Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Egg Donation

I was planning to do this tomorrow, but work commitments meant that I had to do it today.  Actually, being a day early won't hurt.

Still, it has been raining persistently in Bath for a few days now, and I had to wait until around 4:30 before there was a break.  I headed over to the hives, and had another check through hive #2 - I figured, with the weather being so bad, there was no chance any queens would be out mating today.  Definitely no sign, so I am going to assume that the new queen did indeed swarm.  Ah well...

I left a gap between the two busiest frames, and then left hive #2 open, ready to receive a frame which I'd decided to donate from Miriam's hive.  The idea is that, given some eggs, the bees in hive #2 will make some of them into new queens, and this will return the hive to normal productivity.

I next opened up Miriam's hive.  the first task was to find Miriam herself - as I'm going to be moving a frame from her hive to #2, I want to make sure she's not on the frame.  If I accidentally move Miriam into the other hive, the bees in #2 will kill her - and I really want to avoid that!

I got 4 frames in, and spotted a frame with mixed brood (capped) and eggs.  This will be ideal.  I also noticed that there were two partially constructed queen cells - one small but empty, the other bigger (but still open at the bottom), and possibly with an egg inside.  If there is an egg in there (which I couldn't tell for sure, as it was very overcast and the light was poor) then that would be ideal, as the workers in #2 will immediately grow it into a new queen.  So long as Miriam isn't on this frame, this is going to be easy...

Of course, I then saw Miriam walking straight past the queen cells!  This made life a touch more difficult, as I now needed to move her off the frame and back inside the hive.  To do this I had to pick her up by her wings, taking care not to damage her.  I managed to get her on the third attempt, though she then managed to wriggle free and started walking round my hand.  I twisted around and gave her a clear path back to the top of the frames, which she followed.  It was a relief to see her disappear into the comforting semi-darkness of the hive.

Now that Miriam was safe, I could finish the task.  I brushed as many bees as I could off the frame (it's best to remove them if possible, as they may fight with the bees in #2), and then lowered the frame into the gap I'd left in hive #2.  Then, push the frames together, close up both hives, and the job is done.

My next inspection is on Tuesday - I'm hoping to see at least a couple of occupied queen cells in hive #2 when I next open up, and this will ensure the bees will be able to get back going again later in the summer.

Monday, 27 June 2016

New Arrival!

Having been away for a few days, I really needed to check what was going on with the queen cells.  First task - the nucleus.  I looked inside, and checked the queen cell that had been nibbled at the end.  To my surprise, I could see it was still sealed.  I carefully opened it up with my hive tool, and this confirmed the worst - inside was a perfectly formed, but dead, queen bee.

I say "the worst", but actually I then had another surprise - I checked the next frame, and saw a new, very-much-alive queen!  I looked around, and sure enough - there was another queen cell, which I'd completely missed before.  It was open - so that must have been hers.  She obviously emerged before the one I'd been keeping my eye on, and had then stung her rival sister to death while she still slept.  To the victor the spoils, I suppose...

So, now that I know she's emerged, I'm going to leave her alone for three weeks while she mates.  When she starts laying eggs, I'll know she's finished mating and I will be able to resume normal hive inspections.

On to hive #2.  The queen cell I'd left in here (after doing the cell graft) was open, so the queen must have emerged.  But, there was no sign of her.  I looked - really thoroughly - but couldn't see her anywhere.  I also noticed that the hive seemed quiet - not as many workers at home as I was expecting.  I think there are two possibilities:

  1. As it was a sunny afternoon, the queen was out mating, and most of the workers were out foraging
  2. The queen has swarmed, and taken half the workers with her

Knowing this blood-line as I do, they are quite swarmy, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they have swarmed (even though they're really in no condition to do so).  To check, I'm going to put a frame of eggs into the hive (from Miriam) on Thursday.  If they make queen cells, then the queen must have swarmed (or been lost some other way).  If they don't, then the queen is around, and I just didn't spot her.  Either way, the extra eggs will boost the number of bees in the colony.

Finally, Miriam's hive.  As usual, Miriam is doing an excellent job, and there is nothing to report.  Which is nice.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Queen Cell Grafting

Apologies for the lack of photos in this post - my hands were too occupied to even think about taking photos, as you'll see...

I mentioned in my last post that there were three queen cells in hive number 2, and that I would like to reduce this down to one.  This would prevent the risk of the bees producing a "cast swarm" where one of the queens leaves with half the bees, while another stays and takes over the hive.  I don't think the colony is strong enough to swarm - and, anyway, I don't want to lose half my bees!

I was mulling this over when an email came through from Bath Beekeeping Society.  Jessica, a fellow beekeeper who has hives at the bottom of Lyncome Hill, has a queenless hive, and was looking for anyone who has a spare queen.  I called to say that I have spare queen cells, and would she like to try grafting them into her hive?  Yes, she would.

This is a technique that I've successfully used twice before.  I'll describe what Jessica and I did when we met up yesterday morning at my hives:

Firstly we opened up hive number two - without using smoke, as I want to disturb the bees as little as possible.  Next, while Jessica held the frame with the three queen cells, I used a sharp kitchen knife to cut out a 4-inch square of comb around two of the queen cells (keeping the third one on the frame, as she will become my new queen).  I had to do this with the bees on the comb, as shaking them off would damage the queens, so it's delicate work.  Then, I carefully removed the comb, and Jessica closed up the hive.  All in all, we probably only had the hive open for 5 minutes.

Next, Jessica went to get the key to the graveyard where she keeps the hives, and I headed directly there.  It's a short walk along St Mark's Road, then across the road to wait by the gate for Jessica.  I tried to cup the comb in my hands, to provide a little warmth for the queens, as they might not survive if they get too cold.

Once we were through the gate, Jessica smoked her bees (apparently this colony can be a bit feisty if not smoked!)  Then, she pulled out a frame from the middle of the hive, shook the bees off (there are no larvae to damage so it was fine to give the frame a good shake), and used a goose feather to brush off the remaining bees.  While she was doing this, I looped two lengths of thin wire through two small holes in the top corners of the square of wax holding the queen cells. I noticed that, unfortunately, one of the queen cells was open at the bottom - but not the way a queen cell would look if the queen had emerged.  Rather, it looked like the workers had decided to kill her, and had opened the cell and pulled her out while she was pupating.  Nevertheless, we still had one cell to work with.

Jessica then cut a 4-inch square of comb out of her frame, and I inserted the comb with the remaining queen cell, looping the wires over the top of the frame and twisting them together to hold the comb in place.

And we're done!  Jessica put the frame back, and closed up the hive.  Hopefully, in a few days the new queen will emerge and get Jessica's hive back on track.

New Arrival?

Saturday was supposed to be a routine inspection - and indeed it was.  Checked Miriam's hive - all fine.  Checked the now vacant #2 hive (formerly the Kingdom of Florence) - also fine.  I can see that there are three queen cells in hive #2 - I may need to reduce this down to one (though there is a post coming shortly, about that).

Checked the nucleus - all fine.  I decided to take a photo of one of the queen cells in the nucleus, as I think it's the best example yet of what a queen cell should look like.  So, here we are:

BUT... there was something that I didn't spot at the time - in fact I only noticed when I was reviewing the photo for today's blog.  Two things, in fact.  Firstly, the slight discoloration around the bottom of the cell.  Secondly, I'd expect the bottom of the cell to be rounded, but it looks flat, with a slight jagged edge.  The discoloration is because the workers have been chewing at the end of the cell - they do this a couple of days before the queen emerges, so that there is less wax for her to bite through.  But the clincher for me is the flat, slightly jagged edge - I think the end has been cut off the cell.  And, if I'm right, that means that I have a new queen!

Now, I really want to go over to the apiary and check the nucleus.  But, it's been raining continuously in Bath for the last 24 hours.  It's due to stop around 3pm - if it does, I will head over and double-check.  There may be news of a royal birth...!

Monday, 13 June 2016

Where's Florence?

So, yesterday's inspections started with Florence's hive.  As soon as I got the roof and crown board off, I could see the bees' behaviour was a little odd.  They weren't exactly doing nothing (the afternoon had brightened up just as I got to the hives, so there was plenty of foraging to do), but they didn't exactly seem busy either.  I decided to go through the frames fairly quickly, just to see if there was any reason for this odd behaviour.  There was.

The first clue was more queen cells.  These were different from last week's - the bees had fully extended them, and capped the end.  There were four in total - each with a baby queen bee now growing inside.  The second clue was the clincher - no eggs.  In fact, no brood less than around 6 days old.  A slower check through each frame confirmed my suspicion - Florence was gone.

But where?  There are two possibilities.  The first is that she swarmed.  This is possible, but I think unlikely.  Firstly, there are at least the same amount of bees in the hive as there were last week.  Secondly, there are plenty of honey stores in the hive, which the bees would have consumed if they were going to swarm.

So, we come to the second, more likely possibility, and for me the probable explanation.  I mentioned last week my suspicions that the workers thought their queen was failing.  It seems they have taken matters into their own hands, and "done her in".  Treachery!  Revolution!  The queen has been executed;  the independent kingdom of Florence is no more.  The workers have revolted, and declared a republic!  Vive la...

