The Push-In Queen Cage

Most beekeepers are familiar with the most commonly used standard queen honey bee cages, such as the three-hole wooden cage, the California Mini Cage, and the JZ-BZ plastic queen cage (the latter two of which are used here at Wildflower Meadows).  However, a less frequently used queen cage is called the push-in cage.  The difference between a push-in queen cage and a standard queen cage is that unlike a standard cage, a push-in cage allows the queen to begin to lay eggs while she is still in the cage, before she is released.  The more commonly used cages do not.

All of the more commonly used queen cages follow the same principle of confining the queen in a safe container while the bees in the colony become accustomed to her pheromone.  During this introduction period, the bees in the colony work their way through a candy tube of sugar, which delays the release of the queen by anywhere from one to three days, depending on the strength of the colony.

The riskiest part of this process, and the part of the process where the new queen can be lost, occurs just when the queen is released from hew cage.  At the point of release, although the queen may be generally accepted by the colony, she is still somewhat vulnerable because she has not yet laid any eggs.  Most honeybee colonies are generally suspicious of a new queen that is not laying any eggs, regardless of how excellent she may otherwise be.  (This is why best beekeeping practices advise not to disturb a colony during this sensitive period of queen introduction.  The combination of the disturbance added to the fact that a new queen might not yet be laying eggs, can cause a colony to turn on the new queen and possibly kill her.)

One of the ways around this problem is to utilize a push-in cage.  A push-in cage provides the new queen adequate protection during her introduction, while at the same time allowing her to start laying eggs in a safe, but restricted area of the colony.

To introduce a new queen using a push-in cage, the beekeeper must look for a section of comb that contains some open cells for the new queen to lay in, along with some emerging brood, and ideally, some nectar or honey.  The push-in cage is placed over this section, and the new queen is placed inside the cage, along with around three to six young attendant bees.  (The benefit of placing the push-in cage over emerging brood is that the new baby bees that hatch under the cage will provide additional support for the new queen.  And, of course, the baby bees will accept the new queen, since they know no other.)

Once the new queen begins laying eggs under the push-in cage – usually within one to three days – she is free to be released.  At this point, the colony has not only become accustomed to the queen’s pheromone, but the bees also recognize the queen as an actual laying queen who is already performing.  We like to say that the queen is “gold” at that point.

Although using a push-in queen cage takes a bit of effort, it is a very safe and reliable method of queen introduction.  It is why here at Wildflower Meadows, we always introduce our precious and champion breeder queens in this manner.  It is the tried and true safest way.

It’s easy to construct a push in cage of your own using standard hardware cloth.  Or, alternatively, many beekeeping supply companies, such as Mann Lake Ltd., sell ready-made push in queen cages.

A Queen’s Unique Scent

Those of us who live closely with others know that each individual person carries his or her own distinctive scent.  An attentive partner can often pick up their partner’s scent in their clothes, their bedding, or even in their living space.  If you are living closely with someone, you very quickly get to know that person’s unique scent.  It becomes a part of your world, and you grow comfortable with it.

The same is true for a colony of honeybees and their queen.  Most beekeepers are aware that all queens carry a special “queen pheromone” that distinguishes the scent of a queen bee from a worker bee.  It is obvious simply from watching basic honeybee behavior that the worker bees are quickly able to identify the queen bee, and it seems equally obvious that a pheromone is driving the behavior.  What is less well known, however, is that beyond this general queen pheromone, each individual queen has her own unique pheromone or scent, which is distinctly individual to her, and her alone.

When a swarm is presented with two queens at a distance, one of which is their own and the other an imposter, the swarm will always select its own queen and will attack the imposter.  It instantly recognizes the unique pheromone of its own queen even though both, obviously, smell like queens.  One smells like their queen and the other does not.

One might think that a queen’s unique pheromone signature might be driven by the fragrance of the blossoms that the colony is foraging in.  While this is somewhat true, it is only part of the picture.  For example, if a colony has been foraging on sage blossoms, the colony and the queen might begin to take on the aroma of sage.  This effect, however, is only an enhancement to the underlying scent, which remains unique and inherent in each individual queen.  Scientists have proven this by removing a colony’s queen, exposing her to a strong but different scent, and then reintroducing her to her colony.  The bees still recognized their queen’s underlying pheromone, even though it appeared to have been overwhelmed with a different scent.

