Posts Tagged ‘swarm control’

June arrives bringing warmer weather but also swarms galore


Apiary - June 2013

At the apiary – June 2013

It’s been a cold and slow start to the beekeeping year, allegedly the coldest in 46 years and one of the 4 coldest since records began in 1910 and all this is on top of the appalling wet year that we had in 2012. Beekeepers all over the UK recorded above normal losses of bees during the extended winter months and although the coverage about pesticide use and bee loss has continued to dominate the  media many of these bees were simply lost to starvation and the cold weather. I sadly also lost a colony as I reported earlier in the year despite there being fresh bee candy in the hive literally millimeters above the bees…

Healthy bees in may as the colony starts to enlarge

Healthy bees at the hive entrance in may as the colony starts to enlarge

So the flowers were late, I fed my bees a light syrup as spring arrived and the colonies expanded really fast this year – it was great to see and as the belated wild blooms broke through the workers were ready to take advantage and I have had great joy watching the air around the apiary alive with pollen laden bees making their return flights back to the hives during the warmer and sunny days.

During my recent inspections I have seen large and healthy colonies, with the ‘brood and a half’ hive formation full of eggs, brood and stores with no room to spare. My first honey supers went on back in May and these are also now full to overflowing, although the honey is not yet capped. This weekend I added a second super to one hive with a smile as this was done a lot later last year so I feel very optimistic  that  the bees are having a better year already… I certainly hope so!

Chalk brood ejected from the hive

Chalk brood ejected from the hive

Hive checks back in May did reveal a higher level of chalk brood than I had previously seen, I wasn’t worried but interested to know why – then whilst reading another great beekeeping blog – ‘Adventuresinbeeland’s Blog by Emily Heath about her beekeeping in Ealing, West London, she happened to mention chalkbrood in her question/answer section of her informative revision notes for the BBKA exams:

Chalkbrood is an extremely common brood disease which is often present at low levels in colonies. It is thought to become a noticeable problem when the colony is weak and when levels of carbon dioxide rise above normal, because the bees are failing to maintain the correct conditions in the hive. It is also linked to stresses such as insufficient nurse bees, pollen shortage and the presence of sac brood.

Chalk brood is caused by a fungus named Ascosphaera apis. This delightful organism begins to germinate when a larva takes in its spores with its food. Inside the gut, the spores start to grow, producing multiple branches of fine cotton-like threads. These break through the gut wall and continue to grow throughout the body of the poor larva, until eventually it becomes “a swollen mass of fluffy white fungus with a small yellow lump where its head used to be“, as Celia Davis puts it in her excellent book ‘The Honey Bee Around & About’ (2007).

The infected larva dries to a hard chalk-like lump called a ‘mummy’, which can be white, grey or black. These will rattle when the comb is shaken. Death occurs after the cells have been sealed, so workers will tear the cappings open to remove the mummies and dispose of them outside the hive. Unfortunately the mummy spores are sticky and will attach to the bees, causing them to infect larvae when they re-enter the hive. Yet another reason to change brood comb regularly – the spores are resistant to heat and have a life of between 3-38 years.

Like chilled brood, beekeepers are most likely to see chalk brood in the spring when colonies are expanding the brood nest rapidly, but do not yet have a large adult bee population. Even if the resulting chilling is not sufficient to kill the larvae, it seems to encourage the growth of the Ascosphaera fungus.

And as the highlighted section indicates maybe my early feeding and rapid colony expansion was out of sync with the availability pollen to feed the brood once the bees had used that stored over winter in the hives. I guess I could have used a pollen substitute as a supplementary feed (there are many recipes online as well as those commercially produced) but as it is the bees effectively removed all the chalkbrood and it does not seem to have affected them or their ability to fill the hive with brood again and it no longer seems to be a problem at all. Interestingly it also only affected one hive in the apiary.

