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Colony Age Effects

Bee Culture, February 2010

by Walt Wright

As a precursor to backing out of writing about bees, some clean-up work seems appropriate. In the last submittal, a summary of my views on the double deep were offered. In this submittal, a description of observations relevant to the first few years of colony life will be tackled.

Old literature reads like the colony is just waiting for forage to show up on the horizon, and when that happens in suitable flying weather, they jump on it. Not true. Not only does the colony select the forage sources that best suits their needs, but their needs change with the season advancement and colony age. This submittal is intended to provide an introduction to the effects on operations of colony age. This bee geek is certain that there are many differences that have not come to his attention. There is no harm in identifying those that have, and encouraging you to add to the list at your leisure.

First year colonies operate in an entirely different mode from established colonies. Their objective is to become established. To become established in new quarters, the primary goal is to fill their cavity with functional comb of stores for wintering. To meet the requirements of that goal, there are multiple top priority activities: brood nest expansion to increase population; comb building to support both brood rearing and stores accumulation; and a forager workforce to feed the colony, provide the raw materials for growth, and accumulate winter stores. To get it done, they must build population as rapidly as possible. In my area, most don’t get it done without help from the beekeeper. Having a larger bee population starter colony and a smaller cavity tends to improve the odds of survival. Some seasons and areas provide better conditions to support establishment than others. A product of reproduction, by whatever means, their motivation to reproduce by swarming is minimal. All this to say that establishment is challenging enough without distractions.

Colonies in the establishment mode will be called “starters” in this discussion. Starters come in a variety of types, including the natural swarm and several types of man-made first year colonies. To insure we are speaking the same language, a brief description of man-made starters is provided. Some beekeepers use the words splits and nucleus colonies interchangeably. For purposes here splitting is the action verb of removing a frame or frames from a donor colony. The product created with those frames is the noun form of nucleus (nuc) colony. In keeping with that distinction, we will not call starters “splits”, but will refer to them as “nucs”. Typically, the split frames are used to populate a nuc. Further, the nuc is typically confined to smaller quarters that the starter can protect and adequately maintain brood-rearing temperatures. Less space not a firm requirement. A nuc can be housed in a full-sized box, and be encouraged to grow into the larger space.

A laying queen for the starter nuc can be insured by several alternatives. Each option has its own advantages. They can be provided with a caged, laying queen, queen cells nearing queen emergence, or encouraged to rear one from brood. Delays in newly emerged queen maturing, mating, and the start of laying can extend the time to nearly a month for the raise-their-own queen to start egg production. Referred to by some as a “walk away split” that nuc gets off to a very slow start. They not only have some delays in egg production, but when brood rearing gets underway, the starter colony still has to organize the work force for the task at hand. This may seem off-topic to the subject of this submittal, but the history of the starter colony is quite relevant to activities of first year colonies. Read on.

The natural swarm is best prepared of all types of starter colonies for meeting the rigors of establishment. The swarm left the parent colony with the best mix of age-related workers to get it done with efficiency. The literature tells us that the workers change physiology with age to adjust their adaptability to perform in-hive tasks. The youngest bee’s glands are better suited to production of brood food, wax makers have an age bracket, etc.

Swarm preps in the parent colony produce a cross section of age-related workers that are geared at issue to have the best chance at establishment in a new location. Those of you who like puzzles can give me your best guess of how they get that done in one brood cycle. My description of the outward indications of the swarm process was provided in Swarm Preparation, Bee Culture, May 2003. Note that foragers were accumulated prior to the swarm prep period. You will have to wing it on the ratios of comb construction (wax makers) and brood rearing nurse bees in the mix. If that exists in the literature, I haven’t seen it.

Although it is difficult to grade the above starters as to how well they are prepared to accomplish establishment, it is important that we understand that all shift into that special mode of operations. All first year colonies are oriented to establishment and its associated requirements. Without relative grading of potential some additional notes are added.

Nucs are reported to get off to a better start than packages. That can be attributed to being started with some drawn comb brood in production, some honey and pollen stores, and a complement of adult bees to protect the brood. That does not mean that the nuc is properly geared for that point in the season. Various delays in having a functional queen were mentioned above. What we often neglect to consider is the proportions of age-related workers in the existing population of adult bees. To provide just one example: If the split frames were removed early in the season, before the donor colony had wax-makers, the adult bees were mostly foragers and some nurse bees. There will be some time before wax-making is available for expansion onto foundation. Worker emergence from capped brood automatically provides young bees for nursing duties, but the duties of older house bees are delayed. In the mean time, the surplus of foragers is filling in some brood cells with stores that reduce brood rearing capacity. The nuc is losing ground on expansion.

In contrast, the natural swarm, with the right age mix of workers to support establishment, is expanding the brood volume from week one. They will typically out-grow the nuc in the early going.

Then, there is the package. Again, depending on where and when, the package can have a better mix of bees prepared to support establishment. Packages from the Deep South in April have a good compliment of wax makers. Wax makers are being generated at that point in southern bee development for the “main flow” accumulation of honey. Other house bees are also being reared in that period.

In summary, know the questions to ask of your starter bee source. If a nuc, find out how long since it was assembled. After about two brood cycles (1-1/2 months) the nuc will be getting organized for establishment, and should be ready to move out on expansion. House bees above nurse bee age are not a priority in the early season for the established colony providing the starter nucs.

