trying to tell you depends upon the number and position of the queen cells, the state or appearance of those cells, and the state of the colony – whether queenright or not.

What you cannot do 16 is decide what action to take based solely on the number, appearance or position of the queen cells you find in the colony. 

Is the colony queenright?

Are there eggs present in the comb?

Does the colony appear depleted of bees?

If there are lots of sealed queen cells, no eggs, no sign of the queen and a depleted number of foragers then the colony has probably swarmed. 

Frankly, this is pretty obvious, though it’s surprising the number of beekeepers who cannot determine whether their colony has swarmed or not.

But other situations are less clear … 

If there are a small number of charged queen cells, eggs, a queen and a good number of bees in the hive then it might be supersedure.

Or the colony might swarm on the day the first cell is sealed 🙁

How do you distinguish between these two situations? 

Is it mid-May or mid-September? Swarming is more likely earlier in the season, whilst supersedure generally occurs later in the season.

But not always 😉

Is the queen ‘slimmed down’ and laying at a reduced rate?

Much trickier to determine … but if she is then they are likely to swarm.

Decisions, decisions 😉 … and going by the number of visits to my previous post entitled Queen cells … don’t panic! there are lots of beekeepers trying to make these decisions right now 🙂


 

Swarm control and elusive queens

Many beekeepers struggle to routinely find the queen, particularly in a very busy colony.

For 90% of the beekeeping season whether you find the queen or not is irrelevant … you can tell if she’s present because there are eggs in the colony (so she must have laid them in the last 3 days) and, often, because the colony is well-tempered.

That should be sufficient.

Whenever I do routine inspections I like to see the queen, but I don’t look for her. If the colony:

  1. is calm and well-behaved
  2. is bringing pollen in
  3. contains no sealed queen cells, and
  4. contains eggs

then I’m 99% certain there is a queen present and everything is OK 1.

Individually, each of those observations isn’t a certain way of determining the queen status of the colony, but together they’re pretty-much a nailed-on certainty.

Not finding the queen

Notwithstanding the surety these four signs provide about the presence of the queen, they still don’t help you (or me 😉 ) find her.

And, for a few colony manipulations, it’s really helpful to find the queen. Indeed, for some it is essential.

I’m not going to discuss ways to help find the queen as I’ve written about it before and refer you there for starters.

The two obvious times it helps to know exactly where the queen are:

  • when you are removing frames, brood and bees from the colony – for example, when making up nucleus colonies
  • during swarm control

Frankly, you probably shouldn’t be doing the first of these if you don’t know where the queen is. There’s a real risk of leaving the parental colony queenless, which is probably not your intention.

Swarm control

The post today is going to deal with the second situation. How do you conduct swarm control when you don’t have a Scooby 2 where the queen is in the colony?

Swarm control is the term used to describe the colony manipulations that a beekeeper conducts to prevent the loss of a swarm. It is usually started after attempts at swarm prevention (e.g. supering early to provide more space) have clearly not worked.

You can tell the swarm prevention has not worked because the colony has started to produce queen cells … don’t panic.

This seemed like a logical post for this time of the season … and for another Covid-blighted spring. Beginners who started last year, or who will be getting their first bees this year, might well have to conduct swarm control without the benefit of a mentor.

And it’s beginners who are most likely to be unable to find the queen in an overflowing colony. These of course are the colonies that are most likely to swarm and – because of their ability to collect lots of honey – the very colonies you want not to swarm 😉

Swarm control when you can find the queen

All of the methods of swarm control I’ve previously discussed here have involved hive manipulations that require the location of the queen to be known:

  • The Pagden artificial swarm – the queen is left in the original location and is joined by all the flying bees. The brood and hive bees end up rearing a new queen.
  • The vertical split – the same as the Pagden artificial swarm, except conducted vertically rather than horizontally. Uses less equipment and more muscle.
  • The nucleus method – a nuc colony is established with the queen, some bees and brood. The parental colony is left to rear a new queen. Very reliable in my experience.

If you’re the type of beekeeper who can routinely find the queen, relatively quickly, however crowded or bad tempered the colony is, however short of time …

… in a downpour.

Congratulations. Apply here. No need to read any further 😉

But, for the rest of us …

Queens and bees

If you think about the contents of a colony it can be divided into three components:

  1. Queen
  2. Brood in all stages (eggs, larvae, pupae; abbreviated to BIAS) and the nurse or ‘hive’ bees
  3. Flying bees – the foraging workforce

Of these, only one is a ‘viable’ entity on its own.

The queen needs bees to feed her, build comb and rear the larvae that hatch from the eggs she lays. The foragers need a queen to lay eggs. Neither alone is viable, by which I mean ‘has the ability to develop into a full colony’.

In contrast, the combination of nurse bees and brood, in particular the eggs and very young larvae, does have the potential to create a complete colony.

I’ve discussed this concept before under the title Superorganism potential.

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Although neither the queen or flying bees alone have any long-term potential to create a new colony, together they can.

Both the Pagden and vertical split exploit this potential by separating the queen and flying bees from ‘all the rest’. It’s similar, but not identical to what happens when a colony swarms 3.

Loads of bees … and there’s a queen in there somewhere!

The method described below is a slight modification of the Pagden artificial swarm.

It exploits the fact that the flying bees return to their original location with unerring accuracy 4.

It couples this with the ‘Get out of jail free’ ability of bees to rear a new queen from eggs or very young larvae if they are queenless.

Together they make swarm control straightforward when you can’t find or don’t know where the queen is.

Or when you don’t have the time or patience or enthusiasm to find her 😉

So, let’s move from generalities to specifics …

During a routine inspection of a colony in late May 5 you find unsealed queen cells. The colony is strong and you’ve not seen the queen for weeks. Or ever. She’s not marked or clipped. There are eggs, larvae and sealed brood in abundance.

