JUNE, SUMMER STARTS HERE ?

June 1st.,the first day of Summer the weather men assure us. If the weather so far is what we have to look forward this month, then Lord help us! The first two days were a mixture of icy rain, cold winds and near freezing nights and if that weren’t enough, the deer have been at my runner beans again, bless them. I’ve been desperate to have a look at the hives that I brought back to the meadow from Mendip C, so, seeing the meadow bathed in sunshine yesterday was a welcome sight indeed. On the way, I had paused at the new site, just long enough to satisfy myself that all was well which the activity at the hive entrance confirmed. I didn’t bother to suit up but was able to get within touching distance without my presence causing any alarm. I stood there fully five minutes and not one bee came anywhere near me. A bit different than the last time I thought, and so, on to the meadow.

Ten minutes after arriving at the meadow saw me suited up with smoker at the ready, making my way down to my little apiary. My principal concern was the two hives that I’d returned from Mendip C earlier so it was to them I first turned my attentions. Expecting them to still be in attack mode I made sure the smoker was really puffing well before approaching the first hive. The first thing I noticed was that they seemed a lot quieter than when I last visited them at the new site. One or two came to have a look at me but in no way as irritable as they had been. There, they had really taken exception to me, pinging off my head gear,  following me back to the car and the like, but today, although a little more attentive than I would have liked, as I said earlier, noticeably quieter. Half an hour and I’d gone through both of the hives that I’d retrieved from “C” and also the mating nuc. which now houses the swarm. This was, if you recall, from hive two at the new site. The first thing I saw on opening them apart from their change in mood, was that there was now brood in all three. So, what was happening, why had two out of three of the queens at the new site suddenly stopped laying, and was this responsible for the irritability of the colonies, and, what had prompted them both to start laying again?  If it was something to do with the conditions at the new site, why had hive three not been similarly effected. I’ll have another look at them next week when maybe it’ll be obvious whether these changes are permanent or just a “flash in the pan”. I’m not quite sure where to go from here, I’m thinking of taking one of my other “known good” colonies to the new site just to see if they suffer a change in behavour. What ever happens, I shall be keeping a close eye on them all over the next couple of weeks.

Speaking of the colonies at Mendip C, you may recall they started life as my mating nuc’s. and as such, were on standard brood. At the time, all five frames complete with bees were thansferred “en masse” into the new hives which are all 14×12″. Before Christmas I had bought a number of frame extension kits from Thornes which I had used to modify a number of standard frames in readiness for the new hives but as yet, hadn’t used them on frames containing brood. This meant, of course, that I now had a mix of frames in the new hives. This was something I wanted to avoid and was the main reason for switching from brood and a half but, at the time, I didn’t want to disturb the new colonies any more than I had to. Anyway, with two of the new hives now back in the meadow, I decided this was the time and I have to say, the whole operation went off quite smoothly. It was just a matter of slicing the brace comb from the bottom of the brood frame with a sharp knife, sliding the extension frame into place and fixing it with a couple of drawing pins.

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                         SLICING THE BRACE COMB OFF WITH A SHARP KNIFE

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                   COMB REMOVED AND FRAME EXTENSION FITTED

 I wasn’t looking forward to fitting these extensions imagining that the bees would take umbridge at being disturbed in this way, but I needn’t have worried. Considering how irritable they had been a couple of weeks earlier, they were remarkably obliging and the whole operation passed off without incident. What this did present me with of course, was a fair amount of drawn comb, some of which contained brood. Taking into account the current status of some of my other colonies, this brood was just too valuable to discard, but how to make use of it. My thoughts went back some years to a feral colony I was asked to remove, (Para.Dec.2012) and how my friend John Smythe, had mounted some of the wild comb in plastic frames which held it rigid enough to be installed in a standard brood box. I decided to have a go at making something similar and I have to say, considering I had two of them finished within about twenty minutes, I was well pleased with the results. They each comprised a redundant brood frame, a few drawing pins and a length of garden mesh. Not the flimsey circular mesh but the more rigid rectangular type. I normally use it to protect my seedlings from the pigeons as it is self supporting when bent into an tunnel shape. It is then just a matter of cutting a length of mesh slightly narrower than the brood frame and about an inch longer than twice the depth. It’s then just a case of dividing the mesh so that one half is an inch longer than the other. The extra inch is bent at right angles and the whole piece inserted into the frame with the top held in place with three or four drawing pins and the inch bent at right angles resting on the bottom bar of the frame. By bending one or two of the wires to act as hinges, the second piece is attached to the first and when closed can be fixed to the top bar with drawing pins. The whole thing when finished doesn’t want to be any thicker than a frame of brood.

