Tag Archives: BBKA Spring Convention

The most fun you can have in a beesuit

Synopsis : Queen rearing is enjoyable and educational. Don’t let the experts put you off. You don’t need to graft day-old larvae to rear queens.

Introduction

A long time ago 1 I bought, read and re-read Ted Hooper’s excellent book Guide to Bees and Honey. Every time I read it I’d find something I’d missed the last time and, even now, there are nuanced comments I think I am only now beginning to understand.

I’m exaggerating slightly when I say ’read and re-read’ as there was one chapter I pretty-much skipped over each time.

That was the chapter on queen rearing.

What put me off?

It was probably his description of opening queen cells with the tip of a penknife to check how far development had progressed, re-sealing the cell and returning the frame to the hive.

She’s gone …

I knew enough about bees to know that the future success of the hive depended upon it successfully requeening after swarming.

But I didn’t know enough to stop them swarming 😉 .

I’d also already had to ‘borrow’ a frame of cells from a friend to rescue a terminally queenless colony of mine. ’Enthusiastically clumsy’ defined my beekeeping skillset, and was probably the comment the 2 examiner made in his notes during my BBKA Basic assessment.

The prospect of meddling with developing queens, with something so precious, seemed like total madness.

Surely it’s better to let them get on with it?

For the first couple of years of beekeeping, I thought of queens as an exquisitely fragile – and by implication valuable – resource. The prospect of rearing them, handling them, putting them in little boxes or – surely not? – prising a cell open to see if they’d developed sufficiently, was an anathema to me.

Consequently, I repeatedly skipped the chapter on queen rearing.

Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.

The BBKA Annual Convention

Before they moved the event to Harper Adams, the BBKA used to hold its spring convention at the Royal Agricultural showground just outside Warwick. My (then) local association provided stewards for the event and I was asked – or volunteered – to help the late Terry Clare run the queen rearing course one year.

I’d never done any queen rearing … and still hadn’t completely read that chapter in Hooper’s book.

I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to those who paid to attend the course … at least those who received any ‘help’ from me, though everything else about the course was very good.

Checking grafted larvae

Checking grafted larvae

After an introductory lecture from Terry, we spent a warm afternoon in a poorly lit room practising grafting larvae. A thin cloud of disorientated bees circled our heads before being ushered out through the windows. Most of the larvae on the frames were visible from across the room 3 but at least they didn’t turn to mush with our neophyte fumblings as we transferred them from comb to plastic queen cups.

Terry moved from table to table, checking progress. He explained things well. Very well. The preparation and procedures seemed a whole lot more accessible than they had in Hooper’s book.

I’m a reasonably quick learner and that afternoon convinced me I should, and could, at least try it on my own.

The session ended with a wrap-up lecture in which Terry encouraged us all to ‘have a go’, and not be put off by an initial lack of success.

He assured us it would be worthwhile and enjoyable.

We dispersed into the late afternoon sun, talking of bees and queens and our plans for the season ahead.

Balmy April weather

There was an early spring that year, colonies had overwintered well and were strong. The Convention was held in early April if I remember and the good weather continued for at least another 2-3 weeks.

Well before the end of the month I had my first successfully grafted larvae being reared as queens.

Success!

It wasn’t an overwhelming success.

I probably grafted a dozen, got half accepted, lost more during development 4 and ended with just two virgins. I don’t have notes from those days, but I’m pretty sure only one got successfully mated.

So, success in a very limited way, but still success 🙂 .

It still makes me smile.

Terry’s presentation had clarified the mechanics of the process. It no longer seemed like witchcraft. It was all very logical. He’d made it clear that the little specialised equipment needed was either ’as cheap as chips’ 5 or could easily be built at home by someone as cack-handed as I was am 6.

The practical session had given me confidence I could see and manipulate huge fat larvae that were far too old to be reared as queens larvae. Even with my ’hands like feet’ moving a delicate larva from comb to plastic queen cup seemed possible, if not entirely natural.

