Methods of Making Increase Colonies archives

 January 2015

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December 2014


Many Queens Are Killed by Beekeepers

by John Connor


A well-respected beekeeping instructor and queen producer just wrote to me and said that he feels that 50 percent of his queens are killed by beekeepers. He was being critical of both the naiveté of new beekeepers and the questionable competence of some of those who teach beekeeping. Often new and small-scale beekeepers are not educated in the nuances of producing, using and evaluating queens. There is a great deal of ignorance about queens and queen biology in the beekeeping community and the Internet has created a quagmire of information, some of which is quite bluntly wrong and potentially harmful. In addition to this 50 percent loss, one must add the loss that is a reflection of Nature’s rather severe selection pressure on colony survival. Let’s establish a few facts about the biology and beekeeping of queens and colony mortality.

The high risk of preventing inbreeding
First, in an effort to prevent inbreeding in the species, young queen bees take enormous risks during the mating process. Unlike other social insects, young female reproductive honey bees do not mate inside the nest or close to it. Instead, they fly a mile or so to a remote location called a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) where they encounter and mate with drones from colonies located very near the DCA, not drones from their own colony. This is nature’s way of minimizing the risks of inbreeding, and keeping a large number of viable drones in one location. It takes much less fuel (honey) for a single young queen to fly a mile than to launch 15,000 drones (the number considered necessary to maintain a successful DCA) a mile each way to a DCA several times every afternoon.

New beekeepers often make the mistake of thinking that they control both sides of the mating equation of their new queens if they have both queen cells and young drones in production on a large scale within their colonies. These young queens will not mate with their brothers or other drones from the same apiary, but instead with drones produced in colonies located a mile or more away from the queen’s colony. So, efforts by the beekeeper to boost drone vigor and numbers will likely do more to help their neighbors’ colonies and nearby feral hives (which is not a bad thing). Good drone saturation requires many, many colonies to be distributed geographically around the area where the mating will take place. This means that large colony numbers must be distributed over a one to two mile distance and in all directions around a mating area.

For the small-scale and most sideliner beekeepers, lack of mating control puts the entire fate of mating replacement queens and queens produced in a small nucleus increase operation into a highly random state. These beekeepers must routinely plan on a loss of at least 25% of the new and replacement queens they attempt to mate due to predation, sudden bad weather and orientation failure by the queen. The apiary where I mate queens is near ponds and swampland that produce and support a high number of dragonflies, predator bird species and other challenges to mating success. In mathematical terms, if I want 100 new mated queens, I must set up at least one-third more mating nuclei (133) with young queens just to reach my 100 queen goal.

When existing colonies replace queens, or produce swarms, they face this 25% loss rate, leading to significant colony mortality during the season. It helps explain why beekeepers find queenless colonies after the nectar flow and when they prepare colonies for winter. Beekeepers are well advised to keep nucleus colonies in their apiary with young mated queens that may be used to requeen these failed colonies.

Natural queen replacement
Second, queen replacement often happens when there is a nectar flow underway.  New queens are produced for a wide number of reasons. An old swarm queen that moved with the swarm to its new location and helped establish the swarm colony often fails later in the season.  After 100 or more days in the new home, the bees may replace her. Any queen that produces a low level of pheromones is soon replaced. Frequently, we find that young queens shipped in a package colony are replaced in as little as 30 days after installation because they were poorly raised, were overheated during transit or poorly mated.

Queen replacement during the nectar flow makes biological sense. During a flow, there is plenty of stimuli to fill emerged worker cells with nectar and pollen rather than letting the queen lay new eggs. Extensive brood rearing during the flow draws worker bees away from gathering and producing honey. Large numbers of hungry bees would consume the newly collected honey once the flow is over. As a rule, worker bees produced during the nectar flow will not mature fast enough to help gather and process the nectar flow. Replacement queen cells are often found when there is a natural reduction in the number of brood cells that occur in colonies.

There are at least two factors associated with queen replacement without swarming. First, there is pressure to fill brood cells with incoming nectar and pollen. Second, the queen is failing, producing fewer eggs and less pheromone—perhaps at half the level she did at her peak. This reduces the brood area significantly, which also reduces the amount of brood pheromone being produced.

When some inexperienced or mis-informed beekeepers see a decline in young brood production (the absence of eggs and larvae) and the appearance of queen cells, they wrongly see this as evidence that the colony is about to swarm. If the colony is undergoing queen replacement (supersedure), that is usually the wrong conclusion. Many instructors recommend that beekeepers cut all swarm cells off the brood combs to prevent swarming (when the hive will have abundant brood cells and queen cells). This is not the case during supersedure. Unlike colonies that are about to swarm, those produce fewer supersedure queen cells that are positioned on a smaller number of frames because there are fewer and smaller frames of brood.

