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MANAGING COLONIES FOR HIGH-HONEY YIELDS

By F. E. MOELLER(1)

BEEKEEPING IN THE UNITED STATES
AGRICULTURE HANDBOOK NUMBER 335
Revised October 1980
Pages 64 – 72

Colonies of bees existing in the wild, away from the control of human beings, will produce small surplus crops of honey above their requirements for survival. Such surplus will vary, depending on the region or locality, but will seldom exceed 25 to 30 pounds. In the same area and with the same nectar resources, colonies properly managed will produce surplus honey crops exceeding 100 pounds. Intensive two-queen colony management often can result in surplus crops of 300 pounds or more with the same resources available. The key to these differences is management.

Proper management employs practices that harmonize with the normal behavior of bees and brings the colony to its maximum population strength at the start of the bloom of major nectar-producing plants. Management practices are similar in basic principle wherever bees are kept and vary only as regards timing for the desired nectar source of the region or locality concerned.

Honey bee biology is constant. Bees respond to their environment as temperatures and food supplies are changed. Beekeepers, in managing or manipulating colonies, are merely facilitating normal biological colony changes to suit their purpose. They can accelerate brood rearing by pollen feeding and hive manipulation, or they can crowd or restrict colony activity by certain other manipulations. Responses of the colony, wherever it is kept, are predictable. Thus, the basic handling, management, and manipulation of bees are universally similar, varying only as to localities and the timing of bloom of the major nectar and pollen plants.

Regardless of the type of hives or equipment used, proper management aims at providing colonies with unrestricted room for brood rearing, ripening of nectar, and storage of honey, plus provision of adequate food requirements, both pollen and honey, for the time of year concerned. Swarming is minimized and the storing instinct encouraged when proper management is used.

(1) Research entomologist, Science and Education Administration (deceased).

Preparing Colony for New Season

In the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, August to October is the time when beekeepers prepare their colonies for the coming year. This is when the major honey flows are usually past and the bees must be made ready for the coming winter.

All queens of questionable performance with only a small amount of brood of irregular pattern (fig. 1, A) should be replaced. Frequently, the bees of the colony will replace or supersede queens of subnormal performance even before the beekeeper senses a problem. Some queens may be satisfactory in their second year; queens less than a year old are usually best.

FIGURE 1. – Queens with (A) irregular and (B) good brood pattern.

To requeen a colony, certain principles of queen acceptance must be borne in mind: (1) Strong colonies more reluctantly accept a queen than weaker ones, (2) temperamental bees are more reluctant to accept a new queen than gentle bees, (3) young bees accept a queen more readily than older bees, (4) the colony to be requeened should first be made queenless, and (5) the queen to be introduced should be in egg-laying condition.

There is less risk in requeening a colony by giving it a laying queen with some of her own brood and bees than by giving it a queen in a shipping cage. A new or valuable queen should first be introduced into a small colony or divisions of one in a queen-shipping cage. After she is laying, the small colony can be united with a large one.

A drone-laying queen can be replaced if she is discovered while the colony is still strong. If the colony is weak, the bees should be removed and the equipment added to another colony.

Assuming colony conditions and the condition of the queen are favorable, the effect of environmental or working conditions and the time of year are factors that affect queen acceptance. Best acceptance is usually obtained when some nectar is available in the field.

One possible period for requeening is during the broodless period of late fall. Queens are easily introduced at this time, and the bees are passive to their presence. However, the uncertainty of the weather, the difficulty of finding old and shrunken queens, and the danger of inciting robbing make this time of year less desirable for requeening than the summer.

Brood rearing declines in late summer and fall, and many normal colonies are completely broodless during much of November and December, particularly if the colony has no pollen. Older queens stop brood rearing sooner than younger queens.

Brood rearing should be encouraged as late in the season as possible. This can be assured by providing vigorous young queens in late summer, by preventing undue overcrowding and restriction of the brood nest with honey, and by encouraging pollen storage.

In areas where fall honey flows occur, partially filled supers should be kept on the colonies, especially if the brood nest is heavy

If brood rearing is restricted by a crowded brood nest or because of poor queens, the colony may enter the winter with a high percentage of old bees that will die early in the winter. Such colonies may later develop serious nosema infections and perish before spring. A colony should start the winter with about 10 pounds of bees and plenty of honey to carry it to the next spring.

Beekeepers in certain localities will need to think of winter stores for their colonies as early as the first of August if later honey flows are not dependable or are nonexistent. In October, colonies should have at least 45 pounds of honey in dark combs in the top brood chamber and 20 to 30 pounds of honey in each of two lower hive bodies – a total of at least 90 pounds of honey.

