Rehousing a swarm of bees – Part 1…

Even the most diligent of beekeepers employing a strict inspection process to manage swarming gets it wrong occasionally…

We have eleven active hives in the Fleet Beekeepers training apiary and try to ensure that  we manage the colonies to spot the signs of swarming and deal with it appropriately. But about two months ago, as we arrived at the apiary, we saw a huge swarm departing from one of the hives and settling high up in one of the apple trees within the Orchard.

The nest was deeply imbedded in the centre of the tree canopy

Typically, the first stopping point is purely temporary as the swarm sends out scouts to find a suitable home for the bees to go to and as we could not get close to the swarm we had to simply leave it there.

However it appears in this case, the swarm moved into another tree as a few weeks ago we spotted the swarm settled into another tree in the orchard about 15′ off the ground.  They had been busy building combs and had created a nest about 18″ square in the centre of the tree.

James carefully cutting away the branches around the tree nest

The nest was quite exposed in the tree and very unlikely to survive the winter once the leaves had dropped, so James, Geoff and I decided to mount a rescue and retrieval mission.  James built a scaffolding platform underneath the swarm and I supplied a Jumbo Langstroth poly hive to put the bees into.  James and Geoff then proceeded to carefully cut away the surrounding branches so that we could get access to the nest itself. This took quite some time and although the bees were extremely calm it soon became apparent that the bees had greatly expanded the nest and it had become huge!

It was the biggest wild nest we had ever seen!

Eventually, James and Geoff managed to cut away the surrounding branches and they carefully lowered the complete tree nest into the prepared brood chamber complete with tree branches, leaves and even whole apples within it!  Even now the bees stayed very calm as we placed them inside the hive and then we realised that the nest was so big it would not fit…

The nest was about 10″ too high, but as luck would have it, James had a spare brood chamber with him that we placed on top of the other lower chamber and closed the hive up.

The nest filled two jumbo brood chambers!
The nest filled two jumbo brood chambers!

We then left the hive for the rest of the day so that all the flying foragers could return to join the rest of the colony now happily inside the hive. We had no space to keep the colony inside the training apiary and so we decided to move the bees that night to my out apiary south of Odiham and then possibly shake the bees into new brood frames before overwintering them there.

In the next posting I’ll describe some of the difficult choices we faced when we tried to set the bees up in the new apiary…

Keeping our bees healthy – Bailey comb changes

One of the key ways we can ensure that our bees stay healthy is to change the beeswax comb that makes up their home every two to three years. Viruses, bacteria and pesticides can all build-up in the comb over time and with the added pressure of the dreaded Varroa mite potentially passing disease from bee to bee all puts the colony under pressure.

We mark each of the frames containing the brood combs so we know how old they are at a glance and at the beginning of the Spring we review the colonies and then start something called a Bailey comb change.

Stage 1 of a Bailey comb change
Stage 1 of a Bailey comb change

This is a relatively low-stress way of changing the bees comb where we place another brood box with bare frames each containing a starter strip of foundation comb on top of the old brood box. We put a feeder containing 10l of 1:1 sugar/water syrup on the top and leave them alone.

Over the course of the next few days, the bees move up into the new box attracted by the free food and use the syrup to start building large amounts of fresh comb in the top chamber using the foundation as a template.

Lovely newly built beeswax comb
Lovely newly built beeswax comb

We returned to the hive after about a week to top-up the feeders and in doing so, we had a quick peek inside the top brood chamber to see if the bees had been busy. They had indeed from the picture on the right. Most of the central frames of foundation in the brood chamber were already being built up with new fresh beeswax comb. Unfortunately the weather started to turn rather cold and windy, so we decided to stop at that point and leave the colony alone for another day when we  start part two of the Bailey comb change process where we encourage the colony to move up into the new box – but that will be the subject of another post…

Feeding Bees in winter

Here in the south of England, the winter refuses to loose it’s grip and it’s barely reaching 6C in the sunshine. Few plants are flowering beyond the odd Crocus and even the Daffodils seem reluctant to flower in the continuing cold – and tomorrow is the 1st of April!

Even though we ensured the bees went into winter with a full set of stores and a spare super full of honey as insurance, the extended winter must have used most of these up by now, and so we’ve been feeding the bees with sugar in candy form every two-three weeks since mid February. The Polystyrene hives are great at keeping the bees warm, but don’t have much top space, so we place the candy into large sandwich bags that just fit between he top of the brood frames and the roof.

We’ve now got the process down to a fine art and can open a hive, remove and replace the candy and close up the hive again in under a minute. Here is how we do it..

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1. Remove the bamboo poles holding up the anti-woodpecker netting to expose the roof.

2. Cut open the side of the plastic bag with a sharp knife to expose the candy.

3. Peel open the side of the bag and invert it ready to place on the hive

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4. Once the roof is removed, the empty candy bag under the clear cover can be removed.

5. The new bag is placed on the brood frames with the exposed side down.

6. The clear cover and roof is replaced before putting the woodpecker mesh back in place.

I’d normally remove the anti-woodpecker mesh at the first inspection of spring, but it’s still way too cold for that, so I’m leaving the protection on for now as I feel the woodpeckers are just as hungry as the bees at present!  The feeding has helped us ensure that all our colonies have made it through the winter so far, but we desperately need spring to come soon…