... hang on.  This is all well and good, but bee hives do not thrive on republicanism.  In fact, they need a queen to keep up the steady production of up to 2,000 eggs a day, to sustain the numbers of workers needed to keep the colony ticking over.  And let's not forget the four queen cells.  What we actually have here is an interregnum - in just over a week, those new queens will hatch, and one of them will take over the hive.

I'm perfectly happy with this outcome - I like to change one or other of the queens each year anyway.  Plus, it gives me an opportunity.  Three of the queen cells are on one frame, but the fourth is on another - and I can use this extra baby queen to set up a new colony.  Splitting the colony in this way means that, as well as the two "main" hives, I get to keep an additional colony, which will give me some flexibility (if, for example, I lose a queen in the autumn, I can replace her with the queen from the spare colony).

So, I move the frame with the solitary queen cell, along with another full of capped brood, and plenty of bees, and put them into a separate box with three frames of winter honey that I hadn't got round to dealing with.  This separate box is called a "nucleus" (often abbreviated to "nuc"), and is basically a half-width hive.  Here's the new colony, settling in to their new home:

Onto Miriam's hive.  Again, they have been good as gold - no queen cells, plenty of eggs and brood, and the honey frames are staring to fill up nicely.  In fact, I decided to add an extra super with 10 empty frames, so that they have plenty of storage space for all the nectar that they're bringing in.  Here's the hive starting to get taller:

I recently painted the hive stand white, and if you look closely you'll see there are extra boards screwed to the sides.  This is part of a project I've been working on - I'll explain more next week.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

More Queen Cells

I last opened the hives on Sunday, and Florence's bees have been busy making more queen cells!  I counted a total of 5.  Here's a better photo than those I took last week, from a frame that I shook all the bees off:

These queen cells are a few days older than the ones I photographed last week, which is why they are bigger - the bees have had more time to extend them downwards.  See how they are now starting to look like peanut shells?  If we take a look from underneath, you can actually see the baby queens:

They look like tiny curled up maggots.  You can see that they are each lying on a blob of yellowish-white "stuff".  That's actually royal jelly - it's what they will eat until they start to pupate.

... or it would be, if I allowed that to happen.  As I mentioned in the last post, if I left them until the bees closed the ends of the cells with wax, then the colony would swarm.  That's not desirable, so instead I cut out the cells, and then put the frame into Miriam's hive (this is an old frame, and I'm still trying to move Florence's bees onto fresh frames).

Being an inquisitive sort, I thought I'd try tasting the royal jelly from the cells that I'd removed.  It's very tangy - a bit like lemon curd, but with a really noticeable sensation that hits the back of your throat.  Personally, I quite liked it.

It's interesting that Florence's hive are making a lot of queen cells, but Miriam's aren't.  My suspicion is that it's because I'm removing an old frame of brood every week from Florence's hive, and this is causing the colony not to build up as quickly as it should.  The bees interpret this as indicating that Florence isn't laying enough eggs (even though she is) and therefore are planning to replace her - a process known as 'supersedure'.

However, that's just a hunch.  Equally possible is they just have a genetic disposition to be more "swarmy" than Miriam's bees.  Both Florence and her mother were emergency queens that were raised after their sisters swarmed (before they were mated - this is known as a 'cast swarm').  Either way, I will need to keep an eye on things throughout June;  by July, they should have calmed down and will no longer have the instinct to swarm.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Wax Building, and Queen Making

My last inspection was on Sunday, and there's definitely been some activity since the previous time I had the hives open.

Firstly, looking inside Florence's hive, I can see that the bees are now getting on with drawing out the new combs of wax.  This frame was just a thin sheet of wax last week:

They've drawn it out completely, and also filled most of the cells with nectar.  You can also see some cells towards the bottom of the frame (left of the photo) that are filled with pollen - they need this to feed the new brood.

The other thing they have started doing is making "queen cells".  These are a special kind of cell that bees make when they want to create a new queen bee.  This is an important part of swarm preparation, and essential to their breeding cycle.  Here's one that I found in Florence's hive:

... and here's another:

As you can see, the opening to a queen cell is at the bottom, rather than the side as with the normal hexagonal cells.  Also, it's a sort-of oval shape.  If left to their own devices, the bees will spend the next 8 days extending this out to the size and shape of a peanut shell - and then, when they have closed the end of the cell, they will swarm.

Obviously I don't want them to swarm(!)  The warmer weather and longer days have triggered their swarming instinct - but, at the moment, Florence's hive doesn't have enough bees to swarm successfully anyway.  So, I cut out the queen cells (and the single egg that Florence has laid inside each of them), and remind myself to check again - thoroughly - when I inspect the hives again next weekend.