If the beekeeper successfully destroys all the queen cells in a colony lacking eggs and open larvae, the colony is doomed. When there are no more eggs and larvae suitable for the conversion into queen cells to replace the ones the beekeeper has destroyed, the colony will go into a predictable pattern of decline, including the appearance of egg-laying worker bees and eventual death. By cutting queen cells, the beekeeper basically kills the colony, thinking he or she was doing the right thing, following poor instincts or bad advice.

Understanding drone production
Third, drone production within this geographic mating area must be stimulated to produce a large number of drones throughout the season. Peak drone production happens naturally during the swarm season and then tapers off. If there is no mid- to late-summer nectar flow, there may be no more drones in colonies starting as early as June or July. Mating attempts in many areas are  ...


November 2014


Conflict Between Worker Bees

by John Connor


Earlier we discussed the role of conflict within the hive as it applies to queens and drones. While the hive is usually considered to be a model of harmony between individual bees, there is a growing body of research that explains how workers engage in conflict with each other from time to time, and play favorites to those bees that share a genetic closeness to them. In The Origin of the Species, 1859, Charles Darwin was perplexed by one key aspect of life within a social insect society—what is the advantage for a bee (or similar creature) that does not reproduce, but works in a social unit with many other non-reproducing individuals.

In 1964 William Hamilton suggested that a trait could be inherited without direct reproduction. He argued that someone could have reproductive fitness, the ability to pass on personal genetic information, even if he or she has no offspring. While traditional fitness counts the number of children one has, ‘inclusive fitness’ considers all others who share genes with a person or organism. So if you never mate but help a full sibling raise children, it is as if half of those children are your own, at least from a genetic perspective. This is measured by a term called the coefficient of relatedness. With worker bees, those workers that help their mother, the queen, raise future queens, also insure that their genes are transmitted to the next generation.

The basis of worker to worker conflict is a feature of the haploid-diploid mechanism of sexual determination, as the degree of relatedness differs from one worker bee to another. In honey bees and most other hymenoptera, the relatedness between sisters is higher than with other animals. Since drones are haploid they carry one copy of chromosomes from their mother, but none from a father. Diploid females are fertilized and carry two copies of genes, called alleles.

This also means that all the sperm of a single drone are identical, or clones (overlooking the chance of new mutations). If a queen mates with only one drone (which is unlikely in nature), all of her daughters will share 50% of their genes from the father, but only 25% of their genes are from their mother.  The coefficient of relatedness, among the offspring daughters is 1/2+1/4=3/4 or 75%. When compared to the relatedness of diploid organisms, such as humans, the result is only ¼+¼ or 50%. Genetically, then, as a worker bee you have a better chance of passing on your genetic information if you help your sister queen build a successful colony, than humans do with a sister.

The worker bees that share the same mother and the same father are called ‘super-sisters’ because they are so highly related. Passing genes through relatives and the fitness gained is called ‘kin selection’. It is here that the mathematics supports the advantage of being a worker bee rather than a queen. It is a better deal to be a worker that will share 75% of the genes in a new queen, than to be a queen that will only share 50% of the genes of the new queen. Hamilton argues that the advantages of sterile worker bees that are highly related plays an important role in the development of sociality within the Hymenoptera, which has occurred 11 times, more than all other organisms combined.

Hamilton’s argument becomes more complex when you realize that the average honey bee queen mates with 14.6 drones (18 in commercial queen producers in California), according to reviews of the topic by Dr. David Tarpy. This results in the average relatedness to fall between 0.75 and 0.25, or about 0.5, the same as most diploid organisms. It can be argued that multiple mating developed after the formation of social units had evolved.

Role of super-sisters in the bee colony
A number of detailed research studies have been conducted to determine the advantage, if any, of being a super-sister worker bee within a colony. Katherine Noonan in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology (2010) looked as these studies and reported that worker bees are able to recognize each other if they are members of the same group of super-sisters, and distinguish them from half-sisters. In 2010 she reported that worker bees are able to recognize queen larvae from their own supersisterhood (Ethology, 2010). This leads to the question, do super-sisters demonstrate favoritism or nepotism toward related sisters? In the second Noonan study, she indicted that kin recognition may be an artifact of task specialization related to feeding behavior.

Researchers Moritz and Heisler (1992, Insects Sociaux) fed dyed sugar syrup to one ...

 October 2014

Conflict Reigns

by John Connor


Much has been made of the tremendous cooperation and high level of communication honey bees demonstrate by their ability to operate a complicated social community without an elected leader selected by the masses or a ruler appointed through some system of inherited power. Thomas Seeley of Cornell University has described the collaborative decision-making process swarming bee colonies use in making one of the most important decisions of their life—determining which nest cavity will the bees select to use for their home. The decision is critical because European honey bee races rarely leave a nest for a new one, and then, only when they experience something extremely unsuitable in their nest. Scout bees return to the swarm clustered in a tree or some other structure and report their findings. Other bees are recruited to inspect the nest site and share samples of material determined by evolutionarily determined criteria, then report back on the location through a dance and data sharing (samples of materials from the inside of the nest). Debate occurs here, where the different factions argue by dancing for the location that is best suited as the swarm’s new colony. Eventually, the different locations are evaluated by more bees, the colony comes to a general consensus, one site is selected, and the swarm flies off to their new home. Scout bees advocating for another location are not killed, but gently held back or given a head butt to extinguish their dance behavior. The queen, while present in the swarm, does not participate in this decision, dispelling the illusion that there is a single-ruler bee in the hive that makes critical policy rulings.