Preparing Colony for Winter

Population

The strength of a colony of bees is relative and difficult to describe. A “strong” colony to one beekeeper might be “weak” to another. Colonies with less than 10 pounds of bees should be united to stronger ones or several weaker ones combined. At between 40º and 50ºF, 10 pounds of bees will cover practically all the combs of a three-story standard hive wall to wall and top to bottom. Naturally, as the temperature drops, the cluster will contract.

The beekeeper must see that at no time is the available space for brood rearing reduced because of overcrowding with honey from the fall flow. A balance must be maintained between crowding the colony to get the brood chambers well filled with honey and adding space to relieve brood-rearing restriction. Partly filled supers kept on colonies in the fall may be necessary. Any subnormal colony should not be overwintered but united with another colony.

A colony may appear to have an adequate fall population, but if the bees are old, it will weaken rapidly as winter advances and may starve to death. Starvation occurs even with abundant honey in the hive because the cluster is too small to cover the honey stores.

Food Reserves

The colony should have a minimum of 500 square inches of comb filled with pollen in the fall. To insure uninterrupted brood rearing in late winter and early spring, the beekeeper may need to supplement these stores. The average colony of bees under intensive management may consume about 60 pounds of honey between the last flow in the fall and the first available food from the field in the spring. A weak colony may consume 20 pounds or less, but the very best colony will consume 80 pounds or more. To insure the survival of the top-quality colony, 90 to 100 pounds of honey should be left on it in the fall. A colony of bees not rearing brood will average about one-eighth pound of honey a day or 4 pounds a month. When brood rearing begins, the consumption of honey is greatly accelerated. Brood rearing should start in midwinter and accelerate as temperatures moderate in late winter and early spring.

When brood rearing is discouraged or curtailed, the colony will consume less winter stores but will emerge in the spring much weaker and with a population of primarily old bees. Such colonies will have difficulty replacing the small amount of honey they used over winter, whereas other colonies that have had normal, unimpeded rearing of brood will soon be able to replace all the honey they consumed over winter plus a substantial surplus.

Organization

To accommodate the best queens in standard Langstroth 10-frame hives, a minimum of 2 hive bodies, preferably three, should be used for year-round management. In the fall, most of the honey should be located in the top hive body. With experience, the beekeeper can soon learn to estimate the weight of hive bodies or frames by lifting them. A frame full of honey should weigh approximately 5 pounds. The top hive body should contain 40 to 45 pounds of honey. This means that all frames in the top hive body will be full of honey except for two or three frames in the center. The second body should contain 25 to 30 pounds of honey and some pollen. The bottom hive body should contain 20 to 30 pounds of honey plus pollen. If in the fall the combs in the top hive body are not filled, the beekeeper should reorganize them and if necessary feed additional sugar syrup so that this top hive body is well filled with stores.

As the winter progresses, the cluster of bees will shift its position upward as the stores are consumed. A colony of bees in a cold climate can starve with abundant honey in the hive if the honey is below the cluster.

With the advent of cold weather, the bees cluster tightly in the interspaces of the combs. Usually there are no bees in the bottom part of the hive near the entrance. For this reason, an entrance cleat or reducer should he used to exclude mice, such as 1-inch auger holes drilled into the hive bodies of the brood nest just below the hand-holds. In late summer, these auger-hole entrances are closed with corks so that the bees will fill the combs near them. During winter the top auger-hole entrance should be open. This allows the escape of moisture-laden air and affords a flight exit for the bees during warm spells (fig. 2).

FIGURE 2. - Colony during winter. Note auger-hole entrance (arrow).

FIGURE 2. - Colony during winter. Note auger-hole entrance (arrow).

Packing the Hive

Many beekeepers in the coldest parts of the country consider that some form of protection around the hive is essential. Others believe that colonies with strong populations and ample stores need no further protection. Factors to consider in deciding whether to pack are the cost of material and labor and any savings in honey or bees. Packing will not replenish colonies deficient in honey, pollen, or bees, replace poor queens, or cure bee diseases. Packed colonies will consume slightly less honey. The difference, however, is negligible. The most important consideration in preparing colonies for winter is a strong population and adequate stores.

When outside temperatures are near freezing, the temperature at the surface of a cluster of bees ranges between 43º and 46ºF. As the temperature decreases, the cluster contracts and the bees in the outer insulating shell concentrate to provide an insulating band 1 to 3 inches in depth. Metabolism and activity of the bees in the center of the cluster maintain a desired temperature. This may be around 92º if brood rearing is in progress. The temperature of the area of the hive not occupied by bees will be similar to the external temperature. The difference is that the temperature in the unpacked hive changes more rapidly and responds more quickly to that outside the hive. Heavy packing is worse than no packing, because during warm periods in midwinter when the bees should fly, those heavily packed do not fly at all.

It is important to consider the strength of the colony so that the bees can, at all times, cover a good percentage of their winter stores. If the population becomes weakened so that they cannot cover more than a few pounds of honey at a time, they can starve to death because they do not have contact with sufficient food.

