Why swarm control doesn’t have to be a drama: Part 2

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!

Why swarming doesn’t have to be a drama: Part 1

Yes, it’s that time of year again. If you are anxiously inspecting your colonies, dreading that you might find a queen cell, then you are not alone!

The swarming process can be very confusing and stressful, especially if you are in your early years of beekeeping.  Everything seems to be going so well:  the hive is full of bees and you start visualising those jars of golden honey when suddenly, it seems that you lose all control – and then half your bees!

For me, swarming has been the cause of tears, injuries, marital discord and hangovers!  All beekeepers have their ‘swarm stories’.  And yet, now that I’ve worked it out, I realise how easy the swarming process is to manage.

Swarming is, after all, a natural behaviour that we need to work with, and not try to stop it or suppress it.  Even before you find that first queen cell, there is a lot you can do to control or at least influence your bees’ swarming preparations.

Why all the drama?

As I said, swarming is completely natural.  But that doesn’t lessen the panic you feel when your neighbours are enjoying a perfect Sunday afternoon in their garden and all hell breaks loose.  Or so it seems to them and you.

Seeing a hive swarm is incredible and fascinating.  You really feel the full animal force of the super organism as it divides and reproduces! However if you’re not a beekeeper, you would undoubtedly be more likely to run away than stand in awe.  I understand why people who aren’t wearing bee suits feel a need to flee the scene.

Then of course there is the strange aftermath with swarms hanging around in trees or wherever – imagine if one of those suddenly appeared in your garden with its busy scouts flying to and fro.  (Obviously as beeks, we’d put it in a hive, but if you’re not a beekeeper . . . ?!)

So I think that swarming can indeed cause a lot of drama – but in itself it isn’t something to panic about.  You are not a bad beekeeper if your bees swarm! But the goal is to find a way of managing their natural swarming behaviour to avoid a swarm issuing from the hive in the first place.

It takes time, attention and experience to do this, but it can be done without the drama – I’m living proof!

Can someone name a swarm control method after me please?

My first nuc swarmed when I’d had it for two weeks.  I now know that shouldn’t have happened, but nevertheless I was scarred from the start!

Determined to tackle swarm control, I tried using the Pagden method of artificial swarming in my first two years.  It was like the dummy’s guide to swarm control:  I went through the manipulation but didn’t always understand why.  I don’t think I ever went through the process of moving the parent hive to the other side of the swarm hive.

As I grew more confident, and space became an issue in my garden, I switched to vertical methods such as Demaree and Snelgrove Boards.

But to be honest, none of these really worked for me.  No doubt there were things that I wasn’t doing correctly.  But at the end of the day, I like things that are simple and that work.  I don’t like equipment or methods that you have to fiddle around with all the time.  And my problem with the swarm methods I was using was that they supposedly required a full spare hive for each colony, and lots of lifting and shifting stuff around.

In searching for a new swarm control method I became overwhelmed with all the options and ideas out there.  Every time I opened a beekeeping journal there was something new to me, named after someone!  This added to my anxiety:  was I doing the right thing?  Would my bees suffer from my ignorance??!!

The kindness of beekeepers

Beware:  when you ask for advice about swarming, set aside an hour or so for the answer.  Beekeepers are notorious for conflicting opinions and contradicting themselves!  I think we all know what I mean!  Should you leave two queen cells or one?  Does the first queen to emerge always sting other queen cells?  Is the cell always capped on day seven? Etc.

I once had two beautiful queen cells to choose from in a swarming colony, and asked fellow beekeepers if I could leave both.  Some said yes, some said no.  I left the two cells and the first queen to emerge didn’t sting the other cell as I had been told.  Instead they cast, leaving me with even less bees.  Still, it was ultimately my decision – and I learned a valuable lesson!

Having said that, when you are at the point where you need support or just don’t know what to do with a colony, ask a beekeeper!  I have always found beekeepers to be kind and supportive (as well as driving me nuts!).  Don’t suffer through swarming alone – ask for help.

So, what is the answer to drama-free swarm control?

