from Jacqui and me to this record of our experiences as new beekeepers in The Marches.

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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Things warm up

Swarming is the bees' method of creating new colonies. Its a problem for beekeepers because the interruption reduces the honey harvest. So the scene was set for this season's battle of wits. We prepared carefully. We have two colonies to deal with. In order to swarm there must be three elements present: a Queen, young brood with nurse bees, and plenty of foraging bees. The trick is to separate out one of these elements and arrangements had been made for this to be done on the 20th April at 2.30pm. Paul, a fellow beekeeper even newer to the craft than us, was invited to come to watch the process. At 1.45pm on taking the necessary equipment down the garden to the apiary an ominous roar was heard from the Sycamore hedge - yes the little b......s had beaten us to it by 45 minutes. There they were clustered in the hedge. Last year they went one day before the nominated time. Either they have supernatural powers, can read emails, or just saw us coming. So Paul arrived to find that the curriculum had changed from swarm control to swarm collection. Fortunately the swarm ahd chosen an accessable branch from which they were easily knocked into a blue plastic box. Then they were poured onto a ramp covered with a white cloth leading into a hastily assembled hive. They obligingly marched into their new home. Next day an inspection of the original colonies revealed queen cells in number 2 so this was where tghe swarm had come from. Swarm prevention was carried out on hive 1 and the queen cells removed from number 2. The swarm in its new hive (3) was placed where 2 had been to collect the foraging bees and strengthen numbers. The original 2 was moved to one side and the queen cells removed. Three of them were put in a box and left in the bee shed while we enjoyed a cup of tea. On checking the box a hour later amazed and delighted to see that one queen had emerged. She was introduced to the queenless hive 2 and we wait to see how she gets on. Fellow beekeeper Hamish had lost two queens recently so rang him and offered the remaining two queen cells. Next day took the box up to him nad on opening it found that another queen had emerged. He has introduced her to one of his colonies and inserted the remaining queen cell into the other - fingers crossed. Next inspection now due 29th April.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The new season starts

Following the Oxalic acid treatment in January I opened the hives on the 12th Feb briefly to check the stores. There had been a few reasonably warm days and the bees had started to take in small amounts of pollen as can be seen in the pic. Hives 1 & 2seemed fine but then on opening number 3 I was confronted by the sad sight of a dead colony. Most bees were lying on the floor but there was also a small cluster dead at the top of one of the frames. Particularly sad was the sight of a young bee that had died as it emerged from its cell as can be seen in the pic. There was plenty of honey in the frames so starvation did not seem to be the problem. On sifting through the bodies I could not find the queen. There had been some very hard frosts so I concluded that there had just not been enough bees to form a cluster large enough to withstand the low temperature.
It happened to be the day of our BKA's AGM so I took a frame along to consult our bee inspector. He pointed out the signs of dysentery which may have accounted for weakened bees.
In case the bees had been infected with the disease Nosema, I removed the hive and fumigated it with Acetic Acid to kill off any disease spores. Thankfully Jacqui does not need our cold frame at present so that was used as the fume box.
On a happier note the remaining two colonies seem to be thriving. I have fed them to encourage the queens into energetic laying. The idea is to fool her into thinking there is a nectar flow on. Since pollen was going in on 12th Feb I can assume that she was laying then. Her eggs take 22 days to produce an emerging worker so there should be new bees in the hive by now. The hope is that we shall have plenty to take adavantage of any early nectar flow in April.
Now I need to brush up on my swarm control plans. Last year I was caught out when they swarmed on 15th May despite cold weather.
By the way we have frogs mating in the pond and plenty of frogspawn. This is great news because there were none last year.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

So far so good for 2011

Possibly the most exciting moment of the year, first opening.

At last the sun has put in an appearance for 2 days in a row. Although low in the sky it shines directly at the front of our hives and was sufficient today to encourage one or two of the bolder workers out for a flight.

With immaculate timing yesterday our beekeepers association L&DBKA held an "Oxalic Acid meeting" at Andy's apiary. It was very useful to see his hives opened briefly for treatment. His colonies were in good heart with plenty of bees and stores. He worked smoothly and quickly so that none of the hives was open for more than about 30seconds.

Oxalic acid is found naturally in Rhubarb leaves. Used in very dilute form (3.2%) it is a contact killer of the Varroa mite. During this cold season there is virtually no brood for the mites to live on so they are located on the bees and they are not themselves multiplying at any significant rate. A syringe is used to dribble a small quantity on to the bees. They don't like it much but it does them no harm. The decision whether or not to treat is personal to the beekeeper. My view is that the risk in opening the hive and treating is far less than the risk of damage to the colony if the mites are allowed to multiply unchecked.

So today, having mixed up a dose and treated his own bees, Hamish called round at 2.00pm at the warmest time of the day and we treated our colonies.

Hive 1, the original colony, proved to have 5 seams of bees and plenty of capped honey stores. For the purpose of treatment the frames are not moved. A "seam" is simply the gap between two frames. We are told that very roughly a full seam contains about 4000 bees.
Hive 2, the smaller nucleus colony acquired last July, had 4 good seams of bees again with plenty of stores.
Hive 3, last seasons prime swarm, had 5 good seams of bees plus stores.

Bearing in mind the recent intense cold it is a great relief to find that the colonies are in good order. Now the crucial task is to ensure that the bees continue to have plenty of stores. They will use them at a great rate as soon as the queens start to lay again and will almost certainly require feeding.

So far so good! PS The pic shows backlit comb after cleaning by the bees.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


A time for bees to cluster and beekeepers to worry. Our bees were well fed and also able to forage throughout October before being bedded down under some hessian as the temperatures dropped during November. This year there was no useful flow from the Ivy but the Himalayan Balsam (so hated by conservationists) provided valuable late feed.

December brought us nightime temperatures down to -15.9c and two spells of snow that blocked the hive entrances. Each time it thawed a few dead bees were revealed outside each entrance. Initial fears for the bees gave way to the realisation that housekeeper bees had been clearing out the bodies so the colonies were still functioning normally.

Should Mother Nature grant any daytime temps of 8 - 10c we shall apply oxalic acid to kill Varroa mites. This treatment is harmful to open brood so can only be done in the dormant winter season when the Queen is not laying.

The long evenings provide opportunities for reading and planning for the spring. Jennie gave me a little book "The Beecraftsman" by H.J.Wadey then editor of the magazine "Bee Craft". He wrote it in 1943 in quiet periods whilst on night duty with the National Fire Service. Clearly they had a more robust attitude to Health & Safety in those dark days. Despite the fact that he recommends wearing motorcyclists' goggles and says "...Woolworths have them at about 6d" his method of dealing with a swarm in a chimney seems a bit risky even by wartime standards. If a good fire in the grate supplemented with sulphur doesn't smoke them out he says "...If the fire will not draw, extinguish it, close the bottom of the chimney with wet sacks, and pour a couple of gallons of ordinary petrol down from the top, which should then be covered with wet sacks". A plan that would be wrong by today's standards on so many levels! Mind you he also says that "Potassium Cyanide is generally recommended for killing bees but experience with it has not been encouraging". Don't get me wrong, the reader who survives immolation or poisoning will find that its a great little book. I am particularly lucky as my copy has marginal and some typed notes inserted by a previous owner long ago.