Hard graft

Regular readers will have seen this image before …

Swarmy weather? I don’t think so …

… as I used it (with the same legend) towards the end of the post last week. 

I spoke too soon 🙁

The temperature on the 17th and 18th briefly reached 17.5°C … which was enough.

Grrrr …

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Good morning America Glenrothes

I’m fortunate to live in a stunningly beautiful and remote part of the country. I open the blinds in the morning to panoramic views of the Morvern hills across a narrow sea loch. There are no houses in direct sight and – even when it’s damp 1 – it’s an idyllic scene.

Good morning Morvern …

But although I live here, most of my bees still live in Fife, so I have a commute to look after them and stay in convenient 2 hotels.

Opening the curtains on these trips provides a somewhat less salubrious view.

Uninterrupted views of the Macdonald’s drive-in

But at least I don’t have to cook my own breakfast, which is but a short walk away 🙂

As you can see from the photo above, it’s been raining overnight.

To make these trips economically rational 3 it’s necessary to book them several weeks in advance.

Despite the use of supercomputers, the BBC’s medium to long-range weather forecasts seem little more than guesswork. It’s worth remembering that a weather forecast competition over several weeks was won by a team that predicted ‘tomorrow will be like today’ for the duration of the event 4.

And for beekeeping, there’s a significant difference between 12°C, light drizzle with strong winds and 13°C, intermittent sunshine and gentle breezes.

The latter makes opening hives a relatively straightforward proposition … careful and quick, but the bees will cope just fine.

In contrast, the former makes everything rather hard work.

And this morning we’ll graft delicate larvae no larger than a comma on a page …

And these are exactly the conditions that greeted me when I did my first round of grafting on the 10th of May.

The weather is probably the major problem of long distance beekeeping. You have to be prepared for anything.

Queenright cell raising – the Ben Harden system

I’ve discussed grafting and using the Ben Harden queenright cell raising system extensively before. 

My Ben Harden setup was in the bee shed.

As it turned out, this was a (disappointingly rare) stroke of genius.

A strong, double brood colony had been modified be the replacement of 7 frames in the upper box by two ‘fat dummies‘. These have the effect of concentrating the bees in the gap between them. 

In this space were two frames containing pollen, one frame of young larvae 5 and the cell bar frame, into which I would be grafting larvae.

Ben Harden setup and pollen patties

This box sits on top of a queen excluder, below which was a single brood box (containing the queen) literally overflowing with bees 6. Positively bulging at the seams.

Since I didn’t have frames with sufficient pollen in them I’d also supplemented the colony with pollen substitute (a pollen pattie) which they were happily devouring. 

The hive also had a couple of half-full supers. These contained lots of bees but rather disappointing amounts of nectar.

The queen providing the larvae was in a nuc box in the same apiary. I’d been feeding this colony syrup and pollen to ensure the young larvae were well fed 7.


The day for grafting dawned cool, grey and drizzly.

Great 🙁

I ended up doing the grafting in the passenger seat of the car, wearing a headtorch. I kept the larvae warm and humid using a damp piece of kitchen paper draped over those I’d already transferred from the comb to the plastic cups in the cell bar frame.

After gently inserting the cell bar frame into the space in the centre of the Ben Harden setup and filling the feeder in the fat dummy with syrup, I added a clearer board and then replaced the two supers.

The intention was to empty the supers into the cell rearing box, guaranteeing a huge number of bees would be there to help raise the queens.

Ben Harden cell raiser with clearer and supers

After another evening of junk food and a disappointingly similar breakfast I checked the grafts the next day for ‘acceptance’.

10/10 …

You do this by – ever so gently – lifting the cell bar frame from the centre of the Ben Harden setup and looking for a 5-6mm collar of fresh wax built around the lower lip of the Nicot cup into which the larvae have been grafted.

Amazingly, considering the dodgy conditions and the fact that this was my first attempt at grafting for a couple of years, all the larvae appeared to have been accepted 8. I didn’t brush any of the bees off and I certainly didn’t prod about in the densely packed bees on the frame … but things looked good.

So I closed the hive up and went off to inspect some other colonies in the rain before driving back to the west coast.

Coffee mishaps and colony inspections

I returned to the east coast about 8-9 days later to add the queen cells to nucleus colonies.

The ~150 mile journey didn’t go well. In mid-slurp the lid came off my mug, depositing a lap-full of lukewarm coffee over me. 

