Summer arrives finally for the bees, with pluses and minuses

For the first time in ages it was sunny this morning when I set out to the Apiary, but whether because of Simon’s late call to arms Friday night, the schools all ending the day before, or purely the shock of it being a nice day, only people willing to mentor turned out.  No one arrived to learn, which ended up meaning we just inspected all the hives, as we’d not been able to for two weeks, and I ended up learning loads from Eileen, instead.  And she started by putting me in my place.  I complained that Emily had just turned 19.  She told me that her eldest was 50.  We all looked at her in disbelieving shock.  She smiled demurely and said she was a child bride.

OK, first, explain the photo above.  All of the life of a hive in one shot, really.  The colours are pollen.  No idea which is which, but I’d love to know where the pea green one is from.  The pure white are larvae in various stages of growth until they’re capped over.  If you zoom in and look hard, you can see a few eggs growing too.  It’s unusual to see larvae and pollen so close, they usually clear out comb for the queen to be free to lay regularly.  But it does make for a pretty colour palette.  This was from one of Simon’s hives, one of the few that had any laying going on in it, it turned out.

We started with my main hive – the other beekeepers, James, Steve and Stan, spread out to look at the other groups of hives.  And the theme for the day turned out to be fear for lack of queens.  The bad weather seems to have caused a lot of problems, and restricted the possibility for mating flights.  Eileen also told us that a queen will tend to let the last of the old brood hatch before she starts laying herself, so she can be sure of which are her family.  And that she can wait up to 4 weeks before she lays.  Given how many of the hives were completely void of any sign of laying, this was good news, and explained why most of the hives in this state were just so calm about it.  In the one that wasn’t, Hive 3 of Geoff’s wooden Nationals, the signs of real trouble were clear.  There were about 4 frames of solid, seemingly Worker-laid drone cells.  This is the colony’s last-ditch attempt to get their genes out there, before they die off.  Push some males out in the hopes they’ll mate with another colony’s queen.  We swapped a completely empty frame from here for one with all stages of egg and larvae in it from another of his colonies, in the hopes that they’d take an egg and make a new queen from her, but at this point, it seems unlikely they’ll do it.  We may have lost this colony.
So, back to the FreeBees…  The original hive was extremely docile, the three Supers were doing very well – if I need to add a fourth I’m going to need a longer strap.  But there was just no laying going on at all.  If there’s still no sign next week, I’ll panic and try to find a queen cell from elsewhere to put in.  But Eileen has really reassured me here.  The bees are happy, and they know far better than we do what they need.  There’s a queen in there, they’re picking up her pheromones.  She’s just not started laying yet.  The picture above, by the way, is a worker harvesting some wax from the side of the hive box, where somebee had built a bridge to the edge board before I lifted it out.  The shot is taken down into the hive, with some light getting in through the bottom.

We then moved on to my second hive, which for the last few months has been really aggressive.  But not this week.  They were as docile as the main hive.  Again, I believe because there is a happy queen in there, although again there’s no laying happening yet.  The bees know best though, so I’m just leaving them be.  Sorry, that pun was unintentional.  Looking through here though, we did get a good example of a lot of bees acting like a liquid:

Imagine that swaying back and forth as we moved the frame.  A quick shake and they fall off with a splat, no harm done.  At this point I look over at the others, and they were doing some serious work on two of the Hives.  Hive 11 had loads of Queen cells.  Hive 1 was seemingly queen less and had been a while.  So James was moving some queen cells over.  We’ll see over the next few weeks if that was necessary, and if it helped.

We then started looking at other hives the other two teams hadn’t seen yet.  What we found in general was what we saw in my hives – brood hatching, but few with new laying.  Hive 9 had had 2 queen cells pushed into a frame 2 weeks ago, because there was no sign of laying, as now in many of the others.  There was still no laying going on, but those two cells had been torn down by the bees, and there was sign that one of them had been stung through the side as well.  This seemed pretty clear evidence that a Queen was in there, and us adding in some competition had not pleased her.  She’d killed the contents, and the workers had dealt with the remains.  She’s just not laying yet.  If this was one hive, it’d be a concern.  All of them means either we’re about to lose the apiary, or just that they’re all making the same decision – it’s too early to lay.  Or maybe mating flights in the recent weather has been too hard.  We now have a week of sun forecast.  Next Saturday may well be very interesting.

Then we moved to Hive 9, and as I lifted off the top Super, the colony went “ZZZZZzzzzzzz” and Eileen said, ah, this one has a happy, laying queen.  I’d been told before you could tell by the noise they made how content the colony was, but only Geoff and now Eileen have been able to demonstrate this to me.  And sure enough, as we inspected the brood chamber frames, we found fresh-laid larvae.  Eileen seemed quite nervous after saying that that she was wrong, but I felt I learned so much just working with her today I’d had no doubt she was right.

We also had a discussion as we worked about natural beekeeping.  Over the past year I’ve come round to her way of thinking, that the bees know way more about being a bee than we do, so why should we keep interfering when we don’t have to?  We can help with disease and Verroa mites, which after all are generally our fault.  But clipping wings, and tearing down queen cells when they want to swarm, is working against them, not with them.  If you fear a swarm, put a bait hive or Nuke box nearby for them to move into.  If they like it, they’ll take it.  My first hive proves that.  Trying to stop them just puts off their wish to leave, it won’t prevent it.  Some of the other, natural hive designs may go a bit too far, making it too hard to work on the bees and help them when we should, I definitely prefer the poly hives I have.  But beyond that, just letting them get on with it seems best.

While we worked we also got called over to hive 10, though, to take this photo:

An ants nest had got in under the lid.  That had to be cleared out outside the fence.

So, altogether one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve had with the bees.  Sun, nothing too much to worry about, and Eileen to talk to and learn from, made gave it just that bit more.

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