Human perception has not always understood this group dynamic. Over the ages, humans viewed the queen bee first as a king and then as a virgin queen, ruler of the hive. As human acceptance of human sexuality became more commonplace by the scientists of Western culture, so did human acceptance of sexuality between queens and drones become more widely understood. Recently we have researched and developed a much more detailed understanding of the role of conflict and competition within the bee colony. It is not always as clean and neat as the decision to select a new nest site.

Queens that want to kill each other

Nowhere in the hive is the role of individual conflict more evident than in the battles to the death of young virgin queens. As I discussed in last month’s column, the first young queen to emerge in a colony instinctively searches for other virgin queens with the intention of stinging them to death. Unless stopped by worker bees, this sororicide includes not only all emerged young queens, but also all unemerged queens in still sealed queen cells.

Young queens patrol the frame surface, staying under their worker sisters to find evidence of developing cells. This behavior is one reason why unmated queens are so difficult to locate in a colony. Not only is their abdomen unswollen with developing eggs, but their behavior keeps them moving rapidly on the comb surface, often under a thick layer of worker bees that appear to be hiding her, but may simply be in the way of this strong young queen bee behavior.

Emerged queens and unemerged queens still in their cells communicate with each other with sound waves (also audible to humans) that create unique vibrations on the comb and help the emerged queen to locate her unemerged sisters. Here is a summary of this event from Prof. Gundren Koeniger et al’s1 detailed account in their upcoming book:

The development of daughter queens in the queen cells ends shortly after the mother queen and primary swarm leave the nest. In all cavity-dwelling honey bee species studied to date (2014), A. cerana, A. mellifera and A. koschevnikovi, the queen that emerges first starts piping by pressing her vibrating thorax on the surface of the comb (Otis et al. 1995). The fully-developed queen sisters that are still in their queen cells respond with their quacking sound. As long as the piping and quacking continues, the other developed, but not-yet-emerged queens remain in their cells and are fed by worker bees through small slits at the lower end of the queen cell. If a secondary swarm is issued with the first-emerging virgin queen, additional queens will emerge. Now, the piping and quacking process begins again until a tertiary or later swarm leaves. Secondary and other swarms will cease leaving the colony when there are
not enough worker bees left to form another swarm. At this time, the next young queen to emerge will proceed to eliminate all of the remaining, “surplus” queens. She will do this by killing her sisters
in the cell or fighting them until the death if they do emerge. The signal (likely a pheromone) that triggers the fight between young queens has not yet been identified (Pflugfelder and Koeniger 2004). Queen recognition and fighting behavior seems to be similar in several honey bee species. Pflugfelder et al (2004) showed that young queens of A. florea were attacked and fought with queens of A. mellifera and A. cerana.

When I was teaching a class at the University of Maryland, a researcher placed several frames of ready-to-emerge queen cells into an incubator at the U of M bee laboratory to be held overnight before being moved into nucleus hives for mating. Bees often teach beekeepers a cruel lesson in honey bee mathematics, as we discovered the next morning. All the queen cells had been chewed open along the side of the cells, and the queens inside stung by the precocious sister that made her search for sisters, chewed these holes herself and stung each sister. Prior to this experience I believed that the queen somehow marked each cell or started its destruction only to have the worker bees complete the deathly deed. This experience showed me how a single queen is able to accomplish all this carnage.

These cells were ...

September 2014

Where Bee Sex Goes Wrong

by John Connor


We have learned a great deal about queens and drones in recent years. Certainly, all the media attention about CCD has forced many people—beekeepers and scientists alike—to look at the many ways that queen bees interact with their colonies, and how young queens react with drones during the mating process. This summer I have been working with Gudrun and Niko Koeniger of Germany and Jamie Ellis of the University of Florida on a translation and publication of a book, currently available in German, written by the Koenigers. Originally, I thought my job would be  to act as publisher of the English edition of this book, but as we have worked through the process, Dr. Ellis and I find ourselves as reviewers, editors and contributors to the book, both as native-born English speakers (keeping in mind that the Koeniger’s did the translation of the first draft from German to English) and as bee researchers with something to add to the story about bees and reproductive biology.

The new book, currently operating under the title of Mating Behavior of the Honey Bee, Apis mellifera L, is a powerful and revealing review of the work the Koenigers’ have accomplished during their career, working in Germany, Austria and many other locations in the world where bees live. They have carried bees into the Alps for mating studies and filmed the mating behavior of queens and drones. There are several points that they make in the book that I have mentioned over the years, but they have a different perspective on the science of mating behavior. They also have worked with many different species of Apis.

