Bee Improvement for Small Beekeepers

Generally for those with three to six hives

This is a far from unique method but does not involve “queen rearing” as such and can be easily practised by all for the improvement of their own bees and beekeeping.

In the spring, and after your first inspection, consider the colonies you have, how they performed last year, their current state, and identify which of these you consider to be your “best” colony. Personally I select on the basis of temperament – bees which don’t run around, but are quiet on the comb, where the queen is reasonably productive in her egg laying and the bees she produces might collect a couple of supers in a bad year, and a few more in a good year. I have yet to find a method of selecting bees which “are less likely to swarm”.

Once this colony has at least six, or preferably seven frames which have sealed brood on them, (doesn’t need to be a lot, but must have some sealed brood on the frame), begin the process.

Have a nucleus box to hand and move the selected colony to one side, or preferably another part of the apiary if you have a good back, or a friend to help. Find the queen and place her in the nucleus box, on the frame she is on. If there is also a full frame of sealed/emerging brood add it to the nucleus box, together with a frame of food. Add frames of foundation to fill the nucleus and place it on the original site. The nucleus will then get all the flying bees and usually build up amazingly quickly, needing re-housing in a new brood box after only a couple of weeks in even just fair weather. Leave it too long and it can swarm.

The original colony, now being queenless, will produce queen cells rapidly. Cutting back comb below rows of eggs, or pressing down cells below patches of eggs to enable queen cells to be drawn down, has not been a success for me and the bees usually make queen cells where they want – down the sides or along the bottoms of the frames.

After five days re-visit the original colony in its new position and you will normally find numerous queen cells, some possibly sealed, others open. The sealed cells will have been made up from larvae, the open ones from eggs. I try to use the open cells, but have used sealed cells with no noticeable difference, thus you CAN go back later than five days, but preferably not more than nine, at the latest.

Take a couple more nucleus boxes and make up two more nucs from these remaining frames, leaving one queen cell in the original box for it to re-queen itself as well. Close the remaining frames in the brood box up with a dummy board ensuring that it also has a frame of food. I prefer to have the entrances to the two nucs closed when making up, and then take them home, (which is some way away), thus the flying bees remain with the individual nucleus when it is opened on it’s new site. If this isn’t possible for you, then try taking the closed nucs to a friend’s apiary, or to your association’s apiary, leaving them there until the queen’s are mated and laying.

From your “best” colony you will then, with luck, have three new queens. Place these new colonies close to your less favourite colonies, which will then allow you to unite these later on in the year, this being particularly useful for producing strong colonies with a new and vigorous queen for those who wish to take colonies “to the heather”, but if not, still giving you good strong colonies for the winter with new queens for the following year.

No need for “queen rearing”, systems, mini-nucs, grafting, etc but does require three nucleus boxes and three floors/ brood boxes/roofs, (temporarily), to accommodate your new queens before uniting. You can of course try uniting the nucs directly with your less favoured colonies once they are fully up and running, thus saving on floors/brood boxes/roofs, but this can be difficult and not always successful.

Over two or three seasons it should have improved your bees to a standard which will make your beekeeping more enjoyable, but still manageable and without undue increase.

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