The million drones fiasco

Accidents happen.

Sometimes they are due to stupidity, sometimes to forgetfulness, or sometimes they are just the result of plain dumb luck.

They’re also often caused or at least exacerbated by ‘local’ factors – like a rainstorm or a cancelled train preventing timely inspections. 

Or a countrywide lockdown necessitated by a global viral pandemic.

With the exception of the cancelled train my excuse for what follows is “all of the above” 😉

Social distancing

Beekeeping, like other activities involving livestock management, has been a permitted activity during lockdown. Beekeepers have been allowed to travel to their apiaries and to move bees for pollination etc

I was away when lockdown was imposed and opted 1 to stay where I was. For the first half of the season I’ve had to forego weekly colony inspections. I’ve not had the pleasure of watching the colonies build up, of queen rearing or of sweating profusely when shifting nectar-filled supers 🙁

Instead all my beekeeping – the first inspection of the season, the swarm prevention and the swarm control – have been squeezed into two visits, each of a few frantically busy days, in late April and mid-May.

And, inevitably, mistakes have been made.

Well, one mistake … that I’m currently aware of.

First inspections and swarm prevention

We’re late starters in Fife.

It’s not unusual to delay the full first inspection until the very end of April in this part of Scotland. A couple of years ago we had knee-high oil seed rape (OSR) ankle deep in snow at the end of April.

There seems little point in disturbing the colony if it’s too cold to have a leisurely look through the brood box. The bees get tetchy, the brood gets chilled and you don’t have time to look for the important things – like disease, or that elusive queen you failed to mark last autumn.

However, this season started well and I should have started colony inspections in the second week of April.

But by that time the world had changed dramatically …

I finally snatched a couple of days around the 25th of April to do the first inspections and swarm prevention all rolled into one … and coupled this with reducing my colony numbers by 50% to make management over the coming months easier 2.

I’ll discuss how I did all this in a couple of full-on days some other time. The end result was about a dozen united colonies, each topped with three supers, containing a good marked laying queen. Many of the colonies were very strong, with up to 15 frames of brood after uniting 3.

The colonies were strong and healthy. All were headed by a laying queen. I saw all but a couple of the queens 4 and clipped and marked all those I found that weren’t already 5.

Safely back in the hive

Three supers were overkill for the usual spring nectar flow. However, there was already a reasonable flow on and I wanted to give the colonies a good amount of space in the hope of delaying swarm preparations. 

Swarm control

Colonies usually start making clear their intent to swarm in the second half of May here. It varies a bit depending upon how advanced or otherwise the season is – one of those unknown knowns.

I kept in email contact with beekeeping friends about their own colony build up. By the time I received the first email saying charged queen cells were present (~16th of May) I was travelling back to do my own swarm control.

I decided to use the nucleus method whether queen cells were present on not.

Effectively I was going to implement preemptive swarm control on some colonies. By taking the queen out into a nuc the colonies would be forced to requeen, I’d then leave a single charged/capped queen cell and let them get on with it.

All looking good …

And for eleven of the colonies that’s precisely what happened. 

I removed the queen on a frame of emerging brood and shook some of the bees from a second frame into the nuc box. These were to be relatively small nucs but made sure each had a full frame of capped stores (saved from colonies at the first inspection). I also added a frame of drawn comb and two foundationless frames.

I sealed the nucs and moved them to another apiary.

Three of many … and hive number 29

Most of the brood boxes had play cups with eggs and about 50% had charged queen cells. There were no capped cells. I marked frames containing promising looking charged cells and closed the boxes up.

… and still looking good six days later

Six 6 days later I went carefully through every frame in the de-queened colonies.

One good queen cell, an old play cup and some rather old comb

All the boxes had good looking queen cells and I made sure I left just one in each colony. 

The nucs also all looked great when I checked them on the same day. 

New comb with queen already laying it up

The queens were laying well and the bees were drawing new comb. They would be fine for another few weeks. 

