“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name,” teases Mick Jagger in the epic Stones track “Sympathy for the Devil”. He sings, “Let me please introduce myself; I’m a man of wealth and taste.” Such words do not apply to me, as I sit typing this in a scruffy tee shirt with shorts, socks and sandals on. At least I’m not the devil, but sometimes I wonder if my bees, especially queens, think otherwise.
Ever since I watched “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I have been playing a lot of music from the late 1960s. I was only 6 years old when immortal songs like “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” were released, but they hit the spot for me. In my youth, I read Sounds (magazine) and NME; I was very well informed and up to date. Now I listen to BBC World Service and Radio 4; I couldn’t tell you what is in the charts or if they even exist anymore. I have Bloomberg or CNBC on the TV in the daytime so that I can absorb market news and ingest my fix of economic data. The transformation to grumpy old git is complete!
Experience is my teacher
Anyway, bees! I have thirty-odd hives, and right now, I can’t believe how busy I am. How do people run several hundred or even thousands? I should know; I’ve interviewed several excellent commercial beekeepers. There is a world of difference between knowing something from being told and knowing through actual experience. I am beginning to see why the standardisation of equipment is so essential, as well as equalising hive strengths.
The particular subject of this post now that I’m finally closing in on it is introducing queens. It’s a lot trickier than it could be. For example, the other day, I marked a newly mated queen that was happily going about her business in a six-frame nuc. I put her back on the top of a frame, and the workers decided that she was an imposter and started to ball her. Presumably, the not-yet dry marking paint was emitting an unfamiliar smell. I blasted a lot of smoke at the ball of bees which dispersed, then I filled the whole hive with smoke and next week I will find out if the queen survived. If she died, it would have been my fault; another queen murdered by a walrus; it’s a tale as old as time. [Update: yep, she’s gone – emergency queen cells & no eggs. Very sad.]
Next time I will let the paint dry before returning her majesty. I have read about this, but now that I have actually experienced it I hope I will learn the lesson.
Earlier this season I had a batch of newly emerged virgin queens which needed to go into mating nucs. I had got the timing slightly wrong and needed to make up the mating nucs with nurse bees that same day. Lo and behold, when I checked on them a week later, most were queenless, and some were bee-less. Sometimes I put queen cells into mating nucs and sometimes virgins. In either case, the chances of acceptance are markedly improved if the nucs have been left queenless for several days before introduction. This is why planning and timing are so important.
Speaking of virgin queens, my latest batch emerged the other day in my incubator. Ten queen cells produced nine virgins, which is ok, I suppose. It sounds less impressive when you know that it all started off with twenty grafts. I put the queens into mating nucs that had been queenless for a few days. I used an old method; “direct introduction with smoke,” which seems to have fallen out of fashion. This research paper is very revealing. It’s all in the title: “Direct introduction of mated and virgin queens using smoke: a method that gives almost 100% acceptance when hives have been queenless for 2 days or more.” These are the main conclusions of the research:
Overall, our results clearly show three things about queen acceptance. Firstly, direct queen introduction with smoke gives very high acceptance of both mated and virgin queens and appears to be a better method than the use of new mailing cages, reused natural queen cells, or artificial queen cells. Secondly, mated queens have higher acceptance rates than virgin queens. Thirdly, the length of time a colony has been queenless greatly affects its likelihood of accepting a queen, with colonies needing to be queenless for a longer period to accept virgin queens than mated queens.
As far as getting new queens into mating nucs, I prefer introducing virgins to using queen cells. I think. We’ll see. Right now, I do. It means that I can see that she is a nice healthy queen and I can easily mark her as a virgin so that I don’t have to do it later on. The important thing is to make sure that the mating nuc has had no queen or queen cells for at least two days before introduction. People who make hundreds or thousands of queens mostly seem to favour using queen cells, probably because they can get a faster turnaround through the incubators. I think Richard Noel uses virgins rather than cells.
Push In Cage
The other type of queen introduction is when re-queening a full-sized colony with a mated queen. The above research suggests that direct introduction with smoke should work very well as long as the hive has been queenless for two days or more. I have generally tended to use the “push-in cage” method, as shown to me by Michael Palmer. I have only used this method about twenty times, but I cannot recall a time when it did not work. Normally when I return to release the queen four days later, she has already been let out by the workers. That’s fine by me as she is always happily laying away and fully accepted by the colony. If the colony had another queen, then things would not go so smoothly, but so far it’s worked out.
Another method which works well is to initially introduce the queen to a nucleus colony and wait for her to become established. Later the frames from the nuc can be placed in a brood box which then goes above a queenless colony with newspaper between the boxes. Murray McGregor uses air freshener rather than paper; the scent helps both colonies to smell the same.
In summary, introducing queens is something to be done with great care. The beginners’ mistake is to assume that a colony is queenless when in fact it has a virgin queen in there somewhere. The introduced queen is promptly killed, which is very depressing and expensive. The hive or nuc needs to be queenless for 2 to 7 days before adding the new queen. Mated queens are more readily accepted than virgins, and direct introduction with smoke appears to be an effective method that is often overlooked.