In the backwaters of beekeeping, a bitter debate is raging between the proponents of the so-called ‘mite-bomb’ theory and its opponents who claim it is stuff and nonsense. It isn’t the friendly sort of discussion beeks may have over tea and cake; discussing if you need matchsticks under the crown board when overwintering bees, goodness no, it is a debate with firmly entrenched opinions which each think the other side is either flat earthers or in the pocket of chemical companies.
In short, critics of those beekeepers who choose not to manage mite populations and allow them to die to say those actions kill other beekeepers’ hives. They claim varroa mites travel from the collapsing hives to nearby apiaries and overwhelm healthy hives leading to their demise as well.
This article in Bee Culture provides a more detailed narrative.
I’m not in the business of telling beekeepers how to manage their bees. So, I don’t intend to provide commentary on differing opinions on bee husbandry.
However, I do find the process of how varroa mites move from one hive to another fascinating and if you do too, read on.
The role of cuticular hydrocarbons in hives
Cuticular what now?
Insects’ cuticles, the outer layer, are coated with a layer of hydrocarbons – hence the name cuticular hydrocarbon. Its primary role is to stop the insect drying out. However, it also plays another important role in insects as a means of communication.
There is extensive research demonstrating that the chemicals signatures of these hydrocarbons play and important role in social insects’ communication mechanisms.
For example, in 2003 a study published in Nature described how researchers observed that ants could identify not only the tasks its nestmate was undertaking but also use that information to decide what task it needed to complete.
The context of honey bees you won’t be surprised to find out that forager bees have a different chemical signature that nurse bees.
How does varroa select the bees they hitch a ride on?
To understand how varroa move from a collapsing colony to a new one is it important to understand if varroa has a way to distinguish between different types of bees.
Work done by Dr Cervo and the team determined that given a choice varroa mites had a preference to attach themselves to nurse bees. From the mite’s perspective, a nurse bee will inevitably lead to new brood cell and a juicy fresh larva to raise more varroa on.
As a colony starts to collapse the population decreases to the point that the bees hydrocarbon signature becomes less distinct; resulting in phoretic varroa choosing both nurse and forager bees.
The other consequence of the declining colony population is an increased insistence of robbing.
Varroa will also readily attach themselves to these robbing bees and therefore make their way into other hives.
There is no question that mites have a mechanism that allows them to move from hive to hive, especially, if they have exploited their hosts to the point of colony collapse.
Intervention free beekeeping?
From my perspective, the real mite-bomb debate isn’t treatment or treatment free beekeeping but rather interventionless or interventionist beekeeping.
Being treatment free doesn’t mean you can’t make interventions in the colony to reduce the impact of varroa on your hives. There are plenty of bio-technical measures that can be deployed to manage mite levels within the colony which do not require chemical treatments that mimic how feral colonies are coping with varroa in the wild.
If you aren’t intervening in your colonies, even just to monitor health, you probably aren’t beekeeping.
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!
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Subscribe: Android |
Welcome to episode five of the Beehive Jive podcast. A beekeeping podcast from London, England.
In this episode we discuss the tricky issue of swarming: why do bees swarm, can you spot the early signs and what to do if they do swarm.
00:00: What is Paul up to in his bees.
00:08: Tracey’s apiary update
00:14: Stress-free swarm control
00:20 Artifical swarm
00:30 How to spot signs of swarm preparation
00:35 Using swarm control for queen rearing
00:38 How many queen cell to leave in the hive
00:44 Top two tips for swarm control
00:47: Don’t panic and knock down all the cells!!
00:49: Clipping queens
00:55: Collecting swarms
01:00 Wrap up
Guide to swarm control http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/downloadDocument.cfm?id=1077
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!
Wax moths have been one of my biggest challenges as a beekeeper, they’ve caught me out a fair few times. In my first season I listened to some advice that moths weren’t attracted to honey supers because they didn’t have the scent of broad in. That cost me stack of supers. Last year I extracted some honey and left two supers indoors, within two weeks the dreaded moths had made them their home. To be fair leaving empty supers in the kitchen was what my wife would call ‘lazy’
Suffice to say given my defeats at its hands .. erm … feet; I’m not a fan.
However; now researchers have discovered that Wax Worms, the larvae of the Wax Moth, are capable of eating and digesting Polyethylene. Since the end of the Second World War Polyethylene (PE) has been used in everything from bubble wrap to bullet proof vests. Cheap to produce, flexible and adaptable PE is one of those ubiquitous substances of modern day life. Unfortunately it is also one of the World’s most polluting substances.
Plastic pollution is a real environmental challenge. When you consider that we produce over a trillion plastic bags a year and despite PE being highly recyclable only about 5% of the plastic bottles produced are made from recycled material you can get a sense of the scale of the issue. PE also takes decades to begin to biodegrade. This discovery may eventually lend to processes that can break PE down into a more manageable by-product.
So although I will continue to wage war of the wax moth, they’ll have my grudging respect as one day they may provide solutions to a problem way bigger than my lost frames.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Subscribe: Android |
In this episode Tracey and Paul talk about things to consider if you want to jump into the exciting World of beekeeping.
• Join a local club
• Take a class
• Make friends
It really is that simple ….. almost
00:00: What’s going on in Tracey’s apiary?
03:00: What’s up with Paul’s bees.
15:00: How to start beekeeping
16:50: Where to start
18:30: Find a local club
25:00: Types of hive
29:00: Where to get bees from
44:00: What can you do in the winter?
46:00: Book recommendations
52:00: Online resources
Links to stuff mentioned in this podcast.
British Beekeepers Association – https://www.bbka.org.uk/
Beebase – http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/
Guide to Bees & Honey: The World’s Best Selling Guide to Beekeeping- http://amzn.eu/1v0QLZ0
Bees at the Bottom of the Garden – http://amzn.eu/gCisynG
The Bee Manual: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Keeping Bees – http://amzn.eu/3dZsCDe
The Honey Bee Around and About – http://amzn.eu/0qM7itM