It’s been known since they first existed that mini-nucs – Apideas or SwiBines as example – are high maintenance. Either there’s not enough bees, or too many bees. No food, too much food, not enough space etc. Leave them for a few days in poor weather and they have run out of food. Or they all leave with the queen on a mating flight and never return. They also suffer from difficulty the bees have in regulating the hive temperature, so on a hot day, there’s a good chance that some will abscond. OK we can put a piece of queen excluder over the entrance or we can cut the queen’s wing to stop her flying; only AFTER she has mated, of course. And how easy is it to identify a good brood pattern when she can lay a little frame up in a sneeze and then spend a couple of weeks waiting for more space to be come available? However if the colony is just too small, maybe we should think again. After all, they are only too small because we, as beekeepers, want a queen on the cheap – just “a cup-full of bees” we are told. But if they are unreliable and time consuming, we should think again; in any case, nature would not produce a colony so tiny and if we work against nature, then we can be on a hiding to nothing.
Many years ago I started making mating nucs with 8 frames 140 x 140 square. These are much better (but subject to the limitations of my carpentry skills) however I still see the odd absconding on a hot day, although none so far this year. So what’s the answer?
My wooden mating nucs are to stay for now but the Apidea sized units have to go. In their place I will try the Abelo mini-plus hives. With a frame size that’s 4x the Apideas and with 3 or 6 frames in a well-insulated polystyrene box, the colony size is much more realistic and viable – even if the hive is used with 3 frames one side and 3 frames the other. The first colony is in one now; I’ll get some others going soon and we’ll see how they perform over the rest of the summer and over winter. If 3 stacked mini-nucs can survive winter – see an earlier post – then I would anticipate the mini-plus hives will sail through! And assuming they do, they will be self-sustaining and there’ll be no need to take those “cup-fulls of bees” from other colonies. Drinks all round! Cheers!
Sometimes keeping bees is a mixture of sucess and failure in equal measure – or so it seems sometimes.
So the oil seed rape has been good for the bees, with nectar coming in steadily, the colonies are producing drones and I have started queen-rearing. So far so good. Grafted larvae have gone into nucs and mini-nucs and the queens are emerging from their queencells. What we know as beekeepers is that a queen will swarm if there is a queencell in the hive which is why we must reduce queencells down to one (not two). Sometimes a weak or small colony will allow the first queen out to kill her younger sister queen that’s still selaed up. We then see the queencell broken down from the side. However all bekeepers will know how easy it is to miss a queencell which is why we are told to shake (jolt) the frames to remove bees so we can identify these small cells. This little one was missed so my nice grafted virgin queen has ‘left the building’ (nucleus hive) with half the bees, leaving a small queencell – and from brood that I don’t want 😦 It happens!
The variations of the weather never cease to surprise and over the past weeks it’s either been too cold, too wet or too windy for the bees to fly – or a combination of the above. A quick check of some of the colonies shows that they are smaller that usual for the time of year and as of a week ago, with little pollen which means little brooding. All colonies I’ve checked are alive which is a good start! There’s plenty of plants flowering so once we have some warm weather the bees will start to make up for lost time. And Oil Seed Rape (or canola as some people call it) is just starting to flower and bees always do well on it. Whether it’s been treated with neonic seed dressing or not!
The new year always bring challenges and one, for me at least, is changing the format of our website www.norfolkbee.co.uk to a new, more modern style as I am convinced it will not work for some inexplicable reason that I will take an age to fathom out! As it is, the new site is being worked on in the background to get the links and such-like working before the old site is ditched completely. So if the old site goes, then please check back later and with luck technology will be doing as it’s told – unlike bees that don’t always!
If you are looking for a nucleus colony of bees to get you started in beekeeping there are a few ways of doing it. However if you want to start in spring, then the best way in our opinion is to obtain a nucleus colony of locally reared bees that has overwintered. The queen will be from the previous summer and will be in her prime and it’s fair to assume that there is a decent chance of getting a small honey crop in the first season – at least a few kilos for the breakfast table. Of course you could buy bees from national suppliers which are often imported or using imported queens, or you might be able to get a swarm, say by joining your local beekeeping club or association.
However, overwintered local bees are always in short supply and if you don’t secure your bees early, there will be a delay until May or June the current years queens are ready. So contact us or a supplier of your choice and get your name on a list as nucs are usually supplied on a first come first served basis.
Writing this in January, the days have started to get ever so slightly longer and this hasn’t gone un-noticed by the bees – even if we humans are still unhappily getting up in the dark to get to work on time. During this month the queen bee will start to lay or start to increase her brood nest if there is some small amount of brood already. It’s the old bees that have to manage this work – ones that have been in the hive for some months so as they work to move the brood nest up to around 35 degrees and as they feed the young, some will die off so bee numbers in the hive reaches a low point around the end of February; i.e. before there are enough young ones to take over brood-rearing proper. And it’s in February/March when food stores can run out – with disastrous consequences – if the bees were not furnished with enough food during the previous autumn. In some years it’s often well into April before the amount of forage coming in is greater than the food being consumed as the colony munches through it’s stores and tries hard to grow the nest size with a growing amount of brood and young bees and less of the older foragers as these are rapidly dying off.
