Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017
A Beekeeping Diary #6: Summer—Making Nucleus Colonies; the Main Honey Flow Begins
Beekeeping has been present in this part of Vermont almost as long as European settlers have been here—that is, since the 1790’s. During all of that time, beekeepers made up most of their new colonies during May and early June—the natural swarming season. Before moveable frames, these new colonies were started with swarms that emerged from tested, overwintered colonies kept in box hives or gums. In the early days of moveable frames and queen rearing, many beekeepers in the North raised their own queens; and if you read carefully in the old books, you can see that they sometimes continued rearing queens and making new colonies right through the summer, if they needed more bees. Once young queens were easily available from the South however, most beekeepers in the northern states settled into the pattern of making up new colonies in late April or May, and headed them up with queens selected and produced in a completely different environment. Where I live in Vermont, the Mraz family followed a different plan starting in the 50’s—making strong nucs in the spring and letting them raise their own queens. But with a very short active season for the bees, there are lots of other important jobs to do during May, and there have been plenty of years when weather conditions here were very unfavorable for both raising queens and making splits in May. After the huge losses caused by mites and low honey prices, and with Africanized bees spreading through the South; it’s really important now to select and propagate bees more rapidly in the North, and move towards healthier and more locally oriented beekeeping systems. I still make a few splits in May, and sometimes even raise queen cells for them, if I have extra brood that needs to be spread out, or if winter losses have been especially high. But the best time for producing queens and nucs here is during June and July.
My production of queens and nucs varies somewhat from year to year depending upon the results of wintering; the demand for bees, queens, and honey; and what else my queen-catching helpers are up to during the summer. But my first, third and fifth batch of cells always go into the baby nucs in the isolation apiary. Once the 8-day schedule is started, I make up between 100-200 new colonies for each cycle. Whether the nucs are made from baby combs or standard deep frames, the procedure is always the same. Empty nuc boxes with the feeders in place and screens already in the entrances are made up in advance and stacked in the yards designated to supply brood and bees.
All of my summer nucs are made up as if they were going to be used as mating nucs—in other words, with the smallest amount of bees and brood that will make a healthy, viable colony. By waiting until summer to do this, you optimize the whole process in several dimensions. Warm to hot weather is finally here to stay, and so fewer bees are needed for each nuc initially. Also, the colonies supplying the brood and bees are now at the optimum size for splitting into nucs. Once you get into the second week of June, each good frame of sealed brood will start a new colony. A donor colony that could be made into three or four new colonies in May can be made into 6-10 colonies in late June—if you’re planning to winter those new colonies as nucs occupying one box or less. Days are long during mid-summer, allowing more opportunities for mating flights; and drones are superabundant in areas with lots of honey producing colonies.
The baby nucs are all started with the first one or two batches of cells. You remember a few weeks back that stacks of this special equipment were created as the overwintered queens were caught and used for requeening. Additional boxes of empty comb were also added as necessary, and by early June they are usually heavy with dandelion honey. When making up the nucs, each stack is taken completely down and broken up. The boxes are carried a short distance away and put on long benches next to other benches already holding empty nuc boxes at a convienient height. Each nuc is made up of four frames as follows; starting next to the feeder: One frame of honey with bees; a good frame of sealed brood with bees; and then either a frame of pollen or unsealed brood with bees. The fourth frame will be either a frame of foundation or another frame of honey—depending on whether the nuc will be set out in a good honey area or up in the mountains, where nectar resources are poor. The frames are only glanced at quickly as they go into the nucs, and any queens spotted are removed. Those heading good colonies are caught and caged. Most of the remaining queens are easy to find when the cells are put out—look in the nucs that are crowded with field bees. Any that still slip by are given away by having brood in all stages when the first new queens are caught—so, cases of mistaken identity are very rare.
Now, here’s a trick I discovered that helped me a great deal while weaning the apiary off of treatments: After “mining” all the brood and necessary honey and young bees out of a stack, there will often be many frames of honey and/or pollen left over. By putting them back at the original site (with perhaps a frame of eggs on each side) it gives the field bees a place to go, and keeps the pandemonium at a nearly manageable level. If these depleted colonies have the queens returned to them, or receive cells the next day, they will often recover and go into the winter healthy and strong. By taking all the brood away, you’ve removed most of the varroa mites, and if they are not re-infested from outside, it takes mites longer than one year to threaten them again. So, even stock that can’t fight varroa too well can be helpful and productive as you gradually more toward the goal of non-treatment. I do the same thing with nucs made on standard combs.
The baby nucs are set out in the usual way for mating nucs—spaced apart in long, irregular lines with plenty of landmarks nearby. The cells are put into them one, two, or three days after the nuc boxes are set out. After one or two baby nuc yards are established, all remaining nucs are made with standard combs. Queens are caught from the baby nucs every 16 days, and either sold or used for starting nucs on standard combs. Once they have queens established, these standard frame nucs are left alone, for the most part. They’re all intended for overwintering and testing the new queens. But there’s nothing preventing you from selling them in the fall, if gentle bees are needed in the South.
At the very beginning, I made up many of the summer nucs on standard combs by taking a couple of frames of brood from many different honey producing colonies. But I soon realized that it was much more efficient and productive to maintain certain yards specifically for nuc production, and to split up entire colonies during the nuc-making process; as was done with the baby nucs. By having these yards a few miles away from each other, the loads of nucs can be moved back and forth between them as the nucs are made up over a period of 4-5 weeks. In the early summer, each yard has about 30 double story colonies in one corner—looking much like a honey producing yard—and a much larger expanse of empty pallets spread out nearby. By the end of the season, the corner originally filled with bees is largely empty, and the pallets are now occupied by 150-200 nucleus colonies. These nucs are made up in just the same way as the baby nucs, and they can be started either with cells or mated queens from the baby nuc yards. The first ones are set up initially with two of my split boxes on each pallet. This will leave room for them to grow onto eight frames later in the season. The nucs made later are set out with four of these boxes (eight colonies) on each pallet, and most of these nucs will remain on four combs until the following spring.
The clover honey flow starts during the nuc making process, and a few days in June are devoted to putting on supers and taking the pulse in the honey producing yards. But for the most part, it’s a busy and exciting month focused on the cell-building bees and starting a new crop of nucleus colonies—headed by your own tested and well-adapted stock.