What does this mean for a beekeeper?  A conscientious beekeeper must be aware that any new queen is always going to smell differently than a previous queen, and the bees will know this immediately.  Don’t be fooled, they are going to recognize this each and every time.  This is why we beekeepers use queen cages and sugar candy to slow a queen’s introduction, to allow time for the colony to grow accustomed to their new queen’s unique pheromone signature.  It is also why it is often good advice to not disturb a colony shortly after a queen introduction.  When a new queen is becoming established in a colony, the hive requires a certain amount of time to become intimate with that queen’s unique pheromone, and to claim that queen and her pheromone as their own.  Any disturbance that disrupts the transmission of this new pheromone can potentially create confusion inside the colony, possibly resulting in the colony mistakenly identifying the new queen as an imposter, and thus attacking her.

Pepper Trees And Bees

Anyone who lives in California, Florida or Hawaii is likely well familiar with pepper trees.  They seem to be found both far and wide, and probably for a good reason.  They are extremely hardy, drought resistant, heat resistant, and sprout up like weeds along highways and roads everywhere.  Sun or shade, these trees don’t care.  Poor soil?  No problem.  The pepper tree is perfectly at home in a world where record-breaking heat and adverse weather conditions seem to be the norm.

Officially called “schinus mole,” pepper trees originated in Peru, but like many other invasive plants, were brought to other parts of the world with good intentions.  The original Spanish settlers of the American west cultivated these trees because they appreciated the hard bark, which they used for making saddles.  Also, the pepper tree, true to its name, was a source of genuine culinary pepper spice for the early settlers.

The pepper comes from crushing the little pink berries that these trees produce, which are the direct result of bee pollination.  The dried pink berries taste like pepper, and are basically pink peppercorns.  Though, let’s be honest, the peppercorns that we are most familiar with are black.  Yet, the pepper tree’s pink peppercorns are still a culinary favorite today.

From a beekeeper’s perspective, pepper trees are a gold mine, as they seem to blossom practically non-stop, with several major blooming episodes per season.  And, most importantly, the bees love them!  The first blossoms start in the spring, with the latest occurring well into October, when practically nothing else is available for the bees.  The heaviest honey flow takes place in summer when the temperatures are high, usually in July.  As you can imagine, the honey has a somewhat spicy flavor and is rather dark.  As humans, we may easily overlook this rather ubiquitous and weedy-looking tree, but the bees see these trees completely differently.  They are a never-ending source of foraging excitement!

Combining Beehives

In today’s beekeeping environment of heavy bee colony losses, many beekeepers place a premium on having high colony counts to buffer against the inevitable losses.  But often lost in this way of thinking is the notion that having a lesser number of strong beehives is often better than having a higher number of relatively weak ones.

Strong colonies produce more honey, command higher rental revenues for pollination, are naturally better protected against robbing and pests, and usually have better chances of successfully overwintering than weak colonies.  Especially when it comes to honey production, one strong beehive will nearly always outproduce the combined effort of two weaker beehives.

This is why beekeepers often decide to combine two weak beehives into one.

When combining beehives, the most important consideration is which of the two queens that the beekeeper wants to keep.  It is rarely a good idea to keep both queens with the idea of “letting them fight it out.”  This can result in the surviving queen becoming injured, or – worse – losing both queens.  Ideally, one colony should be queenless, and the remaining queen should be the higher quality of the two.

Another consideration is to be wary of combining a sick or contaminated hive into a strong healthy hive.  It is better to attend to the sick hive separately rather than risk spreading a disease any further.

