Category Archives: Swarm control

Feral facts and fallacies

Synopsis : Are feral colonies recently lost swarms or a self-sustaining ‘wild’ honey bee population? The latter must reproduce faster than they perish. Measuring rates of colony loss and nest occupancy provides a good indicator of the likely origin and independence of feral populations.

Introduction

Most colonies try to swarm every year. Most – not all – but if your colonies are strong and healthy they are likely to swarm. That’s why swarm prevention and subsequent swarm control are such important skills for the tyro beekeeper to master. Without swarm control the majority of the workforce is ‘lost’, the residual colony will be left temporarily queenless and the potential honey crop is probably much reduced.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

It is not difficult to become competent at swarm prevention and control. However, any beekeeper who claims to never lose swarms is probably being ‘economical with the actualité’ as the late Alan Clark once said.

What happens to those ‘lost’ swarms?

Some forward-thinking beekeepers set out bait hives. Any swarms that end up being attracted to these ‘swarm traps’ will eventually find their way back to a managed apiary. Some swarms end up in the church tower where ‘there have always been bees’, according to local parishioners.

Others move into the roof space above the entrance to the local nursery school, causing fascination, irritation and consternation in equal measure. Their fate depends upon whether the head teacher contacts a beekeeper or a pest controller … but their arrival reinforces the importance of swarm control and the use of bait hives.

A bait hive deployed in mid-April in good time for the swarming season ahead

And other swarms disappear over the apiary fence, across the field and into the local woods, eventually establishing a new colony in a suitable hollow tree.

No risk, no reward

Swarming is a risky business. The swarm leaves with the majority of the flying bees and the mated queen. However, it takes more than that to establish a functional colony. They need to draw comb, rear brood and collect sufficient stores to get through the winter.

That’s a tall order and most swarms fail.

Data from Thomas Seeley in The Lives of Bees suggests that only about 23% of swarms survive the winter.

In contrast, the swarmed colony has about an 80% chance of survival. They’ve got drawn comb, stores, eggs and larvae … ‘all’ they need to do is rear a new queen.

And then they’re likely to swarm again the following year 1. In fact, without swarm control, the average number of swarms produced by a colony is two per year – presumably a prime swarm (headed by the old queen) and a cast (headed by a virgin queen).

So, swarming is risky, but those swarms that succeed in establishing a new colony and overwintering can themselves attempt to reproduce again the following year.

That’s the reward.

Where are all these bees?

Even taking account of the exemplary swarm control by the UK’s ~25,000 beekeepers 2 I’m reasonably certain that a lot of swarms are lost every year.

Where do all these bees go?

I’ve been told of lots of churches or schools or trees with resident bees.

Quiet churchyard

A swarm magnet … or just an old church?

However, it’s certainly not every church, or school or hollow tree that’s occupied. Even when there’s a surplus of suitable nest sites, those that are occupied by a colony are the exception, not the rule.

The main reason of course is Varroa.

In the absence of intervention to reduce the mite population, the developing winter bees get parasitised by Varroa, and the resulting high levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) reduces the longevity of these necessarily 3 long-lived bees.

Consequently the winter cluster shrinks in size, from that of a football (early October) to a honeydew melon (late December) to a large orange (early February).

And then it freezes to death during a cold snap 🙁 .

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

Numerous studies have shown that untreated colonies, in the absence of any natural resistance or tolerance to Varroa or DWV (though the latter is rarely discussed, and even less frequently tested for), almost always perish within a year or two of Varroa infestation.

Look back at the recent post on Biological control with Varroa for a reminder of the devastation wreaked on an island population of honey bees after the introduction of mites.

Wild? They’re livid feral …

Technically, swarms lost by beekeepers (that become established in the environment) are probably best termed feral colonies.

Originally feral meant simply ‘wild or untamed’, but the more common usage these days means ’animals or plants that have lapsed into a wild form from a domesticated condition’.

Bees aren’t domesticated, but I think feral conveniently encompasses their origin.

However, I’m more than happy to accept that a colony, initially feral, that becomes well-established in the church tower and throws off a swarm or two every year, that requeens every two or three seasons, surviving without intervention or management, must be considered ‘wild’ at some point.

It’s not worth discussing when a colony transitions from feral to wild.

It’s semantics, though I think the distinction between ‘recently arrived from a swarmed managed colony’ and ‘self-sustaining’ is an important one.

Notwithstanding the ravages of Varroa, whether feral or wild, there are colonies in the environment – churches, schools, trees – and probably rather more than many beekeepers are aware of.

The missing bees

Periodically there’s a little flurry of interest in the press about ‘long lost’ or ‘missing’ wild bees discovered in the woods.

Late last summer there were articles in all the newspapers about bees found on Blenheim Estate. The Observer reported this discovery with the headline ”No one knew they existed”: wild heirs of lost British honeybee found at Blenheim.

‘Blenheim bees’ article in the Observer, 7-11-21

As an aside – as this isn’t the real topic for discussion today – there are at least three challenging claims made in that headline; how can you be sure that no-one knew they existed? Is the British honey bee (it is not honeybee) actually lost? How do you know that these bees are their heirs?

Pedantic is my middle name.

But the 2500 hectare Blenheim Estate 4 isn’t the only location with apparently self-sustaining populations of honey bees. There are trees, churches and (I dare say) even nursery schools up and down the country that appear to have a ‘resident’ colony or two of bees.

Periodically they’re observed swarming. Sometimes things seem a bit quiet in the spring, but perhaps it’s too cold for the bees to be flying strongly anyway.

By May there’s a lot of activity so all must be well.

Right?

Perhaps 😉

Citizen science

These wild/feral colonies are infrequent but widely distributed. They are therefore difficult for one person to regularly observe. As a consequence there are several ‘citizen science’ projects monitoring some of these sites. Magnus Peterson regularly reports in The Scottish Beekeeper on the one he coordinates for the University of Strathclyde.

The criticism of these types of studies – certainly not Magnus’s specifically – but any study the largely relies upon infrequent observation by volunteers, is that stuff gets missed. A visit doesn’t happen because it’s raining hard. Or it does happen in heavy rain and no activity is observed and the colony is recorded as dead.

Or worse, recorded as alive, but not flying because of the heavy rain.

With more systematic observation, though not necessarily more frequent, you can have increased certainty that the site that was occupied last autumn is still occupied this spring.

The timing of these observations is important. Three per season is probably the minimum, early, mid and late, but they have to be at particular times of the season – see below.

Crowdfunding

So, let’s assume a colony is found in the autumn and the same hollow tree is occupied in late-April the following year … yippee, the colony is still alive.

Feral – or are they now wild? – bees living successfully with Varroa (at least presumably living with Varroa if they’re almost anywhere in mainland UK).

Perhaps they’ve evolved to have some interesting and useful trait(s) that renders the colony resistant to or tolerant of the dreaded parasitic mites?

These are valuable bees.

They are an important genetic resource.

They must be protected at all costs.

Perhaps it’s time to set up a web colony cam to record their activity? That’s going to cost a pretty penny, so some crowdfunding is needed.

A website is created … a dozen mini-nucs are purchased for the ambitiously planned queen rearing programme and – inevitably – there’s a misquoted article or two in the Guardian.

But hold on …

Are they really the same colony in April that were there the previous autumn?

How can you be sure?

How can you be certain that it’s not an unseasonably early swarm that was missed by the – usually eagle-eyed – local beekeepers? 5

It’s not unusual to find the odd charged queen cell during the first colony inspection of the season. At least, I’ve sometimes found queen cells during that first inspection. I’m sufficiently experienced to not go rummaging about in the boxes too early in the season, and so I am sometimes surprised at how well developed the colony is when I open the box.

Charged queen cell

But what if it had been raining, so I’d postponed the inspection?

On the next warm spring day – well before I was able to return to the apiary – the colony could swarm.

I’ve regularly seen April swarms in Scotland and there are many reports of even earlier swarms on social media every year.

Perhaps the active ‘overwintered’ colony is nothing of the sort.

Maybe it’s just been occupied by a very early swarm?

To be sure it’s the same colony you need to do some genetic testing. If the colony is the same the genetic testing will show identity. If the testing shows significant variation then it’s a different colony.

And, if you combine some genetic testing of overwintered colonies with three carefully-timed visits – late season, very early season and mid-season – to a large number of wild/feral colonies, or likely sites that they would occupy, you can determine their longevity and whether they are a self-sustaining population.

Bee trees

And I wouldn’t have given that long and rambling introduction if there wasn’t a recent scientific paper where they’ve done exactly that (Kohl et al., 2022). I’ll describe it briefly as it’s a nicely written and compelling story. The paper is open access, so you can read it if you want to check my interpretation of the data.

Importantly, I think it provides a very good guide to both the quality and quantity of data that are needed to be sure a population of bees are truly wild and self-sustaining 6 … or just regularly boosted by careless local beekeeping!