JzBz plastic queen cups

I scrounged some JzBz cups from someone/somewhere, built a cell bar frame and some fat dummies 7 the week after the Convention and used one of my colonies as a cell raiser and the other as the source of larvae.

And, at a first approximation, everything sort of worked.

I could rear queens from larvae I had selected 🙂 .

Try, try and try again

I repeated it again the following month. I was more successful. The nucs I produced were either overwintered or built up strongly enough to be moved into full hives.

I think one went to my mentee. My association encouraged relative newcomers to mentor, probably one of the best ways to improve your beekeeping (other than queen rearing).

Within a year I had 6-8 colonies or nucs and twice than number the year after that.

Almost all were headed by queens I had reared … ‘almost’ as my swarm control skills were still developing 😉 .

Now, over a decade later, my swarm control skills have improved considerably … as has my queen rearing.

I remain resolutely cack-handed but I’m now a lot more confident in my hamfistedness.

I still mainly use the same technique Terry Clare taught on that course in Stoneleigh, though I’ve now also used a number of other approaches and successfully reared queens using most of them. Even the cell bar frame I built is still in use, though I’ve built some fancier fat dummies.

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy … with integral feeder and insulation

Queen rearing has taught me more about keeping bees than any other aspect of the hobby … more about judging the state of the colony, the quality of the bees, the suitability of the environment, the weather, the forage etc.

Queen rearing has improved the quality of my bees, year upon year, so that they suit my environment and colony management.

But – more importantly and perhaps a little selfishly – queen rearing has given me more enjoyment than any other aspect of beekeeping.

I’d prefer to rear queens than get a bumper honey crop … but because I rear queens that suit me and the environment, I do pretty well for honey as well.

10%

I give 20-30 talks a season to beekeeping associations. When I’m talking about queen rearing I usually ask the organisers about the number in their association that actively rear queens.

By actively I mean that do more than simply allow colonies to requeen themselves during swarm control. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating this essential aspect of beekeeping. We all (have to) do it.

To me ‘active’ queen rearing doesn’t necessarily mean grafting larvae, incubators, mini-nucs and all that palaver. But it does mean:

  • preparing a colony to be in a suitable state to rear new queens 8.
  • rearing queens from larvae selected (though not necessarily individually selected) from a colony with desirable characteristics e.g. good temper, productivity, frugality.
  • rearing more than one queen at a time, with the excess used for making increase, for sale, for ’just in case’ situations etc.

There’s perhaps a slightly grey area where you split a hive (with desirable characteristics) that’s making swarm preparations into multiple nucs, each of which gets an immature queen cell.

But, let’s not get bogged down in definitions … that’s not the point of this post (which, although it might not be obvious yet, is to encourage you to ’have a go’).

And, when I ask 9, I’m regularly told that only a small number, perhaps ~10%, of association members actively rear queens.

Why so few?

Enjoyable, educational, useful … choose any three

Of course, there’s no requirement that a beekeeper gets involved in queen rearing. You can keep bees for years without rearing queens, other than during swarm control and by making up splits. I know a few beekeepers who have been keeping bees like this for decades … by many criteria they are skilled and successful beekeepers.

But sometimes, which might mean ‘often’, being able to rear queens and having some of those ‘spare’ queens available is extremely useful.

Spare queens, heading nucs in the apiary, can be overwintered to make up losses. These can be sold or donated in Spring to meet the enormous 10 demand for bees early in the season. The availability of a queen can ‘fix’ an aggressive colony, can rescue an otherwise doomed colony, or can effectively ‘gain’ a month of brood rearing and nectar collection should the old queen fail.

And that extra month of brood might make the difference between successful overwintering or not.

In my view, once you can rear your own queens you are pretty-much self-sufficient … there are very few situations that cannot be rescued.

And all of those benefits are before you even consider the two other things I mentioned above:

  • that successful queen rearing will inevitably improve your more general skills as a beekeeper, and
  • you will get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from doing it … literally ’the most fun you can have in a beesuit’ 11.

