Swarms are Leaving not Arriving

It’s Queen Rearing Jim, but Not as we Know it!

It’s been eventful this year to say the least, last year I collected quite a few swarms from around Wiltshire, however due to the bad weather and probably a lack of know how I just didn’t get the chance to re-queen them, so this year I’ve been fighting the swarming impulse until, in most cases, I lost the battle.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the older a queen is, the higher the likelihood that she will swarm, so by collecting swarms and being unable to re-queen them, I certainly had 2 year old queens in those hives this year and most likely even older (many commercial honey bee swarm in a treebeekeepers will re-queen annually) so as soon as it warmed up they were just itching to get out and start a new colony.

The other thing which I’ve noticed this year is the speed at which it’s been happening, usually doing a weekly inspection means that I’ll spot any queen cells before they are sealed and I loose a swarm (the bees will swarm straight after the new cells are sealed, weather permitting). This year however, I’ve either managed to miss the cells being charged, or they have developed faster than they usually would, either way the result was the same, arrival at a hive and seeing less bees than I’d expect at the entrance, opening it and seeing less inside, then upon inspection finding sealed cells.

All this has put my planned queen rearing project back a year, while it has enabled me to re-queen all those colonies, well, to be fair, the bees did it themselves, I did manage to catch the 2 planned breeder colonies in the act and split them out into nuc’s each with a charged queen cell. I’m pleased to say that it was 100% successful too, so not only do all colonies have new laying queens in them, but I also have a few extra nuc’s to expand  and they will most likely become the breeder colonies for next year.

So although my honey crop will be much smaller than I would have liked, I do have plenty of new laying queens now, so hopefully I can spend my time next year concentrating on breeding queens rather than fighting the swarming impulse!

If you’re interested in queen rearing, these sites are a good starting point:

The Season Kicks Off

The Bees are Flying at Last

After a very long cold winter, at last it seems that spring is here, we’ve had great bee flying weather for almost a week now, so first inspections are out of the way and went very smoothly.

I have lost a couple of colonies over winter, plus when I did my spring inspections I found one colony with laying workers, I was confident that it wasn’t a laying queen due to the eggs being laid down the side of the cells and in many cases more than one. Unfortunately all that can be done in this situation is to tip them all out and hope they make their way back to an alternative colony. I transferred a nuc to a hive too which was only a couple of feet away from the DLW colony, so I’m hoping that they would have made their way back to that one, what with all the confusion of being transferred, if so it should make a nice strong colony.

honey bee on rape flowerAll the colonies are way behind where they were this time last year, but I suppose that is in line with the forage available to them, I’m sure that all the flowers are a few weeks later than usual. In fact in the woods up the road they always open it to the public to see the Bluebells when they are open, it’s the same 2 weekends every year, but they have just postponed the first one, because they are barely in bud yet, let alone in full flower. I suppose nature has it’s way of balancing these things out so perhaps we won’t have much of a June gap this year to compensate for the late start.

The other thing which will probably make quite a difference to beekeepers in Wiltshire this year is the lack of Oilseed Rape, usually the vast majority of it is planted in the autumn, then the crop comes around the end of May. This year however, so much of it failed over the long cold winter that we’ve just had, that many farmers have simply got rid of it, ploughed it back in and drilled with spring barley instead. I suspect that we will have untold amounts of Oilseed Rape next year though, as they need to grow it as a break crop, so potentially two thirds of fields could have it round here!

field of rapeseedI mentioned the spring inspection earlier, I will just explain what I mean (just in case anyone thinks I only do one inspection all spring!). The first main colony inspection of the year is a bit more thorough than usual because I’m checking for disease, shaking the bees off the frames and having a thorough check, fortunately other than a few Chalk Brood and the occasional Snail there was nothing untoward in any of them. I also cleaned the floors and of course checked for queens and queen cells as usual.

A Very Cold March

I clearly remember this time last year, it was the mini heat wave with temperatures of up to 20 degrees across the country, it’s a bit different in 2013 though. In fact DEFRA have been sending out starvation warnings again due to the recent cold snap. (just in case you bee hive in the snoware reading this at some time in the future, it’s the end of March and the North of the UK is covered in snow, while the South and West is sub zero temperatures day and night!)

