Category Archives: Queen rearing

Everynuc elbow room

Of the polystyrene nucleus hives (polynucs) I’ve seen, owned or butchered, the Everynuc sold by Thorne’s is the one I prefer. They have a separate OMF floor and Varroa tray, are easy to paint and are made from dense, robust and thick (i.e. well-insulating) polystyrene. The entrance is a gaping maw, but that is easily fixed with some wire mesh pinned in place. The beespace is also an issue due to the compromises made to accommodate both long-lugged National and short-lugged Langstroth frames, but again this can be fixed easily and cheaply (though it’s a bit irritating having to ‘fix’ a box that costs almost £50  🙁 ).

Entrance reducer

Entrance reducer …

Polynucs for overwintering

Colonies overwintered in these boxes did very well and were generally at least as good, and often better, than my colonies in cedar hives. Although I’ve also purchased a few of the Miller-type feeders it’s actually easier to prise up one end of the crownboard and simply drop fondant – or pour syrup – into the integral feeder in the brood box. Checking the remaining fondant/syrup levels takes seconds through the clear flexible crownboard and barely disturbs the colony at all.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Polynucs for queen mating

Due to work commitments I haven’t had time this season to deal with high-maintenance mini-nucs for queen mating, so have been exclusively using these Everynucs. With the vagaries of the weather in my part of the world it’s good not to have to keep checking them for stores during cold, wet periods. It’s also great to work with full-sized brood frames that allow the laying pattern of the queen to be determined easily. I usually raise a couple of batches of queens in a season and this means I’m going in and out of a dozen or so of these boxes regularly, making them up, priming them with a sealed queen cell, inspecting them for a mated queen etc. I usually start them off as 3 frame nucs, dummied down, to save resources, allowing them to expand with successive batches of queens.

Space for five and a bit frames

Not 6 frames

Er, no …

One of the nice features of these boxes is their internal width which is almost but not quite sufficient for 6 Hoffmann frames. You therefore need to use five frames together with a dummy board to avoid strong colonies building brace comb in the gaps on one or both sides of the outside frames. One advantage of this additional ‘elbow room’ is that these boxes can accommodate slightly fatter brood frames, for example when the bees build up the corners with stores rather than drawing out foundation of the adjacent frame. There’s also ample space to introduce a queen cell or caged queen, check for emergence – or release – in a day or two and then gently push the frames back together again.

Dummy board needed ...

Dummy board needed …

Even better, by removing the dummy board there’s enough space to work from one side of the box to the other without first removing, and leaving aside, a frame to make space. The frames do need to be removed gently and slowly to avoid rolling bees (but you do this anyway of course). However, since I’m generally looking for the recently mated and laying queen ‘slow and steady’ is a definite advantage. In the image below you can see the space available, even when four of the frames are reasonably heavily propilised.

Just enough space ...

Just enough space …

To make frame manipulation easier it’s worth adding a frame runner on the inside of the feed compartment (it’s the white strip just visible in the photo above) as described previously. Without this the bees tend to stick the frames to the coarse wooden lip of the feeder with propolis, thereby making it more difficult to gently slide the frames together (or apart).

The brood boxes of these Everynuc’s stack, meaning you can easily unite two nucs into a vertical 10-frame unit using newspaper. The vertical beespace is wrong (the boxes are appreciably deeper than a National frame) so the resulting colony should be moved to a standard 10-12 frame brood box before they build extensive brace comb. As the season draws to an end it’s therefore possible to take pairs of boxes, remove the queen from one to requeen another hive, unite the colonies and then – a week or so later – have a good 10-frame colony to prepare for overwintering … or, of course, overwinter them directly in these nucleus hives.


The only exception were those in the bee shed which were probably 2-3 weeks even further ahead in their development by late March/early April this year.

Spot the queen part 3

In beekeeping courses you’re always taught to look carefully at the underside of the queen excluder (QE) when removing it incase the queen is there. If she’s not you can then gently place it to one side and start the inspection.

