Why do experienced and commercial beekeepers use queen excluders without hesitation, while newbees insist their bees won’t go through an excluder under any circumstances? Certainly the bees aren’t considering the beekeeper’s experience level, they’re just doing what they need to do on their own schedule.
The answer, I think, has more to do with beekeeper impatience than anything else, and impatience is a hallmark of many new beekeepers: “I want honey and I want it now.”
Some people ask how they can keep the queen in the lower boxes without using a queen excluder. I don’t have a good answer for that. I know some beekeepers keep rotating the brood boxes, putting the queen in the lower one, but that’s insane. She has legs and knows how to use them. As soon as you do all that heavy lifting, the queen shrugs, wonders what all the fuss is about, and goes wherever she pleases.
On the other hand, several different methods can be used to entice the bees through the excluders, but I don’t see much benefit in doing so. Bees under a queen excluder tend to fill out the lower brood boxes completely before going up. To me, this is a good thing, not a bad one. I love it when the brood boxes are heavy with wintertime stores so I don’t have to feed. It’s better for them and better for me.
When they’re ready, they will go
When the bees need more space to store honey, they will go through the excluders and store it. This is where patience comes in: the bees will do it when they feel the need, not when you feel the need.
While it seems true that bees without a queen excluder tend to go up sooner, there may be a price to pay. Without an excluder, the bees sometimes neglect to fill the outer frames in the brood box, say those in positions 1 and 10, and possibly 2 and 9. Instead they work above the established brood nest, which is generally on the center frames.
Look before you take
I remember a conversation last year with a woman who had extracted everything in her supers and then, late in the season, realized her bees had no honey stores whatsoever in the brood boxes. I will never forget her question: “Why did the bees store honey for me before they stored honey for themselves?”
I had trouble convincing her that the bees stored every last drop of it for themselves and never gave her a second thought. But there’s an important lesson here: don’t ever take all the honey in the supers if the frames below are empty. Look before you take. That’s all you have to remember.
But getting back to the queen excluder, this situation (honey above but none below) is more likely to happen when the beekeeper has encouraged his bees to build in the supers before they are ready. The bees would have been better off if the beekeeper left them alone.
Can you have it all the first year?
The admonition that you can’t get honey from a first year package used to be pretty common. It was an oft-repeated refrain meant to reign in that new-beekeeper impatience. I don’t hear it as much anymore. It seems the philosophy now is, “You can have it all the very first year.”
But if you think about it carefully, you can see why the old advice makes good sense. New packages are usually installed just before or during the spring flows. The first thing the bees need to do is build a brood nest and raise brood. They can do a lot of this in a hurry, because of all the forage available. They may even be able to fill two brood boxes with combs and fill those combs with brood, pollen, and honey.
But by the time that is done, the summer solstice is near and egg laying gradually slows and the populations begin to drop. As the brood nest shrinks the bees backfill much of that with honey to get ready for the winter. This is exactly the time that new beekeepers put on their first honey supers. When it becomes obvious that their bees are not interested in this new space, the beekeeper becomes completely discouraged and blames the queen excluder.
“In general” does not mean always
If at this point I explain that it’s hard to get a crop the first year, I invariably will be told how their friend, relative, neighbor or whatever got 40 pounds off their first-year colony. Well, maybe they did: exceptions are a fact of life. Or maybe they took honey that should have been left for the bees. That’s not the point. The point is that in general it is hard for a first-year package in a brand new hive to make harvestable honey the first year—regardless of the queen excluder.
Meanwhile, experienced beekeepers with established colonies on drawn combs don’t have these issues. Come spring, the bees can start collecting nectar and raising young—they don’t have to do all that building. The brood nest fills up quickly and the bees move right through the excluders and into the honey supers while the heavy flows are still on. Everything happens so fast they don’t have time to sit around and discuss the relative merits of putting honey on the far side of the fence. They just do it.
For all of you impatient beekeepers not interested in heeding this advice, I’m working on a list of ways to convince your bees to cross the fence before their time. Stay tuned.
Honey Bee Suite