Monday, 25 July 2016

Winter Is Coming (yes, really)

An update on where we are in each of the hives:

The nucleus:  The new queen is laying well.  I'm hopefully going to name her formally next week (watch this space!)

Hive #2:  No idea - I'm still leaving it alone while the new queen "gets jiggy" with the drones (I have a post coming up about that).

Miriam's hive:  When I opened up and started going through the frames, I could see that they were still making queen cells - in fact, they were simply rebuilding the ones that I'd cut out last week in exactly the same places on the frames.  But, interestingly, they were empty - no eggs in any of them.  Or so I thought, until I got to frame number 6.  I found an open queen cell (larva around 5 days old) and removed it.  Then, I saw this:

That is a capped queen cell.  But notice the hole in the side, near the top.  After capping the cell (which would normally be the precursor to swarming) the bees seem to have changed their minds, and nibbled a hole in the side of the cell.  The larva was still inside, but it was only a matter of time before the bees would pull her out and kill her.  This can only mean one thing - the swarm season is officially over, and the bees are going to stop making queen cells until the spring.  They have declared it:  Winter Is Coming.

OK, that may seem crazy - it's July, the sun is finally (mostly) shining, and the schools have only just broken up.  Isn't it the start of summer?  Not in bee world.  From this point on, they have one single focus - build up stores of honey, make sure there are plenty of bees, and prepare to bed down for the long, cold days of winter.  A beehive needs around 40 lbs of honey (that's around 20 kg in pre-brexit money) to get it through the winter, and right now is their prime opportunity to collect it.

So, how are Miriam's bees doing?  Fantastically well, actually.  I keep 10 frames back for them to use as winter stores (which, at around 1.5 lbs per frame means 15 lbs of honey).  And they will store another 25 lbs in the brood box during September.  So, their 40 lbs for winter is already covered - any surplus goes to the beekeeper!  How's that looking?  Well, I have 20 frames that all look like this:

So, as long as they keep at it and we don't have a spell of wet or cold weather, I could be looking at over 30 lbs of honey.  Happy days...

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Small Things

Science warning:  this post contains actual science.  You have been warned...

You'll have noticed I mention eggs a lot in my posts.  There's good reason for this - eggs are important.  For the bees, they are as important as honey - during the first half of the year, they are the basic unit of production for the hive - the colony's GDP.  Without eggs there would be no workers, and no way to replace a lost queen.  And, as I've probably mentioned before, at the peak of the season (right about now, in fact) the queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.

So, what do they look like?  Well - like this:

To give you an idea of scale, here's the same egg with a worker bee in the (out-of-focus) foreground:

This particular egg was laid in a queen cell.  Interestingly, there is actually no difference between an egg that is laid in a queen cell (and destined to be a queen) and one laid in an ordinary hexagonal cell, and destined to be a (female) worker bee.  The differentiating factor is in the feeding.  For the first three days, all bee larvae are fed on royal jelly.  After three days, workers and drones are then fed on a different substance, which is similar to royal jelly, but - crucially - lacks the protein royalactin.

Queens, however, continue to receive royal jelly until their cells are capped.  The royalactin in the royal jelly induces the uptake of epidermal growth factor receptor, which in turn causes changes in cell growth and metabolism as the larva develops - which is why she becomes a queen instead of a worker.  It's all controlled by the gene PI3K/Akt, which is a signalling gene - this means it has the ability to switch other genes on or off, depending on the cellular chemistry (increase in epidermal growth factor receptor in the case of queen bee larvae).

Drone (male bee) eggs are different, though.  They look the same, but internally they only have one set of chromosomes because they are unfertilised (fertilised eggs have a set of chromosomes from the mother, and also a set from the sperm that fertilised them).  This means that, peculiarly, drones have no father...!

A question I inevitably get asked is - do I get stung?  Well, unfortunately yes - though not every time I open up a hive.  It's just something you get used to, if you decide to become a beekeeper!

I remembered to take a picture of a sting when I was stung recently - here it is:

Stings are quite interesting structures.  A sting is actually a modified ovipositor - this is a narrow tube at the end of a female bee's abdomen (wasps have them too), down which the egg travels from the ovary when it is laid.  In a worker bee, who doesn't lay eggs, the venom travels down the sting from the venom sac (inside the abdomen).  The sting in worker bees is barbed, which is why it gets stuck in your skin when a bee stings you - and gets left behind when the bee flies off (and dies, unfortunately).

The queen bee also has a sting, but very rarely uses it.  It's mostly used for killing rival (sister) queens, often when they are still in their cells waiting to emerge (she will nibble a small hole in the side of the cell, and then sting her sister through the hole).  Queen bee stings are not barbed, so she can sting multiple times and still live to fight another day.

