Bumblebees and Honeybees

Springtime this year has been very difficult for the bees. The dramatic changes in temperature and rainfall during April and May have delayed the honeybee colonies’ development. At one stage, nectar was coming in and things looked good, then cold easterly winds kept the bees at home. They needed to preserve their brood nest temperature just as birds need to keep their eggs constantly warm.

The bumblebees also started off well with queens establishing their nests in a variety of places. Queen bumblebees hibernate during winter just as queen wasps do. In spring, stimulated by daylight lengthening and warmer temperatures, the queens seek out a safe place to nest. Their favourite places are in bird nesting boxes or compost bins. Invariably they choose boxes with old bird nesting material from last year. The queens will make a small nest and her first daughters help to build up the family. They are usually happy if left alone and disappear by mid-summer and rarely return to the same site next year.

We have received a lot of calls about bumblebees this year and have advised callers that they are best left alone as they rarely bother anyone or cause structural damage to properties. All species of bee are very efficient pollinators giving gardeners and growers free pollination services. There would be very few fruits or seeds without the bees to give this service. If you have a bumblebee nest, enjoy watching their comings and goings at a safe distance and feel lucky that they’ve chosen to be with you for this season. Bumblebees are in decline, as are many other species of pollinators, so we must look out for them. The large fluffy queens can be seen and heard in late March collecting nectar and pollen from Crocus and Snowdrops. Their nests develop to the size of a small ball and, unlike the honeybee, they do not store honey. Honeybees on the other hand store honey for their winter food but, being the amazing creatures that they are, they invariably produce more than they need to see them through the winter months. It is this surplus that a beekeeper will take – but that’s a process for another article!

Enjoy the bees!

Spring Caution and buying nucs!

Spring Caution and buying nucs!

Beekeepers are generally positive and optimistic and with the lengthening of the days the enthusiasm to look, into the hive is tangible. However, caution is the watch word. Whether a beginner or experienced, be mindful of the bees’ needs first and curb that excitement to be opening the hive. It is a critical time for the bees as winter slowly loses its grip and on warm days pollen can be seen coming into the hive. This is usually a good sign that the queen is breeding and the colony is beginning to expand. This is not a guarantee that the queen is laying fertile eggs though. She may be laying drone eggs due to missed mating and this brood needs pollen too. If you have varroa floor boards the size of the cluster by can be estimated by looking at the insert. Usually there is a ring of cappings on the board similar to the cluster’s diameter.

On a warm day with no cold wind check for food supplies. The bees are now consuming food rapidly to rear brood and to maintain brood temperatures. A simple check is by hefting gently to appreciate the hive weight and if in doubt feed a block of fondant above the crown board. Towards the end of March or early April liquid feed is a good alternative but only if warm weather is current. The colonies that have wintered well and with plenty of bees can be supered by the end of the month. This extra space enables the hatching bees to cluster without over-crowding the brood nest thus helping to alleviate pressure to issue an early swarm. If the bees are supered too late then the swarming impulse is very difficult to suppress.  It is important that the bees have food available now and in a good Spring early nectar rapidly enables colony expansion and even an excess of honey. The early super enables surplus to be stored and as it is immediately above the brood nest the nectar removes the need to collect water for honey dilution. Ripe honey needs to be diluted for use, so water is necessary in early spring.  However, if there is no flow on then artificial support is necessary. If you are unsure when to go for liquid feed, go with fondant as the bees can use this feed all year round. Liquid feed does have the advantage of stimulating brood development.

A simple water fountain can be made by putting pebbles into a shallow dish and adding water to just below the level of the pebbles. This ensures that the bees don’t drown.

