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.
Spring is now well underway and I have a bunch of queencells and virgin queens on the go. We now need some decent (warm) weather.
Once queens emerge from their queencells, they need 5 or 6 days to mature before they are ready to mate. They mate on the wing with multiple drones so they have a wide genetic mix of offspring. Mating only occurs when the weather is warm enough – say around 18 degrees or warmer which is something we don’t see much of early in the year. Once mated the sperm has to migrate to the spermatheca (a holding vessel) which takes a couple of days or so. the spermatheca can store and nourish enough sperm for several years. It is only after that will the queen start to lay. In a mini-nuc she will lay after 2 or 3 days. In a larger colony it takes longer. My guess is that it takes more time for her pheromone to spread around a large colony before she is fed and prepared for a life of egg-laying.
Queens mate in drone congregation areas. I have no idea where they might be near my apiaries, however the bees seem to find them and apparently they can be found in the same location year after year.
I have, on occasions, had to discard queens that have failed to mate as after around 4 weeks she is unable to mate and will eventually become a drone-layer. Let’s hope Mother Nature is kind and we see some warm weather soon.
It’s something I’ve done before and will probably do it again which is leaving too much room in a hive. If you do this, pound to a penny, bees will draw comb where you don’t want it. This is an example of a colony which overwintered with one frame missing. This Spring the colony decided that they didn’t like the idea so filled in the space – as you can see.
Fortunately there was no harm done on this occasion. Other times there can be a right mess!
Spring is definitely on the way and it’s good to see well-fed larvae in the colonies. They are nice and moist indicating that there’s plenty of food coming in.
Pollen of various colours and liquid stores in the hives too. Happy Days!
The weather has been keeping bees inside recently, which is a shame as there is plenty of forage out now with the early prunus species flowering already.
It’s been so windy, one hive had tumbled over as a result. LUCKILY it was strapped together and you can see bees peeking through the mesh in the hive floor. So hopefully no harm done and they are all OK inside now they are the right way up. With cold winter nights, the chance of them surviving if the hive had not been held together would have been slight.
You might notice, this is a 5 frame nuc with a super above to give additional food AND a feeder above that which was left on in October.. There is no queen excluder between the super and the brood frames so the bees can move freely between the two boxes.
My bees have been left to their own devices for 5 months or so and with a warm end of February when bees were flying well, most colonies were inspected and all were good – except one which should have had a late model 2018 queen and it turned out that she wasn’t there. How do I know? The reason is quite simply that I had clipped and marked her previously and she was fine in September. Come my inspection this year, the colony didn’t have as many bees as I would have expected which was clue one that I might find a problem. Then the third frame came out (from an 8 frame nuc) and there were no eggs or larvae but I would have expected there to be some. The next frame had brood but only drones – the usual signs of there being just drone eggs is that they are raised above the usual height and a bit patchy, the reason for this being that there is not enough room for all comb to be laid up as larger drones so the bees pull a few out making gaps. No worker brood in sight. At this point I could have still had laying workers in the hive rather than a DLQ, however it is common to see multiple eggs in cells with laying workers. The next frame confirmed it. There was just one open queencell – and more drone brood. So a late supercedure occurred and the young queen was not able to mate – it being too cold for her to do so. After a queen has been around for a few weeks her ability to mate and lay fertillised worker eggs stops and drone eggs are, sadly, the result. The colony is not viable after that without intervention.
Picture: Drone brood
Now to intervene. Now to find her. Without too many bees, after a couple of minutes, I saw a nice sized queen with no markings and no clipped wing. So it definitely was not the queen I saw 5 months previously. Something I HATE doing is killing a queen but it has to be done sometimes. With a little nip she was gone.
With the winter being so mild, I had a couple of mini-nucs that had got through thus far.
Picture: Small frame from a mini-nuc.
An ideal place to house a queen that would have otherwise not even entered into 2019. Small nucs don’t always survive winter but they did this year. The queen was quickly found, caged and placed between the two (drone) brood frames of the now, queenless hive. A hive that has had a DLQ and is now queenless is pretty desperate for a new queen so my thoughts were that the chances of refusal were slight. I was correct, as it turned out; a week or so later she was walking on a frame and there were her eggs in the hive. Result! The colony is small but viable now. The mini-nuc will be shaken out in front of another hive sometime soon. So the bees won’t go to waste and will strengthen another colony.