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Margaret Murdin, NDB, BBKA president

Oilseed rape is likely to provide the first significant honey flow of the seasonNow that May has arrived, our colonies should be expanding rapidly and there will be more adult worker bees than brood. If you are in an area where there is a spring flow, perhaps from oilseed rape, then you may well have honey ripening in your supers, or at least plenty of stores for the bees. There are probably drones or, more likely, drone brood.

The workers will be feeding the queen lots of royal jelly and she will be laying her own weight in eggs everyday. Between 1500 and 2000 eggs a day is quite normal for this time of year. She will also be producing large amounts of pheromones, known as queen substance, which tell the workers that all is well, and that they are queenright. So, we have a large, prosperous colony with many young bees, plentiful stores and, significantly, drones.

Normally, a colony will only start to rear queens when there are drones around. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense because those drones are needed for mating. If there are no drones, new queens will be wasted. Each individual bee needs to receive a minimum threshold of queen substance regularly in order to carry out normal colony duties. If the colony is overcrowded then not only may the queen have insufficient room to lay, but the pheromones may not reach all the bees in the required quantities.

Queen Cups

The bees will start to build little acorn-shaped queen cups around the edges of the comb. This is quite normal and there is no need to destroy the queen cups. But keep an eye on them. A little rim of new, white wax around the bottom of a queen cup is usually an indication that there is an egg in it. Or there soon will be. At this time of the year, when the weather is fine and the colony is large, the colony may be preparing to re-queen itself and reproduce the entire colony by swarming.

Loss of Bees and Honey

Be generous with supers – the space is needed more for the bees than the honeySwarming is the normal reproduction of a honey bee colony and it is essential in natural situations where many colonies die out during the winter. However, we do not keep our bees in a natural situation. We need to manage the swarming impulse if we can because, not only are they a nuisance to our neighbours, they also mean we might lose about half of our bees and our chances of a honey crop.

We will never be able to stop the swarming instinct in our bees, and we shouldn’t try. But there are things we can do to try and prevent the loss of swarms. We can keep young queens. It is thought that a young queen will produce larger amounts of queen substance than an older queen. Ideally, queens in honey-producing colonies should be less than two years old.

We can ensure that the queen has enough room in the brood nest to lay 1500 eggs a day and we can super early. Remember that nectar takes up a lot more space than honey because the bees spread it out to evaporate the water and ripen it. Put an extra super on when the last one is full of bees, not full of honey. Think of the supers as being space for the bees rather than honey.

Careful Examination

This queen cup contains a larva. The wax will soon be drawn downwards to produce a full-sized queen cell.A colony that is going to swarm will build a number of queen cells and the swarm will leave as soon as the first one is sealed. Knocking down the queen cells is not the answer. Once a fertilised egg is laid, it can become either a worker or a queen. The egg hatches into a larva after three days. It is the food it then receives that switches genes on or off and determines whether it will become a worker or a queen.

Now, remember that a queen cell is sealed eight days after the egg is laid. It needs the five days it spends as a larva being fed royal jelly to make a really good queen. If the bees have decided to swarm and we knock down their queen cells then they will just make more. But they may well make them from larvae that are already two or three days old. So, they will have been fed as workers for the first couple of days of their larval life, which means they probably won’t make good queens. And the cell will be sealed in another three days and the colony will swarm anyway.

Once your colony has drones and you see that rim of new, white wax around some queen cups, you will need to carry out a method of swarm control. It does not matter which method you use as long as it works. Destroying the queen cells will delay swarming but will not prevent it.

Prevention and Control

Swarm prevention aims to avert the swarming instinct in the first place. Swarm control aims to deal with the situation once swarming preparations have started. A thriving colony of bees will prepare to swarm. It is what bees do. But with careful observation and good husbandry, many swarms can be prevented. Swarm management actually means less work for the beekeeper and a larger honey crop.


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