Well into February now and things are finally beginning to look up. With the evenings and mornings starting to lengthen and sunny spells becoming the norm rather than the exception, I’m beginning to detect a definite air of expectation around the apiaries. A brief look below the crown boards on the warmest days, shows the bees have briefly broken cluster and are eagerly going about their business. All this plus the pollen being collected suggests the queens are beginning to lay, always a good sign that Spring is just around the corner. I don’t spend any longer than necessary with these early inspections and haven’t yet removed any frames. I did have time to take a couple of pics which I’ll share with you.
BELOW THE CROWN BOARD ON ONE OF THE MENDIP “C” HIVES
AND ONE OF THE NUC’S.
One or two of the bees came out to see who had had the audacity to disturb them but were very placid gathering around the hive entrances, queuing to go back, in as soon as I’d replaced the roofs.
With our colony numbers sadly depleted my prime objective this year will be the production of nuc’s with which to re-populate the empty hives. Once again, I intend to use The Cloake Board method to achieve this. Although there are many other tried and tested methods of queen rearing, this one particularly appeals to me and although I’ve had only limited success in the past, mainly due to my poor grafting skills, I intend to persevere with it. Since my last attempt I’ve acquired new custom made glasses and am hopeful that they will be the difference between success and failure. Any of you familiar with the Cloake Board method of queen rearing will know that ideally you will have had your intended nursery colony over-wintered on double brood. The colony I intend to use over-wintered on brood and a half so my first task will be to get them off that and onto double brood as soon as conditions permit. The reason they were on brood and a half is that with the exception of hive 3, all of my bees in 14×12″ hives. Not having another standard brood box available at the time, I had no option other than to add a super to give them the additional space they required..
HIVE THREE CONFIGURED BROOD AND A HALF
I now have a standard brood box filled with drawn comb which as I said, I’ll get onto three as soon as possible
Chatting to a group of friends at a recent beekeeping seminar, the subject of Winter losses inevitably came up and how best to get things back on track. I mentioned that, as I had a number of hives that I wanted to re-populate, I was going to use The Cloake Board method of queen rearing. “What’s that” one immediately asked whilst another stated, “I’ve never heard of that”. It turned out that only one of the group had heard of The Cloake Board method, and he wasn’t too sure what it involved. I don’t know why this surprised me knowing how few beekeepers actually plan their queen rearing, and why should they? We all know that eventually one or more of our colonies will prepare to swarm or supersede which, if we’re looking to make an increase, will provide us with queen cells from which we can produce our new queens.The problem with this, as I see it, firstly, unless we know the exact day the queen cell was started, we can’t know when to expect our new queen to emerge can we. More importantly, if we use cells from a colony preparing to swarm, we run the risk of keeping the swarminess factor in our colonies, surely something we shouldn’t be looking to propagate. Similarly, we know the main reason why a colony looks to supersede, is because they’ve detected failings in the queen they currently have, and yet, we are considering using a queen cell produced by a queen which we know, her own colony has deemed inadequate and is looking to replace. Surely it would be much better if we could produce queens of known pedigree, in the certain knowledge of when they would emerge and in whatever quantity we require. I believe The Cloake Board method of queen rearing is as close a method to meeting those requirements as we are likely to find and I’ll show you how I go about it here at Mendip.
THE CLOAKE BOARD METHOD OF QUEEN REARING. (THE MENDIP-APIARY WAY)
The first decision is exactly what we want to achieve from this queen rearing exercise, as this will have a bearing on where we locate our nursery colony. If our requirement is solely for queen cells, then the colony can remain on it’s stand in the apiary. If on the other hand, the requirement is populated nuc’s. then the colony must be sited in an area where it is possible to surround it with the nuc’s. These will all be inward facing and forming a circle ideally no more than three metres in diameter. From a strong nursery colony we should be able to create seven or eight bearing in mind, each will require, as a minimum, one frame of brood, one of stores and ideally a frame of drawn comb. Frames can be taken from other hives if necessary but ideally the colony we’ve selected to rear our queens will be strong enough to populate however many nuc’s we intend to produce.