Stage 1 – preparation

  1. Check the colony again for any sealed queen cells. If you find any you should assume that the colony has probably already swarmed 6. If there are no sealed queen cells continue …
  2. Beg, borrow or steal a new floor, brood box, crownboard and roof. While you’re at it, scrounge or build 11 new frames. Of course, I expect all readers of this site are better prepared than me that. You will have spares close to hand – in the apiary shed, or the back of the beemobile, or you can quickly disassemble a nearby bait hive. Congratulations … I hope you’re feeling very smug 😉
  3. Move the soon-to-swarm colony (which I’ll term the old colony in the old hive from now on) away from its original location. Most advice suggests more than a metre. I prefer to move the old hive further away (e.g. to the other side of the apiary). You want to ensure that bees flying from the old hive relocate to the new hive. If you’re short of space at all it helps to rotate the old hive entrance to face in a different direction.
  4. Place the new floor and new brood box in the original location. Make sure the entrance faces the same way as it did when the old hive was in the original location.

You’ll notice that returning foragers will start to enter the new hive almost as soon as you place the floor and brood box in place.

Stage 1 – provision the new hive with eggs and larvae

  1. Remove the roof, crownboard, supers and queen excluder from the old hive and place them gently aside.
  2. Transfer one frame containing eggs and young larvae from the old hive to the new hive.
  3. It is imperative that the selected frame has no queen cells on it. Carefully inspect the frame for queen cells. If you find any, knock them off using your hive tool or fingers. The ability to judge which of the two hives contains the queen at the next inspection is dependent upon there being no queen cells at this stage.
  4. Place the selected frame in the middle of the new hive.
  5. Fill the remainder of the new hive with new frames.
  6. Add the queen excluder to the new hive 7.
  7. Add the supers to the new hive. Close the new hive by adding a crownboard and roof. See the note below about feeding this colony.
  8. Add a new frame to the gap now present in the old hive 8. Replace the crownboard and roof.
  9. Go and make a cup of tea … all done for today.

    Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – stage 1

I’ve assumed that the colony you are manipulating has supers present. If it did not, and particularly if there’s no nectar flow, you will need to feed the colony in the new hive. This ensures that the bees can build comb … which they’ll need to do if the queen is present.

You now leave the colonies for 7 days and then check them again to determine which contained the queen …

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the new hive

Inspect the new hive and look for queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive in stage 1(ii) (above). This hive will be much busier now as all of the flying bees from the old hive will have relocated to it

The new hive contains no queen cells

If there are no queen cells on the brood frame you introduced it is almost certain that the queen is in the new hive (see upper panel A in the diagram below). Look carefully on the frames of adjacent drawn comb for the presence of eggs. If so, you can be certain that the queen is in the new hive. Close the hive and let them get on with things.

The new hive does contain queen cells

If there are queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive then the queen is almost certainly not in the new hive (see lower panel B in the diagram below).

Because they are queenless and you provided them with a frame containing eggs and very young larvae they have started to produce a new queen … or queens.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

You want to make sure they only produce one new queen.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell that contains a big fat larva sitting in a deep bed of Royal jelly (a ‘charged’ cell). Mark the top of the frame with a pin (if you’re organised) or pen (if you’re less organised) or a hive tool (if you’re me 😉 ). Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

Be gentle with this frame. Don’t shake it, don’t drop it etc.

Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – 7 days later

Close the hive up and let the queen emerge and mate and start laying. This will take at least 17 days or so, and often longer.

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the old hive

Inspect the old hive and look for queen cells. This hive will be much less busy as most of the flying bees will have been ‘bled off’ returning to their original location (and boosting the population in the new hive).

The old hive contains no queen cells

With a much reduced population of workers – and if the queen is present – the bees will no longer need the queen cells, so will almost certainly have torn them down and destroyed them (see lower panel B in the diagram above).

If you carefully look through this hive you should find eggs and very young larvae present. These ‘prove’ that there is a queen present, even if you still cannot find her. Where else could the eggs have come from?

Close the hive up and let them get on with things.

The old hive does contain queen cells

Despite the reduced worker population, if this hive does not contain the queen the bees will be busy rearing a replacement … or three.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell. Mark the top of the frame with a pin 9. Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

The goal is the leave one charged queen cell only.

If all the cells are capped don’t worry. The bees are very unlikely to have chosen a ‘dud’. Choose a nice looking cell somewhere near the centre of the brood nest and destroy the others.

She’s gone …

Make a note in your diary/notebook and expect to wait 17-21 days until this queen is out and mated and laying (or possibly a bit longer). Other than perhaps checking the new queen has emerged there’s no need to disturb the colony in the meantime (and lots to be lost if you do interfere and disturb the virgin queen).

It’s as simple as that … what could possibly go wrong?

I’ve very rarely had to implement swarm control when I can’t find the queen. Usually I’ll just look a bit harder and find her eventually.

However, there are times when knowing what you need to do if you really cannot find her – because the hive is full of uncapped swarm cells and it’s raining hard, or the bees are going postal and you want to be anywhere but in this apiary next to the open hive – is very useful.

Are there any embellishments that might be worth considering?

If the old hive has very little comb with eggs and young larvae you need to ensure that both the old and the new hives have sufficient to draw new queen cells. This is rarely a problem, but be aware that this method only works if both old and new hives have the resources to rear a new queen should they need to.

On the contrary, if there’s ample eggs/larvae you could transfer a couple of frames to the new hive … remembering that there’s also then an increased chance you will also be transferring the elusive queen.

If the old hive is left with ample eggs and larvae you can safely knock back all the queen cells during stage 1. They will only then produce new cells if the queen is not present. This makes deciphering what’s going on at 7 days that much easier.

