July is here at last and colonies should be reaching their peak ready to take advantage of the summer’s bounty. If headed by a good queen, who has been given enough space to lay, she will have been laying upward of 2,000 eggs per day during the previous weeks, providing a strong force of foragers to coincide with the main nectar flow that usually occurs this month.
After the recent rain, the nectar flow should be good so check that your bees have room to hang out and process the nectar. As nectar can be up to 80% water, one task of the house bees is to evaporate and reduce this moisture down to around 18% before capping it as honey. For this they need 3 -4 times more space for the in-coming nectar than the capped honey will eventually take, so it is important to check weekly that there is enough room and add additional supers early, as soon as the bees are covering the frames of the super already in situ. If not added early enough, they will use any empty space in the brood nest for storage, restricting the area for the queen to lay and causing an irregular brood pattern. The next question is ‘where do you place the additional super – above or below?’ I have read that if there is a strong flow or you are using foundation, it is better to put this directly on the queen excluder with the existing super on top, so that the heat of the brood nest helps the bees draw out the comb. However, if the nectar flow is not so good, the bees will waste time and effort bringing the honey back down to store in the new super below; so it is down to the weather again.
Although the swarming season appears to be slowing down now, don’t risk losing the possibility of your honey harvest flying over the trees and far away! At each weekly inspection, still have a good look for queen cells, especially in any holes around the sides and bottom of the comb. Lack of space for the size of the colony, for stores or for the queen to lay, can still be a trigger for swarming in July.
Many people are reporting queen losses and colonies failing to thrive due to the unseasonal weather this year. During the long mild winter, the bees remained active causing many colonies to enter spring in a weakened state. Following this, the cold spell in April and now, despite the warmth, the repeated heavy showers and thundery downpours, mean that, where colonies have been forced to supersede, many virgin queens have been lost or unable to mate successfully within their 3 week time limit after emerging. Some people are also reporting very small emergency queen cells that do not seem viable and colonies without any eggs or larvae present. If this is the case, don’t wait until you have laying workers and the colony has no hope.
With the loss of queen pheromone to suppress their development, being female, ordinary workers can develop to lay unfertilised eggs that can only produce drones so eventually the colony will die out. Once laying workers are present, the colony will no longer accept a new queen – as they believe they have one!
Tell-tell signs of laying workers are eggs attached to the sides of the cells, multiple eggs in the same cell and a very irregular laying pattern.
If you fail to find the queen or any eggs, don’t leave it too late. If you have another queen-right colony that is disease free, you could take a brood frame with mainly eggs on and place it in the centre of the brood area of your queenless colony. If they do not raise queen cells, you may have a virgin queen who still needs time to complete her mating flights but if they raise queen cells just leave the hive alone for the remaining period of the 16 days + 3 weeks until the queen has had time to pupate, complete her mating flights and begin to lay; but continue to feed if necessary.
However, if you do not have another good colony to provide a test frame, try acquiring one as other beekeepers are always keen to help out if they can. You can successfully transport a frame as long as it is kept warm and moist. Alastair suggests wrapping a damp tea towel around the frame, covered with a layer of aluminium foil.
Alternatively, if you have another viable colony that is disease free and not already bursting at the seams, you could try uniting. This works best if there is a honey flow on, if the colony has not been without their queen for too long and is of a similar size. Using the newspaper method is easy and usually successful. However, there is a lot of argument as to whether you should place the queen-right colony above or below but it may boil down to which colony you want to leave in situ. If both colonies are from the same apiary, gradually move the colony to be placed on top nearer to the other site but no more than a metre each move. Remember the old rule, ‘You can only move bees less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles!’.
Once the colonies are next to each other, prepare both colonies for uniting during the daytime. Place a layer of newspaper + queen excluder to hold it down, over the brood box of the colony to remain on the bottom. Make a few small slits in the paper then replace the roof. Cover over the holes in the crown board of the other colony with mesh, then replace the roof.
In the late evening when the bees have stopped flying, remove both roofs, then quickly and carefully lift the colony on top. Any supers should be placed above this before replacing the roof. Remove all equipment from the empty site then leave alone for at least six days but you will know when they have united by the chewed up newspaper under the hive. Once the bees have accepted each other, remove any newspaper from the edges, replace the queen excluder above both brood boxes and the crown board above any supers, check the queen and rearrange frames if need be.
Another possible solution is to ask around to see if anyone has a spare queen or queen cell but if not you could buy in a queen from a reputable dealer. This would allow you to improve the genetic traits of your bees, such as better temperament or less inclined to swarm. LASI are even advertising queens for sale that will produce more hygienic behaviour in the colony, to help combat bee diseases (see Bee Craft July 2016 and page 8 of this Newsletter).
If you are about to acquire your first nuc of bees, consider very carefully where best to place it, as they cannot easily be moved afterwards. Also it is best to transport bees as late in the day as possible and leave them to settle till the morning before opening the entrance, to allow them to reorientate to their new surroundings. Late in the evening following this, to help them draw out the new frames of foundation, they will need feeding with a weak syrup (made from 1 kg white refined sugar to 1 litre of warm, not hot water.) They need to draw comb quickly to provide the queen with space to lay as well as adding space for the workers to hang out nectar and store pollen and honey, so continue feeding until this has happened. The frames with most pollen on will usually denote the edge of the brood nest so this can help you judge if the queen has enough space.
If you have had your bees for a while and during your weekly inspections you observe that your colony is not doing ‘what the books say they should,’ remember bees respond to changes in the weather and their environments. Don’t despair or just wait to see what happens, seek advice from other club members. Saturday afternoon sessions at the Rural Life Centre Apiary are an ideal time to do this; not only will others provide you with answers or reassurance, you will benefit from the opportunity to see how different people handle colonies and pick up lots of practical tips.
It may seem early to be thinking about this while we are still at the peak of the season, but good planning and organisation lead to happy beekeeping. While most of your equipment is in use out in the apiary, now is a good time to spring clean your storage area. At some point in July, do a varroa check so if needed, you can plan what treatment to use towards the end of August, after you have taken the honey crop off the hives. Be thinking about whether you wish to requeen any colonies or may need to unite some, in order to have strong colonies going into winter. Make sure you have booked a honey extractor from our Association and have enough jars, lids and labels for your harvest to come!
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -