Our amateur bee supplier had gone radio silent and we were getting anxious about where this year’s colony was going to come from, when we were rescued with news of a prime swarm in Willesden. I was working all weekend so we decided to house them on Tuesday and I hurried down to the cemetery with the stand, the brood box and a super to house our new tenants. The apiary area had changed beyond recognition since the winter. Knot weed, nettles and cow parsley are vying for space on the ground and the Lime trees are sending out a low canopy of new leaves. Soon the Lime flowers will bloom, which is a wonderful nectar source for our bees.
It’s eight in the morning and as I get to site the sunlight is filtering through the trees. I notice that the elder has started to flower even since Sunday, just as the Chestnut blossom is dropping. Before Stephane arrives I run a board up to the entrance and drape a sheet over it as a platform for the bees to walk up to the entrance. Apparently they like to walk up, so this encourages them to go in. When Stephane arrives he brings the bees in a cardboard box, wrapped in a sheet, in a bin bag. After we have put on our bee suits we take the lid off the hive and halve the number of frames down to five in the brood box. That way they don’t have too much work to do, drawing out the comb for the Queen to lay in, or the honey and pollen to be stored. We pack the space behind the frames and Stephane puts in a frame that already has some honey on it for them and we leave a little space to shake the bees into. Then we untie the bin bag and sheet and tip the swarm, with one sharp shake, into the top of the brood box. Looking into the cardboard box where they’ve lived for the last two days, you can see they’ve already started to build comb. This is waxy white, rather than yellow, and is shaped like row of shark fins attached to the side of the box. It even has some honey in it, which the bees must have brought with them. We have to peel back the comb and break up the box to brush the bees off and be sure we’ve got the Queen. The bees that come out this way go on the sheet and start to make their way inside the hive. You can see it in the photo section. It’s a good sign because it tells us the Queen is inside where we want her. Stephane sees that there are eggs in the new comb we found in the box and that’s a good sign too because it means our Queen is laying. There are so many bees in the air and for some reason they settle mostly on our heads. Luckily they don’t seem to be angry or aggressive so maybe we have a relatively placid breed. Although bees are still bees, and its still best to stay careful and move slowly.
Later in the day I come back and see that the swarm has all marched inside and workers have already started flying out to forage and return. You can see them landing and making their way back into the hive with their hind legs all covered in pollen. Now we leave the Queen to her laying and the hive to it’s comb building and we won’t be looking inside for a while as they settle in.
Hi, my mum's roof in Battersea has been taken over by a lovely big bees nest. She would normally have left it be (!) but is needing to replace the tiles anyway. Any idea of who might be able to help?
She should get in touch with the local Bee keeping association. If she (or you) look on line by googling the British Beekeepers association (BBKA) you should be able to find a branch local to her. Each association has people who come out and deal with swarms - and her nest will be a swarm that's taken up residence.
Saturday May 21st
When a group of us went up to Harrow Beekeepers Association to learn about swarms we heard that KC, one of the members, was selling some nucs. ‘Nucs’, for those of you who are wondering, is short for bee nucleus. This is the basic starter size that you build a colony from. Ultimately a colony can be 60,000 bees on 11 brood frames, but a nucleus is considerably smaller and comes on 3 to 6 frames. A nucleus consists of a young fertile queen, bees to tend her and evidence of laying in the form of eggs and larvae. Since we were still short one colony, after being let down by our supplier, this sounded perfect and we struck the deal and bought a nuc.
KC offered to come and bring the bees to the cemetery on Saturday morning and we had a beautiful bright start to the day. First he took another nuc to some other local new bee keepers and then when we tried to get into the cemetery we discovered it wasn’t open yet. We made a tea stop and KC told us that he’s only been keeping and breeding bees for 3 years, but he’s already up to about 12 hives.
The sun was streaming through the Lime leaves when we got into the cemetery. When KC took the lid off his box the bees were pretty docile. They were moved, one frame at a time into our hive and we were able to look in and see newly laid eggs and larvae in the comb. We gave them some syrup in a rapid feeder and put it inside an empty super (that’s like an extra storey for the hive) on top of the brood box, so they had access from inside. Then we put the lid on and left them to it. The only time there were a lot of bees in the air was when we had to shake the nuc box to get them all out, but they found their way to the new entrance easily. KC showed us that there were bees right at the entrance, fanning their wings really fast. He said this was a way of sending out the smell of the hive to let all the bees know the way in.
