Synopsis : Three short(ish) related topics; the spring honey harvest, queen rearing without grafting (the Hopkins method) and a brief mention of swarm control. And, if that wasn’t enough, a bonus discussion on keeping virgin queens in an incubator.
I started writing this post at sunset on the longest day of the year. In my part of Scotland it’s light enough to work outside from about 3:30 am until 11:30 pm which means you can get a lot done … if you have the energy and distant, deaf or understanding neighbours.
With the good weather we’ve had for the last 2-3 weeks the bees have been out well before I’m drinking my morning coffee and don’t stop until after my evening glass of Barolo.
In my experience, some of the earliest to start are the scout bees that appear at bait hives before foragers are really busy. Some might even stay overnight, though perhaps these are scouts ‘lost’ from a swarm that had decided to occupy a different nest site 1.
It’s lucky the days are so long as this is the busiest time of the year for beekeeping … at least for my beekeeping.
West coast apiary
I am, as the saying goes, ”running around like a headless chicken”.
Rather than write an in depth (well researched 2 ) post on an esoteric aspect of the coxa and trochanter of Apis mellifera scutellata or virus replication in drones (though I’d strongly recommend readers check out our latest paper on this topic, published today) I thought I’d write a few notes on three practical beekeeping topics that have been entertaining me recently.
I can’t promise something for everyone, or even anyone, and inevitably the focus will be on the trilogy of queen rearing, swarm control and the honey harvest.
If you’re a beekeeper and haven’t been busy with these three things over the last few weeks then either something has gone awry with your season … or you live in New Zealand.
Synopsis : Supersedure – the replacement of the queen without a brood break or a queenless period – is an important colony survival mechanism. How is it induced and can the beekeeper take advantage of it?
Supersedure is the replacement of the queen – due to age or infirmity – by a new one reared in the same colony. Significantly the colony is at no point queenless, and may actually have two laying queens during the overlap period. Ted Hooper (in his Guide to Bees and Honey) states that 5% of colonies with two year old queens – at least of the strain of bees he used – actually have two queens in the colony in the autumn and they can often be found laying on the same frame.
I rarely inspect colonies in the autumn and have never seen two queens in a colony, let alone on the same frame. However, I’m well aware the process goes on undetected … or at least undetected until the following spring.
I’ll check a colony in mid-August and find the clipped, marked laying queen I expect. However, the following April – well before the swarm season starts here – I’ll find an unmarked and unclipped queen heading the colony 1.
Synopsis : Getting good answers involves asking good questions. But remember that the bees have no concept of what is ‘best’, or of the calendar.
If you’re just starting beekeeping it’s likely you will have a never-ending list of questions about the somewhat arcane and often perplexing hobby you are embarking on.
And if you’ve been beekeeping for years (or even decades) you might have the same number of questions, albeit somewhat more specialised or esoteric 1. You’ll also probably be involved in answering some of the questions from less experienced beekeepers.
Hive tools … which is the best?
Getting good quality and appropriate answers broadly depends upon three things:
who (or what) the question is directed at,
the wording of the question, and
whether the answer is simply factual or involves a subjective assessment
Let’s take a simple example …
Q. What is the scientific name of a bee? A. The scientific name for the order of bees is Hymenoptera, but this encompasses many different species of bees, not just a single type of bee. To specify a particular species, a scientific name would be necessary, for example, the scientific name for a honey bee is Apis Mellifera.
… so, let’s be more specific …
Q. What is the scientific name of a honey bee? A. The scientific name for a honey bee is Apis Mellifera.
By asking a more specific question you have received a better answer.
Unfortunately, it’s still not completely correct.
There is a convention on the capitalisation of scientific names; the name of the genus (in this case Apis) is always capitalised, but the name of the particular species (mellifera; meaning honey-bearing) should start with a lowercase letter.
The correct answer should therefore be Apis mellifera.
You may have noticed the who (or what) in the list above. The ‘or what’ was deliberate because, increasingly these types of questions will be answered, not by humans or beekeepers 2, but by a machine.
In fact, the two questions and answers shown above were answered by a machine … in this case one called ChatGPT. In this post, ChatGPT responses are shown in red text. The only reason you may not have heard of ChatGPT 3, released just 2 months ago, was because you’ve been living as a hermit in the Tora Bora cave complex for the last few years.
If ChatGPT is new to you then you’re going to have ample opportunity to experience it – or its successors – in the next few months and years. ChatGPT is described as a chatbot which has been trained through supervised and reinforcement learning. It can do a range of things that are a lot more impressive than not quite getting the scientific name of honey bees correct … it can compose music, write computer code and pass written exams for medicine. It can produce essays and it is causing considerable concern in education, where students are already using it for homework 4.
Perhaps I’ll save myself some late night writing by asking ChatGPT to do my homework …
Write a 500 word article for beekeepers about hive tools and Taranov swarm control, remembering to include a handful of poor quality puns and some truly shocking, punctuation.
I asked it to do this … it generates the answer in less than a minute. I’ve added the answer as a separate page as I don’t want to get even more distracted from the topic of the post today.
ChatGPT does OK on the poor puns (beeeing, buzz-worthy etc.) but less well on the shoddy punctuation, unless you count the Oxford comma.
