I started last month’s article with ‘Where were the April showers?’ Well now we know – it was saving all the rain up for May!
This year spring has been extremely hard on our bees. Strong colonies coming out of winter built up quickly ready for the spring flow that never really came plus produced masses of drones ready for swarming; while weaker colonies never really got going. From early spring, pollen supplies don’t seem to have been a problem but the cold, dry April and excessively wet May has meant workers had limited foraging hours and plants haven’t been yielding much nectar or it was diluted by rain. Inside many hives, this has led to low stores of nectar and honey, being consumed by an ever-increasing population of emerging brood, particularly drones. Thus, many colonies are starving. Under stress, some colonies have swarmed on the first available warm, dry day, while others have evicted many of their drones as can be seen in piles outside the hive. It is easy for beekeepers to have missed these signs, as the conditions have so rarely been right for usual weekly inspections but we have been feeding most of our big and small colonies with syrup, for the last two weeks, apart from a couple of our colonies that had managed to bring in sufficient nectar to survive. It is also important to remember that stress can lead to disease.
The June Gap
Normally this month, I would be giving a warning about the June Gap – a time when spring blossoms end and summer flowers are yet to open. Whether we have one this year remains to be seen as many plants have been damaged by the weather but others are flowering out of their normal season. I did notice a great deal of bright blue pollen on the foragers’ corbiculae (pollen sacs) – I’m told from Viper’s Bugloss and Bluebells (the cross between the native and Spanish varieties.) Also, currently there is a lot of brick-red pollen, probably from the Red Horse-chestnut or Red Dead-nettle.
At last, we have the promise of some consistently warmer, drier weather, which will hopefully lead to a honey flow. However, until stores build up, there is still a real danger as expanding colonies have even more mouths to feed. A colony needs the minimum of 2 full brood frames of honey plus sufficient pollen to make brood food and feed the youngest workers until they are fully developed, so checking each colony has enough nectar and pollen, is really important during every inspection. It is easy to be misled into thinking stores are plentiful but during processing nectar into honey, workers spread out the diluted nectar across the tops of cells to reduce its water content and the cell is not filled, so what looks like 2 frames of nectar may actually be very little. You need to check each frame of stores by weight and aim to have more than two. If your bees appear tetchy, they may well be starving so feed them syrup in a contact feeder, as this simulates a honey flow. Syrup should be made up in the ratio of 1 kg of sugar to 600ml water.
Remember that any supers must be removed during feeding to avoid honey for bottling being contaminated with sugar. However, supers should not be replaced immediately after feeding so that syrup is consumed and not just stored then moved back up into the supers to contaminate the honey crop.
Feeding may be critical to ensure colony survival but use careful judgement to avoid over-feeding as expanding colonies need the space that supers provide or they will swarm.
June is the time of greatest expansion as the colony wants lots of foragers ready for the main flow, thus enabling it to collect stores for daily consumption and in preparation for winter. Keeping good records detailing amounts of brood and stores will give you a clear picture of how each colony is faring. The proportions in the brood nest should be roughly: 1 of eggs to 2 of open brood to 4 of sealed brood. If this is not the case, you may have an old, failing or a badly mated queen, alternatively colony health could be an issue. Queens should soon be available and it is best to purchase locally bred, which deal best with our local climate, rather than imported queens.
Another problem with rapid expansion can be:
- not enough space in the brood nest for the queen to lay
- not enough space to hang out and process nectar into honey
- not enough space for the extra emerging brood or to provide room for the size of the colony at night.
With the erratic weather, a few of our colonies have taken their queens out of lay for a period and thus have been filling the centre of the brood nest with pollen and nectar – a sure sign more space is needed to prevent swarming. Placing empty frames of drawn comb next to the brood nest and adding extra supers can help alleviate the situation.