Never mind. The route I take goes through some ‘modesty-ensuring’ remote countryside. It was a five minute task to leave the trousers drying over the boxes of frames in the back of the car.

Since I had no spares I donned my beesuit and continued on the journey.

The weather improved as I drove east. I checked an apiary in mid-Fife where all was well and finally arrived at my main apiary in mid-afternoon.

It was a lovely day 🙂

So lovely one of the colonies had swarmed 🙁

There were actually two small swarms hanging about a metre apart in the willow trees I’d planted around the apiary 9

I didn’t really have time to think about the swarm … we needed a few hundred early stage drone pupae for work so went through the colonies to find these first.

These were quick ‘n’ dirty inspections … I checked every frame, but not every cell or every nook and crannie … 

  • brood in all stages?
  • eggs?
  • stores?
  • any charged queen cells?
  • temper, behaviour, stable on the comb?
  • anything weird or strange? 10
  • next please …

I didn’t check the hive I’d set up for queen rearing, or any of the nucs on site that contained virgin queens. However, all of the other colonies were queenright as determined by the presence of eggs and the absence of (obvious 11 ) queen cells.

Drone brood was either present in relative abundance – in the strong colonies – or notable by its absence. This should not be unexpected to those of you who read the post on drones last week.

To the tune of ‘Ten green bottles’ … all together now, ‘Ten capped queen cells hanging on a frame …’

And I still had 10 queen cells in the cell raising colony, all now capped and ready to use the following day 🙂

And the swarm?

The swarm (either of them if there were actually two) wasn’t really big enough to be a prime swarm. These contain a mated queen and ~75% of the workforce from the hive. None of the hives appeared short of bees and I’d found no (obvious 12 ) charged queen cells.

However, I’d not checked the queen rearing colony – packed full of bees and fed copious amounts of syrup – and one of the colonies on the site was very bad tempered 13.

Poor temper is often a sign of a queenless colony.

Anyway, back to the swarm.

I dropped each clump of bees into a separate nuc box containing a frame of drawn comb and a couple of additional frames. I left these in the shade until late afternoon when I’d finished with the other colonies.

Two into one do go

By late afternoon most of the swarm bees from one of the nuc boxes had abandoned it and joined the other nuc box. It was pretty clear that there was only one ‘swarm’ and that it had got separated when settling at the bivouac.

The bees were leaving the queenless box and joining the queenright one.

I checked the willow where the swarm was found. 

Small amounts of wax where a swarm settled

There were small amounts of wax deposited on the leaves and stem of the willow. I suspect that the swarm may therefore have been there overnight 14 but can’t be sure.

I ended the afternoon by putting the hived swarm on a hive stand in the apiary.

Before leaving I checked the bad tempered colony (which I was intending to split into nucs the following day).

During my fumblings I managed to get a few bees into my beesuit pocket 15.

The one with the hole in it from my razor-sharp hive tool.

That opened onto my leg.

Which was unprotected by trousers due to my fumblings with the coffee 9 hours earlier 🙁

Ouch 🙁

Getting nuked

The weather the following day started bright but rapidly degenerated.

That lot is about 10 minutes away … and approaching fast

By the time I’d got the nuc boxes prepared – feeders, frames, stores, dummy boards, entrance blocks, labels, straps – it was 11°C and there was rain quickly approaching from the west.

The first four nucs were prepared from the ‘bad tempered’ hive (#6). I decided it was wise to get this over and done with before the heaven’s opened.

Despite going through the box twice I failed to find a queen. Perhaps she went with the smallest prime swarm ever?

I divided the frames (by brood and bees, not number of frames) into four approximately equal nucs and added a queen cell to each. 

Here’s one I produced earlier … or helped produce

Each queen cell was removed from the cell bar frame, the adhering bees gently brushed off (with a handful of weeds) and pressed into a thumb-sized indentation in the comb, just underneath the top bar of the frame.

I then carefully pushed the frames together (avoiding crushing the cell) and closed the nuc box up.

As I opened the next hive to be split the rain started …

I should design a beesuit with an integrated sou’wester

… and the wind lessened, meaning the rain stayed.

And it rained for most of the afternoon.

Rain did not stop play

In the words of the late Magnus Magnusson “I’ve started, so I’ll finish”.

And it was miserable.

