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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!

Races of Honeybees

Beekeeping is one of those endeavors where we beekeepers commonly distinguish the different races that make up the world of honeybees.  As human beings, we are quite familiar with the concept of race.  However, it is not often that we consider race as a component of other species.

Race is typically defined as a grouping of similar physical traits and ancestry.  Honeybees, being social creatures from around the globe, have evolved into various races, each of which contain their own distinct physical and ancestral characteristics.  Often, these races show apparent behavioral characteristics as well.  For example, the Italian honeybees are known for their light color and generally docile behavior; whereas Russian honeybees are known for their dark color and their ability to winter in cold climates.

The most familiar races of honeybees, along with their common characteristics are:

– Italian:  known for light color, gentle behavior, rapid buildup and high brood production
– Carniolan:  known for dark color, gentle behavior, and ability to conserve their food stores
– African:  known for their aggressive temperament and high propensity to swarm
– Caucasian:  known for their grey color, low propensity to swarm, and high propolis production
– Russian:  known for their black color, natural mite resistance, and overwintering prowess

Lucky for us beekeepers, honeybees are seemingly unaffected by having multiple races within a hive.  For example, when an Carniolan colony is requeened with an Italian queen bee, the beehive will gradually become lighter and more golden as more of the Italian bees take the place of their Carniolan sisters.  The colony never seems to mind the disparity of the races within it, and temporarily becomes a mixed-race bee society.  The Italian honeybees work right alongside their Carniolan sisters, yellow and black together in harmony, seemingly with no strife or even the slightest concern over racial differences.  It just goes to show that, once again, perhaps humans could learn a thing or two from honeybees and Mother Nature!

Overwintering Honeybees In California

A common debate among beekeepers in California and other temperate regions is whether a beehive overwinters better if it continues foraging and raising brood during the mild California winter, or if the colony is better off completely shutting down as it would do in a cold weather climate.  There are good arguments for, and against, both.

Most southern climate beekeepers instinctively appreciate the idea of a colony that keeps its momentum going by continuing to forage and raise brood year-round.  Foraging bees bring in new pollen and nutrition.  This enables the colony to keep rearing new brood, which gives a boost to the population during the off-season.  In theory, this year-round population boost seems like a great idea.  When weather conditions are right, the extra brood typically makes a positive contribution to the overall size and robustness of the colony as it enters the early spring season.

The flip side, however, is that foraging behavior during the cooler and more volatile California weather in December can be perilous for bees if the weather does not cooperate.  Foraging bees always face a certain level of risk every time they head out of the colony.  With every flight, a foraging bee risks getting eaten by birds, drowning in unsafe water, getting lost, being caught in a spider web, getting hit by a car, etc.  One of a foraging bee’s biggest risks, however, is being caught away from the hive during a sudden change of weather.  For instance, a foraging bee may leave the hive when the weather is pleasant, only to encounter a sudden drop in temperature or the start of a rain storm.  This leaves the individual bee in a precarious situation.  As a coldblooded creature, it cannot warm itself.  If the foraging bee becomes too cold or wet, it could lose its ability to fly home, causing it to perish and never return.  This scenario happens fairly frequently in otherwise temperate parts of California.  Sometimes, during December, we see perfectly healthy colonies dropping population, especially when the eucalyptus is blooming but the weather is volatile.  Southern California beekeepers even have a name for this phenomenon: “Winter dwindle.”

A few years ago, the USDA conducted a test of a local California beekeeper’s bees, comparing the colonies that he placed in the cold mountainous areas (which forced the bees to completely shut down), to those that he placed in the temperate coastal areas (where the bees kept foraging and raising brood throughout the winter).  The USDA concluded that due to the “winter dwindling” effect, the bees in the mountains that completely shut down actually ended the winter with a higher overall population than the bees that kept raising brood and foraging.

Bee Space

Honeybees are curious creatures that live in world of standardized precision.  No matter the race of honeybee, or location in which they reside, their individual honeycomb cells are all constructed in a standard hexagonal shape, an approximate 5.2mm dimension, that is the same the world over.  Their dance and communication methods are also universal across the entire species.  What’s even more astonishing, is that the space that they inhabit between their honeycombs is universally standardized and completely precise, regardless of any other characteristics of the hive or of the bees themselves.

