Last week Emma and I split our hive into two. Today we returned to check the progress of the two colonies – luckily the rain storms of Friday had subsided and beautiful sun ruled the skies.
At the time we split the hive we had only found two queen cells, so we had separated off the queen and put her into a nucleus, leaving the two queen cells behind. The bees obviously like the idea of swarming, because today we found… six more queen cells! Some capped and some uncapped, some on the bottom of frames and others built half way up. They really had been busy.
One cell was attached not to comb but to the wooden side of a frame. It was uncapped but contained a larvae with royal jelly. Given that we didn’t see this cell last week before we removed the queen, did the workers construct it the next day and move a young egg or larvae into the cell? I’ve heard of eggs being moved up through queen excluders before.
The bees usually coat the sides of the queen cells, tending to the developing queen and keeping her warm. Sometimes they can completely obscure the cells, so you have to gently brush them out of the way to see what lies beneath. Try not to shake the bees off frames containing queen cells, as this can dislodge the queen larvae and harm them.
We were inspecting in the morning as Emma needed to leave early. I returned later in the day to see if any of the other beekeepers wanted some queen cells, precious objects that they are when you have no queen.
I also took time to eat a bite of cake. Above is a walnut and honey cake that I made. It looks unremarkable, but the best thing about it is the overwhelming aroma of honey you get as the cake gets close to your nose. It’s really moist – I poured a mixture of water boiled up with honey over it this morning. If anyone wants the recipe, it’s a Hummingbird bakery one, and has conveniently been put online on The Extraordinary Art of Cake blog.
I also sampled this very tasty chocolately marbled sponge cake, made by Claire. In the background you can see a Victoria sponge cake. Actually there were four cakes to try today! So I was quite restrained by only eating two.
Stan said he’d like some queen cells, so he removed a frame containing two cells. That still left six cells remaining in total. We asked around and John Chapple said he’d like a cell. He advised me to keep nice long cells along the bottom of frames but located in the middle, as the bees can keep those warm more easily.
Finding a penknife in his pocket, he quickly cut out a cell on the edge of the frame, taking a portion of the surrounding cells with it. He said the developing queen would be put in a new hive quickly to keep her warm. As Stan had taken two cells and John one, that still left us with five cells.
So John removed a capped one along the side of a frame. Opening it up for us, he gleefully informed the ladies watching that a taste of the royal jelly within would make us “rampant”! People pay a lot of money for fancy royal jelly products in shops, but none of us really fancied dipping our fingers into the goo. It’s actually a very rich substance, full of sugar and nutrients and possessing powerful antibacterial properties. The workers produce it from their hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands, both of which are located in their heads. Can you see the curled up queen larvae floating within?
We now have two hives and two nucleuses down at the apiary and a tired out Emily. Please no more queen cells next week!
The split colonies should have a better chance of surviving than if they had swarmed off elsewhere. In his fascinating book Honeybee Democracy (2010) Thomas D. Seeley says
“In the mid-1970s, for three years I followed the fates of several dozen feral honeybee colonies living in trees and houses around Ithaca, and I found that less than 25 percent of the “founder” colonies (ones newly started by swarms) would be alive the following spring. In contrast, almost 80 percent of the “established” colonies (ones already in residence for at least a year) would survive winter, no doubt because they hadn’t had to start from scratch the previous summer.”
– and that was pre-varroa. It does mean that the colonies remain in the same location, which is not so good from a hive spacing point of view. But perhaps we can move one hive off to our new church location, or combine two colonies back together, or even sell a colony to a keen new beekeeper. Lots of options – having plenty of bees is a nice problem to have.
If you find a hive bursting with queen cells when you next inspect, and want to know how to choose which ones to keep (never destroy them all), here is some advice from Clive de Bruyn, author of the classic book Practical Beekeeping (1997):
“Cells should be chosen that are in a good position in the middle of the comb surrounded by worker brood. If possible, avoid those on the periphery of the nest or positioned amongst drone brood. If the cell is not yet sealed pick one with plenty of royal jelly and a large juicy fat larva. Queen cells vary in size. Generally the bigger the better but beware of excessively long cells, they sometimes contain larvae that have been separated from their food in the base of the cell…. The final criterion to use is the sculpturing of small pits on the surface of the cell. Pick the cell with the more pronounced pattern. A smooth cell may reflect a lack of attenton during construction.”
See my hive partner Emma’s post for more queen cell photos!: This could get out of hand.