For the second time in two days I was soaked.

As those of you who have hunched over open hives in the rain will know, it’s your back, shoulders and hood that catch the worst of it.

This time my trousers stayed mostly dry … 

Nucs in the rain

The high point of the afternoon (and, let’s face it, the bar was pretty low) was the realisation that housing the cell raiser in the bee shed was an inspired choice.

When adding queen cells to nucs you either have to detach them in advance from the cell bar frame and keep them warm somewhere convenient, or collect them in turn.

Five gone, five to go … queen cells reared in a Ben Harden cell raiser

I had nowhere to keep them warm, so was returning to the Ben Harden setup to retrieve them one at a time. Since it was warm and dry in the shed I could leave the frame balanced (as shown above) still festooned with bees and fetch each cell as needed.

Had they been outside I would have had to stop.

It was difficult enough making up the nucs in the rain, one hand holding a frame, the other lifting the roofs on and off. 

It would have been impossible to juggle the cell raiser and cell bar frame as well.

But I eventually finished and moved half a dozen of the nucs to another apiary 16. I put the Varroa trays underneath 17, filled the feeders with syrup and opened the entrances a half inch or so to allow the bees to fly.

Half a dozen nucs, all in a row

And then I returned to the main apiary to tidy up.

And the swarm?

I still don’t know where the swarm came from 18.

I checked it between downpours. 

Despite opening the box very gently, with almost no smoke, the bees ‘balled’ the queen and killed her. I found her in the middle of a golf ball-sized clump of bees on the floor. 

Queen being ‘balled’ … it didn’t end well

After dislodging some of the bees with my fingers I found her, laying on her side, as dead as a dodo. You can just see her in the photo above., slightly below the middle of the image by the edge of the mesh.

Why did they do this?

I’ve inspected dozens of swarms the day after hiving them and don’t ever remember having this happen before.

Perhaps it was the poor weather? Maybe my ‘very gently’ wasn’t gentle enough?

The queen was unmarked and (obviously) unclipped.

To me, she looked like a virgin queen, rather than a slimmed down mated queen 19

There were two nucs in the apiary containing virgin queens. I didn’t inspect either, but a quick peek through the plastic crownboard showed both still appeared to contain bees. The size of the swarm, although small (as swarms go) looked much larger than the size of these nucs.

I’ll check again next week …

I added a queen cell to the swarm and set off for home.

Chasing the setting sun

It’s a beautiful commute, across Rannoch and through Glencoe, chasing the setting sun. 

And my trousers were finally dry 😉


I’ve already grossly exceeded my self-imposed word count this week. This is not meant as a practical guide to queen rearing 20. For those interested in queen rearing – the most fun you can have with a beesuit on 21 – there are lots of articles here with the nitty gritty practicalities. Try these for starters … queen rearing, an introduction to the Ben Harden system, setup and cell raising.


  1. Which it can be … we get up to 2 metres of rain a year.
  2. i.e. cheap.
  3. i.e. cheap.
  4. Though I can’t now find the link …
  5. To encourage nurse bees up from the lower box.
  6. When making this box up I’d removed frames of stores and underused frames, keeping all the frames of brood – the bottom box was packed with these.
  7. In a more normal season this might not be necessary … the OSR should be yielding well by mid-May and that should be sufficient. However, low temperatures have retarded everything by 2-3 weeks this year.
  8. I graft in batches of 10 … I don’t need more queens than that at once and I don’t want to overstretch the bees in challenging conditions.
  9. These were planted in early 2019 and are now 2-3 metres tall.
  10. I’ll return to this in a week or two, as there was one oddity I don’t have time to discuss now.
  11. I didn’t shake the bees off the frames and they’re quite cunning about squirrelling them away in odd corners …
  12. That needs qualifying again. I’d found a swarm near an apairy full of hives – anyone familiar with Occam’s razor would, probably correctly, assume it was one of those hives that had swarmed.
  13. My first three stings of the season (and actually the first in 15 months I think) all to my nitrile-gloved right hand. These gloves allow the sting to be felt, but prevent it becoming embedded. More importantly, they allow you to feel – or pick up – individual bees. A near-perfect combination of protection and sensitivity.
  14. The day before had also been a balmy 17°C.
  15. Don’t ask … it had been a very long day.
  16. Further east, where it had now stopped raining.
  17. I like solid floors on hives from which virgin queens are going to mate … I want to avoid the returning queen missing the entrance and ending up underneath the open mesh floor. So close and yet so far.
  18. It didn’t come from the cell raiser. I checked this late in the afternoon. The queen was present and laying well.
  19. She looked reasonably crisp and fresh, despite being very dead.
  20. Though it could be considered as a guide on what not to do.
  21. Trousers are optional.