The problem being that many colonies will be getting close to using up their winter stores, or even those in larger hives could be finding that they are trapped with the new brood in the middle of the hive with stores out of reach on the outer frames. This isn’t usually a problem in March as there are likely to be some days when they can fly to collect stores which will be kept within reach of the cluster, but this year there have been so few that they could be running into problems.

In addition, they will be raising brood on a grand scale by now and are probably short of bees to keep them all warm, so there is a serious risk of chilled brood too. This also means that they will need a good amount of pollen coming in and again this just isn’t possible.

Personally I have kept a pack of fondant on each hive for over a month now, just in case, but I’m seriously thinking that I’ll need a pollen substitute too, not something I’m particularly keen on doing, but needs must. There is a leaflet about emergency feeding on the DEFRA website which gives the recommendations of what you should be doing, so please read that if you are in any doubt.

What do Bees do in Winter?

How do Honey Bees Survive the Winter?

At this time of year, quite a few people say “I suppose your bees are asleep/hibernating for the winter now then?” half expecting me to say yes, but the answer is actually no. Despite Bee Hive in the Snowthe fact that you are quite unlikely to see any bees coming to and from the hive, Honey Bees don’t actually hibernate for the winter.

During the spring and summer, the queen lays eggs, the majority of these become worker bees, which do a few jobs around the hive initially, then become foragers and die within a few weeks. In the Autumn however, the emerging bees are slightly different and build up a store of fat to help see them through the winter, these bees can live for several months.

Once the temperature drops the bees will form a cluster inside the hive and survive the winter on the surplus honey they have stored up over the year. The difference being that when creatures hibernate they fall asleep for several months and often their body temperature drops quite significantly too.  The honey bee however, does not fall asleep, they keep themselves warm inside the hive by flexing their muscles to generate heat and even in the middle of winter when they have no brood, the queen at the centre of the cluster would be kept at around 22 degrees. Once the queen starts laying again, usually around January, the brood nest at the centre of the cluster will be kept at around 32 degrees regardless of the outside temperature.

With the exception of the application of a treatment for Varroa Mites beekeepers will usually leave the bees alone throughout this time and only open the hive up again in Spring, once the outside temperatures have risen again.

Bumble Bees and Wasps

In contrast, Bumble bees and wasps (and probably many of the other species of bee which can be found in the UK) have a very different life cycle, in which case the answer to the original question about are the bees asleep for the winter would be yes. They send out new queens towards the end of the season, they fly off and hibernate, emerging in the spring to start a new colony, building up throughout the year, but the original colony doesn’t survive the winter and just dies out when the weather gets too cold.

Each has their own preference for the place they like to establish a new colony. For example Bumble Bees will favor a small cavity or hole in the ground just big enough for the colony to expand into over the course of the year, the size of this can be seen from the nest boxes available for bubble bees. Wasps take a similar approach, although the queen will tend to favor larger open spaces such as lofts, although many do create nests in holes in the ground too.

Honey bees however are much more choosy in where they decide to set down roots, with very specific requirements enabling them to not only fit the colony inside, but also store honey, their source of food for the winter.

Wiltshire Beekeeping Suppliers

Just a quick post today really as there isn’t much happening with the bees at the moment, well, except all the reading, buying of equipment and assembling frames which has been going on behind the scenes, of course. But this got me thinking about local suppliers, I would much rather buy things locally whenever possible and price permitting!

Some beekeeping clubs will buy things in bulk to sell on, our club does this with fondant and I’ve hear of some who do the same with freshly mixed Oxalic acid just before Christmas, which makes the cost per colony literally pennies. But other than this, we seem to have a bit of a gap on the market around Wiltshire as far as beekeeping equipment suppliers go.

There’s a chap called Alan Wadsworth in Bromham who makes hives, stands etc, I have a varroa-floorcouple of bits from him which are well made. He has a mesh floor with an integrated landing board and entrance reducer which I quite like. His stands are good too, as they fold up to fit in the car and have somewhere to put a frame when you’ve removed it from the hive.