This space between honeycombs is called bee space.  Bee space needs to be larger than 4.5mm and less than 9.0mm – no matter what!  Honeybees, being creatures of precision, will not tolerate any space outside of this range.  If the space between combs gets too close (less than 4.5mm) the bees will close the gap, usually sealing it with propolis.  But if the gap becomes too wide (greater than 9mm), the bees will build additional honeycomb to bring the gap back to the acceptable and precise space that they desire.

As experienced beekeepers, this concept of bee space seems obvious and intuitive to us.  We know that if we leave too much of a gap between the frames of our hives, our bees will quickly fill this gap with beeswax, a mess of what we call “burr comb.”  This burr comb is actually just the bees’ natural drive to bring their bee space back to precision.

While this concept of bee space seems so obvious to us today, it is hard to believe that this was not always the case.  It was L.L. Langstroth, the “Father of American Beekeeping,” who, back in 1852, intuited this hypothesis.  After he realized this concept, he took his thinking one step further with the question, “what if he could design a beehive that had the perfect bee space in all directions?”  This led to the standardized, square hive body that has become the backbone to America’s – and the world’s – beekeeping profession.  We call our hive bodies “Langstroth hives,” because they were invented by Langstroth to take into account the perfect bee space.

Every space in a modern hive is more or less standardized to accommodate bee space.  We may not realize it, but what keeps our bees from connecting the tops of the frames to the lid of the beehive is the bee space that is built into the construction of the hive body.  All modern hive body boxes are also designed so that the frames hang about 8mm short of the bottom of the box.  This bee space gap is the perfect bee space that enables us beekeepers to remove or pry open a hive box with few consequences; such as easily removing lids, bottoms, and frames, all without disrupting the construction of the hive.  In addition, the edges of the side combs always sit about 8mm from the inside of the wooden box, and the tops of each frame hang about 8mm from the top of the box.  In fact, our Langstroth bee boxes are a marvel of precision, with bee space taken into account in all aspects of the construction.

Of course, it really is the bees themselves that drive us humans to this level of precision, as they will not tolerate inconsistency and imprecision.  They are world-class engineers, and demand the very same from us beekeepers!

Nocturnal Beekeeping

Most beekeeping activities are best handled during the day.  Hive inspections, queen replacement, honey harvesting, etc., all require good lighting and a relaxed daytime environment to be enjoyable and effective.  After all, working with the bees on a pleasant, relaxing day is what beekeeping is all about.

On the other hand, certain activities, such as moving beehives, are best approached at night when the bees are dormant inside their colonies.  Commercial beekeepers who frequently need to move their bees are well acquainted with putting in long nights of loading and unloading bees in the dark of the night.

Recently, however, here at Wildflower Meadows, we are experimenting with adding another evening activity to our beekeeping repertoire: syrup feeding.  The reason for this late-day approach to feeding is to slow down the likelihood of robbing behavior in the apiary.  When robbing pressure is high, feeding a large apiary early in the day can turn into the most unpleasant of experiences.  As the bees in the apiary become aware of the presence of fresh syrup, they can quickly become whipped up into a feeding frenzy.  Before long, the strong colonies begin to test the defenses of the weaker colonies, sometimes breaking through and inciting further robbing.  And once robbing starts, there is no stopping it.  It will continue all day long, with the results being absolutely damaging.  Weak colonies are overrun.  Diseases can spread, and colonies will be lost.

However, we have a new strategy, which we learned from one of our larger commercial queen customers.  We begin our feeding at sunset and end at nightfall.  When the bees can’t fly, they can’t rob.  By feeding in the evening, the colonies have little ability to fly for very long and begin robbing.  Then, after the feeding ends at nightfall, each colony has the benefit of the entire night to work through their syrup and ready their guard bees without actually having to defend against robber bees.  For us, and especially the bees, this new feeding strategy is really making a difference.  When the sun gets low, our beekeepers turn on their red headlamps (bees are not able to see red light and won’t fly into it) and get to work – nocturnal beekeeping in action!

Dark Hollow

The ideal location for a honeybee hive, and the favorite natural resting place of a swarm is inside the dark hollow of a tree.   The tree hollow provides shelter from the elements.  Besides being off the ground, it enables the bees a natural protection against ground predators, such as skunks.  Honeybees seem to select tree hollows that are at least a few feet off the ground, and that are sized around one to two cubic feet on the inside.  Anything smaller does not provide enough space to grow.  If the cavity is too large, the bees may also reject it, likely because it is more difficult to manage the temperature of a larger space during winter.