Problems Caused by Swarming
Colonies that swarm often don’t build back up to bring in a honey crop. Swarming usually peaks in May but the conditions this year may mean colonies entering swarm mode now; so very careful inspections, swarm prevention and control measures need to be taken in good time. Queen cells can still be produced on larvae that are up to 3 days old, so sealed cells can occur earlier, even though these will develop into less than desirable ‘scrub queens’ due to not having a full diet of royal jelly. Swarm cells are likely to be multiple and around the edges of frames – particularly along the bottom. Once you have selected the best queen cell to keep, shake the bees off all the other frames and look closely in every nook and cranny. Any dent or hole in the wax is a favourite place and harder for us to spot when covered in the now very abundant nurse bees. A water spray is very useful to keep the bees under control while you do this.
Reports of the current situation are quite mixed. Some strong colonies very close to good forage, haven’t gone into swarm mode and are now filling supers; while in other apiaries, every possible space is taken by multiple small colonies that are waiting for virgin queens to get mated or new queens to settle into a regular laying pattern. It is important to be patient with the latter scenario, to work out the timing and not disturb the colony too soon. It takes 8 days from a sealed queen cell for a queen to emerge, then she has about a 3-week window to make her mating flights, during which the colony should not be disturbed. After that she needs about another 2 weeks to settle into a good laying pattern. Also, new queens are notoriously hard to spot so you may not see her or eggs until 4 -5 weeks after emerging. The colour for marking this year’s queens is white, but don’t mark until there is a good amount of eggs, larvae and sealed brood or the workers may reject and kill her.
Colonies producing new queens at the moment, could have issues. Some queens may not have been able to leave the hive to mate in their 3-week window, or on mating flights they might have been caught out and killed by a change in the weather. More commonly, loss of a virgin queen is due to an eager beekeeper having the hive open and in bits so that she doesn’t recognise it on her return! If left too long with no signs of a queen or eggs, this can lead to the colony developing Laying Workers so good timing, record keeping and careful observation are essential. If the colony has a queen present, which is not yet laying, they are usually calm and drawing new comb in preparation, whereas lack of a queen can result in bees that are agitated, running on combs, not drawing and more aggressive.
New queens are often a little erratic in their laying pattern until they settle down and will sometimes lay more than one egg in a cell but these will be right in the bottom. Laying Workers, on the other hand, tend to lay multiple eggs on the sides of cells, in a totally erratic pattern, sometimes even amongst stores. Therefore, if you have given a colony long enough for a new queen to be evident and there are still no signs, act before Laying Workers develop. You can check by adding a ‘test frame’ of eggs and very young larvae from another colony (minus bees), to see if this colony raises queen cells from it.
Decide how many colonies you actually want to maintain and have the spare time to manage properly. If you want to ‘make increase’ and have the space, it’s a good idea to have at least 2 hives so you always have a comparison and somewhere to get a ‘test frame’ from. However, in terms of spare equipment and time, it is not sustainable to keep producing new colonies. Added to this, if you want the chance of a honey crop, it will be necessary to reunite. Plan ahead to decide which position you want to make the permanent site and which queen you wish to keep (based on past records of temperament, health, swarming and honey production). Then unite using the newspaper method. I prefer to put the colony with the queen on the top if possible but it usually depends where the final permanent site will be. Although they will often unite very quickly at this time of year, leave them undisturbed for at least 5 days before checking.
We need to down-size from our three apiaries this year but due to the spring conditions, we have had to make splits, carryout artificial swarms and collect some swarms so now have many more colonies than we can manage with enjoyment. We are waiting for virgin queens to get mated and will then be looking to reunite some but cut down our hive numbers to a manageable size. If you find yourself in the same situation, once you have checked your colonies are disease free, you could contact Greg Cobb, (firstname.lastname@example.org) as he has several beekeepers on the swarm list, desperately waiting for new colonies.
