I’ve just come back from a weekend course at the British Beekeepers Association in Warwickshire. I spent two days in the company of two Master Beekeepers, covering the syllabus for the ‘General Husbandry’ exam which – if I decide to do it this year – will put me through my beekeeping paces.
Exam preparation aside, it was great to pick up so many practical tips from the tutors. Simple but essential things like the right way to pick up queens; how to shake combs with queen cells on them (yes, it is possible) and the right way to give a colony a test comb when you suspect it might be queenless. Plus many more nuggets of information that you only get from beekeepers with a life-time of experience.
Right now I am still thinking about our discussions on the subject of oxalic acid. Having been concerned that I left my oxalic acid treatments too late, I was reminded by the tutors that oxalic acid isn’t just for the broodless periods of Christmas and New Year . . .
Why treat with oxalic acid?
Treating colonies for varroa with oxalic acid sublimation is now pretty standard where I live. When I started beekeeping ten years ago, the norm was to do a ‘trickle’ (or spray) treatment directly over the bees in the cluster during the broodless period roughly between Christmas and New Year.
But then the research done by Professor Ratnieks and his team at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex demonstrated that it is more effective to sublimate the crystals (vaporise them using heat).
The LASI research said that 2.25g of oxalic acid applied to broodless winter colonies via sublimation killed 97% of the varroa. Furthermore, these colonies then had 20% more brood in spring than those treated via trickle or spraying, or untreated colonies.
Add to this the fact that you don’t need to disturb colonies when you treat with sublimation, and it seems a no-brainer . . .
From the ridiculous to the sublimation
I have a confession: I get put off by the need for extra equipment and by anything that sounds complicated. And at first the need for car batteries, cables etc. put me off trying sublimation. Trickle treatments continued to be the norm in my apiary – and there’s nothing wrong with that, they do work in knocking back varroa levels.
However this year a friend offered to lend me a Sublimox vaporiser. This was an opportunity to try a piece of kit that I couldn’t say no to.
Plenty has been written about this device elsewhere. Suffice to say that it is compact and efficient to work with. You can hold it in one hand. The dose of oxalic acid vaporises when it comes into contact with an integrated heated plate. You simply invert the device and put the ‘spout’ in the hive entrance, and it administers the does quickly and efficiently.
Sublimox ready for use
Using the Sublimox did make the process of treating all my colonies very quick and easy. There was no waiting around for it to heat up. Even I could handle the car battery/power set up. With a long extension cable I could leave the battery and adaptor in my car and run the power down to my apiary without any fuss. It was brilliant.
He’s wearing a safety mask, you just can’t see it in this photo
If you get the opportunity to try this lovely bee toy, be aware that you absolutely must have a proper full-face mask with breathing filter, because when you stand at the hive entrance and administer the vapour, you are bound to come into contact with some of it. This is very important because oxalic acid is highly toxic to humans.
What about the results of the sublimation? I had a hefty mite drop after each treatment, no surprise there. But as I said earlier, I’ve been wondering if it could have been even higher if I’d treated earlier, when there would have been less brood. I assume so.
Oxalic acid: not just for Christmas
Good news . . . oxalic acid treatments are affective at any time the bees are in a broodless state.
This is because oxalic acid acts on the mites that are attached to the adult bees (the mites in the phoretic stage of their lifecycle), rather than the mites in brood. It is thought that the acid burns their mouthparts, causing them to drop off the bees and out of the hive through the open mesh floor.
Phoretic mites on adult bees
So if you’re planning shook swarms, or swarm control that involves separating the queen and flying bees from the brood and nurse bees, it’s a good opportunity to administer another treatment. I think this will make a huge difference to my own management of varroa throughout the year.
A word of caution about using oxalic acid
Interestingly, oxalic acid has been used by beekeepers to reduce varroa levels for years. It is a naturally-occurring organic acid. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t highly dangerous to work with, requiring precautions and care.
Also, unless you use Api-bioxal (see below), the crystals used in sublimation treatments are not an ‘approved medicine’ in the UK for use with honeybees.
This is important to know about, especially if you sell your honey. There is the potential for any treatment to leave a residue in honey or in other hive products intended for human consumption. Obviously there was no honey on my hives at the time of treatment.