The Conflict of Mating in Social Organisms

Mating behavior for most species often takes considerable effort and a certain amount of good fortune. For the social honey bee, sexual behavior is even more intense. While young queens could encounter drones inside the hive, they do not respond to drones in their hive but instead they act as if they do not exist. If they encounter a sexually ready drone outside the hive during a cleansing or orientation flight, it is not going to result in mating either.

The taboo of most organisms is to minimize or eliminate inbreeding between related individuals. Brother-to-sister mating inside a hive would result in a high degree of inbreeding and the resulting colony would suffer from a loss of vigor and vitality. Likewise, a chance encounter outside of a hive between a drone and a young queen could also result in inbreeding if there are no other colonies within the local area.  Inbreeding does more than create a spotty brood pattern in a hive. When I worked with inbred queen lines used in the Starline hybrid during the 1970s, they showed me all the ills of inbreeding. Steve Taber used to joke that all an inbred queen wants to do is die, and he certainly was accurate in that these queens had behavioral and physiological limitations resulting from the high level of inbreeding. Inbred queens lacked vigor, they had reduced egg-laying rates and they were easy candidates for diseases and parasites, as well as replacement via supersedure. When they had mated to drones that carried the same allele for sex determination, the brood pattern was spotted with cells where diploid drones were placed and removed by their sisters soon after hatching from the egg. To manage these colonies, we needed support colonies that provided frames of emerging brood necessary to keep the colonies (almost always kept in five-frame nuclei) alive and preventing death of the line.

These were extreme conditions, but these dramatic effects of inbreeding certainly show us why Nature develops such extreme methods to prevent inbreeding. And in honey bees, we have some of the greatest extremes Nature has ever created to minimize the chance that closely related queens and drones might mate.

Distance Mating
The detailed work the Koenigers have done clearly show the benefits of flying far away from the hive to find unrelated sexual partners. They have looked at the cost of producing large numbers of drones and few queens, and the additional cost of putting both reproductives into the air so they can mate. The first and ever amazing biological feature is the use of distant Drone Congregation Areas for mating.

DCAs are where drones and queens fly to for mating. These are locations that are clearly genetically defined, as drones from one season die and are not available to show the route to the next year’s drones. Instead, the drones, and the queens, have genetic information that instructs them on where to go. We still do not know what this programming includes, but some of the theories

•     Flying to lower points on the horizon

•    Where flyways cross, as evidenced by research in the U.S. that show that non-descript areas seem to have a different set of focus factors than used in DCAs in mountainous areas.

Drones and queens fly different distances from the hive, the queen much further, a behavior that reduces the chances of a brother and sister bee encountering one another during mating. This behavior has likely developed, genetically, as a result of ...


August 2014


Are You On Board About Drones?

by John Connor


If you routinely read my books and articles, you are probably already aware that I am a huge advocate of proper drone management by beekeepers, both for mite control and for drone saturation for mating. Since all beekeepers have colonies that eventually will experience queen replacement, having good, healthy, viable drones throughout your beekeeper area during the entire bee season is essential for proper mating and good beekeeping practices. There is no point in keeping bees without managing drone populations. Fortunately, healthy hives do this, but on their terms. All beekeepers need to board the bandwagon in supporting the growth of healthy, virile and abundant drone populations. These drones should also carry genes that add varroa tolerance (such as hygienic traits and anti-varroa grooming behavior) to mate with queens selected for similar traits. While I do not find many large operation beekeepers that are on board yet with an active drone management scheme, I am pleased when I find the exceptions. These few beekeepers admit that proper drone management is an additional expense, but one that pays back with better mated colonies.

In June I was able to hear Dr. David Tarpy of the North Carolina State University. Dave was the featured speaker at the Indiana State Beekeepers meeting held at the bee lab at Purdue University. Dr. Greg Hunt and Krispn Given hosted the event.

Dave mentioned drone management during his talk, and, as usual, I found that he and I were in very close agreement about several methods that may be used to manage drones in light of varroa mite populations and keeping good drones for mating. Let me review some history, a few standard practices about drone management, and review some of the areas where Dr. Tarpy and I agree.

Removing Drone Brood for Mite Control

This concept has been used by many beekeepers as part of an Integrated Pest Management plan to reduce varroa mite populations in their hives. Basically, it is simply a matter of putting in a drone sized cell comb into each brood nest of every colony, waiting 14 to 22 days, and then removing the drone comb. Some beekeepers put a medium depth frame into a deep frame colony and let bees add brood to the bottom part of the frame. Many beekeepers put this comb into a freezer to kill the drones and the mites. The combs are then returned to the hives and the bees clean out the dead drones and mites and the queen will often re-lay drone eggs into the cells once they are cleaned out. If you use plastic drone cell foundation, you have the option of scraping the sealed drone brood (mites are only in the sealed cells, remember?) into a bucket and either feeding the mess to the chickens or dig a hole in the ground and bury it. Return the comb to the hive immediately. This saves you a return trip to the hive, but it also forces the bees to generate new wax, which they will only do when on a nectar flow.