Feral colonies are few and far between. It’s hard work walking around the woods looking for hollow trees that may (but probably won’t) contain a colony. You find lots of trees with holes, but they need to lead to a suitably-sized cavity to be of any use to a colony of bees. Binoculars help (the holes are often 15 metres off the ground) … but perhaps there are better ways of doing this?

A bee tree?

Bee-lining – as described by Seeley in Following the Wild Bees – is an effective way of tracking down wild colonies, but needs good weather, good forage and ample time. It works well when locating a few colonies, but probably takes too long if you want 100+ to produce a statistically compelling set of results.

But what if you also wanted to record how many new nest sites are occupied? You would need to know where the empty cavities were before they were occupied. That’s not something you can determine by bee-lining, so you’re back to traipsing around the woods with a pair of binoculars.

Woodpeckers

But in Germany they have some very large woodpeckers.

The black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) is a crow-sized bird that excavates correspondingly large holes for nest sites in old-growth forests. The average volume of a black woodpecker nest is about 10 litres, smaller than optimal for a swarm, but appreciably larger than most ‘natural’ tree cavities.

Black woodpecker

Conveniently, there are high-resolution maps of (historical) woodpecker nesting trees in old-growth forests in Swabian Alb, Weilheim-Schongau and the counties of Coburg and Lichtenfels. 98% of these woodpecker nest sites are in large beech trees, most are 10-12 metres above ground and with an entrance of ~10cm diameter (again, not optimal, but better than no nest site for a swarm).

Kohl and colleagues surveyed about 460 of these ‘cavity’ trees three times per season; in July (after the main May/June swarming season) to determine peak occupancy rates, in mid/late September to determine late summer survival and in early/mid April to determine winter survival.

‘Occupancy’ was determined by visual inspection and regular forager activity and/or pollen loads (i.e. they ignored scout bees checking empty cavities). In addition, for some colonies, a dozen or so workers were collected for genetic analysis.

With these data, the mathematical calculation of annual survival rates could be determined, as could the prediction of the annual numbers of swarms needed per colony for the population to be self-sustaining 7. In addition, it was possible to determine the average lifespan of a colony.

There were a bunch of perfectly reasonable assumptions made, based upon the known biology of honey bees – all are listed in the paper.

Yo-yoing colony numbers

The scientists counted colony numbers, but could also determine colony densities per km2. By making observations over a 3-4 year period it was strikingly obvious that the largest number of ‘cavity’ trees were occupied after swarming in summer, but that numbers dropped dramatically overwinter. This ’recurring temporal pattern of population fluctuations’ is very obvious in the major data figure in the paper.

Temporal population fluctuations of feral honey bee colonies in Germany; A) occupancy rates, B) population density

The average maximum occupancy rate and population density was 11% and 0.23 colonies per km2. This ‘dropped massively’ over the winter to just 1.4% and 0.02 colonies per km2.

The majority of nest sites (n = 112) occupied in late summer were unoccupied the following spring, before swarming started. 90% of colonies survived the summer (from July until late September), but only 16% of colonies survived the following winter.

The spring survival rate was calculated as 74% based upon genetic testing of colonies in early spring and mid-summer

Knowing the summer, winter and spring survival rates enables the annual survival rate to be calculated.

This was a sobering 10.6%.

Therefore, to maintain a stable population, each surviving colony would need to produce an average of 8.4 swarms per season.

That’s an unachievable amount of swarming.

The average lifespan of a feral colony in these three German forest regions was just 0.619 years … a little over 32 weeks.

Clearly, these honey bee populations are not self-sustaining.

Are these German forests typical?

There are two other regions where similar quality data exists for wild/feral honey bee populations. These are the Arnot forest in the USA, studied for decades by Thomas Seeley, and Wyperfield National Park in Australia.

There are striking differences between these two regions and the German forests, both in terms of colony lifespan and swarm numbers needed to be self-sustaining.

For the Arnot forest and Wyperfield National Park, lifespan was calculated as 1.34 and 1.53 years respectively (cf. 0.62 years for Germany), with annual survival of ~50% (cf. 11% in Germany). Annual swarm numbers per colony for the population to be self-sustaining was 0.94 and 0.85 for the the Arnot forest and Wyperfield National Park respectively (cf. 8.43 for the German forests).

Other than these obvious differences in the related figures for survival/longevity and ‘swarms needed’ the other significant difference between self-sustaining populations (like the Arnot forest and Wyperfield National Park) is the colony density.

In areas where feral/wild honey bees are self-sustaining the colony density is at least 1 per km2. In contrast, in Germany and a large number of other studied feral populations in other parts of Europe (including Ireland, Spain, Serbia, Poland and other regions of Germany), the colony density is usually much lower, at 0.1-0.2 per km2.

So, these German forests are seemingly typical of honey bee populations that are not self-sustaining. These are regions where the feral population is boosted annually (and is essentially dependent upon) an influx of swarms that become temporarily established in natural nest sites.

Environmental colony density

Where do all these swarms come from?

The average managed honey bee colony density in the areas of Germany studied is 4 per km2, appreciably higher than either the Arnot forest or Wyperfield National Park. Precise figures for these two were not quoted, but in both locations the feral colonies (remember, these were at ~1 per km2) outnumber managed colonies.

It therefore seems very likely that managed colonies from farmland areas surrounding the German forests acts as the source for swarms, and the latter – because of the paucity of suitable nest sites in the arable land (relatively few buildings, few mature trees etc.) – gravitate towards the forests looking for suitable nest sites.

Feral and managed colonies may therefore be spatially separated, though not very widely. In contrast, in urban environments – where nest sites are probably common – it might be expected that feral and managed colonies are intermixed in the environment.

A by-product of the study by Kohl and colleagues is that they could also calculate the difference in the relative attractiveness of woodpecker nests that had previously, or had never, been occupied by bees. When new colonies occupied woodpecker nest sites there was a strong preference of 5 to 15-fold for sites that had previously been occupied by bees.

This, of course, is why it makes sense to include a single old, dark comb in your bait hives.

That seems like a good place to stop …

I think this German study is interesting. It shows the quantity and quality of data needed to make a compelling case that a location has a self-sustaining population of feral/wild honey bees.

Such locations are likely to exhibit colony densities of at least 1 per km2 and to be physically separated from higher density managed colonies. This physical separation could be in the form of simple geographic isolation – just a long way from other apiaries – or something more complex like being surrounded by high hills or water etc.

Self-sustaining wild/feral populations are likely to exhibit >50% annual survival rates, to live for an average of ~1.5 years and to produce about 0.8-0.9 swarms per colony per year 8.

If survival rates are lower, or the life expectancy of a colony is much less, then the number of swarms needed to maintain the population rapidly becomes so high that they are unattainable.

In which case, large numbers of feral/wild colonies cannot be self-sustaining, but instead must be present because the area acts as a ‘sink’ for lost swarms from nearby managed colonies.

This post is already longer than my self-imposed-but-regularly-exceeded 3000 word limit so I’ll save further discussion of the Blenheim bees and other feral colonies for another post.

However, I hope the study shows that a healthy scepticism is perhaps sensible when considering any claims made about self-sustaining feral colonies.

That church tower in which ‘there have always been bees’ may well have had bees in it every year.

But that’s not the same as having the same bees in it.

In fact, with an ~90% attrition rate of feral colonies annually it’s very unlikely to be the same colony in successive years.


Note

In the final stages of completing this post – very, very late at night – I re-discovered an article (Moro et al., 2018) on citizen science and feral colonies that I’ll return to sometime in the future.

References

Kohl, P.L., Rutschmann, B. and Steffan-Dewenter, I. (2022) ‘Population demography of feral honeybee colonies in central European forests’, Royal Society Open Science, 9(8), p. 220565. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.220565.

Moro, A. et al. (2021) ‘Using Citizen Science to Scout Honey Bee Colonies That Naturally Survive Varroa destructor Infestations’, Insects, 12(6), p. 536. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/insects12060536.

 

Tim Toady

Synopsis : The large number of beekeeping methods is both a benefit and – for beginners particularly – a distraction. Learn methods well enough to be confident when you apply them. Understand why they work and their pros and cons.

Introduction

In an earlier life as a junior academic I was generously given a crushingly boring administrative task. The details don’t matter 1 but it essentially involved populating a huge three-dimensional matrix. The matrix had to be re-populated annually … and, when I was allocated the task, manually.

To cut a long story short I taught myself some simple web-database computer programming. This automated the data collection and entry and saved me many weeks of tedious work.

Geek alert …

This minor victory resulted in me:

  • writing lots more code for my admin and research, and for my hobbies including beekeeping and photography. It’s been a really useful skill … and a lot of fun.
  • inevitably being given an additional mundane task to fill the time I had ‘saved’ 🙁 2.

