25 September 2015

Queen cells, swarming, and beginner beekeeper training

It's late September, which is a strange time of year to think about queen cells and swarming, but, having recently helped a new-to-the-BKA-this-year beekeeper deal with the repercussions of bad poor misunderstood advice, now seems as good a time as any.

It's important for all beekeepers to know, and to fully understand, why it is not a good idea to remove queen cells as the sole method of swarm control, no matter how experienced the beekeeper who says it is! The end result is likely to be a colony with no queen and no means of making one. The colony will be doomed to a slow decline - which a newish beekeeper, struggling alone, may not notice until it's too late and they 'suddenly' see their hives contain frames empty of both brood and stores, with the few remaining bees on the point of starving to death.

How can this arise, especially when this particular beekeeper has done all the training, attended all the apiary sessions, and been to all available BKA events since they joined?

It seems that there was a chain of misconceptions and assumptions that, when one or more of these was crucially wrong, led to a collapse as critical as in a game of jenga. Nobody intentionally did the wrong thing by this beekeeper and their bees, everybody just carried on doing things the way they have always been done, but complacency and 'assumptions' resulted in a disaster.

Preconceptions and assumptions
Beekeepers come from all possible backgrounds and come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. New beekeepers have wide-ranging preconceptions thanks, in part, to the the drip-feed from the media and pressure groups - television programmes seem to show how easy it is to be a beekeeper - it's a girly sort of thing to do, and a floaty dress could be the most suitable beekeeping attire for a hands-off beekeeper.

Few brand new beekeepers will imagine that, although beekeeping is the most amazing thing in the world, it can be hard and heavy work. They don't know that beekeeping can be dirty, don't realise that ungloved hands can lead to propolis stained fingers which look worse, for longer, than those of a nicotine addict! Nor do they realise that beekeeping can be painful because stings can hurt for several days, nor will they know that, for some people, a single sting can can kill in minutes.

Some Beekeeping Associations (BKAs) have preconceptions about those who take their courses, often based on the way things used to be before the media storm of the past few years. The worst case scenario seems to be that a BKA will assume that all those who attend beginner's classes will start off with a single nuc in early summer of the same year, will presume that none will buy a full colony or will have had bees for the previous season, none will have done the training 'this year' because last year's course was full - and won't even know that these beekeepers have struggled on their own, relying on books and the internet, because courses are tailored by the BKA to suit the training rather than to suit the learner.

Then there's the internet! It's a simple thing to ignore, but it means that the internet-savvy newly-trained beekeeper has access to the latest information and the latest ideas, rather than being limited to the most recent edition of the rather dusty tome preferred by their trainer. This can be intimidating to some, who want to teach things the way they've always been done - but this will be discussed in another, later, post.

One thing that is always true is that the learner beekeeper, whatever their background and experience, places their trust in those who are training them - it's what they presume should happen, because that's how the teacher/learner relationship traditionally works. If the 'expert' tells them to do something, that's what they will do.

Training for brand new beekeepers
There is, in most BKAs, a fairly standard type of training based mostly on the white BBKA Course in a Case for Beginners - tweaked locally by each BKA. This training is, more often than not, done in late winter or early spring - before the active season - and might take the form of a tightly packed day of lectures or could be one class a week for several weeks. Costs seem to vary from around £30 to over £100 - it's cheaper to do one day than several evenings; it costs less if BKA membership or a book aren't included, etc.

Some weeks later, depending on local climate and weather, there is likely to be practical work. Organisation will very much depend on each particular BKA - smaller clubs may depend on those members who are willing to open their apiaries to newcomers, whilst BKAs with their own apiary, or apiaries, will be more likely to offer quite formal, carefully organised, practical training every single week throughout the active beekeeping season. The average BKA will be somewhere in the middle, offering some practical sessions and maybe some apiary visits.

Later in the year there might be classes about extracting, varroa control and settling colonies for winter and in the following Spring these new beekeepers can learn how to recognise signs of swarming and how to carry out swarm control measures. It's the way things have always been done, no real need to change things much because it works - doesn't it?

New beekeepers are, often, offered mentoring. The OED definition of a mentor is "An experienced person in a company or educational institution who trains and counsels new employees or students". The quality of this mentoring can vary wildly from BKA to BKA and also from one individual to another. If, for whatever reason, there is no real working relationship between a mentee and their mentor there can be misunderstandings and mishaps, more especially if the only contact is when the mentee desperately needs help, and doesn't use (or doesn't fully understand) the right buzz words - which is what seems to have happened with the beekeeper mentioned earlier.

It's rare to have a pear-shaped colony unless the beekeeper thinks this item is a must-have, but in the world of beekeeping things can go pear-shaped (wrong) quite quickly - and this is the whole point of this post.

The newly-trained beekeeper phoned their 'mentor' and asked about queen cells in their hives. The 'mentor' apparently advised to remove them, they said it would stop the colonies swarming.

It had been a short conversation and was the first contact between mentor and mentee since the end of this season's beginner's course. It would seem that both mentor and mentee assumed the other knew what they were talking about - the mentee assumed the mentor knew these were full-sized, overwintered, colonies; the mentor assumed they were discussing nucs purchased only recently.

The beekeeper trusted their mentor to have told them the right thing, and followed what they thought were instructions - to the letter, even though it didn't seem quite right, and wasn't what they'd read in their books. They went through their well-behaved, very large, colonies and removed every single queen cell. They did the same thing during the next inspection a week later. On the subsequent inspection there were no queen cells, so they were fully confident that they'd stopped their colonies from swarming and so they had no need to speak to their mentor again.

Did you spot the mistakes?
That's right! There was no discussion of colony size and mention of checking for eggs before removing any queen cells.

When we were standing next to these hives, almost empty of bees, the beekeeper carefully described what they had seen in one of them - a single, very large, queen cell right in the middle of a frame, but as they hadn't been asked, they didn't like to say. When they opened this queen cell they found a big fat larva, which they squashed.

Nobody had ever told them to check for eggs before removing queen cells, because this beekeeper's BKA presumes that those doing the beginner's course will not need to take swarm control precautions during their first year with the BKA.

So please, if you're a new beekeeper - check carefully before you do anything drastic and if you're a beekeeper trainer, please don't presume that all new, apparently self-sufficient, beekeepers know what they're doing.

And finally
You've found your way to this page and have read this far, now will you please take the time to download and read a booklet from the Welsh BKA. Written by Wally Shaw it's brilliant for new beekeepers, and is a superb refresher course for those who have been beekeeping for umpteen years and so know it all!

The booklet is called "There are Queen Cells in my Hive."


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