So I have a bevy of queen excluders. I know there are beekeepers who swear against them. I used to be one of those. But I have them. And I am finding more and more uses for them. "Use what you've got," is one mantra by commercial beekeeper Michael Palmer, who is committed to sustainability. I have queen excluders AND some feed bags. Palmer uses feed bags as inner covers for his nucs. I was needing to make a "quiet box", a place to put bees on frames while I work boxes and keep them nice and quiet, stress-free (and out of my face). My brother Dan, who raises horses, gave me a few feed bags. I had a bright idea yesterday: affix feed bag to a queen excluder, and voila, instant inner cover! No flapping around of the feed bag in the wind. Bees placed in the work box stay nice and calm. It worked GREAT! Dan, thanks for the feed bags, and brother Tim, THANKS for all those queen excluders. I never thought I'd end up loving them so much.
When I went into the big hive, work was well underway on honey production. Not much extra work had been done on the empty frames with starter strips in-between the drawn frames, BUT the bees were busy packing those drawn frames with honey (and here and there, lots of bee bread). This is a good sign. My fingers are crossed that I have a great honey harvest this year. I am always reminding myself, "count your blessings, name them one by one."
I love seeing fresh comb being drawn. This is what it looks like as workers begin working a frame. Each hangs onto other bees' legs, suspending each other in the air as they spin out wax. Amazing, hunh?
The big hive is working hard on comb production. The honey flow is in full swing, as the tulip poplar blossoms have now opened. Here's another empty frame from last week started.
I thought the big hive was actively re-queening itself due to a bunch of queen cups I found last week. Turned out the big queen cup was empty. So I removed it, nice surprise 'n all. And, I kept finding this, lots of nice freshly laid eggs and larvae floating in pools of royal jelly in a nice tight pattern. The old girl's still doing well, it turns out.
Pollen is flooding in in all colors. Check out all of this bee bread (along with plenty of capped honey) on this food frame. "Bee bread" is what bees do to pollen so that it is digestible to them. Basically, it's pollen plus enzymes they've added from their bodies and honey put together. Pretty, ain't it? I decided to try making two small splits if I could and get some queen cells under way. Spring is a perfect time to make increase. I decided to give it a go. I've been afraid of hurting honey production, so it's a delicate balance. I do love this queen and her bees, so I knew I'd regret not trying to make increase off her eggs. So I went for it, removing a food frame like this, along with a frame of eggs and one with emerging brood, all with lots of nurse bees on it (and hopefully not the queen ... didn't see her on them, so fingers are crossed!).
While I was inspecting the big hive, I put those frames in the quiet box. I had lots of new frames ready to go. I decided I should give the girls a break and put some foundation frames in there, along with starter strips, if I did cull some frames for increase. When I opened the quiet box, I was amazed to see how the bees were all over a nearby frame that had foundation. I am a big proponent of natural cell size, but again, I wanted to give this hive a break. I'm concerned about honey production and hope my actions don't negatively impact that too much. This convinced me, though, that maybe I should investigate making my own foundation sheets. That way it might give the bees a head-start, but fresh sheets of blank wax will allow them to decide which size to make their cells rather than this commercial stuff. Something to think about for sure. Nothing's 100% this way or that, I'm finding out as I go along. Again, "use what you've got". That's what I'm a-doin'!
So I began my increase attempts with notching. It's something Mel Disselkoen came up with and he swears by it. He wrote the book on it, and it makes sense, so I'm giving notching a go. Also my friends have reported good results with it. Basically you find a frame with eggs and larvae, and using your hive tool break down the walls of the bottom third of a row of cells of 1- or 2-day old larvae. With the bottom of the cell gone, the bees (which you've made queenless) have now been enabled to pull queen cells straight down the face of the comb. Mel says this results in larger cells (and larger queens) than if you didn't notch and they had to float the larvae into a sideways position and then spin an emergency cell out and down from the side of the comb. With the bottom of the cell chamber done, they can work straight down. It's the same reason behind the Miller Method of queen rearing. Here's my first attempt. I ended up making 4 notches on one side of the frame, and then one or two on the other side, being careful to avoid notching in the same location. That way once queen cells are made I can cut them out and apply them to single frames of bees and hopefully have lots of increase this spring. We'll see. It sure was easy to make the notches on these frames of newly drawn comb from this year. It sure was HARD to get the hive tool to miss hitting the eggs on the row I wanted to notch and get that bottom third. On this attempt I got at the halfway mark but missed some eggs, so hopefully a cell or two will come off this notch. I know, your head's hurting at this point, right? Imagine mine, dear reader, imagine mine!
