It was time to do a little maintenance and take a quick peek on my biggest hive that's put up the most honey, the 2014 swarm hive I've fallen in love with. Still haven't made nucs off this one, yet. Sure hope I get a chance to before she swarms out, dies or is superceded. Well, it was time to see how many more frames they'd drawn out in the additional super I put on (I checker-boarded frames, drawn versus undrawn), and put a queen excluder on so that over the next month she wouldn't be laying in the honey chambers, everything can hatch out and they can back-fill those combs with whatever honey is left to come in. Always good to have a plan.
On my initial "it won't take but just 15 or 20 minutes, honey" visit, I found an indicator that things wouldn't go as planned (read, this will take MUCH longer than 15 minutes).
Well, they hadn't touched any more of the undrawn frames in the supers. And, then there was a bit of a surprise when I lifted out my first brood frame on this visit.
But what's one surprise if you don't get at least another? So, what the ... SWARM CELLS??! But I just saw supercedure cells on the previous frame?! I was instantly confused. Nothing quite like feeling stupid in the bee yard. Was that a veil I was wearing or the proverbial dunce cap?
Annnnnnnd, yet another frame with a queen cell on it. So 3 frames with queen cells (so far). Goooooood, night in the mornin'!
Had I noticed a reduction in bee traffic at the front door? Yes! Was the queen in there? Didn't see her. But I did see a few eggs, some larvae, a nice tight brood pattern, so she HAD been in there. I was convinced they were superceding the old queen. But after sleeping on it a night, I realized I'd seen a beautiful frame of SWARM CELLS. (I checked the forums at beesource.com and the concensus was that the NUMBER of queen cells, not just their position on the frames, indicates the hive had swarmed out.)
So I went back and did what I could to make the most of out the situation the day after. Still, I hadn't gone into the deep chamber. Yep, it was time to take the hive apart and go all the way down and complete the inspection. On my way down I checked progress of the queen cells (none had hatched yet), and put the one frame and a couple of shallow brood frames aside. Then into the deep chamber I went. One honey comb was dry. More evidence of swarming, I think (honey removed from the brood chamber). So convinced it was swarm cells I'd seen, I found this.
Good grief, what do I know? Only so much as what the bees teach me. I do know this: often, in the bee yard things go SOMEWHAT different than they say in all the text books. Here, I thought you got either one kind of cell or another. Nope, I got both. But you have to take in EVERYTHING to get the whole story. I realize now that at least I wouldn't have to split the hive up after taking off the honey supers. I'd planned on breaking up this hive into attempted nuc's to a) break the brood cycle so that b) Varroa destructor mites would perish and c) I'd end up with more, younger laying queens in the process. But the bees always teach me that THEY are in charge of their schedule, not me. Fortunately I had time to adapt. AND, I did end up making an attempt at making increase off this once booming hive, which I hope turns out to be two wonderfully successful nucleus colonies, each with their own newly mated 2015 queen. SUCCESS!
Then it was time to check in my one nuc where I believed I had an accepted, newly mated laying queen in my make-shift mating nuc setup with feed bag inner covers.
So this was a beautiful sight. It does look spotty, but there was only a frame and a half worth of bees in this chamber just 4 weeks ago, with a queen cell I'd given it. Now we DO have evidence of success, two weeks into egg laying for what I'm naming Q15-A (Queen 2015 A). And all available cells were filled with eggs or brood.
And then a beautiful sight to behold:
So, my "I'll only be 15-20 minutes, honey" visit on a Sunday turned into yet more work, and more like a couple of hours over two days when all was said and done. Even though my biggest hive has most likely swarmed out, I still have honey to harvest from it (SUCCESS!), a break in the brood cycle to halt Varroa mite reproduction which means healthier bees going into winter (SUCCESS!), and now 2 more new queens under way (SUCCESS!). Catching the cells before the hatch gave me time to set the stage for another "top nuc". I put a couple of brood frames alongside the frame with the swarm cells on it to draw up enough nurse bees to form a nucleus colony on top. There were still a good number of bees in this hive. I love that I get a chance to make two hives out of the 2014 swarm queen's fabulous genetics. Sweet, gentle bees that put up lots of honey, survive harsh winters, don't ask for too much and always have something to teach this backyard beekeeper.
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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