The tried and true method of combining colonies is what is commonly called “the newspaper method.”  This involves stacking one colony on top of the other with a sheet of newspaper separating the two boxes.  The idea is that the newspaper presents a barrier between the two colonies that slowly disappears over time as the bees chew away and remove the newspaper.  It is this shared removal of the newspaper that allows the two colonies to mingle together and get to know each other while they work together on the same project.  As the newspaper disappears, the pheromone of the queen slowly makes its way throughout the combined colony.  Before long, the bees lose track of which colony is which, and they all begin to share the pheromone of the queen.  They soon rally behind her, thus uniting the colony.

In today’s age of digital newspapers, newsprint is not as readily available as it once was.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we have been known to substitute big sheets of blank newsprint paper, packing paper, art paper, etc.  It doesn’t matter, as long as the paper is non-toxic.  The bees will remove it soon enough!

Some beekeepers prefer to place a slit in the paper to help the bees gain an easier start to the process.  This may be helpful to the bees, but it is often not necessary.  Many beekeepers ignore the slit and still have equally successful results.

The Father Of American Practical Beekeeping

As Father’s Day approaches, we are inclined to stop and give credit to our fathers for all that they have provided before us.  As beekeepers, we too have “fathers” that came before us, and paved the way for our world today as 21st century beekeepers.  The most notable father figure in beekeeping is almost certainly, L.L. Langstroth, who, as the discoverer of both the principal of bee space and the Langstroth hive, is literally called “The Father of American Beekeeping.”

Less well known, however, but possibly even greater a legend in American beekeeping, is Moses Quinby, another beekeeping giant commonly referred to as “The Father of Practical American Beekeeping.”  It may sound like these two were in competition for ultimate legendary beekeeper status, but they were in fact contemporaries of each other, and as the story goes, were both good friends and colleagues.

Moses Quinby started his career as a woodworker, but became interested in beekeeping at a young age.  This was a good thing for the beekeeping industry, because here is what he accomplished in his beekeeping career, which spanned the 1800’s:

  • He invented the smoker
  • He pioneered the concept of supering
  • He invented the centrifuge honey extractor
  • He became America’s first commercial beekeeper, pioneering beekeeping as a profession
  • He built his hive numbers to 1,200 (before the invention of the automobile)
  • He was one of the first beekeepers to commercially raise queens
  • He was largely responsible for promoting Italian queen stock in the United States
  • He pioneered the earliest treatments for American Foul Brood

This was Moses Quinby’s beekeeping career.  Wow!

Of course, these accomplishments in and of themselves surely entitle Quinby to his legendary status.  But what really made Quinby a father, and “The Father of Practical Beekeeping”, was not only his stunning list of inventions and achievements, but his willingness to truly be a mentor to others and to share his knowledge and expertise so freely to all aspiring beekeepers.

Moses Quinby did not believe in patents or copyrights; he believed in sharing.  What he invented, he wanted to share freely with his fellow beekeepers.  He was not a selfish man, as none of his inventions were patented, nor his writings copyrighted.  Later in his life, in the 1870’s, Quinby communicated his, by then, substantial knowledge by writing articles for the American Bee Journal and other outdoor magazines.  He also wrote books, which he never copyrighted, just so that he could impart his extensive knowledge.  He would then also volunteer regular demonstrations to aspiring beekeepers, freely explaining principals and answering questions.  He thus became a father figure to all beekeepers, offering his free and expansive advice whenever and wherever needed.  Beekeepers looked up to him, and he did not hesitate to counsel them in return.

This is a worthy father, and worthy role model; one who more than lived up the high ideals that we seek in our paths as modern day beekeepers.  Happy Father’s Day!

The Hive Inspection – The Sniff Test

We have posted before about the importance of regular hive inspections.  Consistent and thorough hive inspections are what separate the quality beekeepers from the average ones.  Most of the features of an effective hive inspection are visual.  For example, the beekeeper is looking at brood patterns, honey stores, population size, etc.  Part of a thorough colony inspection, however, also involves the nose.

Beehives have telltale smells that can offer the beekeeper important clues as to the activities and wellbeing of a bee colony.  If you pay close attention to your beehive, you can typically pick up subtle changes in the aroma of the hive as they work different flower sources.  In our area of California, buckwheat and eucalyptus nectar have distinct smells.  This lets us know when these honey flows are in play.

