Thursday, 28 December 2017

Dropping Acid with the Mayor of Bath

Beekeeping is not normally a winter activity, but there are a couple of jobs that do need to be done while the weather is cold, and the hives are quiet.  One of these is making frames.  I know that I will need 32 frames in the spring, to replace the combs in the two hives and the nucleus.  Plus, it would be wise to have 11 spare frames in case of anything unexpected, so that's a total of 43 frames needed.

Total made as of today?  0 frames.  Not going well so far...

I met with Ian this morning (regular readers will know Ian as the Mayor of Bath, and also the owner of my former queen Caroline) and he has already been busy putting together his new hive in preparation for a colony split in the spring.  So Ian is definitely winning the "best organised beekeeper" contest!

Apart from comparing carpentry progress, there was an important reason for Ian and me to meet today.  This was to give a varroa treatment to each of the hives - in this case, oxalic acid.  I'm going to do a more detailed post next month on varroa treatments, but for now the important thing to understand is that oxalic acid is absorbed by varroa mites (usually via the feet) and kills them when it reaches the body.

The method relies on the mites coming into direct contact with the oxalic acid, so any mites that are inside capped brood cells will escape the treatment.  For this reason, the application of oxalic acid works best when there is little or no brood.  And the time of year when bee hives have the least brood is on, or just after, the winter solstice.  This is because brood rearing is (in part) controlled by the length of day, and the shorter the days get, the less the queen will lay - particularly if the weather is cold.  Around the winter solstice (21st December in the northern hemisphere) the days are at their shortest, and brood rearing will be minimal, or stop altogether.  This means that most, or all, of the mites in the colony will be on the bodies of adult bees, where we can attack them.

So, today being a chilly morning and one week after the solstice made it the ideal day for oxalic acid treatment.  Ian came prepared with a mix of oxalic acid dissolved in sugar syrup.  This is then put into a dispenser, which contains a 5ml reservoir.  What you do is squeeze the dispenser to fill the reservoir, and then trickle the acid/syrup mixture onto the bees.  Here's Ian doing just that:

And here's a closer look at the dispenser, showing the reservoir at the top-left:

The best technique involves trickling the mixture along the "seams" - i.e. the gaps between the top of the frames - so that it dribbles down onto the bees getting them nice and sticky.  As the mites walk around on the bodies of the bees, they get the mixture on their feet, and as it dries it forms oxalic acid crystals.  These then get absorbed through the mites' feet, and as the acid re-dissolves in the mites' haemolymph, it kills them.

So, with all of the hives treated for varroa, that's the last beekeeping task of the year done.  I hope you had a great Christmas, and I wish you all a very happy New Year!

Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Christmas Surprise

Regular readers may remember that back in March I wrote an article on propolis, which is a sticky substance that bees use for a variety of tasks.  Back in the summer, I had a big lump of it that I'd scraped off some old frames.  What to do with it?  Well, if one lives in Widcombe then the obvious thing to do is take it down to the local apothecary...

Yes - of course we have an apothecary in Widcombe - this is the Georgian city of Bath, and one-time home of Jane Austen.  What else did you expect?

Anyway, our local apothecary shop does double-duty as a gin distillery, and is run by the lovely Sue and Jade.  So, I took the propolis in and handed it to Sue, and asked if she could do anything with it?  Sue popped it into a bottle of neat gin, and advised that we wait.

So now, six months later, the gin and propolis have done some magical chemical dance inside the bottle.  After steeping for half a year, it has turned into a propolis tincture.  Sue has extracted some of this, diluted it in gin, and bottled it, and I was delighted to receive this from her yesterday:

Propolis gin - a rare beverage

Yes - it is what it says on the label - Propolis Gin!  An unexpected and delightful Christmas present.  Amelia and I have sampled it (of course) and it is a most intriguing tipple.  There are hints of wax, floral notes (particularly the bouquet) and a pleasant bitterness, with hints of pine trees and sap.  We are trying very hard not to drink any more, as this is definitely a drink for keeping, and sharing with guests.

Well, that about wraps it up for the year, except for one beekeepng task which I have scheduled for Thursday.  So, may I - and of course Laura, Maria and Elena (and all their daughters!) - wish you a very merry Christmas, and a happy and healthy New Year!

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Love of Gloves - Part 2

Regular readers will know that I have been mulling over my glove options in advance of next year's beekeeping season.  And, more importantly, I have tried out a selection of gloves that I bought online, to see how well they suit beekeeping activities.  I'm going to compare them on three criteria, with marks out of 5 for each:
  • Are they sting-proof?
  • How much dexterity do they allow?
  • How good a grip do they provide?

I've also included, for comparison, bare hands (hint - not sting-proof!) and single-use latex gloves.  So, here are the reviews, and the all-important scores:

Bare Hands

Some beekeepers always do their beekeeping with bare hands.  I tried it once, and gave up after two stings in less than 5 minutes - and this was with a particularly gentle colony of New Zealand origin.  My problem was simple - I'm a bit sweaty.  If you sweat near bees they will smell it - in fact, bees have evolved an aggression reaction in response to mammal sweat.  This is because wild colonies can be subject to attacks by large mammals such as bears, so whenever bees smell bear sweat (or any mammal sweat) they will defend their hive.  Needless to say, bare hands offer no protection against stings - you just have to hope that the bees aren't in the mood to sting you.  On the plus side, if you are very non-sweaty, have very kind bees and are prepared to put up with the odd sting, then bare hands provide excellent dexterity and grip.  But for me, that trade-off ain't worth it.
  • Sting-proof:  0
  • Dexterity:     5
  • Grip:             5

Latex Gloves

Until this season, latex gloves were my go-to choice.  They actually don't provide much better sting-proofing than bare hands, though they do hold the sweat in, so the bees don't smell it and get angry.  Also, if you do get stung wearing latex gloves, simply pinching the glove at the site of the sting and pulling out around half an inch will be enough to remove the sting - if you can do this within 10 seconds of getting stung, it really reduces the effect.  Dexterity is pretty good, but the glove can occasionally get trapped between the frame lugs and the hive wall, which is irritating.  Grip is good, though if you get honey or syrup on the glove it can become a little slippy.
  • Sting-proof:  1
  • Dexterity:     4
  • Grip:             4

PVC Supertouch 23224 Fully Coated 45cm Gauntlet EN388 (4131)

The last four gloves all have EN388 ratings.  For glove nerds, or anyone else who finds this interesting, EN388 is a European standard for rating glove safety in four areas - abrasion resistance, blade cut resistance, tear resistance and puncture resistance.  Each of these is given a rating of 0-4, and then the ratings are put together (in order of abrasion, cut, tear and puncture resistance) to give a 4-figure number, which is the EN388 rating.  So, taking the Supertouch 23224 as an example, it scores 4 for abrasion resistance, 1 for cut resistance, 3 for tear resistance and 1 for puncture resistance, hence its EN388 rating of 4131.

You'd think the puncture resistance would be the factor that would matter most to a beekeeper.  And you'd sort-of be right, except that the test uses a 4.5mm rounded stylus which is pushed 50mm into a sample of the glove at a constant speed of 100mm/min.  This is quite different from a bee sting, which is really more comparable to a very thin, sharp needle.  So, the EN388 rating doesn't actually help us as much as we'd like in selecting a good beekeeping glove.

Nevertheless, I can attest that the Supertouch 23224 is most definitely sting-proof, as demonstrated by one very persistent bee yesterday who took it upon herself to give her life in the pursuit of rigorous glove testing.  The problem is that it's blooming bulky.  For doing things like lifting hive boxes, or taking the roof off to feed syrup, it's a good glove.  But for getting inside the hive and lifting frames, it just doesn't allow the sensitive finger movement that's required.  also, it can get quite slippy if you get syrup on the finger-tips.  So - good for shifting stuff around the apiary, but no good for hive inspections.
  • Sting-proof:  5
  • Dexterity:     1
  • Grip:             3

Nitrile Ansell 37-185 Sol-Vex Gloves EN388 (4102)

I like this glove.  It's a little thinner than the Supertouch 23224, but the payoff is better dexterity.  I've tried this for a hive inspection and found it had pretty good grip, and allowed for a fair amount of finger movement while still offering good sting protection.

