Kundalini yoga master Yogi Bhajan always said, "Patience pays. Wait. Let the hand of God work for you. One who has created you, let HIM create all the environments, circumstances and facilities and faculties. ... Dwell in God and befriend your soul. All the faculties and facilities of the Creation which are in your best interests shall be at your feet. You need million things. Million things will reach you, if you are stable, established, firm, patient. ... Sat Nam." In fact it was a prayer and a mantra I listened to at one workshop, where he chanted those two words over and over again, "Patience pays." In the past few days, I remembered the power of that mantra.
Last Saturday I inspected both of my queen cell starts, the one nucleus hive I'd put in my dual-chambered mating nuc and the "top nuc" colony that has a top entrance of its own and sits atop a regular booming hive. Queen rearing is about math and good fortune. I spent vacation double-checking the math and had it correct. I waited 26 and 27 days after each egg had been laid. Queen cells are capped on day 8, so you know how old a cell is when one day it's uncapped and the next day it's capped, which was the case on my first two attempts at making starts this season. Queens should start laying on day 24. On Saturday, this is what I found:
I felt like I'd squandered a royal chance at increase. I'd cut out a queen cell and gave it to the queenless (and understandably irritable) nurse bees in the left nuc. And, the top nuc had a cluster of 4 queen cells. Only one virgin would win, though, emerging and then killing the others still in their cell. But, beekeeping is a lot about finishing what you start. I SHALL make increase this year ("Lord willin' and the creek don't rise"). Quickly my goals and aims at potentially selling a few nucs this year in addition to making plenty for myself to over-winter seemed to vanish into thin air. I started to beat myself up about it, then realized all of the MANY blessings including all the honey waiting to be harvested in a little over a month from now. "Patience pays." I took a frame that had pollen and some eggs, not too many, just a few eggs and a few larvae on the bottom edges and gave it to the left-chambered nuc to give them another chance at drawing out a cell or two. The top-nuc? I'd just let them put up honey and leave them alone until after the harvest, since they already did have a queen in the bottom-most chamber of that configuration.
Four days later, I took a peek back into the left-chambered nuc. Had they managed to spin a queen cell or two? I was instantly struck by how calm and quiet these bees were (though a few wanted to sting me, but that's normal when you're working close to sundown) compared to a week before. That wasn't my own surprise. I lifted out a frame in the middle and saw, GOOD LORD, fresh eggs that had been laid within the previous 3 days, some larvae and a MAGNIFICENT solid pattern of capped brood across the top 3/4's of one of the deep frames!!! I couldn't believe it. This little nuc HAD succeeded. The queen cell I'd transplanted into this hive hatched and the queen successfully mated. I rechecked all the frames to see if I could see the young queen, but no such luck. I did re-inspect the frame several times and each time delighted at the sight of fresh single eggs surrounded by larvae of various ages surrounded by capped worker brood. Woo-HOOO, I now have 3 queens a-laying in the apiary!
Unfortunately, my camera had decided to not cooperate so I didn't get any photos. But I didn't care. I was now up one. Packing up and turning away to go back onto yard work I stopped. "What if ... WHAT IF the same thing happened in the top nuc?" I asked. "Patience pays." So, I gave them a few puffs of smoke and gave a look. I found what I'd seen before on Saturday: empty frame, honey frame, more honey, another honey frame, honey, and, WHAT'S THIS, but a frame of FRESHLY LAID EGGS and larvae and 3 QUEEN CELLS, 2 of them capped and the 3rd about to be. Apparently a queen HAD succeeded here, too. She had been mated and began to lay but either I killed her when I checked the nuc on Saturday or the colony thinks she's weak and they want a better queen. So they're creating more queen cells out of what she'd laid. It's amazing how easy the bees can create emergency queen cells out of fresh comb, no "notching" required. Fresh comb is soft and easy for them to manipulate. I will continue to use fresh comb in my cell starter colonies from here on.
Smiling, and repeating Yogi Bhajan's mantra I realized that, for whatever reason, it simply took the new queens a week longer than their earliest possible date to begin laying. I am so glad I decided to leave the hives as they were on Saturday, wait a few days and then re-inspect. Patience DOES pay. So 4 days after my initial disappointment, this is what I discovered I actually have on hand:
Patience pays. Sat Nam.
There's a lot to be said about natural cell size. Commercial foundation sheets are imprinted with honeycomb cells that are 5.4 millimeters in diameter (some run 5.6). The thinking was that larger bees led to larger honey harvests. It's also a compromise size, still smaller than the drone cells bees naturally draw to raise male bees and to store honey in, but much larger than what they naturally draw to raise worker (female) brood in. Many studies have been done that show bees raised on small cell combs lead to smaller bees that emerge a day faster than your foundation bee, interrupting the Varroa mites' natural reproductive cycle underneath that capped cell. As it turns out the mites need that 9th day to get into the cell before it's capped. Small cell larvae tend to be capped in 8 days and emerge a day sooner than your commercial foundation bees, which are capped on the 9th day, according to Michael Bush and many others who've studied this over many years. Well, I'm a believer.
