May 26th

A sunny day around 20 Celsius and the entrance was bustling with activity. Some deep red pollen from horse chestnut as well as a pale yellow pollen coming into the hive. The red pollen can be seen at the very begining of this video:

There appeared to be some backfilling going on. The top box is steadily filling up with honey and the middle box had large quantities of nectar and pollen mixed in with the brood.

Hive getting congestedPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

They have finally moved into the bottom box.

Hive getting congestedPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

What we hadn't previously noted was that the majority of the bottom box is large sized honey comb, as a result this box is being used for nectar not brood despite its location on the bottom of the hive and some darkness on the comb.

Hive getting congestedPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

There were a good number of queen cups scattered around the top two boxes.

Hive getting congestedPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

We're itching to split this hive, but decided to wait and see if we get an egg in a queen cup soon. As the bottom box seems to be preferred by the bees for honey, we moved it to the top, and added a new box to the bottom for them to start building. We're not too sure how quickly they will start building comb, but we don't expect it will be fast enough to keep up with the demand for proper laying space. In an ideal world we'll have a few fresh combs started and some developing queens in a week or so that we can turn into two hives.

We do see signs of chalk brood here and there, but not much. This is a pretty neat and tidy hive. Not many mites or anything else on the bottom board.

Along with the new box I also swaped in one of my new bottom boards and removed the entrance reducer (In the video at the top of the page you can see that the bees are still returning mostly to the far right).

It's often stated that swarm cells are on the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells are built in the middle of the comb. This may not always be the case.

Emergency Queen Cells

Certainly, if a hive feels they are queenless they may try to make an emergency queen from eggs laid in regular worker comb. Emergency queen cells are structurally different than swarm or supercedure cells. You should be able to tell that the cell was made as an extension of a regular worker brood cell. We can see few examples of emergency cells in this photo:

Emergency queen cellsPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Queen Cells Used During Supercedure and Swarming Look Identical

But a hive will often have proper queen cups ready at the bottom or middle of frames which may be used for either supersedure or swarming. So, rather than the appearance or location of the cell, one must think about the wider context of the hive to figure out what the bees are trying to do.

For example, the following picture shows a frame with a good number of bees, a queen cup with an egg on the comb near the middle-right of the frame, and the brood nest in the process of being back-filled with nectar.

backfilling the broodnestPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Let Context be Your Guide

In the case above we are looking at a strong hive building up and things are getting congested between a queen that is laying well and increasing honey stores. It's best to assume the bees want to swarm. By the way, did you spot the current queen in the above photo? Click here for a closer look.

Other Beekeepers That Have Dispelled This Myth

Walt Wright has also suggested a larger quantity of queen cups/cells or queens in a wide variety of stages of development, with the first queen laid at the periphery and subsequent queens laid across the brood nest, is indicative of swarming. Whereas a supersedure tends to be just a few queens all laid at about the same time on the periphery of the brood nest.

The myths about supersedure cells run so deep in beekeeping literature that you still may not be convinced after having read both my post and the preceding link, so I will also offer you this link to David Cushman's perspective on the topic.

Spring has finally arrived. Several days of warm weather have brought out the dandelions, weeping willows, the first maples and I noticed one strawberry flower in front of the hive. Good amount of activity at the entrance. Bees were bringing back bright orange pollen.

A closer look above the hive entrance showed signs of bee poo. This was here before we took the winter solar wrap off. Bees were venturing between the box and the wrap to do their business. It seems like a small amount and hasn't increased since the last visit so I won't worry too much about it.

Dysentry under the winter wrap?Photo by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

A strong buzz of disaproval as we removed the top box, but the colony displayed its typically placid nature for the remainder of the inspection.

The top box contained two combs of capped honey and at least a few frames with some capped brood.

top boxPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

The middle box also had a couple combs of honey, and at least 4-5 combs with plenty of capped brood, eggs, larvae.

middle boxPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

There were gaps here and there in the capped brood, which were all full with nectar, pollen or eggs.

gaps in the laying patternPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

We did spot some some odd critters nestled around one top bar. They seem to have moulted out of a stripped 'skin', which doesn't look quite like what we'd expect from wax moth or small hive beetle.

odd larvaePhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

The bottom box didn't seem to have much going on other than small amounts of pollen in the comb I removed.

random cells of pollen in the bottom boxPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

The bottom board was full of all kinds of the expected things after winter. There were a few more dead bees than shown in the photo, but it seems they must have been able to clear out many bodies themselves through the long narrow entrance reducer I used.

bottom boardPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

They seem to be building up steadily and should really get going in the next week or two as the small apple orchard on the other side of the field comes into bloom.

Today was our first opportunity to see our bees since last October. We also wanted to move them out to a new location. We'd been borrowing space from a generous beekeeper friend while we secured a location of our own.