When I say 7 days, I mean 7 days … not 9, or when it stops raining or when you’ve got some spare time in the future 😉

A queen in a cell capped on the day you complete stage 1 will emerge 9 days later. On the off chance that the bees are queenright but do not tear the unwanted cells down you want to avoid this happening.

Finally, if there’s a dearth of nectar and no filled/partially filled supers on the colonies, you may need to feed them to avoid starvation.

Keep a close eye on them, but don’t interfere unless you have to.


 

Demaree swarm control

I’ve covered three swarm control methods in previous posts. These are the classic Pagden artificial swarm, the vertical split that is directly comparable but requires less equipment and more lifting, and the nucleus method.

As described on this site, if successful, all achieve the same two things:

  • They prevent a swarm being lost. Don’t underestimate how important this is in terms of not irritating your neighbours, in helping your honey production and in giving you a quiet sense of satisfaction 🙂
  • They result in the generation of a second colony headed by a newly mated queen.

This doubling in colony number, or – more generally – the managed reproduction of colony numbers, is termed making increase.

Managed reproduction

Making increase is of fundamental importance in beekeeping.

Without deliberately splitting colonies, unless you buy in nucs every year (kerrching!), collect swarms or steal hives 1 your colony numbers would never increase.

Making increase is therefore critical if you want more colonies. However, it’s just as important (and a darn sight less expensive than buying nucs) if you want to make up any overwintering colony losses, thereby keeping the same number of colonies overall 2.

Not making increase

Once you’ve got bees, with good management, you can always have bees. However, at some point you reach that sweet spot where you have enough bees and don’t want more colonies.

The Goldilocks Principle is the concept of having just the right amount. Not so few colonies that a really harsh winter causes problems, and not so many that you cannot enjoy your beekeeping at the peak of the season.

When you reach that point you no longer need to make increase, you just want to keep the same number of colonies.

Which means that the swarm control methods that essentially reproduce the colony may not be ideal.

Of course, you can unite colonies having removed the unwanted queen from one of them, but this is additional work. Not a huge amount of work admittedly, but work nevertheless 3.

This is where the Demaree method of swarm control comes in useful. As practised, Demaree swarm control prevents the loss of the swarm without increasing colony numbers.

It has the additional significant advantages of keeping the entire foraging force of the colony together (even better for honey production than not losing a swarm) and needing no specialised equipment.

Demaree swarm control – in principle

George Demaree

George Demaree

The principle of the method is very straightforward.

When queen cells are found during an inspection you conduct a form of a vertical split, separating the original queen and flying bees from the nurse bees and sealed brood. You place the latter above a queen excluder.

A few days later you return and remove any new queen cells from the top box, so preventing swarming. Finally you leave all the brood to emerge from the top box.

Demaree swarm control – in practice

A cartoon diagram of the process is shown below. The only additional equipment required is a brood box with 11 frames of drawn comb or foundation and a queen excluder.

That’s it.

Demaree swarm control

Demaree swarm control

Here’s a bit more detail:

  1. If you find queen cells during an inspection gently remove the brood box and place it on an upturned roof off to one side 4.
  2. Place the new brood box on the original floor. Add 9 frames of drawn comb or foundation, leaving a gap in the middle of the box.
  3. Using minimal smoke, go through the original box and find the queen.
  4. Place the frame with the queen in the middle of the new brood box on the original floor. This frame must contain no queen cells.
  5. Push the frames in the new brood box together and add in the eleventh frame.
  6. Add a queen excluder.
  7. Add the supers above the queen excluder. If there were no supers on the original hive then it’s worth adding a couple of supers now. It will provide better separation of the new and old brood boxes and it will encourage the bees to store nectar in supers rather than the top brood box.
  8. Add a second queen excluder.
  9. Place the original brood box on top of the queen excluder.
  10. Go through the upper brood box and remove every queen cell. Shake the bees off the frames to do this. Push the frames together and add one additional frame. Add the crownboard and roof.

Leave the colony for one week. At the next inspection you should only need to check the top brood box (i.e. the original one).

  1. Carefully inspect every frame and remove every queen cell. Again, you should shake the bees off the frames to do this. If you miss any queen cells there’s a good chance the colony will swarm.
  2. Close up the hive and leave the brood in the top box to emerge.
  3. About 25 days after conducting the first inspection (1 above, where you first found QC’s) you can remove the upper brood box from which all brood will have now emerged.

Explanatory notes

If you have a reasonable understanding of the development cycle of queen and worker bees you will understand how the Demaree Method simultaneously prevents swarming and keeps the entire colony together.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

  • By splitting the colony you separate the queen and the flying bees from the nurse bees and the brood. The queen in the new (now bottom) box has ample space to lay, particularly if you provide her with some drawn comb to use.
  • The bottom box will now be less crowded and the swarming urge will therefore be much reduced.
  • You destroy all of the queen cells in the original (now top) box when you rearrange the hive. This is to stop any new queens emerging in this box in the following week.
  • However, this top box still contains eggs and young larvae. Since it is now located a long way from the queenright box the level of queen pheromone is very low. Consequently, in the week following the hive rearrangement, the bees will create new emergency queen cells in the top box.
  • When you return a week later all the eggs in the top box will have hatched and the youngest larvae left will be about four days old i.e. too old to be reared as new queens. Therefore, when you destroy all the new queen cells in the top box, you prevent the colony swarming.
  • You can remove the top brood box as soon as all the brood has emerged i.e. 25 days after first rearranging the hive 5.