The programming language I used was perl. This is a simple scripting language, which although now superseded in popularity by things like python, remains very widely used. All proper computers 3 still have perl installed.

Perl is perfect for manipulating text-based records. The name is an acronym for ’practical extraction and reporting language’ … or perhaps ’pathetically eclectic rubbish lister’, the latter reflecting its use to manipulate text (‘garbage in, garbage out’ … ) 4.

Perl was (and remains) powerful because it’s a very flexible language. You can achieve the same goal in many different ways.

This flexibility is reflected in the perl motto: ’There’s more than one way to do it’, which is abbreviated to TMTOWTDI.

TMTOWTDI is a mouthful of alphabet spaghetti, so for convenience is pronounced Tim Toady … the title of today’s post.

Why?

Because exactly the same acronym could be applied to lots of things in beekeeping.

Ask three beekeepers, get five answers

But one of the five is wrong because it involves ’brood and a half’.

Anyone who has attended an association meeting and naively asked a simple question will understand the title of this section.

’How do I … [insert routine beekeeping problem here] … ?’

The old and the wise, or perhaps the old or the wise, will recommend a series of solutions. Some will offer more than one.

Each will be different.

Many recommendations will be perfectly workable.

A few might be impractical.

At least one will be just plain wrong.

How do I avoid brace comb?

Confusingly … despite all being proffered solutions to the one question you asked, many will appear contradictory.

Do you move the queen away (the nucleus method) or leave the queen on the same site (Pagden’s artificial swarm) for swarm control? How can they both work if you do such very different things?

Ask twelve beekeepers, get nineteen answers (ONE IN ALL CAPS)

Internet discussion forums (fora?) are exactly the same, but may be less polite. This is due to the absence of the calming influence of tea and homemade cake. At least one answer will include a snippy suggestion to ’use the search facility first’.

Another will be VERY VERY SHOUTY … the respondent either disagrees vehemently or has misplaced the CAPS LOCK key.

Actually, in many ways internet discussion forums are a lot worse … though not for the reasons you might expect.

It’s not because they’re populated with a lot of cantankerous ageing beekeepers and arriviste know-it-alls.

They’re not 5.

There are some hugely experienced and helpful beekeepers online, though they probably don’t answer first or most forcefully.

The internet is worse because the audience is bigger and is spread over a wider geographic area. This is a problem as beekeeping is effectively a local activity.

If you ask at a local association meeting there will be a smaller ‘audience’ and they should at least all have some experience of the particular conditions in your area.

Včelařské fórum … and something you won’t see on the BKF … a whole sub-forum on subsidies

But if you ask on Beesource, Včelařské fórum or the Beekeeping & Apiculture forum the answers may literally be from anywhere 6. The advice you receive, whilst possibly valid, is likely to be most relevant where the responder lives … unless you’re lucky.

On one of the forums I irregularly frequent many contributors have their latitude and longitude coordinates (and sometimes plant hardiness zones) embedded in their .sig.

Geeky perhaps, but eminently sensible … 7

Tim Toady beekeeping

Let’s consider a few of examples of Tim Toady beekeeping. I could have chosen almost any aspect of our hobby here, but I’ll stick with three that are all related to the position or fate of the queen.

Queen introduction

Perhaps this was a bad option to choose first. Queen introduction isn’t only about how you physically get the new queen safely into the hive e.g. in some form of temporary cage. It’s also about the state of the hive.

Is it queenless? How long has it been queenless and/or is there emerging brood present? Is the brood from the previous queen or from laying workers? Is it a full hive or a nuc … or mini-nuc?

Successful introduction ...

Successful introduction …

And it’s about the state of the new queen.

Is she mated and laying, or is she a virgin? Perhaps she’s still in the queen cell? Is the queen the same (or a similar) strain to the hive being requeened? Is she in a cage of some sort? Are there attendants in the cage with her?

And all that’s before you consider whether it’s ‘better’ to use a push-in cage, a JzBz (or similar) cage or to omit the cage and just rely upon billowing clouds of acrid smelling smoke.

Uniting colonies

This blog is nothing if not ’bleeding-edge’ topical … now is the time to consider uniting understrength colonies, or those headed by very aged queens that may fail overwinter.

Uniting two weak colonies will not make a strong colony. However, uniting a strong with a weak colony will strengthen the former and possibly save the latter from potential winter loss (after you’ve paid for and applied the miticides and winter feed … D’oh!). You can always split off a nuc again in the spring.

All the above assumes that both colonies are healthy.

There are fewer ways of uniting colonies than queen introduction, and far fewer than the plethora of swarm control methods.

This is perhaps unsurprising as there are fewer component parts … hive A and hive B, with the eventual product being A/B.

Or perhaps B/A?

United we stand …

But which queen do you keep? 8

And does the queenright hive go on top or underneath?

And how do you prevent the bees from fighting, but instead allow them to mingle gently?

Or do you simply spray them with a few squirts of Sea breeze air freshener, slap the boxes together and be done with it?

Swarm control

If you find queen cells in your colony – assuming they haven’t swarmed already – then you need to take action or the colony will possibly/probably/almost certainly/indubitably 9 swarm.

The primary goals of swarm control are to retain the workforce – the foragers – and the queen.

There are a lot of swarm control methods. Many of the effective ones involve the separation of the queen and hive bees (those yet to go on orientation flights) from the foragers and brood. Some of these methods use unique equipment and most require additional boxes or split boards.

Split board

Split board …

But there are other ways to achieve the same overall goals, for example the Demaree method which keeps the entire workforce together by using a queen excluder and some well-timed colony manipulations.

No landing boards here ...

confused.com

And then there are the 214 individual door opening/closing operations over a 3 week period (assuming the moon is at or near perigee) needed when you use a Snelgrove board 10.

Like any recommendation to use brood and a half … my advice is ‘just say no’.

Just because Tim Toady

… doesn’t mean you have to actually do things a different way each time.

The problem with asking a group – like your local association or the interwebs – a question is that you will get multiple answers. These can be contradictory, and hence confusing to the tyro beekeeper.

Far better to ask one person whose opinion you respect and trust.

Like your mentor.

You still may get multiple answers 😉 … but you will get fewer answers and they should be accompanied with additional justification or explanation of the pros and cons of the various solutions suggested.

This really helps understand which solution to apply.

Irrespective of the number of answers you receive I think some of the most important skills in beekeeping involve:

  • understanding why a particular solution should work. This requires an understanding of the nitty gritty of the process. What are you trying to achieve by turning a hive 180° one week after a vertical split? Why should Apivar strips be repositioned half way through the treatment period?
  • choosing one solution and get really good at using it. Understand the limitations of the method you’ve chosen. When does it work well? When is it unsuitable? What are the drawbacks?

This might will take some time.

More hives, less time

If you’ve only got one colony you’ll probably only get one chance per year to apply – and eventually master – a swarm control method.

With more colonies it is much easier to quickly acquire this practical understanding.

Lots of learning opportunities here

Then, once you have mastered a particular approach you can decide whether the limitations outweigh the advantages and consider alternatives if needed.

This should be an informed evolution of your beekeeping methods.

What you should not do is use a different method every year as – unless you have a lot of colonies – you never get sufficient experience to understand its foibles and the wrinkles needed to ensure the method works.

Informed evolution

If you consider the three beekeeping techniques I mentioned earlier – queen introduction, uniting colonies and swarm control – my chosen approach to two of them is broadly similar to when I started.

However, as indicated above, there are still lots of subtle variations that could be applied.

With both queen introduction and uniting colonies I’ve more or less standardised on one particular way of doing each of them. By standardising there’s less room for error … at least, that’s the theory. I now what I’m doing and I know what to expect.

In contrast, I’ve used a range of swarm control methods over the years. After a guesstimated 250+ ‘hive years’ I now almost exclusively 11 use one method that I’ve found to be extremely reliable and fits with the equipment and time I have available.

It’s not perfect but – like the methods I use for queen introduction and uniting colonies – it is absolutely dependable.

I think that’s the goal of learning one method well and only abandoning it when it’s clear there are better ways of achieving your goal. By using a method you understand and consider is absolutely dependable you will have confidence that it will work.

You also know when it will work by, and so can meaningfully plan what happens next in the season.

So, what are the variants of the methods I find absolutely dependable?

Queen introduction

99% of my adult queens – whether virgin or mated – are introduced in JzBz cages. I hang the queen (only, no attendants) in a capped JzBz cage in the hive for 24 hours and then check to see if the queenless (!) colony is acting aggressively to her.

If they are not I remove the cap and plug the neck of the cage with fondant. The bees soon eat through this and release the queen.

Checking for aggression

I used to add fondant when initially caging the queen but have had one or two queens get gummed up in the stuff (which absorbs moisture from the hive). I now prefer to add it after removing the cap. The queen needs somewhere ‘unreachable’ in the cage to hide if the colony are aggressive to her.

