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by Lynn Cox

May 2021

What strange weather this spring has brought us. Where were the April showers! Plus, just a handful of nights without frost! Although it has been sunny and bright, there have only been a few days with temperatures above 15°C when it has been warm enough to open hives and we haven’t managed to establish a pattern of weekly inspections yet. However, judging by the high number of people calling at the door for local honey because their hayfever is the worst it’s ever been, many plants and trees have blossomed profusely and in some hives colony build-up has been rapid. Already, many colonies were extremely large for April and making swarm preparations, with reports of some large prime swarms issuing – so be ready to avoid your bees swarming in May!

Weekly Inspections

Hopefully this month conditions will allow regular inspections so that you can check:

  • Is the colony queen-right? (Can you see eggs, larvae at different stages and sealed brood?)
  • Are the larvae C-shaped, pearly-white and segmented? (Even one or two odd looking larvae could be the beginnings of serious disease.)
  • Is the brood a healthy biscuit colour and in a regular pattern?
  • Is there enough free space in the brood area for the queen to lay and enough space in supers for stores? (Nectar or pollen in amongst the brood could indicate lack of space.)
  • Are there any queen cells or signs of swarm preparations?
  • Are there enough stores, to last until your next visit? (At least the equivalent of 2 full frames + pollen.)
  • Is there enough pollen to feed the larvae and young bees that are still developing?
  • With the lack of rain, does the apiary have an adequate water supply for these dry conditions?

Strong Colonies Need Space

As queens build towards their maximum potential in terms of egg laying and hives become more populous, they need additional space for the queen to lay and for the growing number of worker bees to park themselves at night. Also, it takes far more space for the house bees to ‘hang out’ the nectar and process it than the eventual capped honey will occupy. When congested, the workers will put nectar in any available space including the brood nest, preventing the queen from finding space to lay. As soon as the number of bees is covering about seven frames, add another box. At this time of year, it pays to super early and constantly look for signs of swarming. Last month, we found two colonies with both of their brood boxes packed solid with wall-to-wall brood and the three supers on top already filled and being capped! Luckily, we were able to act and hopefully prevent swarming.

Be Ready for Swarming!

As natural as it is for bees to swarm, 80% of colonies do not survive their first winter in the wild. Besides the normal nuisance to neighbours and other members of the public, with the continuing Covid restrictions for the time being, many more people are in their gardens or out and about. It is not entirely true that swarming bees don’t sting; when they’ve been out of the hive a long time before finding a suitable new home and are becoming hungry, they can become a little tetchy! Also, there are still the increased difficulties for swarm collectors of social distancing and where to house the swarm once collected or how to pass it on to another beekeeper. This is besides the likely loss of the honey crop. Understanding the factors which lead to swarming can help pre-empt losses. The main reasons are thought to be: the decreasing queen pheromone as she ages, congestion and lack of space, the increasing number of young bees in the colony with not enough work to do, the availability of forage, disease, the genetic make-up of that strain of bee and the season. May is often the peak time for swarms so take prevention measures as soon as you see signs of swarm preparations:

  1. a large increase in the number of drones
  2. an excess of young bees in the colony
  3. polished shiny play cups
  4. play cups with eggs in
  5. play cups that have become queen cells charged with royal jelly.

Ensure there is adequate space in the brood nest as well as add additional supers and have spare equipment ready. If you see charged queen cells with creamy white royal jelly, it’s time to take action or they will swarm on the first fine day after the cell is sealed on Day 8. Hence the need for 7-day inspections.

Just removing queen cells is not a good or permanent solution – they will just build more and hide them better, so it is best to work with the bees’ instinct and fool them by performing an artificial swarm.

Queen cells hidden by bees

To search for queen cells, make sure you move the bees away and check the whole frame by placing the back of your hand gently on the bees. Do not shake the bees off or destroy any queen cells at this stage, as you will need to keep the best charged unsealed queen cell you find and shaking damages the queen forming inside and can separate her from her food supply of royal jelly. If you have not performed an artificial swarm before, research a method that will suit your apiary layout, such as Pagden or Demaree, ensure you have enough equipment and practise it beforehand so that when the time comes (and it will) you are ready to manage the process effectively. The Haynes Bee Manual shows various methods with good clear diagrams.