Api-Bioxal, is the only oxalic acid-based treatment that has been approved for use in the UK for trickle or sublimation (if you do use a Sublimox be aware that you can’t use Api-Bioxal in it because it has sugar in it, and it will mess up your lovely new toy).
You can of course buy oxalic acid crystals in the di-hydrate form and use those. I did and they are slightly cheaper. But when you buy your di-hydrate oxalic crystals and notice that it says ‘hive cleaner’ on the packaging, it’s because they aren’t approved for use as a varroa treatment and legally can only be sold for cleaning purposes.
For chapter and verse about licenced treatments search the National Bee Unit website for its leaflet on bee medicines.
And for further information about how to prepare oxalic acid, see The Apiarist’s blog.
Ultimately the choice as to how you treat your bees is yours. But don’t let indecision stop you treating your bees per se. In my opinion, anything we can do to keep varroa levels down without resorting to chemicals is a good thing.
So I’ll definitely be sublimating again. I just hope I can borrow that Sublimox. If not, it may be back to trickling for me!
How many times have you been asked by non-beekeepers whether bees hibernate over winter? It’s interesting that it’s such a common question. People are always amazed to learn that the colony doesn’t hibernate or die.
It’s incredible to think that right now, while a winter storm is roaring outside and I’ve turned the heating up, my bees are living in wooden boxes on a freezing field in Surrey!
We all know that our bees have a lot stacked against them in their quest for survival. Although the main preparations for winter are done in autumn, there are things we can do right now to give our bees a helping hand through winter.
Prevent winter starvation
This cluster has starved on the comb
This is one of the most critical threats our bees face over winter. Starvation happens either through running out of stores generally or through isolation starvation (when the cluster loses contact with stores and dies despite close proximity to food).
Starvation often happens in spring, when the colony is growing rapidly. However don’t wait that long to give them some fondant. I heft hives over winter, but it only makes sense if you’ve done it in autumn too and can make the comparison.
Even when I know there are enough stores, I always give them a block of fondant in early January. I put it over the feedhole in the crown board where the cluster can find it in the rising heat. It comforts me to think that if they lose contact with other stores they will probably find the fondant.
I don’t make my own fondant, I buy it. It’s better.
Remember too that its essential to remove the queen excluder in winter so that the cluster can move freely with the queen. If you didn’t do it last autumn, pick a relatively warm day and whip it off. Better late than never.
Take action on varroa during winter
Varroa feeding on larvae
What a nightmare varroa is. I have two colonies that, despite shook swarms, drone brood removal and MAQs, still went into winter with high mite drops. And now the problem requires action.
Oxalic acid is the treatment used at this time of year, now most widely done via sublimation (vaporising the crystals). It’s a good time to do it because there is less brood, so the phoretic mites are more easily knocked down.
Like starvation, varroa is something that you can’t take your eye off. I’ve been measuring the mite drop regularly over winter because I don’t want any nasty surprises in spring – I’ve had that before! Also I’d rather deal with the problem in winter while there is a good opportunity. I’d rather not put varroacides into the growing colony in spring, so better all round to do it now.
The varroa tray is also a very useful way of monitoring where the cluster is, how big it is etc. – the debris on the tray will tell you.
Too much condensation is a common winter problem which can be serious. Caused by the heat of the cluster meeting the cold surface of the hive walls or crownboard, condensation drips on the cluster and can kill a small or weak colony. I find it’s a real problem with polynucs.
The answer is simple: TOP INSULATION, BOTTOM VENTILATION. I haven’t looked back since someone helpfully pointed out that I should stop applying Ted Hooper’s methods to my open mesh floor hives! I once heard a bee inspector describe lack of top insulation as being like leaving the loft hatch open in your house so that all the heat flows out, and the ceilings grow cold.
So I now insulate the crown boards of my wooden hives with those foam quilts (I cut a hole for feeding). Floors are all open mesh for ventilation. No doubt there are other things you can use.
Polynucs get a piece of thick cardboard cut to size and inserted between crown board and roof.
The bees do use condensation in the hive for digesting winter stores but they really don’t need it dripping on them.
Bee poo: is it dysentery or nosema?
What a lovely sight
Bees get dysentery from eating fermented stores. Nosema is an adult bee disease caused by a fungal parasite. Both can show up over winter or in early spring and the visual signs are impossible to miss: squirts of bee poo on the outside of the hive – not just a few, LOTS. It’s obvious that there is a problem! Usually with nosema there’s also bee poo inside the hive, on the combs, simply because the infection gets that bad.
Nosema is diagnosed using a microscope and looks like lots of tiny grains of rice on the slide. In the UK, beekeeping associations often hold nosema clinics in the spring for you to have a sample of your bees tested. This is simple to do and well worthwhile even if you can’t see any visible signs.
There is no licensed treatment for nosema anymore so clean boxes and a comb change are needed in spring, although progress with comb changes tends to be slow because these colonies are weakened. Sometimes re-queening helps with nosema. There’s lots of info online about how to manage this. Check out the Beebase resources at www.nationalbeeunit.com.
Problems with hive or equipment failure during winter
Hives strapped for winter, with mouse guards and woodpecker netting
By this I mean the damp, leaky hive, the collapsed hive stand, etc. Hopefully you checked the condition of your hives and strapped them down in autumn. If not, you can still do it now. Sometimes replacing a roof is all that’s needed to fix damp. If hives do topple and they are strapped, your bees will probably be alright. Obviously try not to disturb the bees while you are making any necessary adjustments. I always think that I won’t need a veil when I’m checking hives in winter and the bees always tell me otherwise!
Green woodpeckers, mice and other pests
Continue to check that mouseguards remain firmly on. Strong winds and animals knocking against the hives can cause them to come loose. Boxes can also be knocked out of alignment.
It’s good to protect your hives with netting, even if you think you don’t have green woodpeckers. They can destroy hives and boxes by pecking through to eat the brood. The have a very distinct ‘swooping’ flight pattern which is a giveaway even when you can’t see the bird clearly.
When I went to check my apiary last week there was a woodpecker sitting on top of one of my hives. The first time I have seen one in five years on that site! Off I went to the hardware store for net.
Moving hives in winter
Of course one good thing about winter is that you can move hives within your apiary without recourse to the 3 feet/3 mile rule. But only after there has been a really cold snap for about two weeks and while the bees are still clustered (try not to disturb the cluster).
Those are, to me, the urgent essentials to watch when looking after your winter bees. I think observational skills are even more important in winter, simply because we can’t get inside the hive to take a look. I always take a look at how many dead bees are in the pile at the entrance, what debris is on the varroa tray and note any spots of bee poo on the outside. This takes seconds but helps in maintaining a picture of what might be going on.
Keeping your eye on a few important things can make the difference between survival and colony loss.
Happy winter beekeeping!
Today was day one of the National Honey Show here in Southeast England and it definitely delivered. I arrived early, found a seat in the lecture theatre and pretty much camped out all day. There were some good talks, but for me the highlights were the lectures by experts from the US and Canada.
The day began with a lecture by Tom Seeley. This was the first time that I had heard him speak in person. I should say that he is a hero of mine, not just because he is a truly great ‘bee scientist’, but because he clearly loves bees for the amazing and fascinating creatures that they are and he is brilliant at communicating this to ordinary beekeepers like me – whether through his books or in person. He is inspiring.
The title of his talk was ‘The Bee Colony as a Honey Factory’. This was not a talk about how to harvest more honey! Instead the emphasis was, as it always is with Tom Seeley, about the bees and their behaviour, in this case how they divide and regulate labour for efficient honey production, mobilising more foragers and also more bees to process and store food when there is a nectar flow.
Using video clips he showed us how the bees use dances to recruit help where needed: the waggle dance to recruit more foragers, shaking signals to wake up sleeping bees (yes, bees do sleep!) and tremble dances to recruit more bees to process incoming nectar.
And there are also the beep signals (like head butting with a buzzing squeak!) which bees inflict on waggle dancers to get them to stop, at times when the colony is already working at full capacity and doesn’t need more nectar.
