29 April 2013

Are my bees doing the right thing for the time of year?

It can be difficult to know what is going on inside a hive when it's cold, but by using an acrylic crown board you can take off the roof and get a glimpse of what the bees are doing without disturbing, or chilling, them. If it's early spring, and a lot of bees are near the frame tops it could be a sign that they're running short of food. Hefting the hive could confirm this.

Another way of finding out what's happening is to take careful note of bee activity at the front of the hive. Seeing many bees flying close to, and facing, the front of the hive whilst making figure of eight flights, is a fairly safe indicator that these are new bees taking orientation flights.

A copy of "At the Hive Entrance" by H. Storch makes interesting reading as well as being a useful reference. It can be downloaded, but hard copies of the book are sometimes available from Northern Bee Books.

Two hives
It's easy to try to compare one hive with what's reported by others online, but it isn't reliable. Change the location, type of bee, type of hive, hive material etc. and you end up with so many variables that a fair comparison is impossible.

Beginning beekeepers are often advised to build up to a minimum of two colonies. The thought of running two colonies can be a bit daunting at first, but there's are good reasons why it is a sound idea.

Inspecting, or checking, more than one hive multiplies your experience - you'll soon be able to do it more quickly, will spot eggs and young larvae more easily and be more likely to notice the queen. You will also recognise what is 'normal', and will recognise any brood abnormalities and disease.

With more than one hive of your own you can soon tell if a colony appears to be 'slower', which could be a sign of disease. Comparing varroa drop may indicate that a colony might be dealing with these parasites more effectively. If one colony becomes queenless for any reason, it's easy enough to offer a frame of eggs and young brood from an adjacent colony.

Finally, having observed two or more colonies for a season, it's easier to decide which is the best to use for raising your own queens - something we all do at some point. You could select for docility, early build up, activity in poor weather, low swarming behaviour, honey yield, varroa sensitive hygiene, resistance to chalk brood and so on.

There's a lovely webcam showing a hive at Sysonby Knoll Hotel and Restaurant, which is at Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. You can see it here.

I visit the site quite often because, even though it's nowhere near where I live, it shows me what's happening inside somebody else's hive in real time, and can't easily be misinterpreted. I have been able to see things I might never witness within my own hives - I've watched the queen laying, seen bees carefully capping cells and, at the moment, I'm hoping to see some young bees emerge. A second camera showing the hive entrance tells me how much pollen is being taken in, and so how far advanced 'spring' is in that area, as well as showing me how 'busy' that colony is.

I think it's worth repeating that both geography and local climate are relevant to what bees can do at any given time - if the hive on this webcam is to the north of your apiary then your bees may be further ahead; if it's south of you, then your bees may be behind. It's an indicator, though, which can be quite useful for a learner.


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