Virgins etc.

bee eggs on comb
Eggs laid in cells as quickly as workers build them

I stumbled upon a fantastic resource for beekeepers concerning the monitoring and management of Varroa mites by the Honey Bee Health Coalition. There is some comprehensive guidance, including videos plus a neat decision tool to help decide whether to treat and what the treatment options are.

A few of my colonies contain a full comb of drone brood (intentionally), and these are the ones most likely to have the highest mite counts. I’m going to force myself to do an alcohol wash on all hives sometime in June. Partly this is because it’s good practise, but I also need to have this data before trying out the ‘queen caging‘ experiment. I’ll be doing the checks again after the supers are off. It will be interesting to compare the caged queen hives with the other ‘control’ hives. It’s just a small scale field trial, but I wanted to go through the motions to know what’s involved. I’m increasingly concerned that the whole thing is a silly idea, but I’m committed to following it through. Randy Oliver’s extended-release oxalic acid looks more straightforward and equally promising. However, that’s not anywhere near to being an approved control method.

queen cage on a frame
Queen cage for creating brood break

How long can they wait?

Anyway, in my beekeeping, the recent change in weather has come just in time. We have had days of warmth and sunshine in contrast to the continual cold and wet of May. I don’t know for sure how long a virgin queen can wait before she cannot mate; I think I remember reading something like 26 days from emergence is about the limit. Some of my virgin queens have gone past that point, and unless something miraculous happens, they are for the chop next week. I have a nuc that I made queenless on 22nd April (because I removed five frames and sold them with the queen). The queen they made isn’t laying. It had come through the winter on twelve frames (double brood). The nuc next door was in the same situation, except she has now started laying; let’s see how she does.

The virgin queens that I made in my cell builder went into mating nucs on 16th May. I checked two recently; one was mated, and the other wasn’t, but there’s plenty of time yet for them. I made a new cell builder today, but I’m going to be trying out the method used by Jolanta at Denrosa Apiaries in Coupar Angus. She uses a five frame over five frame nuc as her cell starter, with the queen in the bottom box below an excluder. Both starter and finisher hives are queen-right in her system. I can see the advantages if it works. Jolanta told me that some colonies don’t make cells very well, but others are great. Unfortunately, I found an emerged queen cell in my original cell builder, so I had to let it become a production hive instead.

Covering all the bases

I’ve been reflecting on the queens I selected last year for breeding. Many of the over-wintered daughter queens seem to be very prolific. They are not Italians or anything – just local bees – but many were mega strong in April. Usually, I’d get a decent honey crop from these early ‘boomers’, but because May was horrible, they stayed indoors and made queen cells instead. Last year was the other way around; a great early season followed by a dismal July.

There’s no way to predict what will happen with the weather. Some of my over-wintered colonies were looking a bit small in April, but they have made good progress, not swarmed, and should be in great shape for the July flow. I think I will try to raise queens of both types – some ‘early boomers’ and some ‘steady as she goes.’ Cover all the bases. I can only select queens; the drone side of things is up to the Gods.

Mating nucs

I bought an excellent little booklet by the late Ron Brown called ‘Managing Mininucs‘ to understand the magical ways of the Kieler mating hive. However, I have been making up some three frame nucs (two frames of bees plus a frame feeder) because I have more confidence in my ability to succeed with them. I made the floors and the rooves but bought the parts to make the boxes from Heather Bell Honey Bees in Cornwall. They are top quality; I was very impressed. I also ordered some of the 2 in 1 poly nucs that you can split into two with a divider, but everyone else in the UK seems to have done the same…it could be a while before they arrive. [Update: they are on their way!] With any luck, there is still time to produce plenty of queens this year.

assorted nucleus hives
Some mating nucs and a larger poly nuc

Book on swarming

The recently published book by Wally Shaw called ‘Swarming Biology and Control‘ is a good read. He recommends doing the Snelgrove Method 2 (modified) version of artificial swarming when there are queen cells and they have not yet swarmed. I suppose you can still use this method without finding the queen, and if she happens to have already gone, you will soon find out by the absence of new eggs. I like how he splits the beekeeper’s activities into ‘pre-emptive” and ‘reactive’ swarm controls. Hopefully, the better we do the former, the less we’ll have to do of the latter.


