In the course of making my inspections over the past couple of weeks, I noted that my largest, strongest colonies still had significant drone populations. In my little valley, we are also lucky (or cursed, depending on your perspective) to be in the middle of the bloom period for Canada thistle and Meadow Knapweed. These noxious weeds overrun both managed and unmanaged pastures in my valley, to the disgust of cattle owners and delight of my honey bees. The sweet scent of these flowers wafts on late summer breezes while my bees bring in respectable amounts of nectar and white/gray pollen, setting the stage for an extended breeding season.
Late season breeding can be a gamble, as heat, drought, and dearth compel the bees to evict resource-demanding drone populations. I began pulling queens from large, populous hives a couple of weeks ago in a bid to produce one last crop of 2016 queens. The colony pictured above had its queen pulled on July 25th. They had a vigorous, healthy-looking population and had put up a honey surplus, despite a mite load of 20/300 bees (sampled with a powdered sugar shake), just the sort of colony I want to perpetuate. The reigning queen was set aside in a nuc of her own, and the booming colony allowed to produce emergency queen cells.
The mating unit I used this time is a four-compartment box I modified from a deep hive body. Each compartment holds two frames and has an entrance on its own side of the hive body to reduce confusion and drifting, especially important when virgin queens are in transit from mating flights. When I opened the mother hive yesterday (8/7) to distribute the queen cells, I discovered that many of them had already been destroyed by an emerged virgin queen. After my initial disappointment (had I missed my window for harvesting queen cells?–err!), I found many more intact queen cells, a virgin queen…and another virgin queen! I installed frames with five to seven queen cells in three of the compartments and supplied the fourth with one of the virgin queens. All of the compartments received a second frame with capped brood and some honey and pollen stores. The other virgin queen remained in the mother colony with a few carefully guarded queen cells and the remainder of the colony’s resources, including a strong returning field force.
The fact that this colony was able to produce numerous, large emergency cells speaks well to their robust state of health and ample resources. Even if several of the queens fail to hatch and mate, the brood break experienced by the main colony will help interrupt the varroa cycle. The bees from any failed matings can be reabsorbed into the mother colony or used to turn a successful cell into a nuc capable of overwintering. Had this colony been small, a brood break would have potentially reduced their population to the point that they could not assemble a viable winter cluster. With any luck, the virgin queens should fly this week, and perhaps in ten days or so, I will have new, well-mated queens for fall requeening.