An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
I didn’t have good varroa control going into autumn. Some colonies are now less than a four-frame nuc in size while others are about three weeks off queen cell development, with bees filling two supers with perhaps three full frames of capped brood that will be emerging in a week. That means another 12,000 bees will be taking over brood nest duties, allowing the brood nest to expand and enabling another 2,000 older bees to become pollen or nectar collectors. This also may require me to add another super.
A lot of hobbyists don’t really take in what they are observing in their hive when they go through it. I can understand that they get mesmerised by the sheer number of bees covering the frames, but reading the frames and understanding how the hive is developing and how it compares to the norm for an area is really important.
Each area of New Zealand is different, with different microclimates to which the bees respond. It might surprise some to learn that South Canterbury reaches 20°C (the temperature required for queen mating) before the rest of New Zealand. Northland now has a dribble of mānuka coming into the hives, while hives way down south are just starting to expand.
October can see the first of the bush flows in my area (Wellington), which can cause swarming but for some, the main flow is two months away. You want the bees expanding to reach a population of at least 40,000 bees at the start of the main honey flow. As a general rule of thumb, a full-depth super completely full of bees contains about 25,000 bees, so you need at least two full- depth (or three 3⁄4-depth) supers full of bees and brood covering eight frames at the start of the honey flow, and at least the same number of supers on a hive ready to receive and store the nectar as it comes in.
The bees are stimulated to fill all the storage combs and when these are full, they will relax their work effort, waiting for more storage space to be come available (if there is brood emerging, the beekeeper adds another super). Or perhaps the bees will turn to reproduction—swarming.
Super early and if you don’t have all drawn frames, intersperse drawn and foundation frames to get the bees into the supers and drawing those frames. Bees see drawn frames as storage space. Foundation frames do not stimulate bees, so they have to be encouraged up on to foundation by bringing up an outside frame that contains nectar from the super below. The bees will crowd over it and spare house bees full of nectar will hang in chains, using their bodies for storage while producing wax flecks that will be added to the foundation wax, drawing out the cells.
Drawing out frames is a major undertaking for the bees and they have to be well fed to do this; i.e., they need a strong flow of nectar coming into the hive or something that represents that.
In some rural areas, a lot of these early nectar and pollen sources are not available, especially in intensive dairying areas. On your next inspection (every nine to 10 days now), make sure the hive has ample pollen frames. That is, a couple of frames of pollen against or near the brood area and perhaps a good 15 mm of pollen around the brood and the equivalent of three frames of capped honey. If you don’t have this in your hives, feed a pollen substitute and some sugar syrup to keep the queen laying to produce those bees.
Some hives will bolt ahead and will start queen cell development along the bottom and the top bars as well as in any convenient space around the edge of the comb, starting in the second super where it’s warmer, then gradually throughout the rest of the hive.
Check for these by tilting back the top brood super and looking along the bottom bars for developing queen cells. Once one of the queen cell buds is seen with an egg or larvae in it, the hive must be fully inspected, brood frame by brood frame to remove the queen cells. Before cutting out any queen cell, make sure there are eggs in the open brood area. Quite often we inadvertently roll a queen by pulling a brood frame out of the middle of the hive without first making space by removing an outside frame, or squashing her when we drop a frame back into the hive while she’s hiding under the bottom bar. Make sure you know where the queen is before putting back frames, or at least slide them in gently so any bees likely to become trapped can get out of the way.
To stop the bees building more queen cells, you have to reduce the number of bees in the hives or give the hive more room, or perhaps reverse the brood chambers to concentrate the majority of the brood into the bottom super. Just giving more room (another one or two honey supers) may not relieve the situation as once swarm preparations have started, it can be hard to stop the bees from making more queen cells. In this case the hive has to be artificially swarmed. Most bee books give an explanation on how to do this.
One way of reducing the bee population is to remove two or three frames of capped and emerging brood from the outside of the brood nest (plus bees) and give these to a smaller hive. Again, before you do this, check that the queen is not on the frames and inspect the capped cells around the bees just emerging in both the donor hive and receiving hive for disease. To do this, flick off the cappings of those cells that haven’t emerged in a patch of emerging brood and around the edges. Don’t go by the look of the cappings as it can take quite a while for a cell to become sunken and perforated by investigating bees.