It’s very rare I use an alternative to this method. If I do it’s to use a Nicot pin on cage where I trap the queen over a frame of emerging brood 12.

Nicot queen introduction cages

I use this method for real problem colonies … ones that have killed a queen introduced using the JzBz cage or that may contain laying workers.

Doing the latter is a pretty futile exercise at the best of times 🙁 .

Uniting colonies

Almost all colonies are united over newspaper. A sheet to two of an unstapled newspaper is easy to carry and uniting like this is almost always successful.

The brood box being moved goes on top. I want bees from the moved box to realise things have changed as they work their way down to the hive entrance. That way they’re more likely to not get lost when returning.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive … uniting colonies in midsummer

I don’t care whether the queen is in the upper or lower box and, if there’s any doubt that one of the colonies isn’t queenless, I use a queen excluder over the newspaper. I then check the boxes one week later for eggs.

I’m not absolutely certain one of the colonies is queenless

At times I’ve used a can of air freshener and no newspaper. This has worked well, but it’s one more bulky thing to carry. I also prefer not to expose my bees to the chemical cocktail masquerading as Sea breeze, Summer meadow or Stale socks.

Since uniting doesn’t necessitate a timed return visit there’s little to be gained from seeking alternatives to newspaper in my view. Perhaps if I lived in a really windy location I’d have a different opinion … placing the newspaper over the brood box can be problematic in anything more than a moderate breeze 13.

Swarm control

Like many (most?) beekeepers I started off using the classic Pagden’s artificial swarm. However, I quickly ran out of equipment as my colony numbers increased – you need two of everything including space on suitably located hive stands.

I switched to vertical splits. These are in essence a vertical Pagden’s artificial swarm, but require only one roof and stand. If you plan to merge the colonies again i.e. you don’t want to ’make increase’, vertical splits are very convenient. However, they can involve a lot of lifting if there are supers on the colony.

Vertical split

Vertical split – day 7 …

Now I almost exclusively use the nucleus method of swarm control. Used reactively (i.e. after queen cells are seen) it’s almost totally foolproof. Used proactively (i.e. before queen cells are produced) also works well. In both cases the timing of a return visit to reduce queen cells is important, and you need to use good judgement in deciding how strong to make the nuc.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The nucleus method has a couple of disadvantages for my beekeeping. However, its ease of application and success rate more than make up for these shortfalls.

Tim Toady is ‘a good thing’

I love the flexibility of perl for programming. I can write one-liners to do a quick and dirty file conversion. Alternatively I can craft hundreds of lines of well-documented code that is readable, easy to maintain and robust.

Others, in the very best tradition of Tim Toady, might write programs to do exactly the same things but in a completely different way.

The flexibility to tackle a task – the three used above for example, or miticide treatment, queen rearing, uncapping frames or any of the hundreds of individual tasks involved in beekeeping – in different ways provides opportunities to choose an approach that fits with your diary, manual dexterity, available equipment, preferences, ethics or environment.

In this regard it’s ‘a good thing’.

Choice and flexibility are beneficial. They make things interesting and, for the observant beekeeper, they provide ample new opportunities for learning.

… and a distraction

However, this flexibility can also be a distraction, particularly for beginners.

That is why I emphasised the need to learn the intricacies of the method you choose by understanding the underlying mechanism, and the subtleties needed to get it to work absolutely dependably.

Don’t just try something once and then do something totally different the next year 14. Use the method for several years running (assuming it’s an annual event in the beekeeping calendar), or at least on a lot of different colonies.

Choose a widely used and well-documented method in the first place 15. Read about it, understand it and apply it. Tweak it until it either works exactly as you want it to i.e. reliably, efficiently, quickly or whatever, or choose a different widely used and well-documented method and start over again.

Get really competent at the methods you choose.

Once your beekeeping is built upon a range of absolutely dependable methods you have the foundations to be a little bit more expansive.

You can then indulge yourself.

Explore the options offered by Tim Toady.

Things might fail, but you always have a fallback that you know works.


Note

The Apiarist is moving to an upgraded server in the next few days, If the site is temporarily offline then I’ve either pressed the wrong button, or the site will be back in a few minutes … please try again 😉

Queen rearing miscellany

Synopsis : Queen cell selection by the beekeeper or the bees – which is more reliable? Nectar collection  and comb building by requeening colonies. Three miscellaneous queen rearing topics this week.

Introduction

May to July are the busiest months of the beekeeping season for queen rearing 1. We’re fast approaching the halfway point so I thought I’d write about some related topics, rather than rehash previously covered areas, or pen a magnum opus on just one subject.

This forces me to be a bit less expansive. It means you can skip over less intervening text in the (vain?) hope of finding something of interest … 😉

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Here’s one I made earlier …

It also means I should deal with things in less detail.

Alas – I’m writing this introduction after completing the majority of the post – I’ve failed and wrote a lot more than originally intended on the first topic so the miscellany will spill over to next week as well 🙁 .

A loyal listener reader asks …

Fans of Tim Harford’s incomparable More or Less will be familiar with the concept of loyal listeners 2. Since this isn’t a podcast 3 listeners is clearly inappropriate.

Unfortunately, I’ve singularly failed to come up with a synonym for loyal starting with an ‘R’, so losing the all-important alliteration with ‘readers’.

Never mind … let’s get back on topic.

One of the pleasures of writing regularly – other than forever playing catch-up with my bloated email inbox 4 – is corresponding with beekeepers around the country 5. Sometimes this is in the comments section, but it also involves a considerable volume of email … including many questions or requests for help.

As I’ve previously mentioned, sometimes these exchanges are short and sweet.

Q. What’s the recipe for thin syrup?

A. D’oh! 6

In these instances that might be the only correspondence 7 but in other cases there’s a bit of to and fro.

Regular readers 8 will recognise some names repeatedly appearing in the comment sections. Many of the questions asked are interesting and some are challenging 9, forcing me to do some thinking and/or reading.

A few allow me to expand further on a topic that I’ve covered, explaining something I either ‘meant to, but ran out of space/time/caffeine’ … or ‘completely forgot’.

And Maccon Keane, a regular reader 😉 from the West of Ireland asked just such a question in the comments to the post last week about beekeeper vs. worker selection of queen cells.

Does beekeeper selection of emergency cells reduce quality?

Here’s the question in full:

Thank you for a really interesting post. My question is this. Using the nucleus method of swarm control by queen removal and induction of the emergency response the beekeeper has to select a queen cell to head the original colony. From these data there is a one in 20 chance (5%) that the chosen cell will not emerge. This is a problem but low risk. However there is a one in two (50%) chance that the beekeeper will select a cell that the bees would have torn down and therefore actively select a lesser quality queen. For an individual colony this may not be particularly significant but over a few generations this negative selective pressure (50%) against the best quality Queens will rapidly lead to a deterioration in stock compared to that which would have happened had the queen been chosen by the bees themselves. Can you think of any way to avoid introducing this systematic negative selection pressure to ensure we let the bees choose the queen because as you title the piece ‘the bees know best’?

This is something I’d thought about, but I’d run out of space to discuss it.

Let’s agree from the outset that the 5% non-emergence rate is an acceptable failure rate. It will be compounded by a small percentage of queens that fail to mate 10.

The beekeeper can’t do very much about either of these.

But what about the beekeeper having a 50:50 chance of selecting a queen cell that the bees would have torn down?

Will this lead to a deterioration of the quality of the bees over time?

It’s an interesting question.

Why do the workers cull about 50% of developing queens?

If you remember, 50% of emergency cells were torn down and these generally contained lighter and smaller queens.

I suggested, or hinted strongly, at three reasons why the bees might favour large queens 11 :

  • higher fecundity i.e. laying more eggs and/or laying over a longer period
  • increased polyandry (and hence colony fitness)
  • more likely to survive fights with ‘sister’ queens during polygyny reduction

Fecundity

The researchers addressed this by counting the ovarioles and the volume of the spermatheca. There were no differences between the chosen queens or those that would have been culled. This suggests, though it’s not definitive, that all should have been equally fecund (assuming similar numbers of matings etc.).

You could probably measure this (with sufficient energy, time and money) but it’s not a trivial thing to determine 12. I think the similarity in the number of ovarioles and the capacity of the spermatheca is compelling enough 13.

My assumption is that all, or at least the majority, of queens would be sufficiently fecund to successfully head a colony.

There’s a recent paper on genetic and phenotypic variability of queens that might be useful here, but I’ve not had time to read it properly. If and when I do – if relevant – I’ll update things.

Increased polyandry

I suggested that larger, heavier, queens might fly more strongly, and so spend longer in drone congregation areas or visit more DCAs … and thereby mate with more drones. David Tarpy hints at this in one of the papers cited last week (quoting unpublished results.).

