There are many ways to skin a cat, apparently, and the same is true of beekeeping (many ways to do it). I don’t understand why anyone would want to skin a cat. It seems harsh, even if cats aren’t your thing. Bees don’t even have skin, so they are way ahead of felines in the ‘avoidance of knife-wielding maniacs’ stakes. For those beekeepers who like the idea of making more honey per hive than they currently do, read on. Two colonies in one: a proven way to increase honey production.
Covering Your Costs
My latest book on beekeeping (not yet in print), written with Paul Horton, who makes more honey than I can dream of, is about maximising your honey crop. Not everybody cares about such things, which is fine. However, what tends to happen to those of us who grow our hive numbers is that we wake up one morning and suddenly realise how much our beekeeping is costing us. Feeding syrup and treating for varroa mites is no big deal for a couple of hives. However, with ten hives, those things could easily cost over £250. The time comes when we wish to make some return on our investment, if only to stop us slipping into bankruptcy.
An effective way to make the economics of beekeeping work in our favour is to increase the honey crop per hive. The costs per hive are more or less fixed, but honey yields vary tremendously from beekeeper to beekeeper. Why not be somebody who makes 80lbs or more per production colony? We will cover our costs and maybe even achieve a small profit. Typically, most hobby beekeepers get about 25lbs of honey per colony on average, then they give most of it away or sell it for less than it’s worth. That can’t continue when you get up to ten, twenty or fifty-plus hives.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all about money. What’s more, some of the biggest factors that determine our honey harvest are things beyond our control, such as the weather. There are, however, things that we can do to make more honey per hive. One very effective way is to practise migratory beekeeping, like Paul; he continually moves bees from crop to crop, and honey flow to honey flow. That approach does not suit most people, who prefer to keep their hives in the same place throughout the year. An old way to increase yields for such people involves making giant two-queen colonies.
Big Colonies Make More Honey
Why does one big colony of 60,000 bees make more honey than two smaller colonies of 30,000 bees each? I don’t suppose it matters really, it’s just how it is. I tried to explore this in a recent presentation:
With a two-queen approach, it’s possible to get truly giant populations in the same hive, maybe 90,000 bees. This is not for the faint hearted; giant towers of heavy boxes call for serious management. I have been reading a paper written by the great CL Farrar from 1958, called ‘Two-Queen Colony Management For Production Of Honey,’ which is very intriguing, as is most of what I’ve read by him.
Farrar’s Writing On Two-Queen Colonies
Farrar states that strong colonies that are divided 5 to 7 weeks before the main flow, then organised as two-queen colonies, can make twice as much honey for the beekeeper than if the hive had continued as a strong single-queen colony. He says that a yield of 500lbs is not uncommon. That’s a lot! What’s more, they collect more pollen, which is an advantage going into winter. Once the main flow is coming to an end, the queen excluder separating the two queens is removed, and the bees decide which one will take them into winter.
I’m going to try this on a couple of hives to see what happens. Farrar’s plan goes something like this:
- For double brood colonies, reverse the boxes in spring so that the brood is in the bottom box with empty drawn comb in the upper box, above an excluder. For singles, add a couple of supers of drawn comb above an excluder to achieve the same thing.
- Another brood box is added above a double screened board which has an entrance (Horsley or Snelgrove type board). The upper box gets at least three frames of sealed brood and 60% of the bees. It also gets the second queen, which should be a mated laying queen. He says that using queen cells creates a delay in brood rearing upstairs, which is counter-productive.
- Both upper and lower brood nests should have frames of stores
- The boxes above the lower brood nest must not be allowed to become more than half-full of honey. This means lots of lifting, moving out boxes containing honey (to go above the upper brood nest until capped) and replacing with empty combs.
- As the main flow starts, the board separating the two colonies is removed, although an upper entrance is still needed for drones, which could be a hole drilled in the upper brood box. The supers above the bottom box must continually be cycled so that they are not over half full of honey. More supers are added at the top of the hive, as this is where most honey will be stored. Weekly visits are needed to remove and extract capped supers and add back empties.
- Farrar says that 4 weeks before the end of the flow the colony should be reunited by putting all the brood boxes together at the bottom of the hive, then an excluder, then supers above. I don’t know how long his flows were, but it seems to me that a flow of 4 weeks is pretty good, let alone longer. I think I’d change it to ‘halfway through the flow’ which is obviously always going to be a guess.
My thoughts on this, apart from “OMG I need to get fit before trying this”, is that the stage where the large colony is split vertically could be used to make a new queen, if a frame with some eggs on was put in the top box. I understand that the delay caused by not having the ‘upper queen’ mated and laying straight away is a problem, but frames of sealed brood could be used to boost it. In my case, I’d probably have queen cells available from my queen rearing and could use them, but it’s still 2 to 3 weeks before the new queen is laying (assuming good weather). Maybe the way to go is to initially put more of the brood from downstairs into the upper box at the time of splitting (Farrar’s 3 frames of sealed brood assumes a laying queen).
Enter Floyd Moeller – Simplification
Secondly, and this makes things much easier, Floyd Moeller’s research on two-queen colonies in the 1970s showed that you don’t need the supers above the bottom brood box. What a relief. As long as the upper and lower queens are separated by an excluder, then supers just need to go on the top. You do, of course, still require an upper entrance for drones. When adding supers, it’s going to be at least two at a time, possibly more. Weekly visits to remove capped boxes and replace with empties are still needed, unless you want a hive as tall as a house. I found out about Moeller here:
I’m sure there are tweaks and variations, but the basic idea of creating a giant population of forager bees in time for the main honey flow is sound. The only potential issue I can see is the Great British Weather. Occasionally, the summer flow is a flop. In fact, sometimes we don’t really get a summer, although recent years have tended to be warm, or even hot. That’s in my area on the Cheshire plain; it may not be getting milder where you are. And even if it is, nature has a way of surprising us with something unexpected from time to time.