His lecture gave us layer upon layer of insight and no doubt left many of us pondering yet again how a small creatures with tiny brains can gather and manage information within the hive to organise and direct a workforce of thousands.
I feel like I was given a glimpse into the incredible wonders and possibilities of the ‘bee universe’! I know that my bees are capable of mysterious and wonderful things, but to be shown the depth of possibilities was awe-inspiring!
In short, listening to Tom Seeley today was an absolute pleasure. He gave his talk with excellent awareness of his audience and talked about the bees in such a happy and affectionate way that it’s impossible not to feel good just by being there.
There were some other great speakers too:
Ohio-based Kim Flottum gave a light-hearted but very interesting talk about drones, a subject to which we should all pay more attention (and I include myself in that!). He showed us why drones are ‘special in so many ways’.
So often overlooked, they are of course central to the survival of our bees. As well as being a ‘gene transfer mechanism’, they are an important indicator of colony health and nutritional status.
He spoke about the need to make sure that queens mate with drones that are good genetic stock and how he has moved his bee yard close to particular drone congregation areas in order to facilitate this. He advised us to look for a combination of horizon, tree line and open area when seeking to locate our local drone congregation area.
When it comes to managing varroa, he recommended drone brood removal as an effective method of keeping the varroa population down. He has a weekly cycle of adding empty drone combs/foundation and removing sealed drone combs but warned that this must be done on a fastidious timetable before the brood hatches, or else we are just creating ‘varroa incubators’ (this is how he manages honey production hives; drone brood isn’t removed from mating hives obviously).
The last lecture of the day was given by Heather Mattila from Wellesley College. The title was “Hard Working Bees Need Pollen”. Heather’s research has shown how ‘pollen stress’ on larvae affects the performance of adult bees.
When pollen is in short supply, colonies respond by decreasing brood rearing at first, then, as the shortage progresses, by reducing the number of feeding visits that nurse bees make to larvae and by early capping of larvae. When the shortage becomes severe, bees will cannibalise larvae rather than try to feed them.
Bees that have been deprived of pollen as larvae are smaller, lighter and have a shorter life span. Interestingly, they do less foraging and are twice as likely to disappear while foraging. They also have limited hypopharyngeal gland development, and feed larvae less food, less frequently. And their dances are less precise.
A good supply of pollen is vital for the health of our bees, given that it provides almost all of a colony’s nutrients. Pollen that is stored properly in cells in the hive (processed, packed into a cell and sealed with honey) has a relatively stable nutritive value. We should make sure our colonies have plenty of it for overwintering, as pollen substitutes aren’t as good as the real thing.
Each of these speakers is giving further talks at the Honey Show over the next two days, including Tom Seeley, so head on down to Esher for some inspiration.
It’s the time of year that we all love . . . Whether honey is a motivation for your beekeeping or not, it’s always exciting to see those shining jars full of beautiful honey from YOUR bees. Talk about job satisfaction!
And yet a new beekeeper said to me the other day that they are ‘dreading’ their first honey extraction because they have read about how messy and disruptive it is.
There is a lot of advice written on the subject of honey extraction, ranging from the melodramatic (e.g. ‘it’s a nightmare, you’ll get honey all over your house, cat etc.’) to the overly-fussy and uptight (e.g. you can only do it with expensive kit and a specialised tool for every task).
To me the most important rule of honey extraction is: don’t mess up what the bees have perfected! They seal the honey in a pristine state and we come along and uncap it, and expose it to all kinds of spoilage risks. Our extraction methods should be designed to give the honey the best chance of staying as the bees intended!
Here are a few tips that I’ve learned through trial and error over the years.
Clearing supers: Porter bee escapes take at least 24 hours to clear supers (meaning two trips to the apiary to bring your supers home) and in my experience they can’t be relied on to clear supers completely. They also tend to break or get propolised by the bees. This year I have used Bee Quick as it clears supers almost instantly on warm days and avoids repeat trips to the apiary. It’s pretty much faff-free and that suits me!
