Topper Colonies are a secondary way of establishing a modified 2 queen colony using a Snelgrove or double screen board.
Recently I have been working with Snelgrove boards and using them to establish a Topper Colony. The purpose of this is much the same as a double queen hive, but perhaps simpler to undertake. Adding a second queen has the potential to increase the amount of brood and worker bees available to secure a larger honey crop.
As many of you know, I have for many years run 2 queen colonies and favor them for Alaska beekeeping. Although 2 queen hives have their advantages they also come with a few problems. First of all there are not normally 2 queens in the same hive at a time and the establishment of the colony is not as easy as setting up a single queen colony. The most opportune time to do this is when the package of bees is filled in the bee supplier’s yard. Instead of one queen in the package the bees get used to the pheromones of two queens at the same time.
I have found that the establishment of the hive it is most efficient to install the package into one brood box with a thin divider between the two halves of the package. This way the queens cannot come in contact with each other, the bees share heat through the divider and the bees continue to mix at the entrance. The sharing of heat through the divider helps establish a larger brood nest since each half does not establish a spherical nest but instead establishes a half sphere up against the center divider. Thus there is more cells that are within the warm area for the queen to lay in.
Disadvantages of the two queen colony are varied depending on the situation each spring. Sometimes one queen smells slightly better than the other and the drift of the bees establishes a lopsided brood nest. Instead of the divider cutting the brood nest directly in half there may be three fourths of the bees on one side and only a quarter on the other side. This is not enough bees to allow the queen to lay very many eggs and to outward appearances it may look like she is inferior and needing to be replaced.
Sometimes the bees will reject one of the two queens and she will simply go missing or she will be found dead. In these cases I have found it nearly impossible to introduce a replacement as the bees have already decided that they want the other queen and consider themselves queenright. This happens in about 10 to 15 percent of the hives that I run.
One of the disadvantages of the 2 queen system from a package of bees is the size of the warm brood area in the early spring. There is just not enough space to keep 2 queens busy laying eggs. With the 21 day egg to adult cycle of the worker bees, within a week or so almost all of the available cells have something in them and there is a waiting period for cells to become available for the queen to lay in again. The queen can find more cells available if the weather warms a bit and the cluster expands in size and is not quite so dense. Once we have passed the 3 week mark this is not quite so noticeable and by late spring and early summer there is plenty of available cells to lay in. This is where the growth of the 2 queen colony accelerates and outpaces the single queen colonies.
The use of a Snelgrove board gets around this period where the queens are not challenged to reach their capabilities.
I find it easier to follow the development of a model if the assumptions (“facts” as others would call them) are laid out. I have laid these out in a conservative fashion.
Here are some assumptions that this discussion involves:
The development of a brood nest is dependent upon warm temperatures. The colder the temperature the tighter the cluster, the smaller the hot core. The smaller the hot core the fewer suitable cells for eggs.
A full strength hive contains about 60 thousand bees. 15 thousand gathering nectar for themselves and the feed for the larvae and house bees, and 45 thousand bees gathering the surplus honey crop. If nectar flows are abundant they are capable of making 60 to 100 pounds for the surplus. Doing the math each thousand bees can gather between 1.32 and 2.2 pounds of honey (for 750 bees it would be between .99 and 1.65 pounds of honey).
The price of honey is about $11 in the wholesale market.
A queen should be able to lay 750 eggs per day.
The above three facts gives us: 750 bees is worth between $10.86 and $18.11 of honey. If queens are worth $40 then she would need to produce about 3,000 workers
The first foraging activity for worker bees is at the 5 week mark counted from the time the egg is laid.
Workers have a useful lifespan of about 3 weeks outside the hive.
750 bees foraging for three weeks equals 15,750 bee days which equals between 1.32 and 2.2 pounds of honey. More math – one bee day equals between .000084 and .00014 pounds of honey
Reliable nectar flow runs from the first of July through the 5th of August or about 5 weeks.
A second queen laying in an established hive will produce surplus workers.
Stored food is not generally moved between hives.
With the previously stated facts laid out we can make the following economic argument: that the addition of a viable queen added into the established hive at the right time will result in an increase in honey gathered and more than offset the cost of doing so.
The Topper queen will have workers entering into the field force 5 weeks after the Topper has been established. For a Topper started on the 5th of June her field bees will be coming onto the workforce on the 10th of July. If harvest is on the 5th of August,. Some will work longer some will work shorter time periods. The bee that enters the workforce on the first day will work 26 days. The bee that enters on the last day works hardly at all (one bee day). At 750 bees per day entering the workforce we will end up with 263250 bee days over the course of 26 days. Multiplying this by our bee day honey yield we get between 22.1 and 36.7 pounds of extra honey.