The glove fits snugly to my hand, but unfortunately is a little too tight - one of the problems of internet shopping is you can't try for size.  However, it is available in a larger size, which I will be ordering ready for next season.

  • Sting-proof:  4
  • Dexterity:     3
  • Grip:             4

PVC Supertouch 22834 Double Dip 45cm Gauntlet EN388 (4121)

This is another solid, heavy glove.  Unfortunately, that means it shares many of the same problems as the Supertouch 23224 red gauntlet.  It's slightly less bulky, which means dexterity is a little better, though not much.  What it does have in its favour is a flocked surface on the fingers, which gives it much better grip than the Supertouch 23224.

As with the Supertouch 23224, it's fine for doing external work such as rearranging supers and brood boxes, but too bulky for lifting frames inside a hive.
  • Sting-proof:  5
  • Dexterity:     2
  • Grip:             4

Ansell 37-900 Premium Sol-Vex Gauntlet EN388 (4102)

This one is the lightest of the four that I ordered.  In fact, it's only a little thicker than household washing-up gloves such as Marigolds.  That means less sting protection than the others (though still better than latex).  I also found these very slippery if I got syrup in them.  They allow better dexterity than the heavier gloves, though not noticeably better than the Ansell 37-185.  Probably useful for a fairly calm colony, or a nucleus, where the chances of receiving a sting are lower.

  • Sting-proof:  3
  • Dexterity:     3
  • Grip:             2

So, that's the review - but what's the verdict?  Well, I can confirm that the winner of the "Which Glove Will Andy Be Wearing In 2018" competition is...

The Ansell 37-185!  It's a good, versatile glove - sting-proof, but still with enough dexterity and grip to handle all the various in-hive tasks including frame-lifting, queen-marking and syrup-feeding.  I will be ordering three more pairs - in the larger size 9 - shortly (unless someone fancies buying me a pair or two for Christmas...?!)

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Love of Gloves - Part 1

Beekeeping hurts.  Obviously one of the first things people ask me when they find out I'm a beekeeper is: "do you get stung?"  And the follow-up question is quite often "does it hurt?"  Of course, the answer to both is "yes".  Nevertheless, it's quite nice not to get stung, so personal protective equipment is a must whenever one is near a hive.  And this season, Maria's bees have been particularly feisty - making sting-protection even more important.

When I started beekeeping, my first queens (Rosalind, and her daughters Ada and Jocelyn) were fairly gentle souls.  My standard kit for handling their hives was a pair of old trainers, jeans tucked into socks, bee jacket and thin (disposable) latex gloves.  I rarely got stung - if I did it was always on the hands or fingers, probably about once per fortnight.  And it was almost always my fault (a classic error was reaching a finger underneath the queen excluder when lifting it off, and accidentally squeezing a bee.  It took a few weeks for them to teach me that was inappropriate behaviour!)

This season, that all changed.  In the spring, before Caroline moved onto pastures new (OK, Ian's garden) she was queen of hive #2.  And, although her colony were not aggressive, they certainly could be moody if they thought things weren't going their way.  But Caroline's daughter, Maria - who took over the hive - was a different story.  Firstly, her bees had a knack for stinging me through my socks just below where the bottom of my jeans were tucked in.  So I had to switch to boots, and tuck my jeans into those.  Secondly, my hands became targets.  Wearing latex gloves was pointless - the bees would just sting straight through them, often without the slightest provocation.  Reluctantly, I had to swap to using my heavy leather gauntlets, which are cumbersome but at least provide adequate protection for me.  The bees still sting them anyway, and die as a result, which is sad.  But at least I could get through a hive inspection without feeling like giving up from the constant attacks.

I'm not sure what caused Maria's bees to be so troublesome.  It could be genetic - after all, her mother is a little feisty.  It may be because they collected a great haul of honey (51 jars!) and simply felt the need to protect it.  Or, it could be because the colony was sick - possibly they had been suffering from Sacbrood for a while, and I had only noticed when the number of workers fell after the harvest.  I can be moody when I'm sick, so I do understand.

That last point - the Sacbrood infection - got me thinking.  The leather gauntlets are fine in terms of protection for me, but I was using the same gloves, every week, in both the hives and the nucleus.  And, because they're leather, they're not really practical to wash.  So, if anything carrying the sacbrood virus (say, a bit of infected brood haemolymph) got onto my glove, I could accidentally transfer it to a frame on another hive, where a worker bee might eat it (bees basically clean up any unwanted liquid in the hive by eating it).  Then the worker is infected, starts to infect other bees and I've spread the infection from one colony to two.  Not good.

I decided I needed to change two things about my gloves, if I was going to continue needing something more protective from now on:
  • The gloves need to be washable - which realistically means rubber
  • I need to use a different pair for each hive

So, I have bought four pairs of gloves with different properties and thicknesses, and have been doing some comparisons to see which I prefer.  Look out for Part 2 (coming soon) - in which I will attempt a somewhat unbiased comparison of each pair, and choose my favourite beekeeper's glove ready for next season.

Oh, you came here to find out how the bees are doing...?  Well, they're fine.  Which is nice.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Hungry Bees

On Sunday, I did my final inspection of the year.  I've been feeding the bees syrup for the last 3 weeks, because it rained a lot in September and they had consumed most of their winter stores, so I had to help them replenish.  By the way, if you want to know more about feeding, I did a post about it last year which you can see here.

The inspection was mainly to see how well they'd stored the syrup I was feeding them.  What the bees tend to do is fill the middle frames first and then work outwards - this is because it's warmer near the middle of the hive, and it's easier for them to build wax where the temperature is higher.  So, the cooler outside frames were mostly still flat foundation.

I decided to intervene a little, so I pulled out an empty frame from each end and then re-inserted it nearer the middle, next to the edge of the brood.  There will always be bees where there is brood, partly because the nurse bees will feed the brood, and partly because the bees will always maintain the brood nest at a constant temperature.  What this means is that the frames next to the brood nest are relatively warm - which should mean they are warm enough to build wax comb, providing new storage for the syrup that I am feeding.  If the bees keep taking down the syrup, then that will be a good indicator that my plan is working!

So, here's the state of play for each of the colonies:

The Nucleus (Elena's Colony):  Queen still laying, 8 out of 10 brood frames drawn and filling with syrup.  Elena's feeder bowl is smaller than the others (it takes half a litre of syrup), but it's empty every time I go back to re-fill, so they are having no problem building the wax to store the new syrup.  I will keep feeding until they stop taking syrup, at which point the nucleus will be full.  The colony is a good size for a (double height) nucleus, and I think they are well prepared for winter.

Hive #1 (Laura's Hive):  Queen still laying.  Super full.  8 out of 11 brood frames drawn and filling.  The bowls on the hives have a capacity of 2.25 litres; at the moment, Laura's bees are taking down around 1½ litres a day.  Colony size is good, and I think they are well prepared for winter.

Hive #2 (Maria's Hive):  Regular readers will have seen my concerns in my previous post about the health of Maria's bees.  Because of the brood sickness, I wanted to take a little longer over the inspection this weekend just to get a sense of what the colony's chances are of surviving the winter.

It's important to note that they're not cured - and can't be, until the spring (assuming they survive the winter).  There are still sick brood in the hive, so the question is not about recovering from their infection, but rather it's their capacity to live with it for the next 6 months.  When I opened up, I could see that the older brood frames (there are 3 of them) now mostly have capped brood, and hardly any eggs or uncapped brood - in fact, once the adult bees have emerged, the workers seem to have started filling the cells with syrup rather than let the queen lay in the empty cell.  This is actually good, as it will prevent re-infection from the cells being recycled.

