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

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