Bees are used to living in the dark, whether in a managed Langstroth or top-bar hive, or natural dark hollow, so the inside of a tree fits the bill perfectly.  No light is needed.  A small entrance that limits the light works just fine for them.  Plus a small entrance is easy to defend.

Once inside the hollow, bees will usually smooth and coat the interior surfaces with propolis  They then hang their combs from the top of the cavity, much in the same way that they hang comb in a managed top bar hive.  Honey is stored in the top portion of the frames, with pollen and brood below.

Once a tree hollow has successfully housed a honeybee hive, it becomes an ongoing magnet for bees.  Should the initial colony perish, the familiar bee scent of the hollow, and any remaining comb fixtures will make the hollow an attractive home for the next wandering swarm.

A Simple, Inexpensive Robbing Screen

A while back, we discussed robbing behavior and how robbing can be a problem for beekeepers during times of drought or lack of nectar.  During robbing, honeybees invade neighboring colonies seeking to steal their honey stores.  Weak or small colonies are the most vulnerable to robbing because they often lack the population of guard bees necessary to defend their entrances against invasion.

As a beekeeper, it is certainly important to identify robbing behavior, as well as the causes of robbing.  But even more important than identifying the robbing behavior is to be able to prevent robbing from happening in the first place!

At Wildflower Meadows, our two best tools to prevent robbing are the time-honored entrance reducer and a small robbing screen.

The entrance reducer is a simple stick of wood that cuts down the size of the entrance by blocking off a large percentage of the area where bees can enter and leave a colony.  When a colony has a smaller area to defend against other thieving bees, it always has a better chance of fighting them off, much in the same way that a soccer goalie can better defend a small-sized goal than a larger-sized one.  Entrance reducers can be purchased at most beekeeping supply companies.  However, a customized small piece of wood can easily accomplish the same purpose for a lower cost.

The robbing screen is a piece of screen or mesh that sits in front of the entrance and serves to block and deflect the incoming flight path of robbing bees.  Because robbing bees are nearly always worked up into a frenzy, they easily get confused by the screen blocking the entrance.  They tend to fly directly into the path of the screen without taking the time to figure out a way around it.  The defending colony’s bees, however, have already quickly learned how to maneuver their way around the screen and rapidly figure out how to use it as a shield against incoming robbers.

At Wildflower Meadows, our robbing screen is a simple piece of vent screening material attached over the reduced entrance with a push pin.  The cost of this robbing screen is just a few cents per colony, but the payoff is huge!  Small colonies that otherwise might be vulnerable to robbing are able to hold their own if robbing gets started.

The Importance of Dividing Beehives

In the wild, a healthy colony of bees passes through an ongoing cycle.  A wandering swarm becomes established in a secure location and becomes an established beehive.  This new beehive builds out honeycomb, and the queen, which arrived with the swarm, begins laying new brood.  Over time, the beehive grows and the hive fills with honey stores and bee population.  Then, when conditions are favorable, the colony prepares to swarm.  The colony raises a new queen for itself, and the old queen leaves with a good percentage of the population to start the swarming process again.

Beehives are used to dividing themselves.  It is how they reproduce to ensure the survival of their species.  If honeybees didn’t swarm, the entire species would be vulnerable to adversity.  By swarming and dividing itself in half, a beehive reduces its risk to adversity in half. If the original colony perishes, the swarm is still available to carry on, and vice-versa.  If the swarm does not make it, the original colony can grow back to size and swarm again later.

As a beekeeper with managed hives, you should be thinking about the same concept of dividing your beehives for managing risk and adversity.  If you have only one hive and something adverse were to happen to it, you would be completely wiped out.  If, however, when conditions are favorable, you decide to divide your colony into two beehives, you would greatly reduce your risk towards losing your entire endeavor.  It is a common rule of thumb that approximately 30% of beehives die each year.  Therefore, just by dividing your colony into two, you reduce the risk of being completely wiped out from 30% to 9%.  (30% x 30%).  And if you were to divide your colony into three hives, you would reduce your risk all the way down a mere 2.7% (30% x 30% x 30%).

This is the same risk-avoidance principal that wild hives follow in nature by swarming.  As a conscientious beekeeper of managed colonies, it is essential that you learn good techniques of dividing your colonies so that you can also stay around for the long-haul.  (For a relatively easy technique of dividing your colony without having to look for the queen, please check out our video entitled “Prepare a Four Frame Nuc.”)