It sometimes also pays to look at the top of the QE …

Queen above the QE

Queen above the QE

I inspected this colony last Sunday and my notes said something like “beautifully calm, behaving queenright but looking queenless … frame of eggs?”. The colony was on a single brood with a QE and one super, topped with a perspex crownboard. The ‘frame of eggs’ comment indicated I thought it would be wise to add a frame of eggs to the colony – if they were queenright they’d simply raise them as worker brood. However, if they were queenless they’d use them to raise queen cells.

I was running out of time and anyway wanted eggs from a colony in a different apiary. If the colony were going to raise a new queen I wanted it to come from better stock. Alternatively, I’d wait and provide them with one of a recent batch of mated queens once they had laid up a good frame or two to demonstrate their quality. I closed them up and made a mental note to deal with the colony later in the week.

If they behave queenright, perhaps they are …

I peeked through the perspex crownboard this afternoon while visiting the apiary and saw a distinctive looking bee walking about on the underside of the crownboard. Despite being upside down it was clear, even with a very brief view, that it was a small, dark queen. She was walking calmly about the super and wasn’t being hassled by the workers.

I strongly suspected that she was a virgin that had either wiggled through the QE – perhaps it’s damaged or she was particularly small at emergence – and then got trapped. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, I’d inadvertently placed a brood frame near the super during a previous inspection and she’d walked across. This colony is in the bee shed and space is a bit cramped during inspections.

I know from my notes that the colony had an unsealed queen cell in it a couple of weeks ago so – weather permitting – there should still be sufficient time to get her mated before she’s too old. I removed the super, located her on the QE, gently lifted her off and placed her in the brood box. She wandered quietly down between the brood frames and the bees didn’t seem at all perturbed.

Fingers crossed …

Spot the queen part 2

If you managed to spot the queen in the image a fortnight ago you did better than I did … although she was clipped and marked, there was no sign of her in the bees clustered around the hive entrance. Furthermore, once they’d returned to the colony she was clearly absent (an oxymoron surely?) at the next inspection – no eggs, several well developed queen cells and the usually placid bees were rather intemperate. Perhaps she was lost in the grass, got injured or was otherwise incapacitated during swarming? Perhaps she did return and was then done away with? A pity, as they were good stock, and had already produced three full supers this season. However, I’d also grafted from this colony – see below.

Here’s another picture of a queen that’s a bit clearer … but wasn’t when inspecting the colony.

I performed a colony split using a Snelgrove board. The colony was clearly thinking about swarming, with a couple of 1-2 day old unsealed queen cells present during the inspection. I knocked these back and introduced a frame of eggs from better stock. On checking the nominally queenless half on the seventh day they behaved as though they were queenright (no new QC’s on the frame of eggs provided or elsewhere, calmer than expected etc.). I must have missed a sealed cell (presumably a tiny one) when splitting the colony the week before. After a bit of searching – it was a crowded box – I found a small knot of bees harrying a tiny queen, by far the smallest I’ve seen this year and not really any bigger than a worker. I separated the majority of the workers and managed to take a couple of photos.

The abdomen is not well shown in the picture but extends to just past the protruding antenna of the worker behind her. Overall she was narrower and only fractionally longer than the workers in the same colony. When surrounded by a golf ball-sized clump of workers she was effectively invisible.

Midget Majesty

Midget Majesty

The picture above was taken near the end of May, shortly before I removed the first batch of cells from a cell raising colony set up with a Cloake board. These queen cells were from grafts raised from the colony that subsequently swarmed from the bee shed. The cells went into 3+ frame poly nucs arranged in a circle split, the queens emerged during glorious weather in the second week of June, matured for a few days and – just about the time they would be expected to mate – got trapped in the colonies by ten days of very poor weather.

And they're off

And they’re off …

However, over the last few days the weather has picked up, I’ve seen queens leaving on orientation or mating flights and the workers have started piling in pollen. All of these are good signs and suggest that at least some of the queens are already mated and laying … we’ll see at the next inspection.

DLQ RIP

I conducted my first inspections of colonies outside the bee shed last week. One colony that had looked good going into the winter had about 5-6 ‘seams’ of bees when I lifted the crown board … but some of the first bees to take off were big fat drones. Even without seeing them you can hear their distinctive buzz as they fly off clumsily. Something was wrong. It’s still too early for significant numbers of drones to be about in what is turning out to be a late Spring.

