Tag Archives: queen cells

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 ūüôĀ

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 ūüėČ

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 Рin a routine inspection Рis 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 (¬įC). ‘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 ūüôā

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 ūüôĀ

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 Рfor 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 ūüėČ . 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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ ¬†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¬ß.

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 ūüėČ
  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‚ąá. 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‚Ć taken in previous trips.


§ I wish

‚ąá¬†Just in case you’re thinking of buying bees¬†from me please note that this is a rather poor joke ūüėČ

‚Ć 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 ‚Ķ 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¬†‚Ķ 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 Рin 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 ‚Ķ 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¬†‚Ķ¬†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 ‚Ķ 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 ‚Ķ 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 ‚Ķ the bees will choose a good one in due course.

What’s happening¬†‚Ķ¬†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 ‚Ķ 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 ‚Ķ 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 ūüėČ ).
  • 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¬†‚Ķ using a bad tempered colony to raise cells does not influence the temper of the colony headed by the resulting queens (at least, this appears to be the case and I’ve not seen anything to suggest otherwise). I therefore sacrificed the queen and split the cell raising colony up to populate the nucs for queen mating.

Vince Cook and circle splits

Queen rearing simplified

Queen rearing simplified

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

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

Circle splits in practice

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

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

After care

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

All gone ...

All gone …

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

What’s next ‚Ķ ?

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

 

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 ‚Ķ it’s going to get prickly for her.

Bramble in flower

Bramble in flower