Tag Archives: syrup

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.

Ben Harden queen rearing – setup

The Ben Harden queenright method for queen rearing (introduced previously) has relatively few requirements for specialist equipment. Most beekeepers will already own the necessary bits and pieces, and will be able to build, borrow or steal the things they lack as appropriate.

Fat dummy

Fat dummy

The colony is prepared by adding a second brood box to a standard production colony, separated by a queen excluder. The upper box contains just four frames – two containing ample levels of pollen, one containing unsealed brood and one containing your precious grafted larvae. The remaining space in the upper box is occupied by two oversize ‘fat dummies‘ that concentrate the bees onto the frame containing the grafts.

Equipment needed

Assuming you’re starting with a standard colony consisting of a floor, brood box, crownboard and roof the additional equipment needed are as follows:

  1. brood box
  2. queen excluder
  3. two ‘fat dummies
  4. three additional frames, preferably of drawn comb
  5. cell bar frame and tools for grafting (see separate post on grafting)
  6. thin (1:1 w/v) syrup if there’s no nectar flow

The cell raising colony – the one you’re going to setup the Ben Harden system in – needs to be strong, healthy and not about to swarm. The genetics of the colony don’t matter – they’re not going to contribute anything other than hard work to raising your grafted larvae.

Inspect the colony

Cell bar frame

Cell bar frame

Before using the cell bar frame for grafting paint it liberally with thin syrup and leave it to acclimatise in the cell raising colony for 24 hours. This isn’t critical; you can graft directly into cells that haven’t got the scent of the hive from having workers clean all the syrup off for a day or so. I’ve not noticed any real difference in the proportion of grafts that are successful. However, I think an additional advantage of setting things up a day in advance is it means the colony isn’t too disrupted by an inspection and frame rearrangement on the day the grafts are added.

Therefore, on the day before grafting, inspect the colony to make sure they’re queenright – you don’t need to see the queen, just make sure there are recently laid eggs present. Check for queen cells to be sure they’re not making preparations to swarm. The cell raising process takes a little over a fortnight, so make sure they have enough space to expand into during this time. To encourage the nurse bees up into the upper box you need a frame of unsealed brood – this can come from another hive if needed (just shake the adhering bees from it) or from the bottom box.

You also need to provide ample amounts of pollen and so need two additional frames well stocked with pollen. Again, these can come from the bottom box or from another colony. If pollen-filled frames are in short supply but you have a source of pollen available (for example, collected and frozen from a previous year) you can sprinkle it liberally across the face of two drawn frames and use these. Any frames removed from the bottom box should be replaced with drawn comb – you don’t want to distract the bees with having to draw out foundation.

Reassembling the colony

Ben Harden setup

Ben Harden setup

With the bottom box filled with a full complement of frames add the queen excluder and the empty top box. Put the two ‘fat dummies’ on either side, filling the gap in the middle with a pollen frame, the syrup-coated cell bar frame, the unsealed brood and the second pollen frame. Make sure the pollen frames have the faces most heavily loaded with pollen towards the cell bar frame.

If the colony has supers on it these can be added directly on top of the upper brood box. One of the advantages of the Ben Harden method is that it has minimal impact on nectar gathering … in fact, the only real drawback of having a stack of supers on top is all the heavy lifting you have to do to access the grafted larvae.

So, from the top, the colony setup is like this:

  1. Roof
  2. Crown board
  3. Supers (only if they were on the original colony or there is a strong flow)
  4. Upper brood box containing two fat dummies, two frames of pollen, the cell bar frame and a frame of unsealed brood
  5. Queen excluder
  6. Lower brood box containing the queen
  7. Floor

That’s it … hope for good weather the following day when you’ll be grafting.

Leftover fondant

Fondant

Fondant

If you feed fondant rather than syrup in the autumn, or provide underweight colonies fondant in the spring, or use fondant to feed mini-nucs for queen rearing you’ll inevitably end up with leftover lumps. Some of these will be dry and pitted, some will have bits of bees embedded, some will have brace comb or lumps of propolis adhering. All can be used.

Just mix these leftovers 1:1 by weight with hot water to make syrup for spring feeding or – in my case – for Bailey comb changes. Fondant is about 85-90% sugar, so a 1:1 mix is actually a  bit thin, but it saves doing the maths accurately and will all be used. By mixing with boiling water from the kettle everything should be sterilised.

Just remember that all that wax and propolis will melt in the hot water and will form a scummy ‘tidemark’ around the edge of the saucepan. Ideally use a saucepan dedicated for the task or, like me, discover that a half cup of washing powder and some elbow grease will restore the pan to its original condition.