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.
This is when things got complicated.
What is a swarm? A swarm is when a population of bees in a hive decides to split. The flying population leaves with the Queen to find a new home. The nurse bees, who don’t fly out of the hive yet, stay with the brood and hatch a new Queen. Hey presto. Two colonies where there was one.
Someone reported a swarm to the council last Friday. We talked to local residents and did our best to put them at ease: swarming bees are at their most harmless because they have no eggs or home to defend and they are drunk on honey. This is because they take honey as a travel snack in their hunt for a new home. That all sounds good… but you try remembering that when you’re in the middle of an angry sounding cloud of bees.
When we then went to look at the hives last Sunday we couldn’t see where a swarm would have come from – although we did find one capped Queen cell in North and could not find the Queen. However, there were eggs, which suggested she was still there, or had been there very recently, and a big population.
Tuesday (May 1st) we watched as a new Queen hatched in East hive. Then aaargh… as we tried to trap and mark her she flew away. That is NOT supposed to happen. She is supposed to need rest for days before going anywhere! However, as she flew off we saw… ANOTHER swarm on the dead tree at the corner of the apiary.
Action stations. Get box, get smoker, get bee brush, get ladder. Fifteen minutes later and Stephane is the ladder brushing bees into the box. Soon after we are shaking them into their new home and congratulating ourselves for capturing them. However… as I put the kit away in the car I notice, silhouetted against the sky in the bare Lime tree, a large ball. ANOTHER bigger swarm. This time too high to collect. Nothing we can do about it and it will be gone in the morning.
We’ve watched the balled up swarm all week. Still up in the tree. Now I have to conclude that they have stayed up there and died. That’s just weird. Normally the scout bees find somewhere that they’re happy with as a new place to live. We even set a hive up below the swarm, so they could move in to a brand new, fitted out home. No response.
The nights were really cold this week. Each morning we checked on the ball and found it looking slightly more shabby and brown, rather than the glistening moving mass that a healthy swarm is. Now dead bees are raining in twos and threes from the tree. There is a sad pile of them on the ground.
The populations in the hives still seem in tact, but one of them is depleted by the bees in the tree. Now we must wait for warmer weather before we look inside to find out.
Lots of activity at the apiary, some of it still very confusing, but I have given up trying to construct a version that makes sense of all of it. Two weeks ago we had a queenless South, but re-queened it with an East Queen cell that hatched and killed an adjacent Queen cell. If this one mates and starts laying it will be good news because the North bees (now split as North and East) are much less swarmy and aggressive than the original Queen in South. Now we wait for eggs.
For East we had a really fascinating experience. We found one Queen cell on one frame. Looked through for others before deciding what to do. Found another on another frame (due to hatch) and as we broke open the top of the cell it started to emerge. We hastily put it back before the Queen crawled out and went back to destroy the first Queen cell. In the few moments we had been dealing with the second one the first one had hatched completely! Nothing for it but to leave them fight it out. That was Monday the 7th, so we are waiting for eggs. The cold weather does not bode well for successful mating flights, so it’s fingers crossed for some warm dry days.
North had eggs last week, but none on Monday and none today. Several larvae had been built into Queen cells, so we left one (uncapped) on Monday. Harrow beekeepers have told us that leaving two queen cells promotes cast swarms, so only leave one – and to be sure about it leave an open one because then you know there’s larvae in it. Today that one had been capped and joined by 3 more uncapped and one capped. I destroyed all except the earliest one, which we left to hatch. That should be 17th May at the earliest, and 20th May at the latest.
A week ago we inspected and found no sign of eggs any where, which means the Queens have still not made their mating flights. The Queen cell in North was still waiting to hatch on Wednesday 16th (our first bit of warm weather) but the bees are out in force. As I walked under the pink chestnut trees in the North half of the cemetery the entire canopy was buzzing with a mix of bumble bees and honey bees. It was really loud as bees crawled all over the flowers. At least there is food for them now and they won’t go hungry.
