July usually heralds the main nectar flow, signalled by the abundance of blackberry blossom. Looking back, last year I was warning of a possible dearth of nectar due to the abnormally dry, hot weather but this year, the freak spring weather has had an effect on the flora, so even within our area conditions might be localised and quite different depending on the amount of rain you had in May and June plus the available summer forage.
Space to Store
Colonies should be at their peak with a strong force of foragers if headed by good queens, so workers now need an excess of space to hang out and process the nectar, which they do across the cell openings to expose it to the hive atmosphere. Also, as nectar can be up to 80% water, one task of the house bees is to evaporate and reduce this moisture content down to around 17 -18% by adding enzymes and rolling it on a fold in the proboscis (tongue) as they move it around the hive. Once the water content is sufficiently reduced, the honey is packed into cells in its final position, either around the brood or above the brood nest in the supers, before being capped. For this the workers need upwards of four times more space for the in-coming nectar than the capped honey will eventually take, so additional supers should now be in place. As mentioned last month, if supers are not added early, the bees will use any available space in the brood nest for storage, restricting the area for the queen to lay and causing an irregular brood pattern.
Hopefully, the strong spring flow we have had will continue straight into a summer flow so be ready. If you are using foundation, it is better to put the new super directly on the queen excluder with any existing supers on top, so that the heat of the brood nest helps the younger wax-making bees draw out the comb. However, if the nectar flow is not so good, the bees will waste time and effort bringing the honey back down to store in the new super below; so, watch the situation carefully.
As bee populations peak, varroa loads follow, so if you didn’t manage to control mite numbers in June, it will lead to an increase in varroosis and virus damage within colonies. Also, drones are now very prolific in hives and gravid female varroa have a preference for drone cells, where the longer incubation period of 24 days allows more female varroa to mature and get mated within the cell, ready to leave on the emerging bee. During the main flow is another time varroa levels can be checked but be aware that inserting varroa boards can stress colonies if we are experiencing very high temperatures. Also restricting ventilation in the hive makes it much harder for the bees to create an air flow to help evaporate the water content of nectar to change it into honey. Therefore, choose your time carefully or monitor mite levels by using Drone Uncapping. To do this select an area of drone brood at an advanced stage (when the drones have pink/purple eyes) as they are less likely to disintegrate when you remove them. Slide an uncapping fork, under the domed cappings parallel to the comb surface, and lift out the drone pupae in a single scooping motion. Remove about 100 drone pupae in this way and any varroa mites should be easily visible against the pale drone bodies. Although results are only approximate, if you estimate more than 5 – 10% are infected, infestation is at a serious level and you need to take action.
As it is likely you will have supers on your hives, the only legal medication that can be used is MAQS but you could use a biotechnical method of control. Though not always desirable, there is an abundance of drones this year so Drone Culling can be somewhat effective. Place one or two super frames at the edge of the colony’s brood nest and the bees will draw down wild comb filling it with drone larvae – then remember to remove these varroa-filled frames and destroy as soon as the drone cells are capped. However, it is now known that drones are needed for colony cohesion so you may prefer to employ one of the other biotechnical methods. Should you still need to carryout artificial swarm control, there is also a variation on the normal method, which controls varroa very effectively. You can read all the available options in the APHA ‘Managing Varroa’ booklet or download the advisory leaflet from the NBU website BeeBase at http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/index.cfm?pageid=167
Small Colonies and Queen Problems
Many Beekeepers are still reporting colonies failing to thrive, with problems including drone-laying queens, new queens being undersized, non-viable or disappearing. Some colonies will reject a new queen and try to supersede and this season especially, virgin queens may have been lost or unable to mate successfully within their 3-week time limit after emerging. Although a stressed colony will sometimes take their queen out of lay, if you fail to see eggs or larvae present, don’t wait until you have laying workers. With the loss of queen and brood pheromones to suppress their development, being female, ordinary workers can develop to lay unfertilised eggs that hatch into drones. Once laying workers are present, the colony will no longer accept a new queen – so eventually will die out! Tell-tell signs of laying workers are: multiple eggs attached to the sides of the cells and a very irregular brood pattern.
Try Adding a Test Frame
On failing to find the queen or any eggs and larvae, if you have another queen-right, disease free colony, you can take out a brood frame with eggs and very young larvae, shake or brush off all the bees, then place it in the centre of your apparently queenless colony. If they do not raise queen cells, you may have a virgin queen who still needs time to complete her mating flights. If they raise queen cells, select the best unsealed cell in a position that won’t be easily damaged, mark the frame with a drawing pin, then destroy all other queen cells. Check in 5 -7 days and remove any additional emergency queen cells raised or the colony will swarm. Leave the hive alone for 3-4 weeks until the queen has had time to pupate, complete her mating flights and begin to lay; but continue to feed if necessary or add supers. However, if you do not have another good colony to provide a test frame, try acquiring one as other beekeepers are always keen to help out if they can, just be sure of your source and be wary of also bringing disease into your apiary. You can successfully transport a brood frame, as long as it is kept warm and moist, by wrapping a damp tea towel around the frame and enclosing it in a layer of aluminium foil.
