Life Cycles and Spectacular Growth

Steve pointing to some mating nucs with his hive tool
From tiny acorns do giant oak trees grow

The ability of honey bees to grow their colonies from little nucs to enormous hives with bursting supers is extraordinary. Some colonies that came out of winter looking small are now booming. Others dwindled and were shaken out, just to prove that nothing is always great. I still marvel at the growth rate of colonies from April to June. This is all about life cycles and spectacular growth.

In just 12 days…

At a smaller scale, there is the wonder of raising queens. The tiniest little larva, grafted on 14th June at 4 days old (4 days since laying), will be a fully formed virgin queen by 26th June, and could be mated and laying eggs a week later (in good weather). My first batch of queens are ready to be moved to larger premises. They are all identical in appearance, which is the result of the breeder queen being mated to a single line of drones in an isolated place.

Starting a new apiary

The way I like to start a new apiary is with nucleus colonies because they are easy to move in my little VW Caddy van. Back in April, I started off two new apiaries using a combination of over-wintered and bought in queens (from Becky’s Beezzz). The before and after photos below show how things have changed. From small nucs to brood box plus 2 or 3 supers in a couple of months. I did not extract spring honey off these hives, but I’m expecting to get over 30Kg of honey per hive, which isn’t bad for their first season.

New apiary in April compared to June
New apiary in April compared to June (1)
New apiary in April compared to June
New apiary in April compared to June (2)

Young, prolific queens

Young, prolific queens are the lifeblood of successful honey production. They produce giant colonies and, managed properly, are less likely to swarm. However, most of these incredible creatures have a brief period in the sun, then fade. Most of my queens need to be changed at the end of their second season. I used to think, “this queen is fantastic, she must be good for at least another year.” Often, these were the ones that, when given a third season, lagged behind the rest, and they were much more likely to make swarm cells.

I do sometimes move my best queens into nucs so that I can graft off them the following year. Frequently they are gone by the end of that third season, through swarming or supercedure, but rarely a queen will live in her nuc for her fourth or more years. These are little gems that need to be preserved and bred from for as long as possible. The longest lived queen that I know of was one of Jolanta’s early breeders; she lasted seven years.

Everything has its season

When people discuss the life cycle of a queen, they usually mean the journey from egg to mated adult. However, this is just the beginning of her life. She will typically come into this world in June. Between then and October, she will grow her colony so that it is strong enough to survive the winter. Then, in her second season, she will be in her prime. These second season queens tend to make the most honey. The temptation after such a great year is to keep her in a production hive for the following season, but as I have said, this is often a mistake.

Life cycle at colony level

Most bee farmers change queens regularly because they want good honey crops and bees that aren’t all swarming over the hedge. The process of removing an old queen and successfully introducing a new one is not always as straightforward as one might hope. I was interested to hear about the approach taken by David Wainwright of Tropical Forest products. He treats each hive as an organism with its own life cycle, and replaces it with a new one when it gets old. He said this:

We start our hives as single frame Dadant nucs, each with a queen cell and a 2 litre syrup feed. They are left alone for a month. These are set up in nursery sites, each with around 200 nucs. As they expand they are given extra 6 frame deep boxes and then transferred into full-size hives. In the winter, sites with only a few hives are cleared out and a new set of nucs moved in, all from the same batch. This fresh young stock will produce a good crop for a couple of years, but in years 3 and 4 they start to dwindle, the average lifespan is 4 or 5 years. Then they make way for the next group of young stock and are moved off to a retirement site.”

Different approaches

It’s remarkable how beekeepers can be successful with entirely different approaches. Many people practise intensive methods, with 7-10 day inspections. Others take what appears to be a more laid-back approach, and they may lose more swarms, but they have periods of intense activity, such as when producing nucleus colonies. I have doubts about the long-term prospects of any beekeeper who takes a laid-back approach to varroa treatment in this country. More people are taking this gamble, so time will tell.

Being in the know

Pink paint used for marking queens
Pink paint used for marking queens

Of course, unless you mark your queens, you can’t be certain what’s going on. If they are marked with something that doesn’t easily wear off, it will be obvious when the bees have changed their queen. The same applies to monitoring varroa mite levels. If you don’t do an alcohol wash at the end of June, how do you know which hives have high mite loads and which are coping just fine? Simply being alive is not the same thing as thriving, and no colony thrives when riddled with mites. Equally, if you don’t record the honey taken from each hive, how will you know which ones contain potential breeder queens?

Know, I know. Another blog post when I’m going on about queens again. I can’t help it. Queens are a massive part of successful beekeeping. Proper disease control and nutrition complete the holy trinity. Good queens, healthy bees and plenty of forage; this is what we need to make honey.

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