Tag Archives: stock improvement

The bees know best

Synopsis : Queens reared under the emergency response are numerous and preferentially started from eggs. The cells are then subjected to strong selection by workers after capping. What does this tell us about good quality queens and can we use this knowledge to improve our own queen rearing?


In Eats, sleeps, bees I made a passing comment on the confidence I have in the ability of bees to choose ‘good’ larvae when rearing a new queen. I was justifying why I only leave a single queen cell in a colony that needs requeening. The precise words were:

“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.”

I thought this might be an interesting topic to look at in a little more detail. There is some interesting science on queen cell production.

And subsequent destruction.

Queen cells

Queen cells … have they chosen well?

In addition, there are related observations on what the bees choose as the starting material for queen cells. This should inform our own queen rearing activities. I’ll discuss these (briefly) after presenting the science.

Emergency, supersedure and swarm responses

But first I need introduce the three ‘responses’ under which a colony rears one or more new queens. These are the emergency, supersedure and swarming responses 1

The swarming response

Around this time of the season 2 many beekeepers will be familiar with queen cells produced under the impulse to swarm.

A strong, queenright colony runs out of space. Eggs are laid in specially created vertically oriented cells and are subsequently reared as new queens.

Once these swarm cells are sealed the colony swarms. The old queen and a significant proportion of the workers disappear over the fence. One or more new queens emerge and the colony may produce casts, each headed by a virgin queen. One new queen finally remains, gets mated and heads the original colony.

Swarming is honey bee reproduction … it is the only (natural) way one colony becomes two.

The supersedure response

Supersedure is the in situ replacement of the current queen. The colony produces a small number of supersedure cells – often just one, located in the middle of a central frame 3 – the new queen emerges, mates and starts laying. There may be two queens in the box for an extended period, but eventually the old queen disappears.

Supersedure is probably more common than most beekeepers think. It is the usual explanation for the presence of an unmarked queen at an early season inspection in a hive that had previously contained a marked queen.

The emergency response

If the incumbent queen is removed or killed the colony must rear another or they are doomed. They do this under the emergency response.

Some beekeepers – particularly beginners 4 – inadvertently crush the queen while returning brood frames. They are then surprised at the next inspection to find no eggs but a lot of queen cells.

What’s this? Swarming finished weeks ago!

This is the emergency response at work. The bees select several suitable eggs or larvae, reshape the comb to allow a vertically-oriented cell to be drawn and feed with copious amounts of Royal Jelly.

And voilà, a new queen 5 is produced.

Inducing these responses

The emergency response is triggered by the removal of the old queen – either by physically taking her out of the box, or killing her. Both are easy to achieve 🙁 6

There are ways to induce a supersedure response, but they sometimes involve damaging the queen 7 and are unreliable and – more importantly – ethically dubious. There are more ethically acceptable alternatives.

Lots of beekeepers inadvertently induce the swarming response by not providing the bees with sufficient space, not supering early enough or allowing the brood nest to be backfilled with nectar.

However, doing this in a controlled manner is not a certainty. In one of my apiaries 50% of the colonies have shown no inclination to swarm this season whereas the others all produced swarm cells. All were treated similarly and were – to all intents and purposes – of equivalent strength.

Sealed queen cells produced under the swarming response

For scientific purposes inducing a swarming response cannot be relied upon for studies of queen cell production and selection.

In contrast, the emergency response is 100% reliable. Therefore, in the majority of studies on brood choice, queen cell production and selection, it’s the emergency response that is exploited. That’s certainly the case with the two papers I’m going to briefly discuss this week. 8.

Pick a larva, any larva

Is that what the bees do?

Of course not.

Regular readers will remember from Timing is everything that only larva up to three days old are suitable for producing new queens i.e. six days after the egg is laid.

However, if the queen is laying 1000 eggs per day 9 that still means there are up to 3000 suitably aged larvae in the hive for the production of a new queen, should one be needed.

Eggs and young larvae

Eggs and young larvae

Actually there’s even more choice as the bees can start the queen rearing process – the production of a queen cell – from a cell occupied by an egg … something that has been known for decades, but is relatively rarely discussed.

So, what do they choose?

The first study I’m going to discuss addresses this point and the interesting (and critical) aspect of the quality of the resulting queens that are produced.