It does much less well on Taranov swarm control. Indeed, I had started by asking it to “Describe how to conduct swarm control using the Taranov method” and received the following answer:
The Taranov method is a technique used for swarm control in beekeeping that involves manipulating the hive to prevent swarming. The process begins by identifying a colony that is likely to swarm and removing any queen cells, which are the cells that contain developing queen bees. Next, the beekeeper will divide the colony by removing a section of comb with eggs and young larvae, and placing it in a new hive box. This creates a population imbalance in the original hive, which triggers the bees to start raising new queen bees. Finally, the beekeeper will monitor the hive to ensure that no new queen cells are forming, and will continue to remove them as they appear. This method aims to reduce the likelihood of swarming, by keeping the colony balanced and preventing the development of new queen bees.
Which is almost completely wrong. I’m not going to describe Taranov swarm control, but it’s not that. If you want to know (and it is an intriguing method, though not one I have used) I suggest you ask an experienced beekeeper, not a machine. It requires a simple, correct, factual answer.
Subjective or qualified answers
The other thing ChatGPT is not good at is answering questions that require some experience and/or may be subjective. For example …
Q. What is the best type of beehive for a beginner? A. For a beginner, the Langstroth beehive is considered the best option due to its standardized dimensions, ease of management, and wide availability of equipment and accessories. Additionally, it is commonly used by many beekeepers and has a strong community of support and resources available.
… OK, what about something even more important?
Q. What is the best type of hive tool for beekeeping? A. A J-shaped hive tool is widely considered as one of the best for beekeeping. It is versatile, durable and can be used for a variety of tasks such as prying apart beehive boxes, scraping propolis and wax, and removing frames.
The first answer actually isn’t bad, particularly if you are in the US. However, the justification is a little odd and could equally well be applied to a National, Dadant 5 or Layens hive.
The ‘best hive’-type question is one commonly asked by beginners and one where a better question improves the answer. If you instead ask ChatGPT for the best beehive for a beginner in the UK it recommends a National hive (justified by compatibility).
However, the answer ChatGPT gives to the ‘best hive tool’ question is clearly wrong.
Simply the best … no contest!
Anyone with even passing experience of opening a hive knows that the claw-type hive tool is by far and away the most practical, comfortable and good looking 😉 .
The ’widely considered’ in ChatGPT’s answer is the giveaway. It’s (obviously) never used a hive tool and so cannot speak from experience.
The examples above are trivial but they do show both the abilities and shortcomings of ChatGPT. But it will get better – more accurate, more factually correct, better at providing qualified subjective answers (and hiding the fact that it has no direct experience of any of the things it is comparing).
You’d better get used to it as it will revolutionise our interactions – direct or indirect – with computers; websites, discussion forums, computer programming, teaching, student assessment and – increasingly – creative work as well.
It’s going to put a lot of people out of work 🙁 .
I’m already out of work, so I don’t feel too threatened, but perhaps it’s also going to eventually replace the beekeeping blogger.
As an aside, I thought a ChatGPT-powered ‘user’ on a beekeeping discussion forum like Beesource in the US, or the BeekeepingForum here in the UK would be – at least briefly – entertaining. Some of the discussion threads on these can get really out of hand, even with strict moderation (a thankless task).
ChatGPT can already interact conversationally, its command of the subject and of English (and, of course, a range of other languages) is already better than many readers/contributors, and it would be a whole lot more persistent in an online argument (though it is currently not particularly creative when it comes to insults).
It’s going to render many of these discussion forums worthless and is already banned from some of the computing forums. The scientific journal Nature has established ground rules for its use – it cannot ‘share’ authorship (!), its use in data analysis must be documented etc.
I already find many discussion forums unrewarding … they might get a lot worse, at least in the short term. Since many beginners use them a lot, I thought it was worth mentioning.
Although I’ve been wandering some way off topic there are some important points embedded in the first half of this post.
The question you ask influences the answer you get.
In beekeeping, your local environment and your latitude are particularly influential in the lives of your bees.
I gave a talk this evening on queen rearing. One of the questions was ‘How early in the season can I start?’
That’s a perfectly good and valid question, but answering it requires knowing something about the local climate and colony development.
It also varies from year to year … for example, a cold spring delays things.
Some might simply answer ‘mid-May’ or ‘late-April’ … indeed, questions like that may be asked by someone wanting a calendar-based answer.
Unfortunately, beekeeping isn’t that simple. Beekeepers on the UK south coast can often start queen rearing two months before I can here in north west Scotland.
My answer involved something about drone availability. A drone takes 24 days to develop and a few days after that to become sexually mature. Studies have shown that the peak of drone brood production occurs about one month before swarming (Page and Erickson, 1988), though production starts earlier.
And the correct answer is …
So a better answer is to keep an eye on your colonies, observe drone brood production increasing and – 3-4 weeks later (or perhaps a little before 6 ) – start your queen rearing with every expectation the bees will have got the timing about right.
One of many …
In a cold spring they’ll start producing drones later, at a more southerly latitude they’ll produce drones much earlier than they will in northern Scotland.
Yes, the answer is more difficult to understand than ‘the 19th of April’, but it’s much more likely to be correct because it is based on an understanding of the biology of the bees.
It’s also likely to be correct most years. You can test this by keeping notes. You’ll then have something to refer back to next year and the one after that, and you’ll be able to answer, with compelling authority, anyone who asks you the same question 😉 .
In about 30 years you’ll be able to review your notes – of drone production and queen rearing successes – and see whether the timing needs revising 🙂 .
In doing that you’ll have completed the transition from seeking a calendar-based response, to understanding the drivers that determine colony development and reproduction, and end up with an answer that is generically applicable, qualified and based upon personal experience.
Expect biased answers
My preference for a particular type of hive tool is based upon personal experience (and unrelated to the fact that I bought 20 of them very cheaply a decade ago). Do not underestimate the importance of personal experience in answering beekeeping questions … or its ability to generate biased, unqualified or even completely incorrect answers.
