An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
It’s warm enough for queens to mate but we also see swarms issuing. Nectar is now coming in from the many trees and shrubs, stimulating brood rearing.
Those hives that received early varroa treatments, followed up with another treatment late into the autumn, are generally strong with the bees into the third super. Any stimulation from good sources of nectar and pollen could induce the swarming impulse and if not corrected in time, I will see bees hanging in trees. In my area (Wellington), the flowering of cabbage tree, hawthorn and barberry trigger swarming. Already some of these sources are budding up.
The queens are now laying full bore and are gradually working their way up into the top of the super. Any nectar brought in is packed around the top of the brood, cramping the queen’s laying ability, but this can be corrected in one easy action by reversing the top and bottom supers. In this procedure there is only one provision to watch for: we do not want to split the brood nest. Some hives will have started laying downwards into the top half of the super below and if the hive bodies are reversed, this brood will be isolated from the rest of the brood now in the bottom super, which could see them chilled during a cold snap. It is better that this brood be repositioned on to the outside of the existing brood.
An alternative method is to take a full frame of brood (one where the brood reaches from the top to the bottom of the frame) from the now-bottom super and position it into the centre of this brood, thus creating a path up to the brood in the now-top super. The bees will quickly move up and clean out the bottom cells in these frames for the queen to lay in, thus creating an elliptical brood nest again.
Strong hives will have started to make ‘play’ queen cells along the bottom of the brood in the top super. Cut out or squash any that can’t be seen when the super is tilted back, exposing the bottom bars. With these queen cell buds intact, it’s easy to inspect the hive every 10 days for queen cell development by just splitting the top and second supers apart slightly, bringing the top super forward on the next one down so the front can be tipped back to expose the bottom bars. Now look in each of these queen cell buds for eggs or developing larvae. If you don’t see any larvae all is well, so carefully lower the super back into position again after wafting some smoke over the frames to drive the bees up or down so they won’t get squashed when the supers are joined again.
Finding eggs or larvae in the queen cells means the hive is preparing to swarm. Something will need to be done to prevent the hive from swarming, which results in a loss of bees and very little surplus honey that season. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to cut out all the queen cells before you have checked a couple of brood frames and found eggs. You could have rolled the queen on the last inspection, damaging her or even killing her, so the queen cells you are seeing could be the bees’ attempt to replace the queen.
If eggs are present and you have queen cells developing, the hive is making swarm preparations. One of the easiest ways to prevent swarming is to reduce the population of the hive.
Find the queen so that you know where she is. If you can’t find her, shake all the bees from the top super and place a queen excluder between the top and the next super down. Reassemble the hive and leave it for four days. Don’t worry about the brood frames minus the bees; within half an hour, all the young nurse bees will have gone up through the queen excluder and covered the brood to keep it warm. In the meantime, the queen will have continued laying in the super she’s in.
Now it’s just a matter of opening the top super and looking for eggs in the cells closest to the emerging brood. Finding none confirms the queen is in the lower super, but check to make sure by placing the top super on the upturned roof next to the hive.
Now it’s easy to make a four- or five-frame nucleus hive (two frames of pollen and honey and three frames of mostly emerging brood and an extra shake of bees) from the queenright section (the one the queen is in). Place these into another super with the queen. Take the largest queen cell, cut around it without damaging it and place the queen cell in the middle of the frame in the queenless section of the hive just into the brood area. This may mean you have to squash a few brood cells to make room, but it’s better to kill a few bees in the brood rather than squeezing the queen cell between two frames and possibly damaging the developing queen.
Reduce the number of queen cells in the nuc colony to just two and depending upon how the queen is laying and the amount of royal jelly under the young larvae, decide whether to leave a queen cell in the nuc as well to replace the old queen. If the brood has lots of missed cells, it indicates an old queen or one that is failing.
Now go through the original hive, frame by frame, inspecting each one and cutting out any queen cells. It may be necessary to shake most of the bees off the frames as the bees hide queen cells in some unusual places and if a late developing cell is missed, the hive could still swarm.
Reassemble both hives, making sure each half has a good number of honey frames and the brood is compacted into the middle of the supers. Move the nuc section (with the old queen) to sit beside the original hive. Block the entrance with grass to prevent any bees returning to the original hive. This should reduce crowding in the hive, thus eliminating the bees’ urge to swarm.
Another method of preventing swarming is to create a nuc with a ripe queen cell and move this away to another apiary, or place the nuc in the shade and release at the end of the day. Depending upon the age of the queen cell and the weather, the new queen should be laying in two weeks.
A third method to reduce a hive’s population is to swap the complete hive with a weaker hive. The field bees know their own hive’s location and go straight in without fighting.
Leave the hives alone for three weeks then on a sunny warm day, quietly open the original hive, remove an outside frame and look in the centre of a middle frames for eggs. Hopefully all will have gone well and you will see eggs. If not, leave the hive for another week before checking again. If you still don’t see eggs, then consider the new queen has been lost. Recombine the nuc back on top of the original hive by placing two sheets of newsprint between the top super and the nuc super so there is a slow introduction.
In the meantime, continue looking for queen cells in your later-developing hives so they don’t swarm. Commercial beekeepers do the same to all their hives in an apiary. Once one starts swarm preparations, all the hives are treated the same. All hives are equalled up by transferring emerging brood frames (after checking them all for AFB). Any brood frames left over will be made into nucs or moved to the next bee yard, where they repeat the same operation until all their hives are at the same rate of development. This way they do the same procedure to each hive on their next visit, be it checking for queen cells (splitting the hive) and perhaps adding another super.
When the bees in a hive are just about covering all frames (look from the top and tilt the hive back and look under the bottom super to check that the bees are covering most of the frame below as well), place another super on the hive.
If you only have foundation frames, take two frames from positions 2 and 9 from the top super (if the super has 10 frames) and place these frames into the centre of the new super. Put foundation frames on either side of these and back into the empty spaces in the super below.
As the bees build out the foundation frames, move one on either side out one and replace it with an outer one until all are drawn out.
As soon as you see white wax being produced in the middle frames of the top super, add more supers (for those with drawn frames) or continue to get the foundation frames drawn out. In a heavy flow, a strong hive can draw out a super of foundation in a week.
Check food: feed sugar when there are only three frames of honey left in a hive (a week’s supply for a strong hive). Check pollen: look for a ring of pollen around the brood nest.
Check that hive stands are sound—they will carry a lot of weight when the hives are full of honey. Check for AFB: check all frames!
Raise queen cells. Requeen hives with mated queens or introduce a nuc to a weak hive after removing the old queen.
Undertake swarm control measures: reverse supers and remove frames of emerging brood. Cull out old frames on the edge of the brood nest and replace with one or two frames of foundation. Replace any supers that are starting to rot away in the corners.
Check for mites. Verify your treatments are working by removing 50–100 drone brood at the pink-eye stage with a cappings fork, or do a sugar shake. (After the first shake, add more sugar and shake three or four times, as not all mites are removed on the first shake).
Check your stored honey supers for wax moth. Have all your new gear ready for the honey flow. Super hives on early flows.