Glorious June – or so we would hope! With the late spring, much of the early season blossom was delayed and many colonies were slow to build up but this has led to the plant world erupting en masse, allowing many colonies that have survived to regain their strength. Consequently, swarming could well peak in June this year.
Last month, I talked a lot about swarm prevention as swarming usually peaks in May, so I just want to add a reminder of the importance of 7 day inspections to check each colony’s expansion and enable you to act on the first signs of swarm preparations, to perform an artificial swarm, within the 8 day window before queen cells are capped. Lack of space together with rapid colony build up is one trigger for swarming. Give plenty of room by adding supers early, to avoid the brood nest being clogged up with nectar and to accommodate the size of the population at night. Swarm cells are likely to be multiple and around the edges of frames - particularly along the bottom, but look closely in every nook and cranny for queen cells, as any hole in the wax is a favourite spot for the QC builders and harder for us to spot when covered in nurse bees.
Although this often doesn’t occur after a late spring like we have had, ‘the June gap’ is the period when the spring forage has come to an end and the summer flowers have not yet opened – but who knows, we seem to have to be on our guard against all eventualities this year! Some plants do bridge the gap but remember not all plants labelled as suitable for pollinators are accessible to honeybees, some that are include: summer raspberries, Cotoneaster, Ceanothus, and Buddleja but also clover and thistles. Should the gap occur, colonies can starve quite quickly if their stores don’t match the expanded population, especially if you have been lucky enough to take off a spring crop. A colony needs a total of 2 full brood frames of honey to last a week, if there is no forage coming in, so checking each colony has enough stores, is really important at this time. A weak 1:1 syrup can be fed if needed, however, remember that any supers must be removed during feeding to avoid honey for bottling being contaminated with sugar.
The June gap also stresses honeybees, which can highlight underlying disease symptoms, so with the added complications of the mild winter and cold spring, be vigilant and look for signs of brood disease as EFB has been found on the northern edge of our area. As an aside, in our first year of beekeeping I can remember being horrified at finding dull grey and almost black cells on a frame which turned out to be raspberry and poppy pollens – with a little more experience I would have known this was not disease as it was outside the brood nest and in the middle of a frame full of other pollens! However, it was better to get it checked and I am now fascinated by the vast range and shades of colour that pollens can be.
It is recommended that we monitor our colonies for varroa 4 times a year and one of these is after the spring flow. As colony expansion reaches its height and the number of drones peak, varroa mite numbers can also explode. Varroa mites can live for 2 – 3 months and during this time, reproduce within capped brood cells where the female completes 3 -4 breeding cycles. The use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to keep mite numbers under control is essential. To monitor, insert a varroa board under the open mesh floor, leave it for about a week and then count the dead mites to calculate an average daily drop. Although numbers will be influenced by colony size, at this time of year, any more than an average of 10 mites per day could lead to colony collapse as varroa acts as a vector for viruses to enter directly into a honeybee’s system. Also there are likely to be plenty of drones in the colony now and varroa prefer drone brood as their longer capped period provides time for increased breeding cycles. Although it is sometimes suggested that drones are an important component of the colony’s well-being, if they abound, drone culling can be one way of controlling mite numbers. An effective way is to insert a super frame at the edge of the brood nest, which encourages the workers to build drone brood underneath. Remember to remove this once capped or you will be adding to your varroa mite numbers! Further IPM measures will be needed (consult NBU website or publications) and don’t forget – MAQS strips are the only chemical method that can be used if supers are on the hive.
Foragers returning heavily laden sometimes miss the entrance and finish up on the ground in front of the hive where long grass or tall plants can prevent bees from taking off again, or, when damp, can chill and prevent them from flying. To preserve your bees and their precious crop, keep the grass low and the area in front clear. Let’s hope that after a bad start to the year, it will be a joyful June and the beginning of a successful summer for bees and beekeepers.
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