How to Make a Simple Robber Screen

 

This article has been previously published but contains seasonally relevant information.

As the nectar flows taper off at this time of year robbing sets in.   If you only have one hive and you know that there are no others nearby then you don’t need to worry about robbing – but the rest of us do.  Robbing is especially a problem when you have strong hives near small, weak or queenless hives – such as splits or mating nucs.  Especially if you are feeding those weaker hives.  There are lots of ways to manage robbing, but in my opinion, except for robber screens they all just nibble around the edges of the problem.  Robber screens work when nothing else will.  Even so, robber screens work much better if deployed before robbing sets in, so don’t wait.  BTW, if you want to you can leave robber screens on all year long – they won’t hinder a strong hive from making a honey crop, and they make excellent mouse guards in winter.

You may not realize that when nectar forage gets scarce robbing goes on all the time – it is stealthy and at a low level most of the time.  It only turns into the classic robbing frenzy under certain conditions – but even the stealth robbing that is much harder to spot can starve a nuc to death and add unnecessary stress to any hive.  I am convinced that it is a much bigger issue than most people think it is – and often why one hive does so well (expert thieves) and another fails to thrive (docile victims) – and is almost inevitable if you have Italian bees (notorious for robbing) in the same yard as Carniolians (famously docile.)

Robber screens work by separating the entrance to the hive from the smell which comes out of it – and since robbers find the entrance by homing in on the smell they go to the wrong place and are kept out by the screen, even though they can smell it.  The home bees will always be confused when you first add a robber screen (unless you do it when you first establish a hive in a new location) but they will figure it out if you give them about a week.  For a few days they will look pretty pathetic, so just try not to look.

Get Started Building a Robber Screen

As woodworking projects go they don’t get much easier than this – almost anyone should be able to build a robber screen like this with a bare minimum of tools.  A hammer and nails, any kind of saw, and a stapler are really all you need.

You can use pretty much any kind of scrap lumber for robber screens, but if you only have hand tools 1×2 furring strips ($3.14 / 8′)  from Lowe’s are really easy to work with.

A robber screen only has 2 critical dimensions – the width…

A robber screen needs to fit fairly tight between the sides of the bottom board – in this example that is about 12 5/16″ but yours will almost certainly differ.

and the height…

A robber screen needs to be lower than the bottom edge of the lid on a single box hive – or the hand hold cleat on a homemade hive body. In this example 5 -5 1/4″ would be about right.
Robber screens can be fitted to any size hive. In this picture the actual entrance is a round hole, and the home bees go in and out over the top of the screen. The bees on the outside of the screen near the entrance hole are robbers.

You don’t even need a tape measure you can just hold your material up to a hive and mark it…

These dimensions will vary depending on what size equipment you have.  Cut two sticks to your width, and 2 sticks the height that you want your screen to be.  You want to be able to use your screen on a single hive body – and don’t forget to take into account cleats that may be on home made hive bodies – your bees will go in and out over the top of the screen so give them enough room for that.  In other words, make them at least 1/2″ short of the lid or cleats when used with a single hive body.

Now that you have your sticks cut to length you will need a piece of screen – I am using aluminum screen wire for this example because it is easy to get and easy to cut with plain old scissors.  Hardware cloth or any kind of mesh will work as long as bees can’t go through it.  Cut your screen a little bit smaller than the finished size of your robber screen.

Staple the screen to one of the long sticks…

Use the side sticks to get the other long stick in position and staple the screen to it.  Now attach the sides.  A dab of exterior grade wood glue will make it more durable, but is not at all required…

Drive only one nail in each corner, and then check the frame for square…

Then finish nailing the corners and stapling the screen.  I suggest that you go ahead and drill two holes (if you have a drill) in the sides so that you can attach your screen with screws if needed…

And that is all there is to it.  Now you can get all the way through until winter without worrying about robbing.

 

Queenless!!

Queenlessness is probably the main cause of hive death during the beekeeping season – but it doesn’t have to be.  A hive can lose its  queen for several reasons – swarming, supersedure, beekeeper error,  etc.  Any time a new queen flies out to mate there is a significant chance that she won’t make it back.

When a strong hive becomes queenless for any reason you have about 4-5 weeks to take action to save the hive, but the sooner you do something the better it will be.  This is one reason that we do inspections.

What to do when you are queenless.

An Introduction to Queen Rearing

Honey bee eggs and young larva
As you can see in this great photo by Jeff LaSorsa You will most easily find the best larva for grafting – rearing queens from – by looking at the ones between unhatched eggs and larva that are too old for grafting on a frame of regular worker brood. Notice how easy it is to see eggs and brood on black plastic foundation.

 

This article was originally published in 2011 but contains seasonally relevant information.

There are a lot of reasons why a beekeeper might want to produce their own queens – to save money, to propagate bees with particular qualities, or just because it is an interesting thing to do.  Queen rearing will probably elevate your understanding of honey bees to a new level.

This article is derived from a more detailed one on my blog  – Beginner to Beginner Queen Rearing.

I am in no way pretending to be any kind of an expert – not only have I made many mistakes, but I expect to make many more next year.   As one beginner to another – I think I might have some useful insights into getting started in queen rearing.

I’m going to give several beginner-to-beginner tips in this article.  Things that might not be all that helpful to old hands but have really helped me.  Here’s the first – and I think, best:

Plan to practice rearing queens when it’s easiest – during the main flow/swarm season, that is – late April/Early June in Mid TN – when the bees want to reproduce.  It can be done earlier and later, but it’s a lot more difficult.