Ask three experienced beekeepers a question and you’ll get five answers … one will be completely wrong, another will involve ‘brood and a half’ (also wrong … obviously), a third will answer a different question altogether and the final two will express diametrically opposing views about whether the J-shaped or claw-shaped hive tool is ‘best’.
The answer you get is based upon the experience of whoever you ask … and how willing they are to answer.
Be warned, it’s not unusual for the most (usefully) experienced and the most vociferous beekeepers to be different individuals. In fact, it’s not unusual for the most vociferous to be much less experienced than they sound.
For a subject as practical as beekeeping, practical experience is far, far more valuable than ‘knowledge’ gleaned from the internet (after all, you might have been reading something written by ChatGPT).
I know the difference between the Miller and Hopkins methods for queen rearing. I’ve not used either (yet) so I don’t know which is better – either outright, or in particular circumstances.
This can all be a bit overwhelming as a beginner … use your judgement, listen, check some of the answers in a good book 7 or a reputable online source, ask a follow-up question.
Nobody knows all the answers and it sometimes feels as though the more knowledge you acquire, the more questions appear.
Answer your own questions; observation and understanding
There is no ‘best’ hive, or 8 hive tool. The bees don’t care and – through experience – you’ll find what suits your beekeeping.
It’s likely that the ‘best’ anything in beekeeping – bee, hive tool, hive, smoker, forage, honey, hive stand, extractor, queen excluder etc. – is a meaningless concept.
It’s an irrelevant question as far as bees are concerned. There may be good ones and bad ones, but it’s surprising how tolerant and accommodating the bees – and a beekeeper – can be.
I’d strongly recommend that anyone starting beekeeping ignores articles with the word ‘best’ in them – except perhaps this one.
Ask meaningful questions and look for insightful answers.
The ‘when to start queen rearing?’ is a good – albeit incomplete – question and I suggested how I would (or did) answer it above.
In that example it is really by observing and understanding the bees that you answer the question. I think those are two of the most important skills to acquire as a beekeeper; doing so will always help you get better answers, not least because they help answer them yourself.
Asking an experienced beekeeper gets you part way there but it doesn’t come close to working something out yourself.
Do an experiment
I used the word ‘arcane’ in one of the opening sentences. It means mysterious, obscure or little understood. Despite sounding a little like the word archaic – meaning old fashioned or belonging to an earlier period – it has a totally different etymology. Arcane is derived from the Latin arcānus meaning ‘closed or shut up’, whereas archaic is from the Greek ἀρχαϊκός for ‘ancient’.
Nevertheless, bits of beekeeping are both arcane and archaic.
Sometimes they’re ‘old fashioned’ because experience has shown that a particular method works reliably well, so is promoted and becomes widely used. However, sometimes it’s because ”it’s always been done like that” and everyone unquestioningly follows the approach without asking whether there are other – perhaps better – ways of achieving something.
A foundationless frame is a frame containing no foundation (helpfully, the clue is in the name) . Every foundationless frame you use saves you about £1.40 based upon the current price of foundation. What’s more, because commercial foundation contains miticide residues, every frame you use reduces traces of miticides in your hive.
And, if you read online about making foundationless frames you’ll find lots of descriptions, many of which include instructions to provide a wax, or waxed, starter strip attached under the top bar for the bees to start drawing comb from.
When I started using foundationless frames I – unquestioningly – followed these instructions, cutting 2 cm strips of commercial foundation and nailing them in place in my frames.
And they often fell out … which prompted me to ask a question I should have done in the first place, and to do an experiment.
Ask the bees
Where do bees naturally start drawing comb?
Wherever the swarm ends up. If it’s in a previously unoccupied tree hole, or loft space, there are no convenient strips of wax foundation to be used as guides. The cavity may be completely empty.
Clearly they don’t need a starter strip to work from.
However, the beekeeper does not want the bees to build comb totally haphazardly. We want them to stick within the confines of the frame or it becomes impossible to manipulate. It’s therefore useful to provide them with ‘guides’ on where to start … they might not follow them, but they almost always do.
So, by understanding what the bees do naturally, qualified by our own selfish interests in managing the colony, we can ask the bees what suits them … a strip of wax foundation, a waxed wooden guide or a lollipop stick.
And, having worked out which the bees prefer, we can make a decision based upon what also suits us.
Take your pick …
I therefore did a simple experiment. I built a dozen or so foundationless frames, each containing three randomly positioned starter strips under the top bar – one third wax foundation, one third waxed wood and one third plain wooden lollipop stick (or ‘tongue depressors’).
Over the course of a season I used these in a variety of colonies and observed which of the starter strips was preferred … indicated by which the bees chose first, or which they avoided.
And the results are in …
It made no difference at all. There was no correlation between the type of starter strip and use by the bees.
They just don’t care.
So I only now use plain wooden starter strips. They are quicker and easier to prepare, impervious to the steam wax extractor and much more robust. I use them in full hives and in my mini-nucs for queen mating, simply gluing the wood in place.
Kieler mini-nuc topbar frames – no need for foundation or waxing
A little understanding of what the bees do, coupled with a little experimentation and some observation, allowed me work out the answer to the question ’What is the best material for starter strips’9.
I should note that many other have reached exactly the same conclusion independently. I’m not claiming to have discovered this first, but I did formally test what the bees preferred.
Some ChatGPT creativity to end with
To finish I thought I’d ask ChatGPT to do something creative.
