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Intercast queens and swarm guards

I want to share an interesting conversation I’ve been having with Oregon beekeeper Morris Ostrofsky. After I posted about how to use swarm guards, he challenged the idea that virgin queens can sometimes get through them. He wrote:

I had a conversation with Dan Purvis some years ago regarding virgin queens and queen excluders. Dan is a commercial queen breeder and quite knowledgeable. He is adamant that virgin queens cannot go through a queen excluder. If this is so, then virgin queens should not be able to go through a swarm guard if the spacing is the same as a queen excluder. When virgins first come out of their cells, their abdomens are not full size but their thorax is and that’s the reason virgins cannot pass through a queen excluder.

I explained that I’ve seen swarms with virgin queens go through swarm guards, but I thought this might be due to worn out excluders. Over time as they get dropped, thrown into the backs of trucks, or wedged into buckets, the spacing gets compromised . . . at least in the metal ones. At that point, if a queen is lucky, she can find that sweet spot where the bend works in her favor.

But then Morris came up with a brilliant idea that could explain why I was seeing something different than a commercial queen breeder even if the excluder was properly spaced:

An intercast queen, a queen which has been raised from a larva that is too old to produce a perfect queen, will be smaller. This could explain a smaller queen passing through an excluder: a smaller queen, therefore a smaller thorax. Since Dan is a competent queen breeder he surely does not see intercast queens, at least not from his own operation. So from his own experience he would be adamant that the thorax of queens would not pass through an excluder.

And I believe Morris is right. His comment reminded me that I did have such a queen a few years ago. She was so small I couldn’t find her except by looking for her retinue. Although she was basically queen shaped, she was not much longer than a worker, and I would say her abdomen was more rounded and less pointed than a standard queen. Surely she could have fit through an excluder.

I kept track of her because I was fascinated by her smallness. She was obviously able to mate and function normally because she built up the hive for about three months before the colony superseded her. In a way, she demonstrated nature over nurture—she was small because she was nurtured too late to become a normal queen, but her genetics were fine because she laid the egg that became the queen that superseded her. The colony ultimately thrived and lives on today.

But this is an open topic. I’m sure there is more to hear on the subject of virgin queens, intercast queens, and queen excluders, so be sure to chime in.


Do Brussels sprouts need pollination?

Some questions surprise me because they reappear so frequently, but what is it with Brussels sprouts? For decades I’ve heard nothing about Brussels sprouts, but suddenly every third visitor wants to know how to pollinate them. I do not understand.

I endure Brussels sprouts mostly because my husband likes them and they are good for me. But I will eat them only fresh off the stalk. A Brussels sprout that is frozen or otherwise tampered with goes through a mystical transformation that makes it truly vile. It’s not the flavor so much as the texture—a mouthful of bland green mush—that really gets to me. Shiver.

But if you are the type of person that wants to ensure the survival of said mush, you should know that Brussels sprouts can be pollinated by both honey bees and native bees. The plant belongs to the Brassicaceae family that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, and kohlrabi. The odd thing is that Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, savoy, and Chinese kale are all in the same species, Brassica oleracea—they are merely different cultivars (cultivated varieties).

This means that when growing the plants for seed, you must keep the different cultivars separated from each other because they can readily cross-pollinate. For example, a broccoli might cross with a Brussels sprout and yield yet another smelly cabbagy thing to fester in our produce drawers. The amount of separation should be at least a mile because, as you know, honey bees are completely willing to span that distance.

People unfamiliar with plant propagation will often say they buy seeds, grow a sprout (or a carrot or a turnip), and never see a flower. So who needs pollination? Good question except they are forgetting that the seed wasn’t manufactured by Home Depot. They were grown by a farmer who maintained the plants until they flowered. Then the honey bees were brought in to do their thing. What a system.

So the short answer is “yes,” Brussels sprouts need pollination. Without pollination there is no seed. And without the seed we would have no more Brussels sprouts . . . perhaps not such a bad thing after all.


Fresh Brussels sprouts are fine, but don’t try anything funny. Wikimedia Commons photo by Eric Hunt.

Confidential to “Typo Police”: Thanks. Indeed I have only one husband.

My bees swarmed right after installation

This is most likely to happen when you install a package of bees in a brand new, never-been-used hive. I’ve heard people say it’s the smell of new lumber they don’t like, or it’s the glue in plywood, or it’s the odor of paint. But it may just be that the bees are not in love with the place, and they would rather live elsewhere. Technically, they have not swarmed; they have absconded. Swarming is colony reproduction that produces two colonies from one. Absconding means all the bees left in one cohesive group. In other words, it is still only one colony—not two—and it lives somewhere inconvenient for the beekeeper.

The problem is easy to prevent. The package of bees will not leave without their queen, so if the queen can’t leave, the bees will stay and start to build comb. Once the comb-building process has begun—and the hive begins to smell like home—you can release the queen and relax.

To keep the queen home, you can leave her in the queen cage until comb-building is underway or you can use a swarm guard, which is like a queen excluder, across the entrance. Beekeeper Jim Withers pointed out that in Langstroth hives you can also use a regular queen excluder placed just under the lowest brood box. In any case, the queen should be released from her cage as soon as comb appears. Queen excluders need to be removed before any drones emerge.

I had several packages abscond at the prison where I taught beekeeping, all from top-bar hives. Since then, I always sequester the queen if the wood is new, or I install several bars of used brood comb—the darker the better—to start them off. This is the same type of comb you would use in a bait hive. Even though it looks disgusting, it is full of odors the bees find irresistible. Go figure.

But what about those old combs? Shouldn’t old black combs—which may contain pesticide build-up or disease—be rotated out of the hive? Absolutely. I handle this by using combs that are almost ready to retire, but not quite. For example, if you retire combs after four years, use three-year-old combs for baiting a hive or starting a colony on new wood. The following year you can rotate them out of the hives.

Easiest package installation ever

Seattle beekeeper Tracey Byrne calls herself a “beepeeker,” a term that needs to go in the glossary. You may remember Tracey as the woman of many talents who also raises springtails on her bottom boards. This morning Tracey sent the following description of her recent package installation along with some instructive photos. Lots of us in the northern parts have yet to receive our packages, so this is a great reminder of an easy way to install.

It’s me, “Tracey of the Springtails”, with some photos of our easiest installation ever. We read your directions of how to let the bees do it, rather than shaking the box out, and changed it up a wee bit:

First, we had two packages to install, and four deep frames of honey from an empty nuc. We put two frames of honey into each deep, in with the already built out frames of our two empty hives. Then we just removed the can of syrup and the queen in her little cage, and set the box of bees on its side in the hive.

We replaced the cork with a bit of marshmallow, set the queen cage back in, and then put the cover on. (No need for the syrup.) We then let the hives sit for 2.5 days, and when we took the cover back off: empty box and empty queen cage! Yay!

Thank you for the tip. What an elegant (and lazy) way to load the hives. We loved it.

New package ready to be installed.
New package ready to be installed.
Package on its side; syrup can and queen cage removed.
Package on its side; syrup can and queen cage removed.
Ready for the cover.
Ready for the cover.