Stephane took the opportunity to have a look in hive 1, and we could see the Queen was laying and the comb had been built up in the 10 days they’ve been in there. We had put some packing in the brood box, but we took it out and added the six frames they’ll need to for more eggs and food storage as the colony grows. The Queen can lay between 1500 and 2000 eggs a day, while the young worker bees crowd round her, grooming and feeding her and tending to all her needs, so she doesn’t need to stop. The good wax production and evidence of new eggs and larvae suggests they’re all pretty happy. Looking at the trees above I can see the lids of the hives are going to get pretty sticky from the goo that Limes drop, but the Lime flowers are right on the cusp of coming out. You can see the spherical buds straining with the blossom just over head. Convenience food on the doorstep.
Sunday May 22nd
On Sunday we went picking Elderflower in the cemetery, walked the dog and took a look in at the bees to see how they’re doing. Hive 2 has lots of workers (all female) out foraging, and we’ll probably feed them again this week because of the extra energy they need for building wax. Being down there reminded me of an interesting conversation we’d had in the car after delivering the nucleus. KC, admiring the cemetery, had said it was a perfect spot for them. He asked what got us involved in bee keeping? We explained a bit about Transition and said that once you start thinking about local food production it doesn’t take long before you think of honey. Rachel, who had helped putting the nucleus in, also said that she liked the idea of the cemetery bees being in the company of the departed. We chatted for a while about how it was the knowledge of the departed, our ancestors, passed down to us that enabled us to keep bees at all, or do anything else for that matter. We ended up with the realisation that our ancestors had in fact been thinking of us when they collected and developed what wisdom they had. Now we are returning the favour by passing it on and thinking about future generations. The bees had provoked a very thoughtful conversation on a beautiful morning, and the whole encounter definitely set me up for a fine day.
When I went with Nicolas today, to feed both hives with syrup, there was very little activity at all. One or two bees strayed out and back in the half hour we were there, which must be to do with the rain and the chill of the evening. Earlier in the week I asked Stephane how long it would be before they needed extra supers on top in order to store their honey? He thought about three weeks. That means three weeks to fill the existing frames of foundation in the brood box with eggs and stores. That suits me perfectly, because I’m now away for a few weeks and Stephane will be looking after them. This evening as Nicolas and I stood listening to blackbirds singing in the trees and we talked about Abbe Warre’s hives - where bees are encouraged to build all of their own comb with no frames, but top bars that they build down wards from - an old fellah stopped with his dogs to chat. He told us he used to keep bees when he was young in Wexford, before the days of colony collapse and varoa mites. Even back then he said he was conscious of the effect of pesticides as they became more widespread and how they visibly weakened his colonies. That is one significant advantage of urban bee keeping - well two in fact – the first being that we don’t have the concentration of pesticides that beekeepers in the countryside have to contend with, and the second is that we’re more likely to have someone stop and chat while they walk their dogs because we're in a public place.
Thursday 30th of June
On Sunday when we checked the bees we found a minor engineering problem in our second hive. The first (swarm) hive has settled in well and nearly covered all the frames with a text book combination of food and brood. However, the second hive of reared black bees came on standard sized National foundation frames. This means that when we put them in our deep brood boxes there was some space underneath. Naturally the bees have gone ahead and filled this space with comb – and of course they haven’t done it in neat rows. They did it randomly instead. It's very pretty to look at, but it creates something of a problem when we want to move the frames around. Looking at it we decided to try and plant some of the extra comb from the bottom onto an empty frame. Since it’s full of brood we really don’t want to waste all that effort from the colony.
Yesterday we went back in the evening light with the sun rays cutting straight through the trees onto the hive. Stephane’s flat mate came and helped with the smoker and we lifted the whole brood box up so we could pull the extra comb out from underneath. Surprisingly the bees didn’t seem to mind at all and we collected four of the extra bits of comb and threw away three or four small other pieces. Then we did our best to plant the ones we were keeping onto the support wires of an empty frame. It looked pretty precarious when we put it back in the hive, but with luck the bees will stick it all together with new wax. With the space under the shorter frames now cleared of obstruction we were able to alternate deep and standard frames. Hopefully this leaves the bees a narrow channel to encourage them to build new comb in a way that’s compatible with lifting the frames in and out. It’s for our benefit, not theirs, so we can manage the hive more easily, and we’ll just have to wait and see whether they cooperate. What we could already see was that they haven’t filled the deeper frames they’ve got with either brood or honey, which means they’ve not come on as much as the swarm hive. We spotted a fair number of queen cells in the swarm hive and broke them open to avoid getting another queen, but Stephane suggested we leave one. I think he’s wondering if we might re-Queen the black bees hive with it in the hope of re-invigorating them
Looking at the base board we could see some varoa were visible, but not a worrying amount. The good news is that the swarm hive is ready to have a super* go on top as they’ve pretty much filled the frames that are already in there. The recent sunshine, following on the heels of all that rain, may result in an explosion of blooms, both flowers and trees. If it does then we want to have space ready for the bees to pack their honey in, so we’re going to put one on this Sunday.
