A challenging start to Spring

By | May 27, 2013

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.

The excess nectar is dehydrated, the sugar is chemically converted and capped with a wax lid = honey!

The excess nectar is dehydrated, the sugar is chemically converted and capped with a wax lid = honey!

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.

The different colours of pollen indicate the different flowers they've been visiting

The different colours of pollen indicate the different flowers they’ve been visiting-  likely to be apple, willow, horse chestnut, snow drops, amongst others..

 

…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.

sshhhh-  baby queens sleeping - and pupating

sshhhh- baby queens sleeping – and pupating

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!

SR_KeepCalmCollectHoney

What-ho! Onwards!

By | May 19, 2013

The candlewick like flecks in the centre of the cells are freshly laid bee eggs

The candlewick like flecks in the centre of the cells are freshly laid bee eggs

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.

Clearing the runway helps the large number of foraging bees get in and out of the hive, with less fuss

Clearing the runway helps the large number of foraging bees get in and out of the hive, with less fuss

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.

Tally Ho!

Re-Queening the Spring Colony

By | May 10, 2013

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.

One of the stranger things you can  receive in the post...

One of the stranger things you can receive in the post… She’s the one with the red dot on her back

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.

Lowered into the hive, the bees start accepting her as the new monarch

Lowered into the hive, the bees start accepting her as the new monarch

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!

Things were quiet – a little too quiet…

By | May 4, 2013

A lovely quiet, still, warm evening at the allotment. Or so it seemed...

A lovely, quiet, still, warm evening at the allotment. Or so it seemed…

Saturday was a mixed bag for me.
After a demoralising thumping 4-2 by relegated  Reading over Fulham, I wanted to see how the bees were doing with the Snelgrove board.

My first impressions were how calm the bees were. “This Snelgrove board is really doing the trick”, I proudly thought to myself. Then I realised how few bees there were. And that I couldn’t find the queen. Sadly she’d swarmed, and taken a good number of bees with her.

Strangely, I found a few freshly laid eggs in the bottom part of the hive she was previously in, which were likely only laid today. It suggested they had only swarmed this afternoon, and have a tendency to swarm on warm, still evenings. I closed the hive up, and thought there’s no harm in taking a brief look around the allotment. Bees usually swarm first around 20-30 feet away, until scouts find a more appropriate new place to hive.

The swarms first hop, on  a Magnolia tree

The swarms first hop, on a Magnolia tree

An oddly dark, rugby shaped ball caught my eye… Great! I’ve found them! Now, how to get them back in their boxes… (at 7 pm in the evening..)

A quick drive home to grab some boxes, a sheet to be potentially sacrificed (sorry Sas..), some long secateurs for branch trimming, and some swarm lure Sas and the bees had won in a photo competition should do the trick.

In short, you want to get the queen, and the rest will follow, but that’s easier said than done.

Initially the bees are clustered around the queen in a ball. The branch they had rested on was a little too high, requiring a chair and outstretched arms to reach. It took cuts to a few branches to get them into a box.

It was going to be hard to find the queen, with them splitting onto half a dozen separate branches

It was going to be hard to find the queen, with them splitting onto half a dozen separate branches

With each branch cut, I disturbed the cluster, which sends up a cloud of bees – making it harder to know if you have the queen in the split clusters, so I decided to just keep cutting branches off they landed on, and putting the branches in the box.

Next challenge, to get them in the hive. It was getting dark, and I didn’t have much time. Primarily I wanted to get them somewhere they would be warm, stay put, and importantly in a place I knew where they were..! I could deal with them in the morning, if I could get them in one spot.

They really liked those branches and I was running out of time, so why fight it? I decided to put all of the branches into an empty hive, and use their behaviour to my advantage. They simply couldn’t stay on those branches as it would be far too hard to manage the colony, but I could deal with that later. Shaking them off the branches also wasn’t going to work, and could potentially scatter them again.

So I elected to put all the bee covered magnolia cuttings into an empty hive, with an open crown board. On top of those crown board holes, I placed a nucleus with no floor containing empty frames, and some swarm lure. I’m anticipating as bees like to go upwards and be attracted by the swarm lure, they’ll move off the branches in the lower box, and up into their new home in the upper nucleus which will be much more manageable.

- Post script: well, it worked. The bees all made their way up into the top story nucleus, so I didn’t have to worry about them being on the magnolia branches any longer.

From the nucleus, it was easy to transfer them frame by frame into a full size hive, and back into the Snelgrove formation. I’m not certain if the queen is with  this errant bunch, and it will take a few days for her to show evidence that she’s there (eggs), if I don’t actually see her.

There’s so many queens, this could be K Road!

By | May 1, 2013

Turnham Green, Chiswick

Turnham Green, Chiswick

Things have been happening pretty fast in the hive this week.
The lovely Spring weather (if not a little late) has made the population boom! in the colony – and the bees have also been growing new queens.

New queens are good if you want another hive and it’s the natural way the colony reproduces. However the tendency is for the old queen to fly away with half of the bees to find a new home. Not good if you want to produce honey, as that’s half of your workforce gone! You’re also at risk as you can’t be certain a new queen will mate successfully, and become viable – or able to lay fertilised eggs in other words. Additionally, your neighbours wont be very happy with a rogue swarm flying about, trying to find a new home.

So, you have to manage the process. You usually want keep hold of the full colony of bees, but also allow the bees to go through their natural reproductive behaviour. I’ve chosen to do an artificial swarm, using the “Snelgrove technique”.

Essentially, you take the existing queen, and put her in the bottom part of the hive with all new and blank frames, so she thinks she’s swarmed to a new location.
In the top of the hive, you put all the existing frames with the developing queen cells, also all the developing larvae and pupae. This lot think they are in the “old” hive and the old queen has left, so go about growing a new queen.

To relocate the queen, I used this clever little alligator clip, designed for it to be hard to squash the queen.

To relocate the queen, I used this clever little alligator clip, designed for it to be hard to squash the queen when closed.

A Snelgrove board separates the bottom part of the hive from the top part, in a sense creating two separate colonies on the same land footprint.
A Snelgrove board is a clever system of doors, which allows you to control the exit and entrance of bees from both the top, and bottom sections of the hive.

Now that I’ve separated the top and bottom parts of the hive, it’s a matter of waiting to see if the “old” queen and bees build out the bottom part of the hive and start laying eggs. In parallel, I need to watch the top part of the hive to see if they develop new queens. It takes 16 days for a queen to develop from egg to virgin adult, and she should mate within 20 days of birth. Seriously, these little beasts work like clockwork.

With the two parts of the hive separated, artificially constructed yet satisfying their natural urge to reproduce and swarm, they should now remain in place and be more easily managed.

But in the meantime, I’ve can now enjoy this genuinely fantastic British Spring weather.

The Snelgrove board, and its position in the hive explained

The Snelgrove board, and its position in the hive explained