Looking back now, I see it as total incompetence on my part – the result of inexperience, as I had only restarted to keep bees the year before after being out of bees for over forty years and had no experience of winter-sown rape at all. I had moved the two colonies from my home apiary to the rape a few miles away on April 20th, 2004. They were strong colonies, with brood in 9 frames (commercial size), and I immediately added a brood chamber of foundation to each as a super. I inspected them on April 22nd and found no evidence whatever of swarm preparations, but when I opened them 11 days later on May 3rd, it was obvious that they had already swarmed. There were numerous sealed queen cells in each. I opened the colonies again on May 6th, and the virgin queens were emerging en masse, as the disturbance diverted the bees from blocking their emergence. The result was more after-swarms and both colonies were total write-offs for production purposes that year.
That debacle is now burned indelibly into my memory. It is clear from the emergence date that the queens were the result of eggs laid around April 20th, but I don’t believe they were laid in queen cups. I believe that they were laid in worker cells that were later converted to queen cells. That is why I missed them. I believe that the urge to swarm had suddenly become so intense that the bees converted worker cells to save a few days.
The most important part of a bad experience is to learn the correct lessons from it. From the perspective of both hindsight and experience, I now realise that I made a series of errors:
- I was far too late in getting my supers on. That should have happened at least a fortnight earlier.
- I had assumed that the urge to swarm in April would not be too strong and so allowed an interval between inspections of 11 days. I now know that the effect of taking a strong colony to rape in flower can be amazing if the weather is suitable.
- I now clip all queens. This means that I do sometimes lose a queen as she attempts to leave with a prime swarm. But the bees will return to the hive to await the emergence of the first virgin – that gives me a few days grace.
On the other hand, my best moment has got to be the realisation that queen rearing is really rather simple and that I could do it. I had been concerned about how to control the breeding of an insect that was strongly inclined to rear its own replacement queens. Also, having a surplus of available queens makes for much easier beekeeping – especially in early spring. Again, it was in 2004 that I had my first dabble in queen rearing – the year after I restarted beekeeping. I bought a couple of Apideas and I borrowed a few more. I had read the pamphlet by Ben Harden on how to rear queens in a queen-right colony without interfering with normal honey production. I borrowed a Cup-kit system and followed the recipe. To my utter amazement it worked!! Suddenly, I could see how to move towards the type of bee that I wanted and the type of management system that I wanted. I now had an enormously powerful tool to control the bees because I could supply the queens that I wanted and not have to accept the queens that the bees provided.
That was the breakthrough for me. Since then I have moved into grafting rather than the cup-kit. I have also proved to myself that there is enormous difference between queens, based simply on how good were the rearing conditions while they were larvae. But these are indeed refinements – the big moment was realising in 2004 that it was not difficult and that I could do it. I commend queen rearing to every beekeeper as an annual routine.