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                                         FIXED SECTION IN PLACE

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                                         ADJUSTABLE SECTION FITTED

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                         COMB CAGE COMPLETED AND READY FOR USE

I’ve included the queen cell just to illustrate the versatility of this piece of kit. It cost virtually nothing, and took about ten minutes to make. I know it’s no work of art but it does work, I can’t think why I hadn’t thought of it sooner.

A week on and it’s really more of the same in that, my last year’s queens are still giving cause for alarm, those that are left that is. The two hives I returned from C to the meadow seem much more placid now although the queen in one of them has now disappeared. So they have received a frame of brood from their neighbour, which seems to be doing very well, while, the remaining colony at the new site have decided to supersede. By comparison, the swarm which is now in one of the mating nuc’s.at the meadow, is going from strength to strength, or at least, they were as of my last visit. I’m afraid to say too much at the moment as the situation seems to change on almost a daily basis. If there’s one good thing to come out of this it is that, it does keep me on my toes. Wondering what surprise they’ve got in store for my next visit, does nothing if not that!

I mentioned that I had bought a couple of Apidea mating nuc’s.and have since prepared them for occupancy. This is just a matter of assembling the frames and fitting a starter strip of foundation which only needs to be about an inch deep. Fix the entrance slide with a small screw and the job’s done.

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                            FRAMES ASSEMBLED AND STARTER STRIP IN PLACE

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                                       ENTRANCE SLIDE FITTED

I was really quite impressed with the finished article, as I said earlier, I’ve always been somewhat sceptical whan considering using these, knowing they were constructed of some sort of expanded foam or similar, but I have to say, when assembled they appear quite robust and I’m sure if used sensibly, will last a very long time, anyway. As if by fate, the following afternoon, whilst at the meadow, the display on my mobile informed me that my friend Liz wanted a word. “Geoff, if you’re interested, I’ve just removed a couple of sealed queen cells from one of my hives that was thinking about swarming, they’re here if you want them”. Good old Liz, always comIng to my rescue. An hour later and I was back at the meadow with a matchbox containing the cells. “You will let me have the matchbox back won’t you, they’re like gold dust now” was the only condition attached to me driving off with the cells. A small price to pay I thought as I had left. At the meadow, armed with the nuc’s.,a bowl, a cup and a tray of fondant I made my way down the apiary. The weather was by now, looking decidedly doubtful so I decided best not to hang about.

Now, what was it the lady at last month’s apiary meeting had said ?  “Empty the bees from a couple of supers into a bowl, then transfer a cup-full into each upturned nuc. Using bees from supers ensures that you will have wax makers which you need to draw out the starter strips”. Well, I think that was what she said, so I willingly obliged. “Gently turn the nuc. right way up, place queen cell in cell protector and insert between frames. Give each a portion of candy and close up”. I placed the two nuc’s. on top of one of the hives, placed a brick on top, stood back to admire my handywork for a moment before turning back up the meadow. Driving home, I felt quite pleased with my efforts, not bad for a first attempt I convinced myself especially as it was, by now, raining quite heavily. 

The weather dictated that It was to be a couple of days later before I would visit the meadow again. My first port of call, my new nuc’s. of course. So first stop, nuc.number one. I had imagined there would be very few flying bees around the entrance as most, if not all, would be engaged in wax production. Imagine my concern then at seeing numbers of bees coming and going. Robbing was the first thought that came to mind, so, time to take a closer look. Easing the top off reveals a clear perspex cover which is a great idea as it allows you to have a look in without risking losing your virgin queen. My first look confirmed my earlier thoughts, all my wax makers had de-camped and been replaced by a hoard of miniature Robin Hoods and their merry men (girls), who had between them, more or less, consumed all of the candy. So, what had gone wrong, I know this system works so it must have been down to someting I’d either not done or, more likely, done wrongly, but what ? I had listened intently as the lady described this meathod of queen rearing for, as you know, queen rearing is a particular passion of mine and remember at the time, raising a couple of queries, particularly taking bees specifically from supers, so, I’m sure I got that bit right, at least. So, what then? As you would imagine, I’ve given the matter quite a lot of thought since then and have concluded that probably, due to the lateness in the day, and the impending change in the weather, I didn’t spend as much time as I ought to have, selecting the bees to go into the nuc’s. and what’s probably more important, I shouldn’t have fed them straight away. Thinking about it, I should have allowed time for the flying bees to leave the nuc’s. before installing the candy. That way, they wouldn’t have been able to take the message back to their mates that there was a free meal waiting a few feet away. So, I shall be keeping these thoughts in mind when I give this method another try, which I shall do at the first oportunity. I’ll keep you posted.

