The sun is shining, the ground is warm, the birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and number five is alive. My new queen is laying eggs (lots of them), and the bees are actively out collecting pollen and nectar to feed the hive and make honey. This beek is happy, with everything back as it should be.
Mid week my darling wife Sas and I took an evening walk around the allotment, and she took some delightful snaps.
There’s some simple maths for queen bees in beehives.
In general for a healthy colony you need more than 0, and less than 2.
They truly are a special and important part of a honey bee colony.
In Spring, the number of bees within a hive grows very fast. Sometimes, the colony also decides to grow a new queen.. i.e. 2 queens in a colony. This can make those tending towards Aspergers uncomfortable. The colony also wants to reach the equilibrium of 1 (if you’re wondering this is not an official term, I just made it up).
With 2 queens in a hive, the old queen takes half the bees away to find a new home (called a swarm), and the new queen inherits the current beehive. The jury is still out on issues of inheritance tax.
This is how everything should go anyway. This year, it’s been a little problematic for me. The old queen, lets call her number 1 for arguments sake, decided to grow a new queen (number 2), and number 1 swarmed out of the beehive taking half of the bees with her to make a new home. I didn’t want that to happen so I caught the swarm, and put number 1 back into a new beehive, a different hive from number 2′s inherited hive. She was still in a cocoon.
Unfortunately in the swarm collection process number 1 was lost or died, so I started to bank instead on number 2. There is a risk with a new virgin queen, as she needs good weather to fly out of the hive on mating flights, and mate with around half a dozen males (drones) from other hives. You don’t know who she is mating with, and you might get a poorly tempered colony.
So, I bought a new queen in from a breeder, number 3. And, killed cocoon number 2. Number 3 seemed good, and she started to lay eggs – hooray!
Not sure what happened next, but a week later number 3 was also lost, or rejected and killed by the colony. So the colony started to grow an emergency queen, number 4.
Emergency queens can be risky because of the weather / mating above, but the bees often have less time than usual to feed royal jelly to a chosen emergency larvae. This might result in a poor quality queen – number 4′s chances didn’t look good.
So, I went to another breeder, bought number 5, and killed number 4′s cocoon.
Number 5 so far looks promising and I’m hopeful I don’t have to wield the Henry VIII style axe again. But lord she might pay a lot of inheritance tax after that chain of events. As this has happened over 3 months, I trust this answers the whole naming issue.
Spring has started a month late this year.
It wouldn’t be fair, or true, to blame the weather on my challenging start to the 2013 beekeeping season. But it’s tempting none the less..
The good news…
Honey is in the house!
The bees have been enjoying the warming weather, collecting pollen and nectar.
Roughly, honey production occurs like this. Nectar is a sugary substance that bees collect from flowers. The sugar in the nectar (sucrose) is chemically converted in the bee’s honey stomach using the enzyme ‘invertase’, converting into fructose and glucose. The water in this liquid sugar solution is reduced, or dehydrated to below 20%, making the liquid much less runny.
Once converted and dehydrated, the cell is capped with a wax lid to ensure it doesn’t rehydrate, et voila, this is honey! You can see to the left the bees are capping some honey, which is a great sign.
Pollen is in the house!
The bees also collect pollen from the flowers and trees, this is a protein source for the colony, particularly for developing larvae and young bees. The different colours of pollen shows the different flowers they have been collecting from.
The pollen chart at Bristol Beekepeers web site indicates the bees are visiting willow, apple trees, and snowdrops at least. There are a lot of horse chestnut trees around Chiswick, so there’s bound to be some in there too.
…but there’s no queen in the house..
While this is all very good news, the queen is gone.
She may have been rejected when I united the split colonies back together.
No queen = no eggs = no new bees = slow population reduction = colony death = sad beekeeper.
The queen did manage to lay some eggs during her short reign thankfully, and the bees are developing queens from those eggs. Queens raised in this manner are known as ‘emergency queens’ because, well, is an emergency! Some cells containing eggs are chosen by the bees, and they build up larger cell walls around the egg. These eggs are fed ‘royal jelly’, a nutrient rich substance which can change a regular egg into a queen bee.
Queen bees are larger than regular bees, so they need a larger cell than usual within which to pupate. You can see these developing queen cells on the left hand side, looking like peanuts. They are alongside ‘regular’ workers pupating in usual size capped cells, seen to the right.
These developing queens will emerge in around a week’s time. In the meantime, the presence of the queen cells should keep the colony calm, as they know a new monarch is soon on its way. The bees also won’t swarm at the moment, as they’ve got no queen to take with them to establish a new colony. So there’s that at least. Until she appears, I’d like them to keep calm, stay put, and carry on collecting honey!
We might not be having the most glorious Spring weather, but the colony is certainly progressing well. Most importantly, the new queen has been let out of her cage, was accepted by the colony, and has started laying eggs! #result
I have to admit I wasn’t quite expecting to manage a swarm this year, nor re-queen the hive. But as they say, bees don’t read the books we write..
The colony is fairly large, however the bees in the hive only live around 6 weeks. So it’s important to have the next wave of bees coming through. The eggs in this picture will take around 3 weeks to develop and emerge as adult bees.
According to Seth Godin, now is the time to power through the dip – the queen will be laying 2,000 eggs / day at this time of year, so while there will be a small dip in population, there is a strong and healthy base of bees – things will be just tickety-boo.
In Spring as the colony grows, so do plants around the hive. I’m always impressed by the speed which England turns green after Winter. It’s important to keep the front of the hive clear, allowing bees to enter and exit with ease. At the moment you want to encourage their increasing activity, and getting plants away from the front door certainly helps. Apparently in extreme cases, the bees can’t recognise their own hive, if the entrance gets too overgrown.
It helps the beekeeper with inspections too, to get rid of the darned blackberry thorns surrounding the hive.
On Sunday, I hosted a talk with around a dozen allotment holders from the Chiswick Horticultural Society. While far from being an expert, it’s really enjoyable to share the fascination of bees with interested people – I suspect I’m probably guilty of sharing the fascination with *uninterested people… so it was really great to overview this curious world to people who wanted me to talk.
Sadly when the bees swarmed last weekend, collected and put back in the box, the queen was lost. I can’t be certain how she was lost, but this is no time for mourning. The important thing now she’s gone is to get a queen into the hive.
There are a few methods to re-queen a colony, but in the interests of reducing risk, I’ve decided to buy one in. I’m keen to get a honey crop this year, so having a laying queen in the hive as soon as possible helps meet this aim, through a continued large population collecting nectar, when the flowers are blooming.
The surprising thing about the new queen is she arrived in the post! I’ve decided on a Carniolan breed which are well known for their gentle behaviour, ideal for keeping bees in a public area like an allotment. My previous queen was also Carniolan, which are also known for very quick spring population growth. If not watched closely, the colony can quickly out grow the hive in early Spring, and decide to replicate and swarm. I felt certain I was prepared for the Spring growth but happened much faster than I expected.
The new queen arrived via first class postage in a bubble lined envelope, in a plastic cage with half a dozen attender bees. A plastic plug keeps them within the cage, which also contains a small amount of candy for them to feed on.
She is lowered into the hive and remains in the cage for around 2 days. During this time the other bees in the hive get used to her scent. If released into the hive too quickly, there is a risk the bees would see her as an intruder and kill her..
However a queenless hive should fairly readily accept a new queen. They can get pretty agitated without one, and are much calmer when they are queened.
After 2 days, the plastic plug is removed, where the bees then eat through the edible candy plug, releasing her from the cage, and into the hive to start laying eggs. Long live the queen!