The Queen Excluder

Most beginning beekeeping kits come with a queen excluder, and most beekeepers will want to try utilizing a queen excluder at some point during their beekeeping experience.  It is a handy piece of equipment; and as its name suggests, it keeps a queen from entering an area of the hive while allowing the smaller worker bees to pass through.

The most common use of a queen excluder is during a honey flow, when it is placed directly under a newly added honey super.  By preventing the queen from entering the area where honey is to be collected, it keeps brood out of the honey super.  By eliminating brood from the honey area, it also discourages the bees from storing pollen near the honey, which can flavor and reduce the purity of the honey.

Believe it or not, to this day generations of beekeepers still argue over whether or not to use queen excluders.  Many – perhaps most – commercial beekeepers do not use queen excluders, believing that by restricting the movement of the honeybees, the queen excluder inhibits the maximum production of honey.  Old-timer beekeepers laughingly refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders”.

At Wildflower Meadows, when it comes to using queen excluders for honey production, we take a more balanced approach.  We generally do not utilize queen excluders when we place honey supers on our colonies, as this allows the bees and the queen to move freely throughout the colony.  Sometimes, however, we do place excluders at the end of the honey flow.  If a queen has gotten too comfortable in the honey super and is still laying brood up there during the honey flow, we will drive the queen down into one of the lower boxes and then add a queen excluder after the fact to keep her from returning.  Within a few weeks, all the brood will have hatched.  Typically, the bees replace the areas where the brood has hatched with fresh nectar, resulting in a clean honey super for harvest.

Getting Bees to Draw Out Foundation

One of the more frustrating aspects of starting out as a new beekeeper is that unless you have purchased an existing hive with existing equipment, you must start your new beehive with foundation.  Foundation is sold by beekeeping supply companies and is the building block of honeycomb; but it is not in itself honeycomb.  The most unfortunate feature of foundation is that bees simply can’t use it for any purpose at all until they have added their own beeswax to it and turned it into honeycomb.  This process is called drawing out foundation.  Unless the bees draw out the foundation, the foundation itself is worthless to the beehive for either storing honey or raising brood because it simply is not deep enough.

Many beekeepers, especially new ones, struggle because they cannot seem to get their bees to draw out foundation fast enough for the hive to properly develop.  “Why aren’t my bees drawing out foundation?” is a common complaint of the new beekeeper.  It would be easy if we could just ask the bees?  But since they cannot communicate with us, we have to do some detective work.

The most important component for the bees to draw out foundation is the quality of the honey flow.  In a very strong honey flow, the bees will draw out foundation without any difficulty at all.  It is the presence of nectar that enables bees to produce the large supply of wax necessary to build out foundation with honeycomb.  But if the honey flow is less than perfect – which turns out to be about 90% of the year – the bees are going to need some additional help.  A dedicated beekeeper should always provide a generous supply of syrup to a beehive that is building out foundation.  The syrup will help to supplement the natural nectar and will turbocharge wax production.

Next to consider is the actual placement of the foundation.  Bees in a colony work from the inside out, and will always draw out the foundation that is placed towards the center of the hive first.  If you find that the bees are ignoring the outside frames in favor of those on the inside, you can try repositioning one outside frame of foundation towards the middle, and sliding the other frames towards the edge.  Be sure to keep all of the other frames in the same sequence so as not to disturb the hive and brood nest too greatly.

Also, a queen excluder may be part of the problem.  If you are trying to draw out an entire honey super of foundation, by all means you should not use a queen excluder.  Although useful for many purposes, queen excluders inhibit bees from drawing out foundation because they restrict the natural flow of bees in and out of the super.  Add the queen excluder after the foundation has been drawn out, not before.

The quality of the foundation itself should not be ignored.  When working with plastic foundation, the quality of the wax coating on the foundation is critical.  The waxier the foundation, the more likely the bees will be attracted to it.  Many beekeeping supply companies sell “double waxed” and even “triple waxed” foundation.  Although this foundation sells at a premium, it is often worth the extra costs because it typically results in greater and faster acceptance by the bees.

Sometimes, however, building out foundation is just not a possibility.  For example, the season could be completely off the table.  Bees do not have any urge to expand in the late fall and winter, and are unlikely to draw out foundation at that time of year regardless of all other factors.  Or it could be that the colony simply is not strong enough to build out more than a single frame, or even a half of frame at a time.  Sometimes a beekeeper just needs to have a little bit of understanding and sympathy toward the bees!

Photo of foundation by permission of Pierco Beekeeping Equipment.