April 2007

by Walt Wright

This article has been modified from the text that appeared in the April 07 issue of Bee Culture. Portions of the submitted draft that were deleted by the editor prior to publication have been restored.

A brief description of colony reproductive swarm preparations has been added. The editor had trouble understanding how the reserve influenced the swarm process. The reserve, and time spent building brood nest size to it, affects the timing of steps in the swarm process. How the timing is affected has been added. Unfortunately, the revision did not reach the magazine before their deadline for printing.

Be advised that this discussion is overly long and dull, but we should have started here ten years ago. Nectar management/ checkerboarding grew out of these observations. There might have been less resistance to the application techniques if the foundation had been properly emphasized up front.

The Capped Honey Reserve

This submittal is a general discussion of an obvious feature of the honey bee hive internal content. When opening the hive from the top, capped honey and bees are the first evidence that a functional colony resides there. Accumulation of that capped honey is the basic reason that most beekeepers provide the residence in the first place. While the honey is basic to beekeeping and well understood from a harvest standpoint, very little attention is paid to the bees dependence on survival rations, or how that influences colony activities. The following is a collection of observations relevant to effects on colony activities caused by the bees deliberate care in accumulation, supplementation, replenishing, and protection of their capped honey reserve. Starting with the boring obvious, this submittal will proceed through several aspects of the bees reverence for their reserve that are not treated in the popular literature. Although this is oriented to informing the beginning beekeeper, the experienced beekeeper may find useful a tidbit in this discussion.

Maintenance of the overhead capped honey reserve is critical to colony survival. There are times when field forage is not available to sustain the needs of the colony. Over-winter is the worst case, but forage dearths are not limited to that calendar period. Field forage is dependent on the mix of plant species available within flying range. Locations only a few miles apart can vary greatly in available forage. The survival format of the colony must accommodate great variation in field forage availability and seasonal timing of that forage. Long term storage of both pollen and honey provides the flexibility to adapt to local forage patterns.

The first-year colony, operating in the establishment mode, starts very early in the establishment process building their capped honey reserve. When they first occupy the empty cavity, getting comb built, rearing replacement bees, and feeding the colony have top priority. But when those priority tasks are well underway, some incoming nectar is diverted to start building the reserve honey. In the Langstroth hive the reserve shows up typically, first in the upper, outside corners of the brood frames. As the brood nest grows both downward and laterally more honey is added at the top, and may stretch all the way across the brood frames. Its obvious that the starter is doing its best to build a reserve while the spring flow lasts. Soon there will be a trail off of field nectar into the mid summer doldrums - through which they will have to depend on the reserve. In my area the starter is seldom successful because of the short spring flow and long summer dearth. They typically need feeding in mid summer unless they have access to agricultural sources that span that period. Those dependent on native sources can starve or be severely damaged by lack of resources in the field.

Rearing of brood is a heavy drain on nectar/honey. Larval brood must be fed and a large brood volume is a major contributor to consumption. Adult bees, when the need arises, become inactive and consume less stores. One of the colony's first reactions to a nectar dearth is to reduce adult bee activity. The adult bee at rest consumes very little.

The fully established colony with a comfortable honey reserve has at least three levels of protection of the reserve. The lowest level of limiting adult bee activity during a dearth to limit consumption is automatic, and does no harm. A few scouts go to the field on a continuous basis to monitor for available sources. The nurse bees go about the business of rearing brood, but typically the brood nest volume is being reduced during a dearth - less need for workers during a dearth and less wear and tear on quiescent bees. Foragers don't age much when they stay at home. When nectar is again available in the field, the colony can pick up where they left off in supplementing honey stores.

A second level of protection of stores is cannibalism of drone brood. Before the colony depletes their reserve of honey they sometimes resort to recovering the nutrients already applied to the rearing of drones. Survival of the colony has higher priority than rearing additional drones. Drone pupa are uncapped and their internal juices used as feed. The empty shells of the drone pupa are often scattered on the landing board. The colony is so dedicated to conservation of energy and food that the shells are not carried away. In better times dead bees are carried some distance away and dropped. To prevent attracting attention of area predators the colony will often clean up dead bees on the ground out front of the hive. But in hard times limiting drain on accumulated resources take priority.

A third preemptive action to protect the reserve is the stopping of brood rearing. As noted above brood rearing uses stores at an accelerated rate. The established colony has a level of capped honey reserve that is considered mandatory. When the reserve falls below their judgment level, they can stop feeding larval brood. The brood yellows and turns brown as it starves. My exposure to this condition was reported elsewhere and will not be reported here, but to note that suspecting a brood disease that I couldn't identify, two colonies were unnecessarily destroyed by fire. A few years later another colony with yellow brood was given a super of honey and recovered promptly.

The above odds and ends have been described to give you some insight into the significance the colony attaches to the capped honey reserve. For reasons unknown, the significance of maintaining the reserve during the swarm prep period has been overlooked by the beekeeping community. I consider my interpretation of the role of the reserve in the swarm process to be my major contribution to the craft we enjoy. My observations may not attain general acceptance in my lifetime, but that will not keep me from promoting them. In the following, an effort will be made to describe the role of the reserve in the reproductive process of the honey bee. As plain a language as I can muster will be used to describe how the colony insures survival rations while generating the reproductive swarm.

During the early build up in late winter the colony builds brood volume to the amount of capped honey reserve that it considers appropriate. Each colony makes an independent judgment of how much reserve to leave unopened, but they are surprisingly consistent in their judgment. When wintered in a deep and a shallow (plenty in my mild, short winter) nearly all colonies will leave all the honey in the shallow at the top unopened.