Why so few?

Beekeeping, like many other hobbies, can appear an esoteric pastime. Weird terminology, hierarchical organisation 12, specialised equipment, unusual costumes and a tendency to still use arcane practises.

And queen rearing – probably like candle making or the production of excellent mead 13 – is a specialised niche within what is already a rather niche activity.

It has its own terminology, equipment and methods.

To the uninitiated – even to another beekeeper, like me reading Ted Hooper’s book – it can appear fiendishly difficult.

And, unfortunately, some practitioners make it sound esoteric, specialised and difficult.

It’s a sort of one-upmanship.

They promote methods that may not suit the beginner, that require lots of resources, or that involve techniques that sound exceptionally skilful, even when they’re not. Not deliberately perhaps, but that’s what happens.

All of which means that:

  • people are dissuaded from trying it in the first place
  • those that do try (with trepidation because, you know, ”it’s difficult”) and that achieve only limited success, have their initial impression reinforced and are unlikely to try again

It’s very easy to talk yourself out of trying something you think will be difficult and/or you are unlikely to succeed at.

Actually, it’s not only easy, it’s also entirely understandable.

Why go to all that trouble if it’s unlikely to work?

After all, you can usually buy queens ‘next day delivery’ for £50 … surely that would be easier?

Perhaps … if they’re available when you want them. Really early in the season? Think again. During the peak swarming season when everyone else wants to requeen their colonies they accidentally destroyed all the queen cells in. Nope.

But, as Terry Clare so ably instructed … it is not that difficult to rear your own.

There’s more than one way to do it

I’ve written an entire post on this topic and it applies as much to queen rearing as it does to other aspects of our hobby.

If not more.

There are many different ways of successfully achieving the three key components of the process:

  1. preparing the colony to receive larvae
  2. presenting the larvae
  3. getting the resulting virgin queens mated

Today’s post isn’t an introduction to queen rearing … it’s meant instead as an encouragment to try queen rearing.

If you’ve got a year or two of beekeeping experience and one, or preferably two, colonies you have the essentials you need to start. It’s what I started with … and look how that ended 😉 .

Over the next three months I’ll write two or three more posts on the basics, in good time for you to ’have a go’ in 2023.

Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing

If you’re impatient to read more, I’ve already written about two methods I have used extensively – the Ben Harden system and queen rearing with a Cloake board.

However, throughout these descriptions I’ve emphasised the use of individual grafted larvae.

Grafting is the transfer of larvae from the comb where the egg hatched to a wax or plastic queen queen cup. For best results the larvae should no more than ~18 hours old.

A suitable larva may well be no bigger than the egg it hatched from.

Already I can feel beginners switching off … “Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.”

Although grafting is an easily learned and reasonably straightforward technique it can appear very daunting to the beginner.

Perhaps I’m therefore also guilty of making queen rearing sound ‘esoteric, specialised and difficult’.

Am I guilty as well?

Indubitably, m’lud.

But … in my defence please consider the two recent posts on Picking winners.

The purpose of those posts was to highlight – for people (like me) that already routinely use grafting as part of their queen rearing – that the bees may choose different larvae to rear as queens than the beekeeper might choose.

The beekeeper is essentially non-selective, whereas the bees are very selective.

I think this is interesting and it’s got me wondering about the qualities the bees select and whether they’d be beneficial for my beekeeping.

But there’s another equally important ‘take home message’ from these two posts. This is relevant to beekeepers who do not already rear queens (but who would like to) but that are put off by the thought of grafting.

And that is that you can easily produce excellent quality queen cells without grafting or ‘handling’ larvae at all.

If you refer back to that three point list above, point 2 ( ‘presenting the larvae’) can be as straightforward as simply adding a frame of eggs and larvae to a suitably prepared hive.

That’s it.

What could be easier?

