Late summer gambling

It’s been a good season so far.  With good foraging conditions and some timely splitting, I’ve made enough splits to compensate for some unprecedented winter losses.  Increasing from survivor colonies makes some biological sense to me, and considering the cost of purchasing queens from faraway lands like Hawaii, it makes economic sense as well.   I am grateful and satisfied for this year’s progress.  And I also just can’t resist trying for a few more queens before the season ends.  If I don’t have an emergency that requires a back-up queen, perhaps I will be clever enough to bank my extras for spring nucs.

Late season queens, those raised after the spring cycle of build-up, nectar flow, and swarming are reputed to have less of an impulse to swarm than their early season sisters.  They can be incredibly handy to have around in the case of a late-season queen emergency.  The loss or failure of a queen in September or early October can mean the death of a colony, as many queen breeders close out their season in July.  It can also be tricky to raise well-mated queens late in the season because the drone population falls off rapidly as the nectar flows of spring and early summer wane and resources become too scarce to support hungry (and relatively unproductive) drones.  With more than a bit of gambling spirit, I carefully encouraged a few August queen cells.

The colonies I chose for my parent stock are gambles in and of themselves.  Both came as swarms and have done well for themselves in the time I’ve cared for them.  While raising queens from swarms potentially favors “swarmy” bees, I hope it will also favor those qualities that allow feral bees to survive and thrive to the point of increase without human intervention.  They are also possibly the least related to my managed colonies, though the amount of genetic material in my narrow valley is bound to be somewhat limited by geography.

Since late-summer robbing has been a problem with mating nucs in past seasons, I experimented with “soft” splits this year.  I began by setting the queen apart in a broodless area with plenty of room to lay and relocating the brood and eggs to an upper area of the colony separated from the queen by an excluder and a couple of boxes of stores.  This chamber was given a small entrance of its own.  I hoped to create a situation in which the queen pheromone was diluted in the brood area, but the foraging and guard forces were somewhat shared.  A small, mating nuc can be easily overrun and demoralized by robbing bees, so I wanted to essentially “park” my mating nuc in the middle of a strong, queenright colony.

As it turned out, my soft-split colonies became exceedingly tall with the addition of unpopulated boxes to separate the diverging populations.  Newly-hatching bees quickly filled the added hive bodies.  After the queenless sections of the colonies developed queen cells, I ended up separating the sections onto side-by-side hive stands, retaining the upper or lower entrances the bees had become accustomed to.  One colony only developed a few queen cells; I left it alone to raise up its new queen in peace.  The larger, more robust colony created more than twenty cells, and these I chose to manipulate more aggressively.

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I carefully cut out groups of queen cells and distributed them across a specially-made deep hive body with four divisions.  Each division was supplied with a frame of brood and a frame of stores.  The entire contraption was installed above a queen excluder and two boxes of communal brood and stores.

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My intention was to maintain the full, combined strength of the colony while simultaneously hatching and mating four queens.  The bees were understandably confused as their single upper entrance suddenly shifted to four separate entrances corresponding to the four hive body divisions; I expected many bees in the air while they sorted themselves out.

The following day brought a dismaying development; the mayhem of reorientation did not resolve but began to look disturbingly like robbing.  The rather time-consuming process of cutting out and redistributing queen cells must have exposed the colony to more attention than I anticipated.  All four entrances were immediately closed to stop the robbing behavior and were left closed for a full day.  The next day, I rolled some paper and cardboard to reduce the 3/4” openings to a single bee’s width, about 3/8”.  This resulted in more normal traffic and a much more relaxed beekeeper.

The next part is the hardest—waiting to see if those beautiful queen cells turn into beautiful, mated queens!

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