Is it ok to extract unsealed cells?: you can extract unsealed cells as long as you check that the moisture content is not too high. You can use a refractometer to do this (they are easy to use and you can now find them relatively cheaply now) and also do the ‘shake test’ (shake the horizontal face of the comb downwards to see if any drops of watery nectar fly out). I prefer combs to be at least 70% sealed before I extract them. Remember that honey with too much water will spoil through fermentation. Honey from different floral sources can have different water contents so make sure you know what is right for yours. I know that 19% water is too much for my lavender honey to last more than 12 months (but luckily it’s never around that long).
Transporting and storing supers: remember to keep your supers and frames in clean conditions prior to extraction – don’t lay them on the ground or put them in the dirty boot of your car. This is food we’re talking about! And when you bring them home, keep them in a dry and odour-free place until you extract them which should be within 24 hours. Honey is hygroscopic (absorbs water) and can also absorb odours, which could ruin your whole extraction.
Honey extractors: the only expensive piece of equipment I use is a nine frame electric extractor which is worth its weight in gold. Every year I rent it from my local beekeeping association and it has transformed the extraction process in my house. It’s so easy to use and much more efficient at extracting every drop from the comb. Having said that, when I had just a few supers to extract my four frame manual extractor served me just fine and I still have it safely stored away. Whatever extractor you choose to suit your needs, I think this is one piece of equipment that is worth investing in.
Uncapping tools: one thing I will never use is one of those uncapping knives with the wavy edge. I bought one and used it for about 5 mins. It just seems to mash the comb. I much prefer a thinner, flexible blade. I have an old-fashioned, serrated bread knife and a carving knife which, when sharpened, does a brilliant job at getting just under the cappings and removing them in one piece. After all, you want the honey to go into the extractor, not to spill all over the uncapping tray. There are of course quicker ways to uncap. I have never tried an uncapping roller but I have seen them used and they are very speedy and efficient. Hot air guns of the paint stripper type are fine as long as you use them lightly and fast – or else they char the honey and can even cause damage to the comb.
Uncapping trays: this is where I get really low tech! You know how you sometimes get attached to a favourite thing that is old but does the job so well that you can’t find a replacement? Well, mine is a 10 year old serving tray from Ikea, with a cheesecake recipe printed on it! . . . and it is the perfect size and hygienic and just the thing for me. I once borrowed a steam-heated uncapping tray which was very efficient but it was huge, very hot and the steam peeled the paint from the ceiling of my kitchen. And it’s a very bad idea to have steam in the extraction room because honey will absorb moisture.
Tips for your extraction room: whether it’s your kitchen or another facility, your extraction room should be scrupulously clean – especially surfaces and floor. Please do remove the dog’s bed and the cat ‘s litter tray!!!!! It helps a lot to declutter surfaces and tidy everything away. The room also needs to be ‘bee tight’ i.e. keep windows and doors closed during extraction or you’ll have every bee from miles around trying to get in. It’s a good thing to keep the extraction room warm because honey ‘runs’ better when it’s warm and you’ll get a better yield. Put the oven on if necessary and put the extractor in front of it.
‘Operator Hygiene’: contrary to how this sounds, it’s not anything to do with surgery but is actually about food hygiene practices. I’m not going to go on a rant here but it should be common sense to stop your hair falling into the honey, or cigarette ash, or to not wear a fluffy woollen jumper while extracting or leave a basket of dirty laundry by the extractor! However you’d be surprised what some people think is ok. Whether you are selling your honey or giving it away, present it to the highest standards. It pays to be fastidious especially when dealing with a beautiful product.
Keep honey and water well apart: one of the most important things to remember is to keep water away from your honey. Obviously honey does naturally contain moisture but the bees manage it to ensure fermentation doesn’t take place. As soon as we remove the cappings the honey is vulnerable to absorbing too much moisture and drops of water or steam from the extracting room can spoil the whole extraction. I’t’s very easy to splash water into the extractor if its near the sink so put it elsewhere if you have room. You also have to be very careful when washing your hands – dry them properly before touching anything.
How to prevent stickiness: this really isn’t a problem or even an inconvenience. I simply start off with a clean, washed floor and lay down a sheet of newspaper on every drop of honey that falls. The newspaper can be scooped up and recycled when the extraction is over. I find that normal surface spray quickly dissolves blobs of honey on worktops, cupboard doors, doorhandles, taps etc. If you don’t like sticky hands or arms, wear disposable food gloves that fit (not ones that twist around because they’re too large) and a long-sleeved shirt.