Save the Drones!
Where Dave and I agree is that we all need to save these drones, not kill them. Well, go ahead and kill drones from average and below-average colonies (if they actually produce any drones). Do not produce drones in colonies that show any sign of disease, temper, personality disorders or fail to meet some standard of your apiary operation. Freeze or scrape off these drones. You will significantly improve your future colony quality by getting rid of really unfit drones if done on enough colonies  over a long time period.
With your good to fabulous colonies that are most likely producing drones we suggest you remove ...


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 ....


June 2014

The Latner Method of Making Nuclei and Mating Nuclei

by John Connor


I first met Jerry Latner in 1976 when I moved to Florida to establish the Dadant bee breeding program called Genetic Systems Inc., with the dual purpose of maintaining the Starline and Midnite hybrid bee program, as well as to mass-produce instrumentally inseminated production queens called the Cale 876. Jerry was then branch manager at the Dadant branch in Umatilla, FL. Later he moved the branch to High Springs, FL to better service both Florida and Georgia beekeepers. His son Ray worked with his father during the early part of his career, took over the branch in Paris, TX (where I visited several times), and most recently moved back to High Springs to take over the branch when Jerry retired.

Because of the very strong demand for both nucleus colonies and queen bees, Ray and his wife, Wendy, have moved into independent nucleus and queen production in this north Florida location. The red maples and other trees are responsible for a strong early start to brood rearing, and there is an enormous demand for both queens and bees. Following the sage advise of mentor Harvey York, Ray and Wendy only book half of the production of queens and packages that they think they can generate in a season. They agree that this works out about right in most years.

Ray is familiar with beekeeping practices in Texas, as the Texas set-offs (described in a previous article), and has modified this system for his own method of making a large number of increase nuclei with a limited number of colonies.

In their Florida operation colonies are kept in just one hive body, with a queen excluder keeping the bees out of the supers. Both deep and medium hive bodies are used for making new units: deep frame colonies produce increase nuclei, and medium frame colonies produce mating nuclei. The increase nuclei hold five deep frames while the mating nuclei hold three medium frames. Here is a summary of the setup method the Latners use.

Yards sited for mating and production are cleared and equipment set out. The three frame mating nuclei are set out upside down until the bees and frames are added. The five-frame increase nuclei are placed containing three combs, leaving two spaces for brood frames.

Feed is provided using inverted quart or pint feed jars placed in a hole drilled in the center of the lid. Each colony gets one round of feed and then the jar is left in place to close the entrance.

Single box production hives with deep frames are inspected and all but one frame of brood and bees removed and placed into a special screened box that is spaced so it holds only eight frames (using a frame spacer) to prevent damage to the bees while in movement. These boxes of bees and brood are moved into a closed room where they settle for 24-36 hours. This allows the bees from different colonies to acclimate.

Colonies that give up the brood and bees are reduced to one frame of brood and the old queen if that queen is doing well. If she is not, all the bees are removed from the brood area and field forces from several colonies are allowed to return to one queen-right hive.

Queen production has been underway with other colonies and the ripe queen cells are held in an incubator. The cells are added one day after the colonies are set up. Each mating nucleus receives only one queen cell unless there are surplus cells. Then, two cells are positioned at the top of the frames, one frame apart.
Bees and brood are moved late in the day to keep the bees calm and minimize drifting. Each new nucleus receives two frames of bees and brood while each medium mating nucleus receives only one frame of brood.

To summarize, each newly made mating nuclei consists of one frame of brood, a frame of drawn comb, a frame of foundation, the ripe queen cell, and feed in a pint feed jar. These units are left undisturbed in the mating apiary for three weeks when they are visited and queens are harvested for waiting customers.

Newly made deep nuclei consist of two frames of brood and bees, a ripe queen cell, two drawn combs and either another drawn comb or a frame of foundation. A feed jar is placed into the lid to provide the bees with feed and to stimulate the production of beeswax for comb building. These colonies are spot checked, but usually not sold for at least four weeks. This allows the colony and the new queen to mature together.

Special equipment needed for this system includes the ten-frame hive bodies with eight-frame spacers, and the screened covers to provide ventilation while in confinement. The photo shows much of this in detail.

What is the Ideal Nucleus?

Brood strength and queen type
A queen bee’s egg-laying rate is determined by both her genetics and the rate at which she is fed by healthy worker bees. Think of a queen’s egg-laying rate as her ultimate genetic potential—her performance level when everything in the hive is working perfectly. The actual number ....


May 2014

The Ideal Nucleus

by John Connor


The double nucleus
Many beekeepers use deep frame hive bodies divided into two five-frame nuclei, often called a double nucleus. This provides room for one to three frames of brood, a frame of honey and one or two empty combs for the queen to lay into. Transferring the bees attached to the frames and maybe one shake more will give you about 3,200 or more bees, or roughly a pound. The combined heat from the two colonies growing side-by-side stimulates growth in each five-frame nucleus. These bees will keep the brood warm and care for the queen before and after she is released from the queen cage or emerges from the queen cell. In about a month, each colony will be strong enough to be moved into regular eight- or ten-frame equipment. Left in the small quarters, the nucleus will not expand further because there is not enough room or may swarm. Some beekeepers add supers to nucleus colonies to keep them growing and to prevent swarming.