For those who are waiting for their nucleus colonies to arrive this year, there is guidance from BBKA. The recommendation is that five frame nucs should have a minimum of three frames of brood and the rest food with a current queen, mated and laying fertile worker brood. Ideally the breeder should mark the queen and I prefer also to clip her. I would always recommend you have an experienced beekeeper with a beginner to assess what you are buying. Weak or below standard stingy bees are not desirable. When the nuc arrives, or when you collect it place it on the site where you want your hive to be allowing the bees to fly for a day or two. Then on a warm day remove the nuc to one side placing the hive on its permanent site. Transfer the bees across and feed with a contact feeder to assist the bees to draw out foundation. It is important to keep the frames in the same order that they came in in the nuc. I would suggest that two or three frames of foundation are given initially with a dummy board adding the rest when the bees are expanding.  Be sure to do all manipulations fully protected as stings hurt! Please buy bees locally and avoid importing bees at all costs. Besides the disease risk imported queens produce drones who happily compete for mating rights with local bees and these different genetics often lead to aggression in F2 generations. These imports disrupt local breeders from improving their bees due to hybridization. Remember to keep records of what you are doing and plan what you are going to do next. My mantra is always to have a reason for opening the hive and work in tandem with the weather and the bees!

Enjoy the new season and hopefully some honey.


2021 At the Hive Entrance

Written by David Buckley – 54 years of beekeeping

Whenever I go to an apiary my first focus is to watch the hive entrance.  This applies whatever the season or time of year.  Today, in early March, when the sun was shining one of the colonies seemed to be excessively active. After a few minutes of observation I noticed that a few bees were bringing in some early pollen. That’s good I thought but quickly spotted drones flying! Potentially this is bad news. Why?  We usually celebrate early pollen coming into the hive as it suggests that the queen is laying and the next generation of worker bees is being brooded.  In most cases that early pollen proves to be an accurate statement of the colony’s expansion. In this case it suggests the possibility that the colony is queenless or failing. A queenless colony will tolerate drones through the winter and these drones will be mature enough to fly in Spring. Whether or not they will be fertile is another question! It is too early anyway to be thinking of matings as there are no queens about yet.  I think this colony will be queenless!  On the other hand if there is a queen and she is failing for some reason there may be a mixture of drones and workers being born from early egg laying. These drones may not be mature enough to fly yet. At this stage therefore, I do not know if I have 2020 wintered drones or 2021 drones from a failing queen.

 On checking my records the queen should be a 2020 July mated queen. Her brood pattern was good and the bees’ temperament fine.  Winter feeding was completed by the end of September and all should have been straight forward. Of course I can’t open the hive yet to explore what is wrong, if anything. There is nothing that I can do any way as the time of year is all wrong for remedial action. However a marker has been put on this hive for early examination and will be prioritised for investigation when the weather is warm enough. Being compromised by the time of year does not help but already I am planning what to do.

This hive had six seams of bees in January so currently there may be a lot of potentially useful workers to join up to a smaller colony in April as long as it’s disease free. If the queen is there she will need to be removed.  If uniting is the outcome then newspaper will be used. When uniting bees I prefer to put the queen-right bees at the bottom on their original stand and the queenless bees above.

Keeping an eye on the hive entrances is part of routine management. As spring approaches more activity can be observed in the colony. If there is little or no activity in one hive while others are busy then it is an indication that all is not well in this hive. However it is not until first inspections that correct assessments can be made. Meanwhile check for access to food and feed any hungry colonies. Move to liquid feed as soon as there is nectar available if necessary but ensure that fondant does not run out on colonies that have been supported through the winter. Food consumption increases rapidly from now in healthy colonies. Robbing is also an issue in early spring and weak colonies are susceptible so again entrance observations may help. If bees are approaching a weaker colony to rob they hover with their legs trailing below, a bit like an under carriage, and then dash into the hive. This is a prime way for disease to spread.

Now is the time to prepare to put on the first supers.  This is more for space to accommodate hatching bees than for storage of honey at this time of year and hopefully to deter the bees from thinking of swarming early in the season as the space alleviates pressure on the brood nest. Watching my bees at the hive entrance is also very therapeutic. After a challenging day at work there is something very relaxing about watching the comings and goings of the hive. Loads of pollen of different colours come in. Drones buzz about and workers remove hive debris. There is always something happening so spend a little time at the hive entrance as it can be so rewarding.