I had previously put an empty frame next to the brood nest, with the intention of encouraging the bees to build out the comb.  They'd done this, but hadn't then filled it with syrup as I had expected.  Actually, they'd gone one better - the queen had laid the new comb, which was now covered in eggs and un-capped larvae.  And the really promising thing I noticed: all the brood on the new frame looked completely healthy - no signs of infection at all.  This is very good news!

Last week, I wouldn't have put Maria's bees' chances of survival any better than 50/50.  Based on what I saw at the weekend, I think they've improved, so my revised estimate is that Maria's bees have at least a 51% chance of surviving the winter.  'Cause I'm a glass-half-full kind of beekeeper, y'know...?

Friday, 22 September 2017

Sick Bees

It's still raining in Somerset... but that's not my biggest problem right now.  One of the hives is sick.  Hive #2 - Maria's hive - has got infected with a disease, which is killing the larvae.  Here's a photo of part of the comb from a frame that I recently pulled out of Maria's hive:

You can see that the brood, which should be plump and curled up, are flat, and the heads have died and turned black.  My first concern was that it might be one of the foulbroods, so I pushed a matchstick into a couple of dead larvae to see what would happen.  When I inserted the matchstick, there was a little resistance and then a slight "pop" as the skin tore and the haemolymph was released.  The haemolymph was milky-white, and not at all discoloured.  This is reassuring - if it was foulbrood then the inside of the larva would be sticky and brown.

So, not foulbrood.  Then what?  Fortunately, the National Bee Unit at DEFRA run an excellent resource called BeeBase, which provides lots of information for beekeepers.  This includes a section on bee diseases, with photos to aid identification.  Based on what I checked over at BeeBase, I think they might be suffering from Sacbrood.  This is a viral infection, which can be transmitted by nurse bees - and also careless beekeepers.  I suspect it's also transmitted by varroa.  It's not necessarily fatal to the colony, so long as it is dealt with quickly and correctly.

BeeBase advises that "re-queening the colony can help to alleviate the symptoms of sacbrood".  Another option is to change the brood frames for new.  In both cases, there will be a gap of a few days during which there are no brood - which means the old brood can't re-infect the new.

Just one problem:  re-queening in September - even if the weather is sunny - is a bad idea, and changing the brood frames is a worse one.  And the weather is not sunny at all.  It is too wet and gloomy for queens to go on mating flights, and there are hardly any drones left to mate with.  And it is too cold for the bees to build comb, even if they could get out to forage.  So, neither option is available to me.

This unfortunately means there is nothing I can do.  I am feeding the hive with syrup (and the other hive, and the nuc) to try to get them to build up a decent store of winter food.  Other than that, I will just have to leave them to it and cross my fingers.  They might survive the winter, or they might lose too many bees to maintain a stable colony.  I will just have to wait and see.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Introducing... Queens Laura, Maria and Elena

Well, over a month has gone by since Harvest, with very little to report as it has rained most weekends and I have therefore not been opening the hives.  I mentioned a couple of posts back that I had finally got round to naming my queens, so here's a little info about each:

The queen of hive #1 is named Laura.  She is named after Laura Bassi, who was the first woman in the world to become a professor in a scientific field.  She lectured in physics, including Newtonian mechanics, and conducted research on electricity.
One of her most important patrons was Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, who encouraged her scientific work.  The Cardinal later became Pope Benedict XIV, and established an elite group of 25 scholars known as the Benedettini - Laura was the only woman appointed to the group.
Laura also earned a PhD – only the second woman to do so – from the University of Bologna.

The queen of hive #2 is named Maria.  She is named after Maria Gaetana Agnesi, who was an Italian mathematician and philosopher.  Maria is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus.
When she was nine years old, Maria composed and delivered an hour-long speech (in Latin) to some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day; the subject was women's right to be educated.
Maria also earned a professorship – only the second woman to do so (after Laura Bassi) – although she never served due to ill health.

And finally, the queen of the nucleus is called Elena.  She is named after Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who was the first woman to receive a PhD (54 years before Laura Bassi).  After graduation, she became a mathematics lecturer at the University of Padua.
Elena was also a keen student of philosophy and theology, and a member of a number of academies.  She was an expert musician, and played the harpsichord, harp and violin, amongst other instruments.

Sunday, 13 August 2017


Yes, it's that time of year - and this year it was a big job.  Fortunately, Bath mayor Ian and local food production guru Stew were on hand on Friday to help with the honey.  After I'd spent the morning cleaning every surface, we set up our production line in the afternoon - Stew was on comb uncapping, Ian on extractor spinning, while I got to fill the jars.  It was hard work, but great fun, and fantastic to see the result.  Huge thanks to Stew and Ian for all their hard work!

So, to the all-important business of yield - here's this year's numbers, in 340g (12 oz) jars:

Laura:  A decent size batch of 29 jars.

Maria: A stunning 51 jars!

... making a record haul of 80 jars (plus a ¾ jar that supplied my breakfast this morning!)  So I'm happy to declare a final yield of just over 60½ lbs of honey - a personal best!

Even better - I'm delighted that Widcombe Deli is again selling Beechen Bees honey this year.  I took the first dozen down yesterday, and Nicky had sold the first jar before I'd even left the shop!  Big thanks to Nicky for tweeting the new stock - follow the link for a photo of the honey in-store.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Naming The Queens

Regular readers will know that I name my queen bees.  Normally, they are given their names on the day that I mark them, which is usually a couple of weeks after they have started laying.

Unfortunately, the season was super-busy until the middle of July, and then it rained (and barely stopped) - so I haven't had a chance to mark the queens yet.  Nevertheless, I can't put off naming them any longer - marking will just have to wait for another week or two.

So, onto the business in hand.  All three of my queens hatched this year, so they all need names.  There is a distinctly academic feel to this year's names, as I present to you a triumvirate of renaissance ladies:

Hive #1:  Laura

Hive #2:  Maria

The Nuc:  Elena

But who are they?  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

It's Almost Harvest...

Finally last Saturday was dry enough to open the hives, and my main interest was honey.  How much?  Is it ready to harvest?

Good news!  I have three full supers (i.e. 3 x 10 frames) of honey, all capped by the bees and ready to extract.  Actually, there is a fourth super - on hive #1 - which is also full, but the honey isn't capped yet.  This means the bees haven't quite evaporated off all the water, though the honey is quite firm in the cells, so it won't be long.

I left the fourth super on the hive, to give the bees a chance to finish it off properly.  But the other three have now been take off, and brought back to my house ready for extraction.  Here's a couple of action shots of me moving the supers:

I haven't extracted the honey yet - though I do have all my jars and labels ready to go.  Extraction is scheduled for Friday, and I have a feeling this could be my best crop ever...!

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Rain Stopped Play

Regular readers will have noticed that there haven't been any updates for the last three weeks.  This is not a mistake, neither is it (surprisingly) down to laziness on my part.  Simply put, it has been raining in Bath.

Really, since the middle of July we have barely had a dry day here - and certainly the weekends have been too wet to open the hives.  So, I have had to leave the bees to it.

At least the rain has been providing plenty of sustenance for the flowers, and there are lots in bloom at the moment.  Here's a picture from a meadow near Coombe Down which I took last weekend:

And these bees are foraging on a neighbour's Echinops:

Hopefully the weather will be dry enough this weekend for me to open up the hives.  Who knows, there may even be some honey...?

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Why Do Bees Make Queen Cells?

I've mentioned queen cells several times over the last few weeks.  And with good reason - spring and early summer is the peak time for bees to make them.  However, they can make them at other times too, depending on their reason for doing so.  But why make them?  Well, the obvious answer is: "to make a new queen".  But there are actually three different reasons bees might want to make a new queen - let's look at each in turn:

Reason One - Reproduction

Like all living things, honey bees have to reproduce or they will become an extinct species.  I covered the mechanics of mating a few weeks ago, in this post.  And last year, I posted about how chemistry determines the difference between worker bees and queens.  Quick re-cap:  if a female bee larva is fed royal jelly - which contains royalactin - for the 8 days after the egg hatches, then she becomes a queen, she is fertile, and she gets to mate.  Otherwise, she becomes a worker, she's infertile, and sex is off the menu.