On finding queen cells, it’s best to locate the queen before proceeding. Also, when selecting a queen cell to retain: choose an unsealed queen cell that you can see a healthy larva inside, which is not in a position that will be easily damaged. Mark the top of this frame with a drawing pin and remove all unwanted queen cells on this frame before replacing. Also check the frames on either side are flat and not bulging out with drone brood that will squash the queen cell as you move the frames back together – as happened to one of ours in the past!

Making Increase

If you are looking to increase the number of your colonies, you could take some nucs from the Artificially Swarmed colony, instead of making the second move after a week. Your aim is to make up similar sized nuc colonies by distributing the brood, stores and young bees equally, while leaving one good queen cell and a viable colony in the Artificial swarm. Start by choosing a frame with a good queen cell plus adhering bees, to replace in your Artificial Swarm later and put this in an inspection box.

  1. Each new nuc will need:
  • a frame with one good queen cell that you wish to keep, destroy any others on this frame and place it safely in a nuc box
  • one good frame of stores including some pollen, (2 if you have a 6-frame nuc.)
  • 2 frames of brood + adhering bees,
  • 2 frames of empty, preferably drawn comb.
  1. Before filling, leave a space in the box, then taking another frame of brood from the Artificial Swarm, gently shake to remove any flying bees before shaking the adhering young bees with a sharp jerk, into the space in your new nuc box.
  2. Remove any queen cells before replacing back in the Artificial Swarm colony.

Each nuc will need at least the equivalent of two additional frames of young bees as any flyers will return home to the Artificial Swarm colony. Providing you are sure all your colonies are disease free; you can take frames of stores or drawn comb (minus bees) from other hives. As nucs work the cold way, start with the stores on one side, then the two brood frames, followed by the drawn comb. If you don’t have drawn comb, use frames from the outer edges of the brood boxes that have empty comb space but no brood. Close up your nucs and place them in a new position in the apiary. Remember to go back to the Artificial Swarm colony, shake the other frames to clear off the bees and remove all other queen cells. Finally, in order to complete your artificial swarm, replace the frame with your chosen queen cell between 2 flat frames of brood (having removed any additional queen cells) and fill the remaining space with foundation. Remember that any flyers will come back here.

Queen Problems

If you feel your queen is no longer viable or wish to improve the traits of a ‘bad’ colony, you need to plan ahead to acquire a queen or queen cell from known good stock. Finding the queen you wish to cull is easiest on a warm, still day while colonies are still small and the majority of foragers are away from the hive. Try to use little or no smoke so the colony is less disturbed, then you are more likely to find the queen in the brood nest rather than rushing around the comb. If she is difficult to find, remove some empty frames or stores from the brood box, then arrange the brood frames in pairs with a gap between. The queen will naturally go between a pair of frames where it is dark, so try looking at the dark side first.

After removing her, you could smoke or spray the colony with scented water (lemongrass, elderflower or peppermint) to help mask the old queen’s pheromones before introducing the queen cage (containing your new queen) plugged with fondant and fixed in between two combs of brood. Some beekeepers advocate introducing the new queen immediately while others suggest leaving the colony queen-less for a few hours to reduce the risk of the colony not accepting and balling her. Depending on the time you have left before Laying Workers occur, placing the new queen into a nuc made up from the colony first, then later uniting back with the main colony, is more likely to lead to the new queen being accepted.

Colonies Failing to Build Up

Already this year many colonies seem to be huge so if you still have a colony failing to build up, it needs careful monitoring. If the brood nest seems to be stuck on 3-4 frames instead of expanding, there could be a number of other reasons that require prompt action such as: disease, an old queen or a drone laying queen or even laying workers. You may have a queen, who is only in her second year and was very prolific last year that is now laying large slabs of drone brood but in a regular pattern. This is a sign that she probably didn’t mate with enough drones and is now a drone laying queen. As it may be too early to purchase new queens, it’s best to cull her and unite on to a different colony or email around and see if anyone has a spare queen cell. However, finding multiple eggs in the same cell and a very irregular pattern of drone brood, would indicate laying workers and trying to unite them is likely to result in another lost queen!

