MAY

Three days now since my new queens were installed into their new homes, time to have a quick look. In nuc.1, lots of bees and a plump little queen moving sedately about the comb. A good start I thought moving on to nuc.2, here a much different story, not many bees, at least, compared with nuc.1 and the queen and her attendants still as I had left them. There were bees covering the cage but the candy in the exit seemed hardly touched, in fact, there was a dead bee lodged in the candy, partly blocking the exit. I removed the dead bee, that was easy enough, but, why so few bees. There was a couple dead on the nuc. floor but certainly not enough to explain why so few left in the nuc. The nuc’s had been made up with identical frames of brood and stores and both had frame feeders with the same amount of syrup in. Before leaving, I shook a frame of bees from one of my other hives into the nuc. along with a handful of icing sugar, just to mask any difference in odour.

It was with feelings of foreboding that I returned a couple of days later. I had with me a pair of snips with which to free the queen if the bees still hadn’t done their stuff. I couldn’t think of any other way to open the cage, so you can imagine my feelings of relief when just from removing the crown board, I could see the cage was empty. I removed the brood frame which was now covered with bees and there she was, a plump little thing, much the same as her sister in nuc.1 but, with no green spot on her back. I knew that she had had a spot when I first observed her in the travelling cage so I can only imagine she had managed to rub it off whilst moving around in the cage but, what a relief. I can’t describe my feelings when I boxed the nuc. back up. I shall give both nuc’s a week or so before opening them when I shall hope to see the first signs of eggs. I shall take that opportunity to re-mark the queen in 2. Just time to have a quick look in the swarm nuc, They had looked in pretty good nic when I had last inspected and installed the additional foundation so I expected to at least see a queen and signs that she had assumed her duties, but I should have known better, especially in the light of what I’d seen in the other nuc’s. No queen or any signs that there had been one, instead one queen cell, not yet sealed, in the centre of the brood frame. I can only imagine that somehow the queen had been somehow damaged when capturing the swarm or moving them to The Station site but fortunately, they had found a larvae young enough to be raised as their new queen. As it’s now going to be sometime before they have a new foraging force, I left them with a contact feeder of syrup and will check that all is progressing satisfactorily when I return to look at the other two nuc’s.

You are no doubt, all aware of The Asian Hornet and the threat it poses to the insect population in the UK. and especially the honeybee. Over this last couple of weeks I have been asked to address both local Horticultural and Allotment Societies. As a member of AHAT I was very pleased to have the opportunity to “spread the message”, as it were and I have to say, the talks were very well received. Present at the second talk were reporters from a local news publication and they very kindly invited me to write an article for their paper. This I was more than pleased to do and I have to say, I was very pleased with the printed result and even more so with  the feedback I have since received. I have decided to copy the article to the blog to give those of you who are not yet aware of this pest and the real threat it poses to our honeybees an idea of what, we as beekeepers, are up against. I hope you find it of interest.