The thing about queen bees is that, apart from the mating flights (when they really don't want their more prudish sisters around) they don't travel alone.  This means that, if a colony of bees is going to reproduce, there needs to be enough workers to divide into two groups - half the colony will stick with the old queen, while the other half will hang out with the new one.  Also, there needs to be some drones around for the new queen to mate with, and hives don't start producing them until April.  The size of the colony starts to expand in March, because the queen resumes laying eggs after taking a break over winter.  The expansion continues through April, but here in the West Country it's only in early May that the colony will contain enough bees that it can split into two viable colonies.

So, once the colony is big enough to split into two, then the bees will need two queens - they already have one, of course, but they need to make another.  So, they start work on making one.  Firstly, they will make a "queen cup".  This is a concave wax structure that faces downwards.  As far as the queen is concerned, it's just another cell to lay an egg in, which she duly does (a fertilised egg, to be precise, i.e. female).  Here's a photo of a slightly opened-up queen cup (with egg) that I took last year:

An egg in a cup

Once laid, the egg will hatch into a tiny larva, and the bees will start to feed it with royal jelly.  As they do so, the larva grows, and the bees extend the cell downwards so that it is always a little larger than the larva.  They continue to feed with royal jelly for 8 days, at which point they stop extending the cell and cap it off with wax at the bottom.

A capped Queen Cell

Then, something happens.  Perhaps it's the last worker bee who finishes sealing the cell, or maybe a subtle chemical change in the hive.  But somehow, something alerts the whole hive to the fact that there is a sealed queen cell.  And then the bees start dancing.  Not like the "waggle-dance", which is the one they use to tell their sisters about nectar-bearing flowers nearby.  This is a mad, crazy dance, like a rave party - the hive is suddenly brimming with energy and the buzz raises in both pitch and volume.  The bees start to nudge and harass the adult queen, until she has had enough and starts to warm up her wing muscles ready to fly.  And then, no more than a minute later, one queen bee and 20,000 of her daughters take to the air - so many bees that the sky turns dark - in a magical co-ordinated aerial ballet that we call: A Swarm!

OK - if you're a non-beekeeper, you might not be thinking "magical".  You may more likely be thinking "terrifying", actually.  But swarms really aren't aggressive things - the bees are not at all in the mood for threatening anyone.  They're just moving house.  And after maybe an hour at most, they will settle on a nearby tree branch in a big cluster of bees.  Later, anything up to a day later, they'll make the final journey to a nice big cavity in a tree, usually around 500 yards from the original hive, and start building honey comb in their new home.

So, the adult queen and half the bees have departed.  The other half remain in the hive, with the new queen, which now starts to pupate.  8 days after she was sealed in her cell, the queen has finished metamorphosis and is now a fully-formed adult queen bee.  She is now oriented head-downwards in the cell, and she neatly nibbles a hole in the bottom end of the cell, to emerge as the new ruler of her hive.

Reason Two - Managing The Succession

Failure to ensure an orderly succession from one monarch to another can be messy.  Just ask the Plantagenets...

Not wishing to cause any such strife, bees have got quite good at making sure the transition from one queen to another is conducted in an orderly fashion.  Death comes to all of us, and queen bees are no exception.  The worker bees are able to sense when their queen is coming to the end of her productive life, mainly by detecting changes in the amount of pheromone that she produces.  They will then start to build one or more queen cells.  Usually this will be after the summer solstice.  The timing here is interesting - if bees make a queen cell before the solstice, then they will generally swarm.  If they make it after the solstice, they generally won't - instead there will be a managed succession known as supersedure.

There's good reason for this.  If the bees start making a new queen before the solstice, then there will be enough time before winter for the swarm to establish itself, build wax and gather enough honey to survive until spring.  After the solstice, time is very much against them, and a colony will normally be too small and under-resourced to survive the winter.

What I find really interesting is that bees have a very keen sense of time.  They know when the days are getting longer, through spring.  And they can detect when the calendar has passed the solstice, and the days have begun to get shorter.  My bees were quite difficult to manage before the solstice, and I had to get very involved to prevent them swarming.  Now that the days are already getting shorter, they have completely given up making queen cells.

So, back to supersedure.  Usually there will not be many queen cells, often only two or three.  And the worker bees will typically tear down all but one before the queens have finished pupating.  Then, the new queen emerges, goes on her mating flights and returns to start laying eggs.  So far, so normal.  But there is one thing that is unusual about this arrangement - the old queen remains in the hive, and continues to lay alongside her daughter.  Normally there is only one queen in the hive, but supersedure is the exception - the old queen and her daughter will co-rule the hive, often for several weeks.  This arrangement will continue until the old queen dies - or, sometimes, is "assisted" to her mortal end by the workers.  Bees can be both decisive and brutal, when they feel the need.

Reason Three - The Queen Is Dead

So, sometimes, things don't go according to plan.  The queen might die unexpectedly, be killed by an incompetent beekeeper, or be assassinated by her own worker bees.  So much for an orderly succession - it becomes paramount to raise a new queen, and soon.

Bees will normally detect that a queen is absent after around 12 hours.  This, as with much hive business, is determined by pheromones - the workers will detect that the normal queen mandibular pheromone emitted by the queen is no longer present.

The apparent problem, at this point, is that there will not normally be any eggs laid in queen cells for the workers to grow into a queen.  However, they can make use of a handy feature of brood feeding.  As it happens, all worker larvae are fed royal jelly for the first three days, after which they are switched to the lower-fat, royalactin-lacking "brood food".  So, as long as the colony has some larvae that are less than three days old, the bees can select two or three of them and decide to make them into queens.

How they choose the right ones is a mystery.  What they do is not.  Initially the larva will be in a normal, hexagon-shaped cell.  The workers will nibble away at the bottom surface of the cell, and then extend it downwards to create the typical shape of a queen cell.  Here are a couple of examples that I have photographed:

Emergency queen cells

This type of queen cell is referred to as an "emergency queen cell" (regular readers should be familiar with the pragmatic use of language among beekeepers!)  The cell will often be shorter than a "swarm" or "supersedure" cell.  However, inside the cell everything proceeds as with any other queen cell:  the larva continues to be fed royal jelly, the cell will be capped after 8 days, and the queen larva will spend the next 8 days metamorphosing into an adult queen.  Then, she will emerge, take her mating flights, and begin laying eggs, at which point order is restored.  The emergency is over, and the colony resumes its everyday work of building wax, raising larvae, collecting pollen and making honey.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Miriam's Neighbours

Readers of last week's post will recall that Miriam (along with the rest of her colony) has now gone off to live at the other end of St Mark's Road, in the Southcot Burial Ground near the bottom of Lyncombe Hill.  The good news is that the colony has now been moved to a full-size hive, and appear to be doing very well.

While Jack, Sarah and I were moving Miriam last week, we got chatting about their other colony, which is not doing so well.  In fact, it's been queenless for several weeks - which means the colony population is declining.  What they really need is some more adult bees, and also some more eggs with which they can raise a new queen.  Unfortunately, I'd already burned three frames of eggs and brood earlier in the day, which is a shame as that would have been just what the bees needed to get back going again.

Nevertheless, I had another three frames to change on Friday, so we agreed to meet at Friday lunchtime for Sarah and Jack to collect the frames.  Everything went pretty-much according to plan - we went through each colony, found the queen, isolated the frame she was on, and then selected one of the old frames of brood and eggs.  Then we put the queen and her frame back, along with a fresh frame, and shook the bees off the old frame, which we then kept aside.

One we'd done that three times, there were three frames of capped brood and eggs, all ready to go.  We took them to Jack and Sarah's hive over at the other end of the road, opened up and put them in the middle, where it will hopefully be warmest.  Next week, we'll see if the numbers have increased - and also see if the bees have made any queen cells.

Back in my own hives, the frames are getting heavy with honey - and my new jars have been delivered.  It may be time to take the honey off next week - stay tuned...!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Goodbye - and Good Luck - to Miriam!

Miriam's colony has been living in the blue nucleus for the last few weeks, and were doing well when I checked last weekend.  But with 2 full-sized hives, and 2 nucs to look after, I've really had my work cut out for me recently.  So, I decided I'd see if I could find another beekeeper who would be interested in adopting Miriam.

The nearest bees to mine are actually really close - just the other end of St Mark's Road, in the burial ground off Lyncombe Hill.  So I got in touch with Jessica, who keeps a hive there, to see if she was interested, or knew anyone who was.

It was good news - Sarah and Jack also look after a hive there and were interested in getting a new colony.  So, we arranged to meet at dusk on Sunday for them to collect the nuc, and move it to the other end of the street.

There was one important issue to consider though - the bees' excellent homing instinct.  Now, this is normally very much an advantage - whenever a worker bee goes out foraging, she really needs to return to the same hive.  And because bees have such a keen sense of direction and location, she always does.  Partly this is done through remembering geographical features over their foraging range - something which I find remarkable, since a bee's brain is only the size of a grain of rice.  But herein lies the problem:  Lyncombe Hill is well within the bees' foraging range, which means that they will recognise all the local features and, when it's time to head home, they'll come back to my apiary instead of their new home.

There are two ways round this.  The first way is to move the colony at least three miles away from the original location, which would put them outside of their foraging range.  Then, when they head out of the hive, they have to learn all the new geography, and they forget what they had previously remembered.  After a week, you move them to the new location.  Even though it's near the original apiary, they will by this time have forgotten their way around, and will have to re-learn it - but, with the new hive location as the point that they will return to after foraging.

That's all fine, but it's a bit of a palaver.  So, there's option two - bribery!  Basically, once the nuc is at the new location, you keep the bees confined inside for a day by turning the entrance block to the closed position.  And you feed them (I covered feeding in a previous article if you want to see how it's done).  Then, you open the entrance block up and keep feeding for a few more days - and hopefully the bees will stay around the nuc, taking advantage of the free food, rather than flying off back to where their old home used to be.

Obviously, we chose option two.

But, this meant putting a feeder bowl, and a spacer box (known as an eke) onto the nuc between the brood box and the roof.  I've done this before with the blue nuc - and it works fine in situ - but because the eke I have is actually a little small (it's sized for the brown nuc, which is slightly narrower) it's no good for transporting.  So, to get the bees ready for their move, I had to swap the whole colony with the bees in the brown nuc.  Luckily, local Hymenoptera fan Stew was on hand to help!

Once Miriam and her bees were all safely re-homed in the brown nuc, I put the eke on top, secured the feeder bowl in place (gaffer tape is one of a beekeeper's most useful tools!) put the roof on and secured the whole stack with a ratchet strap, ready for transportation.

I met Jack and Sarah at dusk as arranged, and it was such a short distance that they were happy to carry the hive down to the other end of St Mark's Road.  Sarah lifted the roof, topped up the feeder bowl with some syrup that she'd prepared, and then we left the bees to settle in to their new home.  It's a lovely little green space, with primroses in the springtime, and I think Miriam's bees will be very happy there.

Nothing much to report from the hives, except that the bees in number 2 were in a grotty mood again this week.  However, it's now July, and my thoughts are starting to turn towards honey.  There is already one box of ten frames (in hive number 2) that is fully capped with wax - which means that the honey is ready to extract.  Also, a box of frames in hive number 1 is getting close - around half the cells of comb are capped, and with fair weather this week I may have 20 frames of honey ready to extract by next weekend.  Time to order some more jars...

And finally - the bees' landlady, Gill, was in the garden this week with her camera and took some lovely shots of the hives, and the bees foraging on her lavender.  Enjoy!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Lions and Spiders and Bees - Oh My!

Bath is a great place for beekeeping, and it is also a great place for rugby - our home ground, The Rec, is right in the heart of the city.  And, of course, regular readers will know that my bees are big Bath Rugby fans:

Supporting our boys in the Blue, Black and White!

Bath winger Anthony Watson was playing in the British and Irish Lions game against the New Zealand All Blacks on Saturday morning (in New Zealand), so I headed down to my local pub with Nev - the bees' landlord - to watch the game.  It was jolly good fun - even though we lost.

Earlier in the week I got chatting to Nev, and his wife Gill, about my little spider incident last week.  It seems the one I encountered last week is not alone - Nev and Gill's garden has a small storage bunker and a number of false widows are living inside.

I don't feel anywhere near brave enough to look in Gill & Nev's bunker, but I did need to tackle the false widow living inside hive number 2.  Unfortunately, Nev wasn't free after the rugby to assist.  Regular reader and local arthropod wrestler Stew wasn't available either.  So, after some persuasion, fellow arachnophobe Amelia stepped in.

Fully suited up, and with additional gaffer tape to reinforce the weak spots, we nervously approached the hive.  Amelia had the job of looking for anything that scuttled, while I carefully removed the "lifts" - the boxes that form the zig-zag outer wall of the hive.  One by one I lifted them off the hive, as Amelia confirmed that each was clear of any spidery threat.

However, the brood box at the bottom of the hive was a different story.  Among the loose cobwebs was a distinct tunnel of tightly woven silk, and I could see a dark shadowy shape within.  I'd located my enemy.  It was time for the final showdown.  I did what, frankly, any sane person would do - I grabbed my hive tool, and smacked it several times until I was sure that it was well and truly dead.  Beekeeper 1, evil hellspawn 0.

I tried to pull apart the silk tunnel to see the spider inside, but my ninja death blow had been too powerful for much to survive, apart from legs and some mashed abdomen.  It seemed smaller than last week when it had issued its fateful challenge.  But I'm sure that's just an illusion...

The spider having been comprehensively defeated, I turned my attention to beekeeping.  It was an incredibly busy week, as the bees have hit their population peak in both hives.  Here I am, right in the thick of it:

I am pleased to say I have two items of very good news to report.  Firstly, the Blue Nucleus is transformed!  If you've been keeping up with events, you'll know that last week I changed 4 of the 5 frames of comb, to deal with a suspected outbreak of Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus.  This week, the colony is looking great - active, determined and in a very gentle mood.  The bees had drawn out comb on all the new frames, too - they've clearly been very industrious this week.  I took out the last frame of old comb (and burned it) and replaced it with fresh, so all 5 frames in the nucleus are new now.

The second bit of good news is the queen in hive number one.  She is now laying!  Clearly the warm weather this week has put her in an - ahem - "enthusiastic" mood for mating...!  Also, I owe her an apology - last week I described the poor lass as a "runt".  Well, I got a good look at her yesterday, and I think I must have misidentified her when I looked last week, because this was not the same bee.  She is, in fact, a lovely-looking queen, with a quite magnificent butt.  I think she will do well.

One final thought - I now have three laying queens, and all of them are currently un-marked.  That means that I need to mark them - and, more importantly, name them!  Regular readers will know that I always name my queen bees after scientists and engineers.  I already have one name picked out, but there are two more to select - if you have a suggestion, please put it in the comments section!

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

A Big Weekend for Bees, Part 2 - Sunday

Having had all sorts going on at the Apiary on Saturday, I'd only left one hive to check on Sunday.  This was hive #2 - formerly Caroline's kingdom - which now has a laying queen.  Apart from a little flirtation with queen cells last week, this colony is in good shape and shouldn't be doing anything out-of-the-ordinary.  I figured Sunday would be a nice easy inspection, taking less than an hour.  I was wrong.

Firstly, the bees were in nasty mood.  I half expected this, but as soon as I approached the hive - before I even got the roof off - several bees were dive-bombing my veil and hands.  Today was clearly going to be a heavy-gloves day.  For reasons that will become apparent, this turned out to be the best beekeeping decision I have ever made...