Come in Number 29, your time is up

One of the colonies proved more problematic.

Hive #29 … this had been left as a strong single brood colony on the 25th of April.

Three weeks later it was – unsurprisingly – still a strong single brood colony. The bees were busy and the supers were already filling nicely 7.

What was missing from the brood box in mid-May were eggs, larvae or capped brood 🙁

Had I inadvertently killed the queen 8 at the last inspection? The 21-22 day interval would have meant that all worker brood would have matured and subsequently emerged 9.

However, the temperament of the colony suggested it wasn’t queenless. The bees were calm, they were foraging well and bringing in good amounts of OSR pollen.

With a sense of dread I had a look in the supers …

Let there be drones

About 75% of my many super frames are drawn on drone cell foundation. For the same amount of wax – by weight – you store more honey. I also think there may be advantages when spinning it out in terms of honey recovery 10.

In addition, if you use drone cell comb immediately over the brood box, you dissuade a strong colony from storing an arch of pollen over the brood nest in the super … 

Drone comb in super

… though they do often leave cells empty, ready for the queen to lay.

But she can’t do that because she’s trapped under the queen excluder. 

Right?

Wrong 🙁

The middle few frames of the lower couple of supers were wall to wall capped drone brood and drone larvae. The queen was busy laying up some of the remaining space that wasn’t already filled with nectar.

I found the marked and clipped queen on the very first super frame I removed.

Sod it.

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Perhaps.

Here was the dilemma. Hive #29 was strong and healthy but effectively queenless. Time was against me. I didn’t have the luxury of simply plonking her beneath the QE and checking the colony didn’t make swarm preparations in another three or four weeks 11

I’d already united all my other colonies and made up the nucs. I didn’t want to disassemble any of these to accommodate this colony.

With bad weather approaching in a few days I decided to make up a nuc with the queen and, in due course, donate a queen cell from another colony.

Which is what I did. 

An adjacent colony helpfully raised several very good looking cells which I knew were charged. One of these, on a frame holding a sideplate-sized patch of brood, was added to the colony just before the rain arrived.

Open the box, open the box

But on the same day I added the queen cell I also checked the supers thoroughly.

I wanted to make sure that every frame was drone foundation and that I’d not missed a queen cell drawn from any worker comb in the supers. That might have resulted in a virgin queen running about in my supers and, knowing my luck, squeezing through the QE and slaughtering the queen from the cell I’d just introduced. 

There were lots of “queen cells” in the supers. However all were little more than play cups drawn along the top edge of the drone comb, against the top bar. 

Lots of drone brood … but no real queen cells

None contained eggs. It was as though the bees, sensing the colony was now truly queenless, had known what to do but had no primary material to work with.

Over the next fortnight or so this hive was going to generate hundreds thousands lots of drones. Not in itself a bad thing – this was a good colony and the positve influence on local bee genetics might be beneficial.

However, all the drones would emerge in the supers and be prevented from exiting the hive due to the queen excluder.

When this happens the drones die in their droves stuck half way through the excluder.

This is a distressing sight and, for a drone, a demoralising experience (I would imagine 12).

Under normal circumstances I would simply return every 3-4 days, pop the lid off the hive and release them. This wasn’t possible living four hours away … 

… so I played the ‘get out of jail free’ card by adding a thin eke and upper entrance.

Upper entrance

When I next check the colony I expect the drone brood to have all emerged and, largely, left the supers. I hope there’s a mated laying queen in the bottom box and there should be some capped worker brood.

What there’s unlikely to be is three full supers of honey 🙁

With no worker brood being reared for at least 5 weeks the foraging workforce will be significantly depleted. I hope they manage to defend what they’ve already collected … time will tell.

What went wrong?

After finding the supers full of drone brood I wrote “dodgy” on both sides of the queen excluder frame as I replaced it with a plastic spare.

I assumed the queen had found a bent wire and   s  q  u  e  e  z  e  d  her way through to have a field day – actually three weeks – in the supers.