Late Winter Manipulation

If colonies are inspected in later winter or early spring, adjustments can be made to save colonies that might be lost otherwise. Even weak or medium-strength colonies often can be saved if honey is moved into contact with the cluster. A strong colony with insufficient honey can starve if additional food is not provided at this time.

From this period until the bees can forage, such colonies can be fed either full combs of honey, or if these are not available, a gallon or two of heavy sugar syrup (two parts sugar by volume to one part water) can be poured directly into the open cells of empty combs.

Spring Buildup

Overwintered colonies usually will start brood rearing in midwinter and continue into the summer unless the stored pollen is all consumed before fresh pollen is available. If the supply is exhausted and not supplemented, brood rearing will slow down or stop entirely when it should proceed without interruption.

For best results in honey production, a beekeeper should have strong populations of young bees for the honey flow. Colonies emerging in the spring with predominantly old bees must build a population of young bees for later flows by using the early sources of pollen.

Some beekeepers trap pollen at the hive entrance from incoming bees by means of a pollen trap such as that described in “Trapping Pollen From Honey Bee Colonies” (Detroy 1976). This pollen is dried or frozen until needed, then mixed with sugar, water, and soy flour, and fed to the colony as a supplement to its natural supply (fig. 3). Various other types of pollen supplements and substitutes have been described and some are available on the open market.

FIGURE 3. - Strong colony feeding on pollen supplement cake.

FIGURE 3. - Strong colony feeding on pollen supplement cake.

Supplements containing pollen are eaten more readily by bees and generally give better results than those containing soy flour or other material without pollen. Pollen supplement is preferred by the bees in direct proportion to the amount of pollen it contains. The less pollen the supplement contains, the less is eaten. Substitutes made without pollen tend to be dry and gummy. A pound of pollen will make approximately 12 pounds of pollen supplement.

Swarm Control in Single-Queen Management

After pollen becomes abundantly available in the spring, the beekeeper should provide ample space for brood rearing and honey storage.

The natural colony behavior is to expand its brood nest upward, and a simple manipulation utilizing this tendency is to shift the empty frames or emerging brood to the top of the hive and the youngest brood and honey to the bottom part. This permits the expansion of the brood rearing upward into this area (fig. 4). Subsequent reversal of brood chambers can be made at about 10-day or 2-week intervals until the honey flow starts.

As soon as the three brood chambers are filled with bees, the first super should be given whether or not the honey flow is in progress. If this is done, most colonies with a vigorous queen will not swarm. However, any queen cells the beekeeper sees as he reverses the brood chambers should be removed. A simple method of reversing brood chambers is to lower the hive backward to the ground, separate the brood chambers, interchange the first and third hive bodies, and return to position.

After the honey flow starts, the danger of swarming lessens and brood chamber reversal can be discontinued. At the start of the honey flow, “bottom supering” should be used. The empty super should be placed above the top brood chamber but below the partially filled supers (fig. 4).

After the supers are filled and the honey extracted, they should never be put directly over the brood nest, but should be placed on top of the partly filled supers to prevent the queen seeking them and laying eggs in them. Why such combs attract the queen is not known.

FIGURE 4. - Basic colony manipulation for swarm control.

FIGURE 4. - Basic colony manipulation for swarm control.

Two-Queen System

The establishment of a two-queen colony is based on the harmonious existence of two queens in a colony unit. Any system that ensures egg production of two queens in a single colony for about 2 months before the honey flow will boost honey production (Moeller 1956).

The population in a two-queen colony may be twice the population of a single-queen colony. Such a colony will produce more honey and produce it more efficiently than will two single-queen colonies. A two-queen colony usually enters winter with more pollen than a single-queen colony. As a result of this pollen reserve, the two-queen colony emerges in the spring with a larger population of young bees and is thus a more ideal unit for starting another two-queen system.

To operate two-queen colonies, start with strong overwintered colonies. Build them to maximum strength in early spring. Obtain young queens about 2 months before the major honey flows start. When the queens arrive, temporarily divide the colony. Replace the old queen, most of the younger brood, and about half the population in the bottom section. Cover with an inner cover or a thin board and close the escape hole. The division containing most of the sealed and emerging brood, the new queen, and the rest of the population is placed above. The upper unit is provided with an exit hole for flight.

At least two brood chambers must be used for the bottom queen and two for the top queen. Two weeks after the new queen’s introduction, remove the division board and replace it with a queen excluder. The supering is double that required for a single-queen operation, or where three standard supers are needed for a single colony, six will be needed for a two-queen colony.

When supering is required, larger populations in two-queen colonies require considerably more room at one time than is required for single-queen colonies. If a single-queen colony receives one super, a two-queen system may require two or even three empty supers at one time.