15 thoughts on “Hard graft

  1. vince poulin

    Friday for me David – a truly enjoyable read. Quite an operation with trials-and-tribulations brought on by weather, distance, “coffee” and of course the complexities of working with bees. I admire your success with the this year’s grafting and with the post always take away something new. Must admit my attempts at grafting have been woefully less successful. Fail safe for me has been emergency queen cells from hives that swarmed or were about to go. All said – as many of your readers know grafting is FUN. Success brings a sense of achievement – your Queens!. Not another queen, but yours! I have plans for some “walk-away-splits” before the end of the month – the sink or swim approach, but you have me once again thinking perhaps I should get out the cell bar. As a final note – yesterday – I had two dead drones on a mite-board. One of those drones had an extended endophallus!!!!!!! Amazing. What’s the chance of one of my drones flying off to join the boys at the local drone congregating area and finding a lovely virgin queen? Him mating and desperately trying to get back to home before dying on his own hive’s doorstep. Everyday something new. Also great to think I have a nearby drone congregating area.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      Partial success so far … “it’s only over when the fat lady sings”, or – in this case – gets mated 😉

      There are varying reports of AVM – apiary vicinity mating – particularly with near-native bee types. Perhaps your drone didn’t have to travel too far? I’m going to write something about drones again this week as there’s a nice paper recently published on drones and mating.


  2. Catherine Lodge

    Thank you for this! I love your blog and find it SO helpful! I’ve been keeping bees for over 12 years but find I am learning week by week, even now.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Catherine

      I’m also learning week by week, even now 😉

      Though sometimes (increasingly?) it’s re-learning something I knew but had forgotten 🙁


  3. Roy Haynes

    Hello David

    I’m puzzled as to why you would need to use fat dummies if you are starting out with a ‘strong, double brood colony’.

    My understanding is that Ben Harden devised this system to suit the native Irish bee, which is not prolific enough to expand into a double brood system.

    Surely a strong double brood colony can be rearranged so that the lower box contains predominantly sealed brood, which will provide laying space for the queen as it emerges. The upper box, above the queen excluder can be given predominately open brood to attract the nurse bees to the proximity of the cell bar, which has a frame of pollen placed alongside it. This way you have only one displaced frame to find a home for rather than eight.

    Best wishes
    Roy Haynes

    1. David Post author

      Hello Roy

      Remember that I’m in Scotland. Our bees here are not dissimilar to those in Ireland (at least, those that aren’t imported from Greece or Italy). My bees rarely if ever fill a double brood box with brood, but regularly – for the strong colonies – spillover to the second box, perhaps leaving 14-16 frames of BIAS. Rearranging that into the Ben Harden setup provides ample bees. This is what I did.

      Most amateur beekeepers overestimate the strength of their colonies. I might have been guilty of this, but the point I was trying to make was that it helps to have a lot of bees to rear reasonable queens. ~15 frames of brood in a double brood box is – for me, here at 56°N – a strong colony.


  4. Ian Robinson

    Hello David – thank for this post – really felt for you trouserless in the rain! – Quick question please to help my understanding of the Ben Harden Method. In a normal colony, we can expect a swarm when the bees raise and seal a queen cell. Why does the strong colony in the Ben harden system not swarm once they have raised the grafts you have added? There is only a QX between them or am I missing something.


    1. David Post author

      Hello Ian

      They grafted larvae are effectively reared under the supersedure impulse. The colony is queenright but there are reduced queen pheromone levels above the QX (no footprint pheromone for example). I’ve used the Ben Harden method dozens of times and never had the colony swarm when the cells are capped. Once or twice the colony has swarmed, but under those circumstances it’s always because I’ve missed a queen cell in the brood box containing the Q due to poor management, forgetfulness, bad eyesight or something else that was essentially my fault.

      It’s a very useful method for small scale queen rearing. You can do 5 cells at a time and, by rotating young brood from below above the QX, you can keep the box going for several weeks if needed. This makes for very efficient use of resources in areas where queen mating is a bit iffy due to poor weather etc.


