Malcolm’s Topical Tips – 2017 May 04

Swarming is now going to happen in urban areas

Those of us who have hives in the countryside where rape seed is still in full flower will have had to cope with swarming. Those of you who are organised will probably have split strong colonies before they make a queen cells themselves.

Now it is the turn of those beekeepers in towns to have to cope with swarming. i.e. Crowborough, Heathfield and Uckfield. Beginners and even those of you who are very experienced often make a classic mistake when doing an artificial swarm. Those of you who came to our session on swarming will know that the easy bit of splitting a colony by doing an artificial swarm is by putting the old queen in a new box on the old site. I won't insult you by going through that part of the artificial swarm again.

However it is the second part of doing an artificial swarm that leads to so many people ending up with a small box of bees and potentially a runt Queen. Study the development of a virgin queen below.

Day 1 egg

        2 egg

        3 egg

        4 larva

        5 larva

        6 larva

        7 larva

        8 larva Queen cell sealed

        9 larva still feeds off royal jelly

        10 larva turns round and detaches from royal jelly and spins cocoon

        11 prepupa

        12 prepupa

        13 pupa

        14 pupa turns darker colour

        15 pupa : tip of queen cell turns a darker brown

        16 virgin  queen emerges

Now this is where we all go wrong. When doing an artificial swarm the brood and young bees are moved away from the original site. It is this box that poses the real problem in this manipulation. You need to go into this box twice in order for there to be only one queen cell for this colony. If you don't do so it is likely that they will cast, perhaps several times! And you then end up with a useless box of bees, perhaps without a queen.

In an urban setting you are probably best, when the colony has really built up well, to split the bees before they make queen cells. By doing this you force them to make emergency queen cells. They usually start the process by taking larvae that are two days old and converting them into Queens. This is okay because ordinary workers and queen larvae are fed in the same way for the first two days. However there is  a danger that they will be panicked into choosing a three day old larva. A three day old larva would make a runt Queen as she won't be fed royal jelly for long enough and this is one of the things that you need to avoid.

So the initial problem you have is one of timing. Once you have split the bees you need to go back three days later and cut out all sealed queen cells. This will get rid of any of the three day old larva that you panicked them into choosing.

At this stage you should mark with a drawing pin on the frames two open queen cells. I would try and choose queen cells that were on frames with other queen cells. Think about where the cell is positioned so that it is as protected as possible by any of your manipulations. At this initial stage I would not destroy other open queen cells. They may have to be your fallback position.

Now for the tricky bit. Look carefully at the life-cycle that I have listed above. The bees can continue to make queen cells for a considerable number of days. You removed the Queen to force them to make emergency cells but on the day of removal there are still eggs in the hive. Those eggs could take three days to hatch and there are a further two or three days when they can still be converted into a queen. So six or seven days after the split you must, and I repeat you must, go in and cut out any unwanted Queen cells. Now the bees are very clever and they cluster around the Queen cells. On the frame with your chosen queen cell carefully touch the bees to check that there is no other queen cell other than the one that you have chosen. Hopefully this is the same cell as the one you marked three days after the split. If not it will have to be one of the other cells on the frame. If there are no other cells on that frame, then you will have to go and search for another good looking queen cell somewhere else in the box. The frame with the chosen queen cell must not be shaken but must be examined carefully so that you do not leave two or three queen cells on it. That would be a disaster as the bees would cast.

Now for the bit that you all don't do. All other frames must be shaken free of bees. The bees are very good at hiding queen cells as they cluster around them. You really must be brave and shake all the bees off the frames that do not contain your chosen Queen cell. Destroy all queen cells except the one on the frame you have chosen, hopefully the one you originally marked. 

Good luck Urban beekeepers.

Malcolm Wilkie 4th May 2017

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