Healthy brood also has a unique smell.  In the earliest part of the season, when hives are rapidly building up, most colonies contain a high percentage of brood compared to bees and honey stores.  When this happens, the brood smell is especially noticeable.  During almond pollination for example, which takes place in early February, a truckload of bees arriving from Southern California contains practically more brood than bees, and smells strongly of healthy brood, waiting to hatch out.

If the brood smell has an unpleasant or nasty aroma, then that is definitely cause for concern.  Foulbrood or other viruses may be infecting the brood.  A conscientious beekeeper needs to trust his, or her nose, and respond right away.

Swarming vs. Supercedure Queen Cells

An unmanaged colony of honeybees in nature has only two ways of reproducing itself for the next generation:  Either it divides itself by swarming, or it stays put as a single colony and supercedes its queen.  In both cases, the original queen is replaced.  In the case of swarming, the original queen leaves with the swarm, leaving a set of queen cells that are called “swarm cells.”  In the case of when a colony supercedes, the original queen either dies of natural causes or is killed, and is then replaced by the colony.  In this case, the colony will raise a set of “supercedure cells.”  Both types of queen cells are raised by the colony to hatch out the next generation queen.

An experienced and astute beekeeper will notice that swarm cells are usually formed at the bottom of frames, whereas supercedure cells are formed in the middle of frames.  Swarm cells are nearly always of higher quality than supercedure cells.  This is because swarm cells, by definition, are constructed during the peak swarming season, which is the ideal time of year for raising well-fed and high-quality queen cells.  During the swarming season, pollen is typically readily available, and the colony is able to take advantage of prime conditions for raising the highest-quality queen cells.

Supercedure cells, on the other hand, may be constructed throughout the year.  The timing of supercedure cells is not dictated by the season, but rather by the condition of the existing queen.  This means that supercedure cells could be formed when conditions are downright poor for raising queens, such as during drought.  Sometimes supercedure cells are constructed on an emergency basis (for example, when a queen is accidentally killed by a beekeeper or otherwise dies unexpectedly for other reasons).  In its stress and urgency to raise a new queen, a colony may or may not select ideally aged larvae for raising the next generation queen, also possibly resulting in the production of a sub-par queen.

Thus, based on all of the above, it would seem that swarm cells are superior to supercedure cells.  But wait . . . not so fast!

While it is true that swarm cells, and therefore the subsequent queens, are often of high quality, however, from the point of view of a beekeeper this is all backwards.  From the point of view of the beekeeper, swarming is always an undesirable behavior.  No beekeeper would ever be enthusiastic about a queen that was produced as the result of a swarming episode.  The queen from a swarm cell, by definition, is a queen from a genetic line that has already proven itself eager to swarm.  And no beekeeper wants swarming genetics in their stock.

Actually, for a beekeeper who is managing a domestic colony of bees, neither of the naturally produced queen replacement options that the beehives themselves offer are particularly attractive.  The swarm cell contains the wrong kind of genetics, and the supercedure cell can be of lower quality.  This perhaps explains why commercial queen production is a necessary and valuable service to beekeepers around the world.

The commercial queen breeder takes the best of both worlds and produces a superior queen.  The selection of the stock is taken from colonies that have little or no interest in swarming, thus minimizing the genetic swarming tendency in future generations.  The queen producer then raises the carefully selected queen cells in conditions that are designed to mimic the swarming season, thus ensuring the highest quality of the production of the queen herself.  Even though a commercial queen is raised in a simulated swarm setting, the genetics of the queen are first carefully selected from a breeding regimen that specifically selects for many desirable characteristics, of which swarming is not one of them!

How To Bank Queens

When you have more queens on hand than you know what to do with, then it’s probably time to think about banking them.  Banking queens is a way to keep queens healthy over the long-term before they are placed inside their actual colonies.  Although at Wildflower Meadows we typically sell our queens quickly after pulling them, we still nevertheless need to maintain queen banks throughout the season.  As in any queen rearing operation, there are always queen bees coming and going.  When a Wildflower Meadows’ queen is standing by for shipment, she sometimes needs a comfortable ‘bed and breakfast’ to temporarily be housed safely and professionally.  Afterall, she is royalty!