Impact of the queen status used in increase colonies

You get the best results if you use a mated laying queen in a new nucelus colony, while letting the bees raise a queen from worker brood gives the poorest outcome. The latter includes queen failures when the queen dies and the bees must replace her from brood in the colony (if they have it). Let’s discuss this effect, using these guidelines:

  • Each nucleus was made with standard frames with an average of 75% emerging workers, or 4,800 bees/frame. I used three frames of brood for this model, which is on the strong side.
  • For each frame of brood, I added one half pound of adult nurse bees to warm the brood and keep it alive until the sealed brood emerges—4,800 bees with three frames of brood.
  • Each queen will lay an average 1,200 eggs per day after being installed and has reached maximum egg production. Some days she will lay fewer eggs because there is no place for her to put them. Even queens have bad days and labor-management conflicts.
  • When the beekeeper assembles the nucleus, it contains primarily sealed worker brood, and some open brood (eggs and larvae). This affects the colony age distribution in all colonies as they develop.
  • Various queen types, based on stage of development, are used this discussion.  They include:

Mother queen—Time before brood emergence is 21 days. Here the nucleus colony receives the queen from the parent hive, and there is no interruption in egg laying. Then you will have bee emergence from newly laid eggs in about 21 days. In four weeks we expect to see about 27,000 bees in this three-frame nucleus; in seven weeks the population will approach 50,000 bees.

Laying queen—Time before brood emergence is 24 to 28 days. You must purchase or raise your own queen and introduce her into the nucleus. Allow seven days for her to be released and start laying (to be conservative), and add 21 days for her first adult daughter workers to emerge and join her in the hive. This is a total of 28 days. In four weeks we expect to see about 18,500 bees in the hive, in seven weeks the population will be around 42,000 workers.
Virgin queen—Time before brood emergence is 31 days. Overproduction of queen cells often leads to a supply of caged, sexually-mature, ready-to-mate virgin queens. We allow 10 days for release from an introduction cage and mating and then 21 days for first brood emergence. Week-old virgin queens will provide bees in just a few more days than a mated queen. Expect 17,400 bees at 28 days from the founder bees and brood; expect 37,700 bees at seven weeks. Because it is just a bit less than a mated queen, it makes me wonder why sexually ready virgins are not used more often, especially since the queen is emerged and can be inspected for color, size and certain behaviors? I have been marking and using virgin queens for several years with excellent results.

Queen cell—Time for brood emergence is 37 days. Many beekeepers put a mature or ‘ripe’ queen cell into mating nuclei. In fact, most commercial beekeepers use queen cells. Allow 16 days for a ripe queen pupa to emerge, mate and start laying, plus 21 days for the first worker bees. This is a total of 37 days for first emergence. At seven weeks expect 31,200 bees.

Queen raised from brood—Time for brood emergence is 49 days. Plan on a full seven-week delay when you require a colony to raise its own queen. While this may provide good varroa control by providing a total break in the brood rearing, it is very costly in terms of lost population buildup. The queen will be raised from a young larva, so add 13 days for her to emerge from a queen cell. To this add 15 or 16 days for the queen’s maturation, mating and egg laying. Then, of course, you still must wait for 21 days for worker emergence. This puts the first emergence at seven weeks! The colony has not yet added any new bees for seven weeks! The population has been shrinking from 17,400 bees since the last of the brood emerged. Of course, during hive inspections you have seen the formation of queen cells, bees preparing for the queen to mate and start laying, and then the new queen’s brood appear. It’s a fun and educational process to watch, but the 28-day lack of open brood may mess up colony balance by reducing the stimulus to forage for pollen needed for royal and worker jelly production, and limit comb building and food storage.

Colonies with queens that fail often ...


April 2014

Large-Scale Methods of Making Increase Colonies

by John Connor


My first beekeeping book, Increase Essentials, was first published in 2006. A great deal has happened since then. Colony Collapse Disorder appeared. Many beekeepers moved away from package bees to increase nucleus production, and developed a wide array of amazing methods to make increase nuclei. Many routinely winter these colonies with different levels of success. So, as we work to produce a second edition of Increase Essentials, we will put both new and updated materials out to the thousands of people who have purchased the book. For them, I hope that they will see it as an upgrade, and for those who have not read the book, I hope it will incentivize them to read it. In this issue we continue the discussion about making increase nuclei.