Buckfast queen back in May, plump and laying very well

Buckfast queen back in May, plump and egg-laying very well

So the colonies are healthy, the queens are fruitful and the number of bees in each hive has rapidly expanded, so much so that the hives had become congested by early June so it was a given that they would try to swarm as soon as the weather improved! My black british queen was first to go – I checked the hive and didn’t spot anything (nor the queen) then came back 10 days later and bang – three fully formed capped queen cells and a fourth in the making – I attempted to carry out an artificial swarm but this was hampered by a sudden downfall of rain and despite going through the hive three times I just couldn’t find that elusive queen so had to assume she had already gone, which kind of defeats the object of an artificial swarm so I moved the whole original hive back into its original location and have now left it to its own devices. The first visual swarm recorded at the apiary this year, and collected by my bee buddy Paul, was likely to have been the first of these virgin queens leaving with a cast or secondary swarm.

Queen in a queen clip

Queen (marked white on left) visible in a queen clip during artificial swarm

Last Friday I checked my  second hive and sure enough my second generation buckfast queen had also been busy with three queen cells formed with eggs laid in them, although quite early in the process I decided to carry out another artificial swarm on the hive but again I struggled to find the queen.

On my last inspection this queen was large and plump and easy to spot due to having been marked earlier in the season. Finally I found her, slimmed down as the bees prepare her for swarming and flight, I popped her into a ‘queen clip’ designed to hold the queen due to her greater size but allowing free movement of smaller worker bees, anyway she walked straight out so it definitely wasn’t my imagination that she was slimmed down! Once she was found again, the artificial swarm was a textbook exercise and I left the queen with three frames of brood and food and a few workers on drawn comb as all the returning workers flying that day will join her, along with those that fly from the daughter hive the following day.

Now its a case of sitting back and counting the days until I check the hives to see how the new and old queens are  getting on and also keeping an eye out for the occasional swarm from Paul’s Warre hives.

Hives after artificial swarm - one has all 'non-flying workers', brood and honey, the other the artificial swarm

Hives after artificial swarm – the nearest one has all ‘non-flying workers’, brood and honey, the next nearest to the right houses the artificial swarm

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.

Dan

N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

Bees on veil during an artificial swarm

Bees on my veil during an artificial swarm, people often ask if it bothers me – flying stinging insects all around my face – the answer is NO until they find a way in – always buy a good bee suit!

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June and the swarming season has arrived!


It’s been a while since I have written anything on my bee blog – partly as I have been busy with life and partly as there has not been much to report as each colony inspection has gone smoothly (apart from the occassional sting), the bees have been very active, working hard to bring in a huge amount of pollen and nectar and the colonies have grown fast with strong queens and the hives have stayed healthy.

A check on one colony about three weeks ago revealed far more ‘play cups’ than there were present in either of the other two colonies (the early indicator of a queen cell). This colony was also collected as a swam itself last year so would have had an older queen, previoulsy driven from a hive, and it looks like the colony had decided to eject her once again and start over with a new virgin queen.

Play cell - an early indicator of swarming behaviour

The checks carried out every ten days or so by beekeepers between April and August are partly to spot these signs of swarming and queen replacement and allow enough time to try to carry out some form of preventative action to avoid losing half your bees and therefore half your work force (and the honey that they will make) as well as being a responsible beekeeper and not allowing the hive to randomly throw swarms that then become a nusiance to other people.

I checked to make sure that the old queen was still present in the hive then removed some of the play cells – this would not prevent a swarm but at least buy me back a little bit more time before they were ready to go. At the next visit, carried out 9 days later, I took along a spare hive with frames of wax made up. This would be useful for swarm control if I needed it but if the hive wasn’t quite ready to swarm I could leave it set up at the apiary as a ‘bait hive’ and then if a swarm were to happen and I wasn’t around there is still a fair chance that the scout bees, searching for a new home, would simply come across the empty hive, realise it was dry and safe, about the right size and move the colony in without my assistance.