THE ASIAN HORNET

VESPA VELUTINA NIGRITHORAX, better known as The Asian Hornet, a native of South East Asia. Commonly found in Vietnam, Cambodia, South East China and the like where it isn’t perceived as a threat in fact, in some comunities, the larvae are harvested and eaten as a delicacy. So, why is an insect which naturally lives thousands of miles away, suddenly become of interest to us here in Great Britain.                     Well, the simple answer is that it is no longer confined to South East Asia. It now occupies largs areas of France, Belgium and other Western European Countries.      So, how did an insect less than 30mm. in length, and with a wing span of less than 40mm. manage to travel all of those thousands of miles, and, largely without being noticed.                                                                                                                        Well, of course the truth is that it couldn’t have, nor would it have probably wanted to, without man’s help.                                                                                                        The Asian Hornet first appeared in France in 2004, where it is thought to have arrived in a consignment of flower pots from China. Largely unnoticed or ignored for a number of years, it quickly spread into neighbouring countries where,in some, it has now reached what can only be referred to as, epidemic proportions. The latest, and of greatest concern to us, being Jersey in The Channel Islands, where it was first sighted in 2014 and where it has since gained such a foothold that last year, DEFRA were appealing for british bee-keepers to go over to assist in locating the nests of these unwelcome pests. From memory I think some 58 queens were located and destroyed in 2018.                  In the UK up until the end of 2018, four nests have been located and destroyed along with four solitary hornets which were identified as either drones or workers.                    So, what do we know of this creature and why is it causing us such concerns?       Firstly, it is primarily carnivorous, it will readily kill and eat any other insect but it’s main appetite is for bees. Because honey-bees outnumber all other native spieces of bee, they have become the Asian Hornet’s main prey. A single hornet can easily take in excess of 200 honey-bees in a single day.                                                               Secondly, A single queen can produce between 200 and 500 new queens in a single year. If no more than 10% of 200 survive the winter, which is the lower figure, there would still be some 20 viable queens going into the following year. Bearing in mind that these forcasts are based on the lowest figures and that following a mild Winter, far more queens would be expected to survive, it is easy to see how their numbers quickly get out of control.                                                                                                           Finally, the nests are very difficult to locate. Nests are typically sited in the upper reaches of the tallest trees, 35 metres above the ground not being unusual. Being constructed of wood pulp, they are very difficult to spot and even more difficult to access.                                                                                                                           So, how can we recognise this pest and what should we do if we do spot one?          The Asian Hornet is smaller than it’s European cousin and has some easily recogniseable markings. The face has yellow markings much the same as a wasp. The body however, is predominably black, unlike the European Hornet which is a buff colour with yellow markings. In addition, it has yellow legs and a single yellow/orange stripe around the fourth segment of it’s abdomen.                                                            Female Asian Hornets mate before going into hibernation in late Autumn, emerging in late Febuary or March. Within a month of emergence, queens will commence the construction of their first nest, usually at quite low level, typically in a hedge or shrubbery. Because drones and workers don’t survive the Winter, any hornet seen at this time can only be a mated queen. It follows therefore that any queen killed or trapped at this time will avoid a whole year’s crop of queens. It should be emphasised that all sightings must be reported. Hornets spotted after this time will be either drones or workers and shouldn’t be killed, instead, their location should be reported. Because of the numbers of mistaken identifications, a photograph must accompany any report. The prime objective at this time is to locate and destroy the nests and the best way that we can do this is to catch and electronically tag flying hornets to enable us to follow them to their nests. We can’t do this without your help which is why we asking everyone to be vigilant and to report all sightings.                                                                         So, what is the life cycle of The Asian hornet, as I said earlier, drones and workers don’t survive the Winter. In much the same way as queen wasps, mated queens will select anywhere dry and secure in which to hibernate, typically rockeries, outbuildings, compost heaps etc. Emerging usually in March, she will shortly begin constructing her first nest. Much like the wasp, the nest will be constructed of a papier mache like substance which the queen manufactures with a mixture of chewed up wood and saliva. At the beginning this nest will be little bigger than a wallnut and will be located quite low down, usually in a tight hedge. Into this she will lay a couple of eggs. As the eggs hatch and the numbers begin to grow, so the nest is expanded until it resembles the size of a small football. It is at this stage when the hornets are at their most aggressive, now having a nest to defend, they won’t hesitate to attack if they feel threatened. Most fatalities have occured at this stage and usually while the hedge is being trimmed, accidently disturbing or damaging the nest.                                                                Once the hornets have outgrown this nest, usually around midsummer, they will decamp and take up final residence in the upper reaches of a nearby tree.Here they will construct a new nest which incidently can be almost 1 mtr. in diameter in which they will remain until the drones and workers are ejected and the queens leave to mate and hibernate.

Please report all sightings, along with that all important photograph to;

online at: www.nonnativespecies.org/alerts/asianhornet

by e’mail: alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk

Since I have been on the Swarm Collection Register for the local council, as you might imagine, I have been called to all manner of insect manifications, from ants and bumble bees to mainly wasps, and just occasionally, honeybees. Most of the people that I encounter are very pleasant and pleased to see me even if I have to tell them that abseiling down from their roof or trying to scale a fifty foot conifer at the bottom of their garden, is not a part of my brief. The encounter usually begins with a ‘phone call and from the content of the opening sentence, it’s usually a simple matter to ascertain whether or not we are dealing with a swarm of honeybees. Most people are just happy to have their mind put at rest and when told that their own life and that of their children are not in imminent danger, are happy to be told that, left to their own devices, a small gathering of bumble bees will eventually move on of their own accord. Wasps are a different matter and I usually advise that they contact a local pest controller. If someone comes on and is obviously distraught I always visit, even if I know from the initial conversation, that I’m only going to find a handful of bumblebees that have taken up residence in a bird box or as is more often, the garden rockery, and am happy to do so. Just to see the relief on their face is worth the trip.

