Tag Archives: queen

Upstairs, downstairs?

There are two common hive manipulations that involve stacking two brood boxes on top of each other – the vertical split and uniting colonies. Should the queenright colony go on the top or bottom when uniting colonies over newspaper? What about when conducting a vertical split? Does it make a difference?

In the following discussion I’m assuming the colonies being stacked are originally in single brood boxes. This is so I don’t have to qualify how many boxes are involved every time. For convenience, let’s also assume that you are uniting a queenless and queenright colony, rather than getting into a discussion of the benefits or otherwise of regicide.

Uniting colonies

There are a number of methods to unite (merge) two colonies. The simplest, the most often taught during beginners courses and – in my view – the (almost) foolproof method if you are not in a rush is uniting over newspaper.

All gone ...

All gone …

To unite over newspaper the roof and crownboard from one colony are removed and one or two sheets of newspaper are laid over the top bars of the frames. One or two small holes are made through the newspaper and the second brood box is placed on top. Replace the crownboard and roof. The only precaution that needs to be taken is to ensure there isn’t brace comb on the bottom of the frames of the top box – this would puncture the newspaper and allow the bees to mix too quickly. This is also why I stressed a small hole in the paper.

Over the next 24-48 hours the colonies slowly chew holes through the paper, allowing the bees to gradually mix. It’s best not to interfere for a few more days. One week after uniting the frames can be rearranged and the bees cleared down to a single box if needed.

What matters and what doesn’t when uniting?

You’ll read three bits of advice about uniting using the method described above:

  1. The queenright colony should be on the bottom.
  2. The weaker colony should go on the top.
  3. The colony moved should be at the top.

Frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference whether the queen is in the top or bottom box. I’ve done it either way many times and never noticed a difference in success rates (generally very high), or the speed with which shredded newspaper is chucked out of the hive entrance. I think you can safely ignore this bit of advice. I can’t even think of a logical explanation as to why it’s beneficial to have the queen in the bottom box. Can you? After uniting I usually find the queen in the top box a week later.

If colonies differ markedly in strength I do try and arrange the top box as the weaker one. I suspect this is beneficial as it stops the foraging bees from the strong hive trying to get out or return mob-handed, potentially overwhelming the weaker colony.

I think it’s also sensible to locate the moved colony at the top of the stack. I think forcing them to negotiate the bottom box encourages the foragers from the moved hive to reorientate to the new hive location.

Vertical splits

A vertical split is a hive manipulation that can be used as a swarm control strategy or as a means of ‘making increase’ – the beekeeping term for generating a new queenright colony. Whatever the reason, the practicalities are broadly the same and have been described in detail previously. Briefly, the queen and flying bees are separated vertically from the nurse bees and brood in two brood boxes with separate and opposing entrances.

Split board

Split board …

As described, the queen is placed in the top box with the split board entrance facing the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The logic here is that the flying bees are depleted from the queenright half of the colony, so both reducing the swarming impulse and boosting the strength of the half rearing a new queen.

After one week the hive is reversed on the stand – the front becomes the back and the back becomes the front. This results in depletion of flying bees from the queenless half, so reducing the chances of them throwing off a cast should multiple virgin queens emerge. Simultaneously the queenright half is strengthened, boosting its nectar-gathering capabilities.

The problem with vertical splits

Although I’m an enthusiastic proponent of the vertical split I acknowledge there are some drawbacks to the process.

Once there are supers involved things can get pretty heavy. Simply reversing a double brood box can be taxing for some (me included). I’m dabbling with building some floors and split boards with opposing entrances to try and simplify (or at least reduce the strain of) this aspect of the process.

A second problem is the need for subsequent inspections of the colonies. When used for making increase (or for that matter replacing the queen) nothing final can be done with the colonies until the new queen – reared in the bottom box – is mated and laying well.

Inspections

Of course, determining whether she is ‘mated and laying well’ involves splitting the boxes and carefully examining the lower colony. This inspection should probably take place about a month after the initial split (up to 16 days from egg to emerged queen, a week or so for her to get mated and a further week for the laying pattern to be established). Depending on colony strength, weather and the temperament of the colonies, this inspection might have to be conducted in a maelstrom of bees returning to the upper colony (which has had to be removed for the inspection). Perhaps not the most conducive conditions to find, mark and perhaps clip the new queen.

During the month that the new queen is being reared and mated there’s probably little or no need to inspect the queenright colony. They have ample laying room if you’ve provided them with drawn comb. If you gave them foundation only, or foundationless frames, they will likely need thin syrup if there’s a dearth of nectar. If you’re using a standard frame feeder this is a pretty quick and painless process.

Under the conditions described above I think it makes relatively little difference whether the original queen is ‘upstairs or downstairs’ at the outset of the split (though see the comments at the end on the entrance). However, having the new queen in the bottom box might dissuade you from inspecting too often or too soon – neither is to be encouraged where a new queen is expected.