Hatch, S., Tarpy, D. & Fletcher, D. Worker regulation of emergency queen rearing in honey bee colonies and the resultant variation in queen quality. Insectes soc. 46, 372–377 (1999).

The study was very straightforward. They induced the emergency response by dequeening strong hives. They then monitored the production and position of queen cells over time, determining the age of the egg/larvae selected by extrapolating back from the day the queen cell was sealed.

Cells that were capped were caged with queen excluder and the resulting emerged queen was analysed to determine her quality. This essentially involved determining her size and weight (the bigger the better) and ovarial number, but they measured additional features as well.

Emergency cell production

In the 8 colonies used, almost all queen cell construction was started within 24 hours of queen removal. A few more cells were produced for up to 48 hours after dequeening, but none were started after that.

There will still be many hundreds of (apparently) suitably aged larvae in the colony at this point. However, these were not selected as all the queen cells that would be made had already been started.

Colonies produced different numbers of queen cells, from 6 to 56 (average 27).

However, the majority of these cells were torn down before emergence, and a few of those that were sealed never emerged. Of the 217 cells started, 115 (53%) were torn down, 11 (5%) did not emerge and the remaining 91 (43%) emerged.

Not only did the number of queen cells produced vary greatly between hives, so did the numbers of queens that emerged – from 3 to 20 (average 11).

The brood nest is roughly spherical or rugby ball-shaped and usually occupies the centre of the hive. About 46% of the cells started were on the central three frames, and these had a much greater chance of producing queens. This was because queen cells started on the central frames of the brood nest were less likely to be torn down (41%) than those on the periphery (71%).

Pick an egg or a larva (in which case, the younger the better)

So if it’s not Pick a larva, any larva’, what do the bees choose to start their emergency queen cells from?

Remember how important this is. Without a new queen the colony cannot survive. The clock is ticking. They only have a few days to make this choice before all the brood in the nest are too old for queen production.

The non-random construction of queen cells.

They predominantly choose eggs.

Almost 70% of queen cells started were initiated when the cell contained an egg, rather than a larva. What’s more, the majority of the eggs chosen were three days old.

If you consider that there were 6 possible choices (1, 2 or 3 day old eggs and 1, 2 and 3 day old larvae), it’s striking that 34% of all the queen cells produced were from 3 day old eggs.

In fact, it turns out that only five choices were made as none of the queen cells were started from 3 day old larvae.

Furthermore, over 60% of queen cells produced from 2 day old larvae were subsequently torn down.

Bees choose to make queens from the oldest eggs or the very youngest larvae.

Are you getting the message?

Since the production of a new queen is essential for colony survival we should assume that the bees have evolved a queen cell production ‘strategy’ that maximises the chances of producing a suitable queen.

Almost 60% of the ‘starting material’ chosen by the bees to ensure colony survival – that resulted in queen production – were 3 day old eggs or 1 day old larvae.

This emphasises the need to provide colonies we use for queen rearing with eggs and larvae of this age range. It also reinforces the importance of only selecting the smallest larvae possible when grafting.

The choice the bees make is presumably because queens reared from older larvae are of poorer quality, perhaps because they have a reduced period for feeding with Royal Jelly.

So how do the queens produced from eggs and young larvae compare?

Queen ‘quality’

Of the 91 queens that emerged only 89 were analysed because two ”escaped capture”.

It’s reassuring to know that it’s not just cackhanded beekeepers that make mistakes 😉

There were no differences in the morphology – weight or size – for queens that emerged from cells on either the central or peripheral frames 10.

However, queens reared from 3 day old eggs were significantly heavier than queens reared from larvae. In addition, queens reared from 3 day old eggs had a longer thorax than queens reared from either younger eggs or larvae.

Other morphological measurement – e.g. wing length or width – did not differ significantly between queens reared from eggs or larvae.

But are these hefty, long-thoraxed, queens better quality?

This isn’t a simple question. What does better quality mean? It’s not the size or productivity of the resulting colony she heads since that is also influenced by the genetics and number of drones she mates with.

It’s also time consuming and impractical to measure scientifically (for 89 queens).

Instead, the scientists measured the number of ovarioles and the volume of the spermatheca as potential indicators of fecundity. There was no relationship between weight and ovariole number, irrespective of the age of the egg or larva when the cell was started.

If not more fecund, what?