Disease Check

We all need to be vigilant about disease and, if like us, you haven’t yet managed it due to the cool temperatures, I urge you to look back at April’s Newsletter for advice about carrying out a dedicated brood inspection. To examine carefully for signs of anything abnormal, a camera can be a useful tool, to allow photos to be checked in more detail after the inspection or shown on-line to someone with a more experienced eye. Adults with virus damage as a result of varroa, may be prevalent if there are large numbers of dead bees on the ground outside the hive or live bees that appear to be shivering or unable to take off and fly. Bees with deformed wings may be obvious but also be on the lookout for black, shiny, hairless bees that look bloated rather than old. There are no treatments against viruses other than to keep varroa loads under control, try to maintain large colonies that can deal with it themselves or when appropriate requeen. There is an excellent article on Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus in this month’s BBKA News. If you think you have a weak colony due to Nosema, change your bees on to clean comb using an adapted ‘Bailey Comb Change for a Weak Colony’ and continue to feed until they have built up sufficiently.

Just as we are seeing with humans, bee diseases need to be caught early and dealt with promptly. To see any signs before it is out of control, you need to examine each brood frame without bees on them. Unless you suspect Nosema or dysentery; check for the queen and cage her safely in your pocket, then shake the bees off each frame to examine the brood. Look for any larvae that are not pearly-white, segmented and lying curled in a ‘C’ shape. Look at the cappings – are there any that are sunken, discoloured and greasy looking? You may see perforations in the middle of cells that are likely to be emerging bees but if the perforations are around the outside of the cell, this is the house bees detecting something wrong and uncapping. There might only be one or two abnormal cells but they are best checked out.

By May you should be seeing large slabs of consistently biscuit coloured, slightly domed sealed brood, surrounded by larvae of different ages, then eggs. If you are not sure, use the wealth of information and photographs on Bee Base to assist you.

Healthy larvae: * c-shaped, * pearly-white, * segmented

Healthy Brood Pattern (Picture by Megham Milbrath)

Don’t forget, if you see discoloured, misshapen larvae, sunken perforated cappings and pepper pot brood with signs of greasy looking scale or have any suspicions or worries about EFB or AFB, close up the hive, reduce the entrance to one bee space, sterilise all your equipment and contact our local Bee Inspector, who will help you deal with the situation. Although this is a legal obligation, Bee Inspectors are bee keepers committed to ensuring healthy colonies and no stigma is attached to those who act responsibly to report suspected problems. Members who have done this in the past, have found it to be a very reassuring experience and have received extremely helpful advice. We have heard of cases of EFB already this season. Phone and email details of local Seasonal and Regional Bee Inspector can be found here on the website. It will facilitate matters if you attach a photograph showing the brood cells causing concern.

Unhealthy larvae with European Foulbrood (Picture by Bee Aware)

Don’t be Complacent

Although this season’s practical beekeeping has got off to a slow start, things on the swarm front are definitely hotting up.Strong colonies could bring in a spring honey crop if swarming is prevented. If you have oil seed rape growing nearby, remember to remove your supers as the flowers turn green and extract the honey immediately before it turns to concrete in the comb. Finally, have a swarm kit together and spare equipment – just in case. Stay safe and keep your bees well!

Check list for May:

  • Carry out weekly inspections
  • Make sure your bees have an adequate water supply
  • Update records to be in control
  • Check varroa levels if not done in April & treat if necessary
  • Dedicate one inspection to check for disease
  • Prevent congestion by supering early
  • Look for signs of swarm preparations & queen cells
  • Have a swarm collection kit & spare equipment ready
  • Carryout an artificial swarm method if needed.

Lynn Cox