This weekend has been about swarm management, where I split the colony into a main hive, and a nucleus.
Spring has brought some lovely weather – in fact I think is now officially summer (hurrah), and with this warm weather the bees want to grow new queens. Its a good sign of colony strength, so its a welcomed sign. But it does test a beekeepers fundamental skill and knowledge. And ability to do maths.
While the queen is always laying bucket loads of eggs to make new bees, making new queens is the way the colony reproduces and makes a second colony. And one hive can only hold one queen… so if there are two queens in the hive, one departs taking half of the bees with her i.e. a swarm.
To manage the queen making / swarm process, I moved the old queen into a new box (or nucleus). Ill leave her here until I am certain the main hive has grown a new queen, who is successfully laying. Of course she will be a virgin, so needs to successfully mate with a male from another hive – if my teenage years tell me anything, this is not a guaranteed procedure and a lot of luck and/or skill is required. Hell, who am I kidding – teenage years?!
[My low effort instagram link to a 15 second video of the hive on a sunny Sunday afternoon]
Anyway, all going well, I’ll have two healthy productive hives within a month or two.
1 colony + another colony = 2 colonies!
So at least I’m confident I can get the maths bit right.
Last week I put the mega awesome Arnia Remote Beehive monitoring system into the hive. It has sensors which pick up temperature inside and outside the hive, humidity within the hive, and even the frequency of the bees buzz!
The data is sent over 2G to a website which graphs the data. With this information, I can understand what the bees are doing better, make small incremental changes and monitor their effects. Simply put, this amazing system will make me a better beekeeper, and the bees will be better off for it.
For instance, I know the humidity in the hive is fluctuating, as the bees bring in more nectar. They’ll be trying to dehydrate the nectar, by fanning their wings to create a draft. Tough work! Imagine drying your washing by flapping your arms at it..
I’ve therefore put matchsticks under the ceiling tiles, to let the air flow through the hive better. This should help them dehydrate the honey easier, but I’ll need to make sure it doesn’t reduce the hive temperature too much.
I’ve realised Grays Pick Your Own fruit and vegetable farm is nearby. This is excellent news, as it will provide a diverse and changing forage throughout the year for the bees – and Sas and I will be able to pick fresh strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb (etc) when in season, as if they were our own.
In other news, I’m frequently asked what the queen looks like.
So in a bold and amateur fashion, here she is in tilt shift mode.
Shes the one with the red(ish) dot on her back. She is slightly larger than her daughters as she has fully developed ovaries where her daughters don’t, but otherwise is a very similar size.
The red dot makes her easier to see when inspecting, and also lets me know her age. There is a colour code used among beekeepers (with handy mnenomic);
- Years ending 1 or 6
- years ending 2 or 7
- years ending 3 or 8
- years ending 4 or 9
- years ending 5 or 0
Sas and I are moving out of the big city, to the outlying burbs.
And where the peeps go, the bees must follow.
Because I have to check them every week, its a wise idea to have them close by.
So on a Friday evening, I waited until they had all come home for the night, snuck up on them, and plugged the door up with foam to stop them getting out early in the morning. I also put a wire screen on top, to allow heat to escape during the big move the following day, as an overheating hive will kill them.
Early on the Saturday morning, I strapped them up like a gift wrapped box and put them in the boot of the car. Drove them 30 miles down the M4 to Bracknell, situated them on their new site, and opened the door.
It was a carefully planned operation, and not one that should be taken lightly. Done incorrectly the hive could overheat and you’d kill them, they could escape and never find their way home, become homeless and quickly die of the cold, or be a serious hazard while you’re doing 70 mph on the motorway.
Anyway, this tale ends happily.
The hive is now at the Johnson and Johnson Pinewood campus, on 18 acres of woodland and recreational parks, and a J&J learning facility. I’m helping J&J reach their environmental sustainability targets, the bees have acres of excellent forage close to home, and J&J have provided me a superb new home for my buzzy little family. Tripartite symbiosis.
The first few weekly checks show them growing in population, healthy, and collecting bucket loads* of pollen and nectar. From the online pollen charts, I’d suggest they are collecting from poplar, snow drops, blue crocus, and a little gorse**.
All signs point to an excellent year in the apiary.
