Making a Split with a Swarm Cell
By Michele Horsefield
The swarm season arrived. We try to stop them from swarming. The bees have ample room with brood and a half box with supers above them. The bees are not honey bound. They have drawn comb and foundation interspersed. And yet they build swarm cells! Swarming is natural. But we beekeepers want to keep the bees in place.
Swarming is more intense when there is a strong nectar flow. The tendency increases when that strong flow is accompanied by sunny days interspersed with a few days of rain: just what the weather has been like lately. It is a perfect swarm combination: a lot of food coming in, then, suddenly, the rain brings everyone inside and crowds the hive. Food and crowds: signals to swarm.
Of course, there must be queen cells in the making for the swarm, and the after swarms, to emerge. It seems that the bees constantly build and destroy queen cells. Something could happen to the queen at any time, an injury, death, or failure. It is a form of insurance by the colony against such a catastrophe. Or there could just be a lot of food and a crowded hive, thus the need to swarm.
Swarm cells appear. Sun, rain, and food: that’s pretty standard here in North Norfolk in the spring. This year we made a split from a very crowded hive, Glebe Hive 1, a double brood box with good swarm cells we found during our inspections. We also created a nuc from the same parent colony: Quite a prolific colony.
A sealed or nearly sealed swarm cell means that we’ve a queen ready to emerge in 10 days or less. If she’s good, and if she mates well, that means we can have a laying queen at least a week sooner than if we give a nuc eggs with which to build a queen. A frame with a good swarm cell is placed in a nuc with two/three frames of bees, brood, honey and pollen.
(These other frames can be taken from the same hive or a combination of hives)
You could cut also swarm cells out of the comb and pin them onto the comb in a nuc or queenless hive, but we are always worried that it will harm the developing queen. So we put the entire frame with the new queen cell into the nuc. The other swarm cells we destroyed.
Hive Inspection Saturday 29th April 2017, Glebe Lodge
As soon as Julia arrived we had a little council of war about the many variables we might encounter during our inspection: Would we find uncapped swarming cells? Would we have to perform an artificial swarming? Would the colonies need more supers? … This was not about finding the queen(s).
Peter got all the equipment sorted and arranged close to the hives. Having previously noticed some chalkbrood in Hive 2 we decided to open this one last to avoid possible contamination.
A double brood box plus a super, is now home to a large and thriving colony. This colony has a new queen, reared late in the season last year, after that colony lost its original queen (possibly through poor manipulation?).
That colony received another colony – hopelessly depleted by a drone laying queen – in the early Autumn 2016. We used the newspaper method to unite the two colonies.
We carefully inspected each frame in each BB and found no swarm cells, yet. Many more drones now, and drone cells as the swarming impulse is gathering strength. However the bees and the queen still have plenty of space. We noted some incidence of chalkbrood.
A single brood box and 2 supers, it houses a swarm we retrieved last July from the bottom of a rose bush. We observed through the seasons that it has always been a quiet hive in comparison to the others. It is also a smaller colony than the others.
However, a nice surprise awaited us as the bees have been very busy – witness, a full super of fresh honey already despite the recent poor weather. As we inspected the brood box frames, Julia happened to spot the queen. What a lively thing she was! I still managed to reach for my marker and put a blob of white paint on her thorax. We did not see any sign of swarming cells. Drone cells have appeared. However, the bees and the queen have plenty of space left in that single BB.
A brood box and a half, plus one super, it houses a large and very active colony. This was a swarm caught in July 2016, at “10 Acres”.
(Peter has already made a text-book photograph of the queen laying next to cells clearly showing eggs, very young larvae, and others at all stage of development). Again our inspection did not reveal any swarming cells. The drone population is expanding as we spotted them moving on the frames. There is space for the queen to continue laying in the BBs.
A brood box and a half plus two supers. This colony is one half of a split made last spring in early May, without our finding the queen. (The other half of the split developed a drone laying worker and could not be rescued). This means this split reared a new queen which went on to produce the honey we harvested last summer.
Unfortunately, Mistake ONE, the super we used to make the brood and a half has metal castellated runners and the bee space is increased by this castellation to suit better honey production. The bees have quickly filled it with enlarged capped comb! Are the bees filling it up with nectar/honey or has the queen been laying in these enlarged cells??? I trust the bees would know best. We will check asap.
We inspected the frames in the brood box below and found no sign of swarming preparations, except for drones and drone cells appearing in greater number. As I held one frame aloft, Peter spotted the queen. As I was with one hand holding and turning the frame to follow the queen round to the back, I reached for my pen and put a white splodge on her thorax and some on her wing.
Mistake TWO (How not to mark a queen)
Then to our utter dismay, she moved again and dropped of the frame!!! Julia felt her hit on her hand before she dropped below onto the ground. Mistake THREE (how to keep brood frames you inspect directly above BB, turning them as recommended by Venetia and Judy).