Because a sting is a modified ovipositor, which is a structure for the female activity of laying eggs, male bees (drones) don't have them.  So if a drone ever lands on you, don't panic - he can't sting you!

Monday, 18 July 2016

Update: Miriam's Hive

Yesterday, I finished off checking Miriam's hive, and dug out another couple of queen cells.  I also double-checked the frames that I inspected yesterday - and a good thing, too;  the bees had already re-built three of the cells that I cut out yesterday, and two had eggs in (which I removed).  I'm going to have to keep an eye on them for at least a couple more weeks, yet.

One of the queen cells I cut out was capped - and I nearly missed it, because the bees had built it right on the bottom of the comb, next to the bottom bar of the frame.  Because of the awkward position, they'd had to curve it round to the side, so it looked at first glance like a drone cell.  I had to have a really good look before I realised it was definitely a queen cell.  Lucky I spotted it when I did, or the bees would have almost certainly swarmed today or tomorrow!

I thought it would be interesting to open it up and take a look, as it shows a stage of development that I didn't cover in my recent post on Queen Bee Larvae.  This is the fully-grown larva after the cell has been capped, but before it goes through metamorphosis - at this point it is probably around 9-10 days old:

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Too Much of Good Thing...

Yesterday's inspection started well.  Firstly, there was no need to open hive #2 at all (the new queen will be spending the next fortnight, ahem, 'entertaining' gentleman callers).

The nucleus only needed a quick inspection - the new queen is laying plenty of eggs, and everything looks fine.

So, onto Miriam's hive.  Getting the new outer walls off was a little tricky, as they'd stuck together at the joints because of the paint.  A bit of gentle brute-force dealt with that.

Inside, the bees are still making queen cells, though I think there are fewer this week.  But what there is noticeably a lot of, is bees.  OK, this shouldn't be a surprise, it's a beehive - of course there are lots of bees, right?  But really, Miriam has done a cracking job of laying plenty of eggs (2,000 a day!) and it's getting very busy inside her hive now.

So, I was having to find queen cells and cut them out again, which is slow work, because I needed to be sure I'd cleared each frame before moving onto the next one.  And there are so many bees on each frame now that it's very easy to miss a queen cell, as it could be hidden under a cluster of bees, or in the corner of the frame.  I worked methodically along, clearing frame number one, then two, three, four, five...  It seemed to be getting more difficult as each frame seemed have more bees than the last one.  You will normally never hear this complaint from a beekeeper, but - dammit, there are too many bees!

While holding the sixth frame, I was wondering why there seemed to be twice as many bees as when I started.  Then I realised - since I'd started the inspection, thousands of foragers had returned to the hive, expecting to deposit their nectar into the honey frames in the supers.  But of course I'd taken the supers off to inspect the brood box.  So the bees were just gathering in the brood box, with nowhere to go.  How many?  This many:

It had got to the point where I couldn't get my fingers far enough into the hive to lift the frames out.  And putting the frames back was a devil's job, as bees kept getting stuck under the frame lugs.  I decided to admit defeat, stop halfway, and carry on with the other half of the brood box today.

I also saw that the supers were getting quite full with honey now, and realised the bees were running out of space.  So I added another super, and then closed up.  The hive is getting quite tall, now!

Friday, 15 July 2016

What News from Hive #2?

I know that the queen cell in hive #2 should have hatched around the middle of this week - so I decided to pop down to the apiary today and see if I could see the new queen.

It was fairly overcast as I took off the roof, crown board and queen-excluder.  And then, just as I was separating the frames... it started raining.  So I quickly had to put the hive back together and wait it out.  Fortunately, it was only a brief shower, so 10 minutes later I was able to open up again.

I don't like having to put a hive back together in a rush - it's very difficult to avoid crushing some of the bees between the hive components.  As I took off the roof and crown board I could see that I'd accidentally squashed 5 bees in my haste to rain-proof the hive.  I really try hard not to harm any of my bees, so this made me a little sad.  However, I had to get on with the job in hand, as there was no way of knowing when the next rain shower would arrive.

I separated the frames and lifted out the frame bearing the one (very large) queen cell.  I looked at the end, and was immediately concerned - the end of the cell was still in place.  I know that this queen cell is more than 16 days old, and queens don't emerge late.  Had something gone wrong?  Had she died during metamorphosis?  Maybe a varroa mite had sneaked in just before the cell was capped?

I turned the frame to get a better look, and what I saw next was alarming - there was a large hole in the side of the queen cell, and I could see that the workers were chewing away at the edges, so that they could dismantle the cell.  So, perhaps she had died - and they had chewed a hole in the side of the cell so they could remove her from the hive?