No magnifying glasses, no headtorch, no treble ‘0’ sable paintbrush, no JzBz plastic cups, no cell bar frame, no ’do I or don’t I prime the cups with royal jelly?’, no desperate searching around the frame for larvae of the right size, no worries about larvae getting chilled, or drying out …

Pick a frame, any frame

As long as it has eggs and young larvae … and comes from a donor colony that has the characteristics you like in your bees.

Eggs and young larvae

Eggs and young larvae

There’s little point in rearing queens from poor quality bees.

For starters I’d suggest you select a frame from a colony of calm, well behaved bees.

If none of your colonies are dependably calm and well behaved you definitely need to learn to rear queens, but you should ask a friend or mentor 14 for a frame of eggs and larvae from a good colony.

Bees are very good at picking larvae suitable for rearing into queens. Let them do the ‘heavy lifting’. Once the queen cells are ready you cut them out of the frame and use them in the same way as you would use cells from grafted larvae.

So, having hopefully convinced you that you don’t need to graft larvae to produce queen cells, that seems like a logical place to end this post.

In future posts I’ll discuss points 1 and 3 in that numbered list above.

You already know almost everything you now need to know about point 2 😉 .


 

Lost and found

It was the Welsh Beekeepers’ Convention last weekend 1.

This is a convention I’ve previously enjoyed attending. I remember strolling through the daffodil-filled Builth Wells Showground in lovely spring sunshine to visit the trade show.

And I remember staggering back to the car, laden with items that were:

  • too inexpensive (not cheap … there’s a difference 😉 ) to ignore,
  • exactly what I’d been searching for, or
  • essential. 

Some items qualified on all three criteria, so I’d bought two of them 🙁

And then ‘at the death’ I did a quick trip again around the trade stands buying a few things I’d spotted and dismissed earlier as not absolutely essential, not inexpensive enough or not quite what I’d been looking for.

It would be another year until the next convention … it would have been rude not to 🙂

None of these things were big ticket items.

Although I’m naturally drawn to the gleaming stainless steel extractors, the settling tanks and the wax separators, I’m a small-scale beekeeper and cannot justify (or afford) these sorts of luxuries.

Instead I browse the ‘show specials’ bin, the remaindered items and the shop soiled or ex-demo stock.

And, like a moth to a candle, anything to do with queen rearing.

Non, je ne regrette rien … but

All this purchased ‘stuff’ takes up space.

Normally this isn’t a problem. It migrates from the car to the workshop to the bee bag

Or just as far as the workshop.

Or – I’m ashamed to say – it’s forgotten for years and discovered in the glove compartment when I’m searching for something else entirely.

But I’ve just moved house. 

And when you move house you have to pack everything and, worse, unpack everything and find somewhere for it to be stored 2.

And it became very clear, very quickly, that I had a large amount of beekeeping essentials that were anything but essential. You could tell this because they were still wrapped, still had the price-tags attached, or were otherwise very obviously unused.

And, it turns out, it wasn’t clear how to use some of them … or even what they were used for.

Which begs the question ‘Why did you buy it in the first place?’

I know this because I was asked it.

Several times 😉

So I’ve had a clear out.

Some of the things I unearthed were essential, or at least very useful.

Others were useful, but might be improved upon for this season.

And a soberingly large number of items were now – and in retrospect never had been – any use whatsoever 🙁

The Why did I ever buy that? category

I’m actually going to ignore most of the stuff in this category. Other than teaching me a bit more wallet-control there’s little to learn from it. Also, the stuff with the price tags still attached is a rather pointed reminder that I should increase the price of my honey or risk penury. 

Ventilated queen cages and two spirit levels

Strange oversize ventilated queen cages. These are a bit weird. They have a fixed mesh side and a twist open cover. Inside is a rather ugly plastic queen cup and the other end has a loose-fitting plug. I have no idea how to use these, or even what they are really for. Discarded.

In the same box were two small spirit levels. These are invaluable if you use foundationless frames because the hive needs to be level to get the comb drawn vertically. Most smartphones have a spirit level function, but these are a bit more propolis-resistant and were put into the bee bag … where they should have been in the first place. I’d lost them.