Demaree pros and cons

Pros

  • An effective method of swarm control
  • Relatively simple procedure to implement and understand
  • Only requires a single brood box, frames and a queen excluder
  • Generates big, strong colonies and keeps the entire foraging force together
  • Modifications of the process can be used for queen rearing 6

Cons

  • Necessary to find the queen
  • Critical to remove all queen cells at the start and after one week
  • Generates tall stacked boxes, so some heavy lifting may be involved
  • Drones in the top box get trapped by the queen excluder 7
  • In a strong flow the bees can backfill the top box with nectar. Add sufficient supers when you first rearrange the hive

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

Historical notes

George Whitfield Demaree (1832–1915) was a lawyer in Kentucky, USA, and a pioneer in swarm control methods. His eponymous method was published in the American Bee Journal in 1892. The original method was subtly different from that described above:

Demaree method

Demaree method

In his description he emphasises the need to keep the colony together to maximise honey production.

I suspect Demaree used a single sized box (as broods and supers) as he describes placing brood frames above the queen excluder in the centre of the super flanked by empty frames. As described, he doesn’t mention returning after one week to destroy queen cells above the queen excluder. Don’t forget to do this!

I particularly like Demaree’s comment that any swarm prevention method that “require a divided condition of the colony, using two or more hives, is not worthy of a thought”.


 

An Inspector Calls

Hive inspections are the preventative maintenance of the beekeeping year. Conducted properly, they include all the necessary checks to ensure all is well now and will be until the next inspection.

Inspections are an essential part of beekeeping. Beekeepers who don’t conduct inspections probably won’t be beekeepers for long … the colony swarms, goes irretrievably queenless or succumbs to disease.

Or all three 🙁

Actually, there’s another reason … I suspect that beekeepers who don’t regularly inspect colonies are more interested doing something else. They’d prefer to be playing golf or building model railways or potholing. I covered this a few months ago when discussing beekeeping principles and practice.

Shouldn't you be inspecting your bees today?

Shouldn’t you be inspecting your bees today?

Their enthusiasm to properly manage their colonies that is, not potholing 😉

Preventative maintenance

The clue is in the name … the purpose of inspections are to maintain the colony in a productive state and to prevent things from happening that might stop this being achieved.

‘Productive’ usually means collecting nectar for honey 1, but could equally well refer to making lots of bees for nucleus colony production. Or, for that matter, maximising drone production to flood the area with good genes for queen mating.

Essentially you’re checking the colony to ensure it’s best able to do what you want it to do.

And, if there are signs that things are going awry, you’re putting in place the preventative measures that help avoid a partial or complete disaster.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

A beekeeping “disaster” … let’s keep things in perspective. Swarming, queenlessness, laying workers, robbing, wasps, disease, Varroa infestation, brace comb and all the rest.

Quick or thorough but probably not both

Inspections can either be quick or they can be thorough, but rarely both. The definition of the term ‘inspection’ means “looking narrowly into; careful scrutiny or survey; close or critical examination”.

Therefore, unless you’re only checking one thing, for example whether the queen cells are sealed in a queenright queen rearing colony, it’s likely that the inspection will take some time.

Cell bar frame with three day old queen cells, The Apiarist.

3 day old queen cells …

How long depends upon experience. It probably takes me ~12-15 minutes to go through a box thoroughly and I have a reasonable amount of experience and get quite a bit of practice 2. This is a snail’s pace when compared with commercial beekeepers who can conduct a pretty comprehensive inspection in ~4 minutes.

A beginning beekeeper might take significantly longer than 15 minutes to inspect a colony.

But speed is not the issue. 

Why conduct inspections?

The issue – in a routine inspection – is determining the answer to at least the following five key questions (paraphrased from Ted Hooper in his Guide to Bees and Honey):

  1. Has the colony sufficient room?
  2. Is the queen present and laying as expected?
  3. Is the colony building up as expected (early season)? Are there queen cells present (mid season)?
  4. Are there signs of disease?
  5. Has the colony sufficient stores?

All of which, done properly, takes a reasonable amount of time.

So that’s the Why? What about when and how should inspections be conducted? These need to be addressed before considering the questions above 3.

When?

There are several ‘when’ questions to be considered. When should you conduct the first inspection of the year? When – as in what sort of day – should you conduct the inspection? How frequently do the inspections need to be conducted?

Unless you’re looking very quickly in a hive for a specific reason inspections should only really be conducted when the exposed brood aren’t going to get chilled. This means you should choose a day when the temperature reaches at least the mid-teens (°C). ‘Shirtsleeve’ weather some call it.

This influences both the timing of the first inspection of the year and – particularly early or late in the season – the time of day that the inspection occurs. On the East coast of Scotland I did my first thorough inspection this year on the 19th of April. Last year – although the winter was nominally shorter and warmer – some hives weren’t inspected until early May because there was never a suitable day.

Lots of hive entrance activity …

Use your own judgement about whether the weather is suitable for early season inspections. The bees should be flying well. This is both an indication that the weather is good enough and reduces the hive population making the condition and amount of brood easier to determine.

Hive entrance activity ...

Hive entrance activity …

Don’t base your decision to inspect on reports you read on beekeeping discussion forums (fora?) about others with their hives bulging with brood. They may be beekeeping in a warmer part of the country. They might be in a different country altogether. It’s also worth remembering that there’s a well-documented tendency – as with online reviews – for contributors to over-exaggerate the positives (and negatives) 4.

I also wouldn’t bother inspecting on an unseasonably warm day very early in the year. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to deduce a whole lot about the state of the colony.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish …

The frequency of inspections is largely dictated by the development time of a queen bee, and to a lesser extent by the strength of nectar flow in your locality.

If a colony is going to swarm they first prepare one or several queen cells. These are capped around day 9 after the egg is laid. Once there are capped queen cells and suitable weather the colony is likely to swarm.