So, what are the basic requirements for The Cloake Board method of queen rearing? Well, as I previously stated, before we even consider this method, we need a very strong colony which ideally will have over-wintered on double brood especially if it is nuc’s that you are seeking as this colony will be used to populate therm. It will be configured “the warm way”. If necessary bee numbers can be boosted by taking frames of bees from other colonies. As the colony will require feeding throughout, use weak syrup for this, we need a bulk feeder, Ashforth, Brother Adam or similar and of course, a Cloake-board. For those of you who have never seen one, it comprises a frame, the same dimensions as a hive floor, with a slide with which to separate the two brood boxes and an adjustable opening to allow the bees access. The board will need a queen excluder which can be incorporated in the making, or as with mine, the board can be just stood on one.
MY OWN VERSION OF A CLOAKE-BOARD
This is my Cloake-board. As you can see the slide is partly out revealing the queen excluder and the adjustable opening which is a part of the slide. The block on the rear corner has a fixed opening and is inserted when the slide is removed. We said earlier that one of the main benefits of this method was that, not only did it provide us with queens of known pedigree but also the certainty of when they would emerge. To achieve this we have to provide our nursery colony with larvae of a known age and from a known source. They can be from this colony or taken from any other that exhibits the qualities that we particularly want to promote. In order to achieve this we will need some means of getting the larvae we have selected, from our donor colony, which we should have decided on well in advance, into our nursery colony. It is generally accepted that grafting provides the best results and in order to achieve this we need, at this stage, to provide ourselves with a grafting tool, most favour the Chinese variety,
CHINESE GRAFTING TOOL
and a cell frame on which to transport and grow our larvae. There are several ways of producing a cell frame, but basically it is an empty brood frame to which one or more cross bars have been fitted with cell cups attached. There are all manner of plastic cups etc. available but the method I favour is known as the Doolittle method. This involves the production of wax cups using a wooden dowel former which are then mounted onto our crossbars using a little melted wax. To produce the cups melt a little beeswax in a suitable container then, after wetting the tip of your dowel, dip it two or three times into the wax to a depth of about 3/8″. Let the wax solidify between dips then ease the cup off the dowel with your thumbnail.
WAX CUPS AND DOWEL FORMER
CUPS AFFIXED TO CROSS BARS USING A LITTLE MELTED WAX.
DAY 1. Turn the hive through 180 degrees so that the entrance faces the opposite direction. This can be difficult especially if you are on your own. A colony on double brood is a heavy brute. For this reason, and because there are other manipulations which call for a hive to be turned, I have modified a number of floors to incorporate an adjustable entrance at the rear and this colony will have been on one of these from the start.
MODIFIED FLOOR SHOWING ADJUSTABLE OPENING OPPOSITE ENTRANCE.
The next step is to re-arrange the frames so that the queen is in the bottom box along with the bulk of the sealed brood and the unsealed brood in the top box. The purpose of this is that bees in the bottom box will be attracted up into the top box by the unsealed brood. Next, insert a queen excluder with your Cloake-board on top between the two boxes without the slide and with the entrance facing forward. Insert the entrance block, close off the hive’s main entrance, fit and fill your bulk feeder. The reason for the hive being configured the warm way is because flying bees returning to the hive, finding no entrance will have to migrate up to the entrance in the Cloake-board and they will find this much easier over a flat surface.
Leave the colony like this for one week and on DAY 7, insert the slide into the Cloake-board with it’s entrance open. This will direct all returning bees into the top box which needs to be filled to overflowing with bees to ensure a successful operation. Open the top box, find and remove a frame that has no brood and a minimum of stores on and insert your cell frame, re-arrange the frames so that the cell frame is in the middle of the box. Open the rear facing entrance in the hive floor.
The following day, DAY 8, is the day we’re going to graft our larvae so, the first step is to remove the cell frame and the frame which is to provide our larvae for grafting *. The grafting process needs to be completed as soon as possible, we don’t want our larvae to get chilled neither do we want them exposed to direct sunlight where they might dry out. So, having decided where our grafting is going to take place, the location of which should have been decided on well in advance, the first step is to prop our frame of brood up, angled in such a way as to allow us to see down into the bottom of the combs. We are looking for brood, ideally newly hatched and if not, certainly less than three days old after which they will no longer be viable. Remember, the age of this brood will determine the day that we can harvest our queen-cells. Generally the best place to look will be next to a clump of eggs. As a rule of thumb, the larvae will be about the size of a lower case comma and floating on a bed of royal jelly. Having located your larvae, the next step is to transfer them, one by one, to your cell frame, so, taking your grafting tool in one hand, and approaching the larvae from the rear, that is to say, the curvy side, gently slide the tip of the tool under the larvae and transfer it to the cell frame. The royal jelly you will pick up with the larvae will enable you to slide the larvae off the tool and into it’s new home. Because, very obligingly, queens lay in quite large batches, having found one suitable larvae, there will always be several close by, so, if there’s a chance that you have damaged one, discard it and take another. The next step is to get the frames back into their respective boxes. Before inserting your cell frame back into the top box, have a quick check for queen cells. There shouldn’t be any, but if you do find anything resembling one, remove it. The bees in the top box, having effectively been queenless for twenty four hours will by now, be desperate to produce one. A measure of which they exhibit by the speed with which they locate and cover the cell frame, they are usually on the frame before you start lowering it into the box and by the time it is in place, it’s usually covered in bees. This is, of course, exactly what we want in order to ensure the very best quality queens, hundreds of bees, all queuing up to pump royal jelly into our larvae.
