July 2011

This past month has been very difficult for the bees. The weather has meant they have had to stay indoors a lot of the time, yet in between there have been very good foraging days – having been wet overnight and then hot and sunny, even if only for a short time, during the day. The plants need moisture and warmth to yield their nectar but at this stage of the beekeeping year the colony is growing at its fastest with the queen laying maybe up to 2,000 eggs per day. That means there are many mouths to feed! With nectar therefore not being in abundance because of this weather situation, the bees had to rely on their previously collected reserves – if there were any left – as unfortunately some strains of bee are not very good at conserving their stores.

The Italian bees are the worst – they forage like mad in the good weather, then, when the weather closes down, they eat up all they’ve brought in! How fair is that? It means, however, that bees which have some Italian blood in them (the vast majority of our mongrel bees today) tend not to be so careful with their food usage and end up on the brink of starvation – especially if the weather is such that the beekeeper can’t get into the apiary to open up the hives to check.

Some of the swarms I have collected, both in the past and also this year, have been what we call “starvation” swarms, i.e. swarms that are actually colonies absconding en bloc in the hope of finding some decent forage elsewhere. I have one now, caught last week on the Roseland: a large swarm, yet one that behaved unusually. The bees were flying to and from the swarm cluster instead of settling quietly awaiting collection. They were desperately looking for food and were on the brink of death. You could see the bees on the surface of the cluster dancing their figure of eight dance, describing in detail where they had found some food and their sisters were heading off in the described direction to bring home the bacon (sorry, nectar!).

Yet another swarm, collected in the same area at the same time was fine and, during the 24 hrs they were in my swarm box awaiting transfer to a hive, had built a piece of comb the size of two open hands side by side. In the same time interval, the other, larger, swarm built – nothing! They had no food reserves to convert into wax, poor things, and were just hanging on to life, hoping for the weather to break. They are both now safely hived and are being fed sugar syrup which they can convert into wax and are building a new home for themselves. A wonderful sight to see.

The other activity that has occupied me this past month has been queen rearing, i.e. producing queens from chosen stock. Then, by flooding the area with selected drones, the virgin queens produced from the selected stock will have a greater probability of mating with my drones, from different selected stocks. This is the closest we beekeepers can get to producing bees with all the desirable traits we look for in our bees – low swarming propensity, high honey gathering potential, conservative stores utilisation, quiet on the comb, i.e. not running around all over the place so that you can’t check for disease and the like, and placid disposition.

Today I transferred 9 queen cells into mating nuclei from which they will hatch in about a week. The virgin queens will then mate and we have another 9 colonies able to be built up ready to go into the winter and hopefully starting off next Spring as strong hone-gatherers. Ho, hum! The joys of having “a hive at the bottom of the garden”!

So don’t forget! If you see a swarm, give me a call and I will arrange for its collection, either by me or a fellow beekeeper. Any swarm not captured by a beekeeper could end up in someone’s (your?) roof or chimney and might not be retrievable. Not only that, the bees will be unable to be treated for Varroa and will die, maybe within the next 12 months. That means less bees available to pollinate our food crops and our flowers, resulting in less choice in the shops or at the farm gate and less blooms in our gardens and countryside.

Colin Rees 01872 501313 colinbeeman@aol.com

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