Plastic bits

I have a suspicion these rather lurid plastic bits are from Paradise Honey hives. If so, the boxes have been in use for about a decade (mainly as bait hives) without needing whatever function they provided. They’ve gone for recycling …

Plastic frame runners

These plastic frame runners should be in the Why did I buy so many? category. I suspect they were inexpensive (or, in this case, cheap). You can’t flame them with a blowtorch 3 but they are resistant to acetic acid 4. I use a couple each year when upgrading the feeder on poly Everynucs. I’ve kept them as I’m sure they’ll come in”.

The ‘Big mistake’ category

Castellated frame spacers are an abomination. I know because I tried them and abandoned them. But, to emphasise what a failure they were I kept them as a reminder … periodically cutting myself on the sharp corners as I rummaged through the box of bits they were in, looking for something else.

Just say no

Rather than just try them on a super or two, I fitted them to a dozen or more. They do exactly what they’re supposed to; they keep the super frames separated by a set amount.

The problem is they provide no flexibility to space the frames by different amounts. Your super can only be fitted with 8, 9, 10 or 11 frames. With brand new frames I routinely fit 11 in a super until they’re drawn out. But as the nectar flow continues I remove a frame or two, usually ending up with 9 frames per super. 

More honey, less wax … and a convenient extractor-full of frames per super.

I now just manually separate and arrange the frames and the bees helpfully propolise them in place. At £2.04 a pair (there are some with the price sticker still attached) it wasn’t a cripplingly expensive mistake … but it was a mistake. 

Crack pipes and queen marking cages

The final entry in the this ‘mistake’ category are the budget versions of queen marking cages. The budget ones are the two unused looking ones in the middle of the photo above. These work, but less well than the full-fat non-budget version (clearly used, on the left) mainly because they have a coarse inflexible plastic mesh covering them, making marking the queen difficult and clipping her wing nearly impossible.

I now prefer the turn and mark cage … and discovered an unused one (on the right, above) in my spring cleaning.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

The ‘crack pipes’ are what Thorne’s call a plastic queen catcher 5. These actually work pretty well but were replaced by my index finger and thumb several years ago.

Useful discoveries

Not everything I found was an ill-considered purchase or a mistake.

Thankfully 😉

Ratchet straps … tamed for now

I discovered a spaghetti-like mess of ratchet straps and tidied them up with some reusable zip ties. These straps work well when new, or if well maintained. However, there are too many moving parts for my liking and they often eventually fail. They are excellent when transporting hives and allow the hive to be strapped together and attached to something immovable in the van. 

Standard hive straps

Better still, I found some standard hive straps. With no moving parts these are essentially infallible if you can remember how to use them properly 6. Unlike ratchet straps they have the additional benefit of laying completely flat against the side of the hive when in use. This makes stacking hives together much easier.

These four hive straps look almost unused and I suspect they arrived on nucs I collected some time ago … so technically weren’t a purchase in the first place. Lost and now found 🙂

Apinaut queen marking kit

The final item in this category of ‘useful discoveries’ was an Apinaut queen marking kit. These are quite clever. Instead of marking the queen with a Posca water-based pen (or Tippex), you glue a small numbered metal disc to the top of her thorax.

The kit contains the glue, a set of coloured and numbered discs and a pen with a magnetic tip. Rather than chasing the queen around the frame trying to pick her up by the wings you simply use the magnetic pen. By retracting the magnetic tip you can then ‘drop’ or place the queen wherever you want 7

This was an impulse purchase which I’d lost. And forgotten. I rediscovered it, still in the bag it was supplied in, at the bottom of a box containing the components for ~200 frames. D’oh!

Queen introduction cages

Amongst all the queen rearing paraphernalia 8 I’ve collected were a number of items that are used quite often.

I usually use JzBz queen cages for introducing queens to queenless colonies as I inherited a bucketload 9 of them many years ago.