So, if bigger queens don’t necessarily have increased fecundity (though remember, this wasn’t shown – all they demonstrated was that the ‘innards’ involved in fertilised egg production were similar) why might the bees select eggs/larvae that resulted in bigger queens being produced?

One possibility is that these bigger queens have greater success in what is termed polygyny reduction.

This is what beekeepers call fighting.

If more than one queen is present they fight until only one is left in the hive. This hadn’t been extensively studied in 1999 (when this paper was published) but has been addressed in other studies 11.

Alternatively, and suggested in a tempting but cryptic ’unpublished data’, heavier queens may be able to achieve higher levels of polyandry i.e. mate with more drones, so increasing the genetic diversity, and consequently the fitness, of the colony. I’ve discussed the importance of polyandry and so-called hyperpolyandry for colony fitness and disease resistance previously, so won’t revisit these here.

It’s easy to speculate that a queen with a larger thorax may have better developed flight muscles. These might enable her to stay longer in drone congregation areas for mating.

Why are so many cells started (and queens reared)?

In the emergency response only one queen is needed to ‘rescue’ the colony from oblivion.

Why therefore are so many queen cells – on average 27 per colony – started?

And why do the workers allow an average of 11 queens emerge?

The authors suggest a number of possible reasons:

  1. Colonies raise multiple queens to guarantee the requeening process. This assumes that the ‘cost’ of queen rearing is low, which seems reasonable. Since only 5% of queens raised failed to emerge it is probably not to overcome this limitation.
  2. Multiple queens allow colony reproduction if conditions are suitable. Only colonies that raise multiple queens would be able to (simultaneously) reproduce and requeen, so there might be a selective pressure to allow this.
  3. A consequence of age demographics (brood or workers) in the colony. This is slightly trickier to explain and has not been tested. Queen cells result from an ‘interaction’ of available brood (eggs/larvae) with workers. A colony has variable numbers of both, and there are a variety of worker cohorts, only some of which contribute to cell building. Therefore, the production of multiple cells (and queens) may simply reflect the variation in the factors – ages of brood and workers – involved.
  4. Rearing multiple queens allows workers to select the ‘best’. That’s clearly wrong because the ‘best’ would be just one queen. Perhaps a better explanation would be that it allows workers to either select for better queens by destroying those that are less good.

No single reason

Biology is complicated 12 and it may be that all four of the reasons above are correct. There may be (and almost certainly are) additional reasons that favour the production of multiple queens.

However, of the four reasons above, this paper provides nearly compelling evidence that the workers are selecting which emerge and which do not.

Remember, 53% of the cells that were started were torn down.

In addition, there was both a spatial and temporal bias to the cells that were torn down. This strongly suggests that the process (of cell destruction) was not random.

However, it remains only nearly compelling because we know nothing about the queens that were in cells that were torn down.

By definition those queens don’t exist. The cells were torn down and the queens killed/eaten/discarded so we have no measure of their quality.

If they were indistinguishable from those that did emerge then I’d struggle to convince you that the worker selection was producing ‘better queens’ from the large number of queen cells that were started.

Analysing the non-existent

But fortunately this experiment has been done.

Tarpy, D.R., Simone-Finstrom, M. & Linksvayer, T.A. Honey bee colonies regulate queen reproductive traits by controlling which queens survive to adulthood. Insect. Soc. 63, 169–174 (2016).

The experimental methods were almost identical. However, this time, when they caged the capped queen cells they randomly assigned them to cages that either allowed or prevented worker access (both types of cages prevented the escape of the queen).

They then analysed the queens that emerged from the ‘worker-accessible’ and ‘worker-excluded’ queen cells.

The hypothesis was straightforward, if the workers were randomly destroying a proportion of queen cells there would be no differences in the characteristics of the resulting queens. Conversely, if there was selection, the queens from the ‘worker-excluded’ cells would be different.

The overall numbers of queen cells produced (average 12, range 4 – 22 per colony) and the proportion – 57% – of the ‘worker-accessible’ cells torn down were similar to the study I’ve already described.

Effect of queen treatment on two different measures of queen reproductive potential.

‘Worker-excluded’ queens were significantly smaller than those from ‘worker-accessible’ cages. They also weighed less. This is obvious from the top left panel (above) but confounded 13 by the small size of the study and the significant differences in the weight of queens produced in different colonies 14.