Rather than eliciting incorrect answers about Taranov swarm control I asked it for a poem, in the form of a haiku 10, about honey bee swarms;
Golden bees swarm forth Honeyed scent on the breeze Nature’s sweet bounty.
Not bad 🙂
Page, R.E., and E. H. Erickson, Jr. (1988) Reproduction by Worker Honey Bees (Apis mellifera L.). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 23: 117–126 https://www.jstor.org/stable/4600197. Accessed February 3, 2023. Note: this might not be accessible online, so you could try this instead – Page, R.E. Jr (1982) The seasonal occurrence of honey bee swarms in north-central California. American Bee Journal 121:266-272.
Synopsis :“It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” Here are some related ones of mine and the lessons I (again) learned from them.
This is the 50th post of the year. Usually 1 this is the week in which I write some erudite words 2 about the season in retrospect.
What went well, what could have gone better and what was an unmitigated disaster. The highs and the lows, together with a smattering of the in-between bits that actually constitute the majority of the beekeeping year.
Writing these review-type posts is quite enjoyable 3. I have to go back through my hive notes which inevitably brings back a flood of memories of warmer days, heavy supers, lost hive tools and unmated queens.
Laden foragers returning …
These notes are succinct – rarely more than ~10-20 words – littered with acronyms but surprisingly informative. At least they are when you take into account their dates and the timing of the development cycle of workers, drones and queens.
And, as a bonus, they are also legible.
I’ve mentioned before that I take my hive inspections records on a digital recorder in the apiary and then transfer them to a spreadsheet with the company of a coffee 4 later.
Testing, testing, one, two three
Whilst this approach misses the immediacy of a scribbled note on a sheet of paper under the hive roof, it does allow me to easily refresh my memory before the next apiary visit.
It also means they don’t blow away, get damp, eaten by slugs or require me to have a functioning pen in my beesuit … the recorder lives in the bee bag, so is always available.
By looking at the hive records in advance I’m reminded that – for example – I need more supers for hives #23 and #27, that the former had a good open queen cell on frame 7 (OC/7 in the notes) which should now be sealed 5 and that nuc #13 has a recently mated queen who will need finding (!), clipping and marking.
And by looking at the same records in mid-December, with the temperature plummeting outside, I can see how the season progressed week-by-week in my three main apiaries.
The nuc was sold a fortnight later, the queen in #23 eventually emerged but was lost before she got mated (or perhaps on her way back) and supers filled so rapidly that I regretted not adding more at once.
It was a great year for honey, the best since returning to Scotland in 2015.
But that can wait until the review of the season … which will now be next week 6.
Impressions vs. reality
I give a lot of talks on beekeeping. Whilst a talk might be about bait hives, swarm control or queen rearing, the questions afterwards can be more wide-ranging. It is quite fun to get questions on apparently random beekeeping topics (I’ve done ’ask the expert’7 panels at beekeeping conventions which are enjoyable; for one question and four panel members you get six different answers and a good-natured argument … no wonder we run out of time).
Some of the more ‘left field’ questions can be a challenge and require a degree of lateral thinking. I’m more than happy to acknowledge that I’m sometimes stumped for an answer … I understand the question, but I cannot explain why whatever happened 8, er, happened.
However, the very fact that I’m asked for an opinion at all suggests that I give the impression I know what I’m talking about 9 when it comes to almost any subject about honey bees.
Even if you just restrict the topic to the hive, its contents and what’s happening in it on a week-to-week basis, the apparent impression some have of my understanding can be wildly different from reality.
I know that because of my hive notes.
And I’m acutely aware of this because I’ve just re-read them … 😉 .
Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair. If you read the entries for any individual week in isolation it’s clear I sometimes don’t have a scooby 10 what’s happening in the hive.
It’s obvious because as well as acronyms there’s a dusting of ??? throughout the notes 11.
Not every hive and certainly not every week (thankfully), but more often than I’d like.
However, the regular repeat visits combined with the utter predictability of honey bee development, and comparison with adjacent hives, usually allows me to work out what’s happening with some certainty.
I think the take home message 12 here is that hive notes are veryuseful. Even if you don’t quite understand what’s happening in the hive, record what you see.
At the next visit, or the one after that, it should start to make sense.
And, when you re-read them in midwinter with the benefit of knowing what happened time, tea and a roaring stove, you’ll at least learn what to do in the same situation next year.
Or what not to do 🙁 .
But, there remains this disconnect between that impression of insightful understanding and the day-to-day reality of some of my apiary visits.
These are are not always as polished and assured as I’d like …
Photo by Roberto Prusso from 1913
… frankly, they can sometimes be a bit of a train wreck.
I reassemble the hive leaving the queen in a JzBz cage in my pocket.
Hives are inspected in the wrong order, meaning I might have to re-open one again to the understandable irritation of the bees.
I leave the hive tool inside a hive and can’t find another, or put it in the wrong pocket of my beesuit so it falls through the hole, down the inside of the leg and into my boot.
An elusive unmarked queen is found on my third run through the brood box … at exactly the same time as I find a suicidally psychotic worker inside my veil. I have insufficient hands to hold the frame, the queen and the worker (though, truth be told, I’m probably not intending to just ’hold’ the worker if she’s that agitated). The queen is abandoned until the following week.
Many are reassuringly ‘composed and unruffled’; I open the box, the bees are wonderfully calm. The queen is on the second frame I check, but the first had eggs anyway so I didn’t need to see her. However, since I found her and she’s mated and laying well, I mark her and clip her wing. The colony barely notice her absence and I run her gently back in between two brood frames to get on with her business.
