If beekeeping were an Olympic sport, I would not be on the podium receiving a gleaming gold medal whilst listening to ‘God Save The Walrus’ and trying to hold back tears of joy. Hopefully, I would avoid the wooden spoon award for the last place; somewhere in the middle of the pack is where I’d be. However, after nearly a decade in the saddle, so to speak, I think I have learned some things. As with all learning, what I have found helpful to me, in my area, with my way of working, may not translate perfectly to other beekeepers. Notwithstanding the above, here are the reflections of a walrus beekeeper today:
Nucs are lovely things and extremely useful. I don’t mean the tiny mating nucs; I mean the full framers. You can generally find them in sizes ranging from three frames to six, and some can stack, enabling them to grow into multi-layered super nucs (otherwise known as hives). I don’t think it matters whether nucs are made from polystyrene or wood, as long as you insulate the wooden roof with some Celotex or Kingspan.
Nucs are small and easily sealed up, making them an excellent way to move bees between apiaries in my car. I don’t have a trailer or tow bar, which I’d need to carry full-sized hives around. At first, you are making up nucs by removing frames of bees, brood and food from larger colonies. However, once you get a few nucs going, it’s easy to make more nucs from your existing nucs (have I said ‘nucs’ too much?). I have as many nucs as full-sized hives.
Having lots of nucs means that I have resources on hand to make cell builder colonies for queen rearing. I have plenty of queens to cover any winter losses, and I can always sell some. At £200 (or more) for a five frame nuc, it’s tempting to sell them all, but that would be self-defeating.
As I discovered this spring, the downside of running these small colonies is that they can very quickly get overcrowded and swarm. It may be a small box, but the queen is still one of my superstar prolific egg-laying machines. Once she gets going, there’s no stopping her. I lost several swarms in April because I did not think swarming in April was possible. Now I know.
I have much more success getting queens mated in nucleus hives with large frames than with those baby boxes (Apidae/Kieler). Three frame nucs are suitable for this as they use less resource. From what I have seen, the two most highly skilled tasks in beekeeping are (1) instrumental insemination followed by (2) getting bees mated in baby nucs. I continue to try to improve; I’ve bought all these mini-nucs, so I’m going to use them – but so far, it’s the wooden spoon award for me as far as they go. Once I have drawn comb with brood, all is fine, but starting them off with a strip of foundation has generally proved impossible for me.
Speaking of mating, I currently have loads of virgin queens sat around waiting for some decent sunny weather. Mating flights seem to need a calm sunny day with temperatures of 18 degrees Celsius or more. Sadly, even after mid-May, we haven’t had such conditions yet.
I try to mark queens when I find them, which isn’t that often. I’m rarely looking for the queen specifically, but you can be sure that when I really need to see her, she’ll turn into an elusive mistress of disguise. This year I have been using a marking fork rather than picking queens up, and I like it. It’s just a piece of flat plastic with a ‘V’ cut out of one end, and an elastic band goes across. You pin the queen down with the elastic band and quickly paint a dot on her thorax. Quick and easy.
My bees may be odd, but I have not found a way to put a permanent mark on my queens so far. They always rub 90% of it off. The solution is probably discs and glue; I’ll have to try that one of these days. Currently, I use non-toxic tyre marker pens.
What I have learned about swarm control is…that it’s better to have young queens and give bees ample space early on so that swarm control isn’t an issue. Anyway, back in the real world, sometimes they get ahead of you, and they make swarm cells. There are a million books and articles on what to do next.
The first and quite significant question to answer is, “has the queen already gone?” She probably has if you have sealed queen cells in your hive. You can carefully check for young larvae and eggs, but even that doesn’t mean they haven’t already swarmed. The only way to be sure that your bees haven’t swarmed already is to find the queen. The problem is, for how long should the queen hunt continue before accepting that she is no longer home? Maybe she’s just hiding? It’s time-consuming and stressful, and you may not spot her even if she is in the hive.
The quickest way to deal with this is to do a ‘Demaree’ set-up by shaking all the bees into a new box with empty combs placed on the floor. The bottom box will then contain the queen if she is there. The set-up would be a queen excluder over the bottom box, then supers, then a box containing the brood frames. In a few days, the young bees will have moved upstairs to tend to the brood, and if a queen exists, she will have started laying in the bottom box. Meanwhile, your foragers are continuing to do their thang. If they are queenless, at least now you know.
If they have swarmed, should I close up the hive and leave them to it? “The bees know best,” and all that. Nonsense! They want to reproduce and, as a happy by-product, make you suffer. They can issue multiple cast swarms with virgin queens, leaving a tiny useless colony behind. I say leave them just one open queen cell and remove the rest. If they are all sealed, you could take a risk and leave two cells. A couple of weeks ago, I did that on a friend’s hive, and the buggers swarmed with the first virgin. Hey ho. With a sealed cell, you can’t be sure that there is a viable queen inside.
Life is easier when you make queens and have plenty around to use for re-queening. Just make them hopelessly queenless by removing cells over a couple of weeks, then introduce a new mated queen using a push-in cage. Simples.
I tuck my jeans into my socks, put on my boots, and put the bee-suit over the boots. My ankles haven’t been stung since doing this. I wear green or yellow washing-up style gloves as, with very little evidence, I’ve decided bees prefer to sting blue gloves. In good weather, I don’t wear gloves, but when does that ever happen? I use a blow torch to light my smoker. Sometimes I don’t use queen excluders, and often they do so well that I wonder why I ever use them. Then, when I need to find the queen, I remember why. I make my own hive floors, and they are fantastic. I like Snelgrove boards and dislike cloake boards. If I graft 20 larvae and end up with 10 mated queens, I feel like a hero. Despite this, I love raising queens.