On the 13th, after our regular hive inspection, someone rang me to say that there was a swarm in Summerfield Avenue. I went and boxed it, much to the amusement of the passers by in the street. The swarm had lodged in a lilac tree right outside a family home and I was watched by three small faces as I brushed the bees into a box and then set it on the ground for the stragglers to join the main swarm. They’ve now been at the apiary for about a week and there are no sign of eggs here either. It suggests the queen is a virgin and it’s a cast swarm, rather than a prime swarm. The bees themselves don’t seem agitated, and they feel ‘queen right’ when you handle them. We shall keep it until we know how our other colonies are going to turn out.
When we went to the apiary today it was too cold for a proper inspection so we had a very quick look at the queen cell in North to see if it had hatched. Yes it has! So now we know that all the colonies, however depleted they are, have got Queens in them. Now our main concern must be how quickly the queens mate and whether there will be sufficient populations to tend the brood. The older bees must surely be dying out now. It is weeks since the first swarms set off and all the brood hatched some time ago. Sharon tells me that her bee keeping friends in the Midlands are all saying that they have un-mated queens and aging worker populations. This is a function of the strange spring weather. Warm in March so the bees increase in numbers, expecting flowers and nectar to follow. Instead they get four cold weeks in April and early May when it is too wet to go out and there’s nothing in bloom. Result, starvation. So it is a problem all over the country.
The apiary is now shrouded in green. The bright young leaves of the Lime trees shield us from view and if you walk through the cemetery you would barely know we are there. The tiny green spheres that will become the Lime flowers are sprouting all over the trees and it cannot be many days before they blossom. Lime tree blossom is popular with the bees and makes fine honey.
There was an article in the Standard on Friday about the ‘celebrity’ fashion of keeping bees in London. They suggested that there were too many hives for the available forage. It’s an interesting idea, but really the main complaint seemed to be about how honey yields are down on past years. Since harvested honey is a matter of humans taking the bees’ natural surplus it doesn't actually suggest there is not enough forage for them. Rather it suggests there is not enough forage for quite so large a surplus.
Our swarming crisis is temporarily over. All of ours hives have brood developing and some is even starting to hatch. The Queens are all laying. Even South hive seems to have calmed down and no longer deserves the label of our feisty hive. This week Stephane decided we could boost the population of South by merging it with the collected swarm in our nuc box. We tried this on Wednesday. We put our nuc box frames (including the laying Queen) into a makeshift brood space above the South brood box. By separating the two colonies with a sheet of newspaper we gave them the chance to get accustomed to one another’s pheromones. In principle they should eat their way through the paper and merge. You can either do this and leave both Queens to fight it out, or you can remove the Queen you want to replace (as we did) by putting her somewhere else.
Thursday morning and there was no sign of the two colonies munching through the newspaper to join each other, so I poked a few holes, left them for a couple of hours and then merged them manually. This involves dusting the swarm bees with icing sugar and physically putting the frames of brood, including sugared workers, drones and the Queen, down into South hive’s brood box in place of empty frames. The sugar is supposed to encourage grooming, and the grooming then introduces the new Queen, her workers and her pheromones. At least that’s the theory. If it works we’ll have younger (swarm) bees to tend South’s brood and replace the older (dying) workers, more brood than before (so the colony expands more rapidly) and a better chance of a harvest.
The good weather has come not a moment too soon. This has been a miserable early summer for all bees. Up and down the country people are worrying about their colonies, bewailing the lack of honey and concerned about the lack of forage. At least now, with the sun beating down, they should have some serious nectar to collect.
One of the strangest difficulties with our hives is that the bees seem reluctant to take the honey up into the supers. This means they are storing a lot of honey in the brood chamber. This creates a space problem when it comes to comb for the Queen to lay in. We’ve decided to remove the Queen excluders in all our hives, to allow the Queen up into the higher frames if that’s where she wants to go and to encourage any workers who did not like crossing the barrier of the Queen excluder.