Returning a marked and clipped queen – not distressed, just sauntering down between the frames
This is the beekeeper I’d like to always be … not that other ham-fisted muppet in an ill-fitting beesuit.
Here are a couple of queen-related examples from the season just gone. At the time I was flummoxed. In retrospect I’ve learned a few important lessons.
Or re-learned those that I had been taught already … and subsequently forgotten 😉 .
A tale of several queens
Almost all of my swarm control these days uses the nucleus method. In comparison to the widely-taught Pagden artificial swarm it only requires an additional nuc box. In my experience, it is almost totally foolproof as long as:
you take care to only leave a single queen cell in the hive; remember, this requires a visit one week after removing the queen. They cannot swarm if you leave just one cell.
you don’t make the nuc too strong; if you do there’s a chance it might swarm anyway.
My colony #7 contained an ageing but really lovely queen. I’d used her last year for queen rearing and hoped to do so again. At the start of May I’d obviously tempted fate by noting … ’Strong. Lovely BP. PC only … graft next week’14.
Lovely BP (brood pattern)
And, of course, the next week (the 8th of May) there were a couple of big, fat, 3-4 day old (i.e. open) queen cells and it was clear they were making plans to vamoose. I made up a nuc (number #47) with the old queen and moved her to a distant apiary.
One cell was left in box #7.
This box had overwintered with a nadired super and the original queen had snuck down in April and laid it up. Irritatingly, she’d chosen the frames of drone comb … not the end of the world because the queen was so good, but I didn’t want the new queen to do a repeat performance so moved the super above the queen excluder (QE). I discussed this in Early season inspections back in April – go there for all the gory details.
Drones emerging above a QE is a recipe for carnage as they try and squeeze through 15, so I added a thin eke that included an upper entrance. The drones could fly from this and, in due course, they did.
Hive with an upper entrance
In the meantime, the new queen should have emerged and got mated … but she was nowhere to be found. There were polished cells in the brood box and the colony was behaving as though it was queenright.
On the 12th of June I decided to give it ’one more week’ and, eventually, I then found her in the supers on the 19th, together with several frames of open brood.
Since there was no sealed brood she had presumably been slow getting mated and only started within the last week or so. I clipped and marked her and returned her to the brood box.
But she didn’t stay long.
My notes on the 21st of July include the comment ’no eggs’ (there had been on the 12th) and at the end of the month I found a new laying queen in the box.
She’s still there … or was when I last checked the colony (’lovely, well-tempered bees’ I was pleased to record in my notes) in mid-September. I presume the previous one hadn’t been ‘up to scratch’ and so was superseded sometime in mid-July .
When I removed the supers (unsurprisingly disappointingly light 🙁 ) and the plastic QE I found the latter had a couple of cracks in it. Although these didn’t result in any gaping holes, it’s possible the QE deformed sufficiently to let the queen through.
Lesson No. 1 – try and avoid using those inexpensive cheap plastic QE’s. A framed, wired excluder costs less than three jars of honey and is a good investment. I bought more at the start of this season, but still didn’t have enough.
You know it makes sense
However, I suspect the queen didn’t get into the supers through the QE.
I expect she instead returned from her last mating flight and entered the hive via the upper entrance. It’s not at all unusual for returning queens to end up in the wrong hive altogether, so simply mistaking an upper for the lower entrance is understandable.
Lesson No. 2 – ideally avoid upper entrances altogether on hives containing virgin queens, or at least orientate them to the opposite side of the hive.
What happened to the nuc?
The original queen was moved to another apiary in nuc #47 created during swarm control. A fortnight later (22/5/22) they were moved to a full hive 16 and three weeks later (12/6/22) I found a single charged queen cell in the middle of a central frame.
Although I suspected supersedure (ageing queen, single QC etc.) I’d seen the queen and she was still laying well. I therefore transferred the frame with the open cell to a neighbouring queenless and poorly tempered hive in the same apiary. She emerged, was mated and laying well by late July … and is heading the colony through this winter.
However, back to hive #47 … they attempted to swarm ~10 days later. Since the queen was clipped the swarm returned to the hive, but the queen was lost 🙁 .
I knocked back all but one of the charged open cells and guesstimated that she would emerge on the 6/7th of July. On my next inspection (on the 5th), the queen was quacking in the cell 17. My maths suggested she should be mated around the 20th but I didn’t open the box again until the last day of July when I found her laying well.
And it was about then that things started to go ‘pear-shaped’18.
Hands like feet
I fumbled the first couple of attempts at picking up the queen to mark her.
In my defence … it had been a long afternoon. This was the last of about 15 colonies I’d inspected and the supers were very heavy. It was hot, the sun was bright and I was really tired.
I’d removed the supers and set them aside, lifted the QE and found the unmarked laying queen after just a couple of minutes.
The first attempt at picking her up was pretty reasonable, albeit unsuccessful, but the second was badly botched. She skittered across the frame, clambering over and under the workers without giving them a chance to move aside.
Lesson No. 3 – when it comes to picking up queens, if at first (or at the most, second attempt) you don’t succeed, do not’try, try and try again’. Close the box, leave her for another day when both she and you will be calmer.
Of course, I persevered 🙁 .
On the third attempt she took off, seemingly in slow motion, but still too fast for me. She circled around, briefly landed on my shoulder, lifted off again and then – like Baron von Richthofen – was obscured by the dazzling sun.
I never saw her again.
