OCTOBER

A new month but still the aims here at Mendip are the same, those of making sure my remaining colonies are ready for Winter. To that end, they have all received an abundance of syrup, topping up the feeders every couple of days, and the Varroa treatment is almost complete. The weather this last week or so has been exceptional for the time of year and judging from the activity in the apiary, the bees have been taking full advantage of it. The increased activity around the hive entrance following an aplication of Apiguard, especially on a hot day is a clear indication of how unpleasant the bees find the stuff. I’ve seen the bees stream out and within minutes, cover the front of the hive. They do go back in eventually but I can remember being quite alarmed the first time I saw them acting in this way. It looked to me, then a beginner, that they were all getting ready to swarm so you can imagine the thoughts racing round my head at the time. As I said, no need to worry, they do all find their way back in eventually.

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                        THEY DO FIND THEIR WAY BACK IN EVENTUALLY

The activity around the hive entrances at the new site has been no different to those at the meadow, so you can understand my surprise at finding at my last visit, hive two apparently superseding. So, first call today, to the new site and search out the queen in hive two. From a distance I could see that there was still plenty of activity around the hive entrance but as I got closer I could hear a distinctly higher pitched buzzing coming from two, easily discernable the closer I got. After removing the roof and feeder, I examined each frame, still the queen cell on frame five but no signs of a queen. By now, the occupants were beginning to show me a little more attention than I would have liked, which, combined with the noise coming from within, confirmed my worse fears. So, where had she gone and more importantly, why. I’ll leave them to their own devices for the next couple of weeks. There seems little else that I can do, too late to give them a frame of brood from one of the other hives as there are by now, few if any drones flying. For this reason, even if the cell in two does hatch, I doubt the supersedure will succeed. As I said, I shall have another look at two in a couple of weeks but on the face of it, it looks as though we shall be going into Winter with six colonies.

A week on and another brief spell of good weather has seen the meadow hives as busy as any Summer’s day. The balsam has continued to excite the bees with probably a third of them returning with that tell-tale smudge of grey on their backs confirming the direction to which they have been turning their attentions. With the sun shining brightly this morning, I decided a trip to the meadow was the order of the day. On a day like this, there is to my mind, no better place to spend a lazy hour or two. Now, with the trees losing their Summer garb and donning their Autumn coats of brown and gold the whole personallity of the place seems to be changing. Everything seems to changed down a gear as Mother Nature prepares herself for Winter. On my way to the meadow I decided to look in on  the new site to check whether their feeders needed a top-up. I was also inquisitive as to how number two was progressing with their supersedure, so it was to them that I turned my attentions first. The first and most noticeable thing was their change in mood. Removing the hive roof and feeder provoked little or no response, no rise in pitch as had been the case at my last visit, no buzzing around my head. Instead, it seemed to be just “business as usual”, with the occupants taking little or no notice of me. Straight to frame five where I expected to find that the new queen had emerged but no, instead the bees had knocked the cell down.

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               INSTEAD THEY HAD KNOCKED THE QUEEN CELL DOWN

So, why had they done this, and what is it that accounted for this sudden change in mood. Do they still have a queen and if so, where is she. I went through the hive again removing each frame twice and still couldn’t find a trace of her. Stranger and stranger, I thought as I boxed them back up, topped up all the feeders and left for the meadow.

The clocks went back this last weekend so just a couple more weeks and we shall be officially into Winter. We have, here in the West Country, been blessed with a very mild October which for us here at Mendip, really has been a blessing. I was much later than planned with my feeding and Apiguard application. We know for both to be effective, the weather has to be warm enough for the Apiguard to evaporate and for the bees to reduce the water content of the syrup. This mild spell has enabled the bees to do both which has been a real bonus. In addition to this, they have continued their foraging activities with an incredible vigour returning with copious amounts of pollen and I imagine, nectar. Although I still haven’t seen a queen in hive two at the new site, I am pretty sure in my own mind that she is there somewhere and am once again focussing my thoughts on next year and planning my activities for the coming Winter months.

Because of the colonies that we lost and the different hive configurations that we now use, I now have five empty brood boxes to go into Winter with. So, one of my first tasks will be the assembly of ekes to convert four of them to 14″x12″. I bought the ekes and enough frames to populate the finished hives, at the Maisemore Apiary sale earlier this month. The cost of the ekes was little more than I could have made them for, and the finish, even though they were seconds, was far superior to anything that I could have achieved. This was the first time I had dealt with Maisemore and I have to say, I’m very impressed. The fifth box I will use to convert the one colony still on standard brood to double, and this will form the core of my next year’s queen rearing activities, more of which I’ll explain later.

