Methods of Making Increase Colonies

July 2014

From the Field — Doolittle Nucs — 48hr Queen Cells —

An Alternative to Overwintering

by John Connor


So far, 2014 has kept me on the road or in the air for meetings and one family visit to Alaska. As I write this, I am attending the Caribbean Beekeeping Conference and Bee College in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. My big book project for the past few months has been the complete revision of Increase Essentials, converting it to full color and adding a lot more material about making nucs. The book is released in early June and I hope everyone gets a chance to look at it.

One of my frequent themes for several years has been the concept of all new beekeepers starting with two hives and making a nucleus their first year. I have seen it work, and have the opinion that beekeepers who attempt this are more successful than beekeepers who start with just one colony.

In the new second edition of Increase Essentials, I review the Doolittle Nucleus System, which goes back to Gilbert M. Doolittle’s, A Year’s Work in the Out-Apiary, published in 1908 and based on his beekeeping year of 1905. In that book, he describes his method of making a new colony that can remain in the apiary that it is created in and not need to be moved to a yard 2 miles or further away. This is of interest because most new beekeepers do not have a second apiary, but should be making nuclei colonies their first season.  The key is to get lots of young nurse bees in the increase colony.  Doolittle accomplished this by first removing sealed and emerging brood frames from a colony, shaking or brushing the bees from the frame at the entrance of the hive and then placing the brood frames in an empty hive body over a queen excluder. He used a second colony for this purpose. The young worker (nurse) bees in the colony are immediately attracted to the brood pheromone of the bee-less brood combs and move through the excluder to cover the bees. Within a few hours the box will be filled with worker bees.

While I have written about this before, I have recently had a chance to teach these methods at a hands-on queen rearing class in Ohio. There, the overwintered colonies had begun making queen cells and it was a great time to reduce the population of bees by removing a nucleus from the colony, reducing the swarming urge. Dwight Wells had organized the course and had set up one of these colonies for the class to see. A shim (hive extender) was added to lengthen the brood box so queen cells extending down from the frame were not damaged. Three frames of brood were removed, along with food frames, and the bees shaken (frames with cells were brushed) at the entrance. I am always amazed that most beekeepers do not use this technique while working and equalizing hives.  He used the same colony for the nurse bees—he did not want it to swarm—and left sealed queen cells only in the box over the excluder. He carefully cut out or removed all cells on the combs left below the queen excluder.

A few hours later, the top box was filled with bees (see photo). After the colony was set onto its own bottom board, the entrance was reduced and the bees and swarm cells left to develop. There was plenty of fresh honey and pollen, of course, which is something we expect to see with swarm cells.

After the course, Dwight emailed that the colony had far more bees in it than if he had carefully selected the frames of bees and brood without shaking, using a more traditional method of making increase hives. This is what I observe in my own use of this method.  Both Dwight and I agree that not spending time looking for a queen (or multiple queens during swarm season) speeds the process. Once familiar with this system, a beekeeper could make up a new colony or nucleus in just a few minutes rather than keeping the colony open for long periods of time while doing a queen search. I suspect that the chore of finding the queen in a hive is one reason many beekeepers do not make increase hives.

The Doolittle system of making a nucleus eliminates the need to find the queen. You have to be careful shaking bees at the entrance not to smash bees from the first frame shaken when shaking the second or additional frames. I use a solid thump of the end bar onto the ground, leaving no more than a dozen bees on the frame. While I should not have to say this, some new beekeepers—and a few old ones—seem oblivious to those bees and step on them, crushing bees and perhaps the queen. A basic of beekeeping 101 is that you do not work from the front of a beehive!

The colonies Dwight provided for the course were all five-frame nucleus hives that had overwintered in four or five deep boxes. These towering nucleus hives were prevented from falling over by ....