What to do with the cappings?: if you don’t want to deal with cappings, there are methods of uncapping that deal with them for you e.g. hot air guns which melt them. I do however like to have some cappings left over. I filter mine over a bowl overnight, covered with clingfilm. I then strain this honey a second time into the main ripening tank before bottling. Some people spin cappings in muslin bags in the extractor but I’ve never tried this. It seems like a good idea. Remember that you can make mead from the water that you use when washing your extractor afterwards. You can also make it from water that you’ve use to wash the cappings. I haven’t made mead but I love the idea of nothing going to waste.
Be warned – honey is silent!! : just when you’re enjoying the sight of your hard-earned honey flowing into the filter, you turn your back for what you think is a second only to find honey overflowing down the sides of the tank and onto the floor without you hearing it. Unlike water, it doesn’t make a sound. The key moments of risk are when you have opened the tap to run honey into the wire mesh filter. It fills up very quickly especially if there is wax debris blocking the drainage; it can also happen when jarring. Don’t take your eyes off it!
Leaking honey gates: this is quite common so always test the seals before you use the equipment for the first time each year. If your honey gate is leaking it could be one of a few things. Have you taken the gate off to wash it? Make sure you put it back on the right way. The smooth side of the gate must face inwards and the grid side must face outwards. Make sure the seals are in good condition and are securely in place. Sometimes as they get older they sag and stretch, so you won’t get a good seal. Spare rubber rings should be supplied with any tap you buy but if not you can get them online.
A leaking honey gate caused by the tap being fitted wrongly: the smooth side should be inside.
Settling honey: I leave the filtered honey to ‘ripen’ for 24 hours before skimming it and running it directly into jars. Honey is vulnerable to moisture and odours while it’s settling. Now is definitely not the time to fry up some bacon! With my tank I find that if I push the lid on too firmly it’s hard to get it off again (in fact I think they used to have a label that warned they may break). So I sit the lid on top and drape a couple of clean tea towels over.
A tank of honey after settling with a white froth of air bubbles on top
Once you get it all into the ripening tank you are just 24 hours away from some beautiful jars of honey. More on the jarring process soon . . . as that’s another story.
Wishing you a sweet and successful extraction!
So . . . how did you and your bees come through the ‘swarming season’? Hopefully you didn’t lose any swarms, and hopefully you might have some new queens laying by now. Most of all, hopefully you didn’t experience any dramas in the process!
In Part 1 of this blog I talked about how swarming can seem like a very big deal indeed. Here, in Part 2, I want to share the method I use to control swarming. It’s a simple method but, like anything in beekeeping, it does rely on having the equipment you need at hand when you actually need it. Getting prepared is essential and believe me, it reduces swarming- related drama by at least 50%!
OK then . . . how to control swarming?
The first step is to understand the difference between swarm prevention and swarm control because the process of managing swarming begins way in advance of finding that first queen cell.
Swarm prevention begins as the colony starts to expand rapidly. The key objective is to ensure that the colony has enough space. This is absolutely vital because a congested colony is not happy: the queen doesn’t have space to lay and queen substance, which keeps the colony together as a cohesive society, cannot be transmitted as effectively through the crowded highways and byways of the hive.
To relieve congestion, you can remove a couple of frames of brood and give them to other colonies that need a boost, and replace them with empty drawn comb (ideally) or frames and foundation. Or you can make up a three frame nuc and let them raise their own queen.
Adding supers is also crucial – the bees will need the space if there is a flow on, and there is already a tendency to swarm during a flow because the abundance of food enables colonies to raise queens. Without supers, they will store nectar in the brood nest, forcing the space issue to crisis point. It’s essential to know when the nectar flows begin in your area, so that you can stay one step ahead.
The moment for decisive action arrives: a primed queen cell is found
You will have been inspecting your colonies every seven days, searching for signs of swarm preparation. It starts with production of drone brood in spring, then small cups – ‘play cups’, which are rough and unpolished inside, and which the bees are constructing around the edges of the comb. Sometimes it doesn’t progress beyond this, especially if you have managed them well as they expand. But it’s more likely that on subsequent inspections you will notice that the cups are being polished, and eventually you’ll see a larvae floating in a milky puddle inside – a primed queen cell.