Despite the limited size of this study these results strongly suggest that workers are somehow ‘weeding out’ lower quality (defined here as smaller and probably lighter) queens.

I’ll leave it to you to speculate on how the workers outside the queen cell determine the size/weight/quality of the queen inside the cell … 😉

Does this have relevance to beekeeping?

I think there are a number of interesting points from this study that have relevance to practical beekeeping.

  • Queen cells were started under the emergency response only in the first 3 days after the queen was removed. The vast majority were started within 24 hours. This should help determine when the queen went missing or – if you deliberately removed her – defines the latest date that you need to be concerned about new cells being started.
  • If you are improving your stocks by adding larvae from a separate colony 15 then make sure you add a frame containing eggs and larvae. You want to be sure they have access to 3 day old eggs.
  • It probably makes sense to place this frame in the centre of the brood nest.
  • If you’re grafting larvae for queen rearing – as I’ve already suggested – make sure you choose those under ~18 hours old. The younger and the smaller the better.
  • But, perhaps we should instead think about grafting eggs rather than larvae?

This last suggestion is a topic of a (part-written) future post.

Here are a couple of additional points to think about. Studies have shown that egg transfer results in the largest queens. However, eggs are accepted significantly less well than larvae … and some colonies will not accept them at all. I’ll discuss this in more detail some other time.

And a final caveat …

The final point to remember is that both these studies analysed queen cell production and the resulting queens under the emergency response.

Many queen rearing methods – the so-called ‘queenright’ ones such as my favoured Ben Harden method – exploit the supersedure response. It’s always possible that the bees have different preferences for queens reared under the supersedure (or for that matter the swarming) responses.

But I doubt it 😉

After all … colony survival is dependent upon good quality queens and the bees know best.


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.


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.


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 🙂


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. 

Cabinet reshuffle

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about the totally dysfunctional state of British politics at the moment 1.

Once the honey supers are removed there’s seemingly little to do in the apiary. There is a temptation to catch up on all those other jobs postponed because I was “just off to the bees”.

Well, maybe temptation is a bit strong. After all, like all good procrastinators, I can usually find an excuse to postpone until next week something that could be left until at least tomorrow.

However, as I said last week, preparations for winter are very important and should not be delayed.

I covered feeding and the all-important late summer mite treatments in that post. Here I’m going to briefly discuss the various late season hive rearrangements that might be needed.

Clearing additional supers

I use very simple clearer boards to get the bees out of my supers. However, there are a couple of instances when not all the supers end up being removed:

  1. If some frames are empty or fail the ‘shake test’ I’ll rearrange these into the bottom super 2. I then clear the bees down into the bottom super and leave it for the bees.
  2. If the colony is really strong and is unlikely to fit into the brood box(es) I’ll often add a super above the queen excluder to clear the bees down into. Sometimes the bees will add a few dribbles of nectar to this … not enough to ever extract, and I’d prefer they put it in the brood box instead.

In both these situations I’ll want to remove the additional super before winter. I don’t want the bees to have a cold empty space above their heads.

Feed & clear together

I usually do this at the same time that I feed the bees.

I rearrange the boxes so that the ‘leftover’ super is above a crownboard on top of the super that is providing the headspace to accommodate the fondant blocks.

Since access to this top super is through a small hole the bees consider it is ‘outside’ the hive and so empty the remaining nectar and bring it down to the brood box 3.

If there are sealed stores in any of these super frames I bruise 4 the cappings with a hive tool and they’ll then move the stores down.

Substandard colonies

A very good piece of advice to all beekeepers is to “take your winter losses in the autumn”. This means assess colonies in the late summer/early autumn and get rid of those that are weak or substandard 5.

Substandard might mean those with a poor temper.

This is the colony which you put up with all season (despite their yobbo tendencies) because you believe that aggressive bees are productive bees’.

Were they?

Was that one half-filled super of partially-capped honey really worth the grief they gave you all summer?

Unless substandard (not just aggression … running, following, insufficiently frugal in winter etc.) colonies are replaced the overall standard of your bees will never improve.

I’ll discuss how to ‘remove’ them in a few paragraphs.

It’s probably a reasonable estimate to suggest that the ‘best’ third of your colonies should be used to rear more queens and the ‘worst’ third should be re-queened with these 6.

Over time 7 the quality will improve.

Of course, a substandard colony might well make it through the winter perfectly successfully. The same cannot be said for weak colonies.