However, with very valuable queens or very unreceptive colonies 10 I prefer to use these Nicot queen introduction cages. These cages are about 13 cm square, with a short plastic leg at each corner that can be pushed into the comb. There is a cap on the front that can be removed to introduce the queen to the cage.

Nicot queen introduction cages

The idea with these is that you fix them over a patch of emerging brood and introduce a mated queen whose acceptance is guaranteed 11 by the newly emerged bees. After a few days the queen has often laid up the empty cells under the cage and has usually been ‘released’ by workers burrowing under the edge of the cage.

The problem is that there’s a tendency to lose the legs and the cap for the cage (I’ve lost one or both for all those above … so these should be in the ‘Lost and lost’ category). I therefore improvise, using a small square of silver foil-backed adhesive tape in place of the cap and strapping the cage to the frame with a couple of elastic bands.

Mini-nucs for queen mating

I’ve got a dozen or so Kieler mini-nucs which I sometimes use for queen mating. These are small top bar hives that are primed with a few hundred bees and a ripe queen cell. I’ve not used these mini-nucs for about three years, but hope to again this season … so the next two finds were most welcome.

Kieler mini-nuc top bar frames and starter strips

The first was a box of Kieler mini-nuc frame bars, some with a small strip of foundation carefully glued in place with melted wax. Except many of the wax strips had become unattached or been damaged 🙁

This year I’ll try using the wooden tongue depressor starter strips I use in my foundationless frames. I see no reason why these won’t work for mini-nucs as well, and they’d have the advantage of being a lot more robust.

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

Kieler mini-nucs are supplied with a polystyrene feeder that occupies one third of the hive volume. That’s an awful lot of food for four tiny isosceles trapezoids of brood. I prefer to replace the poly feeder with a small fondant-filled frame feeder. This only takes one sixth of the hive volume and works very well. I was therefore pleased to find half a dozen well-used frame feeders built to my usual high standards and exacting tolerances 😉 12

Queenless colonies

When a colony is suspected of being queenless (and lacks any eggs or young larvae) the normal advice is to donate a frame of eggs from another colony. If queen cells are produced on the introduced frame the colony is queenless.

Is the colony queenless?

You might not have a frame of eggs to spare, or want to transfer an entire frame from another colony. Instead, these Nicot queen cell cups glued to a small aluminium tab can be used. You graft day old larvae into two or three of these cups and insert them, open end down, near the centre of the brood nest. The aluminium tab (butchered with only minor blood loss from a soft drink can) holds the cell cup in place.

If the colony is queenless they will start to draw out queen cells from the cup.

Conversely, if the larvae in the cup is ignored they are queenright … stop worrying 🙂

Unless, of course, the grafted larvae are duds 🙁

To use this trick – which isn’t my idea 13 – you need to be good enough at grafting to be certain that >50% of the larvae grafted would be accepted in a queenless colony. With a little practice that’s easy enough to achieve.

Putting the cleaning into spring cleaning

The final things unearthed during my tidying was a lot of queen rearing cups, cup holders, cell bar supports and cages.

The cups – the same as shown in the picture above – are usually supplied in 100’s or 500’s and cost a penny each. I use them only once.

Nicot cup holders in the bath

The cup holders, cell bar supports and cages 14 – you need one of each per queen cell – often end up encrusted with wax or propolis. They’re not expensive (~75p for one complete set) but they can easily be reused.

Nicot queen cell protection cages being washed

I simply soak them in very hot water with some mild detergent and then rinse them really well. Most of the wax and propolis is removed.

If you’re worried about the smell of detergent lingering and inhibiting queen rearing you can add the cell bar frame to the hive 24-48 hours before grafting. To be absolutely certain it gets lots of attention from the bees in the hive ‘paint’ it with some sugar syrup. The bees will clean this off and it will then be ready for use.

After a few happy hours sorting through boxes I feel better prepared for the season ahead. I now have a much better idea what I’ve got and where it is.

I’ve also usefully freed up some more space for future conventions 😉

And I know I’ll never need to purchase another rhombus escape 🙁