However, I don’t think the work was ever published in a peer reviewed paper as I’ve been unable to find it.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong 14. Again, it would be a time consuming thing to determine. Queen mating numbers are quite variable so there would have to be a very large number of repeats to get statistically compelling results, but it is doable given sufficient time, money and energy.

Of course, larger/heavier queens might fly less strongly. This hasn’t been tested.

Polygyny reduction

I think this trait is essentially irrelevant in the context of our beekeeping.

By definition we cull all but one developing queen, so the one that is selected should never have to fight another queen. However workers may select for this – perhaps to avoid the risk of two queens fighting and both being damaged/killed – but if they do we can safely ignore it.

Are these ‘lower quality’ queens quantifiably worse for beekeeping?

So, of the three potential differences suggested I’d argue we can rule the last out as being irrelevant (for managed colonies), and we can perhaps safely assume that fecundity will be sufficient (assuming the queen mates with enough drones).

Increased polyandry remains an open question.

So, one possibility is that any queen cell should result in a queen that will be good enough, assuming the queen emerges and mates successfully.

A second possibility is that any differences between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ quality queens – selected from a single colony – are so minor that they have little or no material effect on our beekeeping.

Similar, but not quite the same thing.

It’s worth noting that the only size characteristics (measured) that differed were weight and either thorax length or width. Other dimensions e.g. wing length, were similar.

Is there other evidence to suggest that differences are likely to be minor (with regard to beekeeping)?

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

In support of this I’d suggest that grafting day-old larvae would not be so universally (successfully) practised if it routinely generated sub-standard queens.

It doesn’t.

When you graft you’re making the selection after less than 24 hours of larval development. The majority of larvae that develop fully, emerge and mate, make perfectly acceptable queens.

But, from a beekeeping perspective, good quality queens are often defined using alternative criteria.

In fact my definition of a good quality queen might well be different from one that the bees would ‘choose’ … or, for that matter, that Maccon would favour.

Selection of good quality stock

And this is where I think selection does have a big influence.

The traits I favour in my bees – steady on the comb, good temper, no following, frugality etc.vary between my colonies.

I score these traits and preferentially rear queens from the colonies that I consider are my ’best’.

I do this by thirds:

  • My ‘worst’ third are always requeened – as soon as is practical – with queens from larvae from my ‘best’ third.
  • I similarly requeen my ‘middle’ third with similarly-sourced queens if I have enough spare, but am happy to requeen the ‘middle’ third from the ‘middle’ third (so to speak).
  • The ‘worst’ third are never used for queen rearing (or allowed to rear queens from their own larvae). The ‘worst’ third are also discouraged from rearing drones.

If the ‘worst’ third need swarm control I allow them to rear emergency cells, knock them all back a week later – leaving them hopelessly queenless – and then add a frame of eggs/larvae from a better colony.

It’s a guaranteed way to easily improve the quality of your bees.

Which I think pretty much brings me to the end of my answer to Maccon’s question.

In summary … I suspect the difference between queens culled or not by the workers is either irrelevant for our beekeeping, so minor as to be unmeasurable, or swamped by other variables in the mating biology of honey bees (e.g. number of drones available, age of those drones and consequent sperm viability).

Over millennia many factors have resulted in the evolution of the worker selection of developing queens, but over a few ‘honey bee generations’ of managed beekeeping I think we can safely ignore them.

Furthermore, in my opinion, the importance of using a good quality colony as the source of larvae for queen rearing far outweighs the inherent variation in the queens reared from any one colony.

It’s a bit like computing … rubbish in, rubbish out.

Queenless colonies – honey and comb

To close this post on miscellaneous items about queen rearing I thought I’d end with an anecdote and an observation.

The former is supported by little more than my dodgy memory and the latter is backed up by some real science 🙂 .

Foraging efficiency and queenlessness

In Fife the spring honey supers are ready for recovery and extraction. I collected the first batch on Monday and have more to get in a couple of days.

The peak nectar flow seems to have been in the last fortnight of May. Much of it is oil seed rape.

Soon ...

Oil seed rape

Inevitably, some of the colonies have already had swarm control applied before the peak of the nectar flow. All of my swarm control this year has been using the nucleus method.

At the first sign of swarm preparation (queen cells, either sealed or charged) I make up a nuc with the old queen, destroy any sealed queen cells and leave one charged cell. I return a week later and knock back all but the one selected cell (which is now sealed). The queen subsequently emerges, mates and starts laying.

This means that several colonies have been queenless throughout the peak nectar flow.

All of these colonies have more and/or heavier supers 🙂 .

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

The queenless colonies seem to have doubled-down on nectar collection and done particularly well this season.

I’ve noticed this before, but it’s really obvious this spring.

My increasingly foggy memory has a dim recollection of beekeepers in the ‘olden days’ removing queens during the nectar flow precisely because they were more productive. I can’t remember when or where I heard/read/imagined this.

Hold on, not so fast

Are they collecting more or just using less because there is no brood to feed? Remember, 8-9 days after applying swarm control, there will be no larvae to feed as all eggs will have developed into sealed brood.

I could do the maths 15 but there’s a bunch of assumptions to make about the amount of unsealed brood when the queen was removed etc.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a queenless colony stores more nectar because the foragers forage more and because there are fewer hungry mouths to feed in the colony.

Perfect … I’ve got a plan for next season.

I’ll preemptively remove the queens 8-9 days before the main flow and buy 20,000 labels and 6 tons of jars in preparation for a bumper honey crop 16.

But, wait a minute … which are the colonies that usually first start swarm preparations?

That’s right … the strongest colonies.

These are the colonies already filling a double brood box, or overflowing a single brood box.

Perhaps they collect more nectar for the simple reason that there are more foragers?

That’s not the impression I have when I compare the performance of what appear to be equally strong colonies with or without queens. However, ’appear’ is a bit of a loose definition and to be sure I’d need to count frames of brood and the number of foragers.

But it’s an interesting thing to think about 17.

Drawing comb

Another thing I noticed is that queenless colonies provided with foundationless frames continued to draw fresh comb. Clearly they don’t need to have eggs or larvae to occupy the new comb to stimulate comb building.

But the vast majority of the comb drawn was drone comb.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone … this frame drawn in a queenright colony

Which, in a roundabout way, led me to this interesting paper:

Smith, M.L. (2018), Queenless honey bees build infrastructure for direct reproduction until their new queen proves her worth. Evolution, 72: 2810-2817.

Michael Smith dequeened colonies and investigated whether they built drone or worker comb. The colonies were provided with frames but no foundation (which would otherwise determine the type of comb drawn).

Comb building in queenless and queenright colonies.

His dequeened colonies built less comb than those with laying queens (A, above), but over 80% of the comb they did build was drone comb (D, above).

Furthermore, they built drone comb even if the colony already contained 25% drawn drone comb (an amount that usually inhibits further drone comb production in a queenright colony).

Finally, he demonstrated that drawing new drone comb only stopped when the colonies contained a new laying queen.

The terminal investment hypothesis

Why should a colony that was queenless or that contained a virgin queen (or for that matter a mated but not laying queen) produce drone comb?

The argument goes something like this.

A colony that is hopelessly queenless can only pass its genes to subsequent generations if it produces laying workers – which lay unfertilised eggs – which consequently develop into drones that mate with virgin queens from other colonies.

The terminal investment hypothesis predicts that the reproductive investment of an individual will change depending upon their reproductive prospects.

Essentially – until there is a laying queen present – the workers pessimistically invest in (i.e. build) drone comb as it offers the only chance of reproductive success should the queen fail to start laying.

Once the queen starts laying they start drawing worker comb again.

As Michael Smith neatly puts it ’When faced with reproductive uncertainty, honey bees may “hope” for the best, but they prepare for the worst’.

And what are the chances of ‘the worst’ happening?

’The worst’ being the failure to replace the queen.

Conveniently Michael Smith also measured the probabilities of successful completion of each of the stages in rearing a replacement queen.

Schematic of the process of rearing a replacement queen, with probabilities of each outcome.

In his studies 98% of queens emerged from the capped cell 18, 95% of virgins returned from mating flights and 95% of those returnees were successfully mated.

0.98 x 0.95 x 0.95 = 0.88 i.e. a queenless colony has an 88% chance of successfully requeening itself, assuming it has eggs/larvae suitable for rearing a new queen.

And the relevance of any of this to practical beekeeping?

  1. Have confidence during swarm control that the bees will predominantly rear good quality queens (so it doesn’t matter which you choose to keep), if …
  2. they are good quality bees. And if they’re not then provide them with eggs/larvae from a better colony. You can easily remove deleterious traits and promote good ones. And, if you’ve not got enough (or good enough) colonies to choose from either a) get more 😉 , or b) ’phone a friend’ and scrounge some suitable eggs/larvae.
  3. Monitor nectar collection by queenright and queenless colonies. Is it different? Many novice beekeepers fret when their colonies are queenless. Maybe at certain times there are benefits 🙂 .
  4. If you want worker comb, don’t provide queenless colonies with foundationless frames.
  5. You should assume ~90% of your virgin queens (0.95 x 0.95) will mate successfully and start laying. Always graft a few more larvae than you actually need.