This is the point at which you have to act immediately. Don’t panic!! Don’t knock down the queen cells and ‘come back next week’. I’ve done it, and they swarmed in the interim. (Incidentally, in my opinion, constantly knocking down queen cells is not a method of swarm control. The bees get depressed, and the colony dwindles.)
The basic principle of swarm control is to separate the queen from the brood to simulate swarming conditions. So, when you find that primed queen cell here’s what to do.
You will have your equipment ready to go because you got everything prepared, right?! Have an empty polynuc fitted with frames and foundation, for each colony, ready to use.
First, go through the swarming colony and check where the queen cells are and which one looks like a good one to keep. Remember not to shake any frames at this point to ensure that you don’t damage any queen cells that you might want to keep.
Next, find the queen and put her and the frame she’s on in the nuc. It is vital to destroy any queen cells on this frame – look very carefully because the bees are ingenious at hiding them. Use smoke to move the bees around and check all areas of the comb. (See Dave Cushman’s website for very helpful information about making up two frame nucs and their uses.)
Then put a frame of stores and pollen in the nuc, another frame of capped brood that’s ready to emerge, and an empty comb or some frames and foundation. Again, these frames must not have queen cells on them. Shake in some more bees from a few brood frames and add a dummy board and close up the nuc. Feed it syrup if needed, 2:1 if you want them to draw foundation.
Move the nuc away from the hive but keep it relatively close by in case you want to unite it again at some point (the general rule is 3 feet away).
Now deal with the queen cells in the main colony: take a another look through the frames and, without shaking any of them, choose a nice open queen cell, with a plump larvae inside and mark the frame with a drawing pin. Again, without shaking the frame, check it carefully for other queen cells and knock them all down so that your chosen cell is all that’s left. Avoid choosing capped cells because you can’t be sure there is a queen in there (I once chose a beautiful sealed queen cell which turned out to have nothing in it).
Having chosen your cell, its time to seek and destroy all other queen cells in the hive. This is no mean task. Not only do the bees resent the process of shaking them off the frames but it’s also very easy to miss queen cells which the bees are so good at hiding, especially in indentations or shrunken parts of the comb around the sides and bottom. One missed queen cell can derail the whole process further down the line.
But pause for just a second before you go on a rampage and ask yourself if you can use any of the other queen cells in the hive: if it’s a colony with traits that you like, you may want to use a queen cell to requeen another colony, for example. Bear in mind that you can’t use a cell if it has been shaken.
Now continue: carefully shake the bees off all the other frames and knock down all queen cells, doing a thorough job at getting the larvae out with your hive tool. Shake the bees off all other frames and carefully find and destroy all unwanted queen cells.
Finally, and this is crucial: open the hive again 4-5 days later and destroy any further queen cells that they will have made from the eggs and larvae that were still in there when the queen was moved into the polynuc. If you miss this step the colony will make a ‘second round’ of queen cells, meaning that you may have multiple queens hatching in a week’s time and chaos could ensue. I also check the queen cell again after seven days to check she has emerged.
Leave for the colony for 10 days up to three weeks to give her time to mate and start laying. Depending on her performance you can then cull the older queen and re-unite the hive and polynuc, or leave the nuc to grow into another full-sized colony.
Hopefully that sounds simple because it is in practice! Here are the key benefits:
- It’s quick: it takes around 15 minutes to do the whole thing
- No need for another complete hive, just a polynuc which is much cheaper
- No moving heavy colonies around.
There are also a couple of don’ts:
- Don’t leave the colony for a month as some books say – be sure to check again for the ‘second round’ of queen cells
- Don’t leave two queen cells – the first queen to emerge doesn’t always sting remaining queen cells. Sometimes she can depart with some of the remaining bees, further depleting your colony. There is lots of conflicting advice on this, but I have learned the hard way that one queen cell is best!
And that’s it! Hopefully this has shown how easy it is to manage swarming colonies. And how to take the drama out of swarming!