10 June 2013

A bad beekeeper delays a swarm

Bees are precious this year because too many colonies were lost during last winter and the cold, late, spring. Colonies that made it through aren't without problems.

Many local beekeepers are reporting that their 'last year's queen' has been superseded or has simply vanished - you will recall that last year was so wet that mating flights were few and far between, so mating was poor.

What have previously been easily-contained colonies of 'local bees' have been swarming. I have caught one swarm in my garden, have been called to collect a swarm in a garden adjacent to another local beekeeper - who is on holiday - but the swarm took off just before I arrived. That beekeeper had caught an earlier swarm just before going away.

This is mirrored within my small apiary. On the first inspection after I fortnight of cold weather I found one colony had lost their queen - there was no sign of either fresh brood or queen cells. One has been split, which I'll describe in another post. One of the colonies is currently superseding, but is continuing to build up rapidly so I need to keep a careful eye on it.

The fourth colony has been doing fine, although has been building up surprisingly quickly and I've seen hints of nosema staining on the outside of their box, which will need checking. I've tried to make sure there is always plenty of space to expand. I've tried to make sure that the bees have 'something to do' if the weather is not good enough for them to fly, such as new brood frames with only foundation or starter strips, or a super containing a proportion of undrawn frames.

But, bees will do what bees want to do, the best planning goes awry, so a beekeeper feels incompetent - and joins Bill Turnbull's Club.

How not to keep bees
Last Thursday I had a spare few minutes and strolled down to the apiary - just to look, and listen to what should have been a delightful hum of busy, contented, bees. It was about 11.30am. I was greeted by an ominous sound, and saw bees pouring the busiest of my four hives. They were going high over the hedge and seemed to be making for a nearby group of trees. I popped round to ask if I could try to find, and perhaps retrieve, them.

I did indeed find them, but they were congregating right at the top of a very tall conifer, beyond the reach of anything other than a cherry picker. I explained where they were, showed how it would be impossible to collect them, and said they would probably move onwards before the end of the day.

Swarm returning to hive
I was right, but my timing was way out - within half an hour they were working their way back into their original hive.

It was all a bit embarrassing, and they'd caught me on the hop. All I could do, in the time I had, was try to find a quick way of stopping this, or another, swarm leaving before I had the chance to look inside the brood box to find out exactly what was going on.

Queen excluder in front of hive
To buy some time I put a queen excluder across the front of the hive - it's easier on the beekeepers' back than lifting the brood box and putting a queen excluder directly above the entrance/floor. With the help of two ratchet straps and a couple of pieces of foam (to block the sides of the entrance) it was done in about five minutes. There's space beneath the queen excluder for bees to walk up the face of the hive, the drones don't mind being confined for a few days - they still get fed.

There was no guarantee it would work, because a virgin queen can sometimes squeeze through the bars of a queen excluder.

On Friday we had thunderstorms. The rain kept the bees indoors, which was a good thing. It also kept the beekeeper indoors, which was less good.

On Saturday I took a careful look inside the hive. The plan was to reduce any queen cells to just one - but that plan didn't last long because I was shocked to find a whole heap of them - all sealed and in varying positions over several frames. Some, centrally on the face of the comb, would have normally been referred to as supersedure cells. Others, to the sides and the lower edge, would have been called swarm cells if they had been the only ones. I couldn't believe I missed so many on my last inspection, but I clearly had. Instead of following my plan I had, yet again, to respond to what I could see - which isn't always the right thing to do.

Removing the reason for swarming
To remove the immediate potential to swarm, and give the colony plenty of space, I put all the frames containing queen cells into a nuc - planning to try to pick the best-looking cells and destroy the rest. The space left by removing these frames was filled with a mixture of part-drawn frames and new foundation - which should keep the reduced-sized colony busy for a few days. I left the queen excluder in place - and then ran out of time, again.

On Sunday I checked the nuc box and and was astonished to see that one of the queen cells had hatched - it was tucked down the side of the frame between the edge of the comb and the wooden frame, which is their preferred hiding place and is all too easy to miss. All the other queen cells had been damaged. A small hole about 2mm across had been chewed in the side of each one. Each cell, except for one, was empty. In the remaining one I could just about see the segments of a white, dead, larva. I closed them up and walked away.

Today (Monday) I removed the queen excluder from the front of the main hive - disturbing them as little as possible.

A more careful check of my records showed that a previous inspection of this colony had been curtailed because of the weather. Failing to follow that through, by being complacent and assuming my bees would be 'normal', meant I had missed the developing queen cells.

Missing the clusters of queen cells could have lost half this colony to a swarm, or several cast swarms each taking half the remaining flying bees. The 'home' colony could have been so severely reduced in size that it would have impacted on overwintering and survival to next year.

Last Thursday I was lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. I like to think the bees were lucky too, because they all have a decent home - but the original colony was disturbed too often over too many days. This could have made them extremely bad tempered - but they weren't.

All of the above is a good example of how not to keep bees.

What next
The best thing that will come out of my incompetence will be two colonies led by two laying queens, each leading healthy colonies which will be able to go through next winter.

The worst thing will be two failed queens.

It's most likely that the swarm tried to leave, taking the old queen with it. She's neither clipped nor marked, so should have been able to fly - but she is a 'last year's queen'. (Last year's queens were probably badly mated because of the prolonged bad, and very wet weather, which prevented them from flying to drone congregation areas to mate.) The swarm probably returned to the hive because the workers were dissatisfied with the queen for some reason or other. There is a good chance that she may die leaving no eggs from which to make a new queen - it's already happened to one colony.

The new colony, currently headed by a newly hatched virgin, could end up with a successfully mated queen. If so, I will be able to combine this with the original colony - which would be brilliant for the heather crop, if there is one this year.

I will inspect the original hive next weekend, to make sure it still has a laying queen.

The 'new' colony will be left alone until the new queen should be laying - which will be around 27th June.

New blood?
My bees are local mongrels, which are normally well-contained by a jumbo langstroth (dadant frames). There is a chance that the 'surprising' and 'unexpected' build up is because another beekeeper has bought in some new blood, which has entered the melting pot of the local gene pool. It could be A. m. ligustica which is known to be prolific. Whatever the cause, there's nothing I can do about it apart from deal with the outcome within my own small apiary.


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