Honey Bee Report May 2016

The recent mild winter put a great strain on honey bee colonies as the freezing wintry weather conditions we expected did not happen. At this time the honey bee queen will usually cease or at least radically cut down her egg laying, giving her a break as well as allowing the rest of the colony to cut down on their responsibility to look after her eggs and brood.

Instead many queens across the UK continued to lay throughout winter making extra work for the colony and also providing more than the usual opportunity for the evil varroa mites, to live on and breed inside the new brood cells.

The following late spring with its harsh and damp conditions further depleted the reserves of the already exhausted winter bees. It is widely accepted that this year a high percentage of colonies will have been lost nationwide – over 50% in many cases.

But the Good News is – our Fishers Field colonies have coped with these multiple stresses and have at least made it through to now. We are on track for 2016

To help them keep healthy, I recently performed a drastic exercise called a Shook Swarm on both hives. In order to make a hygienic start to the new season, the adult bees are kept but all the original beekeeping equipment is replaced with freshly cleaned equipment. This included getting rid of all the waxed frames and comb since they accumulate pathogens during the year. Sadly all the new brood on the frames – which as I explained earlier is a favourite place for those varroa bugs to hide and breed – had to be destroyed too. And there were lots of eggs and new brood. It broke my heart to put them on the bonfire.

One hive has a clearly marked queen and the shook swarm was easier as I was able to take good care of her during the proceedings. There are already several frames of new brood in that hive. Unfortunately the queen in the other hive had lost her marking and was impossible to find! I carried out the shook swarm for this hive as carefully as I could, crossing my fingers that the unmarked queen would somehow get caught up in the transfer to fresh equipment. I’m happy to report that there is

now brood present in that hive too confirming our publicity-shy queen reached the new hive successfully.

However on inspection recently this hive has become more of a puzzle. Although it looks healthy, brood is present as well as plenty of bees, stores, and space for the queen to lay more eggs – the bees have now decided to build a single large queen cell in the middle of the centre frame. My mentors have advised me that for reasons best known to themselves, this new single queen cell indicates that the bees wish to replace the original queen using a method known as natural supercedure.

I really don’t know what is going to happen next! I’m waiting to see whether the new queen hatches and is healthy. She will still need to get mated for which we need good weather as well as considerable good fortune, and then for a short while we might even have the very rare situation of two queens in a hive. I have to tell you, in the world of beekeeping – this is exciting news!

I would appreciate some help in maintaining access to the apiary cage as the contract gardeners are not tending the area beyond the second gate. Consequently I am wary of carrying my bulky equipment along the path and anxious about catching and tearing my protective mask. I continue to cut back overhanging brambles on every visit but the area needs more work.

Finally, the Committee should be aware that it is very difficult – even dangerous – to carry out beekeeping inside the cramped conditions of the apiary cage for the following reasons:

  • Each hive must be dismantled regularly in order to allow inspections and there is very little room to put down each layer of equipment and still maintain safe movement of the beekeeper in, out and around the apiary cage.
  • It is almost impossible to work with or show/teach another person what is happening inside the apiary.
  • The close proximity of the hives increases the likelihood of disease passing between them and is stressful for the bees.
  • The bees can easily ‘drift’ into the wrong hives and could set up honey ‘robbing’ situations which would be a major problem.
  • There are also several important beekeeping manoeuvres that cannot be performed at all due to lack of space.

I have repeatedly requested the Committee if the apiary can be enlarged to allow for space around each hive, room for supporting nucs and storage of equipment. On each occasion this has kindly been agreed but there is no sign of it actually happening. The present situation is not safe.