Drone laying queens

Sure enough, the first few frames contained ample stores and the frames in the middle of what should be the brood nest had been cleared, cleaned and prepared for the queen to lay in. However, the only brood was a rather pathetic patch of drone cells. Clearly the queen had failed early this season and had become a drone laying queen (DLQ). The brood was in a distinct patch indicating it was a DLQ rather than laying workers which scatter brood all over the frames. There were no young larvae, a few late stage larvae, some sealed brood and a few dozen adult drones. The absence of eggs and young larvae suggested that the queen might have either recently given up or been disposed of. There was even a rather pathetic queen cell, no doubt also containing a drone pupa.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

I think this colony superseded late last season so the queen would have been unmarked. It also might explain why she was poorly mated. However, a quick but thorough search through the box failed to locate her. I was short of equipment, newspaper and time so shook all the bees off the frames and removed the hive … the hope being that the bees would reorientate to the other hives in the apiary.

Think, then act

I tidied things up, made sure the smoker was out and packed away safely and quickly checked the location where the colony had been sited … there was a pretty good sized cluster of bees accumulated on the stand. It was getting cooler and it was clear that the bees were not going to “reorientate to the other hives in the apiary” as I’d hoped. More likely they were going to perish overnight as the temperature was predicted to drop to 3°C.

I never think it’s worth mollycoddling weak or failing (failed?) colonies in the Spring as they’re unlikely to do well enough to get a good crop of honey. However, I also try and avoid simply letting bees perish because of lack of time or preparation on my part. I therefore put a small number of frames – including one of stores – into a poly nuc and placed it on the stand in place of the old hive. Within minutes the bees were streaming in, in much the same way as a swarm shaken out on a sheet enters a hive. I left them to it and rushed back to collect some newspaper. By the time I returned they were all in the poly nuc.

Since I still wasn’t certain where the DLQ was, or even if she was still present, I placed a couple of sheets of newspaper across the top of the brood box on a strong colony, held in place with a queen excluder. I made a couple of small tears through the newspaper with the hive tool and then placed the DLQ colony on top.

Uniting over newspaper

Uniting over newspaper …

The following day there was lots of activity at the hive entrance and a peek through the perspex crownboard showed that the bees had chewed through a big patch of the newspaper and were now mingling freely. I’ll check again in a few days (it’s getting cold again) and will then remove the top box and shake the remaining bees out – if there’s a queen present (which is pretty unlikely now) she won’t know how to return to the new site.

Lessons learned … firstly, be prepared during early-season inspections for failed queens and have the necessary equipment to hand – newspaper for uniting, a queen excluder etc. Secondly, there’s no need to rush. These bees had been headed by a DLQ for a significant period – going by the numbers of adult drones and small remaining amount of sealed and unsealed drone brood – another day or two wouldn’t make any difference. Rather than shaking them out as the afternoon cooled I’d have been better returning another afternoon with the necessary kit to make the best of a bad situation.

Repeat as required

I checked another apiary later in the week and discovered another couple of hives with DLQ’s 🙁  In both cases the queen was either unmarked and invisible, or AWOL. If the former they’d have again been supercedure queens as they should have been marked white and clipped from a batch raised and mated in late May/early June last season using a circle split. However, this time I was prepared and united the boxes in the same way over newspaper held down with a queen excluder. All the other colonies I checked were strong. However, these three DLQ colonies – all nominally headed by queens raised last year – are the most I’ve ever had in a single winter and confirm what a poor year 2015 was for queen mating.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Remaining stores

These three failed colonies – in addition to the presence of variable amounts of drones or drone brood – were also notable for the large amounts of stores still present in the hive. Although it’s been unseasonably cold this April (with regular overnight frosts and strong northerly winds keeping the temperatures – and the beekeepers – depressed) healthy colonies are still building up well, using remaining stores when they can’t get out to forage. As a consequence there’s a real risk of colonies starving. In contrast, colonies with failed queens will be raising little or no brood, so the stores remain unused.

