Spring has come to a standstill; like the pause button’s been pressed. Overnight temperatures fell below zero again this week bringing blizzards early on Monday. The bees haven’t clustered again yet and are out at every opportunity. When it warmed up to 3-4 degrees Celsius on Monday afternoon, they were collecting water during the snow flurries that persisted throughout the week.
I haven’t inspected the colonies so far, apart from one doomed to failure through having no queen. You might remember my telling you a few months ago that I dissected a worker bee, found recently dead, outside this hive and discovered enlarged ovaries. It was no suprise to find a small cluster of bees on a tiny patch of drone brood last week. They were bringing in pollen but not masses of it. I found nectar in some of the cells, and even more interesting was the discovery that they have been storing fondant in the cells. Some people think that bees only access fondant when they need it rather than storing it for using later.
I tasted some to find it exactly the same consistency as in the packet. I wonder if they just moved it down from above the brood frames in their mandibles and wished that I had my observation hive set up to carefully study this behaviour.
Following on from Steve Riley’s superb guest blog, I’ve been more carefully scanning the bottom boards during varroa counts and am delighted to find chewed out pupae from one colony. One swallow doesn’t make a summer however, so I will need to continue to monitor rigourously.
Just a reminder that swarm prevention is what we do before a colony makes any preparation to swarm. When we see queen cells we take swarm control measures as discussed last week.
Several people tell me that they have big strong colonies and plan to use the Demaree method soon so it seems a good time to follow on from last week’s Demaree variation. I will be giving more space when I finally get in for first inspections, and then waiting to do swarm control once I find queen cells. This swarm prevention method is popular and is often enough to stop the swarming urge later in the season. However, in some cases it keeps the colony together for the first nectar flow and they may still make swarm preparations later in the season.
“An enduring mystery about honeybees is what exactly stimulates a colony to begin rearing queens and thereby initiate the process of swarming. Beekeepers know that certain conditions inside a colony’s hive (congestion of the adult bees, numerous immature bees, and expanding food reserves) and outside the hive (plentiful forage and spring time) are correlated with the start of of queen rearing for swarming, Nevertheless, to this day, no one knows what specific stimuli the worker bees are sensing and integrating when they make the critical decision to start the swarming process.” Thomas D. Seeley (2010) HONEYBEE DEMOCRACY.
This remains true today and there are only a few things we can do try to prevent or delay swarming. We can ensure that queens heading our colonies are young enough to have adequate queen substance circulating to maintain colony cohesion, and we can add honey supers early enough to accommodate a nectar flow. We can give space in the broodbox, but the skill lies in knowing when to do this early enough before queen rearing begins, but not too early to cause chilling of brood. Once swarm preparation has started, giving space is like parking your car on a hill with the handbrake off and expecting it to stop before reaching the bottom of the hill. Preparation will continue despite the addition of a new super once bees have decided to swarm. We know that when a colony swarms 10% of the workforce leaves, yet often that colony sends out a secondary swarm further depleting it which tells us that relieving congestion is only part of this mystery.
When and What to Do.
In Scotland our weather is not just fickle, it’s downright dangerous for beekeeping in this season of extreme weather and temperature changes. Last Saturday it was 15 degrees Celsius prompting many to open up their colonies, but by Monday the temperature had dropped by 15 degrees or more. When you give a colony extra space at this time you have to consider the benefits against the risks. Thermoregulation may be compromised leading to chilled brood and diseases such as chalkbrood and nosemosis. I’m speaking from experience and remembering what happened when I performed a Demareee for swarm prevention in April one year; the weather turned cold and the colony developed chalkbrood. The workers chewed up the chalkbrood which fell down into the honey supers and I had to discard the honey.
I advise waiting till the weather has been consistently warm for a couple of weeks and this will depend upon where you live. Also, check that the weather forecast is predicting consistently warm weather. The Demaree method that I describe today depends upon being able to find the queen. If you have a couple of deep brood boxes with supers between them you need to be able to lift them safely without damage to yourself which is a consideration.
This method works best when you have a very strong colony with brood in two deep boxes. They are more able to maintain broodnest temperature than if you divided one brood box and placed supers between them.
When you have a single brood box (rather than do a Demaree) you can move the queen up into a new brood box with fumigated drawn foundation along with a couple of frames of emerging brood. You can add some empty frames and push them all together with dummy boards at the sides to reduce the chance of chilling. The bottom brood box will have most of the brood and nurse bees, and I suggest replacing the frames that you removed from the BBB with dummy boards to keep the brood warm.
George Whitfield Demaree (1832-1915) was a Kentucky lawyer and a keen beekeeper. He pioneered swarm control at a time when commercial beekeeping was growing fast in the US and honey production was important. His method was performed on his strongest colonies before they showed signs of swarming as it didn’t interrupt nectar collection and honey production. When the swarming urge had passed he could unite the two brood boxes back together, or allow the top brood box (TBB) to produce a new queen and make an increase.
This is what the hive configuration looks like at the end of the procedure. This is the only thing that has changed; you still have the colony with all its brood, nurse bees, queen, foragers and the honey supers.
What to Do Without Making Increase.
Dismantle the hive and move to the side. On the original site place a new floor and the new brood box (BBB) which ideally contains fumigated drawn foundation, or at least as many as possible. Leave a space in the middle for the frame with the queen. She is likely to be on a frame with unsealed brood and eggs and this is the one to place in the BBB. Once she is safely in the BBB, close up the frames. Place the queen excluder (QE) on top of the BBB and add the supers. If you didn’t have supers in place now is the time to place one there.
The TBB will sit above the supers but, because this is a swarm prevention procedure, you do not need to place a QE on the supers. In the TBB will be the remaining brood and nurse bees, and there will be no queen cells on this day. Because these brood boxes are separated, queen substance and pheromones will not circulate well to the TBB and the bees are highly likely to make emergency queen cells in an effort to raise a new queen, see below. Because there is no QE between the supers and TBB drones will not be trapped above.
A Week Later.
This part is important; go in after a week when it will be impossible for the bees to raise a new queen in the TBB. Firstly, remove the boxes (TBB and supers) to inspect the BBB and check that the queen is laying. Replace them all before inspecting the TBB for queen cells because you cannot shake bees into the upturned roof where you placed the TBB temporarily. Shake the bees off the frames back in the TBB, which is on top of the supers, so that you do not miss a single queen cell. Remove every queen cell because you are not making an increase.
After 24 days, all the brood in the TBB will have emerged (only eggs hatch) and you can unite the boxes and replace the supers on top. This gives plenty of space for the queen to lay. Alternatively, if the frames in the TBB were old you could replace them with new as part of routine apiary hygiene and regular comb change.
Hopefully this works well for you and you have a great season.