April 2002

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES

Supering, Swarming, and Splitting

In any part of Maryland, during April the beekeeper’s mind is focused on a single thought – honey production! Unfortunately, although they have known about installing supers in April for months in advance, their supers are STILL NOT prepared for installing on the bee colonies; and particularly this year of 2002 when we have had almost the warmest winter on record and things are blooming 3-4 weeks in advance of their normal blooming time. My bees are so strong in population that I had to install one super on each colony on March 15th to free up brood chamber space. Writing about an UNUSUAL time will only confuse you, so my remarks are applicable to a NORMAL SEASON.

Far too many beekeepers install their supers LATER than they should, or don’t install enough supers, or don’t install them ALL AT ONE TIME, or install more than one super of foundation. ANY ONE of the aforementioned installation errors result in less honey production or swarming, or both; and it is always the BEES that get blamed, when about 90% of the time, it is the fault of the beekeeper in his failure to install supers at the proper time, install enough supers, and installing frames of foundation as if they were frames of drawn comb.

Over 90% of our honey is made during the months of April and predominantly May, and maybe a smidgen more the first 10 days of June, unless there is some very special circumstance in your particular area. Assuming that some beekeepers have adequate frames of DRAWN COMB and are NOT using foundation, the following procedures are my strong recommendation: Install the first super on April 1st directly on top of the upper brood chamber with NO queen excluder under it. Examine it a week or 2 weeks later and if bees are actively working on the frames in that super evidenced by seeing nectar in several frames or eggs and larvae, the super is BAITED and you now install the queen excluder under that super (making sure the queen is down below). Bees will not hesitate to come through the excluder if the super is BAITED with fresh incoming nectar or open brood. Sometime between April 15th and April 25th, install an Imirie Shim on top of this super, and install at least 2 more supers of drawn comb over the Shim (I prefer 4 more making a total of 5 plus a second Imirie Shim). Dr. Tom Rinderer, of the Baton Rouge Bee Lab, PROVED that installation of supers ALL AT ONE TIME made the bees bring in more nectar than installing supers one at a time on different dates. The Imirie Shim is used to give the foraging bees quick ingress and egress to the supers without “fighting their way to and from the congested brood chamber area” in order to use the front bottom board entrance. Back in the “old days”, some beekeepers used to drill “entrance” holes in the front of supers, but I hate holes in my hive bodies so I started building my own Shims about 40 years ago. About 5 years ago, Brushy Mountain Bee Supply asked my permission to build Imirie Shims for sale to other beekeepers, and Steve Forrest says he sells a “bundle”of them now. By the way, bees will NOT build burr comb in the empty space of Imirie Shim if there is enough empty super space present. “Smart bees” don’t waste time and energy building burr comb when empty comb space is present.

If you do NOT have DRAWN COMB and have to use frames of foundation, that is a whole “new ball game” that must be handled completely different. If you try to treat foundation as if it were drawn comb or if you try to mix frames of foundation with frames of drawn comb, WHAT A HORRIBLE MESS THE BEES WILL MAKE OF THIS, and you will have to destroy it, put in new foundation, and start over again. When trying to get bees to build foundation into drawn comb, there MUST POSITIVELY be a strong nectar flow in progress, and there MUST be all 10 frames (never 9) of foundation in a super tightly packed together endbar-to-endbar with any empty space left near the side walls of the super. You can only draw ONE super of foundation at a time, NEVER 2 or 3 or 4. You install just ONE super of 10 tightly packed frames of foundation, when the 6 center frames are close to fully drawn and partially filled with nectar, move them towards the outer walls of the super and put the undrawn foundation frames in the center. When the center frames are about 60%-70% drawn and contain nectar, now is the time to add the 2nd super of 10 frames of foundation and do to this 2nd super exactly what you did with the 1st super, and the same for the 3rd or 4th super. Maybe now, you understand why I refer to frames of drawn comb as “a beekeeper’s MOST VALUABLE POSSESSION”, because it is an exhausting process to get properly drawn comb from foundation! So don’t let the wax moths destroy it after it is extracted, by protecting it with para-dichloro-benzene until you need it next year.

Of course, you are not going to get very much honey anyhow if you have been lazy and not used the accepted swarm prevention techniques which are primarily reversing of brood chamber positions several times starting back in February to provide the queen with constant new empty laying space, and secondly, having a real young queen (less than a year old) present. Good bee management is applying prevention methods BEFORE the bees program swarming. If you have not reversed the brood chambers and/or if your queen is over a year old, you don’t have much choice of methods of swarm prevention. For many years, people have clipped off a wing of the queen so she can’t fly, or opened a colony as often as every 8 days, examined all the brood frames, and cut out every queen cell that could be found. Both of these procedures failed quite often and the bees flew away in a swarm, because the bees killed the clipped queen and swarmed with the virgin queen just a few days after she emerged from the queen cell, and in the procedure of cutting out queen cells, the beekeeper accidentally missed one cell.