I desperately looked several times where she might have fallen, and through sheer luck caught sight of her, removed my clumsy gloves and picked her by her wings and reinstated her, she quickly disappeared between two top bars. Phew!
Well, the saying that “beekeepers learn one mistake at a time” is most apposite… Except that in our case we made two/three serious ones in Hive 2.
Here’s a very busy lady, and we even didn’t notice her when inspecting the frame! Michele and Peter only discovered her later on Peter’s photo, laying eggs. It can be so difficult identifying the queen. Anyway, this shows a perfect pattern of capped and fresh larvae in different stages – what a delight!
First Spring Peek
Following the discussion at first Meeting last Monday 6th March concerning the reinstatement of the queen excluders: the weather being warm at more that 14C on Thursday 9th at 2pm, Michele, Peter and Brian took a quick look into the four hives at Glebe Lodge and decided to proceed. We did not pull out any frames either of brood or supers, so it wasn’t an Inspection.
All four hives have vigorous, populous and healthy populations. We reinstated the queen excluders (except for G1 which has the double brood boxes and no super) and the varroa boards to all three hives.
All four hives have at least some honey left, probably mostly the Ivy honey that was being harvested up until at least the end of November last. Obviously the bees have thrived on the honey we left them in the Autumn.
We fed Susanne’s solid fondant to all four hives in mid-January. There is plenty left but as you can see in the pictures it is being used now, as well as their own reserves.
Pollen of all colours is now flowing into all hives at quite a rate from snowdrops and the Mirabalan plum trees and other early flowers. We are not sure how much space there is in the frames for the new honey so we added a super to each hive except G1, which has two brood boxes. The new pollen is probably being used to feed new brood.
Tips on Spring Cleaning in February (www.thorne.co.uk)
It’s a good idea to try to get ahead before the bees do…While it’s cold and the propolis is hard it’s the best time to clean spare hive parts, and recycle your frames ready for the oncoming season.
Gather all the floors, brood boxes, supers, crown boards, queen excluders and roofs in a to-do pile. You will need a stool (this will take a while and you may as well be comfortable) a scraper hive tool, and a blowtorch (preferably piezo ignition) and an excluder cleaner may prove useful. This is certainly a job to complete outside!
Take a roof and place it top down on the ground in front of you, clean and scrape all the kit into the upturned roof, this will contain all the rubbish and stop you treading it around.
First scrape the inside surfaces of the item clean of brace comb and the worst of the propolis. Once you have removed the majority of the debris, you will find that when you now flame the inside surfaces of the kit, you will have a quicker job. You want to heat the item sufficiently to melt and boil off any remaining propolis and wax without setting alight the timber. Stop when the timber starts to change colour. The finished item will be clean dry to the touch and sterile (from a disease point of view). If you have plastic runners on your supers you may want to replace them with metal as they survive the heat of the blowtorch better. Make any repairs now!
To clean old frames: cut away all the wax foundation into a plastic sack, for recycling later. Scrape the worst of the propolis and brace comb from the sided, top and bottom bars of the frame. There is a frame cleaner which makes a tidy job of the side bar grooves (for British Standard frames and commercials). Once I have the majority of the debris removed I boil up the combs in a Burco or Koshstar wax melter. I put a cup of soda crystals, or Caustic soda into the cold water in the boiler, (WARNING if using Caustic soda ALWAYS add the soda to cold water!). Bring the boiler up to the boiling point then (wearing rubber gloves, eye protection and a mask) dunk the frames swirling them around in the hot water. The movement in the water is enough to dissolve and wash off any wax, propolis and remaining debris. This will basically sterilise your frames. It is a good idea to have a tub of fresh water to “rinse” the frames, especially if you have used Caustic soda.
Once the frames are dry they can be stored in your nice clean supers. I try to only re-wax my frames as close to the time I plan to use them, as the wax may become stale and distorted if stored too long. If the wax has a bloom then warm gently with a hairdryer to freshen up.
To re-wax a frame, I usually do them in pairs… remove the wedge (that holds the wax sheet in place) from two frames. Press the gimp pins back into the wedge with your hive tool, so the heads are proud. Swap the two wedges over so they are now twinned with a different frame. Take a sheet of foundation and slide it between the bottom bars up the groves until the large loops (if wired foundation) are up to the topbar. Bend the loops at right angles and press the wax sheet in up to the topbar. Now using a small hammer replace the wedge and hammer home the gimp pins. You will find in swopping over the wedges the gimp pins now go into fresh wood, and are less likely to fall out allowing the wax to drop.
There is something nice about plenty of clean kit at the start of the season… for the first inspections. (image courtesy of www.crowriverapiaries.com)
28th July 2016: A sight to bring a smile on anybody’s face.
So exciting. It is really our own, very first harvest of honey, in our first year of hard work in the apiary.
Full, sweetly fragrant frames, ready for extraction.
I am now busy working out an enticing and unique design for labels on our jars. Any suggestions anybody?