East Midlands 1998

East Midlands Group - What Did We Learn in 1998?

The East Midlands BIBBA group during the Autumn and Winter meetings look back over the past season and assess their activities in bee breeding. This identifies the areas where it is necessary to make changes, but it also shows us if the changes we made as a result of the deliberations a year ago were worthwhile and should be continued with.

This past season has been one in which we made several changes, some of which were quite radical, and this account of our work during 1998 will probably be of interest.

First some general comments to set the scene. It is tempting to make changes just for the sake of change, or to be panicked into making changes when things go wrong. This last season has been disappointing largely because it has been such a wet season, as the weather records that have been broken clearly indicate. What we have learnt though, in this wet season, is that in such conditions we need to modify our techniques to minimise the effects this has on our queen rearing. There’s not much we can do about queens and drones not being able to fly due to the weather, but we can take steps to improve the acceptance of grafts and the finishing of cells by supplementary feeding of both syrup and pollen.

Changes made this year at the outset of the season were largely successful, and these were:-

Use of plastic foundation in the Apidea mini-nucs.

This proved to be a huge success. The foundation is American from Pierco, and has deeper cells than normal wax foundation, and much thicker as a result. We were introduced to this by Dr. Francis Ratnieks of Sheffield University,  who not only obtained this, but cut it up for us to suit the Apidea frames. All we had to do was to fix it in position using “Pipeweld”, a cement for use with plastics. This actually melts both the foundation and the plastic frames at the point of application, welding both together into a rigid construction that can be handled without fear of a full comb of stores breaking off as is the case when wax foundation is used. As a trial we used some nucs with plastic foundation and some with wax. Also some of the plastic ones had a coating of melted wax applied, and some left uncoated. The untreated ones did get drawn out, but the coated ones definitely were more quickly drawn out.

Use of Syrup instead of candy in Mini-nucs.

This was another successful change. This had the effect of causing the combs to be drawn out much more quickly than when candy is used. We used some pellets made from fly ash that float on the syrup, to prevent bees from drowning. This combination proved excellent. We realised that transporting nucs with syrup in them could prove to be disastrous so candy was used when the nucs were first made up, the syrup was put in once the nucs had been mounted on their stakes at the mating site. We came to realise that we could in fact put syrup in right at the start, provided the feeders were only given a third of what they could hold. By the time the four days of confinement was over, the syrup would be down to the bottom of the feeder and the nucs could be transported without syrup slopping about.


Use of cut comb containers for candy.

Ron Brown in his excellent little book on managing Apidea mini-nucs advocates the use of cut comb containers for candy. These just nicely fit into the feed compartments of the mini-nuc. The idea being that these are used as a magazine type of replacement, take an empty one out and slot a full one in. Holes are punched in the covers to allow bees access to the candy. We used these initially until the bees arrived at the mating site, then removed them and filled the feeders with syrup. Late in the season we tried using syrup when the nucs were made up, as referred to in the previous paragraph, and this worked very well.

Record keeping

We knew our record keeping needed improving, and during last winter a comprehensive computer record sheet was designed. However in practice it proved too complicated in the field, but useful to study indoors. We changed late on in the season to a simple hard-backed notebook, after I saw Michael Mac Giolla Coda use this method. The pages are numbered, these representing the numbers on the stakes on which the nucs are mounted. The entries in the book relate to the state of the nuc, such as stores, was the queen seen ?, are eggs or larvae present? This information is later transferred to the computer spreadsheet to maintain a full record.

Grafting using a magnifier and torch

We use the grafting method rather than a Jenter frame. We use the Jenter plugs and cell tops and bases, and the metal bars to hold the plugs. We find this suits us, so that we can operate to a strict time-table, whereas the Jenter frame sometimes does not get laid up when one expects it to be. The magnifier is mounted on a headband, and fits over spectacles if worn, and provides 2½ times magnification and enables very tiny larvae to be seen. A tiny “Magnalite” torch held in one hand and a Swiss grafting tool in the other, makes it very easy to pick up the tiniest larva. The plastic cups are primed with two drops of warm water using an insulin syringe, these are available at chemists for £2 for a pack of 10. The tiny larvae float off the grafting tool like magic, thus avoiding damage. Again we are indebted to Dr. Francis Ratnieks for showing us this method.

Preparation of cell raising colonies.

This proved to be our “Achilles Heel” in this very wet summer. It may be that the bees had different priorities to us, ours was of course to get them to raise queen cells, theirs being more concerned with the more frugal use of stores in a season that restricted their ability to gather nectar and pollen. In these conditions the feeding of both syrup and pollen is vital if queen cells are to be reared in the numbers required, and whilst in the past we have had little difficulty in cell raising, it is clear that the feeding of both syrup and pollen should be a routine procedure when large numbers of queen cells are required. John Atkinson uses metal troughs filled with pollen to give the required pollen necessary, while Michael Mac Giolla Coda spreads a mixture of pollen and honey along the top bars of the brood frames. Next season we plan to provide both syrup and pollen to our cell raising colonies.

Use of a cell transporter

When queens have mated and are removed from their nucs, the same bees can accept another queen cell and provide another mated queen. Nucs often produce three mated queens by this means. With our mating site being so far distant from our apiary, the problem is the transporting of ripe queens without them getting chilled or damaged. This year we used a heated cell transporter powered from the cigar lighter of a car. The unit being an old video camera box a bit smaller than an attache case, fitted with a polystyrene block which has holes to accept the cells. The unit being thermostatically controlled by a thermostat and having a digital thermometer mounted on the lid to indicate the actual temperature inside.

The above are the most important changes we made during this past season, although we did make minor changes such as taping down nuc doors and cover boards before making up the nucs. This prevented accidental loss of bees during the four days of confinement. Over the years we have kept a record of the many tips that we have found to be of help in queen rearing. Recently these were listed and found to number 55.

Use of an incubator for hatching queen cells.

This year we had more queen cells that failed to hatch than in previous years. As we take our nucs 70 miles to our mating site, it is a lot of wasted time and effort if the queens fail to emerge. We did use an incubator some years ago, and we still have two in working condition. We plan to use these again next year and to make up nucs with live queens instead of cells about to emerge. The queens are given a spray of water while in their cages, then dumped into the nuc just as the wet bees are put in. Two incubators are required, one running at 35°C in which the queens are placed the day the day the cells are sealed. As the queens hatch they are transferred to a second incubator running at 30°C, as emerged queens fare better at this lower temperature. Using a second incubator to store the queens that have emerged, allows for the difference in hatching times as all cells do not usually emerge on the same day. This then enables the making up of nucs with both bees and queens to be done all at one, go rather than have to spread it over two days. The care of queens after emergence is important, failure to take simple steps can result in queens dying. Once the queens have emerged they must have immediate access to liquid honey or soft candy, and the cell case removed to give them more room in the cage, and to prevent them entering the cell and getting trapped.


One important ingredient to the success of the East Midlands Group, is the enthusiasm of its members. The co-operation is first class, and the discipline they show in sticking to the arrangements for carrying out the work is excellent, for in queen rearing one cannot put off a job even for one day, it must be done on time. Each one of us seems to have carved out a task that we have made our own, we work well together, and find enjoyment in knowing we are making strides in improving our bees by selection and breeding.

The talk given at the BIBBA Conference at York contained most of the above.

Albert Knight