I have just found a couple of hives that have five to seven cells of AFB around a 75-mm circle of emerging brood. This means that these two hives picked up the infection within the last month, as no other brood is showing signs of slightly off-white to light- brown larvae under the cappings. Without flicking off the cappings, I could have easily concluded that I had a healthy hive and swapped out some brood, thus spreading the infection.
Another alternative is to give the small hive a boost in bee numbers by shaking off the nurse bees from a brood frame containing uncapped larvae at the entrance of the weaker colony. Any field bees that were on the frame will return to the original hive and the nurse bees will walk into the weak hive unopposed, boosting the hive’s bee population.
Some will have difficulty seeing a queen amongst all the bees. Look for a clear area and bees all facing into a circle; even then, some are hard to spot.
Here is an alternative safe method of removing a frame without the queen. Shake all the bees off the selected frame(s) into the hive and put it into the centre of another super. Fill the gaps left after pushing the rest of the brood frames together to form a compact brood area and place a queen excluder on top of the brood super. Place the super containing the shook frames on top and close the hive. Within a couple of hours, the nurse bees will have come up through the excluder on to the brood frame(s) again. These can then be removed, safe in the knowledge that the queen is below.
If you have to put honey supers back on the hive, put another queen excluder between these and the super with the selected frame(s). This method can also be used to make up nucs by adding frames of honey and pollen to the outside of the shook brood frames. Remove to another apiary and add a queen cell or a mated queen when the nuc is on its new site or do the reverse; i.e., remove the bottom hive away and leave the nuc on the original site. The returning field bees will boost the nuc population considerably.
Another simple alternative is to swap hives around, weak for strong, so that the field bees return to their home colony and boost bee numbers. However, this method must be done during a flow, as sometimes the incoming field bees will recognise the queen in the hive as foreign and will ball and kill her. You can prevent this by placing her in a queen cage with candy in the exit so she is released in a couple of days. Once bee numbers are up and the queen is laying, frames of emerging brood can be added to boost bee numbers further and replace the field bees that will by now be dying off.
Commercial beekeepers will have spent last month equalising their hives. All will have new queens and are being fed if they don’t have sufficient honey and pollen reserves.
With all hives at the same population and development, it’s easy to inspect a hive in a few minutes. Upon going into an apiary, one observes the entrances of each hive and mentally notes those hives that have more bees and fewer bees flying. These are perhaps the hives that may need attention, either by reducing the population or boosting it.
It also could be that one or two hives have found a really good nectar supply and are flying in numbers. In that case, heft all the hives to see that they are still heavy. Starting at one end and depending upon the hive set-up (singles or on pallets), slide the hive forward a little on the bottom board and tilt the hive back so you can see along the bottom bars of the bottom super. If the bees are hanging below eight frames, the hive is full of bees and needs another super or two.
Set the supers back on the bottom board, then split the brood nest supers and look along the bottom bars for queen cells, while noting how many frames have brood comb by looking up into the super and down into the lower super. We want the majority of the brood frames to be in the bottom super. The supers may have to be reversed two or three times during the spring to keep the majority of the brood in the bottom super and provide space above for the queen to lay.
Then look down into the frames of the top super for capped honey. (Most commercial beekeepers simply add another three to five litres of sugar syrup to each hive’s feeder.) Note the condition of the hive so you can tell on the next inspection whether bee numbers have increased. You need to look more intensively at any hives that haven’t taken down the syrup, have queen cells or aren’t building in numbers.
A hive with a failing queen; i.e., spotty brood on the last laid area (around the outside of the latest frame) should have the queen replaced. Find the queen and squash her quickly, then remove her from the hive. Introduce a nucleus with a young raising queen and unite it to the colony.
An alternative is to swap the queens: place a new laying queen from a nucleus on to where the old queen was on the frame, then place the old queen back into the nuc on the same frame the new queen came from.
