Initial Splits

We’ve had an eventful weekend in the bee yards, and things are moving along a little more quickly than expected. We’ve been watching the weather and looking at Wednesday of this week for splits, and the bees are on the same schedule. We learned a lot about bee math and swarms when our Love colony swarmed last year. Swarming is the way bees reproduce, so in a successful colony they will generally try to issue one or two waves of swarms. The primary swarm contains the overwintered queen. In preparation for swarming they will feed the queen less to slim her down for flying. They will also build queen cups to hold the queens that will contend to replace her.

This is where knowing the lifecycle of bees is really important. It takes around 7.5 days for a queen cell to be capped. This is 3 days as an egg, just as with a worker bee, then the remaining time as a larva in royal jelly. When the cell is capped (and the larva pupates) the bees no longer need to feed the developing queen, and the swarm departs with the overwintered queen and a portion of the bees in the colony. They do not wait for the new queens to hatch. It’s also important to realize that all of the numbers are just estimates. The temperature of the brood nest can also change the speed of development, and in warm weather everything can move along a bit more quickly.

The Honey Bee Lifecycle, from Wikipedia

TypeEggLarvaCell cappedPupaAverage developmental period(Days until emergence)Start of fertilityBody lengthHatching weight
Queenup to day 3up to day 8½day 7½day 8 until emergence16 daysday 23 and up18–22 mmnearly 200 mg
Workerup to day 3up to day 9day 9day 10 until emergence (day 11 or 12 last moult)21 days(range: 18–22 days)N/A12–15 mmnearly 100 mg
Droneup to day 3up to day 9½day 10day 10 until emergence24 daysabout 38 days15–17 mmnearly 200 mg

The bees that remain in the original hive after the swarm departs will continue tending to the brood in the colony and wait for the queen(s) to emerge. When the queens are ready to emerge, the workers decide what happens. They will either allow the queens to fight to the death, kill queens in other cells, and remain in the colony, OR, they will keep the peace between multiple virgin queens until they are ready to fly, and issue multiple swarms, each with a virgin queen. The new queens will take their nuptial flights after finding a new location.

Because we don’t want bees in trees all over town, where they are more likely to be killed than to survive, we follow their process to expand, pre-empting them a little. It’s similar to providing a safe nest for a broody hen – a fine balance between allowing them to follow their instincts and ensuring their safety in the city.

On Friday we did inspections and moved several of the queens out of their colonies since they were preparing to swarm imminently.

The queen that we call the “Queen Mother” came to us as a captured swarm in 2017, split in 2018 to create 4 more colonies and still produced over 100 pounds of surplus honey and the drawn comb we’ve used to jumpstart all of our colonies this year. The colony has been growing quickly and on inspection we discovered a queen cup with royal jelly which indicates that it was at least 4 days along, which means that the bees would likely swarm just after the rainy weather this week. Tomorrow, for example. Luckily, we’d just seen the queen on the previous frame and we pulled that out of the colony with several frames of capped brood, honey, pollen and drawn comb, all covered in nurse bees. We then “swarmed” her into a new box in a different part of the yard.

Foragers that moved with her will mostly return to the original hive location and she will be left with young bees that build out new comb quickly, as with a natural swarm. She will continue to build up her new colony throughout the season. The queenless bees remaining will produce new queens – and will use a variety of tactics including moving eggs into empty queen cells and starting with just-hatched larvae which speeds the process up by three days. We will put the frames with queen cells into new boxes with brood, honey and nurse bees once they are capped. We did the same with two other colonies and expect to finish the rest, who weren’t as far along, on Tuesday.

The other major thing that we are tracking is drone fertility, since virgin queens will need to have fertile drones flying when they take their nuptial flights. We saw capped drone cells in late March, which means that those drones will be fertile this week, and in the next two weeks we will have more and more ready to mate. Drones emerge at 24 days, but take another 2 weeks to lounge around the hive and orient before they are fertile. So drones emerging now will be fertile when the new queens are ready to mate. Queens won’t mate with drones from their colony, but the drone fertility timetable will be similar for other local colonies.

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