That means you need to inspect more frequently than every 9 days during the peak swarming period of the season – in Fife that’s an ~8 week period from early May late June. In warmer regions, or in years with atypical weather, regular inspections might have to start earlier and continue later.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

“Around 9 days” really means anything from 8 days, so a 7 day inspection cycle makes most sense. If a careful inspection one week fails to find evidence of queen cells being developed there’s no chance the colony can swarm for a further 7 days at least (because there are no queen cells that are sufficiently developed).

“fails to find evidence” means you have to inspect carefully. A small charged queen cup, with a day old larva and a bed of Royal Jelly will be capped 6 days later … then they’ll be off 🙂

Generally 5 a colony with a clipped queen will take a little longer to swarm, allowing intervals between inspections to be extended to up to 10 days.

However, don’t rely on this … I’ve seen them (er, mine) swarm earlier than this. Inevitably it’s you’re strongest colony and best honey producer 🙁

Relax, but don’t be complacent

Once the peak swarming season is over the frequency of inspections can be reduced. I’m usually on a two-week cycle by mid-July, with most colonies getting their last inspection in mid/late August. This coincides with the optimum time to start applying Varroa treatments to minimise exposure of winter bees to deformed wing virus.

However, remember that a strong colony can fill a super very quickly during a good nectar flow. Inspections are required to ensure the colony has enough space – for brood expansion and for stores.

How to inspect

We’re running out of space … I’ll deal with this in more detail in a future post (and link to it from here).

Essentially, because the goal is to check the state of the colony, you need to ensure that the inspection is conducted in a way that best allows you to determine this.

An agitated colony or one stirred up to be highly defensive makes inspections much harder. It’s therefore important to be as gentle as possible, to be calm and measured in your movements and to avoid jarring the colony.

Use the minimal amount of smoke possible, don’t wave your hands over the top of the frames and don’t crush bees.

And if it all goes pear-shaped, if despite your best efforts the colony gets really stroppy, if you kick a frame over on the ground, drop your hive tool into the open brood box or the smoker goes out at a critical moment 6 … close up the box and try again another day.

Swarm arriving at bait hive ...

Swarm arriving at bait hive …


Colophon

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls is a play by J.B. Priestley. Set in 1912 and first performed in the mid-1940’s, it involves a man – calling himself Inspector Goole – questioning a well-to-do family about the suicide of a working class woman, Eva Smith. Over three acts it is clear that, independently, all in the family are responsible for her exploitation, abandonment, social ruin and eventual death through poisoning. “Inspector Goole” leaves, but the secrets are now out. Subsequent checks with the police and the infirmary show there is no “Inspector Goole” or recent suicides. The play ends with a phone call from the police about the suspicious death of a young woman by poisoning …

Alistair Sim starred in the 1954 film version of the play, where the surname of the lead character was changed from Goole to Poole.

Splits and stock improvement

Beekeeping is always more enjoyable if the bees you are handling are good quality. I’ve briefly discussed judging the quality and temperament of your bees when writing about record keeping. With experience, and in particular with comparisons between colonies, it’s possible to identify traits which make working with your bees more enjoyable.

Bad behaviour

Although I keep general records on colony build up, disease resistance and the like, the three behavioural traits I try and accurately score my bees on all relate to how pleasant they are to handle. These are temper, running on the comb and following. I score these on a scale of 1 to 5 (low to high) and any colony consistently at 3 or less will eventually require attention. Bees with poor temper or that run on the comb are unpleasant to inspect, making what should be an interesting activity a chore. Bees that ‘follow’ – dive bombing you dozens of metres away from the hives after an inspection – are a real pain. Aside from making your own post-inspection de-suiting risky they are a potential menace to others going near your apiary and so should not be tolerated.

It’s all in the genes … nearly

If you’re really unfortunate you can find bees showing all three traits simultaneously – stroppy, running, followers – but they’re more usually found individually. With all of these characteristics, assuming they’re not environmental (poor weather, no flow, queenless colonies etc.), requeening is the usual solution. Genetics and environment determine behaviour, and if the environment is OK, then the genetics need changing. You can do this by purchasing a new queen, by rearing your own by grafting, or – as described below – by splitting the colony and providing suitable young larvae for the queenless portion to rear the new queen from. I usually graft and rear queens from my best stock but resources – time largely, due to overseas work commitments – mean that all my queen rearing and replacement is being done by splits this season.

The mechanics of a split

I’ve described the mechanics of a conventional vertical split for swarm control and making increase previously. The colony is divided using a split or division board into two. The queenright ‘half’ gets the flying bees, the queenless ‘half’ starts to make new queen cells from very young larvae. ‘Half’ because this is an imprecise science in terms of bee numbers … top and bottom half of the colony might be a better description, though colony orientation is not proscribed. After one week the colony is manipulated to bleed off flying bees from the queenless half, both strengthening the queenright half and reducing the likelihood of swarming. Three weeks later there should be a new, mated laying queen present.

Like mother, like daughter

Like father, like son is more conventional, but clearly inappropriate for a colony of bees 😉 . As outlined above, the queenless half of the split rears a new queen from larvae already present in the colony. If this is a colony with undesirable characteristics then there’s a distinct possibility you’ll be getting ‘more of the same’. These larvae came from eggs laid by the queen that headed the colony with the very-same undesirable characteristics you’re trying to replace. With open mated queens it’s a lottery, but the deck is already stacked against you – if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. So … stack the deck in your favour by providing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable characteristics.

Splits and stock improvement

Split the colony as previously described. In this case I’d argue that the queenless half should be on the top of the stack of boxes as you’ll be inspecting it a couple of times. Make sure the queenright half has sufficient stores should conditions deteriorate as they’ll be short of foragers for the next week or so. Make sure that the queenless half has the majority of brood – sealed and unsealed – as you’ll need young bees over an extended period to rear new queens.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

At the end of this initial manipulation the queenright half will use an entrance at the bottom of the stack, orientated in the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The split board will have an entrance open at the original front of the hive. This is illustrated in the ‘reversed’ orientation on the right hand side of diagram (right). For a more comprehensive discussion of the orientation of the queenright and queenless portions see the recent post entitled Upstairs, downstairs?