 

Eats, sleeps, bees

Synopsis : The beekeeping season is starting to get busy. Swarm control is not only essential to keep your hives productive, but also offers easy opportunities to improve the quality of your bees. Good records and a choice of bees is all you need. This week I discuss stock improvement together with a few semi-random thoughts on honey labelling, colony behaviour and wax foundation. Something for everyone. Perhaps.

Introduction

May is usually a lovely month in Scotland. It is often dry and sunny enough to spend much of the time outdoors, the days are long enough 1 to get a lot done and it’s early enough in the year to avoid the dreaded midges 2.

Usually and often.

Unfortunately, the weather so far this month has been unseasonably cool. It was probably better for much of March than it’s been for the first half of May.

But that good weather in March gave the bees a real boost – particularly in my apiaries on the east coast of Scotland.

Consequently, there’s still a lot of beekeeping to do now – swarm control, preparations for queen rearing, catching up with all the things I didn’t do in the winter ( 🙁 ) – often in between some rather iffy weather 3.

The next couple of months are usually pretty much full on … hence Eats, sleeps, bees 4.

Latitude …

The differences I discussed in Latitude and longitude a month ago are particularly marked now.

Beekeepers in Sussex or Kent have been complaining about running out of supers since mid-April. Other have been proudly displaying their first (or second) round of grafted queen cells.

In contrast, a few of my west coast colonies are still only on 6-7 frames of brood. It will be at least another fortnight until I even think about whether they’ll need swarm control.

Which might be a fortnight before they’ll actually need it.

These are perfectly healthy west coast native bees, adapted to the climate and forage available here.

The wonderful west coast of Scotland

They are classic late developers, evolution having timed colony expansion to fit with the local forage and the availability of weather good enough for queen mating.

There’s insufficient forage to produce oodles of brood in late April and many colonies have yet to produce any mature drones (though they all now have drone brood). Instead, they build up rather slowly, and are probably at the peak in July when the heather starts to yield.

This is all reasonably new to me and I feel I’m still learning how the season develops here on the west coast. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.

Eventually 😉

Going by the rate colonies are currently building up, and their performance last year, I expect to be rearing queens from these colonies in June and early July 5.

… and longitude

Meanwhile, in Fife things are progressing much faster.

My apiaries there are about 160 miles east and at a similar latitude, but most of the colonies are already overflowing their boxes. Swarm prevention is a distant memory and I’m now busy with swarm control.

The genetics are different. My east coast bees are all local mongrels, again adapted to local conditions.

However, I suspect an even greater difference is the early season forage and – although it’ll be finished in the next week or so – the oil seed rape (OSR).

Oil seed rape … and rain

The OSR gives colonies a massive boost. They gorge on it – both the nectar and pollen – quickly filling supers and a multitude of hungry larval mouths. Reasonably strong nucs made up for swarm control on the 1st of May are now in a full brood box and will be more than ready for the summer nectar flow when it starts.

Queen rearing would have started already if the two boxes I’d earmarked for cell raising hadn’t become a little overcooked and produced queen cells at the beginning of the month 🙁 .

The best laid plans etc. 6.

And, to add insult to injury, the (lovely quality) colony I’d intended to source larvae from produced queen cells the following week.

D’oh!

Quality control

One of the (nominal) cell raising colonies – we’ll call it colony #6 for convenience 7 was borderline in terms of temperament.

On a balmy afternoon, with a good nectar flow, the bees were calm, unflustered and a pleasure to handle.

However in cool, damp or blustery weather they weren’t so great.

This is one of the reasons that record keeping is so important. Although I’d not inspected them this season in very poor conditions 8, my records from last year also showed they were, shall we say, ’suboptimal’. Not psychotic or even hugely aggressive, but certainly hotter than I’d prefer and nothing like as stable on the comb as I like 9.

Of course, the simple answer is not to go burrowing through the box in cool, damp or blustery weather’ 🙂

However, I don’t always have a choice as these bees are 160 miles away. Met Office forecasts are good for tomorrow, questionable for next week and essentially guesswork for next month (which is when I’m booking the hotels).

So, having realised that both swarm control and quality control were needed, how have I tried to improve the quality of this colony?

Controlling quality

I discovered open, charged queen cells in colony #6 on the 1st of May. Without intervention the colony would have swarmed before the end of the first week of the month 10. The queen was clipped but, as I hope I made clear last week, queen clipping does not stop swarming.

Swarm control

I used my preferred swarm control method by making up a nuc with the old queen and a couple of frames of emerging brood with the adhering bees. I put these, together with a frame of stores and a couple of new frames into a nuc box and moved them to an out apiary several miles away.

By moving the nuc away I don’t have to worry about losing bees back to the original hive. I can therefore make the nuc up a little weaker than I would otherwise need to. An out apiary (or two) isn’t essential, but it makes some tasks a lot easier.

I then went carefully through colony #6, shaking all the bees off each frame and destroying every queen cell. There were still eggs and young larvae present, so they would undoubtedly make more queen cells before my visit a week later. However, by shaking every frame and being rigorous about destroying every queen cell I ensured:

  • there would be a bit less work to do the following week
  • I’d not missed a more mature cell somewhere that could have left a virgin queen running about at my next visit. This was unlikely, based upon the timing of brood development, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Colony #6 is in a double brood box. While ransacking the brood nest for queen cells I also hoiked out a frame of drone brood and cut out yet more drone brood from a foundationless frame or two. Since the genetics of this colony was questionable it made sense to try and stop these undesirable genes being spread far and wide.

At the same time I rearranged the frames, moving all the unsealed brood into the top box.

One week later

Early on the morning of the 8th of May I checked the colony again. As expected there were more queen cells reared from eggs and larvae I’d left the week before.

The vast majority of these queen cells were in the top box, but – since I’m a belt and braces beekeeper – I checked the bottom box as well. Again, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

All of the queen cells were again destroyed.

Tough love … but if you want to improve the quality of your bees you have to exclude those with undesirable characteristics.

Importantly, by now the youngest larvae in the colony would be at least four days old. This is really too old – at least given the choice (and I was going to give them a choice) – to rear a new queen from.

Room for one more …

I rearranged the frames, leaving a gap in the middle of the top box, closed colony #6 up and completed my inspection of the other colonies in the apiary.

The last colony I checked was my chosen ‘donor’ colony with desirable genetics.

More swarm control 🙂 and a few days saved

The donor colony (#7) had started queen cells sometime during the first week of May and so also needed swarm control. However, very conveniently it had produced two nice looking cells on separate frames.

Both these queen cells were 3-4 days old and so would be capped in the next 24-48 hours.

A three and a bit day old queen cell

I could therefore use my standard nucleus swarm control (to ‘save’ the queen ‘just in case’), leaving one queen cell in colony #7 and donating the other queen cell to colony #6.

Which is exactly what I did.

Having gently brushed off the adhering bees from the frame (you should never vigorously shake a frame containing a queen cell you want 11 ) I gently slotted it into the gap I’d left in the upper brood box of colony #6. I also marked the frame to make my subsequent check (on the 15th) easier.

The frame marked QC is the only one that needs to be checked next week

By adding a well developed, but unsealed, queen cell to colony #6 I’ve saved the few days they would have taken to rear a queen from an egg or a day old larva.

Because the cell was open I was certain it was ‘charged’ i.e. it contained a fat larva sitting contentedly in a deep bed of Royal Jelly 12.

Better to be safe than sorry (again)

There were also eggs and a few larvae on the frame containing the queen cell (which was otherwise largely filled with sealed brood). It was likely that some of these would also be selected to rear new queens.

And they were when I checked on the 15th.

There was my chosen – and now nicely sculpted and sealed – cell and a few less well developed cells on the donated frame.

I know the cell I selected was charged and the larva well nourished.

In addition, I also had total confidence that the bees had selected a suitable larva to raise as a queen in the first place. After all, the survival of the resulting colony depends on it.

Therefore, I didn’t need any backups.

No ’just in case’ cells.

Rather than risking multiple queens emerging and fighting, or the strong colony throwing casts, I (again) destroyed all but the cell I had originally selected.

I’m writing this on the 17th and she should have emerged today … so my records carry a note to check for a laying queen during my first inspection in June.

This shows how simple and easy stock improvement can be.

No grafting, no Nicot cages, no mini-nucs and almost no colony manipulations etc. Instead, just an appreciation of the timings and the availability of a frame from a good colony (and this could be from a friend who has lovely bees … ).

And in between all that

That was about 1400 words on requeening one colony 🙁 . That was not quite what I intended when I sat down to write a post entitled Eats, sleeps, bees.