It used to be that by November 5th or Bonfire Night as we called it, all the leaves were off the trees and as kids we would rake up the leaves to put on the bonfire before lighting it with an effigy of Guy Fawkes; the man that tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, on the top. A month later than that in December 2019, there were still leaves on the trees indicating that the country has warmed up. Does this mean that bees stop brooding in the winter? I don’t usually check but it’s the time of year that colonies should be broodless or have little brood and a good time to treat with oxalic Acid as this treatment only works for the mites that are not in the cells – phoretic mites – as they are called. Once the shortest day is over and we are into January, the queen will start to lay so I took the opportunity to dribble oxalic acid onto my colonies this week to remove as many varroa mites as possible. All colonies were alive which is comforting; even the small nuc shown in the picture below. It’s got an old queen in it and rather than let them die out, I have fixed three mini-nucs together – rather inelegantly I have to admit!
There is an option to ‘vape’ oxalic acid however this is a lot more time consuming and I have trickled the stuff for quite a few years now and I have never seen any harmful effects as have been reported. So if the winter over the next couple of months is mild, there’s a fair chance that the colony will get through. I’ll be checking the weight of all hives by ‘hefting’ over the next few months to ensure they don’t starve and with luck spring will be with us soon!
So, the honey has just about come off now and we are in the process of treating for varroa. With brood in the hives Oxalic Acid is not suitable so our usual product is thymol based treatments – either as Apiguard (Why did they stop selling it in buckets?) or Apilife Var. Neither of these should cause any resistance in the mites, although it does stink and will taint honey. I am not a fan of chemical treatments such as Bayvarol or Apistan as mite resistance develops. Amitraz based treatments are now widely available, and it’s assumed that mite resistance will build up with this product too.
August is a month of very little forage so some colonies – especally nucs – are being fed to get them up to strength for winter.
Honey will not be as much as last year which was a bumper crop for many, I guess I would describe the season as ‘average’ – but I’ll know more when the process has finished and I do a count-up.
Bees swarming is a natural thing and although beekeepers can breed from their less swarmy bees, not all do. However colonies will swarm, even with the best bred bee. I was called to look at some bees by a gardener who found bees flying out of a concrete box on the grass which was hiding some gas pipes. Here’s a couple of pictures from what is generally called a “cut out” where the colony had comb and brood already in the cavity they made their home. What seems to work is putting existing comb into frames and fixing them in with masking tape. It sounds easy but it can be a bit awkward to do. If the bees are well-behaved, as these ones were, it helps! After a couple of weeks the tape has been chewed through, by which time the comb has been well and truly fixed to the frame. Simples!
As usual I receive calls concerning swarms. More often than not, it’s bumblebees that I am called about and my advice is to leave them be. They do no damage and will disperse in late summer or autumn. This year I have been asked to collect a couple of honey bee swarms. They are generally well-behaved to start with and their behaviour – or temper – exhibits itself after a couple of weeks or so. One turned out to be more lively than I would like so they currently have a virgin queen in from one of my own. The second was hived OK and after a few days a quick check revealed that there were eggs in the hive so I had a mated queen in there. After a week I opened up and started to look through the colony. After the third frame I noticed something rather odd. A dead queen that looked like it was hiding – or trying to – under some comb. Amazingly she was a big laying queen – but with her sting chamber open as you can see. I can only assume that she was in a fight and lost. But who with? Did a virgin go with the colony when it swarmed? Was the swarm actually two together, both with mated queens? Very unlikely that idea. Did a virgin or newly mated queen fly in from a mating flight? Or did she just swell up after dying? In any case I will have to look in a few days and see what’s going on. Here’s a photo of her.
Answers on a postcard please!
The weather has been kind enough and queens have started to come into lay. Usually it’s in the smaller colonies and mini-nucs that the queens start to lay in first. One colony appeared to be queenless – and checked by a test-frame to confirm*. Another has, I suspect after a quick look, a drone laying queen. Never an easy one to find, I will need to spend time looking for her.
And some new grafts have been distributed; the queens should emerge in a day or two.
*You can check for queenlessness by inserting a test-frame from another colony. The test-frame needs to have eggs/young larvae from which the colony could make a queen. If there is no queen present, the bees will start to draw emergency queencells. More information on how to check is here
Mating is never 100% reliable which is why having just one colony can result in disaster. Having a second one allows the beekeeper to pop in a test-frame so the colony can make another queen or unite the queenless colony to the queenright one and then split them later on in the season. Note that unless there are disease issues, you can put in a test-frame and always remove it and put it back if, for example, you have only a small second colony that can’t really afford to lose the test-frame.