An audience with the queen

As it was, a quick check on the colony revealed 6 new queen cells, one of which was completed and capped – that is to say the larva stage had already been fed royal jelly and then sealed in to start her transformation into a new queen.

I removed the capped queen cell as I did not know how long it has been capped for and therefore have no idea when the new queen would arrive. This left 5 queens almost ready to be capped in the hive, only one of whom would eventually rule.

Queen Cells on a brood frame

Queen cells on a brood frame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some beekeepers would now try and split the colony into more than two hives at this stage if they were wanting to expand their apiary rapidly, but time only really allows for me to deal with three colonies at the moment so I decided to split the ‘ready to swarm’ colony into two.

An ‘artificial swarm’ works on some very simple principles of bee behaviour that 50 million years of evolution has taught them, namely that their ‘homes’ do not move (these would normally be in  a hollow tree or similar in nature) and that if the ‘flying’ or ‘foraging’ bees suddenly find themselves in an new home with no honey, brood or worker bees then they have swarmed – even if they didn’t actually leave the hive themselves.

An artificial swarm involves firstly finding the old queen in the hive, a difficult task on a damp day when nearly all 60,000 bees are at home, but luckily I had found and remarked this queen with a white dot on her back during my previous visit and so it wasn’t long before she was found and safely removed in a ‘queen clip’, a device that looks and works like a hair clip but has slots to allow the worker bees to escape but traps the slightly larger queen.

Introducing the old queen to a new hive

Once the old queen is safely held a new, empty hive is set up in exactly the same location that the old hive had been stood with a queen excluder underneath the brood box – this is a sheet of metal or plastic, again with slots large enough to allow the worker bees free passage but to small for the queen to fit through – this prevents the queen from swarming straight away again. Sheets of wax foundation are added and also a frame of honey to prevent the swarmed colony from starving is included in the new house  deal. Bees from the original colony are added to the hive and then the old queen is re-introduced to her split colony before closing up the hive.

The original hive is set up a few feet away from its original location and now left alone for enough time for the new queens to hatch, the first of which will either kill her unborn sisters or flee the hive with a small number of foraging bees and allow the second born queen to reign. Any ‘flying’ bees left in this hive will leave the hive the morning following the split to forage for food but then return to the newly set-up empty hive as it is now in the original location, so after 24 hours or so you have split the old queen and all the flying bees from all the younger workers, brood, eggs and honey and unborn queens and its time to sit back and wait.

Artificially swarmed bees

As this has all occured during the first half of June there is not much forage for the ‘swarmed’ colony and there is a very real risk that they will simply starve in the hive so I have fed them 4kg of sugar as syrup to help them pull through to the start of the summer nectar flow in July and also to stimulate the bees wax glands so that they draw out the new comb rapidly and the old queen can start laying the next generation of workers straight away.

As a beekeeper there is always the temptation to take a ‘peek’ in the hive and see if everything is going to plan or the bees are slowly starving to death but by following the artificial swarm technique you give the ‘swarmed’ bees the best chance of survival and you really have to leave them alone to do their own thing.

Expansion and a happy apiary

Something of interest as a beekeeper is that you hear of other local swarms, and my wife even found one whilst walking the dog on Tunbridge Wells common this week,  it seems that bees really do all have one unique body clock in an area and seem to know exactly when to swarm at the same time, almost as one body. Well worth noting down for next years swarm control!

Without the preventative measure of the artificial swarm it is almost certain that my bees would have gone at the same time and unless you are there to witness it and catch and re-hive the swarm you stand to lose approximately  20,000 bees each time. Luckily on this occassion it looks like I stopped it in time and subsequent visits to the ‘swarmed’ hive to feed syrup have indicated a very full and lively hive (and another sting on the elbow and swollen arm!) and I am really looking forward to seeing how the colony expands during the sumer before the long autumn amd winter period spent in the hive.