Science Vs. Experience

The Kyles of Bute
The Kyles of Bute

I love science. I’ve even got a chemistry degree, but don’t ask me about it because that was over thirty years ago. As soon as I left university, I went to the City to do accountancy. It’s hard to deny the importance of science in our lives. The scientific method; the testing of a hypothesis using hard data and controlled conditions, is part of how progress occurs. We need science, but we need good science. I believe that the way research is funded can lead to problems. Money dictates what science is carried out and what hypothesise we test.

A Friend of a Friend told me…

As I sit here typing on my laptop, using the internet while staring out over the beautiful Kyles of Bute, I know that my life is defined by centuries of science that came before me. The media are generally terrible at reporting on science. They want headlines and drama, so that is what they look for. Headlines get quoted and requoted like Chinese whispers. Eventually, we get the “accepted wisdom” that is never questioned, which may or may not be based on objective research. At that point, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

Even with something as rigorous and robust as science, we have to be a little careful. Did we just read the headline or the abstract, or did we delve into the actual body of the research papers? What was the sample size? Did the research actually make sense? I have seen research papers on honey bees using just a handful of colonies, many of which were not even at full strength. How valuable can the results be? Honey bees are difficult to study. They mate on the wing, live in a dark box and are sensitive to numerous environmental variables.

Bumbles on Thistle
Bumbles on Thistle

My Book: Interviews with Beekeepers

One of the central premises behind my book is that bee farmers have been at it for decades and kept thousands of colonies of bees, so that gives me an excellent sample size. The observations of bee farmers over a lifetime with thousands of colonies must be weighed against the hard science of research projects looking at maybe eighty hives over a couple of years. We need both.

I think it is the observations of experienced beekeepers that should determine which hypothesise get tested under controlled conditions by scientists. This is why Randy Oliver’s column in the American bee Journal is so popular. He manages to combine the concerns of bee farmers with the discipline of conducting field trials. Professor David Evans is also a beekeeper/scientist doing much-needed research into bee viruses. I’m sure there are many others.

Swarming and Queen Cells (again)

It is with the above caveats in mind that I reflected on some old research into queen cells and swarming that cropped up on a bee forum recently. The accepted wisdom is that if you find queen cells in a hive you’d better do something about it or they’ll swarm. There is a lot of guidance on the difference between a queen cup and a queen cell, and various methods to dissuade the bees from flying off. Some people even claim to know the difference between swarm cells and supersedure cells. I’m not sure about that one, but what do I know?

Research by Delia Allen

Anyway, the research by Delia Allen in the 1960s showed that 43 from 81 hives (53%) made queen cells. Only 3 swarmed, which is 7% of those with cells, and 4% of the total colonies. The number of supersedures was 16, which is 37% of those with cells and 20% of the total. Based on this science, finding queen cells in the hive should not necessarily lead to conducting artificial swarms or other swarm control techniques. The colonies with queen cells changed their queen 19 times out of 43 (44%) and only 3 times by swarming. If this were standard across all honey bees everywhere, I’m pretty sure nobody would bother too much about finding queen cells in their hives.

Many beekeepers love bees that supersede because it means less work for them. If the bees naturally change their queen at the time that suits them best, and they don’t swarm so honey yields are high, then life is good. Swarming is a big subject not fully understood by anyone. From what I have seen and heard and read, which is quite a lot, there is a genetic component involved. If you raise queens from swarms, you are likely to get swarmy bees. There is a “swarm season” in every area. For me, this is usually May-June every year, but this year it has been April-July. It’s been a swarmy year for me. The genetics of my bees has not radically changed, nor has my way of keeping bees, so other factors are at play. I blame the weather.

What’s your Goal?

The beekeepers that I have spoken to are working in different areas with different goals, so they have differing approaches to swarm prevention and control.

In California, they come back from almond pollination ready to swarm, so that is when package bees and nucs are made up. A lot of packages and nucs get sold in April in California. If they didn’t split the colonies up, they would probably swarm. The money from pollination and sales of packages/nucs can often be higher than any income from honey sales.

In Scotland, Murray McGregor also sends bees to pollinate crops in the Spring, and he also sells nucs. His primary goal, however, is the heather honey crop in late summer. He tries to manage his bees so that by mid-July they are at peak strength so that they can collect as much heather honey as possible. His swarm control timings and methods are all about ensuring that the bees are ready for the heather. One example is doing vertical artificial swarms early on then recombining them later into one large colony.

It Depends

Most of the experienced beekeepers that I have talked to look for the queen or eggs when they find cells being made. If the queen is still laying, then quite often destroying the cells and giving space will do the trick, especially if a flow is on. If there are no eggs, the queen may already be gone, so the strategy might be to leave one open queen cell and destroy the rest or to introduce a new queen under a push-in cage. Some bee farmers do artificial swarms, some remove the queen with some frames of brood, some make nucs – it all depends. Some clip the queen’s wing and some don’t; it’s a way of buying time. If they try to swarm the queen will fall to the ground, and the bees will return. A lot depends on whether or not you want to make increase or replace winter losses. In short, it depends. That’s always the answer – “it depends.”

Get Yourself Some Nice Genes

I don’t think I’ve yet found a beekeeper who, upon seeing queen cells in their hive, says that they will leave it alone because a science paper states that only 7% will swarm. Sometimes beekeepers are so busy that they don’t get to the hive in time to see the cells; they will find an emerged cell and will have to accept that they either swarmed or superseded – there isn’t much to be done at that point anyway.

The genetics part of the “swarm equation” is extremely important, in my opinion. How many times do we get to the hive too late? How many times do we miss a hidden cell? In the end, the best insurance is to have queens that have been selected from stock with a low swarm impulse. That, plus ensuring there is always room for the queen to lay and for the honey to be stored, is a big part of keeping our bees in their box.

4 thoughts on “Science Vs. Experience

  1. I’m envious of your chemistry degree, I was silly and went to business school.
    I think a good beekeeper should get a background in chemistry, genetics, immunology, … everything. It would be impossible to think critically about new varroa treatments, for example. Companies would make even more money selling us their gimmicks.
    On the swarming; I don’t think it’s possible to truly get the swarming tendency out of any honeybee line. It’s an essential part of how colonies reproduce, to deny them that would be very unnatural. It’s best to make nucs and channel their instincts I believe. Even with good genes we have to watch out for it. I know f.e. carniolans swarm less than some others, but they do still swarm. I received well-bred virgin carniolan queens that mated right where I live. I don’t know what the F1 genes do for the swarming tendency. So far, so good; I caught all the hives that wanted to swarm in time!
    Great post!

    • Thanks! I like to make daughter queens from my best queens but can’t control the drones and, as you say, it would be very odd if they never swarmed. Not much chance of that though, based on this season so far.

  2. Only 4% of colonies swarming in total annually seems incredibly low. Would be good if this experiment was repeated again in different areas. Wonder if they were doing something to keep the colonies weak or some other techniques which helped prevent swarming.

    It doesn’t match with my experience over about ten years at my local association apiary, where most of the colonies tried to swarm annually. Admittedly that was much smaller numbers of hives. Would you expect only 4% of your colonies to swarm each year?

    • For me it varies from year to year but this year it was higher than normal. I reckon it would be at least 30% on average. I love it when I get a colony that builds up and doesn’t even think about swarming – nice and easy 😁.

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