Because both queens are producing the same amount of pheromones, the bees don’t notice any difference and the new queen takes over. You can tell immediately if she is accepted. She will bulldoze her way through the bees on the frame without them taking much notice of her (Taber, 1987, p.124). If the bees start climbing on her and are starting to ball her, pick up the queen again, shake the bees off the frame and install the queen under a push-in cage on a patch of emerging brood. The cage and queen is released through a candy plug or is hand released on the next nine-day visit (Manley, 1946).
Return the nucleus to base and install a protected queen cell so that the old queen is superseded. Once the new queen has been laying for a month, she is ready to replace another failing queen or to be put in a full- sized hive.
My inspections are a little more intensive that those described above, as I do a quick AFB check every time I open a hive. I go into the brood nest: start by removing an outside frame and lean it against the hive beside the entrance. I move frames across until I see a patch of emerging brood, then will inspect it more fully by flicking off the cappings of some brood that hasn’t emerged or is about to emerge. I want to pick up AFB early, well before I add extra supers to a hive. Most beekeepers shouldn’t need to do this after they have done a full spring inspection of their hives.
By using such methods, commercial beekeepers are able to work quicker and attend to more hives than a hobby beekeeper. They are only dealing with hives that need attention. If any of you have a better or different system that works for you, please send me a few lines to email@example.com so we can pass these methods on to our newer commercial beekeepers.
For the new beekeepers, getting your first hives is an exciting time. A four-frame nucleus hive should contain at least 10,000 bees. It should have at least two and a half frames of mostly emerging brood and a frame with honey and pollen and bees covering all the frames.
These frames are then transferred into a full- sized super and fed sugar syrup at a litre a day until two supers of frames are drawn out and filled with brood and honey.
When I first started beekeeping, I couldn’t keep my hands out of the hive, investigating what was going on every three days. This disturbance meant that the hive didn’t do all that well but despite the new beekeeper, it survived.
We all have this curiosity and without it we wouldn’t learn, but it also meant I didn’t get any honey for a couple of years. Better to start with two nucs and leave one alone so that it develops normally while you can see what’s going on with the other. If you kill the queen, you have a back-up supply of eggs from the other nuc so the bees can produce a new queen.
All hobby beekeepers should try to produce a four-frame nuc from their existing hives this season, starting in early December. This can be used to requeen a failing queen or if not required, sold to a new beekeeper. There is nothing worse than getting all enthusiastic about beekeeping, only to find it hard to obtain bees. We have several queen breeders producing nucs in New Zealand but most of these are ordered/taken by commercial beekeepers. Making a nuc and producing a few queens extends your knowledge.
The important thing to remember when starting a new hive is that until you have 10 frames fully covered in bees (five to six frames with brood), it needs assistance to grow. Feed it until it reaches this size. Those starting nucleus hives in the autumn will need to feed them right up until it turns cold to ensure the hive has enough bees and honey to survive the winter.
In looking at the frames from a number of beekeepers who lost hives this winter, I found most died from varroa; perhaps because treatments were applied too late or the hives weren’t monitored and re-treated after the robbing season had finished. Others died because there was only a small population of bees in a big box. The bees couldn’t control the temperature in the cluster as well as move the cluster to where the honey was. If you have only five frames of bees going into winter, put them in a smaller box, or use follower boards and move the honey frames to beside the bee cluster so the bees can use the honey.
Check feed, check pollen.
Check for AFB: get your COI in the post before the end of the month.
Cull old frames, or at least move them to the outside of the super so they can be removed at the next inspection.
Check varroa mite levels. We learnt at conference that hives with a 5% varroa level don’t produce much honey. At or below a 1% level, a hive produces 100% more honey.
Add foundation frames into and above the brood nest to keep the bees busy. Fit foundation into comb honey frames. Super hives just before the flow starts.
Manley, R.O.B. (1946). Honey Farming. Faber & Faber Ltd.
Taber, S. (1987). Breeding Super Bees. Ohio: A. I. Root Co