Finally, I took a photo of eggs on a black plastic frame (see main photo) to show how well they stand out. Some people get very ‘holier than thou’ about, well, many things – but plastic frames and poly hives seem to get a bad rap from the cool kids who want to save the planet. I have all sorts of kit, some traditional and some modern. Given that plastic frames and poly hives last decades and can be continually reused after cleaning, they seem okay to me. Let he without oil-based polymers in his life cast the first stone and all that. For the avoidance of doubt, I love our planet too.

7 thoughts on “Virgins etc.

  1. Steve,
    I bought some plastic brood-box foundation years ago, intending to try it, but never have. If it ‘lasts me out’, as my mother says, it seems pretty environmentally friendly in the long term. Seems quite popular in the States. Have you had success with it? Some say they struggle to get their bees to draw it out, despite painting it with wax.

    • Hi David! Once it’s drawn out I love it, but getting it properly drawn seems to be less reliable than wax foundation. I have found that if I don’t add my own layer of wax they sometimes make comb perpendicular to the face of the frame – then I scrape it off, and keep doing so until they ‘get it right’. When it’s a massive colony on a nectar flow they soon draw it out. I bought lots of them a few years ago and probably have about 30% of brood frames on plastic (the rest wax foundation by the excellent Kemble Bee Supplies). They are great for grafting & you don’t get blow outs in the extractor. I much prefer the ‘all plastic’ ones by Acorn to the ones where you put plastic foundation into wooden frames.

  2. Hi David, like you I’ve bought the Italian cages for the same varroa experiment in July. Also feeling nervous about it, but think if select a colony I’m less attached to the queen in, with varroa levels that require treatment, it will be a very worthwhile experiment. I’m going to try sugar shakes rather than alcohol washes as they are 95% accurate vs 100%, so easy to extrapolate the mites whilst saving several hundred bees across my colonies.

    Is the Randy Oliver extended release OA similar to the 3 x 5 day apart OA sublimation treatment covered on various bee forums?

    • Hi Elaine, not sure if you mean me (Steve) or David, I’ve been called far worse (!) – but anyway, the Randy Oliver thing is not sublimation. He wants a summer treatment for when supers are on & has been trying OA dissolved in glycerol and soaked into biodegradable thin sponges. They go on the frames of the brood box and stay there for many weeks. It’s a long gradual treatment that seems effective in the right circumstances

  3. Hi Steve … I think queens ‘go over’ after 26-33 days. I’ve just started my third round of queen rearing. The first lot are still all virgins (though within their ‘use by’ date) and the second lot are almost all mated. There are only 8-10 queens in each of the first two rounds (so could just be bad luck) produced about 10 days apart, but it looks to me like older queens are less likely to mate even if the weather is good enough.

    I’m not seeing much Varroa this season which I ascribe to the long, cold Spring. We’ve also measured virus levels in hives and they’re very low. Hundreds of drones have been uncapped for rearing in experiments and almost none have any mites. Good times.

    I remain unconvinced of the need for a routine mid-season mite treatment … if managed properly in late summer and during a broodfree period in the winter mite levels should remain OK. At least, that’s my experience in the Midlands and Scotland, though I acknowledge it might be different if brood rearing occurs all year.

    I’d much prefer to treat in winter than in the middle of the following season.


    • Thanks David. You are probably right about the varroa treatment. I’ve always done August (thymol or amitraz) & December (Oxalic) and it seems to work. I think I’ll always do the winter Oxalic treatment for sure. God knows why I decided to muck about. It will probably prove once and for all that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’

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