* not actually bucket loads. Many thousands of mini-thimblesfull
** as a New Zealander, I hate-hate-hate gorse. Introduced to NZ by the English to create cheap rural borders, it quickly took hold in the country side, and blots the landscape as a dreadful thorny weed. On the positive side, I do wonder what pure gorse honey might taste like though.. and if you can put a positive marketing spin on it like manuka honey…?
Spring has long been one of my 4 favourite seasons.
Now as a beekeeper, Ive got 10,000 new reasons to look forward to the season.
March usually gets warm enough to be able to open the hive, and see how the bees survived winter. There needs to be enough winter bees to cluster together and stay warm (around 10,000), enough honey to feed to generate warmth (around 20 kgs), healthy enough without disease or other nasties like varroa mite, and a warm, water tight hive to stay warm and dry over winter.
Finally, after the wettest winter on record (since 1700 and something…!), Saturday was warm enough to open the hive up, and see how the colony was. A brick on top of the hive this winter was to stop the roof blowing off was a wise move, considering the stormy, windy weather!
This morning I was glad to see a lot of bees clustered around the front of the hive, as they were all taking advantage of the sunny, warm and still day to forage for pollen. This is an excellent sign, as pollen is used as a protein source for growing bees – the presence of foragers usually indicates some new brood inside.
Low and behold, the queen is laying eggs like a battery hen on commission, and from the stage of the developing brood, she has been laying eggs for around 25 days already. An excellent sign, because a larger population means more foragers for nectar, all going well this will be transformed into a bumper honey harvest by August 2014.
A good healthy queen does mean I need to be on the lookout, and not get caught out like last spring. Essentially, last spring the queen ran out of space to lay more eggs, because I didnt realise how early and fast she would lay… and the bees decided to swarm to find a new, larger house with a loft extension.
This year, Im alert to their ways, and will be beginning my weekly checks, pronto!
September has arrived, bringing the cooler weather of autumn, and fewer flower blooms (meaning less nectar and pollen). Thankfully England does a great autumn, with those lush green broad leaved London plane trees, Horse chestnuts, and lime trees putting on a fantastic show of colour.
August is the usual time to harvest honey at the end of Summer. While my bees did make some honey this year, unfortunately they didn’t make enough for a surplus. I’ve decided to leave what they did make for the colony over winter.
For beekeepers, autumn is mostly about preparing the colony for winter. You want to make sure the colony is healthy, large enough to be able to keep itself warm through clustering over winter and has enough food to make it through the cold months when they wont be flying, collecting nectar.
In terms of health, varroa destructor is a nasty mite that lives within colonies, feeding and breeding on larvae, and transmitting nasty diseases. If left unchecked, varroa in a hive can silently decimate the colony over winter.
Autumn is a time for varroa treatment and pest management, I choose to use a thyme extract called Apiguard. Apiguard is a gel that is placed inside the hive for 4 weeks in autumn, killing a good percentage of adult varroa which fall out of the hive, through the open mesh hive floor, and onto a monitoring board.
Autumn is also a time where beekeepers often supplement food through sugar syrup, to ensure the colony has enough to eat over winter. Bees cluster together over winter for warmth, and flex their flying muscles to generate heat. This requires energy, and is the reason why they have evolved to store honey. Funnily enough they aren’t making honey solely for our benefit…
Population wise, the queen is laying less eggs and the colony starts to reduce in size through the natural attrition of summer bees. In winter, the population will have reduced to around 10,000 bees. All the male drones get kicked out to die, as they’ve got nothing to contribute! Their only role is to mate with other colonies virgin queens. Over winter virgin queens won’t be flying, meaning males have no contribution to make. The evolutionary logic says why not kill off all the males and hatch some more in Spring, so they don’t sit about eating all the food over Winter..?!
Although I’m slightly disappointed to not making a honey harvest, this year has been all about practical experience and learning for me, as a new beekeeper. Its been a steep learning curve but a thoroughly enjoyable one. With the autumn preparations for winter, a season of rest for beekeepers while bees stay inside the hive, I’m preparing for some more learning.
Microscopy looks to be a fascinating area I’m going to explore, learning how to identify different kinds of pollen, and dissecting bees to learn more of their anatomy. The identification of diseases is also an important skill, to maintain the health of the colony, all of which can only be done through the microscope. Time to delve deeper into their fascinating world.