The problem with beekeepers is that we are all cooped up for ages over the winter with no bees to see. It isn’t enjoyable. Then, suddenly, the weather improves, spring arrives, and we’re back in the game. The boundless optimism that comes with that first spell of warm weather in April can lead us down unfortunate paths. I hope that I have learned to temper my enthusiasm after another ‘May misadventure’ with my queen rearing.
How often does May turn out to be a rubbish month for queen mating? Funny you should ask. I have just been looking back at May to August for each year, going back to 2015 to see which days are good for queen mating. My criteria for a possible mating day is that in the midday to 4 pm time window, the temperature is 18 deg C or higher, and there is no cloud cover for at least an hour or two. From 2015 to 2021, there were 38 mating days out of a possible 217 (17.5%). Not good, is it? That’s for my patch near Manchester airport – it will probably vary quite a bit depending on where you are.
Twelve Dead Queens
Many of my queens grafted at the end of April have successfully found drones, and they are happily laying away. They mostly went into mini-plus hives, which already had drawn comb. I had been concerned; the virgins did not seem to be very large, nor were the cells from which they emerged. However, these queens are now big, fat, juicy mommas – so I’m pleased with that. The next batch of virgins from a graft on 7th May did not fare so well. These bees went into Kieler mating nucs with fondant and mostly just starter strips of foundation. I checked them last week, and only about five were mated. Twelve were dead outs – a pile of dead bees on the floor of each nuc.
I hate killing queens, but I’m so good at it! There probably wasn’t enough bee-power in my Kieler nucs, and the weather wasn’t great either. I reckon I would have gotten away with it if it had been glorious sunshine with a good honey flow. Note to self: three scoops of bees per mating nuc from now on, and don’t bother with grafting early in the season. I was intoxicated with the optimism of early sunshine, and now I must hang my head in shame. I also think that with drawn comb, it would have been a different outcome for the twelve that failed – they had too much work to do drawing comb in cool weather with too few bees. All that work…
June For Adam
When I interviewed David Kemp about how Brother Adam raised queens, he told me that June was when they did it. Adam kept meticulous weather records going back decades, and he worked out that statistically, June was the best time down in Devon. Now and then, it would backfire, with torrential rains for much of the month, but mostly it worked out. Rain and cloud are no strangers in my area, whatever the month. Imagine how much easier it must be to keep bees somewhere with long predictable periods of warm, settled weather. Perhaps I should move to South Dakota or some such place. Or maybe I should learn the best times to raise queens in my area – it seems more realistic.
Based on my analysis of ‘mating days’ over the past seven years, the number of such days is:
June 61 days out of 210 (29%)
July 80 days out of 217 (37%)
August 77 days out of 217 (35%)
Therefore, in future, I’ll aim to do the majority of my grafting from the back end of June onwards into early August. It sounds late, but, on reflection, the time when colonies naturally supersede their queen is later in the year. The problem is that there’s so much more brood available for cell builders earlier on in May.
Right, back to killing queens. Three of my colonies, with queens born in 2020, have become evil little shits. They were gentle as lambs last season, but something has gone wrong. Every visit, workers from these few hives attack us, follow us, and if they could, they’d probably swear and spit at us. They are the same queens, just a year older. They were, but now they are dead – squished beneath my hive tool. Unacceptable behaviour consistently equals “the hive tool test” – they never pass. Three hives are not an epidemic, and I have plenty of queens mated in 2022, so the replacements are in place, caged for now. The next challenge is to get the new queens accepted – I shall try prayer or maybe chanting.
Three Year Rule
I have found, or at least I think I have, that my bees start to get a bit ropey after about three years. By that, I mean three years of raising queens from my best stock and getting them mated with local drones. The local bees are not terrible, but they are more likely to swarm and be badly behaved than those purchased from somebody with excellent bees. Many people won’t like this, but I like to buy in a breeder queen with proven credentials from a reputable source every few years. This is the year it happens – I have two lined up, both with known pedigrees. One is instrumentally inseminated, the other mated up on Brother Adam’s old mating station on Dartmoor.
Spread The Love
The plan with the new breeders is to raise daughter queens and then, next year, give them drone combs to spread that glorious goodness around my local area. It may help for a while. I also have one gorgeous queen that I shall be grafting from next week, so I can get it right every so often.
Blackberries are flowering already around here, but I have not yet detected an incoming flow. It usually kicks in at some point. It feels like it might be a decent honey year, but anything can happen – that’s the glorious uncertainty of keeping bees in this part of the world.