Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

What Goes Up Must Come Down


Preparation time: 2-3 weeks.  Cooking time: 1-2 days.  Washing up time: not finished yet.

  1. Put first beehive on wheels. You may need an adult to help you with this step.
  2. Gradually wheel first hive across apiary, a couple of steps per day, until first hive is near a selected second hive.
  3. Take two empty wooden boxes, each open at top and bottom, and sprinkle the insides with eucalyptus oil.
  4. Place first empty box on new hive stand, with new front door, between first and second hive.
  5. Transfer bees from first hive into first empty box.
  6. Cover top of first box with sheet of newspaper and sprinkle with eucalyptus oil.
  7. Put second empty box on top.
  8. Transfer bees from second hive - except the queen - into second empty boxYou should now have two colonies, one with queen and one without, separated by newspaper.
  9. Put roof on second box.
  10. Leave to cook.

And what do you get? Is this a recipe for disaster? I won't know for sure until spring. But the purpose, as you will have surmised, is to unite two colonies under one queen.

Two reasons. First, Queen Nefertiti's colony was very small. Possibly too small to survive the winter so I wanted to unite them with Queen Katherine's colony to boost their chances. Second, every spring so far, each of my colonies has generated at least one further colony. This doubling - or trebling - in colony numbers needs to be offset by a corresponding reduction in colony numbers at other times of year if Copper Bee Apiary is to remain a garden apiary rather than a commercial operation.

Poor Queen Katherine drew the short straw. I found her on her frame of comb without too much difficulty, but was unable to catch her in the small pot I had brought for the purpose. And then she hid in a hole in the comb, and I eventually had to put the comb down because it was too heavy. Whereupon she left that frame, and I only found her later after taking the whole Pond Hive apart and moving all the frames out of it, till eventually she revealed herself among a group of bees on the inside wall of the hive, and was captured.

I never saw Queen Nefertiti. However, after transferring her colony to the new box I checked her old hive and couldn't see her among the few remaining bees there. And her bees began their Nasonov fanning round the entrance to the new hive - see how they are stood all around the doorway with their bottoms in the air, their wings a blur because they are fanning them to disperse the pheromone from the Nasonov gland in their abdomen:

Nasonov fanning

This means, I hope, that the queen was within so the bees were communicating to the flying members of their colony that this was the new front door to come home to.

As soon as I put Queen Katherine's colony in the top box and put the roof on, the air was filled with the snap-crackle-pop sound of thousands of bees scratching and chewing at newspaper. The process of the colonies crossing the paper is supposed to take between one and two days, as they gradually chew small holes and meet with a gradual mingling of their colony scents, rather than meeting en masse and breaking into all-out colony war. And the idea of the eucalyptus oil is to further disguise their different scents in the hope of reducing fighting. But I think these colonies met rather quickly. The foraging and flying bees of the Pond Hive, who were in the air at the time of uniting the colonies, went into their new hive mob handed through the lower box containing Queen Nefertiti's colony. For this reason, it might have been safer if I had united the colonies the other way round, with the queenright colony in the top box and the queenless colony in the bottom box, to delay the risk of exposing the queen until the bees had mixed across the paper. But I wanted Queen Nefertiti's colony to be in the bottom box because they were on fewer combs and had fewer stores. This way, the greater number of honey-filled combs is in the top box where the bees will cluster and live on their reserves till the end of winter. 

The morning after the uniting, I looked out of the upstairs window and saw a heavy scattering of darkness over the new hive landing board. Thinking that these were piles of dead bees from an outbreak of colony warfare, I wondered if I had messed the whole thing up. But on closer inspection it turned out to be lots of little grey balls of newspaper that the bees had pushed out the door. Phew. But it does mean they chewed through it very fast. They are not "supposed" to remove it so quickly, according to the book method!

Fingers crossed that Queen Nefertiti is alive and well, and that we will see her again in the spring.

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