Whether you are banking a hundred or more queens at a time, or just one or two, the principals of successful queen banking are always the same.  The key to your success, and by far the most important component of your banking system, is that you maintain a strong, healthy banking colony that is both well-fed and queenless throughout the period of banking.

Traditional beekeeping advice often says that you can bank queens in a colony that has its own queen as long as you keep the queen bank over a queen excluder.  However, at Wildflower Meadows, we do not subscribe to this view.  This approach often results in worker bees attacking the banked queens, which can unnecessarily cause stress or losses to the queens in the bank.  We have found that it is best that the banking colony has no queen of its own, as this makes it very receptive towards caring for and properly attending to the banked queens.

Your banking colony should always be well fed.  At Wildflower Meadows we never stop feeding our banking colonies.  The syrup flows from March through September and it never stops.  This ensures that the attending bees inside of the banks always have more than enough resources to take excellent care of the queens.  If you are banking queens for more than a week or two, you also will need to maintain your queen bank by removing any natural queen cells inside the bank, and by continually adding brood.  You always want a good supply of young nurse bees on hand in your bank, because these are the bees that focus on taking care of your precious queens.  When you are banking queens, nurse bees are your friends.  If you don’t keep adding brood, you will quickly run out of nurse bees, and your queens will suffer the consequences.

Once your banking colony is well fed, strong and queenless, it is ready to receive the banked queens.  You will want to have some system for storing the queens inside the colony.  The first thing is to make sure that the banked bees have no access to releasing the queens!  If you are banking just a few queens, the easiest approach is to place a piece of heavy-duty tape around the bottom of the cage, blocking any access to the candy or cork.

There are different methods for placing the queens inside of the banking colony.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use what is known as a “banking frame,” which is a specialized beekeeping frame that is designed to hold 132 queens at a time.  This frame takes up the space of two normal Langstroth frames inside a deep hive body.

You don’t necessarily need a banking frame, however, to successfully bank queens.  If you are banking for a relatively short amount of time and don’t mind cleaning up a little extra burr comb, you can simply remove two frames from your banking colony, and creatively place your queens inside the gap you’ve created, making sure to leave enough space for the bees to attend to the queens.   If you have wooden cages, you could assemble “groups” of ten queens or so with a rubber band, and stack them inside the gap.  Always keep in mind that your nurse bees need to have easy access to the queens.  If possible, you should also place the queens towards the center of the colony, well below the lid, as excessive heat may cause damage.

Best practices call for banking queens without any attendants inside the cages.  Theoretically, this is to keep the bees in the bank focused on the queens directly rather than on the attendants in the cages, which may have different pheromones and repel or fight with the banking colony.  In our experience, however, this is rarely the case.  Usually, the attendants inside of the cages combine forces in a friendly manner with the attendants in the bank and work together harmoniously to take care of the queens.  Nevertheless, to be safe, especially when banking over the long term, it is always better to bank queens without attendants inside the individual cages.

Promoting Drone Honeybee Production

For a queen breeder or anyone interested in raising a large number of queens, producing drone honeybees on a large scale requires some planning and foresight.  The first consideration – and, perhaps of the highest importance – is having the most desirable breeding stock near and surrounding the apiary at exactly the right time.  If you are going to need drones, you obviously want to be raising the highest quality drones from the very best colonies that you have.  There is no sense in promoting drone honeybee production in undesirable colonies.  But how do you get your best colonies to produce the highest number of drones?

There are several key factors toward encouraging a colony to raise an abundance of drones.  Here are the top three in order of importance:

  • Pollen and Food Abundance
  • Seasonality
  • Drone-Laying Space Availability

The most significant factor for abundant drone production is having a plentiful source of pollen.  Natural pollen is far and away more superior.  And, a substantial quantity of that natural pollen is even better.  When an area is naturally rich in pollen, beehives can’t help but to produce drones, regardless of many of the other factors.  This is the reason that you will find the majority of California queen producers located in more or less the same area of California – an area that is known to consistently produce enormous amounts of pollen – hence drones, during the critical queen rearing months of April and May.