TLC or tough love?

At the end of the summer colonies should be strong. If they are not then there is probably something wrong. A poorly mated queen, an old and failing queen, disease?

The exception might be a recently requeened colony or a new 5 frame nuc.


Everynuc …

Colonies that are weak at this stage of the season for no obvious reason need attention. Without it they are likely to succumb during the winter. And they’ll do this after you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of feeding and treating them … 8

There are essentially two choices:

  1. Mollycoddle them and hope they pick up. Boosting them with a frame or two of emerging brood may help (but make sure you don’t weaken the donor colony significantly). Moving them from a full hive to a nuc – preferably poly to provide better insulation – may also be beneficial. In a nuc they have less dead space to heat. An analogous strategy is to fill the space in the brood box with ‘fat dummies‘ or – low-tech but just as effective – a big wodge of bubble wrap with a standard dummy board to hold it in place.
  2. Sacrifice the queen from the weak hive and unite them with a strong colony.


Of the two I’d almost always recommend uniting colonies.

It’s less work. There’s no potentially wasted outlay on food and miticides. Most importantly, it’s much more likely to result in a strong colony the following spring.

However, we all get attached to our bees. It’s not unusual to give a fading favourite old queen ‘one more chance’ in the hope that next year will be her last hurrah.

Uniting notes

I’ve covered uniting before and so will only add some additional notes here …

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

  • You cannot generate a strong colony by uniting two weak colonies. They’re weak for a reason. Whether they’re weak for the same or different reasons uniting them is unlikely to help.
  • Never unite a colony with signs of disease. All you do is jeopardise the healthy colony.
  • Find the queen and permanently remove her from the weak or poor quality (substandard) colony.
  • If you can’t find the queen unite them with a queen excluder between the colonies. In my limited experience (I usually manage to find the unwanted queen) the bees usually do away with a failing queen when offered a better one, but best to check in a week or so.
  • I generally move the de-queened colony and put it on top of the strong queenright colony.
  • Unite over newspaper and don’t interfere with the hive for at least another week.
  • You can unite one strong colony and two weak colonies simultaneously.
  • Uniting and feeding at the same time is possible.
  • You can unite and treat with a miticide like Amitraz simultaneously. You will have to make a judgement call on whether both boxes need miticide treatment, depending on the strength of the weak colony.
  • If you’re uniting a strong substandard colony and a strong good colony you will need to use an amount of miticide appropriate for a double brood colony (four strips in the case of Amitraz).

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The goal of all of the above is to go into autumn with strong, healthy, well-fed colonies that will survive the winter and build up strongly again in the spring.

A very small or weak colony 9 in autumn may survive, but it’s unlikely to flourish the following spring.

“It takes bees to make bees.”

And a weak colony in spring lacks bees, so cannot build up fast.

In contrast, an overwintered strong colony can often yield a nuc in May the following year. You’ve regained your colony numbers, but have a new, young queen in one hive with most of the season ahead for her to prove her worth.

I’ve merged three topics here – clearing supers, stock improvement and getting rid of weak colonies before winter – because all involve some sort of hive manipulation in the early autumn. I usually complete this in late September or early October, with the intention of overwintering strong colonies in single brood boxes packed with bees and stores.


The heading of the final paragraph is the opening line of To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821). Keats wrote To Autumn exactly two hundred years ago (September 1819, his last poem) while gradually succumbing to tuberculosis. Despite this, and his doomed relationship with Fanny Brawne, the poem is not about sadness at the end of summer but instead revels in the ripeness and bounteousness of the season.

Of course, all beekeepers know that the first stanza of To Autumn closes with a reference to bees.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Splits and stock improvement

Beekeeping is always more enjoyable if the bees you are handling are good quality. I’ve briefly discussed judging the quality and temperament of your bees when writing about record keeping. With experience, and in particular with comparisons between colonies, it’s possible to identify traits which make working with your bees more enjoyable.

Bad behaviour

Although I keep general records on colony build up, disease resistance and the like, the three behavioural traits I try and accurately score my bees on all relate to how pleasant they are to handle. These are temper, running on the comb and following. I score these on a scale of 1 to 5 (low to high) and any colony consistently at 3 or less will eventually require attention. Bees with poor temper or that run on the comb are unpleasant to inspect, making what should be an interesting activity a chore. Bees that ‘follow’ – dive bombing you dozens of metres away from the hives after an inspection – are a real pain. Aside from making your own post-inspection de-suiting risky they are a potential menace to others going near your apiary and so should not be tolerated.