Making multiple nuclei from multiple hives
Larger small-scale operators, as well as sideline beekeepers, become efficient in the production of increase nuclei and employ a few elements of Henry Ford’s assembly line to become better able to produce a number of increase colonies in a short time period. A few commercial beekeepers have used the assembly line method in a central facility to generate increase colonies, but most seem to follow an apiary-based method similar to what follows.
 Prior planning before entering the apiary. Beekeepers load their trucks with empty five-frame nuclei, whether 50 or 5,000. If queens or queen cells are to be added during the day of nucleus making, the beekeepers bring purchased mated queens or self-raised, ready-to-emerge queen cells from their own operation. Spare frames are brought in the nucleus boxes in case the beekeeper and helpers decide to discard any broken or extremely dark combs no longer suitable for a healthy and efficient beekeeping operation.

Teamwork is key in the apiary. The truck is placed so it either is central to all the colonies (if they are arranged in a horseshoe arrangement) or moved as they work the area (if colonies are in a linear pattern). With one person on the truck, equipment is handed to others on the ground who situate the equipment near the hives. The hives in question may be overwintered colonies, colonies brought back from the almonds in California or colonies in a southern state moved to overwinter from a northern state. Often one person applies smoke to all the colonies in a row and removes the lids. A second person enters each colony and removes frames of honey, brood and empty comb which the first person places into waiting boxes and loads onto the truck.

Division of hive assets into five-frame units. When each colony is opened and frames removed, old queens are killed if found unless considered breeder material. All frames of brood are divided into the five-frame nuclei boxes, usually with three frames of brood and bees. A frame of honey and pollen is added along with either an empty comb (most of the time) or a frame of foundation. Queens in sealed cages are often added at this point, unable to be released until the beekeeper removes the cork or plastic plug from the cage, although some commercial beekeepers just pull these off and let matters fall as they may be. If queen cells are being used, the increase nuclei should be moved by truck to their new location and set out on the ground, either on pallets or in rows for single handling. Queen cells are often added later in the day or a day later, after the bees have had a chance to settle down and have started foraging.

Move colonies to a new apiary location. Loaded onto a truck, the increase nuclei are moved to a new location and set out, often with entrances facing in different directions to minimize drifting. Some beekeepers use vibrant but mis-matched ‘whoops’ paint from box hardware stores to develop a colorful array of different colored boxes and lids. Others stay with the standard white hive, but stagger them in such a way as to increase orientation for workers and flying queens.

Checking the success rate. With mated queens, the success rate of introduction in these new colonies should be over 90 percent. With queen cells, the success rate is lower, perhaps 75 to 85 percent take. When this happens, the ‘blowouts’ are stacked onto queenright colonies without a great deal of ceremony. The goal is to have all of these increase nuclei shipped to their final honey production location and transferred into standard ten-frame boxes. Within a matter of days they should be ready to receive their second brood box, and soon, their first super.

March 2014

 Methods of Making Increase Colonies

by John Connor


My first beekeeping book, Increase Essentials, was first published in 2006. A great deal has happened since then. Colony Collapse Disorder appeared. Many beekeepers moved away from package bees to increase nucleus production, and developed a wide array of amazing methods to make increase nuclei. Many routinely winter these colonies with different levels of success. So, as we work to produce a second edition of Increase Essentials, we will put both new and updated materials out to the thousands of people who have purchased the book. For them, I hope that they will see it as an upgrade, and for those who have not read the book, I hope it will incentivize them to read it. In this issue we continue the discussion about making increase nuclei.

Nuclei to mate and hold queens.
Make up small nuclei if you plan to produce, mate and hold queens during the season. The key is to keep these nuclei small all summer, allowing each successive queen to fill the brood nest with eggs before she is moved to another hive or sold. I recommend using three to five-frame deep or medium Langstroth frames so you do not have unique sized frames and boxes in your operation. A ten-frame hive may be divided into two or three mating units and an eight-frame hive may be divided into two sections. Such colonies require special management so they do not become too strong and promote swarming—remove extra frames of brood and bees and add them to mating nuclei that have had a queen failure or any colonies that are weak. Or use extra frames of brood to boost honey production colonies just before the nectar flow. If you mate and store laying queens in these units, you will be able to requeen hives used for honey production at any time without being forced to order queens on a rush basis. Here are some simple steps to establish these colonies:

Select one brood frame. Go to one of the colonies you have selected and managed for increase colony production. Find a frame of brood that is sealed, ideally with young adult bees emerging from the center of the brood cluster. This ensures you will have the stronger nucleus with and increasing number of young bees.
Check for queens. Carefully examine this frame for a queen bee. Your records may indicate that the queen is clipped and marked, but 10 to 20 percent of all spring colonies have two queens (mother and daughter) existing side by side. So even if you have found a marked queen in a colony, continue to check the frame for another queen! A second set of eyes is very helpful while making nuclei colonies.

Move the frame to a prepared nucleus box: There are wood, plastic, and cardboard versions of nucleus boxes. You may divide a ten-frame hive body into two sections by using a thin plywood or Masonite™ sheet as a divider. The double five-frame nucleus allows the two colonies to share heat and build up better.