Last Wednesday, making the most of another very warm day, I decided to remove the spent Apiguard trays from the meadow hives. I had purposely left them on the hives for a few extra days due to the lateness of the original application and I was pleased that I had. The bees had completely emptied the trays and when I removed the floor slides it was plain to see, the Apiguard had done the trick as the slides were completely devoid of dead Varroa. At the same time as removing the Apiguard I decided to treat the bees to a little more syrup. This was a couple of gallons left over from earlier which I decided, far more use on the hives even if the bees don’t use it, than in the store. Keeping Adams feeders on the hives at all times it is a simple matter to feed whenever you think necessary, mainly, because they are so versatile. With the access hole blocked, a strip of Gaffer tape does the trick, the feeder becomes a crown board. Remove the tape, place a cup over the post and you have a bulk feeder waiting to be filled.

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           PLACE CUP OVER POST AND FEEDER IS READY TO BE FILLED

Block the access hole again and invert, you now have an eke in place. The bees are still able to remove the last gleanings of syrup if they feel the need, in fact, they usually make such a thorough job of removing any residue syrup that no further cleaning is required. If you haven’t already tried the Adams feeder I do urge you to give it a try. An added bonus, they can be made for less than a tenner each.

Everything was going according to plan until I got to number seven. Removing the spent tray and topping up the feeder went ok but removing the slide, was met with some unexpected resistance. Giving the floor slide a hefty tug resulted in the slide in one hand and what looked like, several thousand disgruntled bees suddenly milling around the hive. A quick look under the hive revealed even more bees now crawling about on the grass. A number of them had for some reason, obviously clustered on the floor slide, presumably to escape the Apiguard fumes, I reasoned, after all, what other reason could there possibly be. When I left the meadow, most of the bees seemed to be gathering around the hive entrance so I left, imagining that my next visit would find them all firmly ensconced back within the hive. Two days later, and back at the meadow, I went straight to number seven. From the activity around the entrance, I imagined that everything was back to normal, there appeared to be one or two bees still addressing their attentions to the underside of the hive but, it’s not entirely unusual for them to do this. I’ve noticed that bees will often miss the hive entrance completely and continue on under the hive, re-emerging from behind or alongside and circling until they re-orientate themselves and eventually find the entrance. So, with that in mind, got down on my hands and knees to take a look. The following pic. will show you the sight that greeted me.

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                                      THE SIGHT THAT GREETED ME

The next pic. gives you a better idea as to just how many bees there were.

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         THIS GIVES YOU A BETTER IDEA AS TO HOW MANY BEES THERE WERE

So what, I asked myself, were they doing clustered under the hive, and where were they from. I imagined that they must be from number seven but, why then had they decided to take up residence under the hive. I wondered at first whether they had detected queen pheramone from the floor, reasoning that maybe the queen had spent some time on the floor and the returning bees had detected her. But of course, when the bees had first gathered under the hive, the floor slide was in place as the Apiguard was still on, so, not that then. More importantly, what to do with them. I decided against just dumping them into seven because, if they had appeared from elsewhere, then they would have a queen, I reasoned, and if this was the case, the last thing I wanted was a fight on my hands. I decided, for the moment at least, the best thing would be to get them into a nuc., from there I could decide my next move having first ascertained whether there was a queen in residence. So, nuc. body under the cluster, swift brush with the hand and there they were, apparently none the worse for their ordeal. The nuc.had four frames of drawn comb and a frame feeder which I topped up with syrup and was placed next to hive seven with the entrances facing the same way. I figured that having the entrances adjacent to one another, the bees could easily migrate from the nuc. back into the hive if they chose so to do.

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                                       NUC PLACED NEXT TO HIVE

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                                              BEE FANNING AT ENTRANCE

Almost immediately bees at the nuc. entrance began fanning and soon there were bees entering as though they had lived there for ever. I decided that now was as good a time as any to leave them to it, at least, for the moment.

To cut a long story short, I have made two visits since, the first very similar to the first with another large cluster being shaken into the nuc.but, at the second, only a few bees crawling on the underside of the hive. The bees in the nuc, however, had been really busy setting up home almost completely filling one of the frames of drawn comb with syrup. I decided not to disturb them any further by queen searching reasoning that a couple of days either way in deciding what to do with them wouldn’t make that much difference. Also, this was the day of our AGM.,an oportunity to pick a few brains I thought. The meeting was to open with a talk by a very well respected bee-keeper and I decided, given the chance, that I would ask him for his thoughts. He paused for a moment when I’d finished describing the recent events at the meadow before replying, “I can’t recall ever coming accross anything like that before”. All of a sudden I felt that I was in really good company as his thoughts completely mirrored my own. Discussing the events with other members also revealed no further enlightenment, so, back to the meadow and hive seven was for me, the next order of the day.