Stress leads to poor health and failure to thrive and all colonies have all been under a great deal of stress from the conditions this year. Healthy colonies can easily contract disease if visited by infected drones or by foragers robbing weak and diseased colonies. There were several outbreaks of EFB in our area last year and again this year. I talked a lot about honeybee disease last month but good husbandry is the key to strong colonies that can cope with many bee diseases and hence produce good honey crops. We cannot change the weather conditions but there are many factors we can control: good hygiene practices, not over-populating an apiary, maintaining a good layout to avoid drifting and robbing, regularly providing fresh brood comb, ensuring colonies have space, good stores and are free of varroa. Records and a clear plan of what we are looking for during regular inspections also aid this.
After the rain in May, chalkbrood might be more of a problem this season as it is more prevalent in damp conditions. Chalkbrood is a fungal disease that affects larvae, making them look a bit like poached eggs. Also, Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus is on the increase and can be identified if you see black shiny, hairless bees on the top bars of frames, piles of dead bees on the ground outside the hive or bees roaming around unable to take-off and fly. Do check that piles of dead bees are not just drones that were evicted during May and were unable to fly away in the rain. Piles of dead bees should be cleared up and burnt.
If you see something that doesn’t look right, take a picture and show someone with more expertise to get help. Remember, it is a legal requirement to contact our Bee Inspector if we even suspect EFB.
A reminder – it is recommended that specific monitoring of varroa levels should be undertaken 4 times a year and one of these is now at the end of spring. Drones have been abundant in hives for some time, allowing varroa mite numbers to explode due to the longer drone brood period. Varroa mites can live for 2-3 months and during this time, reproduce within capped brood cells. The mature female can lay 4-5 eggs in a cell then leaves, with her mated daughters, on the emerging bee, ready to enter new cells. Each mature female can complete 3-4 breeding cycles in her lifetime.
The use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to keep mite numbers under control is essential. If not already done, monitor early this month by inserting a sticky varroa board under the open mesh floor, leave it for about a week and then count the dead mites to calculate an average daily drop. Although numbers will be influenced by colony size, at this time of year an average of 10 mites per day or more, causes serious harm as varroa act as vectors for viruses to enter directly into a honeybee’s system.
Drones are an important component of a colony’s well-being but if mites abound, drone culling can be one way of controlling varroa numbers. To do this, insert a super frame at the edge of the brood nest, which encourages the workers to build wild drone brood comb underneath. Warning – remember to remove this once filled and capped or you will only be adding to your varroa mite numbers!
You could carry out a shook swarm which has the double benefit of removing pathogens in old comb as well as controlling mite numbers. Alternatively, MAQS strips are the only chemical method that can be used if supers are on the hive but it is essential not to apply when temperatures are excessively high during the treatment period. 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/indexed.cfm?pageld=167.
Remember to be vigilant about the threat of Asian Hornets. European Hornets and wasps will soon be about in growing numbers and Asian Hornets belong to the wasp family, thus having a similar life-cycle. Although, hopefully the poor spring weather will not have aided any overwintering AH queens, it only needs one to survive and get established. Once Asian Hornet workers are produced, they leave their nests in search of food – our native pollinators! Now they will be particularly hunting for protein to feed their developing larvae and an unprotected hive of bees provides an easy and plentiful source, so keep an eye out. Precautions to put in place include: bait stations where you can easily observe them, skirts around hive stand legs and traps set up around apiaries.
Foraging bees returning heavily laden sometimes miss the entrance and finish up on the ground in front of the hive, where long grass or tall plants can prevent bees from taking off again. Currently, vegetation is particularly tall, so to preserve your bees and their precious crop, keep it low around entrances. Strimming in late evening, when most flying has finished, seems to disturb the bees least.
Checklist for June:
- Weekly inspections are essential
- Feed syrup if short of stores (remove supers)
- Record expansion, create space in brood nest, add supers early
- Monitor varroa levels & treat if necessary
- Continue swarm prevention measures
- Mark new queens once mated & laying (white for 2021)
- Reunite after an artificial swarm ready for main flow
- Process spring honey crop promptly if near Oil Seed Rape
- Look out for Asian Hornet workers
- Cut grass & keep hive approach clear.