You installed your spring packages. You fed the colonies as much sugar syrup as they would take. They look great and they’re building up fast. Perhaps you’ve even added a second hive body. Beekeeping is easy! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a lot, actually. The first thing you need to worry about is overcrowding. Assuming you installed the packages three weeks ago, there should be a substantial amount of capped brood. It takes 21 days from the time the queen lays the egg until it is fully developed and emerges as an adult worker. We’re almost there. Why aren’t we at 21 days yet? Well, it takes 1 or 2 days for the queen to be released from her cage and another day or two for her to start laying. At most, the oldest brood is at 19 days, and maybe as little as 17 days. But the important thing to realize is that while you colony populations may have declined a bit due to natural die-off of your package bees, the population is about to explode. As many as 1000 new bees will be added each day, far outstripping the death rate for the next few weeks.
The increase in population has many benefits, of course. The colony grows in strength and can defend itself, build comb and collect pollen and nectar much more effectively.
But there’s a downside: swarming. As the population grows, the colony will begin to feel crowded if not given plenty of space in which to expand. When this sense of crowding reaches a critical point, the colony will produce one or more queens. When a new queen emerges, the old queen will leave the colony with a substantial portion of the workers in search of a new place in which to make a home. The existing colony will be left with a virgin queen, depleted honey stores and fewer bees. The capability of this colony to produce enough honey for harvest is greatly diminished.
You don’t want your hives to swarm.
The best way to suppress the formation of queen cells is to give the colony plenty of room to expand. Once the brood nest is filled, most beekeepers make splits by taking one or two frames of brood out of strong colonies, combining four or five of them together and adding a new queen, thereby creating a new colony. Its a good way to make increase in your bee yard, but if you’re a beginner you may not have the confidence or the equipment to do this. If this is the case, the only sure-fire way to suppress queen cell development is to check for them, removing them if they are found.
Queen cells extend out and down from the frame. They have a peanut-like texture. The queen cell shown below is not fully formed; the larva is in the cell, but the opening, which points downward, hasn’t been capped yet.
If you find a queen cell, simply remove it by cutting it out with a knife. If you don’t have a knife, a hive tool will do. One thing to check before removing the cell, however, is the the presence of the queen. If a queen dies and there is brood that is young enough, the colony will produce a new queen to replace her.
Queen cells are most likely to form on the inner frames, so if you don’t have enough time to check every frame of every hive checking the middle four or six frames will usually suffice. Furthermore, the instinct to swarm is diminished after about July 1 in Connecticut (although it is possible for swarm to form any time during warm weather), so it’s not as necessary to check after that point.
Good luck, and check for queen cells!