As they were a rather heavy strong colony going into winter, I expected them to make it through. I had, however, spent a good deal of time worrying that the normal buildup of dead winter bees or snow may have blocked off the small winter entrances I had left them causing the trapped bees to suffocate. I left them a few openings of about (~6.5-7mm)

entrance reducerPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

I didn't hear any buzzing through the thick walls, but a look in the observation widow in the top box showed bees running around out of cluster despite the cool and wet weather. The high for the day was 7 degrees celcius. Hooray they survived!

warré window after winterPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

The hive still had a fairly reasonable weight, the bottom box was light, and though I could lift the top two boxes on my own, it was not with great ease. Most, but not all, of what little comb I caught a peak of, had been uncapped. With cool temptrature and rain in the forcast for weeks it does make me wonder if they will need extra food before the flowers start to flow.

Next we prepared the move. We ran a wire between the first and second box to separate the comb and quickly placed screened boards between them. A few bees came out from the bottom box to show their disapproval with this intrusion. A little different than the calm relaxed disposition they displayed all the previous summer. Another screened board on top, duct tape to seal any gaps and then we used ratchet straps to keep the different hive sections tight together.

Getting ready to seperate the parts for transportPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

We loaded them into the back with combs facing parallel the wheels, and slightly propped up the two box stack with the vent board on the bottom for a little extra ventilation for the bees.

Bee hive packed into trunkPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

ratchet straps and venilated cover for transporting bee hivePhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

For some reason the bottom box had many more concerned bees coming up to the vent holes. Perhaps there were more bees in that box? Maybe the queen was in the other boxes and they were more distressed?

Just as we were ready to unload a heavy downpour commenced. Our car subsequently got stuck in the muddy road. Bees tend to be in the hive on days like this, but there are certainly drawbacks to hive work on rainy days. Sun is certainly our preference.

Stuck in the farm field in the rainPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

After a little waiting we had them set up in their new home:

Bees all set up in the new homePhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

We mistakenly rotated the orientation of the top two boxed in regards to the bottom box 180 degrees. 🙁 hope that doesn't confuse them too much. We took out the entrance reducer and tried to scrape out the bottom board. The number of dead bees didn't appear to be excessive. We did observe a fair number of mites in the debris.

The classic, and still the most definitive text on the subject is 'Swarming Its Control and Prevention' by L. E. Snelgrove.

Snelgrove's recommended approach to swarm prevention involves keeping lots of space in the brood box for the queen to lay. Once queen cells are observed, his strategy involves separating the flying bees from the house bees. To achieve this separation, he designed what is now called the Snelgrove board, a simple yet clever piece of equipment that allows you to divide bees within the same hive.

The result of using a Snelgrove board is basically an artificial swarm or split, however, his approach allows for a little more flexibility, particularly if increases are not desired and you plan on recombining the split later. On the downside, you do need to spend a little time opening and closing entrances a few different times over the course of a number of days. If you don't want to bother with Snelgrove's particular technique you will still benefit from reading his book as it is provides a comprehensive look at honeybee reproduction behaviour, and how beekeeper interventions can alter their behaviour.

Queen cells
Queen cells on a new foundationless comb. Via flickr

In addition to his own method, the 112 page book also provides the authors opinion on the pros and cons of other swarm control approaches.

Caution. Those tempted to avert swarming by the destruction of queen cells should pay special attention to the comments on pg. 57 of Snelgrove's book. He observed that after queen cells are destroyed one may find new capped queen cells as soon as four days later since the bees may use existing young worker larvae to replace the damaged cells.

This blog post on swarm prevention by Michael Bush is another quick and simple explanation of the behaviour leading up to a swarm and what you can do to prevent swarming.

Essentially, Mr.Bush is also all about keeping the brood box open and giving the bees enough space up to the point where you see queen cells. You need to keep an eye out for backfilling. This means checking if the size of the brood nest is diminishing as a result of the colony filling cells where brood has emerged with nectar. As an example, the following photo shows a large section of nectar in the middle of a brood frame

backfilling the broodnest

Keep in mind that you may see a similar behaviour during an intense flow. The bees may initially store nectar quickly in any available cell. They will then move it up above the brood shortly afterwards. So some nectar near brood isn't necessarily anything to worry about, but If they don't move it upwards, then you should expect queen cells are coming.

Tips. You may also want to consider if there's anything you can do to help the bees cure the nectar into honey faster (As moisture is evaporated from nectar it requires less storage space). Many will tell you to increase upper ventilation during a flow, while a few might tell you otherwise.

If the bees are backfilling during the reproductive swarm period, it is suggested to create space in the brood nest itself. Simply adding honey supers may not be enough as the bees may need more brood space rather than honey space.

Once you see queen cells or eggs in queen cups, decide if they are swarm rather than supercedure cells. As I keep hives in urban areas where a swarm can be particularly unwelcome by neighbours, I tend to error on the side of caution and always assume it's a swarm cell.

Egg in a queen cup

Caution. Once swarm cells are laid in, splitting, or artificial swarming, is the most effective recourse remaining to prevent a swarm. At this point it becomes extremely difficult to change the plans made by your colony by simply destroying cells and adding more space. The older the age of the developing queen the harder it will be to change the colonie's mind.