Swarms that are conveniently hanging from a low branch of an ornamental bush or fruit tree are the easiest ones to deal with and are normally quite happy to drop enmasse into my upturned skep when the branch that they are hanging from is gently tapped. Unfortunately these are the exception rather than the rule but, it is nice when it happens. Collecting bees that have found a permanent home and have been in residence for some time is a different matter. Now, with something to defend, they are usually far more aggressive and who can blame them. Few of us  would stand idly by while the home we had just so painstakingly finished building, was being torn apart. Copious amounts of smoke and extra thick gloves are then, the order of the day, and this combination, usually achieves the desired outcome, thank goodness! So, what to do with all the comb that you’ve removed. Bearing in mind that it will be of all shapes and sizes, some containing stores and some containing brood, but mostly, a combination of both and, while all this is going on and as your gloves get stickier and stickier, the bees are becoming more and more agitated. I have found from experience, this is an exercise best completed in the fastest possible manner and, this is what works for me. Firstly, you need to fashion some sort of comb cage, this needs to be fairly robust and no wider than a brood comb. Here’s what you will need, 1x standard brood frame, it doesn’t have to be new just so long as it has been sterilised, 1x small sheet of stiff wire mesh, no smaller than the brood frame, 1x pair tin snips and half a dozen drawing pins.

Step 1, cut two sections of your mesh, both to the width of your brood frame. Cut one of these sections to the internal depth of your frame plus 1/2″. Cut the other about 1″ longer. Bend the extra 1″ at right angles. The object is to have a wire section that sits inside the frame with the extra 1″ resting on the frame bottom bars. The frame needs to be just long enough to be able to pin the top edge to the frame top bar. The second section of mesh need to hinge from the 1″ edge of the first and be just the right length to be pinned on to the frame top bar.

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FIRST SECTION INSERTED INTO FRAME

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SECOND SECTION HINGED ON TO FIRST

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SECTION OF HINGE SECTION REMOVED TO ACCOMMODATE QUEEN CELL

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COMB WITH QUEEN CELL IN CAGE.

I find rectangular section wire mesh is preferable to square as you can usually position a comb with a queen cell so that the cell protrudes through the mesh without the need for cutting. I have found these comb cages most useful especially when removing small sections of comb which can be giggled around until the frame is full.

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IT’S SURPRISING JUST HOW MUCH ODD SHAPED COMB WILL FIT IN CAGE.

Back to the subject of swarms, without a doubt this must rate as one of the most swarmiest of seasons. There has hardly been more than a couple of days this month when I haven’t received at least one call, last Tuesday I had three. Admittedly, one was for bumble bees and one had decamped before I arrived, but the other one was definitely honey bees which, thankfully, had selected the only shrub in the garden which was less than fifteen feet tall to cluster in. Obligingly they dropped straight into the nuc. I was holding under them, the moment I shook the branch to which they had attached themselves. I placed the nuc. on an adjacent tool box roof and almost immediately they began fanning, a signal to which all the flying bees seemed to be responding.

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WITHIN MOMENTS THE BEES BEGAN ENTERING THE NUC.

When I returned later there were only a handful of bees still flying so it was simply a case of closing the nuc. entrance and putting them safely into the car. So much easier than using a skep, which is the method I have always used, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. I suppose using a skep, was the method I was shown when I first started collecting swarms and tunnel vision had prevented me seeking any other. The only problem now is that with six nuc’s. on the go, I’m rapidly running out of them.

The following evening I received another call, I was just on my way out and not really expecting any more swarm calls, especially that late at night. ” I’ve just got your name off the website, there’s a swarm of bees in my chimney” the caller began, ” can you come over, I only live in ***** “. Which, as it happens, is not a million miles away, not that it made much difference at that time of night. ” When did you first notice them and do you live in a house or bungalow” I replied, ” because if you live in a house, I’m not going to be able to help you”. He then went on, ”They arrived earlier today” and quickly added, ” it’s quite easy to get onto the roof, last year we had some work done and the builder got up into the loft and removed a few tiles and climbed out onto the roof , so you won’t need a ladder”. I don’t know why, but it still surprises me at what some people expect from a perfect stranger. I explained that there was no way I was able go up on to his roof and that even if I did, there was no guarantee that I’d find his bees, explain that although they’re going in at the top of the chimney, that didn’t mean that was where they were. ” Well, what am I supposed to do” he replied, his tone suggesting that this was somehow now my problem. My answer was to either ignore them and let nature take it’s course, or to light a few twigs in the fireplace and try to smoke them out. I won’t tell you what his next reply was and sensing that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere, I bid him goodnight, after gently explaining that I wasn’t actually employed by the Council and that even if I had been, there was no way I was going to be clambering around on his roof in semi darkness. My parting line was that if they did come down and land somewhere accessible, to give me another call. “Big mistake”. At 6.30 the following morning the bedside ‘phone rang. It’s funny how even at that time in the morning you can get a strange feeling that you know exactly what’s coming next. “It’s me again” as if I needed any explanation, ” They’ve come down now, they’ve fallen down the chimney and they’re in the fireplace behind the gas fire”. After suggesting he gave the gas board a call, I bid him good morning and replaced the receiver.

