Pyramiding The Brood Nest

June 2019 Introduction: The original post from 2015 was incredibly long and detailed and I obviously had too much time on my hands. Thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, Murray, my goldfish, has a greater attention span than most people flicking through their phones these days. It’s not in our bones to slow down and read anything carefully anymore. To hell with poetry! Give me a meme! In that spirit of progress, I present to you a lovely digestible little ditty called, “What is this pyramiding business, anyway?”

This is a hive packed with bees…

Bees crowding all 10 frames. Perfect candidate for pyramiding. (August 2, 2015.)

Bees crowding all 10 frames. Perfect candidate for pyramiding. (August 2, 2015.)

…so many bees that they’ve run out of space in the hive and it’s time to add another box (i.e., a deep super or a hive body) so the colony has room to grow. But sometimes the queen won’t expand the brood nest into the new box because the workers fill it with honey instead, which can cause the queen to become honey bound (trapped in by honey with nowhere to lay), which can then trigger a swarm, not something most beekeepers want.

A little trick called pyramiding is the solution to that possible problem.
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A Requeening Gone Bad

June 2019 Introduction: I’ve deleted some bits from this 2015 post, but instead of rewriting the whole thing, I’ll just tell you what happened in the end.

I purchased some mated queens from a local breeder who has virtually bred out what some would describe as “blonde bees,” or lightly coloured bees, usually honey bees of Italian stock. His bees are what some refer to as “black bees,” or honey bees of mostly Russian stock. And here’s the deal with Russian honey bees (to quote from a PDF article published by North Carolina State University):

“Requeening Italian hives with Russian queens can be difficult, and many beekeepers lose their newly introduced Russian queens. Russian queens have a different ‘odor’ than Italians, and parent colonies must become acclimated to this odor before they will accept the newcomers.”

And that’s exactly what happened with this requeening gone bad. My Italian colonies simply did not accept the Russian queens. All but one of the queens were killed outright and the colonies went on to make a new queens and were broodless that whole time and it was a headache I could have done without because it basically left me with a bunch of weak colonies. I wrote more about this in my post, A Stubby Ragged Queen. The moral of the story is, be cautious when installing a dark queen in a colony that previously had a light queen. If I do it again, I’ll cage the queen for a week and manually release instead of allowing the bees to chew through the candy plug to let her out. See How To Install a Mated Queen for more info.

I added a caged mated queen to three splits last weekend. I checked on them today and found supersedure cells in all three hives. Here’s a sample (and if you click the image to enlarge it, you can easily see the larvae swimming in royal jelly):


Here’s what I found in…

Split #1: The new queen DEAD inside her opened cage and several capped supersedure cells.
Split #2: The new queen alive and one supersedure cell full of royal jelly.
Split #3: The new queen M.I.A. (possibly dead) and several capped supersedure cells.

I say supersedure cell, but I suppose the more accurate term is “emergency queen cell.” Supersedure cells are created when the queen is failing but not yet dead, whereas emergency queen cells are created when the queen is suddenly dead. I think. Maybe. The difference seems so minimal to me, I always say supersedure. To make it more confusing, the presence of swarm cells usually means the bees are going to fly away with their old queen, but presence of supersedure cells means they’re simply replacing a failing or dead queen. That’s how I sort it all out anyway.

Swarm Prevention: A Swarm Revisited

It was about this time last year I walked in on a swarm. Turns out it was two swarms, but I managed to re-hive them and eventually got two new colonies from them, two colonies that were destroyed by shrews during the winter, but that’s another story.

I don’t recommend the bucket-and-dump method of re-hiving a swarm, but I had to act fast and didn’t have time to gather up the proper gear.

If I’d discovered the swarm cells a few days earlier, I would have prevented the swarm (in theory) by transferring the queen with several frames of bees to a new hive box, leaving the brood and swarm cells behind — essentially simulating the end result of an actual swarming. A queen emerges from one of the swarm cells left behind, then kills all the queens in the remaining swarm cells and eventually mates and all is right with the world. In theory.

I know some people destroy all but one or two of the remaining swarm cells, thus reducing the likelihood of what some call swarm movement. I’ve also moved the brood and swarm cells to a new location instead and that seems to work in a pinch.

I’ve read about other methods of dealing with swarm cells, but they all seem too complicated to me, too much messing about. I like my method because it’s a simple one-time procedure and you’re done.

How do other people deal with swarm cells? If anyone still reads this blog, feel free to chime in.

Reversing Brood Boxes, or Not

It’s June 2019 and I’ve significantly rewritten this post from 2014 to reflect my practice of not always reversing the brood boxes in the spring. To cut to the chase, these days I tend to reduce my hives to a single deep in the spring because the colony seems to stay warmer and expand faster when it’s restricted to a single deep. Only when the colony is close to filling the single deep with bees do I add a second deep. If the weather is still cold or the colony is more on the weak side, the second deep goes on the bottom where it’s less likely to screw up the thermodynamics of the brood nest. But if the weather is warm, the colony strong and expanding quickly, the second deep goes on top. You can pretty much skip the rest of this post now.

I used to reverse the brood boxes in my hives in early spring as soon as I had a warm enough day for it. That means at the end of winter in a typical 2-deep hive when the brood nest was usually living only in the top deep, usually some time in April, I would move the top deep (full of bees) to the bottom of the hive and then the bottom deep (mostly empty drawn comb) to the top of the hive.

The logic behind reversing is to prevent swarming by providing space above the brood nest for the colony to expand. That logic assumes honey bees always expand the brood nest upwards. Perhaps the bees have a greater tendency to expand upwards in the spring after a winter of working their way up into their honey stores. But experience tells me that most colonies will expand wherever they can find space, whether it’s up or down or sideways. So the whole argument for reversing is easily dismissed.