Seek and destroy

One week later you need to carefully inspect the upper (queenless) box. Any and all queen cells must be found and destroyed. You will need to shake the bees off every frame to do this. These potential new queens were all reared from eggs and larvae laid by the original queen. Since 7 days have elapsed there will no longer be any suitable young larvae for the colony to rear a new queen. The maths are straightforward; a newly laid egg hatches after 3 days and larvae must be less than 3 days old to rear queens from.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

When returning the frames to the brood box leave a gap in the middle. Into this gap add a frame containing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable genetics i.e. good tempered, steady on the comb and none of those dreadful followers. Mark the frame so you can identify it again if needed. If you have a choice of frames to transfer use one with fresh new comb as the bees find this easier to manipulate when drawing out queen cells.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Normal service is resumed

With the new frame of eggs/larvae added you’re now back on track to complete the vertical split. I’d suggest reversing the hive at the same time as you add the frame of ‘desirable’ larvae. There should be plenty of young bees in the upper half of the split and it’s these that will rear the new queen. The flying bees will strengthen the queenright half of the hive, helping gather nectar if there is a flow on. Make sure the queenright half of the hive has sufficient supers – you don’t want to be disturbing the colony too much, particularly in about 2-3 weeks which is when the new virgin queen will be going on her mating flight(s).

One week after adding the frame of new eggs and larvae there should be queen cells clearly present on the marked frame. If there aren’t it’s likely you missed a queen cell when shaking through the colony and there might be a newly emerged virgin running about in the hive.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

In which case, let’s hope she doesn’t rear bees that behave like those from her mother 😉

Beekeepers’ holidays

It can be tricky balancing the annual cycle of beekeeping activities with maintaining family responsibilities and domestic bliss. At least, I’m told I find it tricky 😉  Holidays, in particular, are problematic. I’m talking here about beekeepers’ holidays not beekeeping holidays, which are an entirely different thing. Many of the standard “family holiday” periods overlap with key events in the beekeeping calendar … and because the latter is influenced by the weather, it’s difficult to predict a few days ahead, let alone the 6-9 months that appear to be required to arrange a fortnight’s yacht charter in the Bahamas§.

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

With good weather, colony build-up is going to be full-on in April, and in a really good year you can be starting queen rearing at Easter if it is late in the month. May is when the swarming season starts … and ends in June, just in time for the “June gap” to start which (in a bad year) might require colonies to be fed. The summer months of July and August are busy with the main flow, preparing colonies for the heather or harvesting (and possibly more queen rearing). September means Varroa treatments should be applied and colonies should be fed syrup or fondant for the winter. And then midwinter is interrupted by oxalic acid treatment (or Api-Bioxal if you’re the type of beekeeper who can afford Bahamian cruises), checking stores etc. And almost all of the timings above can be plus or minus at least a fortnight to take account of the vagaries of the weather.

February and November might be provisionally free … which creates another weather-related problem. Firstly – if honey sales have gone well during the year (and they’ll need to have been good as the 90m Athena is an eye-watering $350,000/week) – you’ll not want to be going island-hopping in the Bahamas in November as it’s still the hurricane season. Secondly, if your knees are as bad as many beekeepers’ backs, skiing in February might be a non-starter even if snow is available.

Less is more …

… likely to avoid you losing a swarm. The duration of the family holiday is also an issue. Inspections really need to be conducted at 7 day intervals during the main part of the season – say late-April to late-July. A fortnight away can mean missing the development of queen cells which are capped on the ninth day, at which point the prime swarm with your queen and foraging workforce disappear over the apiary fence. Not only do you return to a rather emptier hive, but your chance of a good honey crop has just been significantly reduced. You can increase the inspection interval to 10 days if you clip your queens, but that’s still four days short of the fortnight.

Queen rearing, from colony preparation, through grafting, cell raising and getting the virgin queens mated, takes about a month and – although not hugely time-consuming – is very-much time-critical. Getting to your cell raiser a day late might mean you have a box with one virgin running about and a pile of virgin queen corpses.

Apiary in Andalucia

Apiary in Andalucia

Nevertheless, with a little preparation, an appreciation of colony development and your fingers firmly crossed it is possible to get away during the beekeeping season without too many problems.

Holiday solutions

It seems to me that there are three obvious solutions …

  1. Go between late autumn and early spring, to the southern hemisphere if you’re after some warm sunshine. Or to Aspen or Whistler for the skiing if your knees are up to it.
  2. Get a friend to look after your colonies and go whenever you want. Depending how well behaved your colonies are, or the state you find them in on your return, this might only work once per friend 😉
  3. Accept that some beekeeping activities will be interrupted, prepare well and go for a week.

My knees are a bit dodgy and I get more than enough long-haul with work commitments so option 1 doesn’t work for me. I’ve avoided option 2 as I either have too many colonies to think it’s reasonable to foist upon a beekeeping friend, or they’re so badly behaved I’m too embarrassed to ask. So option 3 is the only choice … which is why I didn’t post anything last week as I was enjoying the walking in the Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca.

Benjamin Franklin was right

Bait hives ...

Bait hives …

By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail. Sneaking off for a week just as swarming period was kicking off, with the best weather of the season predicted to arrive and the OSR in full flower, might have been asking for trouble. However, a little time spent on preparation helped avert disaster. Bait hives were put out near the apiaries. Remaining overwintered nucs were unceremoniously dumped into a full hive. Any colonies looking even vaguely crowded were given lots of additional space and almost all were on double broods by the time I left. Every full colony was given one additional empty super. Where necessary, one or two frames stuffed with stores were removed and replaced with foundation or drawn comb. Finally, all colonies were checked for queen cells and other obvious signs of swarm preparation the day before I left.