My east coast beekeeping – including 8-9 hours driving – takes a couple of days a week at this time of the season. On the west coast I have fewer colonies and – as outlined above – they are less well advanced, so there’s a bit less to do 13.

However, there are always additional bee-related activities that appear to fill in the gaps between active colony inspections.

I’ll end this post with a few random and half thought out comments or questions on stuff that’s been entertaining or infuriating me in the last week or so.

In between the writing, inspections, Teams meetings, editing, reviewing and writing … 😉

Honey labelling

I use a simple black and white thermal printer – a Dymo LabelWriter 450 – to produce labels that don’t detract from (or obscure) the jar contents.

Dymo thermal label (and a jar of honey)

I’ve used these for over 6 years and been very happy with the:

  • cost of the labels (a few pence per jar)
  • flexibility of the system. I can change the best before date, the batch number or other details for each print run; whether it’s 1 or 1000.
  • ability to include QR codes containing embedded information, like a website address or details of the particular batch of honey.

However Dymo, in their never ending quest for more profits a ‘better consumer experience’ have recently upgraded their printers and label printing software 14.

The newest incarnation of the printer I use – now the Dymo LabelWriter 550 – only works with authentic Dymo labels.

A more accurate spelling of authentic is  e x p e n s i v e , at least if you only buy labels in small quantities (100’s, not 1000’s).

If you fancied adding a little square label on the cap of 100 jars claiming ”Delicious RAW honey” you’d not only be falling foul of the Honey Labelling Regulation, you’d also have to cough up £18 for a roll of labels.

Dymo labels are great quality. Smudge proof, easy to remove and sharp black on white. In bulk they are reasonably priced (~3p – the same cost as an anti-tamper label – if you buy >3000 at a time).

However, you can get similar labels for a third of the price … but they won’t be usable in the new printer.

The Dymo LabelWriter 450 has no such restrictions and is still available if you look around.

I’m tempted to buy a spare.

Colony to colony variation

I started this post with a discussion of variation due to latitude and longitude. However, individual colonies in a single location can also show variation (in addition to temperament, running, following etc.) that I don’t really understand.

I have three colonies in a row behind the house here on the west coast. I can see whether they are busy or not when I’m making coffee, doing the washing up or pottering in the work room (two of these activities are more common than the other 😉 ).

All in a row (though not the colonies referred to in the text as they’re camera shy)

And they are consistently different, despite being pretty similar in terms of colony strength and development.

One colony typically starts foraging before the others and another, probably the weakest of the three, forages later and in worse weather.

Early in the season these differences were so marked I thought that one of the colonies had died.

I assume – because a) I’ve not got the imagination to think of other reasons, b) it’s the justification I use for anything I don’t properly comprehend, and c) I’ve not done any experiments to actually test what else it could be – that this is due to genetics.

It’s only because I’m fortunate enough to look out on these colonies dozens of times a day that I’ve noticed these consistent behavioural differences. I suspect my other colonies show it, but that I’ve never looked carefully or frequently enough.

Attractive foundation

I’m busy making up nucs for swarm control and sale. Although many of the frames I use are foundationless I also use a lot with standard foundation. The frames are built (or should be built!) in the winter, but I add the foundation once the weather improves and there’s less risk of cracking the brittle sheets due to low temperatures.

I buy foundation once every season or so and carefully store it somewhere cool and flat. Some of these sheets are quite old by the time I get round to using them and they often develop a white powdery ‘bloom’ on their surface.

Before (bottom) and after (top) 30 minutes in the honey warming cabinet

I used to run a hairdryer over the frames containing these bloomed sheets. The warm air brings out the oils in the wax and makes they much more attractive to the bees. They smell great!

Frames in the honey warming cabinet (W = worker foundation, to distinguish them from D = drone)

These days I just stick a ‘box full’ of frames at a time into my honey warming cabinet set at about 40°C for 30 minutes. Not necessarily quicker, but a whole lot easier … so freeing up time to do something else related to bees 🙂


Note

Today is World Bee Day. The 20th of May was Anton Janša’s (1734-1773) birthday. He was a beekeeper – teaching beekeeping in the Hapsburg court in Vienna –  and painter from Carniola (now Slovenia). He promoted migratory beekeeping, painted his hives and invented a stackable hive. 

Timing is everything

Synopsis : The invariant timings of brood development dictate many beekeeping events including colony inspections, queen rearing and Varroa management. It makes sense to understand and exploit these timings, rather than ignore or fight against them.

Introduction

There are some inherent contradictions involving timing in beekeeping that can confuse beginners. Actually, they can confuse anyone – beginner or old lag 1 – who doesn’t appreciate the considerable flexibility of some of the timings and the near-total inflexibility of others.

I think that many of the inherent difficulties in beekeeping e.g. judging when to do what to the colony, comparing seasonal differences or deciding whether intervention is needed or ill advised, are due to a lack of appreciation of the relative importance of some of these timings.

I gave an overview of some of the ‘flexible timings’ a couple of weeks ago when discussing the year to year climatic variation that compounds differences caused by latitude.

The onset of brood rearing in midwinter, the crossover date 2, the start of swarming and the timings of the major and minor nectar flows can all vary from year to year.

To appreciate these you need to be observant, but predicting their impact can be tricky. Some are multi-factorial e.g. colony strength and development in a warm, dry spring can be different to a warm, wet spring.

I’ve probably written enough about some of these flexible events already so will instead focus on some of the ‘inflexible timings’ that dictate the activity of the colony and, by extension and through necessity, the activity of the beekeeper.

In many ways these are easier to understand.

By definition, they are invariable 3.

Less to remember … but remembering them is important 😉

The environment

Those ‘flexible timings’ I refer to above mainly reflect the year-to-year climatic variation – warm springs, Indian summers, hard winters.

In contrast, inside the hive the environment is remarkably stable.

It can vary from 4°C to 40°C outside – even on a single day – but the temperature in the brood nest is controlled within a narrow 33-36°C range.

Hives in the snow

Freezing outside, 34.5°C in the broodnest

In fact, in the very centre of the brood nest – the region where pupal development takes place – it is as near as makes no difference 34.5°C.

The workers thermoregulate the hive, heating the comb where needed 4 or evaporating water to cool the hive.

With hive monitoring equipment and suitably placed thermometers you can tell when a colony shifts into brood rearing mode in the spring – the varying temperature of the clustered bees increases and stabilises to a near-invariant 34 and a bit degrees Centigrade.

Brood rearing starts ...

Brood rearing starts – indicated by stabilisation of brood temperature (arnia.co.uk)

The image above is from Arnia who make hive monitoring equipment. The key phrase in the sentence above is ‘suitably placed thermometers’. You tend to have only one or two and they can’t be everywhere, so it’s easy to miss the onset of brood rearing.

Temperature, behaviour and neuroanatomy

Stable temperatures are important for brood development. Worker bees reared at 32°C are less good at waggle dance communication. They only complete about 20% of the circuits (less enthusiastic) and exhibit more variability in the duration of the waggle phase (the distance component) when compared to bees reared at higher temperatures within the ‘normal’ range 5.

In further studies, bees reared at abnormally low or high temperatures (though varying by only 1-2 °C from normal hive temperatures) exhibited differences in neuroanatomical development 6. Of the regions of the brain studied, the numbers of microglomeruli within the mushroom bodies of the brain, areas involved in memory and learning, differed significantly when the pupation temperature was as little as 1°C over or under 34.5°C.

Despite these behavioural and developmental differences, the emergence rate and the duration 7 of development are somewhat less influenced by brood nest temperature.

Influence of temperature on pupal brood development – duration (left axis) and emergence rate (right axis)

In the graph above the duration of pupal development is 10-11 days between 34.5°C and 37°C, and eclosion (emergence) rates exceed 90% from 31-36°C.

Correct development of honey bee workers therefore requires a stable brood nest temperature.

As a consequence of this stability the duration of the development cycle is highly reproducible and – more to the point – predictable.

Before discussing the development cycle it’s worth noting that queens and drones are reared under similarly stable conditions. I’ve discussed the influence of temperature on queen development before but am unaware of similar studies on drones.

The development of workers

The graph above shows the influence of temperature on the duration of pupal development. This is not the same as sealed brood development. 8. The 10-11 days shown above needs to be extended by 2 days (48 hours) when considering the more beekeeper-friendly concept of sealed or capped brood.

Under normal conditions worker development takes 21 days. Three days as an egg, five as an open larva and 13 capped 9.

During those 21 days bees go through a series of six molts between five developmental stages termed instars. The first molt is the egg hatching, molts 2-4 occur during the first few days of larval feeding. Molt 5 is the change from the pre-pupal capped larva to the pupa and the final molt occurs at emergence.

Once the brood is capped there’s nothing much the beekeeper needs to worry about (or can do). In contrast, the early days of worker development involve at least one notable event 10.

