May 2011

Well what an early summer we are experiencing! It seems as if the warm to hot weather has been with us for months! This has allowed my stronger colonies to not only raise plenty of young brood for the season ahead but also to bring in a surplus of honey, as the plants are secreting nectar to an unprecedented extent, not seen for a few years now. However, a word of warning: if beekeepers remove this honey surplus too soon, the weather might break and the flowers will stop yielding. The bees will then go through a period of dearth in the fields and have to rely on what is in the hive.

At this time of year they can get through at least 10lbs of honey in a week, what with feeding their young as well as themselves. There is therefore a real danger that the bees will starve. Later on it will be safe to remove this surplus and if there is still plenty of nectar coming into the hive, this surplus won’t have been used as there will have been more than enough in the fields for the bees’ requirements. The weaker colonies, meanwhile, (like the late planted seeds I mentioned last month?) are indeed catching up already. Today I put honey supers on each of them (to give them storage space for the surplus), so before long they are likely to be on a par with the stronger ones.

In the meantime, to pre-empt the likelihood of swarming with the stronger colonies, I have given them an extra box for the queen to lay brood in. This will allow for an even larger colony to be built up, ready for the main flow of nectar that might come in July (it hasn’t happened during the past 4 years owing to the weather turning at around the middle of July and becoming too cold for nectar production by the plants). It also means that the queen is less likely to run out of laying space (another reason for swarming). Then, after the main flow is over, these boxes can be separated and the one of each pair that does not have a queen will raise a new one.

Alternatively, I could give each of these “queenless” colonies a queen that I have reared from selected stock. I have my eye on one colony in particular at the moment. At the end of last year, it went into the winter quite weak and I did not really hold out much hope for it. But it came through the winter and has superseded the old queen! This is brilliant news for a beekeeper because it implies that the particular stock prefers to supersede its old queen rather than to swarm with her and will generally make just one or maybe two queen cells at the most. The embryo queens raised in these queen cells will have all the love and attention lavished on them that any queen could wish for and will produce superior queens to those found in a swarming colony. Whilst swarming is a perennial problem with beekeeping – it is the instinctive method the bees use to propagate the species – queens reared under this impulse are not necessarily the best queens and will tend to have this swarming trait as part of their make-up.

It is a trait that we beekeepers try to breed out of our queens – not swarming per se but excessive swarming preparations where the bees build 20 or 30 queen cells, resulting in poorly fed embryo queens. This, if unchecked, can mean the colony swarming a number of times, leaving the original colony with a very small (often unviable) number of bees – and certainly no honey! But once the bees have decided they want to swarm, they generally will – that is, if the beekeeper is not doing his/her job properly.

When bees are swarming, the sky turns black and there is an associated roar as a result of the number of bees flying in close proximity at one time – quite frightening to the uninitiated! However, bees are generally in their safest and most non-aggressive state at this time, because they have previously stocked up on honey (not knowing how long they will be homeless nor when their next meal will be). They are like us after having eaten a large meal – we can’t bend over easily to tie up our shoelaces – and what’s more, we are so relaxed, we can’t really be bothered anyway! The bees are exactly the same. They have filled their stomachs with honey, so they can’t bend their abdomens to insert their sting into our flesh – and what’s more, they are so at ease with the world as a result of their gorging on honey, they can’t be bothered either!

However, beware the swarm that has been hanging in the tree for two or three days – the bees will be getting hungry and cold and worried about whether or not they will be successful in finding a new home. Sometimes, therefore, they can be quite crotchety, even though it is with good cause.

At this time of year, I place empty hives on a shed or garage roof, so if there is a swarm around looking for a new home, it will possibly find one of these hives and take up residence. This minimises the time the swarm is homeless, which is good for the public and good for the bees – and good for me, because I have acquired a new colony of bees which I can save from perishing, as without a beekeeper’s intervention a colony of unmanaged bees will die out in two or three years as a result of the predations of the parasite Varroa, with which all bees are afflicted.

Beekeeping has changed a lot over the past 20 years or so – it is no longer a question of just gathering in the honey at the end of the season – beekeepers are now full-time carers, an essential and important responsibility. So if you see a swarm either in flight, or settled on a tree branch or in a hedge, give me a call and I will either come and safely remove it, or arrange for someone else to do so – for no charge! If you fail to do so, the bees will likely be dead within a year or two.

Colin Rees – colinbeeman@aol.com – 01872 501313

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