But it gets worse …
I’ve had queens fly off before. In my experience they often (perhaps over 50% of the time) manage to return to the hive. They fly poorly and often crash land in the grass. It’s therefore important not to stampede about like a herd of wildebeest, but instead to calmly reassemble the hive and quietly retreat.
Ideally without moving your feet.
I managed the former but not the latter, cursing my failure to learn from ‘Lesson No. 3’ … it is not the first time that I’ve attended that lesson 🙁 .
I rarely inspect hives in August. This hive was on the other side of Scotland and I didn’t open it again until I removed the supers during the summer honey harvest at the end of the month. With only one and a bit filled supers there were relatively few bees above the QE … but there was a queen.
At least, there was evidence that there had been a queen present as there was a ~5 cm patch of brood on opposing faces of two of the super frames.
Small patch of brood – all of about the same age – in a super
I didn’t see the queen, and only discovered the brood as I shook the bees off the frames to remove them for extraction.
It was a patch of similarly aged brood; there were no younger larvae or eggs, and only a few cells were capped. It must have been laid 7-9 days previously.
Remember, I’d not opened the hive in the last 23 days.
There was no upper entrance and the QE was wired.
And the final lesson today
I ended up uniting the hive over a QE with a known queenright colony. I simply laid some newspaper over the top bars of the latter, added a QE to hold it in place and added the ’is-there-or-isn’t-there-a-queen-in-this-box?’ upper brood box onto which I shook the bees from the remaining super frames.
Newspaper and queen excluder
I do not understand the brood in the super.
The brood pattern indicated it was laid by a queen (rather than laying workers – in which case it would be scattered all around the frame). However, the age of the brood suggested she had only laid for a day or so. The brood looked like worker, but I didn’t photograph the frame until it was back in the extracting room and it was a bit bashed about by then.
My best guess is that the queen that flew away landed back on top of the open stack of supers next to the hive. However, that was over three weeks earlier. If it was the original laying queen that I’d failed to mark (or even pick up) then why didn’t she continue laying at the same rate?
Why the fortnight’s hiatus?
And why did she stop laying having only just started?
I’m afraid we’ll never know.
Which doesn’t mean that there’s not a lesson from this sorry debacle:
Lesson No. 4 – if a mated and laying queen does fly off, check the hive again one week later. If she’s back she’ll be laying and all will be well. If she’s missing in action there will be queen cells, but no remaining larvae young enough to rear queens from. Knock back all the cells you don’t want and let them get on with things 19.
One final queen
If you rewind about 1500 words you might remember that I found two good open queen cells in box #7. The one I didn’t leave in that hive I used to requeen an adjacent hive (#6).
Waste not, want not 😉 .
A week previous I’d already started swarm control on colony #6 by removing the queen to a nuc. I’d intended to let them requeen themselves 20 but the availability of a good queen cell from much better stock was too good an opportunity to miss.
I knocked back all the queen cells in hive #6, confident that there were no larvae young enough start as queens.
I added the frame from #7 with the queen cell and she emerged on about the 17th of May. She was mated and laying well by the 12th of June … probably earlier but I hadn’t checked at the intervening visit as I’d been taking three full supers of spring honey from the hive. I got a further three full supers of summer honey 9 weeks later.
The bees are well tempered and productive. They went into the winter very strong … headed by the same queen.
Sometimes, actually most of the time, everything ’just works’ 🙂 .
And a final word
The tale of misadventures recounted above was probably the only truly shambolic part of my beekeeping year in 2022 21. It was just a coincidence that it all originated from one hive. Some of it was self-inflicted, but other bits were just dumb luck.
Shambolic, but not catastrophic, and it all ended OK.
And I learned some valuable lessons.
Again 🙂 .
The opening quote, “It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes”, is attributed to Warren Buffet.
A few readers signed up to receive notifications either about new posts or comments added to the post last week will have received repeat emails sometime on Tuesday evening. These were seemingly due to a hiccup in the server software and outside my control. With thanks to those who brought this to my attention, and apologies to the recipients. The current commenting and notification software is becoming ‘unfit for purpose’ due to subscriber numbers. I have plans to change, both along with some other developments, sometime next year.
Synopsis : Queen rearing is enjoyable and educational. Don’t let the experts put you off. You don’t need to graft day-old larvae to rear queens.
A long time ago 1 I bought, read and re-read Ted Hooper’s excellent book Guide to Bees and Honey. Every time I read it I’d find something I’d missed the last time and, even now, there are nuanced comments I think I am only now beginning to understand.
I’m exaggerating slightly when I say ’read and re-read’ as there was one chapter I pretty-much skipped over each time.
That was the chapter on queen rearing.
What put me off?
It was probably his description of opening queen cells with the tip of a penknife to check how far development had progressed, re-sealing the cell and returning the frame to the hive.
She’s gone …
I knew enough about bees to know that the future success of the hive depended upon it successfully requeening after swarming.
But I didn’t know enough to stop them swarming 😉 .
I’d also already had to ‘borrow’ a frame of cells from a friend to rescue a terminally queenless colony of mine. ’Enthusiastically clumsy’ defined my beekeeping skillset, and was probably the comment the 2 examiner made in his notes during my BBKA Basic assessment.
The prospect of meddling with developing queens, with something so precious, seemed like total madness.
Surely it’s better to let them get on with it?
For the first couple of years of beekeeping, I thought of queens as an exquisitely fragile – and by implication valuable – resource. The prospect of rearing them, handling them, putting them in little boxes or – surely not? – prising a cell open to see if they’d developed sufficiently, was an anathema to me.
Consequently, I repeatedly skipped the chapter on queen rearing.
Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.
