A Bee Farmer’s Swarm Prevention Method: Andrew Card’s Guest Blog.

Andrew Card (Mac) has kindly contributed to this week’s blog with an account of the swarm control method that works well for him. Mac runs over 70 colonies and is growing a family run beekeeping supply business just outside Inverness in the Scottish Highlands where the beekeeping season is very short. He sells nucs and teaches new beekeepers the basics to get started with bees. Mac also collects swarms and removes bees professionally from buildings.

Swarm Control.

Having been taught a little about swarm control methods, and the expense involved in having additional equipment empty and available at the right time to carry out swarm prevention such as the traditional methods, we opt to do the nuc (nucleus) method.  I learned this from my mentor out in New Zealand who runs 1400 colonies on the South Island and uses the nuc method of swarm control.  The equipment used in this method is minimal and I find it an ideal way to rapidly expand the number of colonies we require.

On a large -scale operation, a colony going queenless through damage, age, or swarming can have a huge impact on colony population and a knock- on effect on honey production.  With the honey season being so short in the North of Scotland maintaining a laying queen is essential to honey production.  Typically, a swarmed colony will take no fewer than 54 days to begin rebuilding colony numbers.  This equates to two and a half brood cycles and lost opportunity to capitalise on any population increase and potential nectar flow.

In order to avoid queenless colony issues we have elected to replace queens on an annual basis.  The reasons for this are that rarely does a first- year queen swarm, and a first- year queen maintains the best level of egg laying.  Whilst we have been building colony numbers our preferred option for bringing in new queens is to remove 3 frames from a colony. Two will containing eggs and brood and one will be honey stores for food.  A further 3 frames of nurse bees are shaken into a 3- frame BS (British Standard frame) nuc. We then allow the bees to bring on a new queen naturally checking the nuc at 4 and 8 days and removing all but 1 queen cell.

Whilst it is risky leaving only 1 queen cell, each nuc consists of  2 queen cells on 6 frames with a divider so that essentially we have 2  3-framed nucs in one box.  Should one 3-framed nuc fail we have the option of removing the divider board to combine into a 6-framed nuc.  By removing 3 frames from the parent colony not only do you have the opportunity to replace your oldest combs, you also create space thereby reducing a possible need to swarm due to overcrowding.

Queen introduction cage.

On successful mating we can then merge a frame of brood and the new queen into a colony that we have made queenless. To do this we can use a queen introduction cage that contains a full frame of brood/eggs the queen and nurse bees.  Restricted in the cage and with her own nurse bees and brood there is little chance of the old colony rejecting the new queen.  An alternative to only adding the queen would be to recombine the entire nuc with the parent colony discarding the older frames from the nuc.  It really is as simple as it sounds. 

As said, bee genetics and diversification are very important to us and as such split nucs are moved between 4 of our sites to ensure a variety of available drones. Two out of the four sites are relatively close to each other and this is where we see most success in mating.  We have found that mating is more successful before the summer solstice and as such we hope to have all colonies re queened prior to this time.  Any queens that are left over will be over- wintered to cover any losses.

In respect of losing swarms, I will admit to losing two in the last two years, one which I knew was aggressive and could not face inspecting late in the evening, and the other was a recent colony left on OSR which I failed to inspect in time.  Whilst we try to reduce the cost of buying in queens, we do buy a small number of queens in order to supply customers and also use to generate wide genetics diversification.  For 2022 we will be investing in the Jolanta Buckfast strain, from Denrosa Apiaries in Angus, Scotland, which will be used as our grafting stock and also honey colonies.  Grafting is definitely an art that we will be practising more of next year and we hope the spring is better for us. 

Whilst not directly linked to swarm control measures, I would encourage beekeepers to become self sufficient in respect of queen rearing.  Any sealed queen cells that we come across are cut out of the comb and placed into roller cages then into an incubator once we return home.  This provides us with virgin queens which are placed into mini mating nucs. Unfortunately, we have had mixed success with the mini mating nucs but we continue to try. 

Thank You.

Thank you for that, Mac. It is really interesting to learn how other people manage their apiaries and this gives us insight into how it is done on a larger scale than many of us operate.

Cryptic Queen Cells.

Last week I mentioned the problems associated with swarm control when you miss a queen cell and a swarm results.

This queen cell was almost flat against the frame and I would never have noticed it had I not shaken the bees off the frame. I had already selected the queen cell to keep and marked the frame with a red drawing pin. If I need to remove bees from such a frame I hold it upside down to shake so as not to dislodge the larva from its cell. Having chosen the cell and frame I shook the other frames normally to get a clear view. Sure enough there was a queen larva with royal jelly inside this cryptic cell.

Easing Congestion.

I don’t normally walk round the village carrying frames of honey and the photo was taken primarily to show the amazing dog roses that have grown up along the roadside. I’ve just been checking the out apiary with its Swienty poly hive which has its merits but the downside is the size of the brood box. I like to use a dummy board and not squash the bees by jamming in more than 10 brood frames but the colony superseded its queen and the new one is laying well at the end of June with not a lot of space. So, I have removed a frame of stores which I have marked and stored for them in an airtight box to save for winter stores. I replaced it with an empty undrawn frame of foundation. At the end of June the peak of egg laying occurs and tails off into July so I’m hoping to get away with a single brood box so that they produce cut comb in the honey supers.

My other gripe about the Swienty poly hives is the lack of rebate making it difficult to get the bees safely out of the way when replacing frames during inspections. I know that some handy beekeepers manage to adapt them with added strips of metal to raise the frames and create bee space.

Clover in Full Bloom.

The frame of honey attracts attention from neighbours who want to know all about it so we go in to their garden and answer their questions. I notice that the lawn is alive with bees on clover, and of course I stop to admire their watering hole again.

Observations from Outside the Hive.

When I first notice pupae being thrown out the front door my first thought is starvation so I get on my bee suit lickety split to investigate. The brood frames are groaning with stores and when I come to the brood nest I see the problem immediately. The new queen who had quickly laid up 8 frames of eggs, in a surprisingly short time, has not been mated properly and the frames are now covered with drone cells. I’m disappointed but all is not lost and I move one of the nucs with last year’s queens a little closer. I will remove the drone laying queen and unite the colony to the the nuc using the newspaper method in a couple of days.

Drone Layer Dissected.

Yesterday was a long day so I kept the queen caged overnight and got up early to dissect her.

Nicely formed ovaries full of eggs.
Normal spermatheca covered in oxygen supplying tracheoles
One dead sperm.

The photographs were taken down the lens with my camera so are not top quality but you can get an idea of what I saw. I was able to check out the contents of the spermatheca by opening it up and placing the contents on a watch glass with a drop of warm water (I didn’t have normal saline (0.9%) to hand) and making several slides. There was a lot of mucus but very few sperm and the ones I found were dead. Their death is inconclusive since they may have died between killing the queen and opening the spermatheca as I stopped to take these pictures. However, previously I’ve found a mass of seething sperm during one queen dissection similarly performed so I’m not sure about when the sperm died but I know I’ve done the right thing re-queening the colony quickly.

4 thoughts on “A Bee Farmer’s Swarm Prevention Method: Andrew Card’s Guest Blog.”

  1. Thank you Ann for inviting me to contribute to your blog. Very humbling to be able to contribute towards something so successful.

    1. Well thank you, Andrew, for your comments, and for taking the time to put this together at short notice in your busiest season. There has been much interest from all over the world today and I bet some of your tips will be put into action. I’m certainly going to try it with a couple of my colonies next year.

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