Probably the most common and strongest reaction to “On The Spot” (OTS) queen rearing by beekeepers is the idea that splitting colonies will ruin your honey crop that year. In short, I want to demonstrate that this is a ‘false dichotomy’ and that you actually can have your cake and eat it too when it comes to OTS. Yes, you can split (artificial swarm) your overwintered colonies just before swarm season (to prevent swarms) and split again post-solstice (to suppress mites and have young queens for winter) and still obtain a great honey harvest. Let me show you how.
There are five important facts to keep in mind as we consider the details:
- You don’t need strong colonies all season long, just during a flow.
- Re-combining colonies just before a flow can create a booming colony just when you need it.
- Queens mated in July will produce like a spring queen, while queens mated earlier in the year will be ramping down.
- A colony in a brood break can store honey quickly as it has no brood to rear and take care of.
- A full-strength colony can consume around 60 pounds of honey per month rearing brood
And before we get into harvesting honey, let’s remind ourselves about the many positive side-effects of OTS:
- You are raising your own FREE queens and bees. Do the math—think about how much it would cost you right now to buy any number of nucs, packages or queens.
- You are raising and perpetuating your own local line of queens and bees, rather than relying on bees from elsewhere. As Mel Disselkoen says, “The best bee is the one that survives in your yard.”
- You can quickly expand (and contract) the number of colonies in your yard with OTS.
- Brood breaks from OTS are a great part of your mite management plan that disrupts the mite reproductive cycle, allowing your bees to outbreed the mites.
Okay, so how is it possible to do OTS splits AND harvest significant honey? There are two main paths, with variations on the theme. To simplify, let’s assume we are in Ohio, using the dates here locally as an example that you will need to adjust per your location.
Option 1 — Early spring notch and harvest (for overwintered colonies)
A key part of the OTS system is doing artificial swarms on your overwintered colonies a week before swarm season hits in your location. At this point, nectar and pollen are beginning to come in, colonies have already been expanding for a couple months and getting strong enough to swarm soon with 4+ frames of brood or more along with building stores of pollen and honey. Left to itself, this colony is in good danger of swarming. In my area that’s from around May 7 to May 21, with the majority of swarms towards the beginning of that timeframe.
When you do an artificial swarm in early spring, the remaining bulk of bees and brood, now queenless, remains in the original location. The day of the artificial swarm, you notched one or more frames looking to have fully formed and capped queen cellls a week later. If honey is your desire, here’s what you do.
Rather than breaking up the old colony into two or three splits, just keep it all together with 1-2 queen cells max and put a honey super on immediately. Why? This colony will be queenless for another 3 weeks, and with little brood for awhile as the new queen ramps up laying. The colony’s entire energy can be put towards storing honey at this point and/or building wax if you don’t have a reserve of drawn comb. Filling a box or more at this time isn’t out of the question — and it’s only Spring!
Option 2 — Recombining May OTS in late June or July to Capture Honey
Okay, say you’d like to both increase your colonies even further AND harvest honey. Remember, we started with only ONE overwintered colony. The now queenless colony that you took the artificial swarm from — that’s building queen cells a week later.
We talked above about not splitting and just running for honey. What if we want to split this into 2-3 colonies to expand your apiary? Go ahead and do so. Assuming all queens are mated successfully, you could have a grand total of 4 laying colonies by June 1 (but no big honey gains yet).
You’ll likely have some kind of summer or early fall flow that you can capture later by removing the queens and combining 2 or 3 of these laying colonies right before that flow, and notching just one frame. A week later, you cull down to 1-2 queen cells. At this point, you have anywhere from 12-18 frames of capped brood and a massive amount of bees that again, due to 30-day brood break, can focus on bringing in honey. In this situation, I’d put on a couple extra supers and watch closely to ensure the colony has room to bring in nectar.
One objection to doing OTS and raising queens at this time is that the perception is there won’t be enough time for the colony to build up and mature in time to overwinter. But there’s one catch — remember above, we stated that (for whatever reason) queens mated post-solstice (June 21 or later) will be allowed to lay in strength like a spring queen and boost colony numbers very quickly, while normal, older, queens begin to ramp down in August. I’ve seen this work year after year. I actually remove ALL queens in my yard around June 20th every season and notch. The queens raised at this time are just as large, healthy and prolific as queens raised in early spring. The colonies they lay in simply boom in numbers and I overwinter them most often in double-deeps.
Don’t forget about the original artificial swarm!
We’ve been talking about what to do with the original parent colony with splits and re-combining as we consider options for harvesting honey. Let’s go back to the beginning and look at the artificial swarm.
As a start, it will take some time to mature and build. However, by the end of June, it’s also strong enough to apply the same principles above. If you want splits, you can split this colony up into 2-3 in June or again, run for honey by keeping the colony together, notching one frame and run for honey during the brood break.
- Consider if we kept the original colony together, without any queen rearing or splitting and look at how big that might get and how much honey you’d anticipate gathering over the course of the entire season with that one colony.
- Consider how many frames of brood and bees you can raise with the OTS method in comparison.
- Consider how many pounds of honey you would anticipate gathering with all the OTS brood breaks and splits and recombining
If done correctly, assuming normal to decent weather and flows, and if you are focused on harvesting honey, OTS splits and queen rearing actually creates more bees and more honey over the course of the season than conventional methods.
This post a cursory treatment of the topic, and there are more ideas and variations on the theme. Feel free to weigh in with your experiences or questions below or in the OTS Beekeeping Facebook group. And, don’t forget to buy Mel’s book!
John Schwartz, Ohio