Peter Little has always been an absolute legend to me because he knows so much about so much and is quite happy to pass on his wisdom. He runs Exmoor Bees and Beehives with his wife and sons producing honey from the glorious Exmoor countryside. They also make and sell bee hives made from Western Red Cedar using their own saw mill to slice up trees and somehow turn them into useful boxes for beekeepers. As if that were not enough, Peter is also a world class queen breeder using instrumental insemination as well as isolated mating stations on Exmoor and Dartmoor. In fact, the Dartmoor site is none other than the famous Sherberton mating apiary set up by Brother Adam back in the day, owned by Peter’s friend Anton Coaker.
In this extract from our interview in February 2018 Peter talks a little about wet grafting and then moves onto swarm control using the nucleus method.
Peter: If they’re in swarming mode I take the queen away. I break down all of their cells, and I keep a lot of their Royal Jelly because I always wet graft. I don’t dry graft; I like wet grafting.
Steve: Is that water plus jelly?
Peter: No I just use Royal Jelly. I don’t mix water with it. I like Royal Jelly and I keep it in little Eppendorf tubes and I freeze it.
Steve: Oh right. That’s an idea isn’t it? They could go in our freezer [to long suffering Mrs Walrus sat by my side]
Peter: I stick the little Eppendorf tube in my shirt pocket when I want to do some grafting. It warms up in there. I use a tiny paint brush to put a little dob in each cell. I’ve done dry grafting as well but I just prefer wet grafting. A little tiny blob of jelly in each cell and then a larvae on top of it.
Steve: So with a swarming colony?
Peter: With a swarming colony that’s what they want to do – make queen cells. They are in prime condition for doing it, they are strong enough to be doing it (that’s why they are swarming) so I take the queen away. I break down all their queen cells and give them twenty grafts to do.
Steve: I bet they love it don’t they?
Peter: Yeah, they love it!
I only ever do one set, maybe two. If you try any more than two the quality of them goes downhill rapidly; I wouldn’t do it.
Peter: I prefer to just let them do twenty grafts. I leave them until they have got no open brood left, break down all their cells – on any open ones I keep the Royal Jelly. They are queenless, they are in swarming mode, you’ve taken their queen away [and any means to make more cells] and you’ve given them twenty grafts. They jump on those grafts and they draw out lovely big cells. I leave them right up until a couple of days before they are due to emerge before I bring them back to the incubator or put them in nucs. During that period they get past their swarming fever. They are broodless, because all of the rest will have emerged, so you can give them a mated queen back again.
Peter: Give them an extra super, give them a mated queen back again and they think, “Phew, we’ve got a queen again.” Depending on the time of the year when you do it – you’ve got to know the timing of your nectar flows – it all depends on the flows as to what operation you do at what time of the year.
If it’s early enough in the Spring and a colony goes into swarming mode we always take out ten or fifteen correx boxes in the back of the truck. We just take out a frame of bees and brood with the queen and another shake of bees and put them in a correx box. We go through the hive and shake off all the bees from each frame and break off all of their cells. We put it back together and leave them. The following week…
Steve: You’ve just taken away the queen and knocked down the queen cells, so there’s nothing…
Peter: Nothing but eggs and larvae.
Steve: So they just make emergency cells
Peter: Yes. We leave them a week. They can’t swarm; they haven’t got a queen.
Peter: All they can do is make more queen cells. So we go back the following week. The correx box that we took went on the back of the truck and was taken to another apiary and put in a nuc. That’s the old queen. We notice when they are in swarming mode and when they are not going to swarm by the size of the queen. When she’s slimmed right down and is starting to run around and her egg laying is reduced they are going to swarm. If the queen is big and fat and plodding around and still laying like mad you can usually get away with breaking the cells down and giving them some more room. If you look in there and see reduced egg laying and the queen has slimmed right down it’s guaranteed they are going to swarm.
So out she comes in a box, frame of brood and a frame of bees shaken in there, and a frame of food – they just get brought back. We mark which hive she came from. If she’s a good queen still she’s going to be going back there, but if she’s not she will be left in the nuc to build up into a full nuc, and then she’ll be squashed and a new queen put in there.
The following week we go back to that colony, we shake all the bees off and we break down every single queen cell they’ve got. We take a frame of brood from another colony with larvae and eggs on it, mark the frame, put it into the colony and leave them another week. The next week we either take a young mated clipped queen back with us (a new queen) or we go to the nuc where the old queen is. Instead of being small she’ll have fattened right back up again and will be back to laying. If she’s a good queen we re-cage her, put a few attendants in, and we go back to the colony that was swarming.
They have had two weeks. Apart from that one frame they have got no brood left. That one frame id the only one they could make a queen on so you’ve only got to inspect one frame. Their swarming impulse has passed, long passed, so you take that frame out, shake off the bees and destroy they queen cells. Then you put the queen back in there – either the old queen or a new one. Generally that’s it for the rest of the season. They settle down.
She’s got a whole box to lay back up again, plenty of laying space, the older bees have died off so they have diminished slightly in numbers and the swarming impulse has finished, and that’s it. It works really well.
Steve: That really interests me because the splitting thing – you know, artificial swarming and all that – I think I might have been not very good at it, but I always end up with lots of small colonies and no honey.
Peter: This keeps it as a big powerful colony, and to boost that colony up again if you want, you have always got loads of other colonies so you can just plonk a couple more frames of brood in there to make up for the lack of time laying. Generally they settle down then and you have no more swarming problem for the rest of that season.