The BBKA Annual Convention
Before they moved the event to Harper Adams, the BBKA used to hold its spring convention at the Royal Agricultural showground just outside Warwick. My (then) local association provided stewards for the event and I was asked – or volunteered – to help the late Terry Clare run the queen rearing course one year.
I’d never done any queen rearing … and still hadn’t completely read that chapter in Hooper’s book.
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to those who paid to attend the course … at least those who received any ‘help’ from me, though everything else about the course was very good.
Checking grafted larvae
After an introductory lecture from Terry, we spent a warm afternoon in a poorly lit room practising grafting larvae. A thin cloud of disorientated bees circled our heads before being ushered out through the windows. Most of the larvae on the frames were visible from across the room 3 but at least they didn’t turn to mush with our neophyte fumblings as we transferred them from comb to plastic queen cups.
Terry moved from table to table, checking progress. He explained things well. Very well. The preparation and procedures seemed a whole lot more accessible than they had in Hooper’s book.
I’m a reasonably quick learner and that afternoon convinced me I should, and could, at least try it on my own.
The session ended with a wrap-up lecture in which Terry encouraged us all to ‘have a go’, and not be put off by an initial lack of success.
He assured us it would be worthwhile and enjoyable.
We dispersed into the late afternoon sun, talking of bees and queens and our plans for the season ahead.
Balmy April weather
There was an early spring that year, colonies had overwintered well and were strong. The Convention was held in early April if I remember and the good weather continued for at least another 2-3 weeks.
Well before the end of the month I had my first successfully grafted larvae being reared as queens.
It wasn’t an overwhelming success.
I probably grafted a dozen, got half accepted, lost more during development 4 and ended with just two virgins. I don’t have notes from those days, but I’m pretty sure only one got successfully mated.
So, success in a very limited way, but still success 🙂 .
It still makes me smile.
Terry’s presentation had clarified the mechanics of the process. It no longer seemed like witchcraft. It was all very logical. He’d made it clear that the little specialised equipment needed was either ’as cheap as chips’5 or could easily be built at home by someone as cack-handed as I was am 6.
The practical session had given me confidence I could see and manipulate huge fat larvae that were far too old to be reared as queens larvae. Even with my ’hands like feet’ moving a delicate larva from comb to plastic queen cup seemed possible, if not entirely natural.
JzBz plastic queen cups
I scrounged some JzBz cups from someone/somewhere, built a cell bar frame and some fat dummies7 the week after the Convention and used one of my colonies as a cell raiser and the other as the source of larvae.
And, at a first approximation, everything sort of worked.
I could rear queens from larvae I had selected 🙂 .
Try, try and try again
I repeated it again the following month. I was more successful. The nucs I produced were either overwintered or built up strongly enough to be moved into full hives.
I think one went to my mentee. My association encouraged relative newcomers to mentor, probably one of the best ways to improve your beekeeping (other than queen rearing).
Within a year I had 6-8 colonies or nucs and twice than number the year after that.
Almost all were headed by queens I had reared … ‘almost’ as my swarm control skills were still developing 😉 .
Now, over a decade later, my swarm control skills have improved considerably … as has my queen rearing.
I remain resolutely cack-handed but I’m now a lot more confident in my hamfistedness.
I still mainly use the same technique Terry Clare taught on that course in Stoneleigh, though I’ve now also used a number of other approaches and successfully reared queens using most of them. Even the cell bar frame I built is still in use, though I’ve built some fancier fat dummies.
Fat dummy … with integral feeder and insulation
Queen rearing has taught me more about keeping bees than any other aspect of the hobby … more about judging the state of the colony, the quality of the bees, the suitability of the environment, the weather, the forage etc.
Queen rearing has improved the quality of my bees, year upon year, so that they suit my environment and colony management.
But – more importantly and perhaps a little selfishly – queen rearing has given me more enjoyment than any other aspect of beekeeping.
I’d prefer to rear queens than get a bumper honey crop … but because I rear queens that suit me and the environment, I do pretty well for honey as well.
I give 20-30 talks a season to beekeeping associations. When I’m talking about queen rearing I usually ask the organisers about the number in their association that actively rear queens.
By actively I mean that do more than simply allow colonies to requeen themselves during swarm control. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating this essential aspect of beekeeping. We all (have to) do it.
To me ‘active’ queen rearing doesn’t necessarily mean grafting larvae, incubators, mini-nucs and all that palaver. But it does mean:
preparing a colony to be in a suitable state to rear new queens 8.
rearing queens from larvae selected (though not necessarily individually selected) from a colony with desirable characteristics e.g. good temper, productivity, frugality.
rearing more than one queen at a time, with the excess used for making increase, for sale, for ’just in case’ situations etc.
There’s perhaps a slightly grey area where you split a hive (with desirable characteristics) that’s making swarm preparations into multiple nucs, each of which gets an immature queen cell.
But, let’s not get bogged down in definitions … that’s not the point of this post (which, although it might not be obvious yet, is to encourage you to ’have a go’).
And, when I ask 9, I’m regularly told that only a small number, perhaps ~10%, of association members actively rear queens.
Why so few?
Enjoyable, educational, useful … choose any three
Of course, there’s no requirement that a beekeeper gets involved in queen rearing. You can keep bees for years without rearing queens, other than during swarm control and by making up splits. I know a few beekeepers who have been keeping bees like this for decades … by many criteria they are skilled and successful beekeepers.
But sometimes, which might mean ‘often’, being able to rear queens and having some of those ‘spare’ queens available is extremely useful.