There is also Sarum Bee Supplies down near Salisbury, although I must admit that I’ve not used them yet, but they have most of the day to day items, such as Apiguard, bee suits, queen excluders, frames and foundation etc.

So if you are another local supplier, add a comment or visit the contact page and drop me a line and I’ll give you a mention too.

When Does the Queen Stop Laying?

I went round to the apiaries last week to do a quick visual inspection, just looking out for any woodpecker damage and signs of Nosema on the outside of the hives. When I got there several colonies had bees flying, I’m sure they were just on cleansing flights or collecting water, or maybe coming out to see what was going on, as I’m sure they can feel the vibration of footsteps outside the hive. It was however quite reassuring to see them out, the temperature was about 9 degrees.

I must admit I was pretty tempted to get kitted up and have a really quick peek inside a colony, to see if the queen had stopped laying, so I could work out the best time to give Oxalic acid applicatorthem their winter Varroa treatment of Oxalic, but I resisted and left them alone.

This year I bought a few of the self measuring Oxalic applicators from Thorne, for one thing their dosage is the right strength (I know it sounds obvious, but many suppliers seem to stock the stronger European solutions), secondly it looks like it will make life a bit easier but also the bottles are reusable, so I’ll have them for next year too.

This did get me wondering exactly what signals they take to stop and then start laying again, people talk about temperature, but I find that hard to believe as some years we get hard frosts as early as September in the Wiltshire countryside, but in others it’s not until well into October, other years it,s generally quite wet and warm until January and often the harshest of the winter weather isn’t until January or February. Then there are years

honey bee on crocus
Honey Bee working Spring Flowers

which are very cold throughout and others which aren’t, so I find it hard to believe this is the key indicator for them.

I believe it’s far more likely that honey bees are going to take their signals from the length of the daylight in the same way that plants do for flowering cycles. Regardless of the weather, the daylight gets shorter and shorter up until the winter solstice, then starts lengthening again, so there must be a point when the queen decides, “right, this is it, time for a break” and stops laying, then once the days start getting longer again she knows spring is on the way and it’s time to start building the brood up again in readiness for the new season.

All in all, my plan is to stick with the norm and treat them between Christmas and New Year, if there are any brood they should still be unsealed, plus it looks like the weather may get a bit cooler again after Boxing Day.

Rare Bees Found in Wiltshire

Wiltshire, Probably the Only UK Location of Melitta Dimidiata

A rare solitary bee, Melitta dimidiata has been found in Wiltshire, close to Tidworth on the Salisbury plains. What’s even more unusual is that it’s the only recorded sighting of the rare melitta demidiata bee found in wiltshirebees clustering on a flower in these numbers. Other species are known to exhibit this behaviour but it’s the only recording of Melitta Dimidiata doing so.

It is thought this is likely to be the only place they are found in Britain. They were known to be in two other local sites in previous years, but these sightings were almost 20 years ago, and they are assumed to no longer survive in either.

Commonly found in Eastern Europe, and relatively common in warmer climates, this is the only currently known sighting of these bees in Western Europe.

They were spotted by a photographer, out taking pictures of plants on the Salisbury Plains, he spotted the bees and took some shots of the bees too, then for identification purposes submitted them to the WSBRC (Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre), when they consulted their expert the bees were identified and have been registered as a significant sighting. You can read the full story here.

In Search of Varroa Resistance

My Quest for Varroa free Honey Bees

varroa mite on honey bee larvaeMy main aim for 2013 is to embark on a queen rearing program with the main objective to be selecting stocks which already show a high level of resistance to the Varroa mite. The aim being to have stocks from two separate sources so I can graft from one and produce drones from the others, this should increase the chances of the right genes being passed on without the risk of inbreeding.

I’m already aware of several attempts to do this, one being Ron Hoskins at the Swindon Honey Bee Conservation group in Swindon, which by chance is not far away from me, they are currently breeding bees which show hygienic behaviour which helps to rid the colony of mites. There are also others in Europe, USA and I dare say many other places. However I need to get my stocks or initial queens as locally as possible too and while I appreciate that they undoubtedly won’t come from Wiltshire, I would like them from the UK.

