Note: Two-queen systems have fascinated me for a long time, but I’ve never known exactly how to set up the equipment and get started. Finally, I decided to ask Bill Hesbach of Connecticut, the one person I know with both the knowledge and practical experience to point me in the right direction. Bill was kind enough to write the following post that contains a little history, some basic explanations, and many “how to” pointers.
As I explained to Bill, I want to set up a two-queen system to use along with ideas gleaned from Anthony Planakis for increasing honey production, namely a series of upper entrances in my section honey supers. After reading this, I feel like I’m ready. The critical part for me will be overwintering some good strong colonies.
Many thanks to Bill for this insightful write-up.
First, a little history
Two-queen systems designed to manage and increase honey production have been used extensively, but have not been adopted on a large industrial scale. As you can imagine, the hive manipulations can get complicated and there are arguments both for and against the effort required for the increase in production. Early on, two-queen systems were almost always configured vertically but have since been configured in both vertical and horizontal systems.
In their simplest form, vertical systems are upright stacks with one brood chamber on the bottom board followed by honey supers, a queen excluder, and another queen-right brood chamber on top. Vertical systems can grow rapidly into large towers and require lots of heavy work to manage properly. The literature commonly references vertical systems with 10 or more boxes and goes on to explain that for ease of manipulation they were, if you can imagine, tilted to the ground so they could be worked on horizontally and then reassembled vertically.
The horizontal two-queen system
The system I’m describing is a horizontal system in that two colonies are placed side by side so they can share a common set of supers. The colonies stay physically separate although I prefer to join the bottom boards with screws. This ensures both sets of brood chambers are at identical heights even if the assembly is placed on a slightly uneven surface.
We begin with two colonies on separate bottom boards allowing bees to fly out different entrances—all fairly straight forward. It’s the next step of stacking supers that allows us to share both the field force and the nurse bees making this technically a two-queen system. This is accomplished when we stack supers in the middle between each colony allowing both access to the supers.
Initially, the supers are placed over a queen excluder. Some beekeepers consider the queen excluder optional. I prefer to use an excluder until harvest and just for reference, when a queen excluder is used the systems are sometimes referred to as two-queen verses a multiple-queen system when a queen excluder is not used.
The use of a queen excluder will allow you the option to decide when, or if, you want a “royal battle.” The preferred excluder is flat without a raised rim. When you place a flat excluder, so it straddles both brood chambers, it eliminates the bee space on the box edges between the two colonies so the queens can’t wander over and try to kill each other. If you use a wood framed excluder, the raised rim will provide a bee space so you’ll need to add a filler strip under the wire portion of the excluder to eliminate that space.
In this side-by-side configuration it’s not clear that nurse bees will readily share brood tending because of the journey required to travel between the boxes and the fact that each queen’s pheromone may be more isolated to their own side. In a vertical system it’s easier to visualize how nurse bees can move freely up and down through a queen excluder. Also a vertical system has the added advantage of efficient convective flow aiding heat transfer and pheromone distribution. Although nurse bees may be not be as efficient in a horizontal system, the boxes are more accessible for management and you can intervene to increase brood by adding frames and also equalize the colonies strength by moving brood around.
The next items you’ll need are two small half covers for the 5 frames left exposed on each colony when honey supers are stacked in the middle. They can be migratory or half telescoping covers. You’ll also need a set of full-size migratory covers for use during the spring build when there are no honey supers. The half covers should fit snugly against the side of the supers to keep rain penetration to a minimum. That leads to the issue of the queen excluder’s thickness. A flat excluder is usually a little larger than the outside dimensions of a box. Although it’s only a fraction of an inch it will prevent a migratory cover from fitting snug against the honey super’s side. To eliminate the issue, I add a full size shim to the underside on the cover but stop it just short of the edge allowing the excluder lip enough room to run under the cover. An inner cover is not needed if you choose migratory covers but a telescoping cover may be glued down without one. If you make half telescoping covers and end up using an inner cover it will act as a shim and you can slide the telescoping cover against the honey super for a snug fit.
That’s basically the equipment you’ll need so the next step is to consider your startup choices. If you’re trying for increased honey production, it’s best to start a two-queen system with a strong overwintered colony and a young queen that you can split early. That way you can use the parent colony for one side and immediately re-queen the split for the other. Another way is to start with your own overwintered nucleus colonies, or other strong yard splits. You can also start with real early packages on drawn comb and feed so they build quickly. However you decide to start, the idea is to begin about six weeks before your main flow so they’re ready in time with a large field force. With packages you may need more time even when using drawn comb. If you use packages and foundation you’re less likely to meet the flow in the temperate climates.
Most two-queen systems are used for increased honey production and if that’s your goal, it’s important to keep in mind that a two-queen system depends on productive forage and accurate timing of your main nectar flow. So if you decide to try one in an area with historically low nectar flows, you may not experience increased production. Even without increased production, since a two-queen system requires more attention to early spring preparation, the skills you sharpen while preparing the colonies will enhance your beekeeping in the rest of your apiary.
In addition to increased honey production, once mastered, the skills can be used to assist weak colonies, help manage swarming, facilitate re-queening, and generate new colonies. Finally, on a more personal level, more than any other system a two-queen broadens your understanding of your area’s floral sources and bloom schedule. Once you begin to yoke floral sources to your observation of how the biology of your colonies are affected, you’re on the way to a more complete understanding of beekeeping as art—they’re worth a try.
1976. Two-queen system of honey bee colony management. 11 p. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Production Research Report 161. Moeller
American Bee Journal 1990 Vol. 130 (1) pages 44-48 http://www.tc.umn.edu/~reute001/pdf-files/comparison%20I.pdf
The role of queen mandibular pheromone and colony congestion in honey bee (Apis mellifera L.). Journal of Insect Behavior, 1991, Volume 4, Number 5, Page 649.
Mark L. Winston, Heather A. Higo, Simon J. Colley, Two-queen vs. single-queen colony management. Gleanings Bee Cult. 64(10): 593-596.
About the author
Bill Hesbach is a sideline beekeeper, and artisanal honey producer, in Cheshire Ct, where he owns and operates Wind Dance Apiary. Bill studied beekeeping at Rutgers University in NJ and is currently enrolled in the master beekeeping program at the University of Montana. Bill serves on the board of directors for the Backyard Beekeepers Association of CT, where he helps teach new beekeepers, and designs and teaches advanced beekeeping courses. Bill has an avid interest in honey bee biology and beekeeping history. As an advocate for bees, Bill is an active speaker at local beekeeping organizations, area elementary and high schools, and regional agricultural programs. Bill is also a contributing writer to Bee Culture Magazine.