Spare queens, heading nucs in the apiary, can be overwintered to make up losses. These can be sold or donated in Spring to meet the enormous10 demand for bees early in the season. The availability of a queen can ‘fix’ an aggressive colony, can rescue an otherwise doomed colony, or can effectively ‘gain’ a month of brood rearing and nectar collection should the old queen fail.
And that extra month of brood might make the difference between successful overwintering or not.
In my view, once you can rear your own queens you are pretty-much self-sufficient … there are very few situations that cannot be rescued.
And all of those benefits are before you even consider the two other things I mentioned above:
that successful queen rearing will inevitably improve your more general skills as a beekeeper, and
you will get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from doing it … literally ’the most fun you can have in a beesuit’11.
Why so few?
Beekeeping, like many other hobbies, can appear an esoteric pastime. Weird terminology, hierarchical organisation 12, specialised equipment, unusual costumes and a tendency to still use arcane practises.
And queen rearing – probably like candle making or the production of excellent mead 13 – is a specialised niche within what is already a rather niche activity.
It has its own terminology, equipment and methods.
To the uninitiated – even to another beekeeper, like me reading Ted Hooper’s book – it can appear fiendishly difficult.
And, unfortunately, some practitioners make it sound esoteric, specialised and difficult.
It’s a sort of one-upmanship.
They promote methods that may not suit the beginner, that require lots of resources, or that involve techniques that sound exceptionally skilful, even when they’re not. Not deliberately perhaps, but that’s what happens.
All of which means that:
people are dissuaded from trying it in the first place
those that do try (with trepidation because, you know, ”it’s difficult”) and that achieve only limited success, have their initial impression reinforced and are unlikely to try again
It’s very easy to talk yourself out of trying something you think will be difficult and/or you are unlikely to succeed at.
Actually, it’s not only easy, it’s also entirely understandable.
Why go to all that trouble if it’s unlikely to work?
After all, you can usually buy queens ‘next day delivery’ for £50 … surely that would be easier?
Perhaps … if they’re available when you want them. Really early in the season? Think again. During the peak swarming season when everyone else wants to requeen their colonies they accidentally destroyed all the queen cells in. Nope.
But, as Terry Clare so ably instructed … it is not that difficult to rear your own.
There’s more than one way to do it
I’ve written an entire post on this topic and it applies as much to queen rearing as it does to other aspects of our hobby.
If not more.
There are many different ways of successfully achieving the three key components of the process:
preparing the colony to receive larvae
presenting the larvae
getting the resulting virgin queens mated
Today’s post isn’t an introduction to queen rearing … it’s meant instead as an encouragment to try queen rearing.
If you’ve got a year or two of beekeeping experience and one, or preferably two, colonies you have the essentials you need to start. It’s what I started with … and look how that ended 😉 .
Over the next three months I’ll write two or three more posts on the basics, in good time for you to ’have a go’ in 2023.
Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing
If you’re impatient to read more, I’ve already written about two methods I have used extensively – the Ben Harden system and queen rearing with a Cloake board.
However, throughout these descriptions I’ve emphasised the use of individualgrafted larvae.
Grafting is the transfer of larvae from the comb where the egg hatched to a wax or plastic queen queen cup. For best results the larvae should no more than ~18 hours old.
A suitable larva may well be no bigger than the egg it hatched from.
Already I can feel beginners switching off … “Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.”
Although grafting is an easily learned and reasonably straightforward technique it can appear very daunting to the beginner.
Perhaps I’m therefore also guilty of making queen rearing sound ‘esoteric, specialised and difficult’.
Am I guilty as well?
But … in my defence please consider the two recent posts on ’Picking winners’.
The purpose of those posts was to highlight – for people (like me) that already routinely use grafting as part of their queen rearing – that the bees may choose different larvae to rear as queens than the beekeeper might choose.
The beekeeper is essentially non-selective, whereas the bees are very selective.
I think this is interesting and it’s got me wondering about the qualities the bees select and whether they’d be beneficial for my beekeeping.
But there’s another equally important ‘take home message’ from these two posts. This is relevant to beekeepers who do not already rear queens (but who would like to) but that are put off by the thought of grafting.
And that is that you can easily produce excellent quality queen cells without grafting or ‘handling’ larvae at all.
If you refer back to that three point list above, point 2 ( ‘presenting the larvae’) can be as straightforward as simply adding a frame of eggs and larvae to a suitably prepared hive.
What could be easier?
No magnifying glasses, no headtorch, no treble ‘0’ sable paintbrush, no JzBz plastic cups, no cell bar frame, no ’do I or don’t I prime the cups with royal jelly?’, no desperate searching around the frame for larvae of the right size, no worries about larvae getting chilled, or drying out …
Pick a frame, any frame
As long as it has eggs and young larvae … and comes from a donor colony that has the characteristics you like in your bees.
Eggs and young larvae
There’s little point in rearing queens from poor quality bees.
For starters I’d suggest you select a frame from a colony of calm, well behaved bees.
If none of your colonies are dependably calm and well behaved you definitely need to learn to rear queens, but you should ask a friend or mentor 14 for a frame of eggs and larvae from a good colony.
Bees are very good at picking larvae suitable for rearing into queens. Let them do the ‘heavy lifting’. Once the queen cells are ready you cut them out of the frame and use them in the same way as you would use cells from grafted larvae.
So, having hopefully convinced you that you don’t need to graft larvae to produce queen cells, that seems like a logical place to end this post.
In future posts I’ll discuss points 1 and 3 in that numbered list above.
You already know almost everything you now need to know about point 2 😉 .