What a year so far! Already there are reports of high numbers of winter losses, starving colonies, high varroa counts and Nosema in many colonies but although the weather has continued to be variable throughout April, hopefully, the temperatures are now beginning to improve and reach ‘bee friendly’ heights. At last the countryside is a picture of spring blossom and on good days the foragers are bringing in plenty of pollen and nectar.
Although some colonies have been steadily building since the turn of the year, others are still very small for this stage in early May and will need TLC if they are to survive and thrive. For these, careful monitoring and many of the practices we would normally carry out in April are still necessary. Feeding with 1:1 syrup, before supers go on, should stimulate comb building and the Queen to increase her rate of egg laying while better temperatures should allow the use of varroa treatments if needed.
If colonies are dwindling rather than expanding, don’t be fooled into just blaming the weather as there could be a number of other reasons that require prompt action such as; disease, an old queen, a drone laying queen or pesticide poisoning. Queen problems can be solved by re-queening and if your hives are close to farmland and you are concerned about the risk of poisoning, inform the farmer you are a beekeeper, as they have a duty to give you notice before spraying, and use Bee Base or the National Bee Unit to familiarise yourself with reporting procedures if you suspect your bees have been poisoned: See also: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/bee-health
However, all beekeepers need to be vigilant about disease and if you have not yet managed it, make the main purpose of one early inspection to examine carefully for signs of the abnormal. This is where a camera can be a useful tool to allow photos to be checked in more detail after the inspection. Adult bee diseases may be prevalent if there are large numbers of dead bees on the ground outside the hive or live bees that appear to be shivering or unable to take off and fly. As you inspect your frames, bees with deformed wings may be obvious but also be on the lookout for black, shiny, hairless bees that look bloated rather than old. Unless you suspect Nosema or see signs of the faecal staining caused by dysentery, shake the bees off each frame to examine the brood. Anything other than nicely domed, dry biscuit coloured brood cells, in a regular pattern (not pepper pot) should be examined more closely and if you are not sure, use the wealth of information and photographs on Bee Base to assist you. Don’t forget, if you see discoloured misshapen larvae, sunken perforated cappings and pepper pot brood with signs of greasy looking scale or have any suspicions or worries about EFB or AFB, close up the hive, reduce the entrance and contact our local Bee Inspector, email@example.com , who will help you deal with the situation, provide excellent advice or hopefully reassure you. Although this is a legal obligation, Bee Inspectors are bee keepers committed to ensuring healthy colonies and no stigma is attached to those who act responsibly to report suspected problems. (For more details of the South East Regional Bee
Inspector please see the end of this newsletter - Ed)
At last I can get to our usual pleasures and concerns for May. This should be a delightful time to watch and work with our bees as queens reach their maximum potential in terms of egg laying and hives become more populous as colonies continue to expand. As this happens the colony needs additional space for the queen to lay, for the house bees to ‘hang out’ and process the nectar and for the growing number of worker bees to park themselves at night. Now it is important to keep ahead of their needs and if using a National or WBC each colony is probably already on two brood boxes so once these are sufficiently drawn, it’s time to place a queen excluder above and start adding supers.
Throughout their history, swarming is the natural way the super-organism of a bee colony has survived to continue their species. As natural as it is for bees to swarm, the majority of colonies do not survive their first winter in the wild and it also means the loss of the honey crop for beekeepers, as well as causing a potential nuisance and distress to other members of the public. Swarm management is the responsibility of all beekeepers but also makes it a less expensive hobby! Understanding the factors which lead to swarming can help pre-empt losses. The main reasons are thought to be: the decreasing queen pheromone as she ages, congestion and lack of space, the number of young bees in the colony, the availability of forage, disease, the genetic make-up of that strain of bees and the season. May is often the peak time for swarms. Before a swarm issues, there will be an increase in the number of young bees and drones in the colony, also workers will jostle the queen to keep her moving so she can slim down for flight. Then before departure, less foraging will take place as the workers hang around the hive in order to stock up on honey to sustain themselves for their journey and the establishment of a new nest.
However, most of us won’t be aware of these signs in time and the first we will know about swarm preparations are the appearance of queen cells, hence the need for weekly inspections. From egg to sealed queen cell takes 8 days and if weather conditions are right, the swarm will leave on the first fine day after sealing, so a seven day inspection routine should enable prevention measures to be taken. Just removing queen cells is not a good or permanent solution – they will just build more and hide them better - so it is best to work with the bees’ instinct and fool them into thinking they have swarmed by performing an artificial swarm. Many colonies produce so many queen cells and hide them around the edges and bottom of the frames, even sometimes at the top so that it is very easy to miss one – and they only need one! If you have not performed an artificial swarm before, research a method that will suit your apiary layout, such as Pagden or Demaree, ensure you have enough equipment and practise it beforehand so that when the time comes (and it will) you are ready to manage the process effectively. Important points to remember when selecting a queen cell to retain: choose an unsealed queen cell which is not in a position that will be easily damaged, and where you can see a healthy larva. (This means it is less than 8 days old so you can work out the timescale for the queen to emerge.) Mark the top of the frame with a drawing pin and although you need to clear each frame of bees to be sure you have removed all unwanted queen cells, the one or possibly two that you wish to keep should not be shaken.
Finding a colony that is dwindling with little or no brood could be due to an ageing, damaged or poorly mated queen. Additionally, if you wish to improve the traits of a ‘bad’ colony, now would be a good time to bite the bullet and re-queen. (Just be aware, that if you have laying workers rather than a queen problem, this cannot be solved by re-queening the colony so seek further advice.) You will need to acquire a queen or have access to a frame of eggs from known good stock. Finding the queen to be dispatched is easiest on a warm, still day while colonies are still small and the majority of foragers are away from the hive. Try to use little or no smoke so the colony is less disturbed, then you are more likely to find the queen in the brood nest rather than rushing around the comb. After removing her, you could smoke or spray the colony with scented water (lemon, elderflower or peppermint) to help mask the old queen’s pheromones before introducing the queen cage (containing your new queen) plugged with fondant and fixed in between two combs of brood. Some beekeepers advocate introducing the new queen immediately while others suggest leaving the colony queen-less for a few hours to reduce the risk of the colony not accepting and balling her. If the colony is brood-less and you are introducing a frame of eggs; after 4 or 5 days they should be raising new queen cells and you can work out your time scale for a new queen from there.
All in all a busy month of beekeeping and if your bees got off to a good start, possibly a spring honey crop to look forward to at the end of May. If you have oil seed rape growing nearby remember to remove your supers as the flowers turn green and extract the honey immediately before it turns to concrete in the combs! Oh and have a swarm kit together just in case!
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