In The Apiary : Early April : Queen Cups

Welcome to the first Apiary report of 2014. Executive summary: the Bermondsey Street Bees are in great shape.

Abbey Hive - First Inspection 2014
Abbey Hive – First Inspection 2014

Just look at how elegantly jammed Abbey Hive was at the very first inspection. To see bees on all the frames – and, on closer inspection, to find 6 frames of brood in all stages (BIAS) – was tremedously encouraging, especially since this is the colony which I have selected to provide my new Queen Bees for 2014 ! We will come back to Abbey, Queens and Queen Cups later in this post.

But first, let’s see how Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive is getting on in the second year of her reign:

Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive - First Inspection 2014
Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive – First Inspection 2014

Scarlett is a 2013 Queen (hence the slightly faded red marking on her thorax) and has presided over a strong hive, which had already filled half of a honey super (placed under the brood box over winter, to buffer the brood box against chill winter winds). At this inspection, I moved the super above the brood box, checking that Scarlett had not taken her egg-laying extravagence below stairs (she had not – it would be unusual for a Queen to move down – generally, all bees prefer to move up) and adding a Queen Excluder (QE) between the super and the brood, while plonking another super of empty, but fully-drawn comb, on top of that. I will move the super of empty comb under the half-full super, once that has filled up. So all is well with Shard Hive and Queen Scarlett.

On to Thames Hive, which is doing just fine, but is noticeably less ebullient than Abbey and Shard Hives. That is not to say that it isn’t looking promising – especially for this time of year – and indeed this frame of brood from Thames Hive is a delight to observe:

Thames Hive - First  Inspection 2014
Thames Hive – First Inspection 2014

Take a look at the strong ochre semi-circle of worker brood, garnished with a blob of yellower drone brood standing proud just off-centre towards the top right corner. Note also the arcs of honey in the top corners of the frame, and a patchwork no-man’s land of different coloured pollens between the honey arc and the brood semi-circle and in the bottom corners. The nurse bees like to have food for a growing bee population close to hand. So I’m expecting Thames Hive to catch up with the other two colonies in short order.

But let’s loop back to Abbey Hive for a little beekeeping “show and tell“. It was in Abbey Hive that I found a “Queen Cup”, which is the building-block of a Queen Cell. The discovery of one of these is the curtain up for the beekeeper’s most important role, after the health of the bees: swarm prevention. Usually, you would expect to see Queen Cups from mid-April onwards, along with a decent patch or two of domed drone brood amongst the smooth-lidded worker brood. Both Queen Cups and drone brood were present at the very beginning of April !

Anyway, the thing about Queen Cups (also called Play Cups) is that the sight of them is indicational, not informational. There is no harm in finding a Queen Cup in the comb at the bottom of a frame, as long as it is empty. If, on the other hand, you see the glint of a white egg, you need to mark the frame and be vigilant. If indeed the hyphen-like egg is floating in a drop of milky royal jelly, or has even entered the curved larval phase of its development, then the bees will soon draw out the wax to form a true Queen Cell.  Then a full swarm prevention protocol is required. Sharpish.

Play Cell - Abbey Hive
Queen Cup – Abbey Hive

So here is the picture of the Queen Cup in Abbey Hive as I first saw it. I tilted the frame and looked inside to see that there was no egg, nor a pool of royal jelly. So no action was required. But to demonstrate this graphically, I used the hive tool to break down the wax cell wall to show the empty base of the cup. (Fear not – the bees will repair this damage in short order).

Play Cell- Empty - Abbey Hive
Empty Queen Cup – Broken Down By Hive Tool

So from now until July, I’m on high alert for tell-tale Queen Cups/Play Cups. 2014 is shaping up to be a great beekeeping year.

But let’s not get carried away. A strong start to the year only increases the chances of being taken by surprise with an early swarm. The simple rules are: give the bees plenty of room to expand; add a super as soon as the brood box is more than three-quarters full.; ensure that the Queen has space to lay and is not “honey-blocked” by and excess of honey stores occupying the brood nest; maintain a rigorous 7-day inspection cycle to spot incipient Queen Cells.

Lose your bees to a swarm and you are, by definition, not a bee-keeper. I reserve the title “bee-squirter” for myself or any others who allow half of a beehive to abscond into the wide blue yonder. And it is not just one’s beekeeping pride which would be dented by losing a swarm – you can be sure that the honey crop will take a huge hit from having half the workforce take a  hike.

Half-empty or half-full, Queen Cups are fundamentally important to successful beekeeping.

2 Replies to “In The Apiary : Early April : Queen Cups”

    1. Hi Emily, They are 14 x 12s (Thornes’ seconds) Hoffmans on standard foundation.

      Deciphering this beekeeperly jargon for the benefit of others: the frames measure 14 inches at the bottom and 12 inches at each side (deeper than the standard 8.5 inches). They were purchased in the sale at Thorne’s, the U.K.’s largest provider of beekeeping supplies, and they are self-spacing in the brood nest, by the design of the side-bars (vielen Dank, Herr Hoffman!), which provides the perfect beespace (approximately 3/8 inch) for the bees to go about their business between the 11 frames in the brood box. The flat sheets of pressed wax “foundation” which I inserted into the frames were the everyday worker brood version (not the premium variety), again from Thornes. Phew!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *