Sunday, 17 June 2012

What I did on my bee day

You may recall that in March, we spotted that one of our bee hives had lost its queen. It was the wrong time of year for the bees to replace her and so the hive faced a slow death unless we merged it with the neighbouring hive. Whilst this involved the disappointment of going down from 3 to 2 hives, the merger did create a super strong hive. At the start of June, we checked the hives as we were about to go away on holiday for 10 days and didn't want them to swarm whilst we were away.

We opened the super strong hive, which at that point consisted of two brood boxes (the brood box from the weak hive had been added to the one from the strong hive in March). We wanted to find the queen and check for queen cells. As it turned out, we couldn't find the queen and assumed she had left with a swarm. There was too much brood to suggest she had died. Importantly, there were queen cells in both brood boxes. It seemed the hive was reproducing.

So, we took a risk. We removed the top brood box to use this as the basis for a new hive. We accepted this would be a weak hive as we knew the worker bees would fly off to forage and then return to the original hive, not the newly created one on its new site (which was just one metre away). This weak hive however also contained lots of nursery bees - these are newly hatched bees which spend the first couple of weeks in the hive, caring for the brood and the queen and keeping the hive clean. Then they become worker bees which leave the hive to forage for nectar and pollen. As expected, after the first afternoon, the amount of bee traffic in and out of this hive tailed off considerably as the workers have returned to their original hive. Importantly however, the weak hive contaied a number of queen cells. Once they hatched, the strongest queen would kill off the others, spend a couple of days away from the hive to get mated, and then return and start laying.

The original hive next to the weak one now consisted of one brood box which contained all the worker bees, some nursery bees and a number of queen cells. Again, we expected the hatched queens to sort out which would survive.

We checked the other of the two hives we had left at the start of this process. We found lots of brood, and lots of honey, but no queen cells. We didn't have time to take off the honey so we simply added another super so that the bees would have space to store more until after the holiday when we can collect our first crop.

So off we went on holiday (in case you are interested, we did a cruise which visited World War Two sites along Hitler's Atlantic Wall - I am after all a historian!) We got back to London on Wednesday and I phoned Dad who had been allotment siting for us. His remit was to look after the hens, having told him he need not worry about the bees as we had sorted them. Well, what Dad told me came as a surprise. On the allotment were two swarms. We headed home on Thursday and one of the first things we did was to head over to the allotment. There weren't two swarms - there were three! One was in the hedge, one was on my broad beans and one was on one of our red currant bushes.

It was easier to collect the bees than I expected. The swarm in the hedge was shaken off into a cardboard box. On the ground below we spread a large sheet, then turned the box upside down onto it and propped up the box with some small sticks to allow any remaining bees from the swarm to enter. In effect, what happens is that if the queen is in the box, the other bees will go in to join her. If she is still outside the box, the swarm will join up again at the place when it first formed. The box needs to be left a number of hours to ensure as many bees as possible are captured.

The two other swarms were a bit more difficult to collect as though they were on shrubs, their weight had caused the branches to collapse. In effect they were sitting as piles of bees on the ground. We simply scooped up as many as we could into the two waiting boxes and followed the same procedure of overturning them onto sheets. We then left them overnight.

I returned at 6am the next day and decided to deal with the hedge swarm first. The cloth needed to be pulled tight around the box which should then be tipped back to an upright position. The sheet was then removed and the bees were tipped into a waiting empty hive containing no frames. Once they were in, the broodbox frames were added, as was a super (more about that later).

I then repeated the process with another of the swarms and successfully got that into another hive (David was back home furiously putting together brood boxes and frames). However, I had failed to collect the final swarm successfully the night before. The bees had left the box and formed up again on the broadbeans from where I had previously collected. I believe this is because I must have left the queen outside so the bees will cluster around her instead. So I repeated the process and scooped up in my hands (I was wearing my bee gloves!) as many of the bees as possible and put them into the cardboard box which was then turned over onto a sheet. After a few hours I was able successfully to collect them and put them into a hive.

We have moved two of the new hives to a friend's garden (which is huge - and is surrounded by a large number of other huge gardens meaning there is plenty of foraging for the bees). Meanwhile, I can report that the weak hive created just before we went on holiday now has plenty of activity. Lots of bees are flying in and out and some are returning with pollen sacks. That's a good sign - only the bee larvae eat pollen. The adult bees themselves don't. That suggests that there is now a queen in that hive and she is laying. We won't know for certain until we do a check of the frames. We had fed this hive before going on holiday with a bucket of sugar syrup. They ate the lot in the 10 days we were away, again suggesting that this is a strong hive.

We have fed all the new hives with sugar syrup. This is why we added supers to the brood boxes. Supers are normally the boxes added to the top of hives in which the bees will store the honey which we can then take off. This time however, the super was where we put the sugar syrup. The weather has been awful recently and the bees face starvation if they are unable to forage, which they can't do much of in the rain. The new hives have no reserves of honey so they have to be fed of they could die of starvation.

We have concluded that the reason we ended up with 3 swarms is because we split a very strong hive. Whether or not that hive had swarmed before we went on holiday, taking the original queen with it (we now think the hive had not swarmed and the queen was still there - we just failed to spot her) the hive itself must have become too overcrowded because we took away one brood box which substantially reduced the space in the hive. Yet the number of flying worker bees was not reduced (though about half the nursery bees were taken to the other hive). It is likely that the hive was just too crowded. So this hive provided us with another four in the past two weeks, bringing us up to the grand total of six hives. This is getting very exciting but we now have to review all our bee equipment needs as we have completely exhausted all our parts for brood boxes and supers.


Fishcake_random said...

I never knew bees were so fascinating! How much honey does one hive provide over the course of a month?
x x x

Jonathan Wallace said...

The amount of honey produced in a month varies according to the flowers that are available. Typically, there will be more flowers in the mid to late spring and early summer. They are the best months therefore for honey. As to the specific amounts, this can vary. If there has been lots of bad weather, as we have had recently, the amount of honey goes down as the bees simply can't get out. However, one of our hives has a super on it (the box on the hive where the bees store honey) and it weighs quite a few kilos. This will be our first serious honey crop. Looking forward to gathering it!