Oh dear, it's 2020 already - where did last year go? That's just history as far as the bees are concerned, or perhaps they just live in the present and have no concept of history. If that's the case, though, how do the virgin queens and drones know where to find each other and do the business? They meet in the same places, "drone congregation areas", every year even though they are only a few weeks old and haven't been shown the way. clever, that!
Yes, it's swarming season. Some beekeepers think swarming is a big problem and to be avoided at all costs. They clip the queen's wing so she can't fly away - she lands in the grass and may or may not manage to crawl back home. Meanwhile all the flying bees return to the hive, wait for a few days until the first new queen hatches and then off they go again. Bees evolved the swarming instinct many millennia ago and it has served them well. The ice ages restricted the European bee populations to a few sites around the Mediterranean, but as soon as the glaciers retreated and plant life flourished the bees were there thanks to swarming.
It does keep us beekeepers on our toes though. One of our hives has looked really promising this year with lots of bees and a young queen who was laying like billy-oh. She's one of the queens we reared last year from our best colony, chosen because they were both productive and placid - the latter being a high priority when you keep bees in your back garden! We had a plan to rear some more queens from her this year.
We'd inspected them on 23rd April and all looked well, with lots of space for the queen to lay and supers for the workers to store the nectar. May started cold and wet, so it was the 2nd before we could check them again. Yes, that's 9 days later - very significant. And what did we find? Half a dozen queen cells with big fat larvae almost ready to be sealed and pupate into new queens. Lots of empty polished brood cells which the queen hadn't laid in; and her majesty stolling about without a care in the world. My, she looked fit and ...ah... ready to fly?? If we'd left it just one more day, they'd have sealed the queen cells, packed their bags and set off with the queen for their Big Adventure. Oh bother, we'd have said, and other such words.
Half an hour later we'd swapped bees, frames and boxes around and split the colony into four. The queen is in a nucleus box with some house bees, hopefully getting back into lay, we've got two more nucs with queen cells on the point of hatching, and we left just one queen cell in the original hive so fingers crossed the flying bees will stay put. Maybe they've done us a favour and we won't have to rear more queens after all.
The end of August is traditionally the finish of the beekeeper's year. The bees have gathered their honey, the new queens have settled down and there's a bit of a lull. Or so I'm told!
We've been busy extracting our summer harvest from the combs. We weren't sure if the long hot dry summer would reduce the crop, but if anything it's bigger as plants & trees have rushed to produce nectar. So far we've extracted about 130kg of honey (that's over 280lb if you use the traditional British beekeeping weights & measures). A good result from 6 productive hives and there's still more there. We may leave it for the bees though, they have certainly earned it.
We checked the varroa levels in our colonies and got a very strange result: 7 of them are almost free of the mites while the 8th needs immediate treatment. Other beekeepers are reporting much the same. We don't know why, especially after last year's huge infestations - maybe this summer's heat was a factor?
So it's nearly September and the start of the new year. The queens should start laying more eggs which the colony will raise as winter bees. They have a different metabolism from the summer workers with bodily reserves of fat to see them through the next six months. And what of the drones? Well boys, there's good news and bad news. Good news: you've made it this far, albeit without getting your chance to mate with a virgin queen and die in the act. Bad news: your sisters will throw you out of the hive to die when it turns cold. Disposable genes eh?
If the hives are low on winter stores we will feed them sugar syrup to replace the honey we stole. This sounds unkind, but it's only a food supplement; they still have plenty of honey and pollen stored in the brood box. And there's another good reason to give them syrup, because the ivy is just coming into flower and they are gathering its nectar. Unfortunately ivy honey sets like concrete when it cools, so it's useless as a winter food when they can't fly out and fetch water to dissolve it. Bees can starve in a hive surrounded by ivy honey. But if they mix it with syrup it stays soft and available throughout the winter.
There's a hint of coolth in the air now, and the robin in our garden is singing his wistful autumn song. So the year turns...
The long spell of hot weather has given way to cooler and fresher temperatures. That will improve the bees' temper and ours. The nectar flow has all but gone and the wasps have arrived, so we need to start removing the supers and extracting the honey.
We like wasps in the spring. They collect grubs and pests in the garden, carrying them off to their nest and feeding to their larvae. These in turn produce honeydew for the adults to consume. But now their annual lifecycle is nearing its end, with the nests producing one last batch of drone and queen wasps, and the workers start looking for an alternative source of food. Ooh look, a beehive! To quote Burglar Bill, "I'll have that!"
A big strong honeybee colony is well able to defend itself from these stripey attackers. The bees line up in rows outside the hive entrance and fight them off. But a small or weak colony can be ransacked and wiped out in a couple of days, so we have to reduce the hive entrance to a narrow slot which helps them repel the wasps one at a time.
What news of our Apidea queens? One is now in a nuc and hopefully doing well, two others have failed and we have to wait for another fortnight to see if the last box has produced a good queen.
Oh yes, and it's time to insert the varroa boards in our hives and monitor the levels of this nasty little mite. There were very few in June but we have to keep watch - they can build up rapidly as the population doubles every 3-4 weeks.
Never a dull moment, this beekeeping lark!
A good day's beekeeping today. We opened the colony that was left alone to requeen itself. Result! Her majesty has already laid 6 frames of worker brood, and although it's early days the colony seems to be very well behaved. She is now sporting a red dot of paint (red is so in this year) and we hope she'll have a long and productive reign.
Mixed results from our Apidea mating nucs. We have one lovely new queen who is laying well, so she will be installed in a 6-frame nuc very soon. Another box has some eggs & brood but no sign of the queen - perhaps she and the workers have departed? We'll wait for another week just in case. Nothing much happening in the third box, but the fourth has sealed brood and a sealed queen cell. It seems they waited for the new queen to start laying and then got rid of her. The excellent Ron Brown book on Apideas says such queen cells can turn out well despite the small number of workers in the box. We shall see.
The UK's long hot summer has produced a second bumper crop of honey, following our huge spring harvest from oilseed rape and hawthorn. But it hasn't rained for two months here in East Anglia and everything is drying out. Will there be any blackberries? Will the bees cap all the summer honey or start eating it?
There's only one thing for it: have a nice cup of Darjeeling tea and a few dark chocolate digestive thins. Perfect!
There's a lot of waiting involved with beekeeping. Waiting till they cap the honey in the supers so we can extract it. Waiting till the new queen they decided to rear has started laying. Waiting a bit more till we see the capped worker brood and know she's a good 'un. Waiting till we can check the mini-nucs and hopefully find some new queens ready to be introduced to a colony.
There's a wonderful piece of advice we got on our beginners' course: if you're not sure what to do, go and make a cup of tea! Dash of milk and two digestives please.