Once gloved up, and virtually impregnable to stings, I took off the roof and started removing the lifts.  As I got to the second from bottom I noticed some cobwebs.  This wasn't a huge surprise - a spider had been living in the cavity wall between the lifts and the brood box over winter - and I wondered whether, with the bees staying inside during the recent wet spell, a new one had snuck in.  Actually, I was a little surprised the bees hadn't dealt with it, but it wasn't on my list of things to do today so I decided to come back to it another time.

Readers who've been following the action since the start of the season will remember that this hive is in a "brood-and-a-half" configuration - which allows the queen to lay in the bottom super as well as the brood box.  The advantage of this system is that you get a huge number of bees.  The disadvantage of this system is that you get a huge number of bees...  I'm glad I tried it out, as it's a well-known beekeeping technique for beekeepers who run the British National sized brood-box, which is considered a little small by some beekeepers these days.  But I really don't need my colonies to get to the size that this one has, so the main business of the day was to confine the queen to the brood box, so that she couldn't lay any more eggs in the super.  This meant finding her and, if necessary moving her.  I was hoping she would already be in the brood box, as this would make today's business a lot simpler.

So, having un-stacked all the supers (four of them!) I started working through the brood box.  Some of the frames are fresh replacements from when Caroline was taken out, and from when I split the brood nest to form the colony in the brown nuc.  So there weren't many that I needed to check, as queens very much prefer to stay on drawn comb  - they're not so keen on flat wax, and tend to avoid walking on wood - which means they are almost never to be found on the inner walls of the hive.  Even better, I got lucky - when I lifted the second fully-drawn frame, there she was!  This was the queen who I "assisted" out of her cell, and I haven't seen her since then.  She is a lovely looking queen with a big abdomen and attractive tiger-stripes.  If she starts producing nice, gentle bees then I will be very happy with her!

I put the frame back, checked through the next one (I wanted to make sure that there were no new queen cells) and then the next.  And then I saw - a queen!  It's extremely unusual to see the same queen twice in an inspection, as they usually sneak off to one of the already-checked frames where it's nice and dark.  So, was this a second queen?  It's not unheard of - occasionally, large colonies will tolerate a second queen, and there is no doubt this is a large colony.  But I had to be sure, so I isolated the frame with the queen on (I temporarily placed the frame in a spare brood box) and checked through - carefully - to see if there was another queen in there.  The clock was ticking - this was definitely going to take more than an hour now - as I searched frame-by-frame.  Nothing - I'm fairly sure that the queen had snuck round and I had simply seen her twice.  I was as satisfied as I could be, so I put her (and the frame she was on) back into the hive.

Next, I put the queen excluder on - for newer readers, this is a wire frame with spaces between the wires that are big enough to let a worker bee through, but too small for a queen to pass through.  This will stop her from laying in the first super, though the existing brood will still be allowed to emerge.  I then had to check through the super for queen cells - I think I counted five, but none with eggs.  It's the summer solstice on Wednesday, and bees won't normally start swarm preparations after the solstice, so hopefully this is the last time I'll have to inspect so meticulously.

Then, it was time to put the super (with brood) back on, and then stack the other supers on top.  It's not easy to do this without squashing any bees, but the best technique is to put the box on diagonally, and then shuffle it squarely into place.  It was while I was doing the shuffling that I noticed the cobwebs again - more densely this time.  And then, as I pulled my left hand away from the hand-hold on the side of the box, I saw something that I really, really did not want to see.

Sitting on the left index finger of my gloved hand was a false widow spider.

I'm not good with spiders.  Most wildlife I find I can enjoy - even the ugly things (I am, for example, a big fan of naked mole rats).  But spiders are - quite literally - the stuff of my nightmares.  It was there for less than a second, but I'm afraid that was all the time I needed to handle the situation very badly.  I squealed, I did a very bad taking-the-Lord's-name-in-vain-with-extreme-prejudice swear, and shook my hand as if my life depended on it - and the spider fell off and disappeared into the undergrowth.

I should point out at this point that, despite my reaction, my life did not depend on it.  The Daily Mail and other fine British tabloids would have you believe that being bitten by a false widow (Steatoda nobilis) can lead to necrosis, amputation and even death.  In fact, the bite of a false widow is almost exactly as painful as a bee sting, and I get those most weeks!  But psychologically, even the thought of one of those little buggers injecting something into my bloodstream is enough to give me an attack of the vapours.

I assume that the spider was uninjured, and further assume that it will attempt to reclaim residence in its lair.  It may be that the bees - which are very active with the warm weather we are having - will put a stop to this.  I will have to investigate next time.  Meanwhile, I wonder if the bees were aware of the spider's presence, and if that was having an effect on their mood?

On a more cheerful note (well, for an arachnophobe like me, anyway!) - I mentioned that this post would include a blast from the past.  I popped round to Bath Mayor Ian's garden on Sunday, to see how Queen Caroline is settling in.  I am pleased to report that she and her daughters are doing very well - they were busy, are starting to draw out comb and are collecting plenty of nectar and pollen.  I even saw them foraging on a big lime tree round the corner from Ian's house.  It's great to see them so happy in their new home!

Flowers on a Lime tree in Widcombe

Monday, 19 June 2017

A Big Weekend for Bees, Part 1 - Saturday

Regular readers will recall that, a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that things in the apiary are getting busy.  This, it seems, was understatement.  So much happened this weekend (including one very unpleasant surprise) that I have had to split this week's account into two parts.  So, let's take a look at the events of Saturday:

I'll start with the easy bit - the Brown Nucleus.  This is doing well - the bees were in a nice mood, there is plenty of brood and also stores.  The queen is a good size and seems to be performing nicely.  This is my "low maintenance" colony, a happy family of bees just getting on with things.  Local wildlife buff Stew was on hand with his camera and managed to get a picture of the new queen - here she is:

On to hive #1.  This is Miriam's old hive, and the bees are currently in the process of raising a new queen.  Last week, I found two queen cells, decided everything was proceeding as planned, and left them to it.  My quick calculations told me that by this weekend the queen cells would be around 14-15 days old, and so the plan for Saturday would be to remove all but the biggest queen cell, leaving the bees with one new queen ready to emerge on day 16, and no reason to swarm.

Well, my maths was a bit off.  After checking through the new frames (no wax drawn yet), I got to the first frame with queen cells.  The bees had got there first - I could see a large hole in the top end of the first cell, and the bees were busy dismantling it.  I've seen this behaviour before - it's actually pretty neat.  When a hive has no queen, but capped queen cells, and the bees know that they don't want to swarm, they will actually remove all but one queen cell themselves.  The ones to discard are opened up at the top of the cell (the tail end, from the perspective of the queen larva), the larva is stung to death and then dragged out through the hole.  Over the next few days, the bees will dismantle the rest of the cell.

Yes, you read that right - the bees pick the queen they want to keep, and murder the other princesses in their sleep.  They can be brutally decisive, can bees.  The interesting thing is - how do they decide which queen cell to keep?  I must admit I'm a little hazy on how this works, but I think it's to do with "piping" (which I covered a couple of weeks ago).  The first queen to "wake up" will start piping while still in her cell - a sound which beekeepers refer to as "quacking" (the sound is modified due to coming from inside the cell).  As with piping, quacking is part of the process of establishing that the hive has a new queen.  So, I think what happens is the worker bees detect the "quacking" vibrations and identify which queen cell they are coming from.  They take this as a cue to check each cell in turn - and any cell that isn't quacking gets torn down.  It's a nice, simple and efficient process, and also saves me a job!

So, carrying on through the frames, I found an average of 2 queen cells per frame, each empty with a large hole in the top.  And then I found the next thing I was looking for - another open queen cell, but this time open at the bottom.  This was the one - the queen had already emerged.  It may well be that she had murdered her sisters herself - it is believed that the first queen to emerge will nibble a hole in any rival queen cells and sting her younger sisters through the hole.

