Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Strengthening a Weak Colony

This time of year it is critical that your colonies are strong enough to raise brood. A colony with a low population can not keep the center of their cluster warm enough to raise brood. The only way to get the queen to start laying again is to add more bees to have a larger and tighter cluster with adequate core temperature for incubating brood. If bees become protein deficient, from not having an incoming source of pollen or bee bread in the comb, they lose their ability to produce royal jelly, which all larvae is fed during the early stages of development. Since the larvae can not be fed and dies, the protein deficient bees will eat them from the cells in order to clean the cell and for a source of protein. In a case like this you may think that your queen has failed when the old worker bees with protein deficiency are to blame. The addition of young nurse bees is vital at this point to ensure colony survival.

I had two colonies which ended up being really weak over the course of the winter. I discovered that these two colonies were not doing as good as they should be when I put pollen patties on them two weeks ago. At that time, I also seen which colonies would be strong enough to take some frames of brood and young bees to add to the weaker colonies. I finally got the chance to strengthen the two weak colonies yesterday.

Pictured below is one of the weak colonies. This colony performed well over the season last year as I made two nucs from it and gathered three shallow supers of honey. The queen looks as yet she has to be fed in order for her to start raising brood. Adding more bees which are already in build up mode, they will definitely begin feeding the queen and get her to start laying. The upper deep is packed with capped honey and has plenty of stores available for when the colony kicks into high gear raising brood in a few weeks from the addition of brood and young bees which will only help to raise more brood and feed the queen.

The next picture is of the donor colony that was selected to donate some bees and brood. The bees had been eating the pollen patty that I placed in it two weeks ago. This colony had six frames of bees in the lower deep and about six frames of bees about half way up the upper deep so I'm sure that it can spare two frames of bees and brood.

The absolute most important thing to do when taking frames of brood with bees to add to another queenright colony is to locate the queen so that she is not transferred to the other colony. If this would happen the two queens would fight to the death. The colony from which the queen was taken would become queenless. There is larvae of appropriate age from which a new queen could be raised, but this time of year it is likely that the new queen could not become mated any time soon due to the shortage of drones. It takes a queen approximately 23 days from day one as an egg to become fertile and ready to mate. From day one as an egg it takes about 38 days for a drone to become fertile and ready to mate with the queen. It would take up to five and a half weeks for the queen to become mated if drones eggs have been laid.

In the picture below you can see the queen as well as some capped drone brood. Drone cells are capped at ten days, so if I would of removed the queen it would still take a month to have a mated queen in this colony. Four weeks of no brood rearing would set this hive back dramatically. This is why it is important to isolate the frame which contains the queen so that she stays where she belongs.

The queen is on the lower left hand corner of the frame and the capped drone brood is to her right. It looks as if the colony has already hatched out some drones but I did not waste any time trying to locate any in the colony as I was pressed for time. You can click on the picture to enlarge it to get a better view of the queen, drone brood, and worker brood which is closer to the center of the frame. You can also see some of the newly emerged bees as they appear fuzzier than the old bees.

After locating the frame with the queen and setting it aside I needed to chose two frames of capped brood with young bees to add to the weak colony. I made space in the weak colony by removing two drawn frames with some honey and some empty space to add back to the donor colony. The frame pictured below was chosen due to the amount of capped brood and young bees on it.

Before placing the donor frame into the weak colony I sprayed each side of the frame to lightly coat the bees with a Essential Oil Scent Masking Syrup. I made a gallon of 1:1 inverted syrup and added somewhere between twenty-five to thirty drops of spearmint essential oil to act as the masking agent. You can click on the picture to enlarge it to see the bees being sprayed.

The bees in the recipient colony also got sprayed with the masking syrup. The weak colony only had a small cluster of bees on three frames. Pictured below is the weak colony after adding one frame of brood and bees. The first frame on the left is a honey frame. The second frame is one which was originally in the colony and contained only a small number of bees. The third frame from the left is a donor frame with brood and bees. The fourth frame contains the queen and some bees from the weak colony.

After adding another donor frame and the last frame from the weak colony to complete the process, the lower deep of the weak colony looks a lot better and the chance of survival has exceedingly increased.

The donor colony still looks good though its frames of bees and brood in the lower brood chamber have been lowered by 33%. All that was left to do was to put the upper hive body back onto the lower one and to lay the lids in place.

I had been wanting to strengthen this colony for going on two weeks and finally caught a chance to do so. The weather was borderline flying weather and the bees were a little temperamental from being disturbed while in the cluster. I'm glad I finally got the chance to strengthen colony as I have been worrying about it every time I think about the bees. I really could not have picked a better time to have done it. After I finished with both colonies it began to rain which confined the bees to the colony. The young bees would of stayed with the brood anyway but some of the older bees could have returned to their original hive and recruited other bees to help rob out the weaker colony. This has happened to me before. I was prepared to screen the entrance if I needed to but the rain made a better screen than I could have. Also with using the masking syrup the bees did not fight with one another and began grooming each other to clean the syrup off of their bodies. If I could not have accomplished this task when I did the two weak colonies could have died out before the weather would have been cooperative again. Below is a picture of what the colonies look like today. Snow and lower temperatures make good screen too. Once it warms up the bees will have become accustomed to their new home and I should see some orientation flights taking place as the young bees take to the air for their first time.

When I added the frames to the weak colonies I made sure that at least one donor frame contained some eggs. I did this just in case the queens had failed and needed to be superseded. Also if something would happen to the queens, like being balled by the new bees which were added, the workers would have some young larvae of the appropriate age to raise a new emergency queen from. I will be raising some queens this spring and the queens in these two colonies will be replaced from my feral stock.

Hopefully by reading this you will take the initiative to strengthen your weak colonies so that they can survive through the winter. I know some of you may think that this may be a little drastic but I feel it is much better than to simply sit back and watch my bees dwindle away to nothing or to go out to a dead out just to look in and say that they starved (like I have in the past). By inspecting your colonies and strengthening your weak ones until they can be requeened your percentage of successfully overwintered colonies will increase. Thanks.