Nine days later I returned … none of the bait hives had been occupied, none of the colonies had swarmed, almost all of the colonies were doing precisely what they should have been doing which was building up strongly and filling the supers. Two in the bee shed were doing particularly well, having almost filled several supers. Pretty much everything was under control with the exception of one queenless colony that, the day before my departure, had been given a frame of eggs and young larvae but had failed to make any decent queen cells.

During my absence the weather in Fife was excellent … in contrast, I walked into this lot in the Tramuntana …

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca, Mallorca …

Despite not going on a beekeeping holiday, it’s still possible to see – and sample – some of the local beekeeping activities, as shown in the photos at the top of the page from Mallorca and Andalucia taken in previous trips.


§ I wish

 Just in case you’re thinking of buying bees from me please note that this is a rather poor joke 😉

As an aside … I’ve never seen an area with more hornets that this region of Southern Spain

Vertical splits and making increase

A vertical split describes the division of a colony into two – one queenright, the other queenless – on the same floor and under the same roof, with the intention of allowing the queenless colony to raise a new queen. If successful, you end up with two colonies from the original one. This approach can be used as a means of swarm prevention, as a way to requeen a colony, as a way to generate two colonies from one, or – to be covered in another post – the starting point to generate a number of nucleus colonies. It’s a hands-off way of queen rearing … without the need to graft, to prepare cell raising colonies or to manage mating nucs.

Wally Shaw has written an excellent guide to simple ways of making increase (PDF) which includes a number of variants of the straightforward vertical split described here. There are additional instructions available on the Kent beekeepers website by Nick Withers (Swarm Management – Under One Roof … in which the ‘split board’ described below is termed a swarm board). Wally’s article is particularly good, but includes complications like brood and a half colonies and a host of further embellishments. For simplicity I’ve restricted my description to a situation when you have one colony – on single or double brood boxes, possibly with supers on top – and want to divide it into two.

The split board

Split board

Split board …

You need a way to divide the colony in two and provide an upper entrance. There are many ways of doing this, including the multi-entrance Snelgrove board (PDF) and the increasingly popular Horsley board, but one of the most straightforward is a simple split board as shown in the picture. A single sheet of 9-12mm plywood forms the basis for the board, with a ‘beespace’ rim on both faces. On one side (the ‘upper’ side when in use) make a simple hinged door as shown. In the middle of the board cover a 100mm square hole with a single sheet of Varroa mesh – this allows the odour of the colonies to merge and for warmth to spread from the lower box to the upper one.

Vertical split – in principle

The general idea is to divide a strong, healthy colony into two. The colony is arranged so that the queenright side of the split gets depleted of bees which boost the queenless side, so providing ideal conditions for making emergency queen cells. After the cells are sealed the colony is manipulated to deplete the queenless side of bees, and strengthen the queenright side. This prevents swarming. Nectar collection continues without too much interruption if there is a flow on. All of this is achieved by straightforward manipulations of the colony on day one and day 7. You should have a mated, laying queen (in the originally queenless side of the split) about 3 weeks later.

Vertical split – in practice

It’s only worth rearing queens from colonies that exhibit desirable qualities – healthy, docile, a good laying pattern, steady on the comb etc. Of these, I’d argue that health and temper are two critical characteristics. You need to make these judgements over an extended period – I’ve briefly discussed the basics of good record keeping when selecting larvae for grafting, and the same principles apply here. Like computing – rubbish in, rubbish out. If your colony doesn’t have the necessary desirable characteristics there are ways of modifying the method described below to raise queens from better stock … but lets deal with the basics first.

Day 1

  1. Gently smoke the colony and remove the lid and crownboard. You need to find the queen so don’t gas them. If the colony is already on double brood move the top box – which probably contains the queen – off to the side. If the colony is on a single brood box you’ll need a second brood box and 11 frames of drawn comb (ideally) or foundation.
  2. Having checked carefully that the queen isn’t present on them remove a couple of outside frames to allow you space to manipulate the remainder. Go through the boxes carefully and find the frame with the queen on it. Either put this somewhere safe, like a two-frame nuc box, or leave it well separated from the other frames so that the queen stays put on it.
  3. Rearrange frames between the two brood boxes so that the queen, older larvae and some sealed brood is present in what will become the upper box, together with a frame or two of stores. Eggs and young larvae should predominantly be in the bottom box. This isn’t a precise science, you need sufficient brood with the queen to build up a new colony and sufficient eggs and very young larvae for the queenless side to have a good choice of young larvae from which to raise a new queen.
  4. Reassemble the boxes with the brood in the centre, flanked by either stores and/or the new frames. The idea is to create two brood nests, one above the other, roughly centred on the mesh-covered hole in the split board.
  5. Place the queenless box on the original floor. Put the split board on top with the entrance open and facing in the opposite direction to the original entrance. Put the queenright box on top of the split board, then replace the crownboard and the roof (see the note about supers below).
  6. Leave the colony for a week.

What’s happening … During this week foragers leaving the top box will mainly re-enter via the entrance at the front of the colony, so significantly boosting the numbers of bees in the bottom box. This box will rapidly realise it is queenless and will raise new queen cells. The concentration of bees in the bottom box will ensure that the developing queen larvae are well fed. If there were queen cells in the top box (with the queen) the depleted bee numbers will mean they will soon get torn down. The queen will continue laying uninterrupted.