When wintered in a double deep with the cluster in the lower and a full deep of honey at the top, they typically expand the brood volume into half of the upper deep. The expansion dome of brood may reach nearly to the top bars at its peak, but the colony generally leaves a band of capped honey across the top of the expansion dome. Leaving the thin band of capped honey across the top of the brood nest expansion dome appears to be deliberate. I suspect that the band might be more uniform when housed in the peaked or domed tree hollow, but we give them a flat surface to work to. That thin band of capped honey at the top added to the unopened honey in the corners of the box is roughly equivalent to a half deep of capped honey reserve, or a shallow supers worth. When a shallow of honey is added above the double deep configuration, the colony fills the two deeps with brood, and again stops brood nest expansion short of the shallow of honey at the top.

The significant point of the above observations is that swarm preparations start when brood nest expansion reaches the limit of minimum honey reserve. It works both ways. The colony that reaches the limit starts swarm preps, and the weaker colony that doesn't reach the limit doesn't start swarm preps. Starting swarm preps does not necessarily mean the colony will swarm. They must complete swarm preps and start swarm queen cells before the seasonal cut off timing. Contrary to literature descriptions, the starting of swarm cells is the point in the bees schedule where the colony commits to swarm and not the start of the swarm "impulse." They have been working toward reproductive swarming for two months prior to starting swarm cells. The first activity of reproduction is building the brood volume to the limiting reserve. Then swarm preparations start. This submittal is about the role of the reserve in initiating swarm preps. Preps take place in the month prior to swarm issue timing. The colony that is on schedule to generate a reproductive swarm will top out maximum brood nest expansion at the limiting reserve in advance of the swarm prep period.

How the reserve affects swarm potential is a little obscure, but bear with me on this. The amount of reserve capped honey (nectar if an empty, is reversed) determines how large the brood volume grows during buildup. When the colony expanding the brood nest to support swarm population reaches their minimum reserve limit, brood nest expansion stops. They have expanded the brood nest to the maximum safe limit and have optimized population potential for division by the reproductive swarm. At that point they can move into swarm preparations.

The first action of swarm preps is to reduce brood volume by backfilling the upper area of the broodnest. As brood emerges, those cells are filled with incoming forage - preventing those cells from being used to recycle brood. Brood nest reduction has benefits for both the parent colony and the offspring swarm. Two that are easy to see are that the parent colony survival is helped by starting to resupply stores, and the swarm is helped by freeing up young bees needed in the establishment process.

From a timing standpoint, the reserve is a critical factor. Broodnest expansion must reach the limiting reserve at least three weeks prior to reproductive cut off. To solidly backfill an area of comb containing worker brood of all ages takes at least three weeks. Drone brood, with longer development time, is exempt from backfilling requirements and those cells may be recycled with brood to support the impending mating season. Repro c/o is the point in the vegetative development where all colonies in a given area abandon swarm ambition if they have not started swarm queen cells. (Normally apple blossom timing in the wooded east.) In summary, the turn-around from brood nest expansion to reduction must precede apple blossom timing by three weeks or reproductive swarm ambition is canceled for that season. They can still generate an overcrowded swarm after that point in the season, but that swarm is oriented to protecting parent colony survival.

In the swarm prep period maintenance of the reserve is crucial to parent colony survival. In late winter the season change often comes with late freezes or extended periods of non-flying weather - either of which restricts forage availability. That's the period that the colony is building population with maximum brood volume to support division by the reproductive swarm. Mother Nature takes care of her own. The colony instinctively protects the reserve during swarm preps. If field nectar can be collected, the colony feeds on incoming. If not available, they can dip into the reserve - that's what it's there for. In short, maintaining the reserve is quite deliberate and necessary.

Concluding that the reserve initiated swarm preps, I too was skeptical. Was it possible that thousands of beekeepers had overlooked an obvious factor in the swarm process? It seemed like a point of vulnerability in the swarm process that could be exploited. My first test of the preliminary conclusion was to increase overhead honey for wintering. It takes time to consume overhead honey for brood nest expansion and reproductive cut off was hypothesized at that time. Increasing overhead honey was done in two steps - double deeps and 2 ½ stories. For each step up in overhead honey swarming was reduced. That seemed to validate the conclusion. Then the search was on for some other way to disrupt the swarm game plan by attacking the reserve. Checkerboarding was the result.

The highlighted extraction from ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture is the only entry in the popular literature that I could find that treated the reserve from the standpoint of swarming. The author of that passage had swarm prevention in the palm of his hand and let it slip through his fingers.

"Colonies are honey-bound when a band of honey above the brood deters the queen from moving upward. The band of honey need only be half an inch wide to prevent the queen from moving upwards into an empty comb. Colonies that are honey bound usually have congested brood nests and swarm readily. Using extra deep frames, deeper than normal Langstroth frames, may give rise to this problem. The best way to break a honey-bound condition is to remove one or two such frames from the center of the brood nest and to place them in a super above it."

Note three things about this literature entry: 1.) The honey bound condition is treated as though it is a problem for the bees, but it is quite deliberate. 2.) It's also associated with congestion, but the PhDs do not recognize that congestion, in all its forms, are deliberate elements of the swarm generation process. 3.) The recommended corrective action of raising frames into the next higher box is a variation of Nectar Management - much like Dee Lusby's pyramiding up. Both pyramiding up and checkerboarding break up the reserve overhead and disrupt the colony swarm game plan.

I didn't invent the reserve. It's been an integrated part of the bee's survival format for eons.