Our best colony of bees is housed in a long deep hive. We were thinking that the queen would probably need to be replaced this year; she has produced very large colonies for three years in a row. The long deep hive currently has 23 deep frames – about the equivalent of three national brood boxes – all but three of which are full of honey, pollen, and brood, along with a huge number of bees. Despite achieving a large size and being highly productive, in the two previous years this colony has showed no signs of swarming. In fact, there was not a single queen cup – those cells sometimes referred to as play cups, which are often made near the bottom of the comb ready to be developed into queen cells when needed. This is a little strange as, of all our colonies, this is the one that has been in the best position to swarm.
This year, though, queen cups have been present in small numbers, so we have been keeping an eye on things so that we could take action should the colony look like it is intending to swarm. We were also aware that they might try to develop a replacement queen. This Italian queen was supplied as a virgin, then introduced to the previously queenless colony and successfully mated. The bees have been productive but, more importantly from our perspective, calm on the comb and gentle, and needing minimal management. Indeed, one could not imagine a finer colony of bees for the backyard beekeeper and we have been reluctant to replace the queen until necessary.
Last week I inspected the colony and found a number of queen cups, including one that appeared to have been laid in, and another that looked as though it was being developed into a full queen cell. There was a great deal of sealed brood, some young larvae and some eggs, so the queen was still present, or recently so, and there was no problem with removing these cells. Had there been no eggs or young larvae, I would have left the queen cells, as the queen might not have been present and the colony would then have no chance of producing a replacement. Much of the comb was filled with honey, pollen, and sealed brood, but I was surprised that so few eggs were found; just a couple of small patches. I did not find the queen, but, in a colony of this size, she is difficult to spot, especially as she is unmarked.
If the colony were preparing to swarm, the queen would stop laying and slim down to enable her to fly, and queen cells would be present. Swarming is more likely with large colonies and with an ageing queen. We therefore considered it to be quite possible and needed to take some steps to try and prevent it. Swarming, the colony’s natural process for multiplying, is not good for the beekeeper nor pleasant for neighbours that might find a swarm on their property. When the colony swarms, a large portion of the bees can be lost, along with the potential to produce a honey surplus. Discouraging swarming, though, is not always easy.
Aside from various means of discouraging swarming, which include ensuring sufficient space for brood and honey stores, one can deal with the problem by making the bees think that they have swarmed, and there are various approaches to doing so. We decided to split the colony. The queen must first be found and there must be eggs or very young larvae present. She can then be moved, with a few frames and some bees, to another hive. The remaining bees will develop queen cells, if not already present. One can then keep both colonies going, or decide which queen to keep, remove the other, and merge the colonies back together. As we probably needed to replace the queen this year anyway, we decided to remove the current queen, keep the replacement, and merge them afterwards.
This plan went awry quite quickly, as, first, we could not find the queen, despite a very careful inspection of each frame, and, second, we could not see any eggs or young larvae although there were a few new queen cells. This left us with something of a quandary: was the queen present and the colony about to swarm or was the colony queenless? If she was there, but we simply could not find her, then a swarm is most likely.
Swarm cells tend to hang from the bottom of the comb whilst supersedure cells tend to be built on the face. This is not, though, an entirely reliable indicator. There were not many cells to begin with, but, on balance, they appeared as though they might be supersedure cells. We also noted, for the first time, that the bees were somewhat aggressive – something one might expect in a queenless colony. In the end, it seemed to us possible that the queen was not present. In previous colonies under similar circumstances, there have been many more queen cells. There was, though, little to work with in this colony as there were few eggs and larvae present at the previous inspection. It may be that the queen had finally failed. Another of our colonies was also found to be queenless recently – a relatively small colony that had definitely not swarmed – it may be entirely coincidental, but we are a little suspicious as to whether there may be some environmental effect at play here.
We could, of course, buy a replacement queen, but we decided to allow them to make a replacement. The slight risk here is that the resultant bees would be a second crossing and it is possible that they might be more aggressive. Neither can one be certain that a viable queen will be produced and properly mated. We decided, therefore, to hedge our bets and continue to split the colony. With the long deep hive, there is an entrance at both ends, allowing it to contain two separate colonies, which makes certain manipulations more straightforward. The hive is the same length as two national supers, and with some half supers to hand, we could divide at the halfway point or isolate just one quarter of the hive. We did not want to weaken the main colony too much so isolated five frames – one including some queen cells and another with sealed brood – with a divider and rearranged the supers so that the main colony could continue to put honey away.
We will probably remove some honey in a week or two – about a dozen super frames, containing about 30 pounds of honey, have been filled and are currently being sealed. We will otherwise leave the hive alone for several weeks, before inspecting both ends to look for signs of new queens. If neither has a viable queen we will probably merge them with one of our other small colonies. If there is just one, we will combine the two, and if both have produced a viable queen we will have to evaluate which to keep. There will be a check in the brood and therefore a reduction in the size of the main colony, but this is a strong colony and we are still hopeful of some further surplus this year, especially in our location with its long productive season.