However, with luck, “you can have your cake and eat it too” by splitting the colony, temporarily making two colonies for a couple of months, then killing off the old queen and uniting the two colonies into one headed by the new queen you got to make the split. Not only will this probably prevent swarming, you probably will save the great majority of the honey crop that you had hoped for, and you have either increased your colonies from one to two, or you have requeened the original colony with a young queen if you decide to unite the two colonies into one colony. How do you make a split that does all this? Keep in mind TWO things: First, bees are unlikely to swarm if the brood chamber is NOT congested and the queen has ample laying space; and second, bees under the age of about 19 days are house bees and do NOT go out foraging for nectar. Select a day with nice warm weather, little wind, and make the split between the hours of about 10 AM and 3 PM (when most of the foraging bees are out foraging). Find the old queen and set the frame she is on in some separate hive body off by itself. Now, you are free to do anything you want with the remaining 19 deep brood frames or 29 medium brood frames if you have ALL medium hive bodies like I have. Move 4-6 frames of OPEN brood with all the covering bees, and at least1 frame of capped brood with covering bees to a new hive body and add drawn comb frames to total 9 frames, and set this new colony next door to the parent colony if you plan to reunite the two colonies 2-3 months later, or any distance away if you plan on colony increase. Make sure that you cut away any queen cells that are on any of these 9 frames. Carefully inspect the remaining frames of the original colony and cut out all the queen cells you can find. Replace the frames that you took away with empty frames of drawn comb and add the frame with the old queen on it and place all of these in the lower brood chamber. You have now stopped the original colony from swarming and have not removed any foraging aged bees that will make your honey crop. Go in your house and get the new MARKED queen that you just got plus a gallon feeder of 1:1 sugar syrup, and place that queen introduction cage in the center rear of the new hive with the gallon feeder jar over the inner cover hole, and add an entrance reducer stick to the front entrance. Do NOT examine or disturb this new colony for at least 3 days and better 5 days. Then, with little or no smoke, inspect to see if the queen is out of the introduction cage, and if so, remove the cage and add a 10th frame of drawn comb. Wait another 5-7 days and then carefully inspect that colony for eggs and/or larvae which proves your new queen is alive and laying. Keep that 1:1 sugar syrup feed going and add a second body of 10 frames of foundation in about 3-4 weeks.

Gosh! Wasn’t that simple!

Before I end, it would be well to repeat some facts about swarming that a great many beekeepers just don’t seem to understand, but are very important that you know. First, swarms just don’t suddenly happen, but rather, the bees have programed and planned to swarm for about 10-14 days in advance of the swarm happening. During that 10-14 days, they have constructed queen cells, reduced feeding the queen so she lays fewer eggs and also reduces weight so she can fly, foragers stop foraging so they can be near the hive to join in the swarm when it occurs, and scouts go out looking for a new location for “home”. An observant, knowledgeable beekeeper can detect these things long before a swarm happens. Further, swarms occur at TWO distinctly different times and for distinctly different reasons. The first time for swarming is in “swarm season” which is that period of tremendous brood production which was stimulated by the gathering of late winter pollen, and prior to the start of a major nectar flow. Swarming during swarm season occurs because it is the natural act of propagation of the species. This is caused by brood chamber congestion, and age of the queen that controls her ability to produce enough queen pheromone to “glue” a large number of bees into a single functioning unit, and has NOTHING TO DO with super space. The second time for swarming is after the swarm season and occurs during a strong nectar flow! This occurs because the beekeeper has not provided ENOUGH SUPER SPACE AT THE TIME THAT THE BEES NEEDED SPACE to store a great deal of thin, watery nectar until they can ripen that nectar into thick honey. When a swarm occurs in a nectar flow, it is 100% fault of the beekeeper because he did not have enough supers present when the bees needed them, and NOT the fault of bees!

I hope that I have helped you to make a record honey crop and not lose a swarm. The results are up to you. I have told you HOW to succeed, but succeeding is YOUR JOB.

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper


Today is Saturday, March 29th. Bill Miller telephoned me from Alabama to tell me that one of his hives HERE in Rockville just SWARMED on March 28th. His son, Jeremy, was going to try and catch the swarm this morning. As near as I can remember, my earliest swarm here in Rockville was April 5th and it weighed 6 pounds, a real buster. Darn shame that Bill got called away on business for 4 months, because he was doing everything right to get a good honey crop, reversing and having a young queen.

My colonies are going gang-busters, so I will be adding about 4 supers to each within the next 10 days and make my last reversal of the brood chambers. I have 6 new Carniolan queens coming in from Heitkam about April 25th to prepare OBSERVATION Hives for the MONTGOMERY COUNTY FAIR from August 8-17. By the way, I hope that you will be a VOLUNTEER at the FAIR to tell all those million attendees the importance of our bees in the pollination of food for humans to eat. We need at least 54 volunteers, and I hope we don’t have to telephone you and BEG you to donate 4 hours of your time.

Dave and Evelyn Bernard, BOTH Ceritified EAS Master Beekeepers, will be our “head-liners” for the April 10th meeting, because I can’t talk after my throat surgery, and Bill is in Alabama. WE all hope you SHOW-UP and ask questions!

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