The month progresses and although I have no wish to bore you, I have to tell you that here at Mendip it’s been pretty much, more of the same, and I still can’t put my finger on the reason why. I’m thinking back over the run up to Winter to see whether there were any clues that I might have missed but as I said earlier, they all had plenty of stores and appeared to be of similar strength. When we administered the oxalic acid, each colony was nicely clustered and of similar size and when Spring finally appeared, the activity around each entrance sugested that they had all over-wintered successfully. I remember thinking as I watched their comings and goings on that first sunny morning, this could be our best year yet. Sitting here now, thinking back over the events of the last couple of months, it’s difficult to imagine a less promising start to a season but we are, after all, barely half way through June and of course, there is still plenty of time to turn things around and that of course, is my intention. One thing I am sure of, is that it was a mistake to try to equalise the brood situation as early in the season as I did. As I feared at the time might happen, the weak colonies didn’t really benefit and I succeeded in weakening my strongest colonies to the point where one of them is now seriously struggling and needing help. So there we are, hindsight is a wonderful thing, if only it came before the event. One of the problems about decision making early in the season is, to my mind, the weather. Because the weather is so unpredictable ”let’s wait and see” very often can’t figure in the equation. Instead, if an early season visit highlights a problem to which there is a possible solution, then, that solution has, more often than not, to be administered that same day. The reason being, of course, that it might not be possible to get anywhere near to your bees for days and sometimes weeks by which time it could well be too late for that possible solution to be effective. Ah well, the joys of beekeeping!

My next visit to the remaining colony at Mendip C confirmed that they were in the process of superseding. They seemed entirely happy with the situation, going about their business as though I wasn’t there. I like to see that in a colony, it is one of the joys of our hobby, I think, when you can move about your bees and they treat you as though you were “one of the family”, as it were. There were four really nice queen cells, sited more or less centrally on two of the combs and I carefully relieved them of two of them. I decided that these were to go with me to the meadow later that day. I know that there are mixed views as to how many queen cells to leave in a colony looking to supersede. There are some who believe the first queen to emerge might leave with a swarm and I’m sure there have been instances of this happening. From my own experience, I have never known this to happen in fact, often the bees will decide to break down the weaker of the two remaining cells. I prefer the “belt and braces” approach and where possible, leave two, and so it was, armed with the two surplus cells I departed for the meadow. 

I had earlier mentally earmarked two and five for re-queening at the earliest oportunity in fact, had my efforts with the Apidea nuc’s. been successful, that was where the new queens were destined for, but as we know, that wasn’t to be. My first task then, quick look inside two and five, still no signs of eggs or brood so, cells into protectors and carefully placed in centre of brood chambers. From my previous visit I knew the chances of six recovering were pretty slim, they were by far my weakest colony and so it was no real surprise to find they had gone to join the big apiary in the sky. Always sad to lose a colony,  I had tried to help them but for some reason, they hadn’t responded. My colony numbers have stayed the same because, of course, I still have the swarm from Mendip C in the mating nuc.at the meadow, still sorry to lose one of my little families though. The following day I took the empty hive six to the top of the meadow, out of the way of the bees, and gave it a good clean out. Although there were no outward signs of disease I burned all the combs before scouring the box with my blowlamp and giving it a good coat of Cuprinol. A couple of days later and it was back in it’s spot in the apiary, complete with a new set of frames. I blocked off the entrance to discourage any unwelcome visitors before leaving. 

Now, I don’t know whether I am a believer in fate or omens and the like, or whether the happenings which could fall into either of these catagories are just pure co-incidence, but something happened a couple of days later which had me wondering for a while. It was about six in the evening and I was walking down the high street to visit my local Sainsbury’s. Nothing unusual there you might think, but if I tell you that that was probably my first visit this year you’ll see why the happenings of the next ten minutes had me thinking about omens and such like. About half way through my journey I spotted a lady who I vaguely recognised, walking towards me. As we got closer I could see from her expression that she had seen me and had something to say as she was now heading towards me. “Hello Geoff, it is Geoff isn’t it?. I was just coming looking for you”. Not exactly earth shattering stuff, I’ll agree, but if I tell you that was probably only the second or third time we had spoken and then only to say “good morning” or the like and that there was no way she could possibly have known where I lived, the fact that she was, “coming looking for me” did come as a bit of a suprise. “Do you still keep bees only there’s a swarm in the hedge just around that corner”.

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              SWARM IN THE HEDGE JUST AROUND THE CORNER

I dutifully followed the lady, desperately trying to remember her name, around the corner and sure enough, there was the swarm, just as she had described. The fact that, as the size of the cluster sugested, it was probably a cast didn’t matter. I knew that if I got my skates on I was looking at the new occupants of hive six, and that was how it was.

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                         JUST DISLODGING THE BEES INTO THE BOX

Between us we came up with a cardboard box and an old piece of sheeting and ten minutes later the bulk of the bees were in the upturned box sitting on the sheet, waiting for their sisters to join them.

