_It was time to make splits. Last year I learned when to make 'em. My new motto: "Make all your spring splits before the nectar flow hits!" It's a balancing act working in the cold and wet, so I didn't want to split too soon and jeopardize the nucs and donor hives, let alone chill brood. Drone brood has been steadily increasing over the past few weeks, regardless of the cold and wet conditions. There've been a few warm dry days sprinkled in, and the bees have wasted no time in bringing in what nectar is available.
I got a taste from some virgin burr comb chock full of a deliciously flowery taste with notes of orange here at the very beginning of spring. And the tulip poplars haven't even bloomed, only budded by now. Last year tulip poplar blooms were in full bloom on April 8. What I'm tasting is dandelion, red clover and some other wonderful things ushering in the new season. So far white clover hasn't bloomed, but the red clover is really coming along.
I started with Hive Sherman. Like my other Russian-local hybrids, Sherman has been wonderful, hygienic and very friendly to work. I'm experimenting with a single deep on the bottom and 2 shallow supers on top. Less weight when splitting the hives up, but more frames to inspect. When I removed the top, there was beautiful, natural comb they were building in-between the top and the 2-inch shim I had in place that allowed me to feed them during the winter with candy blocks I'd made.
As I opened Sherman, a freshly capped swarm cell dropped down to the box below after I removed the top super. HOORAY! The bees had been busy despite the weather, knowing spring was around the corner. Me and my nuc customers will be happy. These capped queen cells give us a 9-day jump on nuc production. This lovely cell was intact, so I gently took the swarm cell and attached it to an empty frame. I also added a frame of honey and another with eggs in it just in case this swarm cell doesn't hatch (in case I did something stupid or it was damaged when it dropped from the bottom bars of the top super to the top bars of the super below when I opened the hive). There's one split off of Hive Sherman.
Hooray, lots of bees in the bottom box as well. Hive Sherman is strong. I'll have to remove those drone frames in the next couple of weeks. They're probably using them as honey frames. If so, I'll leave 'em in for the time being, until I need to free up room and there are other honey frames I can cull from the other hives and do a first extraction of the year.
_ I took a frame and a half of eggs, and a honey frame, and made another split off Sherman. Into the queen castle they went. First 2 splits done. Temps were in the low- to mid-'50s, but it was sunny and calm. In all I removed 6 frames for my first two splits, and into the queen castle. I replaced them in the original hive with some empty drawn comb frames and some empty frames. Hopefully that'll keep Sherman from swarming for the time being. I should've reversed the boxes while I was at it, but I'll do that another day soon. Live and learn. But I'm thrilled with this hive. I'm going to check it in the coming weeks and see if I can make more splits.
One week later and I took a peek in both chambers to see if they'd started queen cells. I removed the top from chamber 3, and there was one in clear sight, so I put that top back on. And then I gently removed a frame from chamber 2, and voila, two queen cells! Thank you, Hive Sherman. :-)
The next week had much better weather, in the high '50s, lots of sun. I opened up my feral hive, that came from a single frame of bees and an emergency queen cell from last summer's trap-out at Cory and Nolan's in Fort Mill, SC. This hive is now proudly named Hive Peabody. There also was lots of tight worker brood. She's a great queen. And here she is, laying eggs (I put the yellow highlight around her for easy viewing ... blow this up, too to get a better view). I eventually placed this beautiful girl and her nurses into a deep of their own, the new one with the screened bottom board I built. I should've had another nuc box ready but didn't, for the over-wintered queen and this frame of bees. I gave 'em another frame with some food and brood on it.
_This frame also has lots of capped brood that would emerge soon and plenty of nurse bees to go with the queen. I may need to give Hive Peabody nurse bees for the time being to boost their population, and possibly a brood frame or two just to make sure. Our nights have been cold, so I gambled with the 2 frames in the large deep. I now regret that. I should've added nurses from other hives that night but the sun was going down. Two days later I put a shim and two quart-sized baggies of 1:1 syrup on for the time being. I saw bee butts sticking out of the top edges of the frames, meaning food was gone. They were moving slow. I hope I haven't killed this wonderful, wonderful feral queen by putting her in a box that was too big with too few bees. A perfect example of why you should have extra nucs, queen castles and equipment on hand. Only give them the space they need. Helps in conserving heat during cold nights. With such a tiny cluster, they're focused on keeping the brood and queen warm. I hope there were enough nurse bees to do the job. In the first few days there was no traffic, which meant the nurses hadn't matured to forage just yet. So when I fed them the syrup, I also closed up the screened bottom board. Moving the queen to another box with some bees and brood means I gave Hive Peabody an artificial swarm. As far as the old queen and her workers are concerned, the swarm has occurred. The box I left behind, out of the double-stacked nuc that over-wintered, was now another split. So 1 split from Peabody down.
Having moved the queen, I went in further and surprise, surprise, more swarm cells. HOORAY! Most people don't want to see this, but I'm expanding and selling bees. I caught these in time. THREE on this frame. They were uncapped, but getting close. Having had very little time due to bad weather to work the bees and make splits, I was thrilled to see they'd already begun in earnest making new queens for me and my customers who are waiting patiently. They saved us 9 days by getting to work, regardless of the weather. Now I had 2 splits off Peabody.
_I put this frame, a honey frame and an egg and honey frame into a nuc beside the queen castle. Could there be another split possibility in this feral hive? Why, yes, indeed!!