This modification does not change the fact that North hive seems very light on population, so we suspect a swarm and the loss of bees that goes with it. The swarm we collected from Summerfield Avenue in May also shows no sign of any new eggs or the Queen being around (we had marked her), and the same is true of East hive. This means that the only colony behaving as it should is South – the one that used to be the most feisty. Since the Spring (when South swarmed) we have re-queened that colony with a queen cell from North and all the offspring seem to be much calmer. In South they are producing plenty of honey but they are still storing it in the lower box along with the brood.
Hopefully the hot weather will restore order and normality. That would mean brood in the brood chamber and honey in the super above it. We shall have to wait and see. In the meantime we have crossed fingers for the Queen cells that are waiting to hatch in North and East hives. Until we have new Queens – virgins first, and then out on their mating flights – we will have no eggs, no new population and both North and East are at risk.
September 2nd My wife and son spoke to a man selling honey in the market today and he said that it had been his worst year of bee keeping ever. He has 250 hives. He’s had more swarms than he’s ever had in the past and the poorest honey crop he’s ever experienced. He said “If you were starting out in beekeeping this year I wouldn’t be surprised if you gave up. The up side is that next year, by comparison, should feel like a walk in the park.” He had some interesting husbandry comments as well. Because March and early April were warm the colonies expanded as if summer were coming. Then it didn’t come. In late April and May the weather was foul. Normally a large population would be rotating in and out of the hive as they forage. In the bad weather they were all inside at once. That prompted swarming among hives that had perfectly reasonable populations. A hive that has swarmed then concentrates on the brood, looking after the next generation and building it’s population back up. Foraging suffers as a result. Hence a low level of honey production.
In our own hives the strategy of removing the Queen excluders seems to be working. That is, we’ve had no more swarms. That’s the good news. On the other hand North, East and the nuc box colonies all lost their Queens in the summer. At one time we only had a queen right colony in South. Not surprisingly South is the only one that has got any honey in the supers. Not much, but enough to take a small harvest towards the end of September. Meanwhile North got a new Queen by transferring a Queen cell from East. That one hatched, mated and began laying the first week of August. The population is down, but there’s plenty of brood, so we hope it will get to a good size before the winter. Then East failed to form is own Queen cells, so we put some recent eggs from North back into East. The hope there was that that they would turn one of them into a new Queen. Nothing doing. One week, then two weeks later there were no signs of any Queen cells at all. We were just about to repeat the trick when we realised that there was brood on three frames. One frame could be explained by the eggs we put in from North, but three frames meant there was a laying Queen inside East and we hadn’t realised. Fan-bloody-tastic. Three viable colonies (fingers crossed) as we head into the autumn and a tiny honey crop. For the worst bee-keeping year in recent memory that’s no small feat.
September 16th Finally we have a harvest. A tiny one admittedly. Only 1kg of honey from South Hive, but it is enough to give a small pot to each of the bee keepers. None of the other colonies had stored any honey in the supers, and although they’d produced a lot in the brood box this must be left as winter stores. All the hives are now showing signs of less laying and the unused space in the brood box is filling up with food storage. We will begin to inspect less as it gets colder and the preservation of internal heat becomes more important for the colonies.
Collecting the honey wasn’t as messy as we anticipated. The four supers that had honey in them were brought home and the wax cappings sliced off with a hot knife. Normally, with a big harvest, you would then spin the frames in a spinner – which flings the honey out of the comb by centrifugal force. What we did instead was to scrape the honey-laden comb onto a baking tray and then tipped it into a sieve. It took about five hours for the honey to drip through, leaving us with honey covered wax that we then chewed like chewing gum.
We put the messy frames back into the hive and the bees come and clean them. Any honey that is clinging to the damaged comb is collected and moved to undamaged comb in the brood box. No waste.