However, I think the explanation is more prosaic than that 13.

My notes indicated I’d not seen the queen in this hive during the April inspection. In this instance evidence of absence was not absence of evidence … there were lots of eggs and brood in all staged. The colony was queenright and the queen was in the right place.

At least before I opened the hive 😉

And this is where stupidity, forgetfulness and plain dumb luck played their part. I … 

  • stupidly botched the inspection, taking the strength and health of the colony as the most important signs that all was well, but …
  • forgot that the next inspection – when I would be making up nucs – would also need worker eggs in the brood box to rear new queens from.
  • There’s more … I also presumably forgot to thoroughly inspect the queen excluder before laying it to the side, allowing …
  • dumb luck to intervene when the queen scooted around to the other side of the excluder and so end up trapped in the supers when I reassembled the hive.

Mea culpa.

That’s my best guess anyway.

Did I do the right thing?

Hive #29 was the last to be inspected after a hard day of beekeeping in late April.

Coincidentally it was also the last to be checked in mid-May 14

This limited my options somewhat and I made a judgement call as to the best course of action. Doing what I describe above risks the queen failing to emerge or mate. It also potentially risks the box being robbed as the workforce diminish, particularly with the upper entrance I’ve added.

Both of these could lead to the loss of the hive, but the loss/problem would be all mine. At the time, standing there swearing sweating in my beesuit, gasping for a beer, it seemed like the safest bet. It also seemed like the responsible course of action in the middle of a global pandemic.

I chose not to just dump the queen back into the brood box, add the upper entrance and leave them to it. Had the colony subsequently swarmed 15 the problem might then have been someone else’s

Did I do the right thing?

We’ll know soon enough … 😉


 

Footnotes

  1. For a variety of reasons, not least the view …

    Social distancing

  2. It had been obvious from mid/late February that the country would have to enter an extended period of isolation. A significant number of the colonies were for our research and therefore wouldn’t be needed with the inevitable closure of all labs doing non-essential research. I didn’t want to be responsible for 20+ colonies on the far side of the country for an unknown period, or to subject myself to huge amounts of unnecessary work on the infrequent trips I hoped to be able to make. As I write this our research remains stopped and is unlikely to resume for another month at least.
  3. For 56.2°N that’s pretty respectable … we don’t have balmy Devon or Sussex springs!
  4. There’s the first mistake!
  5. There were a couple of late 2019 supersedures.
  6. Torrential rain (correctly) predicted for the seventh day meant I had to inspect one day earlier than is recommended. In restrospect, the rain didn’t contribute to what happened in the final box.
  7. Though my back might disagree with this sentiment.
  8. Whether due to stupidity, forgetfulness or just plain dumb luck is kind of irrelevant … particularly for the queen.
  9. There was some drone brood in the brood box.
  10. I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope calculations on this which I’ll discuss some other time.
  11. Though in retrospect I think this might have been the sensible thing to do – see the final comments.
  12. I’m under no misapprehension that drones have any such feelings … after all, think about their fate if they are ‘successful’ in life
  13. And have checked the QE subseqeuently and it looks perfect.
  14. This isn’t my OCD … it’s due to the layout of the apiaries.
  15. And in mid-May it still wasn’t clear how long lockdown would continue, or whether more restrictions would be needed to ‘flatten the curve’.

16 thoughts on “The million drones fiasco

  1. Rachel Donachie

    Thanks for your posts, always very interesting and full of humour. I find them very useful being in Edinburgh as the timings are similar, I had to split my colony 2 weeks earlier than last year due to charged QC. I am noticing than QC are capped quicker than I would have been expecting (less than 7 days) so your last post about an extra inspection 3/4days after splitting to mark the best open QC has been very useful. Thanks Rachel

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Rachel

      Surely it’s much colder and wetter in Edinburgh than bonny Fife? 😉

      From conversations today with a friend in Angus I think your estimate of the season being a fortnight ahead of 2019 is about right … which means I’m at least a week too late in harvesting my spring honey 🙁

      Enjoy the balmy Midlothian summer
      David

      Reply
  2. Paul Lindstrom

    It’s sort of nice to read that even a very experienced beekeeper sometimes “goof” up (or are very unlucky). Thanks for sharing. And good luck with #29 – hope they make it!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Paul

      Moderately experienced at best. I know people who’ve been doing it three times as long as me.