Another possible solution is to ask around if anyone has a spare queen or queen cell but if not, you could buy a queen from a reputable dealer. This would allow you to improve the genetic traits of your bees. It is better to acquire local queens suited to our area and avoid queens imported from abroad. Getting a new queen accepted into a colony can be notoriously hard and is most successful when introduced by first placing the caged queen in between 2 frames of ELB in the middle of a nuc. Then when she has been released and is laying properly, the nuc can be united on to the colony.
However, if your colony is queenless and it is necessary to requeen directly, it is best to leave the tab in place on the queen cage with the accompanying workers inside to feed her. After about 3 days, place the queen cage on top of the frames to check the colony will not try to ball her. If the bees are calm and feeding her through the gaps, remove the tab, ensure there is still enough fondant and insert the cage back in. If you are not sure the colony has accepted their new queen, leave the tab in place and repeat for another 3 days. However, keep a careful check on the fondant in the queen cage. We have recently lost two queens; one where the fondant became too sticky in the heat and the queen became entombed in it and another where the fondant dried out so much it became like concrete and the queen couldn’t exit. We now run a wet finger over the outside of the cage and make a small hole through the fondant with a cocktail stick, to give the queen and workers a place to start.
Unite with a Queen-right Colony
Alternatively, if you have another viable colony that is disease free and not too large, you could unite as strong colonies make more honey. This works best if there is a honey flow on, if the colony has not been without their queen for too long and is of a similar size. The newspaper method is easy and relies on creating a weak barrier until the different smells from the two colonies have mingled. If both colonies are from the same apiary, move the colonies closer together every couple of days but no more than a metre each move. Remember the old rule, ‘You can only move bees less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles!’
Once the colonies are next to each other, prepare both colonies for uniting during the daytime.
- If the receiving colony is larger or more aggressive, as described above, protect the queen by caging her within her own colony between brood frames (with the tab still in place) until after uniting is successful.
- Remember to remove any queen cells from the other colony.
- If one colony is more aggressive, it is better to keep them on the bottom.
- Place a layer of newspaper + queen excluder to hold it down over the brood box of the colony which is to remain on the bottom, make a few small slits in the paper then replace the roof.
- Ensure the colony to go on top is not propolised down to its floor and entrance block and cover over the holes in the crown board with mesh, then replace the roof.
- In the late evening when the bees have stopped flying, remove both roofs, then quickly and carefully lift the top colony across above the newspaper and queen excluder.
- Any supers should be placed above another queen excluder on the top, before replacing the roof.
- Remove all equipment from the vacated site then leave alone for a few days. The chewed-up newspaper under the hive will tell you when they have united.
- Once the bees have accepted each other, remove the extra queen excluder with any remaining newspaper and then rearrange frames to keep the brood together.
- Check the queen and if you had to cage her, lay the cage on the top bars of the frames to see that the bees are attentive but are not balling her. If all is okay break open the tab and release her before reassembling the hive.
The urge to reproduce by swarming should now be over. However, if a colony was slow to build and now becomes too large for the available space in the hive or you have united two large colonies, swarm precautions will still be needed. However, once your colonies are set up for the main honey flow, as long as you know they have enough space and all is well within the brood area, avoid disturbing colonies as each intrusion sets them back and will affect the amount of honey they produce. July is about hands-off unless necessary!
If you are about to acquire your first swarm or nuc of bees, consider very carefully where best to place it, as they cannot easily be moved afterwards. It is best to transport bees very early in the morning or as late in the day as possible and leave them to settle for about 10 minutes to half an hour, before opening the entrance. If they need relocating into a different hive, leave them for a day or several hours to reorientate to their new surroundings, before transferring them. Then late in the following evening, feed with a light sugar syrup (made from 1Kg white refined sugar to 1.25L of warm, not boiling water.) They need to draw comb quickly to provide the queen with space to lay, as well as adding space for the workers to hang out nectar, store pollen and honey; so continue feeding until this has happened. The frames with most pollen on will usually denote the edge of the brood nest so this can help you judge if the queen has enough space.
Preparations for End of Season
July may seem early to be thinking about this, but the removal of the main honey crop is considered to be the end of the beekeeping year. Have clearer boards ready, enough jars, lids and labels for your harvest to come and if you need it, book a honey extractor from our Association. This is also the time of year when colonies need to be protected against wasps, hornets and potentially Asian Hornets. Also, while most of your equipment is in use out in the apiary, now is a good time to spring clean your storage area. Think ahead about actions needed in preparation for winter: plan a final varroa check and consider whether to requeen any colonies or unite some, in order to have strong, disease free colonies, with young queens going into winter.
Checklist for July:
- Add supers well ahead of requirements
- Ensure space for the queen + colony size
- Continue swarm prevention measures if needed
- Spring-clean your storage area while equipment is in use
- Reduce entrances, take precautions against wasps & hornets
- Set bait stations & watch for Asian Hornets
- Equipment ready for honey removal, extraction & bottling
- Monitor varroa levels & plan treatment
- Plan whether to unite or requeen before winter.