  5. D J E Stokes

    Thanks for another interesting article. I particularly noticed your throw-away comment about nitrile gloves. Being seriously alergic to bee venom (unless dosed up with piriton which I have found to be a magic remedy), I normally use Marigolds and find that, although they’re better than proprietory bee keeping gloves, I do tend to get stung because I am wearing gloves and so can’t feel the bee that I’m accidentally squashing. I tried wearing nitrile today without any problem so will continue until I either have a bad tempered colony or the experiment proves to be a failure.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Dave

      I’ve discussed gloves back in the dim and distant past. I consider any gauntlets an abomination … they destroy the manual dexterity that’s essential for beekeeping, they’re a magnet for sting pheromone and they are difficult to clean. Marigolds are OK. I used to use them all the time and still do for really aggressive colonies (once this season, making nucs up in the rain as described above). However, nitriles are the best. The sting can penetrate but it cannot get embedded in your hand. You’ll probably still need the piriton if you have a severe allergy, but the dexterity they provide means you’ll get stung much, much less. I don’t remember being stung last season at all 🙂


      1. D J E Stokes

        Thanks for the link, David. That article must have been shortly before I started following your blog. I wish I’d read it at the time.

  6. vince poulin

    David – quick question. I’m leaving in 4-days for 2-weeks. I went through all hives. This year 2-packages were started to replace last years losses (7-hives). Both packages have done extremely well. I have one in particular with a highly productive queen. She’s let me take enough frames for 1-NUC which is doing very well. On May 25 I took another 3-frames for a Walk-Away-Split (now with 4-charged queen cups). Despite all that the hive continues to remain densely packed with bees. All replaced frames are already laid up with eggs. In preparation for the trip I added a second Med super. This makes 2 on the hive – both still empty one just getting going. I’m concerned about swarming given I will not be here to monitor densities. This queen is too good to loose. I’ll be gone 14-16 days. That’s a long time with brood boxes already brimming. We are in a nice flow plus more flow coming. Our bees have lots of opportunity to work but its the density that has me concerned. Most of Box 3 are eggs and young uncapped larva as they were new frames that replaced those taken for splits. I dropped in foundation frame as well – not yet built-out but still – not a lot space outside of the supers. How best to not loose the queen to a swarm while I’m away??? Does this make sense??? – Queen goes to brood Box 3 or 2 and I place a queen excluder between Boxs 1 and 2 to prevent her from leaving. This would effectively isolate the queen as if she were placed in one of my new mite trap excluder frames. There are no queen cells or charged queen cups in the hive. So far other evidence of a swarm impluse except a highly productive hive that is “fat”. The excluder would effectively isolate her to the 2 upper brood boxes and the supers is she chooses. This a reasonable strategy?

    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      Tricky … if you’ve taken a lot of bees/brood away to make up nucs there’s likely to be a lag before the current eggs/larvae mature emerge and mature enough to be foragers. In the meantime the Q does need somewhere to lay. If the boxes are already full and the weather stays good – so lots of nectar coming in as well – there’s a danger they’ll swarm.

      I don’t think there’s any way to guarantee they won’t swarm. I know some beekeepers place a QE under the brood box to stop a colony swarming but all it does it stop the loss of the Q with the swarm. The swarm usually returns (I’ve never done it deliberately, but have done it by accident) but I don’t know how well the Q copes if just left. When I did it by accident I recovered the Q and split the colony.

      I had a similar dilemma last year when I had to do swarm control during lockdown when I could only visit very infrequently. I did a preemptive split, making a nuc up with the Q and allowing the colony to rear a new queen. The nuc with the Q was essentially one frame of emerging brood plus a frame or so of bees shaken on top, with three frames of foundation. However, I could return one week after doing the split to knock back all but one QC, so the original colony didn’t throw off casts. It worked really well and I lost no bees.

      Have a look at this solution … although I’m not sure it’s fundamentally different to what you’re suggesting, ay least there’s a reasonable description of how it is used. Note that one of the outcomes is that the ‘old queen’ is killed. Note also – though it’s not stated – that it will not be possible for a new queen to get mated with that QE in place.

      I’m not sure what I’d do … it depends upon the colony strength and an understanding of the weather and forage availability. Only you know these I’m afraid.

      Good luck


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