More queens from more ambitious vertical splits

You can use a version of the vertical split to rear several queen cells. Rather than then reversing the colony and depleting the queenless half of bees you can use it to create a number of 2-3 frame nucs, each populated with a big fat ripe queen cell. In this way you can quickly make increase – trebling, quadrupling or perhaps quintupling the original hive number. The precise details are outside the scope of this article – which is already too long – but Wally Shaw covers it in his usual comprehensive manner (PDF) elsewhere.

For this you want to make the initial queenless half to be as strong as possible (to rear good queens). You also want it to be as easy to access as possible to facilitate checking on the development of the new queen cells. Under these conditions I think there’s good reason to start with the original mated queen ‘downstairs’.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

A higher entrance

Remember that at the start of a vertical split, and for a couple of days after, bees will be exiting the rear entrance and returning to the ‘front’ of the hive to which they originally orientated.

Kewl floor – fixed …

If you decide to leave the original queen in the lower box this will necessitate reversing the hive at the very start of the process, then placing the split board entrance at the hive front. Bees cope well with this vertical relocation of a hive entrance. Sure, there’ll be a bit of milling about and general confusion, but they’ll very quickly adjust to a hive entrance situated about 25cm above the original one. In the original description of the vertical split they had to make precisely this adjustment at the 7 day hive reversal. It helps to try and restrict bees from accessing the underside of the open mesh floor during these hive reversals – for example with a simple plastic skirt (see above right).

In conclusion

Bees are pretty adaptable to the sorts of manipulations described above. Yes, there are certainly wrong ways to do things, but while being careful to avoid these, there are several different ways to manipulate the process to achieve the desired goal(s).

It’s worth thinking about the goal and the likely behaviour of the bees. Then have a go … what’s the worst that could happen?

 

No, not really …

Was it good for you? … No, not really.

I recently posted the weather forecast for the week beginning the 15th of August. I was pleased that the forecast was for near-perfect queen mating conditions – sunny, warm and calm – as I had three colonies which should have contained virgin queens that were due to emerge a few days before.

The forecast was very accurate. Conditions were wonderful. I wasn’t around as I had disappeared to Torridon and Skye for a few days. On checking the colonies at the end of the week after I returned, all three contained queens at least two of which were laying.

Beinn Eighe

Beinn Eighe …

All good then …

Well, not entirely, because mid-afternoon on the previous Wednesday I’d been sent an email from my friend at the apiary that read … “Incredible roaring noise attracted me outside the workshop – a swarm moving west through the garden and into the trees.  All caught on camera”. I didn’t receive the email as I was in the howling wilderness. Not that I could have done much about it.

A very quick inspection of the colony in question on my return confirmed that they’d swarmed. D’oh! I’d obviously missed at least one additional queen cell (mistake #1) on the last inspection and a large cast (the queen must have been a virgin as the original queen had been removed from the colony) had disappeared over the fence … mistake #2. There was a queen present but bee numbers were significantly down. I closed the colony up and disappeared on business for a further three weeks … mistake #3.

The weather had been great the entire week I was away in Torridon. I suspect the colony swarmed on the Monday or Tuesday, that it hung around in a nearby tree until the Wednesday while the scout bees found somewhere more desirable to relocate to, and that my friend had seen it leaving the neighbourhood that afternoon.

Lessons learned

  1. Don’t let the colony decide how many queens should emerge. Instead leave only one known charged (occupied) queen cell to emerge. I’d left an open queen cell on a marked frame, but had not returned a few days later to check that a) it was safely sealed and b) that they hadn’t raised anymore. They had 🙁  Consequently they swarmed when the first queen emerged, leaving one or more additional queens to emerge, fight it out and then head the now much-depleted colony (see 3, below).
  2. Leave a bait hive in or near the apiary, even if the main period of swarming has passed. I’ve been very successful with bait hives over the years, successfully attracting my own and others’ swarms. In this instance the main swarming period was well-passed and I’d packed away my bait hives until next Spring. Wrong. Had I left one near the apiary I may well have managed to attract the swarm and so a) not lost the bees, and b) not potentially inflicted the  bees on someone else. I view bait hives (and queen clipping) as part of being a good neighbour.
  3. Don’t leave a weakened colony late in season. On returning from my three week absence for work I discovered the colony had been robbed out and destroyed. Clearly it had been unable to defend itself from robber bees or wasps and had perished. I should have instead made an executive decision on discovering the colony had swarmed and probably sacrificed the virgin queen and united the weakened colony with a strong colony nearby. In retrospect this was an obvious thing to do … the colony was weak, wasps were beginning to be a problem, there was little or no nectar coming in and the weather was uncertain. As it turned out the weather was good enough for queen mating while I was away. However, the combination of a dearth of nectar, a weakened colony and strong neighbouring colonies meant that robbing was inevitable and – for the colony in question – catastrophic.
Skye ...