 

APRIL

Despite hive 1 receiving two frames of brood over the last couple of weeks, still no sign of brood except for a couple of drone cells so, at the next visit I culled the queen and added another frame of brood. A quick look the following day revealed they had already begun drawing out new queen cups on the new brood frame so, it was the right decision to remove the queen.

It looks as though the swarming season has started early this year, probably down to the couple of hot weeks we’ve just had. I was called to my first one a couple of days ago and my friend Liz told me that she had collected one two days earlier. I helped a friend inspect his hives last weekend and it was obvious from the number of sealed queen cells that at least two of his colonies had swarmed, so as I said, it looks as though this year’s swarming season is well under way. The swarm which I was called to was in a little village, not a million miles away from me so no problems there. The swarm had originally gathered in his chimney. Not wishing to have uninvited guests setting up their home there, but also, not wishing to harm them, the owner had lit a small fire using just a handful of twigs. This resulted in the bees leaving the chimney and clustering in a conifer in the garden. It was at this point that I received the ‘phone call.

I arrived to be greeted by the owner and to find the swarm just as described and not only that, he had a small tower scaffold which he kindly offered me the use of. Within minutes he had erected it for me and I was perched on the top of it, positioning the nuc. which I had brought for the purpose, below the cluster.

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SWARM NOW SAFELY IN THE NUC.

The number of flying bees suggested that they were almost ready to decamp, so just in time I couldn’t help thinking. A sharp tap on the branch from which they were hanging, and they were safely in the nuc. Within seconds there were bees fanning at the entrance, always a welcome sight, I think. We agreed that I could leave the nuc on the scaffold platform until the evening to allow the flying bees to re-join their brothers and sisters.

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THIS WAS THE PICTURE AS I LEFT. THEY ALL SEEMED HAPPY ENOUGH.

Just from walking up the garden when I returned later, I could see that most of the flying bees were no longer in evidence, so safe to proceed. What I was surprised to see was, as I climbed the ladder and got level with the nuc. a dozen or more bees were lined up at the entrance, almost as though they were waiting for me. They didn’t attempt to fly which was what I was half expecting them to do, instead, they turned, almost as one, and disappeared into the safety of the nuc. So, into the car and home. I couldn’t help thinking as I made my way to the Station Apiary, if only they were all this easy!

A week had passed since I’d last inspected the hives, first to “C” where pleased to see, all progressing nicely, no sign of queen cells which in view of what I’d seen at my friends apiary, quite a relief. Then on to The Station site. It was now two days since I’d installed the swarm nuc and although I’d left them with a frame of drawn comb and some stores, I was eager to see how they were doing, so, first stop, the nuc.

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FIRST STOP THE NUC.

Lots of bees, there’s a lot more than you can see from the pic.,and very placid, always a bonus. I made up the nuc. with a full complement of frames and made my way to the hives. In hive one, now several capped queen cells, just what I was hoping to find. I broke down all but the best two and will have another look the day before I’m expecting them to emerge, when I will either break the smaller one down or use it to make up another nuc.

The last Thursday of the month and I’ve just received notification that my new queens would be arriving Saturday morning. What with giving brood to the swarm nuc. and Hive one, I was quite concerned that I might not be able to find enough for the nuc’s. that were going to house my new queens, not without seriously depleting the other hives. Fortunately, one of my fellow society members came to the rescue. I was meeting with him later that day to give him a hand with his colony inspections. When I mentioned my dilemma regarding my new queens and their nuc’s, or lack of as was going to be the case. “No problem” was his welcome reply, “I’m looking to downsize so if you want a couple of frames of brood, just help yourself”. By the end of the day, I had two nuc’s, back at the Station apiary, both with a really healthy looking frame of brood plus additional bees and a frame of stores which my own hives had supplied. I left feeling a lot happier to await delivery of my, new long awaited queens.