It’s all in the genes … nearly

If you’re really unfortunate you can find bees showing all three traits simultaneously – stroppy, running, followers – but they’re more usually found individually. With all of these characteristics, assuming they’re not environmental (poor weather, no flow, queenless colonies etc.), requeening is the usual solution. Genetics and environment determine behaviour, and if the environment is OK, then the genetics need changing. You can do this by purchasing a new queen, by rearing your own by grafting, or – as described below – by splitting the colony and providing suitable young larvae for the queenless portion to rear the new queen from. I usually graft and rear queens from my best stock but resources – time largely, due to overseas work commitments – mean that all my queen rearing and replacement is being done by splits this season.

The mechanics of a split

I’ve described the mechanics of a conventional vertical split for swarm control and making increase previously. The colony is divided using a split or division board into two. The queenright ‘half’ gets the flying bees, the queenless ‘half’ starts to make new queen cells from very young larvae. ‘Half’ because this is an imprecise science in terms of bee numbers … top and bottom half of the colony might be a better description, though colony orientation is not proscribed. After one week the colony is manipulated to bleed off flying bees from the queenless half, both strengthening the queenright half and reducing the likelihood of swarming. Three weeks later there should be a new, mated laying queen present.

Like mother, like daughter

Like father, like son is more conventional, but clearly inappropriate for a colony of bees 😉 . As outlined above, the queenless half of the split rears a new queen from larvae already present in the colony. If this is a colony with undesirable characteristics then there’s a distinct possibility you’ll be getting ‘more of the same’. These larvae came from eggs laid by the queen that headed the colony with the very-same undesirable characteristics you’re trying to replace. With open mated queens it’s a lottery, but the deck is already stacked against you – if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. So … stack the deck in your favour by providing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable characteristics.

Splits and stock improvement

Split the colony as previously described. In this case I’d argue that the queenless half should be on the top of the stack of boxes as you’ll be inspecting it a couple of times. Make sure the queenright half has sufficient stores should conditions deteriorate as they’ll be short of foragers for the next week or so. Make sure that the queenless half has the majority of brood – sealed and unsealed – as you’ll need young bees over an extended period to rear new queens.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

At the end of this initial manipulation the queenright half will use an entrance at the bottom of the stack, orientated in the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The split board will have an entrance open at the original front of the hive. This is illustrated in the ‘reversed’ orientation on the right hand side of diagram (right). For a more comprehensive discussion of the orientation of the queenright and queenless portions see the recent post entitled Upstairs, downstairs?

Seek and destroy

One week later you need to carefully inspect the upper (queenless) box. Any and all queen cells must be found and destroyed. You will need to shake the bees off every frame to do this. These potential new queens were all reared from eggs and larvae laid by the original queen. Since 7 days have elapsed there will no longer be any suitable young larvae for the colony to rear a new queen. The maths are straightforward; a newly laid egg hatches after 3 days and larvae must be less than 3 days old to rear queens from.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

When returning the frames to the brood box leave a gap in the middle. Into this gap add a frame containing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable genetics i.e. good tempered, steady on the comb and none of those dreadful followers. Mark the frame so you can identify it again if needed. If you have a choice of frames to transfer use one with fresh new comb as the bees find this easier to manipulate when drawing out queen cells.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Normal service is resumed

With the new frame of eggs/larvae added you’re now back on track to complete the vertical split. I’d suggest reversing the hive at the same time as you add the frame of ‘desirable’ larvae. There should be plenty of young bees in the upper half of the split and it’s these that will rear the new queen. The flying bees will strengthen the queenright half of the hive, helping gather nectar if there is a flow on. Make sure the queenright half of the hive has sufficient supers – you don’t want to be disturbing the colony too much, particularly in about 2-3 weeks which is when the new virgin queen will be going on her mating flight(s).

One week after adding the frame of new eggs and larvae there should be queen cells clearly present on the marked frame. If there aren’t it’s likely you missed a queen cell when shaking through the colony and there might be a newly emerged virgin running about in the hive.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

In which case, let’s hope she doesn’t rear bees that behave like those from her mother 😉