Holy cow, three more swarm cells under development (one at left, and two a center-right). I moved these beauties into that second empty nuc I'd prepared and placed beside the queen castle, along with a honey frame and another frame with eggs. Hive Peabody, you've gone from one frame and an emergency cell last year to giving me 3 splits and the over-wintered queen. God bless you! I am so proud of this little hive that could, going from one frame to a colony strong enough to split 3 ways. It pays to inspect every frame closely during swarm season.
The bottom box was chock full of bees. I'd taken a frame with a few eggs in it as my backup frame in that second nuc she'd given me. I put an empty frame in there for them to draw out, since the nectar flow is about to hit. I also lifted it off it's slatted rack and bottom board, and took a look underneath all the frames. No more swarm cells. As the cluster moves up during the winter, when spring rolls around and they're in the top chamber(s) they put their swarm cells on the bottoms of the bars in the upper chambers. Still, you gotta look and make sure.
Drone brood abounds, so mating season is here. Seeing this at the bottom of the frames means the queen is a great one! You'll have to click and enlarge the photo, but there is larvae and bee bread at the top. It was hard to find eggs. When they're about to swarm, the nurse bees will chase the queen to shut down her egg laying and slim her down for flight with the swarm. I used what eggs there were and borrowed another frame of eggs for one of the splits from Sherman.
The hives are going very well. This is a shot with a gorgeous brood pattern and lots of bees, a.k.a. "bee porn" to us beekeepers.
When I make splits, I put in a frame with swarm cells and a frame of a few eggs and lots of food just in case none of the swarm cell queens hatch out. If I'm going from scratch, eggs only, I make sure there are two frames with fresh eggs in it. Next time I see swarm or multiple emergency queen cells, I'll remove them and attach them onto different frames and place in different nucs so I can have even more queens off of that one frame. Waste nothing! On frames with multiple swarm cells, the first virgin queen to emerge will go and sting the other cells, killing those virgin queens. If more than one emerge at the same time, they'll fight and the strongest survives. Thanks, Darwin.
_Boris was SUPER defensive and attacked the inner screen top when I removed the lid. I put the lid back on, and split the boxes up. Once exposed, they calmed down. Not seeing the queen, I decided to make a "dirty" or "walk-away" split, putting one box in a new location and leaving the other behind. I moved the cantankerous, stingy top brood box to a new location. The queen will be in one box and they'll make a new queen in the other box IF there are frames with eggs in it. I did do a thorough inspection and both boxes did have eggs in it. No stings were had that day. Success. Still didn't see the queen, though. They actually calmed way down once I split the boxes. Another weird thing about Russians, I've noticed, and a tip I'll keep in mind for the future. Split apart the brood nest to calm them down and then start working the hive. Not seeing the queen, I took an even amount of honey and brood from box top and bottom. And I was a bit ticked off at Boris, realizing that last year I blamed myself for not being a great beekeeper and getting stung all the time. This year I now realize it's because I believe these Russian bees are grumpy-assed bees who like to sting. BUT, they did survive heavy mite loads and a long winter with hardly any late summer and fall feeding. For now I'm done with "pure-bred" Russians. Dosvidaniya!
_Now, it was time to open and split Natasha, if I'd gotten her back up to strength. I thought I was losing her in the winter, but feeding 1:1 syrup brought her back. Some bees in the top. And then I saw signs that she was queenless or that the hive is unhappy with a failing queen. Two emergency queen cells were started. This got transferred to one of the two remaining 2-frame chambers in my queen castle. I put a honey frame with plenty of bees on it. This frame also had lots of nectar in it, so they'll have plenty to eat.
I eventually saw the old girl. She was supposed to be less than two years old, since I got her in August of 2011. She should be strong for at least 3 years, and sometimes up to 4 or 5. She was marked with yellow paint. I was suspicious when I bought her. 2011's queen color was white (each year is a different color). Yellow was supposed to be used in 2007. Good grief, was she really 4 years old when I got her? And Boris' queen was marked yellow and red ... was it's "new" queen actually from 2008, a red year? The queen supplier may have just used the marking colors he had on hand is what I kept telling myself. But now, after a year and a half? Not so certain I was sold queens made in 2011, but I'll have to trust that I was. Another reason to buy local, survivor stock from someone you know, trust and who will return calls and emails.
_I saw a queen cup had been started, which had larvae in it. Note the spotty brood pattern around the queen cell. One sign of a queen failing. I also saw drone brood intermixed with worker brood, a very big sign she's failing. Intermixed, spotty brood means she's lost the ability to control which cells she fertilizes (workers) and which cells she doesn't (drones). The workers were getting down to the business of making a new queen.
_And another frame with 2 emergency cells underway. These girls are NOT happy with the old queen. Still, I treated her kindly, gently putting her frame back in Hive Natasha. Never get rid of your old queen until you're satisfied with a new one or until you have plenty of younger, backup queens at your disposal. God bless her, she's survived a good bit, heavy mite loads last year and (at least) two winters, so I can't be too displeased. She's survived, given me a little bit of delicious honey and now 2 more splits. I reversed the hive while I was at it, giving her lots of room up top to lay, if she can. I'm going to check in on the old hive. I suspect they'll still supersede her once she lays more eggs for them to build off her. And then Natasha will have ensured the hive's survival. One hive will have become 3.
Into the final open chamber they went, along with another frame with honey and eggs. The castle now had 4 nucleus hives with queens underway.
__ I'd made 8 splits in a week: 2 from Sherman, 3 from the surprising Peabody, 2 from Natasha and 1 from Boris. That's enough for the time being. I'll be making more as the season progresses. T's Bees has been blessed. God's creations really inspire and amaze me. Our job? Be good and faithful stewards.
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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