At the meadow, standing in front of the two entrances today, it’s as though the two hives have now, at least in the eyes of the occupants, become one. Returning bees are entering either box at will, bees seem to be exiting one box and entering the other completely un-challenged. I am now convinced that all of these bees are from hive seven although, why they have chosen to behave in the manner that I’ve described, still remains a mystery. The weather has now taken a turn for the worse so I’ve had to cut short my visit. At the next oportunity, I shall unite the nuc. with the hive. To be on the safe side, I shall do this through  a queen excluder although, at this point, I’m pretty sure there is no queen in the nuc. Because of the close proximity of the entrances, I have no concerns that returning bees won’t be able to find the hive when the nuc.has been removed.

An unusual occurance, to say the least, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’m comforted by the fact that some of the best brains in the business were unable to provide a definitive answer. Proof, if proof were needed, that the bees will always have the last laugh. Good innit! 

So, as this season draws to a close, time to reflect and plan for the next. I, for one, won’t be sorry to put 2015 firmly behind me. From half way through the season, I had put all thoughts of a honey crop out of my mind, rather, my thoughts have been ones of damage limitation. Thankfully, on the face of it, that hopefully, is what we have achieved and I’m grateful for that. We shall go into Winter with seven colonies, which, at this time of writing, are each looking good. Four of them have this year’s queens and the other three, last year’s. We didn’t produce any queens of our own this year, by intention that is, the two that we did raise were the result of swarm cells which I harvested from one of the new colonies which swarmed at Mendip C. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t look to keep queens reared from swarm cells, swarminess being something that I am trying to discourage in my bees, but, the devil makes strange bed-fellows of us all doesn’t he, and this year, I have been very glad of them, they have got me out of a spot. That said, I shall be keeping a very close eye on them next season and shall look to replace them if they do display any inclination to swarm.  

As I said earlier, my first task this winter will be to assemble the 14×12″ ekes and frames which I purchased earlier from Maisemore. I’m sure in my mind that 14×12″ is the way forward, or at least, it is for us here at Mendip. I’ve carefully monitored the progress of all of my colonies since I began introducing this format and it has been noticeable how much better they have performed. Can it be entirely coincidental I wonder, that the colonies which we lost, were all on standard brood. So, modifying my brood chambers and assembling the frames to populate them is high on the list of “must do’s”. Next, I need to build a number of new nuc’s. I have my twin mating nuc’s.but currently only have two “stand alone” nuc’s. I estimate that I shall need at least eight or nine if I am to put my planned queen rearing operation into effect this season. A visit to B &Q last week saw me with all the exterior grade plywood that I shall need, and all cut to the various widths so, I’m all ready to go with that little project. The whole lot, enough to make six nuc’s., and I might even be able to squeeze another one out if I’m careful, cost little over sixty pounds, not bad eh? What a plus the B&Q cutting service is, imagine cutting that lot by hand!

No 7 swarm and nuc timber 012                                 ALL CUT TO THE REQUIRED WIDTHS 

The frame conversion kits, which Thornes supply work well enough but I find the plastic couplings a little too thick.

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                       THE PLASTIC COUPLINGS SEEM A LITTLE TOO THICK

My view, and understand, this is purely my view, is that they compromise the “bee space” at the sides of the brood chamber and the bees, taking exception to this, as if in an effort to emphasise their displeasure, do their best to gum them to the side walls. This can on occasions, to make removal of the frames something of a three act drama, and so I shall be looking to make some alterations to this coupling. I have, at some point during my travels, managed to aquire a number of aluminium glazing strips. These are not the thick pieces used to build a greenhouse, but used, I imagine, as glass fixings. I knew when I put them aside that they would “come in handy” one day and it looks as though that day has arrived. They are fine enough to cut with strong scissors and I think, with a little time and effort, they’ll do the job admirably so, they are also on my list. Much as I like to have something “on the go” to tide me through the Winter months, I think I’ll put my list away now otherwise the Summer will be upon us before I’ve hung up my chisels.

The events of this past season have done nothing if not to reinforce my belief that access to good, well bred queens at all times, is vital to successful bee-keeping. I’m not sugesting for a moment that we should drop everything and commit all of our waking hours to rearing bigger and better queen bees, far from it. For the best part, and for the majority of us, the bees natural inclinations will provide us with all of the queens that we’re likely to need and I’m referring here to supersedure, emergency impulse, swarming etc.and that’s great. However, there can be few, if any, of us, who haven’t at some time needed a replacement queen which natural events haven’t been able to supply. One of our queens suddenly goes AWOL or for some inexplicable reason, stops laying. Our best colony suddenly, and for no apparent reason, becomes so vicious that just to approach is to take your life into your hands. An examination of a brood nest reveals cells, each with numerous eggs, we’ve become home to a drone layer. We must, all of us have, experienced one or more of these occurences at some time or another so, where do we go when it happens. It would be very convenient if we could nip along to our local, Bees “R” Us, and pick a new queen off the shelf, but of course, we can’t. So, what options are left open to us?