So, good news - the hive has a queen!  Now, where to find her?  The problem with trying to locate her was that there are just so many bees in that hive.  I had a good look, and I think I spotted her.  One bee had her wings folded over her back, in a way that is distinctive of queens and noticeably different from worker bees.  But she was among a large cluster of bees and it wasn't easy to get a clear look.  If it was her, then I may have a problem - she looked small, a runt.  This happens with queen bees sometimes - if the bees have had to construct the queen cells in a hurry, as this colony did (after I removed Miriam without warning) the queen larvae can be under-nourished.  This leads to them having smaller abdomens, which can lead to reduced fertility and make it harder for them to reach the bottom of the cells to lay.  However, I have previously seen small queens who have got a lot bigger after mating - the process of mating stimulates their ovaries to swell, lengthening the abdomen to full size.  So, it's possible I am worrying unnecessarily.  As it happens, it is perfect mating weather this week, so by next weekend she may well be a full-sized, healthy queen.

There was one more important job on Saturday, and that was to check on the health of the Blue Nuc.  Regular readers will know this is Miriam's "retirement home", and that last week I spotted some dead brood.  This week's job was to check if things had improved, and take action if not.

Well, the first thing to say was that there were more bees this week.  This, at least, was a good sign - it means that the capped brood are successfully pupating and emerging.  And I haven't noticed any problems with capped brood at all (often with foulbrood the capped larvae will be infected and the cappings become discoloured or distorted).  The second thing was quite disgusting - slugs!  During the recent heavy rain, seven large slugs had taken up residence in the hive and started to lay eggs.  Yuk.  I scooped them out with my hive tool and carried on checking the frames.

The third thing I noticed, was there are a number of bees with bald abdomens.  All the hairs from the abdomens are missing, and the abdomen is almost completely black, and shiny.  This is a typical symptom of Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) which is spread by varroa.  CBPV may well explain the state of the dead brood, too - not discoloured, nor mummified, but just lying dead in the cells.  I'm fairly certain that I've allowed the number of varroa in the colony to get too high, and that they are spreading CBPV around the bees and brood.  Something needed to be done immediately.

The answer was to change the combs.  This is something I do once a year in the hives, as it prevents viruses and fungal spores from building up in the wax.  However, I'm not so good at doing it with the nucleus colonies.  There is a reason for this - changing the combs puts a lot of stress on the bees, and they need to have sufficient numbers to be able to re-build new comb quickly, otherwise there will be no space for the queen to lay and nowhere to store nectar.  I couldn't have done it last week - there weren't enough bees.  But this week, with the new reinforcements having arrived, I decided there were just about enough.  So, I went for it.

The process is reasonably straightforward.  Firstly, isolate the frame with the queen and move it out temporarily.  Then, shake all the bees off each frame in turn, remove the frame and insert a new empty frame with wax foundation.  There are 5 frames in a nucleus, so I swapped four frames for fresh, leaving just the frame with the queen.  I then had a choice - either move her into the nuc and insert a 5th frame of fresh comb, or put her back with the last frame of old comb.  One of the things you have to be careful of, when doing a comb change, is the bees can find it so disruptive that they simply abscond from the hive.  I was reading last week about a beekeeper who, when changing combs in a nucleus, always leaves one old frame of brood.  The reason is that the pheremones from the brood will encourage the bees to stay and look after the larvae.  This sounded like good advice to me, so I put the old frame, with the queen, back in the middle of the nucleus.  I can swap it out once the queen has started laying on at least one of the new frames.

Now that the bees had lost most of their old comb, they will need to make some more - and this is quite energy intensive.  Apparently it can take the equivalent of 10 ounces of honey to make one ounce of wax.  I decided to give them a helping hand and feed them some sugar syrup, which they will be able to convert into wax:

So, what to do with the old frames?  Well, there is a contamination risk if, as I suspect, there is CBPV in the brood.  So I need to destroy them in a way that is completely sterile.  The answer - burn them!  Stew has a mini-burner that is perfect for the purpose, so I put some paper, kindling and one frame in, lit a match and stood well back:

In case you were in any doubt - beeswax is very, very flammable!  The other three frames went up a treat, too.

So, that was Saturday.  Stay tuned for Sunday's action, including a blast from the past, and one very unwelcome guest...

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Coalition of Colonies

So, in a week where "strong and stable" turned out to be anything but, let's have a run-down of what the bees were up to when I checked in on Saturday:

Nucleus #1 (the Brown Nuc)

The queen who started laying last week is doing well.  The brood nest looked good, the eggs that I saw last week were now 8-day-old brood, and the bees have started to cap the cells.  In a fortnight, these will emerge as the next generation of adult bees.

Nucleus #2 (the Blue Nuc)

This is Miriam's new home.  The colony is OK and Miriam is laying.  However, I noticed two things.  Firstly, even though I have been feeding the bees all week, they still have no stored syrup/nectar/honey.  This is a little surprising, though the weather has been poor this week, so possibly they have been using it for energy and brood food as soon as they have taken it from the feeder.

However, the next thing I saw was odd - some dead brood (maybe 4 or 5 larvae), roughly 5-6 days old.  This is a worry, as dead brood can be a sign of disease.  The three diseases I was concerned about are, in ascending order of terribleness:
  • Chalk Brood
  • European Foulbrood (EFB)
  • American Foulbrood (AFB)

American and European foulbrood are both notifiable diseases - if I have either of those, I need to notify DEFRA immediately, and there is a risk that all my hives would need to be destroyed.  However, the dead brood were still white, not discoloured in any way and not twisted.

One of the tests for foulbrood is the "matchstick test".  I pushed a matchstick into a couple of larvae - the skin offered a little resistance before breaking, and then the milky haemolymph leaked out.  The haemolymph looked completely normal, was the right colour and not at all sticky.  This was reassuring - with EFB and AFB the larva become sort-of "melty", but mine weren't like that.

It's possible that it's chalkbrood, though I didn't see any other symptoms apart from the dead brood lying in line with the cell.  It may also be possible that the hive is struggling to feed the brood because they don't have any food stores.  I will have a very close look through next week, and see if the situation has improved.

Meanwhile, I'm going to keep feeding them - here's a picture of the nucleus with its temporary "loft extension" where the feeder tray is kept:

Hive #1 (no queen)

This was Miriam's hive until last week.  The bees were in a much better mood this week!  I only opened up briefly, to check that the bees have made some queen cells.  Indeed they have - I spotted 2 on the 3rd frame that I inspected.  That was all I needed to see - I will open up next week and identify the "best" queen cell, and remove the others to prevent the bees from swarming.

Hive #2 (new queen)

This colony, who were in a good mood last week, were most cantankerous this weekend.  After the first couple of stings, I switched to my heavy gloves, which I don't like using but there comes a point when being stung just becomes tedious.

Still, the good news is the queen is now laying!  No capped brood yet, but plenty of eggs and the oldest uncapped brood looked to be about a week old.  I didn't see the queen, though I wasn't really looking for her.  She has laid a lot of eggs, so she appears to be a good queen.  I hope that her daughters are a lot more gentle than her sisters, but it will take about a month before there are enough new bees for the difference to be noticeable.

However, one thing I saw surprised me - queen cells!  The oldest was about 4 days old, and I counted at least three with queen larvae and royal jelly.  So, not only are the bees being aggressive little b**s, they are also plotting a breakaway movement!  With a new queen, only laying for around a week, there is no reason for them to be doing this.  And yet they are.

Well, I have raised enough new queens this year and am not going through any more of this nonsense!  So, I cut out all the queen cells I could find, and crossed my fingers that I'd got all of them.

I was chatting to my dad about the bees this weekend, and he asked if they were doing this because they don't like the new queen.  Actually, this is indeed possible - they may be able to sense that there's something wrong with her, and are already making plans to replace her.  I'll see if they are still making queen cells next week - if they are, then I may have to come up with a new plan.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Good Girl Gone Bad...?

So, a brief run-down of the new queens before we look at last weekend's action with Miriam:

The queen in hive #2 is only a week old, so I didn't bother to look for her this week.  I checked if the bees have enough space for storing more honey (they do) and closed up the hive and left them to it.

In the nucleus, I opened up, lifted the middle frame, saw the queen, and... eggs!  Great news, she's already laying.  I've been feeding the colony all week, because the weather has been quite variable.  They now have enough sugar syrup stored in the comb, so I can stop feeding now.  I'm pleased to say that their temper seemed better, too.

So, Miriam.  Regular readers will know that she is my favourite queen, partly because she gave me an excellent crop of honey last year, partly because she isn't "swarmy", and partly because her workers are usually nice and gentle to work with.  Not last weekend.  I don't know if it's because of the weather (thunder was forecast, although there was only a brief burst in the early hours of Saturday morning).  Or perhaps because the colony has got so large (really, there are huge numbers of bees now).  But their behaviour was distinctly moody.  They stung me before I'd lifted the first frame, and hissed every time I used the smoke to try to calm them down (it didn't really work).  And there was a squadron of 10 - 15 bees who buzzed around my head for the whole session, and regularly attacked my veil.  Beekeeping for me is supposed to be fun - and it almost always is - but this week I seemed to be testing their patience, and they were certainly testing mine.

As an urban beekeeper, I have a responsibility to keep well-behaved bees.  Not only are aggressive bees tedious to spend time with at the weekend, but they can become a nuisance to the neighbours and I don't want to lose the goodwill that we have built up in our local community.  So, something had to be done.  I had been thinking about managing the succession anyway - this is Miriam's third season, and I don't like to keep queens for longer than three years.  I'd been waiting until the queen replacement in hive #2 was complete, before taking any action.  Now that the queen in the nucleus is laying, and the queen in #2 should also be laying by next weekend, I decided I'd put it off long enough.  It was time for Miriam to move out.

My second nucleus was empty, and so I moved it down next to the hive, braved the stings, and moved 5 frames of brood and workers into it.  Now, with only half as many bees in the brood box, it was quite a bit easier (and safer!) to go through and look for Miriam.  She was actually still in the brood box, so I swapped a frame out of the nuc, put the frame with Miriam on into the nuc, and closed it up.

The last job was to put 5 new frames into the hive, and close that up too.  Within a day, the bees should notice that Miriam is no longer present and start making queen cells.  I'll check at the weekend and see if they have.

So, I now have:
  • A hive with a mating queen
  • A hive with no queen
  • Two nucleus boxes, both with laying queens

It's getting busy!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

I'm Pickin' Up Good Vibrations

I went to the apiary this morning for Miriam's weekly inspection.  As usual, everything in her hive is fine, the bees are well-behaved and there were a few empty queen cups but no signs of swarm planning.  She is such an easy-going queen...!

Then, I decided to have a sneak peak in the nucleus.  The bees were noticeably calmer than on Friday - which I took to be a positive sign.  Then, when I was inspecting the second frame I heard a distinctive sound, pitched between G natural (783.99 Hz) and G# (830.61 Hz) - a long note lasting around a second, followed by two shorter ones.  It sounds almost like a "D" in Morse Code, but slowed down.  I knew immediately what this was - a new queen, piping!

Queen piping is a phenomenon only heard when there is a newly emerged queen, usually less than a week old.  There are a few opinions about why new queens do this, but the one that seems most likely is it is part of the process of establishing that the hive has a queen.  Worker bees are normally aware of the presence of a queen from the pheromones she produces.  However, newly-emerged queens produce less pheremone.  So, the piping seems to be a way of announcing herself to the rest of the hive, to cover the period until she is producing enough pheremone.  She is, literally, playing her own royal fanfare!  If we were to anthropomorphise this any further, we might expect her to be a little disappointed that she has to play the fanfare herself.  But that's bees for you...

The mechanism by which she does this is interesting - and I was lucky enough to watch it for myself today.  The queen will stop at a certain point on the wax comb, grip with her feet and press the underside of her thorax onto the comb.  She then vibrates her thorax (using her wing muscles, I assume) and the vibrations reverberate through the comb.  Any worker bees on the same comb will be in no doubt that a queen is present, as they will feel the vibrations.  I wonder if this also has a secondary function of strengthening the queen's wing muscles, as she will shortly have to leave the hive to go on mating flights.

So - a new queen in the nucleus - what good news!

I decided to push my luck a little further, and see what was happening in the queenless hive.  The bees were still in a decidedly truculent mood, so I was pessimistic.  I got to the frame with the queen cell on it, and could see the end nicely chewed until it was paper-thin.  But, it was still sealed.  At this point, I decided to do something I have read about, but never before tried myself.  I played midwife!  Carefully, with the sharp corner of my hive tool, I picked at the end of the queen cell until there was a small tear in the wax.  I was delighted to see movement - the head of the queen bee inside the cell.  After I'd held the frame for a minute more, she finished nibbling open the end and marched straight out of the cell.  New queens move really fast - the movement is actually quite distinctive, which makes them fairly easy to spot.  No piping this time, as she was walking over the backs of the worker bees.  I decided to close up the hive straight away, and let her get on with the important job of getting to know her new kingdom.

So, what a difference from the frustration of Friday - two new queen bees!  Yes, I am feeling very proud!

Saturday, 27 May 2017

One Queen, Two Queen, Hatched Queen, Flew Queen

So, if you read last week's Update on the Queens, you'll know that I was expecting a queen to emerge from the queen cell that the bees have been carefully growing and nurturing.  So yesterday I opened up the hive to see if she has indeed emerged.  Regular reader Stewart was on-hand to take photos, and when we lifted the frame with the queen cell, we saw this:

You can see that the end of the cell has been carefully cut through, and at the bottom end a flap of wax has hinged open.  The queen is out!  But where is she?

There was only one way to find out - I needed to go through every frame, and try to find the queen.  The first thing I noticed is the bees were still in a bad mood.  This was surprising, as they usually calm down when the new queen emerges.  Then, 4 frames in, I found two "emergency" queen cells, still unopened.  I thought I'd checked through very carefully last week, but clearly I hadn't checked well enough.  And, given the colony size (very big!) and the weather (warm and sunny), I started to suspect that the queen may have emerged and then swarmed.  Bees will do this if the colony is big and there are other queen cells in reserve.  I had to be sure, so I kept going.  More queen cells on frame 5, and still no sign of the queen.  I pressed on, and didn't see her anywhere in the brood box.

Back to the super box, and I went through frame-by-frame - still no sign of the queen.  Then, on the 8th frame, I found this:

Another primary queen cell!  I'd made the mistake of not looking through the super frames last week (I'd taken several stings by that point, and decided to give up), and therefore never seen this queen cell before.  So, what to do?

Firstly, I had to decide whether I had a queen or not.  There were two possibilities:
  1. I have a queen, but she is out mating
  2. I had a queen, but she has swarmed
Scenario [1] was possible, but I would have expected the bees to be in a better mood if the queen had stayed.  So, I decided I had to accept that she had probably swarmed.  What to do next?

There is a risk that each queen in each of the remaining queen cells will also swarm, until they are down to the last queen cell.  I need to minimise the chances of that happening.  So I decided to split the colony, and spread the risk.

I took out frames 1-5 from the brood box, where I'd seen the emergency cells, and put them (with plenty of bees) into a nucleus box.  I then put 5 new, empty frames into hive and closed up.  Here's what I now have:

  • The hive contains (probably) one primary queen cell (on super frame #8).  I'm expecting the queen to emerge in the next couple of days, and hopefully not swarm.  She will then take over the hive.
  • The nucleus contains 3 or 4 queen cells.  I'm hoping the bees will recognise that their colony is too small to swarm, and that when the first queen emerges she will kill her sisters and take over the colony.

So, that's the plan.  Will it work?  Difficult to say - so far the bees haven't thought much of my plans, they seem to prefer their own!