Sure enough, as promised, the post lady handed me a small package marked, “LIVE BEES, HANDLE WITH CARE” on Saturday morning. I usually give any new arrivals a couple of drops of water and a couple of hours to recuperate from their journey before moving them on to their nuc’s. which I do by first transferring them from their travelling cage into a Butler cage which I prefer. This is quite a simple matter which I usually perform on the kitchen window cill, not before putting the plug into the sink, I hasten to add. I had a queen flutter down from the cill into the sink on one occasion and the last thing you want to see, at this point, is your precious queen disappearing down the plughole. It’s quite a simple matter to open the small plastic rectangular travelling cages that the queens normally arrive in. The flying bees will then normally leave to pitch on the window leaving the queen to be gently coaxed into the Butler cage. It seems to be the view shared by most “experts” that queens are far more likely to be accepted if they are unaccompanied by their attendants and as it seems to be good advise, I have always installed my bought-in queens in that manner. Today however, this was going to be a problem, as these queens had arrived in travelling cages which I hadn’t encountered before and which I couldn’t figure out how to open, at least, not without risking crushing the bees. So, nothing for it but off to the Station site with my new charges. The bees in the nuc’s. seemed in very good humour, especially considering that they had all been so recently plucked from the comfort of their own homes and tossed around in my nuc’s., and were all over the queen cages before I had finished installing them.

 

 

MARCH

And so into March, traditionally synonymous with strong winds, and for any fans of gale force winds, they certainly won’t have been disappointed thus far. Storm Gareth has been with us, more or less, since the beginning of the month and to give you some idea of the wind strength, for the first time since I began keeping bees, I’ve had roofs actually blown off two of the hives. Fortunately, only one of the hives had bees in and even more so, probably due to propolis, the crown board had stayed in place. Even so, it was with some trepidation that I entered the apiary the following morning, going straight to the hive in question. Imagine my relief to find bees coming and going in numbers, totally unaware how close they had come to honeybee Armageddon. None of the other beekeepers that I’ve spoken with have ever had a roof dislodged by wind and I’m really hopeful that this was a one off.

With Storm Gareth now little more than a distant memory, the second half of the month has seen a distinct improvement in the weather. With high pressure now in control, we have enjoyed several days of continuous sunshine. The cold wind has persisted so I’ve resisted the temptation to open the hives, other than to lift the roofs to check on the syrup and fondant situation which the bees have continued to attack with some gusto. Until yesterday, that is. I arrived quite early at the Station  Apiary and immediately began Yacht varnishing the empty nuc’s., the main reason for my visit. There were already good numbers of bees issuing from the hives which, considering how fresh the breeze felt along with the number of parked cars I’d earlier passed that had frost on, was quite surprising and in stark contrast to the situation a week or so earlier.

Pleased to report, the Month, despite a shaky start, has finished pretty well for us here at Mendip. Not only have I finished refurbishing my nuc’s., I’ve completed my first colony inspections and found laying queens with plenty of brood and stores in all but one. The queen in the colony without brood is a plump little thing, only just into her second season and appears in perfect health. There is an abundance of flying bees all returning fully laden with pollen, usually a sign that a laying queen is in residence but seemingly, not in this case. So, I don’t know what’s wrong with her but I’ve decided to leave her for another week and if there’s no change by then, I’ll have to remove her and give the colony a frame of brood from one of the other hives.

Our Society finished it’s annual beginner’s course the end of last month and, as we had done last year, we decided to include a practical session and again, it was decided to hold it at my Mendip “C” apiary. In preparation I had ordered two new mated queens from Becky’s Bees but unfortunately, due to bad weather on the continent, they hadn’t arrived. That, coupled with the extremely poor weather the week leading up to the meeting, led us to considering cancelling and it was decided to wait until a couple of days before the day of the meeting before making that decision. As it happened, the weather suddenly took a turn for the better, that is to say, although the sun still hadn’t appeared, it looked as though it might. We needn’t have worried, Saturday dawned and by mid morning, the clouds had all but disappeared, and the sun shone. The first car arrived about one o’clock and by two-thirty the place was heaving.

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BY 2.30 THE PLACE WAS HEAVING

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ON OUR WAY TO MEET THE BEES

It was difficult speaking to so many people and passing frames of brood for everyone to have a look at. Although the sun was shining, there was still a chill breeze and I didn’t want to risk chilling the brood. I think we just about managed although, it would have been a lot easier if I’d had my new queens in their nuc’s.