Re-thinking the queen excluder
This morning a reader from Roseburg, Oregon commented on The queen excluder controversy which reminded me of some observations I made this summer while experimenting with queen excluders.
I discovered that my colonies with excluders produced just as much honey as those without. However, the colonies with excluders seemed to follow a different protocol for honey deposition.
In my apiary the colonies without excluders built vertically more quickly than those with them. In other words, they completely filled seven or eight sides in the uppermost brood box, then five or six sides in the first super, three or four in the second super, and maybe two in the third super. It looked like a chimney effect: the honey appeared to be pulled up the center of the hive like smoke in a chimney.
In those hives with excluders I noticed a tendency for the bees to completely fill the brood boxes before moving into the first super–every cell not containing brood or pollen was filled with honey. This could be construed as good or bad, depending on how you look at it. It’s bad if you believe too much honey in the brood box causes swarming, good if you are hoping to overwinter your bees without having to constantly feed.
I believe that swarming is more apt to be triggered by an abundance of bees than an abundance of honey (“Help! There’s too much food! Let’s leave!”) but that is a separate question. Here I’m just looking at the pattern of honey storage.
Those beekeepers who wait (patiently) for their bees to fill the lower boxes with honey will find that the bees eventually go through the excluder and store more. I think that beekeepers who try to force them through the excluder, or those who run the risk of getting brood in their honey supers by not using an excluder, are just being impatient.
I also think that those who wait (and wait and wait) for the bees to go through the excluder on their own will be in a better position for overwintering. They will have ample supplies of honey throughout the brood boxes and will have do less feeding in the long run.
Of course, if you are the type of beekeeper who would rather take every drop of honey you can and then feed sugar to compensate, you would be better served by dispensing with the excluder and letting them chimney. But I hope you’re not that beekeeper.
I think the belief that a queen excluder is just a honey excluder is embraced mostly by those beekeepers too impatient to let the bees do it their own way and on their own schedule.
Just for the record, the colonies on which I used excluders this year are the heaviest I’ve ever produced—further evidence that colonies with excluders produce just as much honey . . . they just put it in different places. I managed a good harvest as well, but I am elated at the prospect of feeding less.