What is OTS?
How to raise a Queen Bee?
The week before swarming in the spring the hive should have at least six or more frames of brood and live drones. The size of the overwintered colony can vary and I’ve seen up to 14 frames of brood before seeing live drones. Regardless of the size, I never allow my bees to swarm on their own as it is not cost-effective given all of the investment and honey consumption it took to overwinter them. Allowing bees to swarm away means having less bees or no bees at all to work with during the season. No bees means no starts, no honey, no comb production, no pollination, no nothing. Instead, I begin my OTS procedures by making an artificial swarm with the overwintered queen and two frames of brood along with a shake or two of nurse bees from brood combs to care for it. This is done May 1st, but the date depends on the location’s swarming season. The old queen will outbreed the mites until July 1st when she again has at least 6-8 frames of brood. At that time she is dispatched and one frame of brood is notched to run for honey or all brood frames are notched to run for July starts as shown in the OTS queen rearing chart. There is an absence of brood in the hive until August 1st when the new queen commences laying, thereby breaking the mites’ breeding cycle.
Let’s go back to the original hive on May 1st from which I removed the queen with two brood frames, which leaves me six brood frames to notch that same day after the queen is removed. One week later, when the queen cells on those six brood frames are sealed, I assemble three, two-brood-frame starts and leave them in the same yard. I call these May starts because they were assembled in May, but the queens that emerge from them will actually start laying in June. I wait for one week after notching to assemble the starts so that the full-strength colony is the colony that does all of the hard work rearing the queen cells and sealing the brood. I consider a colony to be strong enough for OTS if it has a minimum of four brood frames. Strong colonies always do the best work. As a result, each new start has no stress as the bees do not have to seal brood or raise a queen cell but only have to incubate what has been completed by the fullstrength colony.
When I assemble new starts, I break down all but 1-2 queen cells for each start so that each comes out with a strong virgin for the mating flight. If too many virgins emerge they will duel which drains their strength for the mating flight. Virgins can also chase each other out of the hive before they are sexually mature, causing small, capsized swarms. Whenever any queen, virgin or not, flies out of a hive, their pheromones attract a certain amount of bees which leave with them. If a virgin queen lands on a limb because she was chased out of the hive, it’s called an after-swarm because she’s not sexually mature yet. A sexually mature virgin will outfly the bees following her and then those bees will return back to the hive where she will also return after she is mated. In other words, a virgin queen has no business flying out of the hive unless she is sexually mature. Therefore, it is counter-productive to have too many queen cells in each start. Starts that are assembled with one or two queen cells have a better chance for a successful mating flight. Remember, all queen cells created by strong colonies according to OTS queen rearing guidelines where 36-hour or younger larvae are available are all perfect cells. The alpha bees will always destroy any cell that is not perfect before it is sealed.
If the starts are not sold in June (as I mentioned, the date depends on the location), they can be united for the honey flow, as all will have at least 4-6 frames of brood by July 1st or they can be used to make increase as July starts. The queens must be dispatched in July because they were mated before the summer solstice, which means they will begin again to shut down in August. These queens have fulfilled their purpose and will be honored through their daughters and granddaughters when the beekeeper makes more starts and/or unites for the honey flow.
July is a strong honey flow month in Michigan from basswood, clovers, and star thistle. To unite May starts to run for honey in July, dispatch the May queens around July 1st, unite the starts, and then notch one brood comb to rear a daughter queen that will emerge in July, mate, and then begin laying by the first of August.
Since the 3rd May starts each had at least 4-6 frames of brood, this union becomes a powerful July start of at least 12-18 emerging brood combs with a huge amount of brood and field force to harvest the honey flow without any new brood to feed. As I’ve said many times, you don’t need a full-strength colony all of the time, only during the honey flow. This powerful honey hive may have 12-18 emerging brood frames without any new brood to feed for 30 days until the new queen is laying the first of August. Surplus honey shallows or supers may be needed, as 150-200 hundred pounds of honey is normal in a good year. More simply put, the beekeeper is trading brood for honey. It is a management decision. A colony has only so much voltage and the objects obtained depends on how the beekeeper manages that voltage. For example, a queen-right, the full-strength colony can consume up to 60 pounds of honey to rear brood for one month. By re-queening with OTS, all of that honey is saved plus what the field force would have collected normally until the new queen is laying.
An important thing to remember is that a honey flow stimulates a laying queen to lay even more eggs, which then requires even more honey.
Re-queening with OTS creates an absence of brood for 30 days so that the bees redirect their energies toward foraging instead of consuming honey to rear brood. This redirection not only creates more honey stores but eliminates consumer bees one month later, when there is a dearth, and simultaneously breaks the mites’ breeding cycle. A month later, the new queen is laying in a hive of plenty. A hive with plentiful stores boosts the morale and contentment of the colony, giving it fresh voltage.
It is important to realize that this hive is not hopelessly queenless. The first of August, surplus honey frames can be taken off with care until the location of the brood nest is identified within the hive. Make sure to leave the new queen and her colony with at least two or three frames of honey as she will turn that honey into bees in about one week, and because the brood that emerged in July is still alive, two deep brood boxes are still needed to accommodate all of the bees. At that time, the start must be fed or given extra honey as the new queen reproduces explosively and acts just like a spring queen, not shutting down until October. It is important that all starts have ample feed and/or honey.
Another option which uses the same voltage for an increase rather than honey production is to dispatch the three May starts’ queens in July and notch all of the brood frames. These May starts should have at least 4-6 brood frames with which to make up to nine July starts. The number of July starts made from the May starts depends on the strength of the May starts. Although these queens have only been laying for one month, they were mated before June 21st so their brood is best used to make increase and new, post-solsticemated queens. With these nine July starts and the four July starts generated from the old, overwintered queen you can increase to at least 13 new starts in one year. These new starts in August are perfect candidates for almond pollination the next February in California.
Only one July start is needed to overwinter, as that is what was started with in the spring. July starts don’t know that they are starts and will grow into full-strength colonies by spring. All July starts must be fed to draw out new comb and still have ample reserves to overwinter unless the beekeeper already has surplus honey frames and drawn comb.
Finally, there is a third option for those beekeepers that simply want to run for honey throughout the season. In May, after artificially swarming the old queen, just notch one comb out of the six left at the original location. Those six frames of bees, with the entire field force, should give you over one hundred pounds of honey by June 1st when the new queen is laying. The colony will not have brood to feed so be ready for a strong flow such as in the South from tulip poplar and in the North from black locust and fruit trees.
The goal is to produce more bees than the environmental contaminants can kill, and once you have bees you should never have to buy bees again.
A word of caution: Never cut corners, as some beekeepers think they can save a step by dividing up the colony into starts, letting each start rear its own cells and seal its own brood. This is a huge mistake and results in inferior queens due to the stress put on the start. Never allow a start or split to rear its own queen. Only full-strength colonies have the voltage to rear quality queen cells. A colony is considered full-strength enough to rear queen cells if it has a minimum of four brood frames. Please always provide starts with plenty of honey and extra feed. It is unreasonable to start a new colony without extra feed as they may have to draw out new comb. Always remember that it can take up to seven pounds of honey to draw out one pound of comb.