When I got home with one of the bits of discarded comb I picked the sealed brood open with a pin and showed my son. Some cells were full of what looked like white puss (larvae) while others had developed enough to be in bee form, but completely milky white. Others had developed even more and were darkening around the head and abdomen. Some even hatched while we were watching, crawling to the cells that had traces of honey and pollen and apparently feeding themselves immediately. Completely fascinating.
* A super, for those who were wondering, is one of the boxes that go above the brood chamber. The brood chamber will contain food cells and cells for breeding bees. Putting a gate between the brood box and the supers above it – like a sieve that lets worker bees through, but not the queen – guarantees that no larvae get laid in the upper boxes. This leaves the upper boxes as a honey only zone. Essentially, this is the innovation of modern bee keeping: the creation of a area from which the honey can be easily extracted by the bee keeper, without damaging the bees that are growing in the brood cells.
As I waited for the others on Sunday I heard a creaking and cracking sound. Fair warning given by the large Lime slightly to the North of the apiary that it was about to shed a significant branch. And so it did. Crashing to the ground.
What would life be without mishap and mystery? It seems that we’ve lost a swarm. When I look back in my notes from the beekeeping course this makes perfect sense. I had written ‘When the Queen cell is capped you have either lost a swarm or it is imminent’ but I hadn’t remembered this and we already had capped Queen cells in the hive.
To be honest, in South hive (as we are now calling it) the Queen was an old Queen that had swarmed before, so she is gone and a new Queen will emerge. But it does put the whole growth in population back a month while she hatches, then dispatches any other hatching Queens and then flies off to a drone site to mate in mid air. That all has to happen before any more laying. Apparently there are drone sites that have been recorded since the eighteenth century and they are still in use. How does she know where they are?
The cause of the swarm is probably that we let them get too crowded. This Sunday we put a super on, to ease congestion and allow the workers to store honey above the brood chamber. However, going back to the books it says it’s best to do this when the brood chamber is 70% full and I think we went past that. Perhaps it was the rain in early June and the interrupted nectar flow that agitated them. Whatever it was something made the colony decide it was time for the old Queen to go. Who knows what? However, it is certain is that there is no new brood and she is almost certainly gone.
Now we have some mystery with North hive too. We saw some Queen cells developing there, so they are unhappy with their Queen for some reason or another. If a colony is about to supercede their Queen they tend to build one or two Queen cells in the centre of the comb. If they are overcrowded and agitated then they will build multiple cells around the edge. Here we have a mixed message: plenty of Queen cells but all in the centre. For the time being they are uncapped and we shall leave them as we think they’ve just been built, but this time only while we go and check up on what this means.
Things that make you go hmm… Well, the merit of being confused and feeling like a beginner is that it reminds me I am a beginner. It seems we have lost our Queen from North hive too. KC, who supplied these bees in the first place, came to look today and saw no sign of the Queen and no sign of her having been there recently. That means the last sign of her being around were the larvae we saw uncapped on Sunday (now capped) and that suggests she was there when we re organized the wild comb the Wednesday before that. Did we accidentally crush her last Wednesday? Maybe. It’s a mystery that is best explained by assuming we did something that harmed her, quite unintentionally, and that prompted the colony to suddenly make some emergency Queen cells. Now the best thing to do is make sure there are only two Queen cells left (any more and it might prompt some cast swarms), start to feed them again, and wait.
Lesson of the day; there are three kinds of Queen cells, the swarm Queen cell that is quite big, tends to be constructed around the frame edges, looks like a peanut shell and can be duplicated in significant numbers (more than 5), the supercede Queen cell, also quite big and with a well defined structure as the bees take their time over it and build it in the centre (these often exist solo or in twos, but not more than 5) and then the emergency Queen cells which are small and plentiful because they are built quickly.
Slowly. Easy does it. That seems to be the heart and soul of beekeeping. That, along with learning on your feet. The end result of these hiccups will be a delay to any honey harvest, but a stronger set of hives in the process. All the better to get through the winter…