One consequence of modern-day (after, say, the late 1980s) beekeeping is the sad fact that colonies die over the winter a lot oftener than they used to. This is due to the mites we've been cursed with, as well as new diseases and, some say, pesticides and loss of plant diversity. Be that as it may, when spring rolls around in the beeyard a lot of us have empty hives,called deadouts, that need to be recolonized.
A fast way to get a new colony going is to order a package of bees. This is fast, painless, and about as easy as getting stung when you stick your hand into a beehive. Packages generally contain 3 pounds of bees--10,000, more or less--and a queen. You pay your 80 bucks or so in April, get your packages, dump them into your empty hives, and that's about it. Packages have generally come from the South--Georgia, Florida--because the season is earlier there, meaning bees are revved up earlier in the spring--and tens of thousands of packages flow north every year. There've been some wrinkles getting thrown into the works regarding Southern packages recently. Africanized bees are now in Florida, and they forced a reduction in supplies from Georgia this year, as well. A couple of pests are endemic in the South which we don't need up here, such as small hive beetles. And the cost of gas makes that trip to Georgia and back more expensive than it used to be, adding to the final cost.
What's a cheap, errrrr THRIFTY beekeeper to do?
Swams are one solution. Bees throw off swarms as a way to reproduce their colonies, generally in April through June. Anybody lucky or observant enough to spot an accessible swarm can scoop it up, throw into a hive, and generally come up with a decent colony. This isn't too surefire, but when it works, it's good.
Another way is to split strong colonies, again early in the season. A hive is split onto two hivestands. The half with the queen keeps on keeping on, and the other split raises a queen. This generally reduces the risk of swarming also, since the colony strength is really reduced. This is fast and easy, and number of hives can quickly double.
Large beekeepers will graft young larvae and raise up to 60 queens at a time. This is an established business, again mostly in the South, but this is changing. Ohio beekeepers are realizing that there is a need for locally raised queens which are adapted to our conditions. Believe it or not, a healthy queen is worth $20 or more, and specially-bred breeders go for over $500 apiece.
I've been raising my own queens since my first year keeping bees. Paying for packages never appealed to me, and I don't need more than a few queens at a time to restart colonies that have died. Also, I'm generally at work when bees are swarming, and splitting hives seems to waste a lot of good potential queens. My method has evolved, and I may throw it out next year, but for now here's what I do.
I'll take the queen out of a strong colony about the time the bees seem to be thinking about swarming--hive full of bees, honey encroaching on the nest area--and put her in a single deep with enough brood and bees to keep her laying. In the meantime, the original hive starts queen cells on several frames to replace the missing queen. The hive is strong enough to raise quality replacements. I wait until these cells are capped, and then move them to nucs along with frames of brood and workers from hives not doing as well. The new queens emerge, and soon another colony is going strong.
This spring I started with 9 hives. I dequeened the strongest 3. These queens now are doing well and heading strengthening colonies of their own. I've got 6 virgin queens almost ready to make their mating flights and another 7 new laying queens in nucs. One hive still has capped queen cells waiting for a new home in nucs, and I should get another 5 or 6 queens from that hive. In total, the original 9 hives have been turned into 25 presently and probably 30 in another week. I ran out of nucs, so I converted 2 deeps into 3-frame nucs to hold the excess. I'll get pics of them here at some point. All in all, it's a method that has worked for me.
Here are some pics I've taken of the new queens, both as virgins and as brand-new laying queens. The first pic is of that Egypt Pike queen I wrote about a week ago. The dark queens in the pics are mostly her daughters, as well.
The former head of the hive that took me out of my clothes earlier this year. She was a swarm queen last year. The hive had 4 boxes of honey on it when I harvested the queen cells 10 days ago. Her daughters are the dark queens below.
These are some of the emergency queen cells a hive produces when it loses its queen. You can barely see the larva and royal jelly inside. Apparently I dented one of the caps a bit in handling, but the bees got it straightened out.
This is what you want to see when you're looking for an emerged queen. We've got a nicely formed queencell with a neat hole in the bottom. Virgins are hard to spot in a large hive, but generally they can be easily found in a small nuc. Unlike a laying queen, they can be almost anywhere in the hive, and they bounce around a lot while they are maturing. A virgin queen will look stubby compared to after she starts laying, since her ovaries have not yet matured.
The fate of any sisters to the first queen to emerge can be seen in this pic. The new queen and her eager workers rip the sides off the other cells, then drag the helpless siblings out and sting them to death. Once in awhile a beekeeper will open the hive before the queen has had a chance to off her sisters, and the undamaged queencells can be safely moved to another nuc, yielding another potential colony.