Avoid early packages from your immediate area, or schedule delivery later. This advice presupposes that you are familiar with the seasonal bee development schedule at the location of the source. The beginning beekeeper is severely handicapped in this respect.

About halfway into this discussion of starter types, it was considered that breaking out the above, with more details in a stand-alone article, could be a reasonable option. However, if we can get through the other colony age considerations with a few notes, maybe we’ll leave it in this submittal.

The overwintered, established colony emerges from winter with the objective of generating a reproductive swarm. The procedural steps to implementing the swarm are predictable and are synchronized to forage availability for their specific location. They need to get the swarm issued in a period of forage available to support swarm establishment in a new location.

The colony that issues the reproductive swarm protects its own survival by resupply of stores prior to committing to swarm. The expanded brood nest to rear swarm bees is partially backfilled with stores, reducing population for later honey accumulation and capping. Parent colonies that generated a swarm are known to produce less surplus honey. Having nearly met survival needs prior to swarm commit, they have less bees for the main flow and less motivation. We refer to the motivation reduction as “complacency”. They can coast to this year’s survival in a walk. Any surplus honey generated is the result of the safety margin built into all survival requirements.

Another factor in the equation is the colony skill in the balancing population in proportion to stores/cavity size to protect accumulated stores. They do this by adjustment of brood volume. The swarmed parent colony started brood nest reduction in the swarm prep period – nearly two brood cycles prior to “main flow”.

The established colony that does not complete swarm preps prior to the seasonal time limit and does not commit to swarm may increase brood volume for another brood cycle. That colony may be increasing brood volume while the swarmer is decreasing, and have more bees to exploit the “main flow”. The non-swarmer will still start brood nest reduction a brood cycle before “main flow”, but reduction of brood nest size is slower in periods other than swarm preps. In the swarm prep period the colony is fighting a seasonal deadline, and gets it done as quickly as brood emerges from those cells. Anybody make sense of the above? Try reading it again.

The advantages of swarm prevention are well known, as it applies to honey production. Although the reduction is generally attributed to loss of bees to the swarm, I don’t see that as the major difference. The early brood reduction of the swarming colony appears to me to be more significant. As is the “complacency” factor.

The second year colony emerges from winter with the ability to continue in the establishment mode from the first year or act like fully established with swarm ambition. Actually, they can do both. The colony that senses that establishment was not fully accomplished in the first year emerges from winter with wax-making capability. If they did not completely fill their cavity with functional comb in the first year, that’s their second-year first priority. They may have provided enough stores for wintering, but fringe areas were not completely filled with combs of stores. After completely filling the cavity with functional comb with the aid of early wax making, they can pursue reproduction. With enough calendar time to the seasonal time limit, they can generate a reproductive swarm.

The colony that senses full establishment was accomplished in the first season does not develop wax-making capability until other established colonies (third and subs) at the beginning of the “main flow”. They both come out of winter with reproductive ambition, but the colony that was not quite fully established in the first year has the added advantage of early wax-making ability.

Regardless of whether or not they swarm, the second year colony has a couple of operational differences that are unique. Some beekeepers are aware that second year colonies make more honey than established colonies. (Last year’s swarm starter is this year’s best producer.) The reason second year colonies produce more surplus is that they will add nectar overhead during the lull in overhead storing of established colonies – that period between the “early flow” and the “main flow”. The nectar is stored raw or undried but it gets the second year colony ahead of the established colony a couple supers or more locally because the established colony is storing very little overhead through that three week period. The beekeeper, wishing to take advantage of this trait should pay attention to supering with drawn comb on the second-year colony during the lull of the established.

A second difference in colony second year operations concerns supersedure timing. My management approach (Nectar management/checkerboarding) encourages larger brood volumes in the spring and annual supersedure. Three-year established colonies generally supersede early in the “main flow.” That’s an ideal time for them to be temporarily queenless. The workforce to exploit the flow is in place, and in that period the colony is automatically reducing brood volume to protect consumption of accumulated stores. The old literature references to “consumer bees” don’t seem to recognize that the bees have this protection in their survival genetics.

The second year colony generally supersedes a brood cycle earlier, at “reproductive cut-off.” Or, supersedure cells appear about that time. Assuming the existing queen does not get unruly, she may not be terminated until the cells have been in development for some portion of the three week brood cycle. In that case, the timing difference would not be significant. The beekeeper who checks for swarm cells in the early season needs to be aware of supersedure cells in the swarm issue period. Otherwise, he might disrupt a potentially super producer. Supersedure cells were described as seen in my management system in an article in this magazine July, ’05.

I have no reasons for the differences observed. I report what I see. It is not obvious to me how these differences support the overall species survival strategy. The above second year differences may have some useful function if the second year is really an extension of first year establishment.

This has been an unduly long submittal just to identify some variations in second year colonies. I’ll leave in the descriptions of types of this year starters in the hope that editor Flottum will indulge me one more time. Those descriptions of different starter types will be of little use for you seasoned beekeepers, but may be of interest to those beginners selecting a source of bees to get started. The referenced older articles are archived at www.beesource.com . Point Of View. Descriptions of early season colony development schedules as seen in Tennessee are also there.