As I’ve said before, if begging, borrowing and stealing fail to deliver the goods, the options we are left with are rather limited. We can unite, but I wouldn’t want to do this with an irritable colony or one that had become a drone layer, we can allow the colony to perish, or we can “buy in”.  I’ve already shared my views on buying in with you on several occasions, so I won’t go into it again, but, as always, “you pays yer money and takes yer choice”. Surely, there is another option, streets ahead of those already mentioned, and that is, to always have a spare queen or two of your own breeding, available. Just think about it, you wouldn’t dream of driving out without a good spare in the boot. It’s not there because you know you’re going to need it but, just in case. Well, to my mind, that’s why we should aim to always have a spare queen or two available, just in case!  Apart from the peace of mind which comes with having a nuc.or two about the place, as if that weren’t enough, there is the added advantage of, as the population within the nuc.builds up, having frames of brood with which you can bolster you honey producing colonies. Surely a win,win situation and as I said, in my opinion, streets ahead of the other options.

As you know, I was very disappointed with the queens which we produced last year and, I wasn’t that impressed with the queens which I bought in either. This is why, I’m determined that this year will be different, and I aim to use the Cloak-board method* of queen rearing to try to achieve my goal. I’ve tried this method before and been very satisfied with it, any failings I put down to my own poor grafting skills. I’ve just ordered a new pair of reading glasses with a very short focal length, so, hopefully I’ll have better results next time. ”Surely you don’t hold a book that close”, the optician remarked when I told him what I wanted. Have you noticed the look you get when you tell a stranger that you’re a Beekeeper, it’s one that I imagine Morris Dancers will be well aware of, the raising of the eyebrows and sympathetic smile, sugesting that they suddenly find themselves in the company of the “Village Idiot”. Mind, that’s probably justified in my case!  Anyway, if the glasses don’t do the trick, I’m sure I’ll be able to find something else to blame. I said that I still had one colony, number five, at the meadow on standard single brood. Well, provided all of my colonies over-winter successfully, I shall get five onto double brood as soon as the queen is in full lay and that will be my nursery hive. From there I shall boost them with brood from the other hives whenever I think they can spare it. Losing the odd frame of brood doesn’t adversly effect a strong hive provided it is replaced with a frame of drawn comb which we know a fecund, young queen can lay-up in a couple of days. In fact, occasionally replacing brood with drawn comb, in a strong colony, has two benefits. Firstly, by doing so, you are ensuring that your active queen has plenty of room to lay, which has to be, to my mind, instrumental in swarm prevention, and secondly, it frees up a fame of brood for a more needy colony.  My aim will be to have hive five full to busting with bees by the time there are plenty of drones flying and when I’m ready for the next stage which is, to insert the grafts. Prior to this, they will, have hopefully, been transported to the meadow behind the new site where there is room for the nucleus part of the Cloak-board maneuvre to be carried out. You’ll see from David Cushman’s description of this method, that an unrestricted area some ten metres in diameter around the Nursery hive is required. As in the past, I shall be carefully monitoring the progress of all the other hives to decide which is to become my donor colony. I’m really hopeful that one of my remaining bought-in queens will rise to the occasion. To introduce new blood, if you recall, was my prime reason for buying-in in the first place and I really am counting on at least one of them performing. If all goes to plan, we should produce up to ten new nucs.,and if it doesn’t, one of the undoubted benefits of this method of rearing queens is that, provided you begin the first operation early enough in the season, you can always have another try.    

 * THE CLOAKE BOARD METHOD OF QUEEN REARING

I have described my version of Cloake-board queen rearing in previous paragraphs, along with the production of wax cups using the Doolittle method.

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                WAX CUPS FIXED TO CROSS BAR ON BROOD FRAME

If you don’t fancy grafting, you can use the plug method of harvesting your larvae. The Cloake-board is simple to make and I have previously described how I have made mine.

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          SIMPLICITY TO MAKE AND VERY EFFECTIVE.  MY CLOAKE BOARD

Whether your aim is to produce several nuc’s. or just a couple, this is a simple and almost foolproof method of achieving either. Apart from the simplicity of this method, the main advantages it has over other methods are, in my opinion, that it allows you to select your best colony or colonies to supply your larvae, and to purpose build the nursery colony to best suit your needs. Also, and worth bearing in mind, it isn’t necessary to remove any supers so your honey production is uneffected. In addition to all of this, and to my mind, the over-riding advantage, is, the fact that you know exactly when your queens will emerge and because of this, you can plan all of the other manipulations with certaintity.

By far the most thorough and easiest to follow description of the Cloake-board method of queen rearing is, in my opinion, to be found on David Cushman’s excellent Web site. It gives you a real insight into this well respected man and is well worth a read even if only for it’s diagrams and content.