While still holding the frame, I started thinking about what I needed to do next.  Do I put in another frame of eggs, wait 16 days and hope for 3rd time lucky?  Do I try to combine with the colony from the nucleus, and hope they accept the queen from that colony?  Do I accept that these bees just can't raise a queen, give up on this hive, and start again in the spring?

And then... I saw her!  A lovely new queen, with a long, striped abdomen and big ginger legs, awkwardly making her way across the comb to meet-and-greet her new subjects.  I cannot tell you how relieved I am to see that the succession has finally been secured!

I closed up the hive, and promised myself that I will leave her alone to get on with the important job of "entertaining" the local drones...  I'll check on her again at the end of the month, to see if she has started laying.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Queen Bees - Stages of Development

It's the time of year when bees turn their attention to reproduction, and that means making new colonies.  This is why bees swarm - basically, the colony splits into two, with half staying at home, and the other half flying off with the queen to make a new home - this is the swarm.

Now, every colony needs a queen, so what do the "stay at home" bees do, if their queen has just departed with the swarm?  Simple - they make one!  Actually, they're quite pro-active - so they will start making new queens before the swarm - 8 or more days before, in fact.  The colony will make one one more queen cells, and the queen will lay an egg in each one.  The egg then hatches, and the workers feed the growing larva on royal jelly for 7 days.  On the 8th day, they close the end of the queen cell with wax.  And somehow, they know that once there is a closed, complete queen cell, it's show-time - and at any moment from the 8th day, as long as it's warm and sunny, they will swarm.

Then, 16 days after the egg was laid, the new, fully-formed queen will nibble her way out of the cell, and take her new position in the hive.

It's interesting to look at the development of the queen cell and the larva within.  Here are two queen cells - the one on the left was started a couple of days earlier than the one on the right.  Notice that, unlike worker bee cells, they are not horizontal with the opening at the side, but vertical, with the opening at the bottom:

Here's what they look like from below - notice how the larvae look like curled-up maggots:

Here's a cell that I cut out of Miriam's hive on Saturday.  From the length of it, I would estimate it to be 6-7 days old.  Lucky I got to it on Saturday, or by Tuesday they would have swarmed!  The opening (which was at the bottom of the cell) is to the right of the picture:

Looking at the same cell, but from the top (which broke open when I removed the cell) you can see the larva:

This next cell is a different one, which I cut out of hive #2 on Saturday.  It is closed at the bottom, and probably 12-13 days old.  We are actually looking at this cell from the top (again, the top broke open as I removed the cell).  The white bit you can see is the developing queen's abdomen - she forms in the cell with her abdomen at the top, and her head at the bottom:

In this last picture, I have opened up the cell so that you can see the whole queen.  You can see that she has almost finished metamorphosis - her legs are fully formed, and segmentation of her body into head, thorax and abdomen is almost complete.  However, her body is still soft - her exoskeleton has not yet formed, and her eyes have not finished developing.  If I'd left her in the hive, she would have completed development in around 3-4 days:

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Project 2 - Hive Upgrade

Miriam's hive was something of a utilitarian affair, in that it was using a hive design know as the "British National Hive".  This is a design that has been used very successfully in the UK, and even had a British Standard (BS 1300:1960 - withdrawn in October 1984).  If you need a reminder, Miriam's hive looked like this:

Now, you probably think a "proper" beehive should look like this:

... and you would, of course, be right!  This is a hive design known in beekeeping circles as the "WBC", which stands for William Broughton Carr - the name of the chap who invented this design.

The key difference from the British National is that the WBC hive has a second, outer wall.  This is constructed from sloping-sided boxes that interlock - these are what give the WBC its characteristic "zig-zag"-shaped profile.  The second wall is supposed to provide additional insulation (it works very much like the cavity wall in your house) which should help to keep the colony warmer during winter.  So, as well as looking like a "proper" beehive, it actually provides a better home for the bees.

In fact, internally the hives are almost identical - so much so, that it is actually possible to convert a National into a WBC, simply by adding the external boxes and changing to a wider roof.  So, I thought I'd have a go...!

The first and most important job was to build and paint all the external boxes (known as "lifts").  This was a winter/spring job - here they all are, stacked at the apiary, ready for use:

Next, I needed to adapt the hive stand, so that I could stack the lifts around the existing hive boxes.  A National hive stand is 18" square, while the WBC lifts are a little over 20" internally at the bottom, with an internal rim that the lift sits on.  So, starting with the basic stand:

I screwed two 20" lengths of 3" x 1" planks to the sides of the stand:

... and an 18" length of 1" x ¾" batten at the back (the reason it's only ¾" deep and not 3" is to leave space for me to insert/remove the varroa tray):

Then, I needed to cut two fiddly bits that create a snug fit at the front (these stop the bees sneaking round the sides, when the entrance sliders are in place):

... and finally, paint the stand white, add the lifts and put the roof on top:

Finished - one very smart looking WBC hive!