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                                 WAITING FOR THEIR SISTERS TO JOIN THEM

I figured an hour should be long enough for the bees left in the hedge to join the others, just long enough to get home and make up a gallon of thick syrup. An hour later saw me, the bees and the syrup making our way down the meadow towards hive six. I decided four frames would be enough for them to be going on with, two of drawn comb and two of foundation. I gently tipped the box into the hive, there wasn’t time to run them in, and inserted two frame feeders filled with the syrup. I watched them for a little while before boxing them up, I hadn’t seen a queen but their fanning and willingness to leave their perch and enter my box suggested all was well in that department.

I was about to go on holiday the next day so, was all this just co-incidence, was I just “in the right place at the right time”, or, was this a sign that things were at last, on the up. Well, whatever it was, I felt a lot happier, packing my suitcase, knowing that hive six was once again occupied. 

While away I had plenty of time to look back over the year and maybe come up with some answers as to why the season hasn’t gone as planned. My first thoughts were that I gave too much help to the weaker colonies in the Spring and by doing so, instead of raising them to the level of the stronger ones, succeeded in over stretching my best colonies to the point where they were going to struggle. None of us likes to see any of our colonies suffering, but where do you draw the line when it comes to helping? Normally, I would give a frame of brood or maybe two if it were only one or two colonies affected, and if they still didn’t pick up I would re-queen them. Of course, this year I couldn’t do that as I only had three queens which had over-wintered successfully, and they were destined for the new site. Thinking back, that was my second mistake. I should have held back the new site until I was absolutely satisfied that the meadow apiary was up and running but at the time, I had no reason to suppose the meadow would struggle. As I said earlier, they had all gone onto Winter in a strong state and had emerged in similar fashon. So, what now. I know from the miscropy test I had done earlier that there are no disease problems at the site so, I’ve decided to do now what I should have done in the Spring and that is, to let nature take it’s course. Obviously, I shall continue to visit them all on a weekly basis but it will be the stronger ones I shall be concentrating on. I’ll be making a final decision after my next visit.

My first day back, time to visit my charges. First stop, Mendip C where of course, there is only one hive now and I had left them in the process of superseding at my previous visit, if you remember. I had noted at that time, just how placid they were. It was immediately obvious on lifting the hive roof that this was no longer the case. The immediate rising of pitch coming from within and the mood of the bees coming out to meet me suggested thet were no longer the happy bunch I had left behind on my last visit. The queen cell had hatched but there was no sign of her or any brood but I hadn’t really expected to see any as it’s only a week at most since she emerged. Of course, if she hasn’t yet, or has only very recently, mated, she won’t yet be spreading her pheromones around the hive and the occupants will still consider themselves queenless. Convincing myself that this was the reason for their irritability, I boxed them up and headed for the meadow.

On my arrival, the first thing that struck me was the height of the grass. The meadow hasn’t been cut yet this year and now resembles something more akin to the Serenghetti after the monsoon season than our pretty little meadow. The new owners have been busy working on the house and obviously the meadow is way down on their list of priorities, and who can blame them for that, but it is, sad to see. Even the seats under the apple trees where I used to sit with my friend Charles, have all but disappeared. Of course, all of this now suits the resident Roe Deer population down to the ground as they can now roam the place with impunity as the nibbled shoots on my runner beans, or what’s left of them bares testimony. Anyway, enough of all that, time to visit the bees and first stop, the hives brought back from C. If you remember, the reason I had removed them from the new site was because they had both turned extremely unpleasant and I hadn’t wanted to alienate the owners who had kindly invited me and my bees onto their land. It was for this reason I had sited them a fair distance trom the other hives in the meadow reasoning that it would be easier to monitor their behavour if they were away from the others. The swarm they had produced was also a part of this group and it was immediately obvious that of the three, they were the least impressed with my presence. The other two, by comparison, seemed really friendly, almost pleased to see me I might say, although, that might be going a bit too far. It was as though all their earlier aggression had transfered into the swarm colony in the nuc.hive. It’s strange how quickly things can change when you’re dealing with these tiny creatures, never ceases to amaze me! One of the hives had received a frame of brood from the other prior to my holiday and pleased to see, they were now looking up. The nuc.hive were busy filling the super I had given them but, were they irritable. They accompanied me all the time I was looking at the other hives and even followed me back up the meadow when I’d finished. They’ll be re-queened as soon as I have a suitable candidate. The other hives appear pretty much the same as I left them so I’ve left them to it. The little cast in six have taken down most of the syrup and appear to be just about holding their own and the two queen cells which I had seeded two and five with have both hatched so I’ll have another look next week to see if there’s any brood.