Over the last couple of years, I have been involved with a number of hives which failed to grow in size, or to produce a crop, almost ‘stagnating’ as one customer put it. I had been asked to examine the hive which seemed to be queenright, with a young self-made queen, and what appeared to be a full sized brood nest, but it was not putting up honey, nor growing in size.
The first step was an examination of the hive in question. A quick look through the hive didn’t show up any problem, lots of brood in the frames, a good number of bees and some honey in the upper frames, but totally empty honey supers. I questioned as to the history of the hive and was told it had swarmed early in the year and that the hive population was growing, but not as fast as was thought necessary. A further examination found an interesting problem. Brood of different ages in the same frame and further examination showed that most if not all frames had the same problem. At first look, lots of capped brood, but lots of brood of different ages even some eggs in the middle of the capped brood!
A good queen, well mated, will lay up a complete frame of eggs which then hatch all at the same time, the bees then cap off the whole frame and rarely is it necessary for the queen to go back infilling. It now becomes obvious, if a queen lays up 100% but only 50% are viable then the hive will not increase in size, nor will the hive be efficient in its use of brood space, leading to the queen constantly going back over the same ground time after time. In this problem hive, it was only just self-sufficient, certainly not profitable for the keeper. There are some who keep bees, just for the sake of keeping bees, but in all cases, honey, surplus honey, even a small amount, has to be the reason for spending so much time looking after them.
Over the last few years Varroa has changed forever our methods of keeping bees and mating queens, and this is what I think is happening to cause ‘slow hives’. Some beekeepers have, for many years, relied on ferals (wild hives) to help out with Queen mating, those feral hives in trees, barns and outhouses helped to provide a cross section of drones to add mating diversity. With the advent of Varroa all that has changed, no more feral hives!
The only bees around are kept bees, medicated by beekeepers to help maintain healthy hives. Suddenly the mating diversity that we relied on to help mate our ‘self-made‘ queens has gone, and we are left with the drones provided by our own hives, and here is the crux of the matter. Should you try to mate a queen too close to her own family line, even her own brother, as can easily happen, then diploid eggs are produced. The closer to, and lack of other line diversity leads to more and more diploids being produced, the eggs will fail and are removed by the bees, producing holes in the brood pattern. This leads the queen to come back in-filling and this is where the brood of various ages comes from and when the problem becomes apparent.
There is a way of determining whether your hive is a slow one or not, try adding an empty brood frame to the middle of the brood nest, then note the brood development over a complete cycle. If you find a pattern as described, then you’ll need to take some action in the queen rearing and mating area of your operation.
So what can be done?
Firstly it is important to acknowledge the problem. They say, “the first step to getting well, is to admit to being sick”! The same applies to keeping bees, the first step is to admit a problem, too many don’t even realise or care that they, or rather their bees, have a problem!
Analyse the problem and ask some questions. Where did the bees come from? Did they come from the same dealer, could they be all related? If so then it’s important to increase the ‘line’ diversity. What is meant by ‘line’? This is the family line. Bees from the same queen are produced from the same family ‘line’, and will add nothing to the mating diversity, you need bees from different ‘mother’ queens, even from a different dealer if necessary.
As a queen breeder, we discovered this some time ago and developed different lines of bees, just to ensure that our mating diversity was sufficient to give a good egg laying pattern in our queens that we mate. I have written before that ‘self-made‘ queens, or ‘walk away splits’ rarely produce good quality queens, this is just one area that helps to prove the point.
Don’t waste time, if you haven’t the time nor ability to produce quality queens, then buy from a good breeder, and re-queen your hives with a quality product every two seasons, it is false economy to let nature take it’s course with such an important item, your hive will thank you with a better crop