I eventually arrived at a simple method of swarm control that doesn’t require a whole spare hive, or moving hives around.  I will explain the process in Part 2 of this blog, but for now, the clue is ‘polynuc’!

In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘swarm therapy’ session.  I certainly feel better to have got some of these things off my chest.  Just don’t ask me about the time I tried to collect a swarm in my dressing gown!

 

Spring check: how safe is your apiary?!

Whether your apiary is at home or away, it’s important to consider whether it is safe and convenient for you.  I’m not talking about ‘health and safety gone mad’, just common sense!

Fly poster by subdude

An apiary should work for the beekeeper as well as the bees. And as I’ve discovered recently, there are a number of danger zones in my apiary that need attention.  Spring is the time to asses your apiary and rectify anything that doesn’t work for you.

Take a look at the following: a taut wire (in the foreground), a fence post from a fallen-down fence, a thicket of brambles and nettles, and some broken breeze blocks thrown in for good measure:

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it did go wrong the other day and certain parts of my anatomy are still tingling from the thorns and nettle stings! I’m lucky that it wasn’t worse.  I could have knocked myself out or disembowelled myself with my hive tool.

Luckily no-one was there to witness my humiliation but the most embarrassing thing about it is that I’ve tripped there before and I did nothing to remedy it.

There are other things that keep happening: hitting my heat on overhanging tree branches, not having enough space to work certain colonies and mossy logs lying camouflaged on the ground which I always take great care to step over . . . that is, until I’m carrying equipment and can’t see them.

This makes me sound like a sloppy beekeeper but I definitely am not that. I just get so wrapped up in what’s best for the bees (and the public) that I de-prioritise my own convenience.

It is completely about applying common sense.

Allow me to share some tips from my own experience. Hopefully I have made these mistakes so that you don’t have to!

First, take time to cut back those brambles and anything else that can trip you or catch hold of you. Trim back branches so they don’t hit you on the head or slap you in the face! Ducking and dodging is risky and inconvenient.

Arrange your apiary so that you have adequate space to inspect hives in comfort, including putting roofs on the ground, lifting and stacking supers and generally moving around. If you’re in a small space that is uncomfortable it risks the chance of falling over or of being clumsy and disturbing the bees. If you can’t move a hive consider changing the frames from warm way to cold way or vice versa.

When it comes to equipment, remember that your hive tool is like a weapon – it’s strong, sharp and would get you arrested if you carried it in certain situations!   Learn to use it properly and be careful when it’s in the pocket of your bee suit.

You’ll think I’m really pointing out the obvious now, but smokers can and do set fire to things – like dry grass at your apiary or the back of your car! Suddenly your car is full of smoke and other drivers are frantically gesticulating at you.  Yes, I know that this need to spell things out probably explains a lot about my own mishaps, but it did really happen to me and others I know!

Lie smokers on their side and plug the spout with a knot of green grass or a cork.  Check that they are cool and fully extinguished. If you’re not careful the lid can slip open when you’re driving along, letting in oxygen which re-ignites the fire. Some beekeepers put them in a tin which seems like a good idea, I just have to find a tin that’s big enough.

On a more serious note, something happened that really scared me one evening: I was hassled by two people who wouldn’t go away. My apiary is tucked away and not visible. My phone was in my car and I couldn’t get to it. I thought that if they came any closer I would push over a beehive.

Luckily it didn’t come to that but now I do keep my mobile on me and fully charged and I tell someone where I’m going.  I think that’s especially important for us girls.  And I do keep Piriton in the car in case I react to a sting (which has never happened, touchwood, but I have beekeeping friends who this has happened to).

To me, beekeeping is beautiful thing and anything that niggles me in my apiary is an unwanted distraction from quality time with my bees.

The moral of these sad stories?:   a happy beekeeper helps to keep bees happy too!

Happy Beeday

Ah birthdays, don’t you love them?  I am discovering that I don’t love them as much as I used to!  But I do love it that every year my friends and family take time to find bee-themed cards and presents.

