For the backyard beekeeper/hobbyist, particularly for novices, one of the things that may seem counterintuitive is the idea of rearing a new queen for your colonies. I remember when I first started beekeeping, I was terribly protective of my queen – which is not a bad thing. But there are some really good reasons why you might want to let your colony rear a new queen in mid-season.
First, let’s start with looking at the life cycle of a colony. In the wild, a colony would come out of winter, build up, and then swarm. In a simple swarm, the existing queen takes off with a bunch of workers, and establishes a new colony, leaving the old colony behind. If you look at the next few weeks in the lives of these two colonies, the swarm goes off, draws comb, and the new queen starts laying eggs. The original colony hatches a new queen, she goes off and mates, comes back, and starts laying eggs.
In both cases, there is a period of time from when the swarm occurs to when the queen can start laying, where there is no brood for either colony to support. This sounds like it would be a problem, and at another time of year, such as early in the spring, or later in the summer, it might be a problem. But this is part of the natural cycle of honeybees, and it is what comes naturally to them.
In a managed colony, such as the one in your back yard, we go to a lot of trouble to keep colonies from swarming. We have a lot of time and money invested in our bees, and we don’t want to lose our investment. But in the context of what wild bees do naturally, we’re trying to counter the natural process of the colony. I think this is where we might be getting ourselves into some trouble when it comes to keeping our colonies healthy and productive.
In 2016, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a study that compared the difference in surviveability between large, managed hives (2+ deeps) and smaller hives (1 deep). The goal was to simulate feral colonies, and their propensity to form smaller colonies, and swarm more often. In this study they allowed the colonies to swarm, and over several years, they found that the smaller colonies (which swarmed frequently) had better survival rates, primarily because they were able to keep their varroa infestations in control. They attributed at least some of the difference to a break in the brood rearing process, which interrupts the varroa life cycle, and then allows the bees to hygenically address the varroa infestation. More on this in a moment…
There is a gentleman named Mel Disselkoen who has championed a method of queen rearing called On The Spot (OTS) queen rearing. His methods are very interesting, and obviously successful for him. One of the benefits that he has discovered to requeening hives – which he does frequently, since his is raising queens – is a reduction in varroa populations. There are a number of places where he mentions this, including on the first page of this document, where he suggests that at the end of the break in brood rearing, the varroa mites are all drawn to newly-laid eggs, and so most of a colony’s mites are drawn to a small spot in the hive, where the bees can easily clean them out.
The results of the NIH study mention at the very end that their study suggests a way to manage large colonies that might afford them the same benefits that feral colonies enjoy… and Disselkoen’s findings support that: Give your bees a brood break by requeening your hive.
There are other benefits, too. When a colony experiences a brood break, it changes the division of labor in the colony. Suddenly there is an excess of adult bees that would otherwise be caring for brood. These idled bees are now available for foraging, which means that there is a larger workforce to gather nectar at a time when there is abundant nectar to be had. Another benefit is that you end up with a young, well-mated queen going into the winter.
There are a number of ways that you can requeen your colony. The best method for you depends on what you hope to achieve, and the equipment resources you have.
If you are a very small beekeeper with just a single hive, and you want to keep just a single hive, requeening is as simple as killing your existing queen. The colony will make a queen from the larva it has available to it, and in about 25 days you will have a new, mated queen.
If you have some spare equipment, and you want to create a second colony, you can do a split. There are a number of ways you can do this. For an Alaskan backyard beekeeper, this is the process I suggest: set up a nuc box with a capacity of not more than five frames. Set the nuc up so that the entrance is blocked, but the hive body is well-ventilated. Into that nuc box place a frame of capped brood along with the adult bees on that frame. Inspect the rest of the hive and look for frames with open brood, particularly with eggs and very young larva. Make sure there are at least two frames that meet that criteria. Find the queen and remove her and the frame she is on, and place it in the nuc box. If your hive is reasonably productive, and there is a frame with nectar, honey and pollen, place it in the nuc. Place empty frames in the the nuc to fill the remaining space. The goal here is to create a small colony with two frames of bees and brood, including the queen, and enough stores to get through a week or two.
If you can move the nuc to another location (a mile or more away), secure the nuc and move it there, and when it is situated, unblock the entrance. If you can’t move the nuc, leave the bees in the nuc confined for a day or two before you remove the block on the entrance. Point the entrance of the nuc in the opposite direction from the parent hive, and cover the entrance loosely with brush and grass. The idea here is to make the bees notice that the view out their window has changed, and that they need to reorient.
The result will be your original colony (now queenless, but with open brood, so they can make a new queen), and a nuc containing your old queen. The original colony will be very close to the same size as it was when you did the split, so they should have plenty of workers available for foraging. Ideally, they will have put up a lot of honey while waiting for their new queen. Your nuc should build up nicely with a laying queen and resources to increase its size.
The split method offers an advantage for the squeamish home beekeeper – in the event that something goes wrong with the queenless hive, you still have your old queen, and you could reintroduce her later on. If something goes wrong and you kill the queen while making the split, the nuc will make a new queen, too (as long as you moved the frame that the queen was on into the nuc – it will have eggs and larva on it).
One question that needs to be addressed is when should I requeen my hive? In Alaska, the window is relatively short. It starts when you start to see numerous drones and drone cells in your hive. The window ends in mid July. You don’t want to remove the queen until a new queen has a good chance of mating. The presence of drones in the early part of the season is a good indicator that other colonies also have drones. At the back end of the season, you want the queen to mate and start laying eggs before the hive starts paring down in size. Last year, a friend requeened later in the summer, and there was no sign of brood in the hive all the way up until winter. We only discovered that the queen successfully mated in the spring, when we found that the colony had survived.