Assuming the colony is disease-free these frames can be put aside somewhere safe (and bee proof) for use during preparation of nucs later in the season.


Of course … I probably learned these lessons last season as well but managed to forget them in the intervening period 😉

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.

The queen returns

Queen mating has been a bit hit and miss for me this year so I was pleased to find a number of mated, laying queens in 5 frame nucs when I checked yesterday evening. The nucs were arranged using a circle split and a couple of queens had clearly failed to return from mating flights (that’s a guess … she had definitely emerged from the cell). These boxes were depleted of bees and the remaining stores were being robbed out. I moved these nucs aside and shook the remaining bees out.

Circle split

Circle split …

Marked queen

Marked queen …

I’d forgotten my scissors but did find a marking cage and pen in my beesuit, so carefully started queen marking each mated, laying queen. Inevitably when rushed (I’d just got off a delayed flight from Scotland and was running out of evening) I managed to drop one of the queens as I tried to manipulate her into the marking cage. They can fly, just not well and not far … she did a sort of lazy spiral and was easy to spot because of her size. However, I lost sight of her against the low evening sun in the mass of returning foragers. Oops. I stepped carefully outside the circle of nucs – they usually crash to earth nearby – and tidied up the rest of my gear. It would add injury to insult if I’d managed to stand on her … Finally, on my last look around I spotted her clinging to some grasses near the hive entrance. I caged and marked her, reopened the nuc and allowed her to serenely walk back into the colony.

The queen returns

The queen returns …

With the exception of some vertical splits (to be described later) that’s the last of my queen rearing this season. I’ve got all the nucs I need for my move to Fife. The next task is to build a load of travel screens …

Updates

Both the churchyard swarm and swarm that delivered itself to a bait hive have mated, laying queens. The initial large drop of phoretic mites – more than 150 from the former – shows how valuable prompt treatment with vaporised oxalic acid is. In 2-3 weeks it will be easy to determine the quality of the laying pattern of the queen and the temper of the colony will start to become apparent. At that point a decision will be made to keep them or unite them with another colony.

 

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.

 

First grafts of the year

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

More of the same

More of the same

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

Mixed success

Mixed success …

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

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

Here we go again ...

Here we go again …

My greatest fan

The most viewed post on this site over recent weeks is about building a honey warming cabinet. Towards the end of the post I discuss the addition of a small mains powered fan to circulate the heat better. The fan is mounted attached to and under the bucket stand, circulating the air directly over the heating element. Out of interest, I conducted a quick experiment to determine how much influence the fan had on the heat distribution within the cabinet.

Fans

Fans

Using a remote temperature sensor I timed how long it took to get from ambient temperature (about 18oC on the day) to a stable 60oC, near the effective maximum due to the amount of insulation in my cabinet. With the fan on continuously this took 1 hours and 40 minutes. With the fan turned off this took almost twice as long. Since I was also aware that using the fan alone increased the temperature I measured the maximum temperature the cabinet reached without the heater on … in this case fractionally under 28oC, but this took well over two hours. The fan itself clearly generates a reasonable amount of heat which, in a well insulated container, pushes the temperature up (a bit like those foil-lined polystyrene ovens in which you can cook a chicken with a lightbulb). It should be noted that with a couple of 30 lb buckets full of honey in the cabinet all these times would be extended. However, it clearly shows that the addition of an inexpensive fan is a worthwhile addition to a DIY honey warming cabinet.

Although more difficult to monitor, the presence of the fan also makes the temperature fluctuations markedly smaller. With the fan running and the thermostat set correctly the cabinet will maintain 33oC +/- less than 1oC, making it suitable for incubating queen cells. You need to maintain high humidity levels to avoid drying the cells and the newly-emerged queens need to be used promptly.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

The fan I use was purchased in the Maplin sale for about a fiver. The list price is three times that, so it might pay to shop around. It would also be possible to piratise an unwanted 12V fan from an old PC, but you would have to take the power supply as well.

Honey warming cabinet fan

Fan …

Queen rearing and the June gap

Cloud

Here we go again

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

This poor weather has caused significant problems for queen rearing.

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

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

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

Queenright queen rearing colony

Remove the supers …

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

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

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