This is one way it is done:
A package of bees is installed in mid April and allowed to develop until the first week of June. This package is a standard 4 pound package equipped with a single mated queen. Usually by the first week of June the hive has already been expanded to include an extra box so that the colony is now in what is referred to as double deeps. If you look at the double deep boxes at this time of year you will find that the queen has moved into the upper box and the lower box contains mostly older capped brood and older larvae. It is this older capped brood and its accompanying box that we will be adding a queen to and making it a Topper colony.
Break the hive down and find the queen. Make sure that she is in the upper box that contains the youngest larvae. This box will be positioned so that it is on the bottom board. The remaining box containing older brood and no queen will be what you make the topper colony with.
Place a Snelgrove board on top of the box that contains the queen and young brood.
If you are not familiar with the Snelgrove board here is how it works and the basic principle behind it:
The board is about the size of an inner cover and has 6 doors that can be opened or closed depending on what you want to do with the bees. Instead of a wooden panel in the center 2 layers of screen exist making a breathable but bee tight barrier between the colonies. The principle is that the bees memorize the location of the entrance on their first orientation flights and will use that entrance to access the hive. Each of 3 sides has a pair of entrances, one directly over the other. We will consider only the two doors in the front of the board for right now.
Once the Snelgrove board is placed on the box with the queen and young brood a piece of plastic is laid on the screen of the snelgrove board. This will prevent the smell of the queen from the lower colony from passing through the screen of the board. The remaining box containing the older brood (and any accompanying bees) is placed on the Snelgrove board. To make an entrance for this box the door in the front (the upper one on the Snelgrove board) is opened. This will allow the bees to fly from this box. Because most of the bees (foragers) have been using the standard lower entrance of the original hive setup a number of bees will leave the hive during the day and when they return to the entrance that they are used to, they will enter the box that the queen and young larvae are in. The population of the upper box will shrink for the first day and those bees will end up down in the lower box. There will still be bees in the upper box consisting of nurse bees and bees that have adapted to the new entrance.
To this upper box you will add a queen. Within a few days she will be out and begin to lay eggs.
What you have done at this moment is you have removed the congestion in the hive (reducing swarming problems) and at the same time added another egg layer.
This Topper will increase in size and make the overall hive stack a larger population. But it comes with a cost. Brood costs honey, that is to say that in order to raise young bees the hive needs to collect nectar and pollen to feed the larvae. This nectar if uneaten by the bees would end up in your honey crop. To get around this problem you can supplemental feed the topper for the rest of the year. There is no need to worry about contamination or adulteration of your honey crop because the Topper will never make a crop. It is not designed for that. That is the job for the Production hive located underneath.
A week after the topper has been established (I use 10 days) it is time for your regular hive check. It is at this time you remove the plastic and allow the smells of the two hives to mingle. They will soon smell the same.
At about the 3 week mark from the establishment of the topper you will see that the upper box has had an increase in population from hatching brood and it is now time to move a load of workers into the production hive. To do this, do your regular hive check. When you are finished with that chore you close the entrance that the bees have been using. This would be the upper front entrance. Directly under this entrance is another that up until now has been closed. You will now open this one. Any Topper bee that is out foraging in the field will return to the entrance that she is used to using only to find it closed. But directly under this entrance less than a quarter inch away is another entrance that is now open leading into a hive that smells just like the one she left.
In this configuration the Topper colony has no entrance. So to fix this you will open up the upper entrance on the side of the Snelgrove board. My hives face south so for me I establish the new entrance for my Topper colony on the East side of the hive.
A forager bee trying to go out for work from the topper colony will go to the entrance, finding it closed, will see the light from the new entrance in the East, crawl to it, and fly off to gather nectar. Upon her return she will fly to the old entrance and finding it still closed enter into the entrance immediately below. It is thus foragers are added to the Production colony. You can repeat this transfer of foragers twice more. For me since I opened up the east entrance for the Topper I would close the upper east, and open the lower east doors. Any bees that have done orientation flights in the past week or so (since the manipulations of the entrances) will now enter the production hive through the lower east door. I would open up the west entrance for the Topper.
On the next transfer I would close the upper west door and open the lower west door. I would then use an upper entrance for the Topper.
Bees are added until the first of August as that is very near the harvest date. At this time you should have all three of the lower doors on the Snelgrove board in the open position. And all of the upper entrances in the Snelgrove board closed.
At this point the Topper colony has done its job and can be removed from the hive, transported, and prepared for winter.
Note that honey supers are never added to the Topper. It always remains in a single box and should never develop queen cells or swarm as it is being purged of extra bees each week or so. Honey supers are added under the Snelgrove board to the Production hive below.