When I went back to put the frames into the hive for cleaning our friend the robin was there. He watched me working, jumping from North hive, to the water bucket, along the ground and then back to sit on the wicker fence under the hanging Lime leaves. Every now and then he would fly over and eat an elder berry from the tree that borders the apiary. After watching for a while I realised he was singing really softly. Apparently this is the autumn song of the robin. At first I thought it was coming from further away, but then I saw it's throat quivering. It sang really softly, like a whisper or a lullaby.
The sun is out and so are the bees. Today I got a text from a friend that said ‘Your bees are out today, visiting my crocuses.’ This is good news, so I went straight down to the hives to see which colonies had emerged. The sun was shining directly on the hives and I could hear the thrubbing of a wood pecker high in a distant tree. All bee keepers are warned about wood peckers and their tendency to attack the sides of bee hives, but luckily we haven’t suffered this. I found North and South hives very busy with lots of traffic in and out. When I checked the bottom boards they showed signs of some wax dust which suggests hatching and therefore spring laying. There was also a fair amount dropped pollen. The pollen was the bright, bright yellow pollen of crocuses and very tasty.
Back in January I had put fondant (like cake icing) into all of the hives as a late Christmas present. I had not been here at Christmas itself because I’d been luck enough to visit Rwanda where my brother works. They call Rwanda the country of a thousand hills and most of those hills have eucalyptus trees in them. As you travel around you often see what looks like a large tube of eucalyptus bark, stoppered at both ends, hanging from the high branches. This is bee-keeping Rwandan style. Presumably when it’s time for harvest someone climbs up to bring the tube down and it is broken open and the honey retrieved hat way. This is how skeps (straw domes) used to be harvested in this country in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Mountain honey’, as they call it in Rwanda, is all very dark and liquid with a strong taste that may well come from eucalyptus. Any way… the fondant that I had put as food into our cemetery hives had not been touched in North, South or East. I checked it as recently as last week and was worried that no signs of eating meant no bees at all. Happily this now proves to be wrong. North and South clearly had enough by way of honey stores without the need for fondant. East, on the other hand, appears not to have made it through the winter.
2013 April 9th On Saturday or Sunday, when the cold finally broke and the sun came out for a while, Stephane went down to the hives and took a look at who was coming in and out. It’s still too cold to open them up but there was lots of activity from North. Nothing from South or East. Yesterday I went and had a look myself. Again, lots from North and this time a slow but steady stream, in ones and twos, venturing out from South as well. Today I was so sure that East was dead that I looked inside. Sure enough, dead bees on the crown board and lumps of bee corpses between the frames, like gobs of encrusted tree sap. The smell confirmed it, a sweet and stinging waft of ammonia mixing in the air with the trill of two blackbirds singing over head.
So East is dead. Now we have to see if South is strong enough to rebuild itself and hope that the sun prevails over the rain, bringing more blossom and food for them.
Bees in the news. I've been getting lots of e-mails about nicotinoid pesticides and the EU vote. The Harrow beekeepers are in two minds as the evidence in the lab suggests the pesticides are bad for bees and the evidence in the field is inconclusive. The spokesperson for the pesticide industry described themselves as a 'crop protection specialist' - which is one important way of looking at our food supply, but also clearly smacks of spin.
I took a look at East hive last Thursday and they are indeed dead. Bees lying all over the bottom mesh, a ghastly smell of decay and strange rosettes of dead bees on the comb that had liquified and darkened in the centre and turned to pale dust on the periphery. They looked like strange sunflowers of death. Beautiful and disturbing. South and North were both very busy collecting pollen. I didn't have time or help, so I couldn't do an actual inspection of the vibrant colonies. Stephane may have done one this weekend. Stephane? Any news? What I did do was put a super onto each hive without a Queen excluder. If we're lucky this will allow more space as laying increases and we'll avoid the swarms-from-overcrowding that we had last year. Although if the swarms were prompted by the crappy weather in 2012 that's in the lap of the weather gods for 2013.