Examination of our nursery colony the following day, DAY 9, should reveal the bees should have begun enlarging the cells housing the grafts. It’s not necessary to completely remove the frame, just withdraw it far enough to reveal the cells. One thing you will be amazed by is just how many bees can get onto one cell frame. They seem to be clambering over each other in an effort to get to the larvae and will ignore you completely. Don’t worry about a few failures, hopefully you will have prepared more grafts than queens you actually wanted. After re-inserting the frame, remove the Cloake-board slide and insert the block, close the entrance in the hive floor. At every visit, check and if necessary, top up the feeder.
The queen cells will be sealed by DAY 13. Other than keep an eye on the feeder, nothing to do until DAY 16. Time to locate and remove the queen, along with the frame she is on. Place her along with a frame of brood from another colony, a couple of frames of foundation and a frame feeder of syrup into a nuc. and take her to another site, far enough away so there’s no chance flying bees from our nursery hive finding her.
The following day, DAY 17 is the day we’ve been waiting for. Today is the day we complete our part of the exercise. A glance at our cell frame will tell us how many of our grafts have been successful and this will determine how many nuc’s will be required. Remember the object of this exercise is to provide us with the best possible queens so, discard any cells which are miss-shapen or puny looking. If you are fortunate enough to have more finished cells than you have nuc’s. for, they can always go into your mating nuc’s. or if not, a couple of ‘phone calls will usually find grateful homes for them.
So, to the nuc’s. Each will require as a minimum, one frame of brood and one of stores, fill the remaining spaces with frames of comb or foundation. As each nuc. will require feeding until they have become established, you will need a contact or preferably, frame feeder for each one. So, having prepared a nuc. carefully remove a queen cell from the cell frame, sliding a sharp blade along the bar will easily facilitate this. Using your thumb carefully gouge a short vertical groove in the centre of the brood frame and place the queen cell in it, gently moulding the wax around it to lock it in place. Alternatively, you can use a cell protector if you prefer. Keep the cell right way up and be gentle with it, the last thing we want to do after all this effort is to risk damaging her. Repeat this until you have filled all of your nuc’s and the nursery hive is empty of anything they can make use of, obviously any brood or stores but even frames the bees haven’t yet started will be preferable to frames of cold foundation.
Finally, arrange the nuc’s in a circle around the nursery hive, entrances facing inwards and remove the hive back to it’s place in the apiary. Any bees still in the hive will, on leaving, fly back to the place in the centre of the nuc’s which they have just vacated, as will any flying bees and from there, will find their way into the nuc’s. We know exactly when our new queens will emerge, in three days time, DAY 20, so just a case now of visiting our nuc’s before then, closing them up and removing them to their final location. The Cloake-Board method of queen rearing is an excellent method of producing top quality queens and if it’s not being used to produce nuc’s., can be repeated throughout the season. Provided you have given sufficient care to your grafting and observed the timing of the various manipulations, you can reasonably expect to achieve in the reason of 95% success. Good luck!
* If you don’t fancy the idea of grafting your larvae, an alternative is to produce wax plugs containing your larvae which you affix to your cell frame in exactly the same way as the Doolittle cups. From then on, the method of rearing is exactly the same. To harvest the plugs you will need a short length of copper pipe or similar about 1/4″ in diameter. Having located your frame of suitable larvae it’s just a case of pressing the pipe down over a cell, twisting it and withdrawing the cell complete with larvae. All that is required now, is to remove the cell from the pipe, trim it to length and fix it to your cell frame.