Capped brood is emerging from one of the top supers, and there's more honey! Since I now love queen excluders and last week saw the queen, putting her below the excluder in the deep and one shallow on the bottom, after this remaining brood emerges the bees will fill these spaces in with honey. It's a beautiful sight. A freshly drawn frame almost fully drawn in just a few weeks. The top three honey supers above the excluder, while checkerboarded with empty frames, are beginning to take on weight. This beekeeper is getting excited!
Seeing how my bees loved the foundation frame in the quiet box, I gave them one such frame in their bottom deep after taking one for notching (that frame and its bees were removed to a different box a few feet away, making them queenless and getting them to start queen cells, Lord willin'). The comb to the right of the foundation sheet had a decent amount of worker cells in it but about half were oversized, so I moved that closer to the wall so it would become a food frame. The bees will draw brood-sized cells off this sheet. I've worked this hive a lot so sometimes it's good to give them a head start.
But you also gotta practice what you preach. Everything in moderation, right? So I put a foundation-less frame in the other open slot in the next-to-last position. Here the wedge has been inverted to provide a lip, which acts as a guide. From this they'll draw the comb down. And this will become a food frame for them, most likely.
I buttoned up the big hive and will leave it alone for a fortnight so they can get to it! Then I went into the two-queen hive to see how it was doing. The bottom chamber was rolling along. That marked queen is doing great. She has a deep and a half, then there's an excluder, then a honey super, then another excluder, and then there's a top deep with it's own entrance where the second queen is located. That's a nucleus hive on top, or "top nuc" as I like to call it. I didn't see it's black queen. Instead, I found a nice surprise: a capped queen cell! Last week I decided to move two frames of eggs and bees from the bottom chamber up to this top nuc. Looks like it was a good call, because either the new queen is dead or they want her that way and are actively working on a replacement. This capped QC is of a decent size. Still it's quite a surprise.
I'm going to remove this cell and give it to one of the frames I robbed for another increase from the colony on the bottom of this hive unit. That way that group of nurse bees will have a head start. I'm also removing it because on this same frame an even bigger surprise was in store.
Six, count 'em SIX queen cells in a single cluster, each packed with larvae and royal jelly. Each of these were larger than the single capped cell. So these I'm leaving in this top nuc. Notice the one nurse bee packing more royal jelly in one of the cells. I'd heard that fresh comb is the easiest for them to make QC's out of. No kiddin'! I wanted increase? Well, apparently I needed it AND I have it, more than I realized. These QC's are too close together so I'm not going to knock any down or remove any. The first to emerge will tear down the others.
So woe is me, right? I spent $25 on a queen, drove all the way to Albemarle and back for her and the bees decide to dump her and make their own queen anyway. Thoughts of "I"m sure I killed her!" and "Woe is me!" ran through my head, even into the 3 and 4 o'clock hours of Monday morning. Truly it kept me up. Then reviewing these photos I saw this, from the top nuc.
Spotty brood pattern, yes. But do you see it? My eyes are used to looking for those tale-tale signs but out in the field in the bright sun and taking photos, it's hard to see. Here's a closer look.
Yep, fresh eggs and larvae in royal jelly, in a nice pattern. So the new queen IS somewhere still in there, alive and well. The top nuc's attitude was a LITTLE testy but nothing major. So the bees know best. Apparently the Georgia girl isn't up to their snuff and they're going Carolina style. Me? I'm just gonna trust 'em and hang on for the ride, and remember that no matter what there will always plenty of surprises in store!
Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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