Aware of that, I reversed my hives anyway because reversing allowed me to assess the strength of the colony going into the new season and make adjustments on the spot if necessary. I would add drawn comb to the brood nest if the cluster needed the room. I would add frames of honey or pollen if the bees were starving for it. I would give them frames of brood from another colony if they were weak. In short, I would take whatever action was required to get the bees started on the right path for the new season.

Then for the rest of the year, because I knew exactly what condition the colony was in at the beginning of the year, I’d be able to assess the strength of the colony without having to dig much into the hive and disturb the brood nest every time I did an inspection.

Drone comb split open after lifting up the top brood box for the first time this year. (May 05, 2012.)
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Old Queen or Virgin Queen?

June 2019 Introduction: I’m not going to touch this post. No deletions or rewriting. It’s interesting to see where I was during my fourth summer of beekeeping. The answer to the question, old queen or virgin, is answered in the comments that are well worth reading.

Here’s a video that shows what I think — what I hope — is a virgin queen that emerged from a swarm cell after a colony swarmed. If it’s not a virgin queen, it might be the colony’s original queen, which means the colony is on the verge of swarming. Please feel free to leave a comment if you can identify what kind of queen she is, old or virgin. I’ll explain more after the video.

(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)

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Thick Combs of Honey (Slight Return)

I posted some photos a couple days ago of what is probably the thickest combs of honey I’ve ever seen in any of my hives. Here’s the video:

(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)

It’s not the most instructive video, but if it sparks the imagination of anyone curious about honey bees or beekeeping, that’s good enough for me. If I can instruct at the same time, well, that’s a bonus. The 1:50 mark in the video, for instance, shows how the bees begin to build comb by festooning. My explanation in the video isn’t the most articulate. I’m so used to beekeeping alone in silence, I felt awkward talking. Festooning is not a well-defined phenomena anyway, so my bumbling explanation kind of fits.

Now here are some things this situation has me wondering about…
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A Gentle Ball of Bees

I just happened to drop in on my country hives today as a splinter colony was taking flight. (I’ve chosen to use the less alarmist terminology for that particular phenomena of honey bee behaviour.) I was alone, only had my cell phone and couldn’t film myself shaking the bees into a new hive body. So there’s not much to learn from this short video. But if you’ve never seen a sw — I mean a splinter colony up close before, take a look. (It’s not the highest-rez video. Sorry. Couldn’t help it.)

If it looks like a scary situation, it isn’t. Only bad neighbours make it a scary or stressful situation. It was more calming for me than anything. I had somewhere I had to be, so I couldn’t sit back enjoy it as much I would have liked to, but it was an amazing thing to witness.

September 22nd, 2014: I was dealing with two swarms and didn’t know it. It was tricky because both swarms landed on the same branch. Both were re-hived, though, and the new colonies are doing well.

December 17th, 2015: I just read an article at the Bee Culture web site about something called a swarm bucket that may have made my catching of this swarm (or swarms) a little less complicated. It’s basically a bucket with a cone made of screen built into the lid, so it acts much like a bee escape. So imagine a swarm hanging from a branch. The little old beekeeper shakes the swarm off the branch into the big bucket and then puts the coned lid on the bucket. If the queen is in the bucket, all the stranglers will eventually go through the cone to get to the queen but won’t be able to get out once they’re in. Then said beekeeper just picks up the bucket of bees and goes home. Of course nothing in beekeeping ever goes as planned, but in theory, it sounds wonderful. And plausible. I plan to build at least one of the swarm buckets for next year.

Urban Beekeepers, Don’t Overfeed Your Bees

I caught a swarm out in the country last year and I loved it. But unfortunately I live in a relatively crowded urban neighbourhood with an easily enraged nextdoor neighbour, so even though I only have one hive in the city now, I don’t have the luxury of a laid back attitude towards swarms. I need to keep my neighbour from calling the fire department on me again, which means I have to do everything I can to prevent my lonely little colony from swarming. So what should I do?

Upper half of the large water melon sized swarm I caught last summer.

Last year I reversed the brood chambers and checker-boarded my hives. But three of my four colonies swarmed anyway. Here’s a video that shows what one of the hives looked like shortly before its colony swarmed:
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Queen in a Hived Swarm

One of my colonies swarmed about two weeks ago on June 17th. I caught it and hived it with no trouble (it’s nice when things go smoothly). I gave the new hive some syrup and then some frames of honey from another hive. I dropped by with some friends today just to take a quick peek and we spotted all kinds of fresh brood — and the queen. Here’s the video (the queen shows up at the 0:45 mark):

The colony that swarmed two weeks ago should have swarmed with the old marked queen, but this queen isn’t marked. I’m not sure what to think of that. All I know is the hive has a mated queen that’s laying well. It’s hard to see in the video, but the queen is light coloured with distinctive rings on her abdomen similar to an Italian queen, but who knows. Whatever is going on, I’m happy to see it. Watching a young colony get on its feet and do well is more rewarding than trying to deal with our monster colonies that have been swarming or have been on the verge of swarming for the past couple months.

Another Swarm Cell

Here’s a quick two-clip video that shows some of what we had to deal with today.

The first brief clip shows a monster hive after we did a full inspection of it and thoroughly riled up the bees. It’s a swarmed hive with a newly mated queen (which we spotted). It’s full of uncapped honey and very little brood. We pulled some honey frames to give the queen more room to lay, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do next. We found swarm cells in two other hives. The second clip shows one of the swarm cells. The other hive with swarm cells had about half a dozen capped cells. Lovely. We have a swarm trap out and we took other swarm prevention measures. But we’ll see how it goes next week. We have three mated queens coming in. I hope requeening calms the bees down. The past 40 days have been exhausting. We’ve done everything we can to keep the bees in check, but they’re on fire.