      Fortunately, they also sometimes make rookie errors, so I’m in good company 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Amanda

    Why couldn’t you just place the queen back in the brood box below the queen excluder? And put the super with drone brood on top of your brood box under the queen excluder?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Not least because the queen would have probably continued to lay up the supers … but also because I wanted to requeen the colony and there was no guarantee of getting back to it before either a) it decided to swarm (albeit unlikely), or b) it was too late this season to get another queen mated.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Sam

    I would definitely become a patreon subscriber if you were to ever set up an account. http://www.patreon.com

    I love reading your blog posts and my bees usually hold off from any funny business until the day after you explain how to deal with it – great timing on both yours and their part.

    Thanks for the stories, advice and humour.

    Sam

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Sam

      Many thanks. I’ve looked at the Patreon thing before and reckon it’s too much hassle. I do this for fun, not to help replace the Lamborghini each year. I have some longer term plans which may be developed more over the next 12-18 months and will be announced here. I’m about to upgrade servers again to cope with much increased traffic this year and I’ll also see how the bills mount up.

      I know what I’m writing about for the next three weeks … I wonder if your bees do?

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Dawn philpott

    Hi David

    I look forward to your posts; they’re informative, entertaining and food for thought.

    This is my 3rd year of beekeeping, and I’m very much in that stage of the more you learn, the more you realise that there is to learn, which is both exciting and perplexing,and of course is probably how I’ll always feel!

    I understand your decision to add the QC as swarm control, but wondered about drone brood sacrifice as a varroa control method? Am just thinking that the entrance into the supers wouldn’t have been needed and less chance of robbing while waiting for the workers to build up again?

    Just wondering…

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Dawn

      Drone brood culling has been shown to be relatively ineffective as a means of Varroa control. If I’ve not written about this previously perhaps I should. There’s an exception, and that’s the first round of drone brood reared each season. According to Wally Shaw (and he should know) it’s a real mite trap. Drone brood is much more attractive to mites than worker, so the first that’s produced draws in all (well, most of) the mites in the hive.

      Secondly, but more important, this was my precious drawn super comb. Some of this stuff is a decade or so old and has produced hundreds of pounds of honey. I don’t want to destroy it unless I have to. I’ll see what sort of condition it’s in after the drones emerge. If it’s dark and tatty I’ll melt it down, but it should be OK I hope.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Dave Stokes

    Thanks for your usual informative and amusing post.
    Been there with a super full of drone brood. I’ve also had a young virgin squeeze through the excluder and fattened up too much to be able to return (I’d left a queen queen cell then sat back an waited for pollen to start going in to the hive). She must have been there six weeks before I found here and put her downstairs and she surprisingly managed to mate successfully.
    Incidentally, I number my hives with the year of the queen, hence my first queen this year will be “20-1” and if, for example, I put the queen into a nuc, the number goes with her. With my rapidly deteriorating memory, I find it helpful.
    Cheers,
    Dave.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Dave

      You’re fortunate to get the queen mated after that sort of delay. I’m reasonably happy with my hive numbering system – queens and boxes get separate numbers. It worked well during swarm control this year as the nucs all got new box numbers but kept old queen numbers and the hives lost the queen number but kept the hive number. I think both record keeping and the related hive numbering are very personal aspects of beekeeping with what works for one person not necessarily working for another.

      I was going to add something else, but my memory has also failed me 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Barry Crabtree

    That was a good read. Thanks!