If you are trying to produce drones in an area that has poor or inconsistent pollen availability, then you either need to aggressively feed these colonies with pollen substitute, or consider moving the colonies – at least temporarily – to a richer area, so that the bees begin to raise drones.

Moving bees to rich pollen areas is often another advantage of California queen breeders.  Well before the pollen becomes abundant in their queen rearing apiaries, most California queen breeders move their strongest colonies into almond pollination.  The explosion of almond blossom pollen that occurs over the relatively short period of almond bloom turbocharges drone production.  In this way, most queen breeders enjoy an abundance of drones and quality drone brood well in advance of queen rearing.

The second key to promoting drone production is the season.  April and May – the spring – is the ideal season for drone production.  Bees are instinctively aware of the position of the sun and the timing of the seasons.  This is why they naturally ramp up worker brood production during the spring, even during times of drought, and then cut back on brood production later in the fall, regardless of the conditions.  As the days lengthen in spring, the bees begin to instinctively raise drone brood.  This means that if you are trying to promote drone production in a less-than-ideal season such as late summer or fall, you need to compensate by aggressively feeding pollen or a pollen substitute.  An abundance of pollen becomes even more important during the less-than-optimal months of the year.

Finally, anytime that you are aiming to promote drone production, you have to provide the queen ample space to lay drone brood.  Ideally, providing a frame or two of drone comb during a time of high pollen availability, and during the right season, will almost guarantee having more than enough high quality drones.

When To Add A Super To A Beehive

For both new beekeepers and experienced beekeepers alike, it can often be difficult to know when it is the right time to add an additional box (known as a super) to a growing colony of bees.  Unfortunately, there is often no perfect answer to this question.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, with all the combined years of experience of our team, we still find ourselves at certain times wondering and debating whether it is the right decision to add supers to our colonies or not.

It might seem at first that a beehive is always better off with more space.  Afterall, more space means more room for surplus honey, more room for a colony to expand, more room for the bees to avoid crowding, and more room to reduce swarming pressure.  So, why not just add a super or two and solve all these problems at once?  Beginning beekeepers typically follow this perfectly logical train of thought.  The results, however, are often not what they had in mind.  Too much space for a beehive can often lead to unintended consequences.

There are several downsides to providing too much space to a colony, the main one being that rather than promoting growth, adding overly excessive space to a beehive, or adding space at the wrong time can often set a colony backward.  In fact, adding a super at the wrong time of year can sometimes result in a smaller or more stressed out colony than if the colony had simply been left alone.  This is a counterintuitive concept, and it is what causes experienced beekeepers to pause and think twice before supering their colonies, especially relatively weak ones.

Anytime a super is added to a colony, it affects the bees’ ability to regulate the temperature and humidity balance of the colony.  It gives them more space to attend to, clean up, maintain, and defend, all potentially straining their resources.  During cold weather, cavernous space in a beehive is especially a liability, causing detrimental heat loss.  Even in very hot weather, excess space can interfere with a colony’s ability to cool the all-important colony core and brood nest.

Also, bees naturally like to move upward.  When a super is added prematurely, the bees will tend to move upward first, rather than outward.  This sometimes results in a long and narrow shape to the colony, which is less than ideal both for the efficient use of the equipment, and for maximizing colony growth and honey production.

So, when is the best time to add a super to a colony of honeybees?  The ideal time to add a super is during periods of natural population growth (typically, the spring), before or during a honey flow (spring or summer), or during periods of swarming (again, typically the spring).  Before adding a super, beekeepers often use a standard rule of thumb, which is known as the 7/10 rule.  This rule says that the proper time to add a super to a beehive is when the bees have already covered 7 of the 10 frames in the existing box or boxes.  If the colony is growing and the timing is right (as noted above) then the 7/10 rule comes into play.  If the colony is strong enough to have 7 of the 10 frames full of bees, then is has the necessary ingredients for a natural and seamless expansion into a new empty super.