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Some causes of winter losses

  • Queen-less colony - queen dies for any reason

  • Starvation - the cluster has no food left or is too cold to reach the food source

  • Excessive varroa infestation

  • Dampness in the hive - hive is water-tight and has adequate ventilation, an open-mesh-floor and roof vents and a used match under the corner of the crown-board and quilt-box

Colony Building - Rev Sam Millar

The Rev Sam Millar described his approach to increasing stock by ‘doubling up’ in a talk delivered to club members in May 2010; summarized below:

  • Bees have two basic instincts – and lay in stores

  • The ‘doubling up’ method leverages the bees changing behaviour through the season

Getting a colony off to a good start begins with a solid preparation for winter, to ensure that the colony has enough food reserves and is disease-free.

In early spring, feed initially with fondant, followed by sugar feeds to encourage the queen to increase her laying rate.

By the end of April there should be a rapid increase in colony size, limited only by the weather. Workers must juggle available space between brood and the emerging nectar and pollen flows – if space is perceived as tight, the urge to swarm may become evident in May.

Sam advocates adding a second brood box in late April or early May when laying rate has accelerated, ideally with drawn comb, on top of the original brood box, permitting laying to continue unrestrained. The extra space may delay the tendency to swarm, however regular checks are essential to keep an eye out for queen cups and cells. The queen will migrate up to the top box and continue laying and prefers fresh comb; by the middle of June, both brood boxes should be pretty full.

At this time, reverse the boxes, so that the queen in again in the lower box and place a queen excluder between the boxes to keep her in the lower box.

After two or three weeks, all the brood in the top box will have emerged and the top box can now be used for honey storage, a strong urge after swarming season is finished. The queen will naturally need less space at this time of the season as colony numbers drop ahead of autumn/winter.

Double brood will result in a large colony that can now turn its attention to bringing in nectar to produce honey.

Add Supers for later honey extraction.

Anchor 4

Preparing For Winter

Keep a record of your winter preparation steps for each hive to be sure that no important tasks are missed.


  1. Check for a laying queen - look for eggs, larvae and sealed brood BIAS Brood In All Stages

  2. If there is no evidence of a queen, unite the colony with a queen-right colony or ask a club member for help

  3. Should be a minimum of 5 brood frames of bees

  4. Consider double-brood or brood-and-a-half

  5. Leave on a part-filled super of honey

  6. Remove queen excluder

  7. Check hive is sound and water-tight

End of August

  1. Remove part-filled super for re-fitting later

  2. Heft hive by lifting one side from the stand - hive should feel 'nailed down'

  3. A colony needs 18kg of honey or sugar syrup to survive the winter

  4. Use a rapid feeder to top up light hives

  5. Make sure hive stand is level

  6. Reduce hive entrance when feeding and feed in the evening to reduce robbing

  7. Perform varroa treatment


  1. Remove feeder when bees are no longer taking syrup or when 18kg has been fed

  2. Have blocks and straps looked out ahead of windy weather


  1. Add a mouseguard when weather starts to turn colder and when drones have been expelled

  2. Take out any varroa treatment strips when treatment duration has been completed

  3. Add a quilt box and roof/side insulation if very windy and cold

Anchor 2

Spring Management

Management of colonies from Feb/Mar to mid-May determines their success for the year.


By February, signs of increasing activity in the hive can be seen, when it is still too cold to open for visual inspection. Heft the hive to estimate food stores. Bees will be start to fly on warmer days to forage for water, and pollen from spring flowers. Cleansing flights will also be apparent.


The flight pattern and the bee's posture should be observed to ensure that these are not robber bees emptying a dead colony.


Collection of pollen shows the bees are providing a protein supply and indicates the queen has survived, is laying and there is fresh larval brood. If hive weight appears light, a fondant emergency feed may be necessary - lift the crownboard and place directly onto the top bars of brood frames, quickly to minimise cooling.


At the start of March, as weather improves, there should be increasing signs of hive activity - listen for the sound of contented bees. At this time of year, overwintered bees will have reached the end of their lives, and their numbers may not be sufficient to provide for the foraging needs of the hive required for early spring build up.


It is important not to overstimulate the queen at this stage otherwise chilled brood will result, but it is essential that the colony has sufficient protein and carbohydrate stocks. Feeding of pollen is not usual in this area, but some feeding of the colony with light sugar solution (1kg sugar to 2 L water) may be needed.


Although an external feeder would avoid the need to open the hive, it is likely to encourage robbing - a contact feeder is better. If there is evidence of starvation, a 50% solution should be used.


First colony inspection of the year should be on a mild April day to avoid chilling the hive.  The first inspection of the year is its most important and the beekeeper should observe the size and nature of the brood nest, to confirm whether the queen is laying adequately, or will require replacement.


The presence of brood diseases is easier to detect when the brood size is small; take samples of bees  for scientific examination by the Bee Inspectorate if disease is suspected. Look for adult bee diseases and infestations, estimate varroa count, and look for deformed wings, or soiling of frames.


Assess residual stores and begin cyclical changing of old brood frames by moving old frames to the margins aiming to replace 1/3 this season. The ratio of eggs to unsealed brood, to sealed brood present, will give an indication of the speed of spring build-up.

At this stage, feed light syrup to encourage queen laying. Implement plans:

  • decisions about queen replacement

  • nuc creation

  • colony division

  • move to spring oil seed rape honey crop

In early May if all is well, the colony should occupy about 2/3 of available

brood chamber space.

Queen Rearing

Overwintering Nucs - by Sam Laverty

Why do we want or need Nucs (nucleus colonies)?

  • to increase numbers of bees

  • to re-queen hives

  • to have a stock of young queens for spring

  • to sell

How do we overwinter Nucs?