Skye …

Had I thought carefully about things in mid-August I may have been able to prevent the inevitable carnage when the colony was robbed out. In my defence I’ve only been around for a day or two over the last month, with extended periods out of the country on business. Nevertheless, this was clearly a case of a lesson (or three) learned the hard way …


† If you’ve not read Tom Seeley’s outstanding Honeybee democracy about how a swarm decides where to relocate to you should.

Was it good for you?

Her majesty ...

Her majesty …

Queen development takes just 16 days:

  • she hatches from the egg on day 3
  • the cell is capped on day 7
  • the virgin queen emerges on day 16

There’s then a further 6-7 days until she becomes fertile and goes on her mating flight(s). These are weather dependent, needing warm, calm and sunny conditions, usually between 2pm and 5pm. These can often be relied on in late May and June, but are a bit more hit and miss late in the season. Fortuitously for a small number of queens in my apiaries it looks like they’ll be enjoying great conditions for their nuptials … yesterday or today.

Near-perfect ...

Near-perfect …

I’ll check in a week or so and hope to find mated laying queens …

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.

A late start …

After a couple of false alarms, the season finally feels like it’s about to start, with temperatures predicted to be consistently into the (low) teens by this time next week. It’s been a punishing Spring as far as my beekeeping has been concerned with lots of queen failures due to poor mating success last year. I therefore need to expand my current stocks in time for the summer nectar flow – ever hopeful! – but am pretty-much resigned to not being able to exploit the oil seed rape (OSR) that is just about starting to flower in the fields nearest my out apiary (it’s already flowering well in other parts of the county – out of foraging range for my bees though).

OSR 30th April 2015 ...

OSR 30th April 2015 …

Go forth and multiply

It’s not all doom and gloom though … colonies that are queenright are expanding well despite the weather. Those in the bee shed are doing particularly well, with part-filled supers (dandelion perhaps?) and colonies expanding up to a double brood box. As an aside, I’d estimate that these colonies are at least 2-3 weeks further advanced than those ‘outside’ … I’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post. Furthermore, the colonies that haven’t developed DLQ’s include some beautifully docile bees, very steady on the comb even when inspecting them in less than ideal conditions, of which we’ve had lots this Spring. With the expectation (or at least hope) of much better weather by the end of the month I’ll be setting up some vertical splits. This is an easy way of either requeening or making increase, involving a minimum of equipment and almost no interventions in terms of hive manipulations. This is queen rearing made easy … simply dividing a suitable colony and giving each half an opposing entrance, then turning the colony through 180° after 7 days. I’ve also sourced a couple of Snelgrove boards to try this year, but work commitments mean these will have to wait until later in the season as they need a little more attention than a simple split board.

Split board

Split board …

Covet thy neighbours bees … or at least catch his swarms

With the assumption that other strong colonies are at least as well advanced as mine I’ve also set out a number of bait hives. Each of these contains an old dark brood frame – importantly containing no stores or you just attract robbers – pushed against the back wall and several (6-9) foundationless frames. The top bar of the old brood frame gets a few drops of lemongrass oil (this stuff ‘eats’ poly hives, which is what my bait hives are made from, so make sure you keep it restricted to the wooden frame). Bait hives should also have solid floors and small entrances – so I cover the OMF with a few scraps of Correx. Finally, to save on equipment I also often use a simple square of heavy duty polythene sheeting as a crownboard.

I set bait hives out every year, catching a few swarms that would otherwise disappear into the church tower, someones loft space or perish in a thunderstorm. It’s always a bit hit and miss in terms of the quality of bees that are attracted … of course, other than when I catch a swarm from my own colony 😉 The peak swarming season extends over the next 6-8 weeks and the bees are always useful, if only to act as willing recipients for queens raised next month when I’ll start grafting.

Bait hives ...

Bait hives …

New queens

Finally, I’ve ordered a couple of queens from a reputable (UK-based) queen breeder to improve the genetics of my stocks. One of my apiaries is in a region with predominantly black ‘native’-type bees in the area, and with local beekeepers keen to keep it that way. I’ll requeen colonies in this apiary with these queens – and in due course their daughters – to be both a good neighbour and to see whether these ‘native’ bees perform better than my Heinz (57 varieties) local mongrels.

Hot and cold brambles

It’s cold and frosty here at the moment. Any brambles that haven’t lost all their leaves look like this …

Cold brambles

Cold brambles

… but it won’t be too long until the days get warmer and they flower again …

Hot brambles

Hot brambles

… my bees are usually a lot darker than the one in the picture above which was taken in September. I suspect this was a visitor from a neighbouring apiary, possibly the same one that also provided a lovely swarm that occupied a bait hive of mine earlier in the year. Here’s the queen (now clipped and marked) at the end of June …

Big yellow queen

Big yellow queen

Time to change the queen

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

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood pattern …

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

Queen cell on excluder

Queen cell on excluder …

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

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

Bramble in flower

Bramble in flower