Well, at long last we are getting a little more sunshine. It’s still relatively cold, especially from about mid-afternoon onwards when the temperatures seem to plummet. This is very confusing for the bees, because they have not really had a proper winter where they would go into a tight cluster to keep warm and at the same time eat only the barest amount of stores to maintain their body temperature.
As a result, they have been flying on and off throughout the winter, though their search for forage has been in vain. What they are doing now, though, is collecting a lot of water to dilute their stores so that they can feed their brood, the larvae that will eventually hatch out into new bees. And judging by the numbers of bees on my water containers, there is a lot of brood in development.
This is because the queen hasn’t really reduced her laying this winter, whereas, in a cold winter she would normally slow down to the point of laying just a half dozen eggs a day. I can’t say for sure yet as it’s been too cold to examine the brood chambers in detail by taking out the individual combs and examining them, but looking through the perspex crown-boards I can see the numbers of bees in some colonies is vast for the time of year.
This all augurs well for the season ahead and whilst I have been concerned about starvation, with the bees eating their way through their winter stores, this doesn’t appear to have happened – yet! Rather, they have generally expanded to the point where I have given some of the larger colonies an extra brood box to expand into and the smaller ones a super containing the remains of the ivy honey crop from last autumn.
The idea of expanding to two brood boxes is so that I can do what are called “splits” later on, i.e. I can separate the two boxes, leaving the queen in one and letting the bees develop a new queen in the other. That way I can get the bees to create a number of queen cells in the “queen-less” colony and perhaps make two or three nucleus colonies utilising those extra queen cells.
There are several colonies which lend themselves to propagation in this way, one of which is particularly black (hopefully with close ties to the Cornish black bees many of us are trying to re-introduce into the locality) and others which are very much darker than the norm – and certainly not yellow like the Italian race of honeybees!
It’s all very well importing queens and bees of Italian stock because they are calm, non-aggressive, good honey producers in a good year, etc, but what do these bees do when we have Cornish mizzle and a limited range of forage compared with what they would expect in their homeland?
They don’t fly when the Cornish blacks can and do, and they eat their way through their stores, resulting either in eventual starvation or at the least no honey crop for the bee-keeper. Not the kind of bee I want in my apiaries, so my aim always is to re-queen such Italian stocks with a blacker home-grown queen.
A few weeks ago I noticed one of my colonies was not flying as strongly as most of the others, so on a warmer day last week I opened them up and, as I had feared, found they were queen-less – their queen had died over the winter.
This is not uncommon – queens die unexpectedly for various reasons, for example from cold, from poor development conditions when they were larvae, from inadequate feeding as larvae, and other reasons to do with perhaps Varroa and viruses. There is no solution to this – the colony will die. So to save the few bees that remained, I united the brood box with that of a stronger colony which needed more space.
This allowed the few remaining bees to merge with the bees of the stronger colony and supplement their numbers, albeit to a small extent, at a time when bee numbers in a colony are critical. This is far better than just letting the queen-less colony die.
A fellow bee-keeper I spoke to last night at our monthly meeting asked me what he could do about one of his colonies, which, from a cursory examination, appeared to have only drone brood.
The answer I gave was for him to go through the colony on the next warmish day (the colony is doomed anyway, so opening them up for a detailed examination is not going to make things any worse), find and remove the drone-laying queen (because I would put money on the fact that that is his problem) and then insert a frame of eggs and larvae from one of his good colonies.
The bees, being rendered queen-less, would then develop queen cells on the introduced worker larvae which would develop to point of emergence at a time when mating would be possible with finer, warmer weather. If the old drone-laying queen had been left in the hive, the bees would have ignored the new frame of eggs and larvae, and wouldn’t have drawn queen cells, because in their view they already had a queen, even though she was useless in terms of being able to maintain the colony. If my friend’s manipulation fails, he has lost nothing, since the colony, if left, would be doomed anyway.
I checked (externally and through the crown-boards) my colonies at Tregony a couple of weeks ago and they are doing well. There is winter-sown rape just a few fields away from them, so they will hopefully start to build up quite rapidly on that once it starts flowering in the next few weeks. I rarely get a rape honey crop – and really don’t want one, because the honey is so bland.
However, it is very useful to build up a colony at a time of year when there is very little else around in terms of volume. There is one problem with rape though and that is that because of rape’s abundant nectar, the brood nest fills up very quickly, as the forager bees on returning to the hive just want to dump their payload in the nearest cells to the entrance and get back out to gather some more. This results in the bees thinking the queen has not got enough room to lay up a large colony, so they decide to swarm in the hope of finding somewhere bigger. As long as I keep an eye on that then there should be no problem – but I’ll let you know!
My two colonies in the wild flower meadow produced a lovely tasting honey last year, not all obtained from the wild flowers, of course, but mainly so. The third colony has since been introduced so I am looking forward to the results of their efforts again this year.
Meanwhile, I await the first sunny, hot day when I can open up my hives and be as one with my beloved bees again. It can’t be that far away!
Colin Rees – 01872 501313 – firstname.lastname@example.org