The Vertical Split in pictures

The Vertical Split in pictures

Day 7

  1. You don’t need to inspect the colony at all, but you do need to rearrange it. If there are no supers on the colony and you’re feeling very strong you can simply reverse the entire colony on the stand. The original bottom entrance is now at the ‘back’ and the upper entrance is at the ‘front’. That’s it … leave them to it. There should be a new queen, mated and laying, in the bottom box in about 3 weeks.

Charles Atlas

Charles Atlas …

However, remember that this is a double brood box at the height of the season. There is likely to be a good nectar flow on and there should be some reasonably fragile queen cells in the bottom box – dropping the hive when reversing it could be catastrophic, and not just for anyone standing nearby (as an aside, the mushroom-like cloud of bees that erupt from a dropped brood box is one of the most spectacular sights in beekeeping … probably the ultimate test of how impenetrable your beesuit is and how steady your nerves are). Far better than Charles Atlas-like heroics it’s probably better to separate the colony below the split board, put the upper box aside, reverse the lower box and floor, then replace the upper with the entrance now facing in the opposite direction (see the figure above).

If you do inspect the colony at this stage you’ll find a happily laying queen in the top box. There will be no queen cells in the top box unless there is something wrong with the queen. There should be relatively fewer bees in the top box – thousands not hundreds. In contrast, the bottom box will be very crowded with bees and there will be multiple queen cells present, both sealed and unsealed. Leave them … the bees will choose a good one in due course.

What’s happening … During the next few days the bottom box will get depleted of bees as they leave by the lower entrance and return to the ‘front’ of the hive, eventually finding the upper entrance and strengthening the upper box containing the laying queen. Initially there will be considerable confusion, with hundreds of bees milling around at the site of the original entrance. For this reason it’s best not to rearrange the colony late in the evening … do it earlier in the day to allow them ample time to reorientate to the upper entrance. This reorientation takes a couple of days – don’t worry about it, there will be a lot more activity around the entrances (and positions of previous entrances) during this period.

A limited number of virgin queens should emerge about 16 days after the initial manipulation and the depleted bee numbers in the bottom box will ensure that the colony shouldn’t throw off casts. If multiple virgins emerge at the same time they’ll probably fight it out to leave just one. In due course, usually about 5-6 days after emerging, the virgin will go on one or more mating flights and return to the lower box and start laying.

Vertical split

Vertical split – day 7 …

Supers

If there are supers on the original colony, or the nectar flow is strong during the month-long process and you need to add supers, then there is a simple rule about where they should be placed – above the strongest of the two brood boxes, separated by a queen excluder. This means that during the first week they will be on top of the lower brood box, below the split board, and in subsequent weeks they will be above the upper brood box, underneath the crown board. Because the split board has a mesh screen the colony odours are mixed and the bees should not fight during these rearrangements. There’s no need to empty the bees from supers when moving them.

Making things easier …

Any enthusiastic DIY beekeeper will realise that the entire process can be made much easier by creating both a split board and floor with two opposing entrances. Using these there would be no need to reverse the colony on day 7. The split board might be a sensible modification – something to build during the winter. However, the Kewl floors I favour don’t readily lend themselves to this type of design and – although having a physique more like Charles Hawtrey than Charles Atlas – I find it easy enough to manhandle the colony as needed. A floor with opposing entrances would also benefit queen rearing using a Cloake board which has some similarities to the principles of the vertical split.

And finally …

At the end of this vertical split you will have two queenright colonies under a single roof. You can either move one or other away (remembering the 3 feet and 3 miles rule or the box that remains on the original site will collect all the returning foragers) thereby doubling your colony number. Alternatively, you can inspect the upper box and sacrifice the old queen (of course, if she’s simply surplus to requirements but still performing OK you could offer her to another beekeeper … these little acts of kindness are appreciated both by the recipient and the queen), remove the split board and thereby unite the two colonies into one strong colony. And, of course, if something goes wrong – the new queen doesn’t get mated or the old queen fails during the process – you can simply merge the colonies back down to one.

Advantages and disadvantages

I see the main advantages (in no particular order) as:

  • limited horizontal space required.
  • almost no additional equipment needed.
  • colony ‘smell’ retained making uniting or exchanging supers easier.
  • swarming and controlled increase are possible with little intervention.

… and the disadvantages:

  • vertical lifting required and boxes may be heavy.
  • inspections of the bottom box are complicated (not least by the mass of bees trying to return to the upper entrance).
  • supers need to be moved during the procedure and add to the weight (but think of all that lovely honey 😉 ).
  • some smaller colonies may not raise a new queen in the bottom box – I don’t know why this is, but suspect it’s due to the amount of queen pheromone, particularly from a young, strong queen in the top box. I intend to investigate whether a super separating the boxes might help prevent this.

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 … 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 – 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.

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 – 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 ...

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.

 

Time to change the queen

Or perhaps that should be “Time to change the queen?”. This disappointing brood pattern suggests that the queen is not laying very well and that – with an excellent flow from the bramble and clover – the bees are filling any gaps they can find with nectar before the queen has a chance to lay.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood pattern …

The colony has ample space in the supers and there were several other frames with a similar patchy brood pattern. The colony is very strong. Clearly the bees also think a new queen is needed by the row of charged queen cells along the top bar. There was even one attached directly to the queen excluder. I could have transferred this directly to a queenless colony without any further manipulation.

Queen cell on excluder

Queen cell on excluder …

However, I’m waiting for the most recently grafted larvae to be sealed, so it will be about three weeks before I have spare mated queens to replace the current one. In the meantime I’ve given her another chance. I knocked all the queen cells back and did my normal Demaree swarm control. I’ll let the bees exploit the good flow to draw out some foundationless frames and see if the queen lays these up well.

If not … it’s going to get prickly for her.

Bramble in flower

Bramble in flower