HOWEVER, it's been 4 seasons now since I started using foundationless frames. I've had some mixed results, it wasn't perfect. Some frames DID have badly stretched combs. Most beekeepers say, "see, this is why you SHOULDN'T use natural cell because it means less workers, more drones and less honey!" I kept the faith, rotated those combs out to the sides to become food frames, eventually melted down most of them, and kept feeding in foundationless frames. I kept brood combs in the center, enlarged combs at the sides, no big deal. But this morning I realized that I've been looking at SMALL CELL on my natural combs all season long so far, even on the end frames. I was scratching my head, "Why?!" until I realized that the positive change occurred once I started running narrow frames in my brood boxes. I plane down the end bars on my frames, which is a royal pain in the ass I won't lie, and fit 11 in a 10-frame box. I switched over to that last season and this season in full force and it has paid off. Once I went to narrow frames? SMALL CELL foundationless combs, all worker combs. What's also wonderful about these comb experiments is that it means the majority of my combs are fresh and new, which are SO EASY for the bees to convert into queen cells if they need or want to (see, natural and fresh is better). And my bees are tiny. And yes, quite healthy. I haven't seen Varroa mites on my bees. Small cell, along with narrow frames, really does work if you let it and keep the faith. I snapped this photo this morning on a deep frame that was 3/4 drawn. Every single cell, every one, was a worker cell. I noticed how tiny they were. WOW, they are small cell. If you count 10 cells across, you'll see that it clocks in right at 4.9 mm. If you count individual cells the number's even smaller, but the cell walls add up which is why I think you count 10 and do the math. I am committed to small cell. Looks like the bees, when left to their own devices, are, too!
It was the day after the first step of my spring increase attempt. There was one capped queen cell on a frame with several others, which I would harvest and give to one of two chambers in my queen castle. But that "castle" immediately began to fail and not work on Sunday. I could see bees going to and from each chamber. The idea is to have several chambers in which to raise queens. Maximize productivity with the least amount of equipment and bees invested. So I decided to change queen castles, which meant I needed to make up another and fast since all of my nuc boxes have been turned into bait hives. Last year I made divider boards (also called "follower boards") out of 3/4" plywood. My old queen castle had ZERO beetle protection, so I upgraded that. I took a deep hive body, inserted the divider. I made two vent holes and screened them off with 1/8" hardware cloth and some hot glue in opposite corners. Then I placed the hive body on a bottom board outfitted with a West beetle trap and a one-inch shim which the body sits on top of, the trap nestled underneath. An entrance reducer allowed one side to be open, here on the right you can see that entrance, which is opposite the vent holes. The entrances should be opposite the vents so there is cross-ventillation. There was a gap between the divider board and the beetle trap, so I folded up some window screen and nestled that nice 'n snug underneath.
On the other side, opposite of the entrance reducer opening, that chamber needed an opening. So, I simply drilled a 1/2-inch hole into the shim. Again, this entrance is opposite the vent hole and on the opposite side of the hive body, which will allow me to raise two different nucleus hives or "nucs", each with their own queen. The divider board is flush with the top and sides of the box, so each chamber is secured.
Here's another look at the "front" side of the divided hive body. Using this design I only have to use one top, one bottom board and one beetle tray in order to get two queens and nucs started.
So, what to do for an inner cover? I have those feed bags hanging around (thanks, Dan!), so I quickly cut out two pieces and stapled each to opposing sides of the hive body. This make-shift "queen castle" was taking shape. I know the bees will propolize the bags down securely, but since neither has propolis on it I wanted to keep the flaps from blowing away on the breeze, hence the small staples along the edge.
Then a little trimming down the middle was needed so that the inner cover flaps could easily meet on the divider board. Voila, two separate chambers, two inner covers, two entrances and opposite vent holes and constant small hive beetle protection. Not bad for 30 minutes of work.
Time to get to it. I went back to my top nuc on my double-hive set-up and located the frame with queen cells. The day before there was one capped cell which I intended to place in one of the chambers of the queen castle.