Mind you, I am very easy to please as I adore anything with bees on it.  Everything from postcards to coffee mugs, fridge magnets and honey itself.

This year’s birthday cards were especially lovely so I just had to share my favourites.

First, this is very special to me as it’s from friends Noah and Maeve who live in Sydney and they made it themselves.  I love the stripey bee nest! Shouldn’t every fashion-conscious bee have a matching hive?!

The bees seem to be flying in loops out of sheer delight!  There are even real flowers pasted to the card:

Noah and Maeve have a colony of Australian native stingless bees in their garden.  I couldn’t resist including a photo of them in this ‘Beeday’ blog because they are very different to our UK bees and equally as fascinating.  These amazing tiny creatures produce comb in the shape of a rose:

Isn’t that beautiful?

Another favourite birthday card came from friends Peter and Jane.  This card is just so positive and uplifting. Every day that has bees in it is a good day for me!  (Except when they’re outwitting me with their cunning plans!)

Here’s to drawing the blinds to many sunny days this year:

Happy Beedays to all of us . . . .

Tracey

 

 

 

 

Make these simple robbing screens now and get ahead for summer

I am hopeless at getting equipment cleaned and prepared over winter BUT this year I promised myself it would be different!  No more panics or searching for substitutes!  Now that the bees are flying more often and bringing in pollen, it’s time to get my act together . . .

Robbing screens are a very good thing to have ready at the end of summer so why not get ahead and make them now?  I talked about them in our first podcast.  I used them last year when a very aggressive episode of robbing started at my apiary.  It was very stressful and alarming, and that was just for the beekeeper, never mind the poor bees!  Full supers of honey disappeared, some colonies were badly weakened and members of the public upset.  Not an experience I want to repeat.

Robbing screens helped to restore some order in this chaos.  There are various designs out there but some of the more sophisticated seem to involve carpentry skills that I unfortunately don’t have.  A simple but effective design is an easier and cheaper option for me.

Design for a basic robbing screen

This is the design that I use:

How does it work?

Its very simple:  the screen is pinned over the hive entrance, long ways.  The bees that live in the colony will enter through the V-shaped gaps at the sides.  The robbers, who are chancers that zig-zag in front of the hive entrance, will be confused and won’t work out how to get in.

With the screen in place, you don’t have to reduce the hive entrance which is much better for ventilation and reducing heat in the colony.

You can use gaffer tape to close off one end of the entrance, leaving the bees with one side entrance that is easier for the colony to defend.

Remember though that this is just one tactic in the war against robbing and it won’t work in isolation:  you still have to follow the usual rules to ensure that your apiary is a harmonious place!  You still need to ensure that you don’t feed during the day, that you feed all colonies at the same time, that you don’t leave syrup or comb lying around and that you don’t open colonies at the end of summer without very good reason . . . ok, lecture over!

How to make a simple robbing screen

I bought the mesh from an independent local hardware store and assume it’s widely available:

It  came in one large sheet, approx 70cm x 70 cm.  It is important that it is thin enough to cut with scissors and fold into shape by hand.  The gauge is small enough to stop bees passing through but large enough for ventilation.

Using kitchen scissors, I cut a piece long enough to cover the hive entrance and wide enough to fold three times.  I tend to eyeball measurements but if I had to guess I would say the dimensions are roughly 25 cm x 15 cm (please measure against your own hives first!!).

Make the folds by turning and pressing the mesh under and over until it forms an approximate ‘W’ shape when you open it up:

Because the mesh is sharp, I line the entrance points (the V points at the sides) with some gaffer tape to protect the bees.  The pen is pointing to the entrance that the bees use:

Here is another version that you can make which is a bit more fiddly but effective nonetheless.  The flat sides are pinned to the hive.  The bees enter through the top:

I hope that’s shown you how easy it is to make a robbing screen.  And to show you a robbing screen in action, click on the link below to take a look at a video of the robbing frenzy in my apiary last September.  The screen immediately stopped the robbers getting in and things settled down despite the severity.  This year I’ll be fitting them earlier to prevent robbing in the first place!!