    It was good to see how you managed the colonies knowing you’d not be able to regularly check for swarm prep. I thought I’d be in the same situation (away at the end of May) but ‘luckily’ the lockdown put paid to that so didn’t have to think about it. If in future I’m in that situation I’ll copy your plan.

    Did you / would you fill up the nuc boxes with drawn comb (if you had it) to get the most brood possible for when you got back to be able to reunite?

    Does combining colonies remove the swarm impulse? How did you decide which to combine & which to ‘nuc’?

    Down here in sunny Suffok I started weekly inspections at the beginning of April – had to take out 3 nucs so far for swarm control. Compared with last year it’s been very steady for swarming.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Barry

      Most of the things I did were done because I didn’t know what the future held. Lockdown might have continued, or been made more restrictive. With the Ro already creeping up it still might.

      I only added one frame of drawn comb to the nucs as I wanted to hold them back a bit and not be full to overflowing by the time I next looked at them. At this time of the season robbing is less of an issue and I left them with reduced entrances. I’m not short of brood (or wasn’t) and would prefer not to have triple brood box colonies. If the new queen fails I’ll unite the queenright best nucs back to the failed box(es). If all is OK I’ll either build the nucs into full colonies or, more likely, remove the Q and unite to get all of my colonies to about similar strength. The decision will partly be determined by when the research labs re-open as we’ll need bees then.

      Uniting two strong boxes does not remove the swarm impulse (!), but removing the queen to a nuc does 😉 I united colonies to reduce the overall number to manage and then removed the Q to make up the nucs. The poorer Q’s didn’t make the cut I’m afraid. A few colonies were left as queenright single brood boxes as they pretty clearly were not even close to swarming. Famous last words.

      I think one of these was left as, despite repeated efforts, I failed to find the queen. There are all sorts of ways of splitting boxes and swarm control when you can’t find the queen, but all of the ones I know needed more than the time I had. I did not have the luxury of a repeat visit a week later.

      All the reports I’m getting is that it’s been a good start to the season in Fife so I’m looking forward to a busy few days of extracting soon.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. vince poulin

    More great reading David. Being my first year with successfully overwintered hives I was not prepared for the speed at which hives build in spring and inevitably the consequences of that explosion. Clint Eastwood would say the “good, the bad, and the ugly”. The “Good”. It’s got to be spring honey. Simply amazing stuff. The”bad” – well, its swarming. Efforts to control swarming are one heck of a lot of work. As you have explained it is a natural process and one that is not exactly simple to understand. The “ugly” – it has to be that beautiful queen you so carefully reared from last year taking flight along with half the hive to parts unknown. A place you can no longer care for her and her brood. It’s like loosing a family member. Each queen here is special. She’s photographed, cataloged and admired for subtle differences in colour, size and shape. Bee bees is plagued with uncertainty. Bees have a mind of their own. All we can do it help manage them along the way. I’ve had 3-swarms (so far) this year despite many steps to prevent them. I created 6-NUC’s, removed frames to create space, culled drone cells to create additional space trying to reduce swarm impulse but those efforts held back only one swarm. Next year – I’ll be more proactive and will move queens to NUCs leaving hives to re-queen or will introduce a new queen to a hive to foreshorten the process and save time (did this once this year). There is a welcomed upside to swarming. When one leaves we get to meet and greet a lovely, new virgin queen. Thanks for all your help.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      It’s worth remembering that some bees are more enthusiastic about swarming than others … some disappear once there are 5 frames of brood in the box, others are reluctant even if all 11 frames are bursting with sealed brood.

      From a beekeeping aspect the latter are desirable, but evolutionarily they’re probably not enthusiastic enough about reproducing, so unlikely to survive.

      You’re absolutely right about fast colony build up in the spring. One moment it’s too cold to lift the lid on the hive … you think you’ve got ages to prepare new frames for the season ahead. The next and they’re clustered on a high branch having swarmed on the first warm day 🙁 Where did the time go?

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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