The brood chambers should be reversed to allow normal upward expansion of the brood area about every 7 to 10 days until about 4 weeks before the expected end of the flow, after which the honey crop on the colony may be so heavy as to preclude any brood nest manipulations. Thereafter, give supers as they are needed for storage of the crop. As the honey is extracted, the supers are returned to the hive to be refilled. They should never be replaced directly over the top brood nest, unless a second queen excluder is used to keep the queen out of them. The top brood nest may tend to become honey bound. If this occurs, reverse the upper and lower brood nests around the queen excluder. This puts the top honey-bound brood nest on the bottom board and the lighter brood nest with the old queen above the excluder.

There is no advantage in having a second queen when about a month of honey flow remains, because eggs laid from this time on will not develop into foragers before the flow has ended. However, entering the brood nest during the middle of the flow to remove one of the queens is impractical. Uniting back to a single-queen status can be done after the bulk of the honey is removed from the colony. By this time some colonies may have already disposed of one queen. When this happens, simply remove the queen excluder and operate the colony as a single-queen unit.

Improved Stock

Production of honey is one major criterion in selecting honey bee stock and breeding for improvement. Superior stock must also be reasonably gentle, not prone to excessive swarming, maintain a large but compact brood nest, and winter well. It should ripen its honey rapidly, seal the cells with white wax, and use a minimum of burr comb. To obtain all the desirable characters in a superior stock, specific inbred lines from many sources must be selected and developed and then recombined into a genetically controlled hybrid. When this is done, hybrid vigor or heterosis usually results (Moeller 1976).

Queens of common stock reared under favorable conditions and heading well-managed colonies probably will be more productive than poorly reared queens of superior stock. Queens of superior stock reared under favorable conditions will require a higher standard of management than is demanded of common stock. To realize the maximum benefits from improved stock, the beekeeper must provide unrestricted room for brood rearing, ripening of nectar, and storage of honey.

The queen breeder should produce the best queens possible to obtain the maximum benefits from improved stock and the honey producer receiving these queens should manage them in such a way that they can develop their maximum colony populations.

Disease Control as Affected by Good Management

If colonies are operated for highest honey yields, they must be kept in optimum condition (fig. 5). This includes rigid control of all bee diseases. For information about bee diseases, see pages 118 to 128.

FIGURE 5. – Brood combs showing (top) healthy brood necessary for high honey production and (bottom) diseased brood, which results in weakened colonies and low honey production.

References

DETROY, B. F. and E. R. HARP
1976.
TRAPPING POLLEN FROM HONEY BEE COLONIES. 11 p. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Production Research Report 163.

FARRAR, C. L.
1937.
INFLUENCE OF COLONY POPULATIONS ON HONEY PRODUCTION. Journal of Agricultural Research 54:945-954.

_________
1942. NOSEMA DISEASE CONTRIBUTES TO WINTER LOSSES AND QUEEN SUPERSEDURE. In Gleanings in Bee Culture 70:660-661, 701.

_________
1944
. PRODUCTIVE MANAGEMENT OF HONEY BEE COLONIES IN THE NORTHERN STATES. 20 p. U.S. Department of Agriculture Circular 702.

_________
1973-74
. PRODUCTIVE MANAGEMENT OF HONEY BEE COLONIES. American Bee Journal 113(8-12), Aug. through Dec. 1973; 114(1-3) Jan. through Mar. 1974.

_________
1952
. ECOLOGICAL STUDIES ON OVERWINTERED HONEY BEE COLONIES. Journal of Economic Entomology 45:445-449.

_________
1960
. OLD AND NEW IDEAS ABOUT WINTERING. American Bee Journal 100:306-310.

HOOPINGARNER, R., and C. L. FARRAR
1959
. GENETIC CONTROL OF SIZE IN QUEEN HONEY BEES. Journal of Economic Entomology 52:547-548.

MOELLER, F. E.
1956
. BEHAVIOR OF NOSEMA-INFECTED BEES AFFECTING THEIR POSITION IN THE WINTER CLUSTER. Journal of Economic Entomology 49:743-745.

_________
1961
. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COLONY POPULATIONS AND HONEY PRODUCTION AS AFFECTED BY HONEY BEE STOCK LINES. 20 p. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Production Research Report 55.

_________
1976
. TWO-QUEEN SYSTEM OF HONEY BEE COLONY MANAGEMENT. 11 p. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Production Research Report 161.

_________
1976
. DEVELOPMENT OF HYBRID HONEY BEES. 11 p. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Production Research Report 168.

SCHAEFER, C. W. and C. L. FARRAR
1946
. USE OF POLLEN TRAPS AND POLLEN SUPPLEMENTS IN DEVELOPING HONEY BEE COLONIES. 13 p. U.S. Bureau of Entomology and Plant
Quarantine, E-531 revised.

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