By Don Lam
Editor’s Note: Don and his wife Jean have been keeping bees for a quarter-century, providing pollination services as well as package bees and nucs. (They are sold out for 2013.) Learn more at www.donlambees.com.
If you are like most beekeepers, you have often said to yourself, “I really ought to have just two or three more colonies—and raise a few queens besides.” I think we all have. And why not?
There are a couple of questions you should ask before you start. The first is the “why” question. Why do you want to increase the number of colonies you have? Is it only for fun to see if you can do it? Do you perhaps need more colonies to fill a pollination contract? Were you short of honey last season or are covering winter losses this spring? How many do you need and how many can you handle?
Once you have answered the “why” question, and have come up with real needs and numbers, you can ask the next question: “how” do I get there? Part of the “how” answer can be easy. You can buy a package or a nuc, or catch a swarm.
But raising your own bees (and saving money) is not that difficult. It’s involves splits, planning, schedules, and queen introductions. More complicated but very rewarding.
The easiest way to increase your colonies is to split the ones you have into smaller nucs. There are several approaches to these, all of which can work.
The first is the Walkaway Split. The beekeeper takes a frame of eggs, two frames of emerging brood and two frames of pollen and honey covered with nurse bees, puts them into a five-frame nuc box and then walks away. Check back four weeks later to see if the new queen is laying.
The second is the Typical Split, the same as the Walkaway, except that the beekeeper is much more proactive and introduces a queen cell or queen to the new split, or nuc. This action puts the nuc three weeks ahead of the Walkaway Split. One approach is to divide the bees evenly between two colonies, face them porch to porch, and let the returning bees select one or the other. In a day or two take the queenless hive offsite and add a queen.
Swarm Control Split
The third is the Swarm Control Split. Ideally, a beekeeper tries to prevent swarms and not have to split. In this case, to decrease the overpopulation, the beekeeper removes every frame that has a queen cell and puts it into a nuc of its own along with appropriate frames of brood and honey. Putting more than one frame with queen cells into a nuc increases the chances of success.
Mite Control Nuc
A master beekeeper from Michigan has been creating splits as a way of controlling mites with significant success. Mel Disselkoen times his splits to interrupt the mite’s own brood cycle and often overwinters at 80% or more. His method incorporates a timed broodless period while the bees make their own queen. For more details go to www.mdaspiaries.com.
In order to survive, an ideal split should have 2-3 frames of eggs and sealed and emerging brood covered with nurse bees, plus two frames of honey and pollen. A shake or two of additional bees at startup time adds needed foragers and bees to keep the eggs and brood warm. A beekeeper can add a new queen or let the bees raise their own at this point. Since most of the nuc bees are nurse bees who haven’t flown yet, moving the nuc offsite is not always necessary. Moving the parent colony offsite and putting the nuc in the original parent location will build it up with the returning foragers.
When is the best time to start a nuc? Although splits can be done at different times during the season, usually late spring/early summer works the best for most beekeepers. The parent hive must be strong enough to be divided without undue stress on either the parent or the nuc. The weather must be warm enough day and night for the cluster to maintain proper brood temperatures. Commercial queens must be available, or if the bees are to raise their own queen, drones must be available for complete mating. And enough season must be left to permit both the parent and the nuc to build up in numbers and food stores.
What about the queens? Is there a best approach to requeening? Here are some interesting numbers: your method will reflect the season, purpose, and budget.
Using the existing queen: brood in 21 days with no interruptions
Introducing a mated, laying queen: brood in about 26 days
Using a virgin queen: brood in about 29 days
Queen cells will produce brood in about 32 days
A queen from brood: takes about 41 days
One final reminder. New colonies and often the parent need all the help they can get. You will need to feed, feed, feed to be successful. Good luck and enjoy!