By Gerald Przybylski
Jerry has been an East-Oakland beekeeper since 2011; local bees preferred.
Have you looked at your bees since last fall?? You better check soon.
Lifting the top cover and looking at the bees through the hole in the inner cover isn’t enough any more.
When the temperature is above 65ºF, and the wind speed is low, it is pretty safe to look at the frames in your hives, but don’t dawdle. Leave the removal of excess wax and propolis until warmer weather.
Look for your queen. If you have only a few frames of brood, she should be relatively easy to find. Is she the marked queen you had last fall? If you can’t find the queen, then look for eggs and larva.
The larva should look white, wet and shiny. The frame should have a pleasant, sweetish smell. All or almost all the capped brood cells should be worker. Look for dense brood pattern. Look for new wax. Look for ample space for the queen to lay. Excess honey and pollen frames should be moved outward or up to make space for adding an open or a drawn frame or two between brood frames in colonies that are strong enough.
This time of year the brood box may have two to eight frames of brood. A booming hive in an ideal location might be two boxes of brood.
You may see queen cups, but they don’t necessarily indicate that the bees are ready to swarm. Queen cups in the middle or upper half of the frame hint that the colony may want to replace the queen in the next weeks or months… or they may just take them down later. Hive strength and brood pattern may give you clues about whether to expect supersedure.
The colony will use queen cups at the bottom of the frame them when they decide to swarm. Queen cells are queen cups with either a larva, or capped queen pupa in them.
CAUTION: Handle frames with capped queen cells very carefully. Look carefully on both sides and along the bottom of the frame for capped queen cells before you flip the frame over. From two days after capping, to two days before emerging, queen cells are VERY FRAGILE!! Flipping a frame over or thumping it to shake off the bees can damage the developing queen during this crucial time!!!
Sadly, when you see swarm cells, not just cups, in the lower half of one or several frames, you can take it as an indication that the bees decided to swarm a week or more before your discovery. Did you notice during your previous inspection that the brood area was becoming congested? Did you see just a few, or many, many nectar-filled cells among the pupa? Was the queen running out of space to lay eggs? These are some of the early indicators of the intent to swarm.
We care about swarming out of our hives because of the impact on our neighbors. We understand that the cloud of bees darkening the yard is an exciting, and generally non-threatening spectacle. Our neighbors may see it on a scale from annoying to downright scary. We also care about loosing half our bees, don’t we?
Some books or “experts” suggest destroying queen cells to suppress the urge to swarm. If you destroy queen cells in the upper 2/3 of the frame, your hive may become queen-less for obvious reasons. In this author’s opinion queen cell destruction is wasteful of queen genetic material. The bees often defeat the beekeeper anyway by placing a swarm cell where the beekeeper won’t notice it until after they’ve swarmed. The mother queen leaves the hive with the swarm a few days after a queen cell is capped. Destroying queen cells after the queen leaves results in a queen-less hive.
Have equipment ready to add to the top of your hive when about 7 or 8 of the 9 gaps between frames are full of bees.
Have some extra equipment ready to configure as mating nucs. If/when you find frames with queen cells you can move them into the mating nucs with a frame of honey, and enough house bees to keep all the brood covered. Check the population in the nuc after a couple of hours, and the next day. If there aren’t enough bees, shake in more house bees (bees from brood frames). It takes practice to get this right.
The long-term forecasts say the rains will be back. Make sure water isn’t collecting in the bottoms of your hives, and that they have enough ventilation to keep mold from growing inside the hive. There will be more bees, more nectar to process, and more humidity in the hive. Shim up the corners of the top cover if they need it.
Read about splits and queen rearing practices so you have a plan when you see swarm cells.