Here's a video of a Michael Bush giving a lecture on the subject:

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A few years ago Dave Barr introduced me to the concept of Growing degree days(GDD), a calculation of accumulated heat that helps you to predict the blossoming of plants and trees with pretty good accuracy. It's no subsititute for physically looking around you and taking note of what is in bloom, but following the GDD might help predict the timing of flows and corresponding seasonal bee behaviour.

See wikipedia for a detailed explanation on how the calculation is made and flowering time of various plants.

Use this calculator to check the GDD for your area. All GDD references are given using base 10 throughout the rest of this post.

The spring has been excessively warm this year in Toronto. We jumped up to 25 C GDD in the last week. The average for this time of year is 0 C GDD and in 2010, which seemed like a warm early spring at the time, we were only at 3.5 C GDD. Normally this might be a bit early for silver/freeman maples, but just as you would expect from our current GDD, they are just finishing their bloom

freeman maple and native bee

and the native collettes have emerged in time to profit from them and mate:

What I have noticed over the past few years is that bees will start returning to the hive with full pollen baskets as the growing degree days rise just above 0 C.

full pollen basket on honey bee

One of the more detailed theories on bee behaviour in early spring I've been able to find is on Michael Bush's site. It attempts to relate certain changes in hive behaviour to bloom times. You may be in a different region than Michael, and things may progress at an unusual rate this year, but I think it will be interesting to keep an eye out for any of the correlations he mentions in the next month or two.

ex:

- If the brood nest starts contracting before the peak of the apple blossoms - they may be switching from buildup to swarm preparation. Look for backfilling, or patches of nectar surrounded by brood like in the photo below.

backfilling the broodnest

- When the Black locust blooms (140 C-160 C GDD) should be the start of the main flow and the interest in initiating a swarming should be reduced.

- Established colonies start making white wax shortly afterwards.

My hypothesis is, that for here in Ontario, around 70-100 C GDD might be a good time to look for the first signs of swarming preperation, with Queen eggs most likely appearing around 115-160 C GDD. However, I imagine with the large amount of stores the bees still have after what was a mild winter, they could run out of space even before this.

Update 2012: Short mild winter, I saw the first queen egg in one of my hives at 64.5 GDD. You can get a quick peek of it behind the bees:

The first swarm in my area was a few days later at 65.5 GDD or about three weeks after the dandelions first bloom, two weeks after the apples and at about the time the lilac trees were in bloom.

forsythia swarm

2013: I observed eggs and larvae in queen cups at 88.5 GDD. A little under a week after the apple blooms, two weeks after the dandelions and about the time the lillacs bloomed, but it's possible they were supercedure cells. It was a cool and wet spring, and I'm not sure there was very many reproductive swarms. I did find a feral colony that had moved in sometime before 95 GDD, but the first report of an actual swarm in the area did not come till around 265 GDD.

2014: Very, very cold winter, with a long cool spring. First report of a queen cell came from a friend around 50 GDD at the time the apple bloom started and two weeks after the dandelions. The first swarm report I heard reported came four weeks later at 252 GDD, about a week after the black locust bloom.

Bees collect water for a variety of reasons. Its use in keeping the hive cool during hot summer days was rather intuitive to me. One spring I watched them visit a near by marsh in great numbers:

Why was water such a popular commodity during this cool time of year? It's thought that honey bees use water to help dilute thick honey stores in the spring as well as to aid in flushing out metabolic waste, and raising brood requires a certain amount of humidity.

The above video would suggest the algae both provided a good safe landing pad for the bees and held a good amount of moisture for the bees to drink from.

I also noticed other bees sucking up moisture from the mulch of a recently irrigated tree nursery:

Other bees did well on wet rocks:

bee on rock

But elsewhere the bees seemed to have had a fair bit of trouble:

drowning bees

These drownings may have been due to less stable terrain around the deeper water, miscalulating a landing, wind or even a result of dealing with other antagonistic insects:

It's no wonder beekeepers often take the trouble to try make their bees a specialized drinking spot.

If you'd prefer your bees to use one source of water over another, a consideration particularly relevant to urban beekeepers who might operate near public pools, be sure to get them used to your source from the start of the season. It's thought to be difficult to stop bees from visiting a water source once they have gotten used to it.

For an unusual approach to keeping moisture in the hive in dry climates, check out the insightful experiment of providing water within the hive outlined here by Dennis Murrell of Bee Natural.

Early spring 2011 I walked right past the nesting grounds of what I now believe could be cellophane bees or colletes inaequalis. They were flying very rapidly around some loose sandy soil on a steep forest slope, so without taking a good look I just assumed they were flies.

It was only when I looked at the blooms of the freeman maple standing at the top of the slope that I realized what was happening.

freeman maple and native beePhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

As the first trees had started to bloom the entire hill side had suddenly sprung to life and I felt lucky that this marvel had not completely slipped past my attention.

These bees are also known as mining bees. They are solitary bees which live in individual ground burrows, but many of these bees will set up home right along side each other.

colletes nest areaPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

When I looked closer at that sandy slope I was able to watch them dig out their homes:

and mate:

I left with a strong reminder to slow down and pay closer attention to the marvellous things happening in front of me.