Lo and behold a second small cell had been capped nearby the one I intended to harvest. Heck, I'm gonna give each chamber a capped queen cell. Why make 'em draw out a new queen when they can just use these? It's more efficient and less stressful on those bees. I felt really guilty about removing those frames of happy bees from their hives on Sunday and putting them all alone. They'd been queenless now for 24 hours so they should readily accept the cells. This being fresh comb but unsecured on the bottom as it's brand new, I simply used scissors to cut out a piece of the comb holding these two capped cells. Note they were working on a third on the bottom left and would probably cap that off had I not culled this piece of comb. I am IMPRESSED with how efficient and amazing top nucleus hives can create queen cells. So my backyard queen rearing approach is beginning to take focus. I will use queen-right hives full of bees, start nuc's on top. Separated by queen excluders and honey supers, moving frames of eggs up on top draws nurse bees far enough away from the queen below. The hive hasn't lost any bees in this process, but it's far enough away from the queen and her pheromone for them to act queenless. Therefore my "cell starters" will be my "top nuc's", just as I learned from reading Pellet's book, "Practical Queen Rearing". Practical indeed! Then I'll cut out and remove the capped cells as they're ready to a couple or three frames of bees set aside into a queen castle a day before, just as I've done here. The top nuc's continue raising queen cells. These girls are not satisfied with one, two or six queen cells on this single frame, they were making a seventh. Totally works for me and my amount of equipment.
On Sunday a large cluster of six queen cells were almost ready for capping. A day later? Capped! And finished those six cells had become a cluster of four. In a day two cells were completely torn down and removed by these master engineers. This is a LOT of great work done by a few bees, but they're super motivated and have lots of royal jelly to offer the cells, because they're part of an overall larger hive. So they're not under stress, but are motivated. This setup's working! Notice the just-emerged little bee near the top center of the photo. She hasn't even gotten all her color yet, but is hard at work right after emergence. Amazing. I gently put this frame back into the top nuc and will allow them to raise a queen up there while I'm away on vacation next week. Also I've got 5 frames of bees in the queen castle, plenty for the two chambers in each.
Okay, two queen cells culled. I was super gentle handling the comb. I am getting more used to the sensation of nurse bees crawling on my fingers, though I still have that annoying "flinch" reaction. I cut out one piece large enough to cull the two cells from, then cut those apart. It's important there's enough comb around the cell to push into the comb on the frames I'll be placing them on.
Great plan, right? Well, Mr. BUTTERFINGERS here squished the first cell when moving it's frame close to another frame. The cell was still intact but I'd damaged it. So I tossed it. Also I had MUCH FEWER bees in each chamber than I was expecting. Drats and double-drats. Live and learn, out in the field. A lot of the bees on those frames had flown back to their original hive. What remained were nurses. One chamber had enough, the first one didn't, and I'd ruined one cell. So I decided to move all frames into a single chamber. I made an indentation on a food frame, then gently pushed the queen cell into place, making sure it was pointed down. In this next photo it's of the first cell, just before I damaged it. But I repeated the process, making the indentation on a frame near the top, enough to push the cell comb into and mash it together enough to hold it in place, making sure the cell is pointed down and then GENTLY and CAREFULLY pushing a nearby frame close enough but not touching it. Whew, I did it! At least, I'm pretty sure I did. It's so hard to see into those spaces. I should've done what Fat Bee Man suggests and put one finger in front of the cell while I pushed the comb closer to it. That way I'd know exactly how far to bring it, without damaging the cell. But I chickened out of that this time. Something to improve on. I'll try doing it his way, the better way on my next attempt.
I removed one partially drawn frame that didn't have much to offer in the way of food, bees or eggs. Four frames fit nicely in this chamber, so okay, four frames in each chamber. If I make up another one of these, I could use two divider boards to create three chambers, but I'll save that for another day (and I'll make sure to only put nurse bees in the queen castle ... live and learn!). The queen cell is on the frame on the right, near the center. You can see bees instantly finding it and beginning to clean up the honey around it from the indentation and repair the comb, properly affixing it to this comb. I left plenty of space so I wouldn't harm this queen cell! Dear Lord, please don't let me have damaged that cell. But you know what? There are eggs on other frames if I did. They have lots of chances here, plenty of nurse bees and plenty of nectar, honey and bee bread to raise a queen, from the capped cell or an egg. I'll return in 14 days to see if this queen emerged, mated and has begun to lay. Cells are capped on Day 9. The queen emerges on Day 16. Then I estimate 2 days of "hardening off" for the newly emerged queen, 2 days to make orientation flights, 2 days to mate and then another 2 days of firming up before egg laying begins on Day 25. Fingers, toes and hive tools are crossed! Then I'll repeat the process in this chamber. Continual increase is a big goal of mine this year.
Here's a closer view of the queen cell. Every drop of that precious honey is being sucked up and nurse bees were instantly crawling on the cell. The sound of the bees had gone from stressed and agitated from being queenless for a day and moved around to suddenly quiet and much better. These bees have a future with a new queen underway. Spring increase IS happening, which means more bees and more adventures into the coming years, "Lord willin' and the creek don't rise". Now, I can go on vacation and rest a lot easier!
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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