Young larvae and queen rearing

The worker larva is fed progressively, which essentially means almost all the time. Nurse bees visit the larva thousands of times, initially feeding a mix of secretions from the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. The diet is then switched to one lacking the mandibular gland component and is finally supplemented with pollen and honey.

This dietary switch takes place around day three of larval development and effectively seals the fate of the developing bee as a worker.

Before day three of larval development, larvae destined to be workers or queens receive the same diet. After day 3 a series of genetic switches are ‘pushed’ that prevent the larva developing into a queen.

This means that larvae of less than three days old are needed to produce new queens. A terminally queenless colony will sometimes attempt to rear a new queen from an older larva (if nothing else is available) but these are usually substandard – so called scrub queens – or fail.

The adult worker

After emergence the worker fulfils a number of roles for the colony; nurse bee, comb builder, guard, scout, forager etc. The precise timings of these are flexible. Not all bees of the same age have the same role, and they can even be reversed. However, as far as practical beekeeping is concerned 11, the only other timings that really matter are the longevity of workers; in the summer this is about 6 weeks and in the winter, 6 months.

The timings to remember – workers

The full development cycle takes 21 days. Larvae more than 3 days old 12 are unsuitable for queen rearing (and, as I shall discuss in a future post, better queens are produced from younger larvae). The adult worker spends the first half of her 6 week life within the hive, and the last 3 weeks as a forager. Winter bees live for many months.

The development of queens

The development cycle of the queen bee is shorter than that of the worker because their diet is much richer. Of course it’s not quite that straightforward (it wouldn’t be, would it?). Because of the diet there are a number of genetic pathways turned on or off in the developing queen that ensure she is ‘fit for purpose’ on emergence. The developing queen goes through the same number of molts and instars, but they are compressed in time.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell

The queen cell is sealed on the ninth day of development, the fifth day after hatching from the egg, and the queen emerges on the 16th day.

The adult queen

Relative to workers and drones the queen appears almost immortal. A queen may live for at least three years and, if well looked after, longer than that. Most of this aftercare is provided by the hive, but the beekeeper can influence things as well. High quality ‘breeder queens’ are often kept in nucs and discouraged from laying excessive amounts of brood. This prolongs their effective lifespan.

As far as timings are concerned – and assuming we’re not dealing with a $500 breeder queen – the only three things that are important relate to the mating of the queen.

After emergence the queen needs to reach sexual maturity before she can go on her mating flights, this takes 5-6 days. Once mated there is a further delay of 2-3 days before the queen starts laying. The final number to remember is that adult queens older than 26-33 days are too old to mate.

The timings to remember – queens

The full development cycle takes 16 days. The cell is capped on the 9th day after the egg was laid 13. Upon emergence, queens take 5-6 days before they are mature enough to mate. A mated queen starts laying 2-3 days after returning from her last mating flight. If they’re not mated within about 4 weeks of emergence then they’ve blown it.

Therefore, the minimum duration to go from newly laid egg to mated, laying queen is at least 23 days. Alternatively, assuming a 2-3 day old larva is available, this time period is reduced to about 18 days.

From emergence, it’s theoretically possible 14 to have a mated, laying queen within 8 days.

However, in my experience, queen mating usually takes longer than these minima … and always longer than I want. Other than confirming emergence I always leave a new queen a minimum of a fortnight before checking if she’s laying, and longer if the weather has been unsuitable for mating.

The development of drones

Like teenage boys getting up late and then doing nothing other than lounge around eating and thinking about sex 15, the drone takes the longest to emerge. The full development cycle from the laying of an unfertilised egg to emergence takes 24 days.

As before, the number of molts and instars are the same as undergone by queens and workers.

The adult drone

Like the queen, the drone needs to become sexually mature before going on a mating flight. This takes 10-12 days after emergence. The drone has a finite lifespan and usually lives no more than about a month during the summer.

Drones that successfully mate with a queen prematurely die. Those that don’t mate either die trying or are ejected from the hive by the workers at the end of the season.

It’s not unusual to hear beekeepers talk about finding drones overwintering. I’m not aware whether these are exceptionally long-lived drones laid by the queen the preceding summer/autumn, or laid by a failing queen during the winter, or even by laying workers in a queenless colony overwinter 16.

The timings to remember – drones

The full development cycle takes 24 days. It takes about five weeks between the appearance of the first eggs in drone cells and the presence of sexually mature drones in the hive.

Swarming cannot happen until there are drones in the area, so it’s worth keeping an eye of drone brood production.

Hive inspections and queen rearing

So, there you have it, just a few numbers to remember … and, more importantly, to understand their significance for beekeeping.

Unusually I’ve prepared an oversized figure to illustrate these timings 17 with colour-coding worker, queen and drone events in green, blue and red respectively.

Worker, drone and queen development and key post-emergence timings

Note that some timings have dual significance. Worker larvae no more than three days old (day 6 – in green) can be reared as queens with suitable feeding.

Hive inspections … and caveats

It should now be obvious why regular weekly hive inspections are recommended in the time leading up to and during the peak swarming period.

If there are no charged queen cells – those containing eggs or developing larvae – during an inspection then any that do develop in the seven days before the next inspection will still not be sealed (and therefore the colony will not have swarmed).

This assumes that the colony swarms on or after the day that the queen cell is sealed.

Sometimes – rarely – the swarm goes early, apparently leaving only uncapped swarm cells. When I’ve had this happen a thorough examination of the brood frames has sometimes turned up a sealed cell, tucked away against a sidebar, that I’d missed in the previous inspection … the colony had not swarmed early, I’d 18 not been observant enough.

With a well-populated colony it’s sometimes necessary to shake all the bees off each frame to be certain there are no queen cells lurking under the ruffled curtain of workers.

Not all queen cells are this obvious

Colonies containing clipped queens tend to delay swarming (but they certainly still swarm) and you can usually get away with a 10 day interval between inspections. Furthermore, since the clipped queen cannot fly, even if the colony does swarm they usually return and end up clustered underneath the OMF after she has crawled back up the leg of the hive stand.

Outside the main swarming period inspections can be much less frequent. I usually inspect only once or twice between mid-July and the end of the season.

Queen rearing

One of my (few) poorly tempered hives unexpectedly contained several 3+ day old queen cells last Sunday. I made up a nuc with the old queen, destroyed all the queen cells and closed up the hive.

They will produce more queen cells 19, but they cannot swarm as there’s no queen.

At my inspection this Sunday I will destroy all the new queen cells.

The genetics of this colony are (at best) ‘undesirable’ 🙁 

Since there’s been no laying queen in the hive for 7 days there cannot now be any larvae young enough to be reared as a new queen 20. Therefore, having destroyed all the queen cells, I’ll add a frame of eggs and larvae from a (well-behaved and so genetically desirable) neighbouring colony 21.

If they want a new queen 22 they will rear one from this donated frame.

The 23 egg in the graphic above is the earliest you can expect a laying queen. In reality – as explained above – it usually takes longer. A minimum of 30 days from egg to egg-producing queen is perhaps more dependable.

Therefore, in around 24 to 30 days – and most likely the latter – this colony will have a new queen which will hopefully improve their behaviour.

The timing of Varroa treatment(s)

But think about what’s happening to the rest of the brood in that colony.

The last eggs laid in the colony was on the Sunday the 1st of May. By the 21st of May all the worker brood will have completed development and emerged. By the 24th of May all the drones will have emerged.

The colony should therefore be broodless in the last week of May.

Even if the new queen is laying by then (some chance!) she won’t have produced any sealed brood.

If needed I could use this 7 day window of opportunity to treat the colony with oxalic acid and reduce the Varroa levels in the hive.

It’s unlikely I’ll need to as the mite numbers have been low this season. However, it’s very reassuring that I have the option should I need it 24.

Adding a Varroa board to check mite drop

But … hang on a moment.

Why did I write that the colony only should be broodless?

What about the eggs and larvae on the frame I added from the donor colony? 25

These will be up to one week younger than any brood in the queenless colony.

Potentially those young eggs and larvae will close that ’window of opportunity’.

Perhaps the easiest way around this is to excise one good sealed queen cell from the donated frame and leave it in queenless colony, and then remove the donated frame and use it elsewhere.

If the colony produces several good quality queen cells it’s likely that I’ll chop them all out and make up some nucs – queen rearing without all the graft.

Literally 😉

Conclusions

I’ve written far more than I intended but I think this reflects the importance of the – effectively invariant – timings of brood development.

These dictate so many of our beekeeping activities that it makes sense to learn to work with them, rather than forever struggling against them.

With good observation and regular colony inspections – weekly during the the main part of the season – there should be little or no chance of losing a swarm.

Furthermore, should a colony show signs of swarm preparation, timely intervention coupled with an appreciation of the timings of brood development, mean you have the opportunity to conduct both stock improvement and mite management.

Nice one 😉