An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
Any breaks in the weather, such as the one we have just experienced, can turn the bees’ attention to swarming. Generally those who requeened every hive last season shouldn’t see hives swarming but sometimes hives just swarm, even small developing hives.
It’s a fine line keeping ahead of the bees, giving them room to expand upwards. Once the bees reach a honey barrier or start storing nectar around the top of the brood frames, the bees and the queen become restricted, causing congestion. Some will start hanging out in the top feeder or up the front of the super above the entrance, while other nest mates will polish and reduce the open end of the queen cell buds, encouraging the queen to lay an egg in each. Generally the first queen cell buds the queen will lay in are along the bottom bar of the super, immediately above the brood nest. Soon after that, all other queen cell buds will be laid in, making it necessary to inspect the whole hive to remove them.
Most beekeepers who do not use queen excluders will continue with their 10-day quick check of the super immediately above the brood nest for developing queen cells by tipping it back and looking into the queen cell buds. No eggs means you can relax slightly but if the brood is concentrated into the second super, reverse the bottom and second super again to give queen room to move back up again, and perhaps add another honey super on top. That sealed brood will be emerging in a few days and has to go somewhere. The number of stored honey frames will also be assessed and if the hive only has three frames of honey left, the hive will need sugar feeding.
Whether to use raw sugar or sugar syrup will depend upon the size of the colonies and the type of feeders one uses. Some beekeepers use a Miller top feeder with one side raw sugar and the other syrup. This allows the bees to use the syrup first and then start on the raw sugar, converting it into a liquid by adding water when all the syrup has been taken down. If the beekeeper is delayed in replenishing the syrup due to weather conditions, a breakdown or requeening, the bees won’t run out of stores.
Those beekeepers who use queen excluders and restrict the queen to a single super will be removing a few frames of sealed brood (shaking all the bees off ) and placing this in the second super immediately above the queen excluder. Refill the empty spaces on the outside of the brood nest with drawn frames so the queen has space to lay. The nurse bees will quickly move up through the excluder and keep the sealed brood warm. All this can continue until an egg is seen in a queen cell.
Once the queen has started to lay in the queen cell, you have to do something. Just cutting out the queen cells won’t work as the bees quickly replace them and if one persists in this action, the bees could swarm well before the first cell is capped.
Making splits or four-frame nucs, reducing the hive to six to eight frames of brood and 12 frames of bees, usually relieves congestion and allows the bees to settle down to rebuilding again. A few foundation frames placed against the brood nest will give the bees something to do and will create extra room; hopefully they will give up on swarming.
Generally the bees draw out the best comb in the second super where it’s warmer while on a strong nectar flow. I have found that by adding an unwired empty frame for the bees to draw out and produce drones in, they will draw perfect worker comb on the foundation or waxed plastic frames. You cannot mix wax foundation and plastic frames as the bees will draw out the wax ones first and quite often will leave the plastic frames only half drawn out.
The drone comb is cut out every 18 to 20 days before the drones emerge, thus trapping the majority of the breeding varroa mites in the frame.
For those with hives in the rural landscape, November in some areas is a time of dearth. The bees have built up on the willow and the other minor early flows and should have enough to carry them through. But often with no nectar or pollen coming in, the bees quickly eat out their reserves and if they run short of food, will cannibalise their brood, starting with the very young, and will finally open up sealed brood in order to survive. If this happens, it creates a brood break and six weeks later, when the bees are starting to work the main honey flow, there won’t be any replacements for those dying in the field. The result is a much-reduced honey crop.
Beekeepers soon learn those areas that suffer a dearth in November and will add pollen supplement and feed sugar syrup to keep their hives ticking over.
Adding enough supers early enough is a learned thing. How many to add at once is determined by the bee population and the honey flow expected. The only problem with putting on too many to start with is that they have to be removed to inspect the hive but once the honey flow starts, brood inspections can be curtailed as the bees switch from swarming to honey production.