Give each nucleus colony an entrance facing a different direction. You do not want all the entrances on the same side of the box if more than one nucleus colony is being setup inside. Place entrances at opposite sides so the bees remain separate.

Add another shake of bees. Select another brood frame covered with bees. Again, carefully check the frame for a queen. Gently shake (or brush) the bees from the frame into the nucleus box. Your objective is to cover the brood with bees. If you do not think you have enough bees, shake bees from one or two more frames to finish the job letting the older bees fly home.
Add a frame of honey and pollen. This will provide food for the young bees that emerge, and for any brood that is still unsealed. You may add the frame of honey and pollen in advance, or pull a frame from a colony in your apiary.

Add a queen. Install a purchased queen in a push-in cage or another introduction system. You may use a queen cell you have produced yourself, or purchased from a local beekeeper. Install the queen or queen cell on the brood frame so it will be covered and cared for by nurse bees. Do not let such a small nucleus produce its own queen—it may be substandard and subsequently superseded.

Add drawn combs to fill the nucleus box.  Then close up the hive body.

Position the increase hive in the same apiary or in an out apiary. If you only add nurse bees, few bees will fly back to the parent hive. If you shook bees from the outer frames where foragers are located, you should expect to lose part of the bee population if left within 2 miles of the source apiary. Move new hives least 2 miles away.

Feed the increase colony. Use a division board (frame) feeder, top feeder, or a sugar syrup jar on the top of the nucleus or in a feed shell. Keep feeding for at least a month or as long as you are putting new queen cells into the colony for mating.
Reduce the entrance. Limit the entrance of the hive since small increase colonies are vulnerable to robbing by stronger hives. Use screen vent holes to avoid overheating the colony during hot weather. Protect the colony from strong winds and provide the bees with a water source.

Manage this unit. Once a mated queen has been producing eggs long enough to fill the frames with brood, she may be used to requeen another colony. Use the old queen you removed to keep this nucleus going until you are ready to replace the her. If you ....


February 2014

 Methods of Making Increase Colonies

by John Connor


My first beekeeping book, Increase Essentials, was first published in 2006. A great deal has happened since then. Colony Collapse Disorder appeared. Many beekeepers moved away from package bees to increase nucleus production, and developed a wide array of amazing methods to make increase nuclei. Many routinely winter these colonies with different levels of success. So, as we work to produce a second edition of Increase Essentials, we will put both new and updated materials out to the thousands of people who have purchased the book. For them, I hope that they will see it as an upgrade, and for those who have not read the book, I hope it will incentivize them to read it. In this issue we continue the discussion about making increase nuclei.

Selecting colonies for increase production
At the first hive inspection in late winter or early spring, select the colonies that are thriving and growing rapidly. In Florida, southern Texas and the Southwest, this may be in January, while in the northern tier of states and Canada this may not happen until March or early April in average years. While you may feed all your colonies to keep them alive, select certain colonies you want to “push” brood and bee production, to make new increase colonies. Give them constant sugar syrup stimulation and pollen patties or pollen substitute. This allows the bees and the queen to produce a large amount of brood, and this will grow your bee population. The bees will respond to the push in February or early March in northern states and in lower Canada.
Deciding which colonies in your apiary will be used for increase production depends upon your objective and your beekeeping conditions as expressed as potential nectar flows.  Here are three strategy examples:

Every colony will be used to provide brood and bees adequate to produce one or more increase nuclei. This is an ideal program when all hives are about equal in strength and you have been successful at keeping winter loss low and the colonies are responding well to stimulative feeding. If your colonies go to California for almond pollination, you can remove a nucleus or two from each colony when the hives are successfully returned to you. By doing this, you accomplish two goals: first you will make new colonies at a point in the colony cycle when they are producing surplus bees, and second, removing bees and brood will seriously discourage these hives from swarming.

Only certain colonies will produce increase nuclei. While you might use just the strongest colonies to make increase nuclei, beekeepers like Vermont’s Mike Palmer routinely sort out the lower quality colonies and use only these to form increase nuclei. These are ‘C’ level colonies that will require effort and still only produce a below average honey crop. He uses only the strongest colonies for clover honey production, following a rigorous swarm prevention program of adding supers early and other methods. Keep your ‘A’ and ‘B+’ strength colonies for honey production or pollination and put the rest of the hives into making increase.

All colonies are converted to nuclei. The most severe system of making increase nuclei is commonly used by larger sideline and most commercial beekeepers. All colonies are completely dismantled at some point in the seasonal management cycle and made into a number of new increase nuclei colonies. Each colony receives a minimum of three frames of brood, food frames, and left-over comb. This is an excellent time to remove old combs and add new foundation or starter strips. Some beekeepers set up an assembly-line production facility at the base apiary or in the field to collect colonies, pull frames and add queens. There are an amazing variety of methods commercial beekeepers use to accomplish this extensive colony manipulation. The advantages are clear—you end up with colonies with all new queens, potentially new brood combs, and have entirely eliminated swarming as a major management focus, in addition to setting back the varroa mite build up in the original colonies.