  • keep them dry - water-tighy, secure water-tight roofs and ventilated

  • keep from freezing - early mated queen, lots of young bees, room to cluster on comb

  • keep from starving - syrup in early autumn when weather is warm, check for stores in winter, fondant or dry sugar if needed in winter

Effect of Climate Change

Winters are less cold and frosty and more wet and stormy than previously, with some winter days getting temperatures of 14 to 16 Celsius in December.

When does winter prep start?

Begin in mid to late spring.

How to get strong Nucs

  • start method of queen rearing in April/May

  • get the new queens mated

  • feed well

Choose best queen to breed from (early April)

  • over wintered well

  • good brood pattern

  • bees quiet on the comb

  • little or no stinging

  • swarming

Method's of Queen Rearing (mid to late April)

  1. Grafting - choose as young a larva as possible - one just hatched i.e 12-24 hours

  2. Cut out queen cells

  3. Swarm collection

  4. Jenter or Nicot system

Mating Nucs (late April to early June)

  • check how many queen cells have been drawn out

  • make up mating nucs one day ahead of introducing a ripe queen cell

  • move mating nucs to out-apiary and let fly

  • feed nucs syrup

Finished Queen Cells

  • place in an incubator to finish, one cell per incubator

  • when queens emerge, check quality and put in mating nucs, between brood frames and leave alone for a couple of week

  • look for eggs and young larvae if weather is favourable

Queen Failure

  • queen fails to emerge

  • weather cold & wet

  • poorly mated

  • lack of drones

  • black queen virus

Build Up Strength of Nucs

  • feed syrup

  • provide frames of hatching brood from strong hives

  • move to a 5 frame nuc when colony is strong enough

Anchor 1

Increasing Colony Numbers - Leo McGuinness

There are several methods available for increasing colony numbers; Leo’s method has been tried and tested with great success and works with the bee’s instinctive behaviour, avoiding the need for costly equipment or artificially manipulated queens. As an example, in 2009, on behalf of the club, Leo created 22 new colonies for new members, starting with a handful of overwintered colonies:

  • By mid-May, the club Nuc had expanded from brood covering 4 frames to 8 frames

  • An additional brood box was added

  • By the end of the first week in June, the second box was almost filled

  • In mid-June, both boxes were full

The apiary manager found the queen. The queen, several frames and a few shakes of bees were placed in a Nuc box and moved 2-3 miles away.

The remainder of the hive was reassembled, had plenty of eggs, larvae and brood in all stages, but no queen.

Any emergency queen cells created will firstly be sealed around older larvae – these should be removed after 5 days so that younger larvae, fed from the start on royal jelly will form the source of new queens.

After a few days, frames containing queen cells were taken out to form new Nucs, with enough bees, brood and supplies of pollen and honey to start them off. Virgin queens emerge and destroy any other queens on that frame that are yet to hatch. The queen matures, undertakes a mating flight and begins to lay, sealed brood should be visible after 3 weeks.

The Miller Method

The Miller frame, developed by C.C.Miller, is a simple method of rearing up to ten queens with the goal of stock improvement to produce colonies with desirable attributes:

  • good temperament

  • industrious

  • disease resistant

  • exhibit cleaning behaviour

  • slow to swarm

Mating NUCs

​Queen rearing is possible without specialist equipment and can produce up to ten new queens.

  1. Select from available hives or those of an aquaintance, a breeder stock that demonstrates a match to  improvement requirements.

  2. Begin this process at the peak of swarming in May or early June when it works alongside the colonies own instincts and where there are plenty of bees available to develop nucs. A supply of food or a nectar flow and the availability of flying drones is also assured.

  3. The hatched eggs from this colony will be used to produce the new queens.

  4. Prepare a brood frame with a sheet of foundation which has been cut into a series of deep v shapes.

  5. Introduce the jagged frame to a hive and the bees will draw it out in about a week.

  6. The drawn foundation is then placed in the breeder colony and the queen will lay in the new cells, beginning in the centre and spreading outwards the frame margins.

  7. At this stage it is removed from the colony and the beekeeper should then cut the outer cells containing eggs or not yet layed up, off the frame to reach the newly hatched larvae.

  8. This frame is then placed in a queenless colony which will need to be fed generously. Because of their queenlessness, the bees will immediately begin to draw queen cells around the larvae, and will preferentially place these queen cells in the gaps in the frame over the newly hatched larvae.

  9. Observe the colony closely at 3 day intervals, removing any other queen cells which might be produced particularly from old larvae or from other combs.

  10. The queen cells will be closed at day 8, and at this stage should be cut out of the frame with a margin of wax, and each placed in a nuc to await hatching. An alternative is to place queen cages over each cell.

  11. The queens will hatch at day 14, and if not already placed in nucs can now be introduced into nucs in cages or ‘run in’. Mini-nucs are a more efficient way to proceed as they each require much fewer bees, and new virgin queens are encouraged to engage in mating flights from small mini nucs.

  12. The mating nucs should be moved to a location which has a preponderance of drones of a quiet nature, so that maximal advantage is obtained from the mating process.

  13. The mini nucs can be retained for up to several weeks before bees are moved onto larger foundation when the queen begins to lay. This should occur within 3 weeks.


This process should deliver up to 10 new mated queens of chosen character, and these queens can be overwintered in nucs for placement at the head of hives or for emergency replacement the following year. Beekeepers will be able to asses the character of the new queen’s offspring in the nuc before chosing the best replacements.

Anchor 3

Queen Rearing  - Experienced Beekeepers

  • equipment with artificial queen cups

  • grafted larvae

  • artificial incubators

  • incubator colonies

  • mating by artificial insemination

  • testing of prodigy

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