Generally it’s better to add a couple of honey supers at a time. Bees require a lot of storage space to store wet nectar before it’s ripened. A strong hive can fill a super with nectar in a week and then will start packing the fresh nectar in and around the brood nest if there isn’t room elsewhere to store it. When all the frames are full of nectar, the bees will stop working, perhaps start queen cell development and will swarm off and there goes your honey crop. Once they have stopped working, they are hard to get working again so give them plenty of empty combs in the first place.
A lot of new beekeepers who started last year and successfully brought their hives through to the flow will have very little drawn comb. To get new frames drawn out, it’s best to interspace drawn comb and new frames across the super. When adding another super, bring up an outside frame from the super below to encourage the bees to move up into it.
Bees don’t see foundation frames as a resource to be developed and have to be pushed into them so the bees draw them out completely. Quite often the bees will not move up into such a full super of foundation, hence the need to bait them up.
Those with top-bar hives should move the brood area back a little from the entrance as the bees build new frames by moving forward towards the entrance. When there are sufficient numbers of bees, new baited bars can be interspaced around the brood nest just like we do in a vertical hive.
Those with new nucleus hives should continue feeding them a 2:1 ratio of sugar syrup until they have all the frames in two supers drawn out. Generally you have done well to get the hive established in the first year but some in the city will develop into a full-size hive and will produce a honey crop for you. Remember it’s a good idea to leave at least a super of honey for their winter reserves. Those with only early flows shouldn’t remove any honey frames until late in the season (February), as the bees may use the stored honey to convert into brood if there is a dribble of nectar coming in to stimulate them. In this case, put on a queen excluder between the first and second super and shake all the bees into the bottom super if you haven’t seen the queen to put her down into the bottom super. If you have a long honey flow, undersuper and interspace the drawn and foundation frames so the bees keep drawing out frames. Drawn frames are your most valuable asset.
Not everything goes well in beekeeping. Some new queens don’t lay as well as others. With two or more hives, it’s easy to see the hives that just aren’t progressing as well as the others. Inspect these hives to determine what’s causing the problem. Generally it’s an old queen. They start off with a hiss and a roar but then start to fail when the pressure for brood production goes on. Some will produce a supersedure cell to make a replacement.
When you see a fully capped queen cell, don’t cut it out or destroy it before you have first checked for eggs in the open brood cells. If you squash the cell before checking, the hive will be lost if another frame with eggs is not added. By all means, cut around and remove any developed queen cells you come across until you have seen eggs or the queen. A few of my hives have developed chalkbrood infection, so I will change the queen and most of the brood frames to reduce the contamination within the hive.
The reason some of my hives haven’t gone ahead is due to AFB. I have had a smattering of the nucs I made in March and some production hives in one apiary come down with AFB. These bees had gone into the second super but then developed AFB. Some had nice brood in the second super and diseased larvae below. Some were riddled with the diseased cells; some had just a few diseased cells. It pays to do complete brood inspections and inspect at least a couple of frames where bees are emerging every time you open a hive.
Was it the frames of honey I fed to them that caused AFB? The wets in some of these hives cleaned out after extracting? The dead-out frames I used to start the nucs off with? (I always check these very carefully, but did I miss something?) Or was it from the manuka yard that didn’t produce last season, meaning the bees had to scavenge for what they got? I don’t know, but I do know I have a problem for the next 18 months in keeping everything separated, doing extra inspections and changing more brood frames each year to get the bees on to clean frames so I don’t spread it to more hives.
t’s a bugger but others have faced the same situation and worked through it. One beekeeper I know has a solution: for each diseased hive he finds, he produces 20 more, which makes him feel better. I think I’ll be doing something similar to put into use all the spare supers I have stored in the hope that if they have diseased frames in them, they will show up sooner rather than later.
Check feed and pollen: there should be pollen in the outside brood nest frames and a good band of pollen around the top of the frames. Check for AFB cells in frames of emerging brood. Raise queen cells. Super hives ahead of their needs. Requeen any failing hives (i.e., those with spotty/patchy brood). Check every 10–15 days for queen cell development. Cull out old frames and any with broken lugs. Fit foundation into comb honey frames. Check that your spring varroa treatments have worked, be it sugar shake or alcohol wash, and get the treatments out well before the honey flow starts.