The Basic Principle of Honey Bee Queen Rearing

Any queenless hive of honey bees will try to make a new queen if it has the resources to do so.  The required resources being  1)  larva of an appropriate age 2)  food 3)  A sufficient number of worker bees 4)  Drones – male bees – that the new queen can mate with.  Most of the time such a hive will be successful in requeening itself.   The reason this is possible is that the only difference between a worker bee and a queen bee is the amount and type of food that they eat during the first few days after hatching from an egg.

So  if you want to raise a new queen, all you really have to do is create a hive without a queen which has eggs or very young larva and let the bees do the rest.    This is called a split and it is a fine way to increase the number of hives that you have.  And it’s exactly what I (mostly) did to go from 1 to 10 hives during my first 2 years.

brood frame with emergency queen cells
A frame of foundationless brood with “emergency” queen cells on it.  Ever heard that foundationless brood always has lots of drone brood on it?  Not when it’s drawn in a queen-right mating nuc.

The problem with making a split is that even though your queenless hive will probably make several queen cells only one of them will get a chance to fly out and mate – because the first one to emerge will kill the rest. And there is a significant chance that one won’t make it home either – many get eaten by predators, lost, or caught in bad weather.  So after committing a strong queenless hive to the project for about a month at best you only get one queen – and there’s a fair chance that you won’t even get one.

Also, high-quality queens must be fully fed, and immaculately cared for from the time they hatch from the egg – any queenless hive will do what they can with what they have, but you want your queens to be raised under the very best of conditions.  And that takes a lot of well-fed nurse bees – hundreds per each queen.

Queen Rearing – is a process whereby one strong queenless hive produces many well-fed/ well-grown queen cells at the same time, and then before they emerge and kill one another they are each given their own  “mating nucleus” hive to emerge into and head up until they are fully mature.

queen cells
finished queen cells – 10 days after grafting – ready to be put into mating nucs. Cells and picture by Joseph Clemens.

Worker cells lay horizontally in the hive – queen cells hang down vertically in the hive.  When nurse bees encounter larva in cells that hang down they tend to treat them as queen cells.  This concept is central to most queen rearing methods.

 

Using such a process one “Mother Queen” with desirable properties can produce many – in some cases thousands – of high-quality daughter queens.  You can use a similar system to produce a dozen or so good queens for your own use.  At $20-$40 each plus shipping for “store-bought” queens you don’t need to produce very many for it to make sense.  I would like to point out though, that after rearing queens myself a few times I understand why they are so expensive.  There is nothing all that hard about it, but there are several steps, and some of them absolutely must be done on a specific schedule.

A few Queen Rearing terms you should know:

Grafting – moving very young worker larva into artificial cell cups.  There are some graftless ways of producing queens but you will probably want to learn to graft sooner or later, and the thing is – it’s way easier than you probably think. It just takes practice. Grafting is pretty much the only way the pros use to produce large numbers of queens.

Cell Starter – An extremely populous – usually queenless – hive that will begin the process of turning worker larva into queen larva.  It can’t be overstated that both the cell starter and finisher need to be densely populated with young well-fed bees – overpopulated and overfed even to the point of being swarmy.

Cell Finisher – After about 24 hours in the cell starter, the cells are move into a finisher – Another populous (usually queenright) hive which will finish feeding/building the queen cells.

Starter/Finisher – One hive that combines the functions of the starter and finisher.  The Joseph Clemens System uses a starter/finisher as does the Cloake system.

ripe honey bee queen cell installed in a mating nuc
A ripe queen cell installed in a mating nuc – all you have to do is push the cell into the comb like this – preferably near brood.  That’s the kind of well-grown cell we all want to produce.

Mating Nucs – 10 days after grafting, the cells are removed from the finisher hive and each is put into their own queenless hives – mating nucs –  which they will emerge into, and fly out from to mate.  After mating the new queen will stay in the mating nuc at least until she is laying eggs and fully mature – 3 weeks more or less.

mating nucs
Any queenless hive can be used as a “mating nuc”  You can use a full size established hive, or a full-size setup with only a couple of frames of brood/bees.  Large operations sometimes use really tiny hives that contain only a cup full of bees.  They all have their advantages and disadvantages.  The mating nucs in the picture contain 3 medium frames. They are being fed syrup in mason jars through a matching hole in the covers – the coffee cans keep the sun from overheating the syrup and making it leak into the hives.

 

 

 

A nucleus hive overflowing with bees.
Queen cells can be produced in small hives, but to do a good job they have to have a dense population of well-fed young nurse bees.

You can start raising queens any time that you have drones, but it will be much easier to get good results – and easier period – during the main spring nectar flow/swarm season.  In our area of middle Tennessee, Swarm season started hot and heavy during the first week of April this past spring so counting back from that date One could set up a starter/finisher hive about March 15 and grafted for the first time around March 20.  The truth is that the weather this April was very unsettled, and not the best for queen mating flights, but the early start allows a little practice before the prime queen production season – the month of May through early June.   Think about that when you order a commercial queen for early spring delivery – what was the weather like when that queen was trying to mate?  Another reason to raise your own.

a cell bar frame for rearing honey bee queens
Homemade cell bar frame with JZBZs cells installed – ready for grafts.  Notice that when the grafts are installed in the starter hive the cell cups will point down – this fools the nurse bees into treating them as queen cells.

You can learn more about queen rearing here.

Queen Rearing – an excellent series of videos on the subject.