2014 was a pretty good year for beekeeping. The winter was not overly long or cold and colonies came through it in good condition. Spring was cool and damp – although colony build up was about normal it was difficult to find good enough weather for inspections. Despite the weather the OSR yielded well. The summer flows were good, with excellent lime and blackberry which persisted for a long time (and necessitated frantic frame and super assembly in mid-summer). I took the honey harvest off in mid-August but – in retrospect – should have left it longer to get more from the himalayan balsam. The autumn ivy was excellent, with the bees working it here until at least mid-November. I’ve ended the season with more honey than I’ve had in the last 4 years, a dozen strong colonies and some overwintering nucs. As always, some things went well and some things went badly (or at least, less well) and I hope I’ve learnt from both.
Three day old grafts
Queen rearing was patchy to say the least. This was entirely my fault. Although I achieved consistently high ‘take’ rates for grafting my work commitments meant I lost a couple of batches of queens by not caging the cells early enough. With queen rearing, timing is critical. I used a mixture of Kieler mini-nucs and 3 frame nucs for queen mating, losing some of the former to wasps and – stupidly – getting a 50% return of mated queens from the latter because the plastic crownboard (pinned down along the central wooden divider) buckled or stretched from the heat of the colony allowing one of the virgin queens to slaughter the other. D’oh! Needless to say, this is being fixed for the 2015 season.
Morris board …
On a more positive note both preventing and capturing swarms went very well. The combination of clipped queens and prompt use of the Demaree method kept my production colonies under control and I’m only aware of losing one swarm from an over-stuffed 5 frame nuc early in the season. I increasingly favour the Demaree system (or versions of it, such as the use of a Morris board) for swarm control – it requires minimal additional equipment and keeps the colony together. My bait hives for capturing swarms worked well, particularly as I’ve learnt the best way to set them up is to use foundationless frames. The incoming swarm has somewhere to build immediately and they only need to be checked every few days. The combination of a nail gun (for frame assembly) and foundationless frames was a revelation – the former slashing frame building times and the latter providing the obvious benefit of reduced foundation costs, and a number of less obvious (but greater) benefits in terms of improved colony vigour.
The first inspections of the 2015 season are still several months away so there’s ample time yet for preparation. This includes painting several more poly nucs, frame building and wax filtering. I’ll make an annual batch of mead in the hope that – one year – it will be drinkable. Beekeeping is too dependent upon the vagaries in the weather to make definitive plans or resolutions. However, I do intend to experiment with upper entrances during Bailey comb changes and Demaree swarm control, to use more foundationless super frames and to overwinter more nucs for the 2016 season.
Finally, this website has been running for about a year. Looking at the visitor stats it’s clear that the most popular posts have been on honey warming cabinets and Paynes poly nuc boxes (though in fairness, these were also some of the earliest posts), with visitors from over 100 countries in total. I hope you found something useful here.
The ‘Ben Harden’ method is an approach used to raise queen cells in a queenright colony. It offers a number of advantages that make it particularly suitable for relatively small-scale beekeepers, for beekeepers who want only a limited number of queens (10’s rather than 100’s, though the latter is possible if well organised) or for beekeepers who are taking their first steps in queen rearing. Consequently, it is also suitable for using within an association during queen rearing courses.
The advantages include:
it requires only a limited amount of additional equipment, including a spare brood box and two overwidth “fat dummies“
it uses honey production colonies in a way that has little or no impact on foraging, and hence nectar collection
it uses a queenright colony which does not need to be “boiling with bees” and which is both easier and more pleasant to handle
it requires only limited manipulations of the colony
The general principles of this approach are straightforward and are reasonably well described by the late Dave Cushman modified from an article by Ben Harden in Bee Improvement (the BIBBA magazine). Further information is available in A simple method of raising queen cells written by Ben Harden (#59 in the Beekeeping in a Nutshell series available from Northern Bee Books).
This is the first in a short series of posts covering the basics of queen rearing using the Ben Harden queenright method. Each post covers one of the key stages in the method, which are:
It is possible to use this method to raise queens if you start with a single colony, using it as a source of larvae, the cell raising colony and the colony used to harvest nurse bees for populating the mini-nucs from which the virgin queens will be mated. This is not really recommended … at the very least you need a range of colonies to judge and choose the best as the donor for the larvae.
It is a also very good method to use in associations running queen rearing courses. Individuals taking part prepare a colony for cell raising, grafting is done communally using good stock and cells are distributed 24 hours after grafting.
The polystyrene frame feeder supplied with Kieler mini mating nucs occupies one third of the box (see image right from Modern Beekeeping). Although it can be used to feed syrup or fondant it only fits the bottom box and is too deep to be used in the upper body. To overwinter queens and small colonies in these boxes they usually need to be double depth. This causes two problems – the feeder is often below the cluster and refilling it, or even checking to see if it needs topping up, requires separating the upper and lower body. Even during the queen rearing season the supplied feeder is not ideal – by occupying a third of the box it takes valuable space bees and brood could occupy. To overcome these problems I build simple frame feeders to take fondant. Using scrap wood and some offcut queen excluder they occupy half the space of the supplied polystyrene feeder. With 21 mm softwood for the frame these can take ~200g of fondant. They can be used in either the lower or upper body of the mini nuc. I place them at the opposite end of the box to the entrance, immediately below the plastic sheet used as a cover board. Checking them only requires lifting the corner of the plastic and replacing them takes just a few seconds – in mid-winter this can usually be achieved without disturbing the colony at all. Finally, unlike the supplied poly feeder, I’ve never had brace comb built within one of these frame feeders and so the queen doesn’t enter them.
Kieler frame feeders
Overwintering queens in mini-nucs is usually possible in the UK and will be covered in a future post.