April 2011

What an unusual month March has been! Some days were like summer, what with the warm sun and the windless days – I am sure the day of reckoning is not far off! Having said that, the bees have been making the most of it, gathering water to dilute their honey stores for the carbohydrate and bringing in pollen for the protein, both to feed their young and themselves – the essential balanced diet.

Some colonies have been growing like “Topsy” as a result and some of mine are in that category. However, some colleague beekeepers further inland are seeing even greater expansion rates than I am because of the better shelter they get from the diverse weather conditions we generally get down here (my home sites are particularly exposed, having a sea-facing aspect which is open to winds from the East right round to the West). This early expansion, though, is a bit worrying because if the colonies expand too fast, they will be wanting to swarm before we beekeepers are ready to tackle the problem.

I still have not been willing to open up my hives yet to see what is happening inside, yet I know several other beekeepers who have done their first inspection of the brood box already. These are the new beekeepers, generally in their first season of beekeeping (having attended my course either last Spring or last Autumn). They are mad keen to get “hands-on” experience – and who can blame them? I was as recklessly keen as they are, in my earlydays. But after I changed the floor on one particular hive in late February many years ago then checked the colony status, on later because I had noticed a change in their behaviour, I found it was queen-less. This was because the bees, having spent the whole winter undisturbed, were suddenly aware that their home had been lifted off the ground and plonked down on a new floor, and their “rooms” had been ransacked! They panicked, and rushed to protect the queen, but in doing so surrounded her so tightly that they suffocated her. Result – no queen, which, without a beekeeper’s intervention, could result in the eventual death of the colony. Since then, I have always held back and not done any detailed inspections until April at the earliest. After all, there is no real rush.

As Nicola in her Gardening column will no doubt say (and has no doubt said before) about sowing seeds, everything catches up eventually, whether your actions are early or late. The same goes for bees – the ones that are slow off the starting blocks invariably catch up with those which appeared to be ahead of the game earlier on. In the meantime, I can monitor my colonies by looking through the perspex crown-boards (or “hive ceilings”) I have made. These allow me to see into the brood box, to see how much food is available and to see how many bees there are present without having to open the hive or disturb the bees. Hopefully, before there are so many bees that they decide they want to swarm, I can give them the extra space they need (later on, when it is warmer) without interfering with them too early in the season. Similarly with feeding; if they appear to be short of stored food, I will give them a liquid feed of sugar syrup (as I am doing with about half my colonies at the moment). Not all colonies want or need this – some, even when given the food, will just ignore it – but at least it is there should they be short of resources.

Some beekeepers have reported the loss of one or two colonies over the winter months (as have I – through neglect on my part owing to the pressure of other demands on my time). I have had a look at mine, and also at one of the hives of another beekeeper, and it was clear that the reason was down to old queens in my hives and Varroa in my friend’s case. Varroa is the parasite that, like a leech, sucks the blood of the bee and not only weakens it but also introduces viruses into the bee’s bloodstream. It does the same thing with the developing brood (in whose cocoon it breeds). This results in a deformed development of the young bee and a shortened life-span, the latter also being a consequence of the parasite’s attack on the adult. In my case, I had taken two swarms at the end of last season and hived them but unfortunately had no time to re-queen them prior to the winter months.

The queen in each colony (they were prime swarms, i.e. swarms with an old queen) died in the late Winter/early Spring, there was no unemerged brood and the colony dwindled until it died. My friend’s hive, when I examined it, had unemerged brood in the sealed cells and when I pulled these out for confirmation, the effects of the Varroa infestation were apparent in the stunted wings that the young bee had developed – yet he maintained he had treated his bees. It therefore must just have been a particularly heavy onslaught by the Varroa mite that did for them. Another friend who had lost his bees showed me some excellent photographs of the dead combs from which I was able to ascertain that his queen also had died during the winter, resulting in the colony dwindling to extinction. My friend confirmed the fact that the colony had an old(er) queen, which exemplifies the need that I have stated before of re-queening at least every two years.

Ho Hum! The joys of beekeeping, eh? If you have any questions arising from any of my articles, please feel free to contact me, either by phone or email and I will do my best to answer them.

Colin Rees – colinbeeman@aol.com – 01872 501313

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