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!