There was an article in Bee Craft magazine this summer which talked about large areas in Scotland not being affected by the mites, although this is probably more likely because there are so few beekeepers in the area that the spread has not reached there yet, as opposed to whole areas of the country showing resistance.

I’ve read a few US websites too which claim to be having real success and there is probably the same happening all over Europe, so I don’t doubt it’s feasibility, although with open mating it is undoubtedly much more difficult.

I also want to breed from pleasant stocks, I’ve picked up too many swarms, handled my own and other peoples bees which are far from docile and it takes much of the pleasure out of beekeeping. I had one colony last year which came from a swarm which were fine until they filled a brood box, then had a complete personality change and were basically horrible! They have been re-queened now as I didn’t want to perpetuate the aggression by allowing them to send out any more drones than they had already. Something which all beekeepers should consider when they have agressive bees, as the alternative is to leave them alone and allow them to both send out drones and swarm. Probably why I ended up with that swarm in the first place.

So, my main criteria are Varroa resistance, docility and finally over wintering well, does anyone have any good stocks which fit the bill?

Wiltshire Beekeeping Clubs

Are you a beekeeper in Wiltshire who isn’t a member of a local beekeeping club? Here’s a list of good reasons to join one and how to get in touch:

The Wiltshire Regional Clubs:towns in wiltshire





West Wiltshire

Contact details and information about club meetings, apiary visits and becoming a member can be found on their respective websites.

If you join one of the local Wiltshire beekeeping clubs you also automatically become a member of Wiltshire and the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA), which has additional benefits.

Reasons to Join your Local Beekeeping Club

1. Meet people with a common interest and be able to ask questions.
2.Monthly meetings with speakers covering all aspects of beekeeping.
3.Club newsletters with information about local beekeeping issues/events.
4. Some clubs can help new members with the purchase of bees.
5. The club may bulk purchase certain consumables like foundation, ambrosia and jars for discount prices.
6. Training sessions
7. Access to the clubs apiaries at predefined times.
8. Some clubs may have a mentoring scheme.
9. Some clubs may have equipment such as extractors available to members.
10. Become a swarm collector for free bees.

Benefits of BBKA Membership

1. Public and product liability insurance (In my opinion, the single most important benefit).
2. Access to information from their website including a discussion forum.beekeeping apiary meeting
3. A monthly magazine.
4. Training and exam scheme.
5. Spring convention (tickets cost extra) with numerous speakers and the UK’s largest beekeeping market.
6. Discounts on a range of related products.

Collecting Pollen

I went out to check on the bees on Saturday, it was nice weather and all I really needed to do was put the mouse guards on before the weather turns, it’s a good job I did as I see from the met office that it’s due to get very cold from next weekend onwards.

Honey Bees taking Ivy pollen to hiveWhen I got there the bees were flying like it was a summers day and they were back to their usual placid temperament. They have been a bit tetchy recently as I’ve been just popping down around sunset to top up the feeders, but they’ve not been very happy about it, probably due to the temperatures, plus it’s all been a bit of a rush to unstrap the hives, take the roof off and top the feeders up.

Anyway, Saturday was sunny and I was able to take my time over it and I took some time out to just watch what they were up to, it was very apparent though as almost every bee heading back into the hives was loaded with pollen, I can only guess that it’s all Ivy this late in the year as that is just about all the available forage there is.

The weather is due to turn at the end of the week, so I think I’ll go round the apiaries today and top up the feeders, then they can come off completely on Friday, pop the insulation in the roofs of the cedar hives and that’s them all ready for winter. The Thymol was done several weeks ago so hopefully they have a low varroa load going into winter, so a quick check with the monitoring boards just before Christmas will confirm which, if any will need an Oxalic treatment during the bloodless period. I’ll also heft the hives at this point and top them up with a slab of fondant if necessary.

The weather report is saying the cold weather is due in a few days, so hopefully we’ll have a nice cold winter so they cluster well and don’t use all their stores up too early. All the indications are for a pretty harsh winter this year!

I’ll have some time to start reading all those books I’ve bought now, and may even start studying for one of the BBKA exams, although I don’t know which one yet.