Oh - and if you don't know why it's painted blue, black and white - then you're probably not from round here, are you...?  :-)

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Project 1 - Nucleus Upgrade

I mentioned in my last post that the nucleus has had an upgrade.  It started the weekend looking like this:

Since taking over, the new queen has laid eggs in almost all the available cells on all 5 frames in the nucleus.  And she has plenty of worker bees, gathering nectar and pollen to feed the new brood.  In short, it's busy in there, and they need more space for the growing family.  The solution?  Add another nucleus!  I already have a second nucleus box, with some spare frames in it - and the nuc with the bees inside has a detachable floor, making it fairly easy to stack them.  The only problem - my second nuc (the "blue nuc") is about 3/4 of an inch wider than the nuc currently housing the colony (the "brown nuc").  So, I need an adapter...

Fortunately, I have been keeping an old drawer hanging around in anticipation that I'd need to do this - the hardboard base of the drawer will be perfect.  I measured up a template, for what is basically a hollow rectangle with a 1.5" border.  Then, I started cutting:

Amazingly, I actually managed to finish the job without cutting myself open (really, this is a surprise - I am genuinely the world's worst carpenter).

Next, I wrapped the frame in gaffer tape (gaffa tape?  duct tape...?) to give it a bit a waterproofing (it doesn't need to be perfectly waterproof, just give a bit of protection):

Once finished, the rest was easy.  I moved the brown nuc to one side, put the blue nuc in its place, and put the new adapter on top of the blue nuc.  Finally, I lifted the brown nuc, without its floor, onto the top, with the adapter sitting between the two nuc boxes.  Roof on, and we now have a luxury(!), double-height home for the colony:

I think the bees are enjoying their new, extended home!

Weekend Update

There are so many things going on in the hives this week, that I have had to split the news over several articles.  Here's the summary:

The Nucleus

The new queen is laying really well - so well, in fact that she needed some more laying space.  So, the nucleus has had an upgrade.  More info to come in the next article - "Project 1 - Nucleus Upgrade".

Miriam's Hive

Miriam's hive is booming - and they know it, which is why they are still producing queen cells, and I am still cutting them out as soon as I spot them.  I've taken a couple of photos of a queen cell I removed (and one from hive #2 as well), which you'll see in an article later in the week about Queen Bees - Stages of Development.

Also, Miriam's hive has had an upgrade, too.  You'll be able to read more about it later in the week, under "Project 2 - Hive Upgrade".

Hive #2

There were two queen cells in hive #2, but I cut one out to give the other one a clear run at taking over the hive.  (Maybe the one I cut out should be called Andrea?  Hahahaha.)  Hopefully the new queen will emerge this week.

In other Hive #2 news, I noticed that the hive floor and brood box were both sitting out of alignment - it looked like something had bumped into the hive.  After squaring everything up, I took a closer look and saw two prominent dents on the side of the brood box:

It looks like somebody (and I suspect some nasty schoolboy) has been throwing rocks at my hive.  No doubt he found it "hilarious" to see my poor, distressed bees rushing out of their hive to try to defend themselves.  Frankly, I hope they stung the hell out of the little shit that did this.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Hives of Activity

A few things to do today - firstly, I needed to know if hive #2 had started making queen cells from the frame of eggs that I donated last week.  This was an easy task - all I needed to do was open up, lift the frame that I put in last week, and look to see what's there.  Sure enough, there are two uncapped, but occupied, queen cells - one on each side of the frame.  That's very reassuring - I should have a new queen by next weekend.  I put the frame back and closed the hive - I won't need to check it for at least 10 days, now.

Second job - have a look in the nucleus, and see if the queen has started laying.  I took off the roof, lifted the middle frame, and sure enough - there was the new queen, and she had already laid eggs in nearly half the cells.  Great - I can now start planning to build up the nucleus, ready for winter.  Also, now that the queen is laying, I can name her (I name all my queens after they've finished mating).  I have a couple of ideas already...

Lastly, Miriam's hive.  It's really busy now - inspecting the brood box was slow progress, as there were just so many bees in the way!  I had to be really careful and meticulous, because there were a few open queen cells containing larvae in various stages of development (I think I counted 5 altogether).  I needed to spot them all, and cut them out - otherwise Miriam would likely have swarmed before the weekend.

Miriam's bees are getting into the swing of things now - they've filled 5 frames of honey since I last checked their hive.  I've added another super (box of 10 honey frames) on top of the hive - this will give them some extra space, which hopefully will calm their swarming instinct.  It also means that they will be able to use it to store more honey, if we have good weather for the next few days.