Shaking larvae from their beds
In third grade my best friend, Kristen, filled the bowl of a soup spoon with mustard. Then, using her finger as a catapult, she fired the mustard into the air. The glistening glob sailed silently above the clattering tables and hit the cafeteria wall just below the ceiling.
Kristen spent the afternoon in the principal’s office. The rest of us were compelled to look at that disgusting splat for the next four yearsglossy and yellow at first, devolving to a dull gray-green as the months passed.
As beekeepers, we are frequently urged to “shake the frames free of bees.” For various reasons, we sometimes want to transfer brood from place to place without all the attending bees, and shaking them from the frames is quick and easy.
But shakingusually a straight up-and-down flick of the wristsshould be a gentle, non-violent sort of motion, just enough to dislodge most of the bees. Shake too hard and you can dislodge your larvae from their little puddles of food. I say this with some authority because I actually tried it.
Some years ago, I watched a beekeeper “shake” his frames by rapping the bottom bars against the edge of the brood box. Bang! Bang! He crashed the frames until not a single bee remained on the wax combs (a guy thing, no doubt). I longed to peek at the larvae after that, but he was impatient and shooed me away.
So the following spring, I tried it myself. I dislodged the bees from a deep frame of brood with a horrific rap on the brood box. Then I looked.
I immediately remembered the mustard. The single impact had flung several dozen larvae onto the walls of their cellsas if their chauffer had driven 30 mph into a brick wall. The victims I could see were small, those not wide enough to fill their cells. The older larvae and eggs were still in place.
Now honey bee larvae don’t wear seat belts or crash pads, and they are not designed to crawl back where they came from. A larva splatted on the cell wall is in serious trouble: separated from its moist pool of food, it begins to desiccate almost immediately. And even if a host of nurse bees could triage the mess, nurses are in short supplyyou just shook them off the frames, remember?
So when you shake your frames, do it gently. You don’t have to remove every last bee. In fact, the foragers are the ones you usually want to lose, and they leave easily. Nurse bees hang on a little tighter, but a few nurses transferred to a different hive won’t do any harm.
If you can’t be gentle, you can always use a bee brush. But generally, shaking works fine as long as there is no impact, and as long as you don’t have queen cells on your frames. But please don’t be brutal; don’t launch your larvae into oblivion. Remember, this is beekeeping, not war.