OCTOBER

I mentioned that thus far we have used a thymol based paste for our Winter varroa treatment and I must say, that we have been well pleased with the results. Until last year that is, and that was as much our fault as that of this product, but it does highlight one of it’s limitations and that is, it’s efficiency during extremes of cold. We always feed before treating, the thinking behind this being, if you don’t feed you will almost certainly lose your bees whereas, if you don’t treat for varroa, there is still a chance that you bees will emerge in the Spring when you will have a second chance to treat. Anyway, for whatever reason, last year we were late extracting which led to our feeding being later than I would have liked. Sods law dictated that Winter came early in our neck of the woods last year which meant that not only were the bees slow in taking their syrup down but that the varroa treatment was too solid to have any effect.

SEPTEMBER

The nights drawing in and the very noticeable drop in temperature tells us in no uncertain terms that Winter will soon be upon us. A fact which has not gone unnoticed by the bees. The absence of drones combined with the reduction in brood confirms that fact. So what should we be doing to assist our bees in their preparations for what might be a very long Winter, and of course, this is always a problem in as much as their is no definitive way of foretelling just how hard or how long Winter is going to be. Experience has shown, and of course it’s something which common sense should already have told us, and it is that one strong colony will stand a far better chance of over-wintering successfully than two weak ones. For that reason any weak colony should by now have been united to a stronger neighbour. So, to help ensure successful over-wintering, the first requirement must surely be, strong colonies. Honeybees, in my experience, will cope quite happily with even the coldest Winters so long as their hives are weather tight and draught proof so, that is the second requirement here at Mendip. If you suddenly notice that any of your hive sections have developed a suspect joint, seal it with a band of Gaffer Tape or similar. We always try to commence feeding as soon as we have finished extracting our honey, as much as anything, to take advantage of what warm weather is left but also, to leave plenty of time to get the thymol based treatment on, which has up until now, been our chosen Varroa treatment. One thing that we are invariably left with, following extraction, is a number of supers containing shallow frames which are either partly filled with honey or have been capped on one side only. They can’t be extracted because they aren’t sealed so what to do with them. The obvious solution is to give them back to the bees to clean out but, how best to do it. These supers can be placed below the brood chamber into which the bees, instead of cleaning out the frames, will continue depositing honey. Great if you intend to over-winter on brood and a half but not if you don’t, or like us, use 14″x!2″ brood boxes. We find a better way, and one which soon has the bees emptying the supers into the brood chamber, where after all, is where we need the honey to be at this time of year, is to place the super to be emptied, above the brood chamber. If you place your super above a queen excluder and either an eke or empty super you will find your bees more than happy to empty it for you. A word of caution when deciding how much stores a colony needs to see it through an average Winter. It’s generally accepted that a colony needs a minimum of 40lbs. of stores going into Winter and that hefting a hive will give a pretty good indication of how much stores they have managed to save, leaving you to make up the difference with thick syrup.( 2 kilos sugar to 1 litre water ). As I said, hefting will give you a pretty good indication of the stores situation but you still need to have a look at the individual frames. A word of warning, and I speak from personal experience, don’t assume that all  capped frames are filled with viable honey. If your bees have been foraging heavily on ivy it is just possible that they will have a brood chamber filled with stores which will have set by the time they need it and which they will be unable to access. I remember some years ago, losing two colonies like this. Take it from me, it’s a heart-breaking sight opening a hive in the Spring to find that every comb has the bottom of a dead bee, looking at you. A bee that spent it’s last moments desperately trying to glean the last vestiges of honey from an empty comb while all the time flanked by combs filled with unusable stores. If you’re in any doubt, score the combs with your hive tool and if you don’t see runny honey, discount them. Having said that, make sure you leave enough empty comb for your bees to store their syrup in.

AUGUST

I decided to begin my day with a visit to The Station. It was two days since I’d found the swarm and I was keen to see how they were doing in their new home. At least as well as the nuc. at “C”, I was hoping as I made my way to the apiary and hive three. All seemed quiet at the nuc. entrance, unusually so I thought as I bent to remove the roof. Removing the roof and crown board immediately revealed the reason for the inactivity, not a bee in sight, the nuc. was completely empty. My first thoughts were that they had most likely had a change of heart and retreated back into the hive so, first task, open hive three. A thorough examination revealed strangely, no queen cells and although there was plenty of sealed brood, there appeared to be none unsealed suggesting that they had been without a laying queen for at least a week. The number of bees suggested that they had in fact swarmed so, why no swarm cells. I spent the next hour going back and forth through the brood box in search of a queen, I even went through the supers just in case she had managed to slip through the queen excluder, to no avail. I hadn’t really expected to find her up there but by now I was running out of ideas. I finished by sieving all the brood frames back into the hive through a queen excluder which only left me with an excluder crawling with drones. The strangest thing was that with all this interference from me, the bees remained extremely placid and good natured. Certainly nothing like a colony which had been queen-less for some time, which past experience has taught me, are usually quick to show their displeasure at being interfered with. I decided the best way to prove whether or not they still had a queen would be to leave them with a frame of eggs and young brood from one of the other hives. We know that a queenless colony will always endeavour to produce new queens if presented with a frame of viable brood, and this was my thinking behind that decision. I decided to leave them with their new frame of brood and return in a couple of days to see what they had decided to do with it.

From The Station I went next to “C”, and more specifically, hive four where I was keen to see the progress of the queen cell I’d left them with. All seemed well as I approached the hives, plenty of activity around the entrances, always a good sign I feel. And, so to four. Remove the roof and crown board, bees seemed happy enough so, no problems so far. Quick puff of smoke to keep them settled and straight to the frame with the queen cell which I’d previously marked. This was to be a brief visit as I didn’t want to risk losing my new queen, just long enough to satisfy myself that she’d emerged successfully. Now, I don’t know why I was surprised to see that the queen cell had been broken down, especially judging by the day I’d had so far, but I was. The bees obviously didn’t agree with my choice of queen cell, the one I’d left them with certainly seemed to be the best of the bunch, but, obviously not in their eyes. One thing this has taught me is that removing all but one swarm cell only gives the colony one option if they disagree with your choice whereas, by leaving them with two, if they take exception to one and break it down, they still are left with the cell of their choice with which to produce a queen. I certainly know what I shall be doing in the future. Later that day I returned with one of the Station nuc’s and united them.

Some ten days now since I last put pen to paper, as it were, and a busy few days they’ve been, at least, when the weather has allowed. The first thing to report is that I now have a laying queen in hive four at “C” which, along with two and three which were also successfully united with nuc’s containing new queens, earlier in the season, for once, fills me with optimism for next year. On then to The Station, and more specifically, hive three, where I fully expected to find sealed queen cells on the brood frame that I’d left them with at my last visit. I had a friend with me on this occasion, which as it happened, was just as well. Whilst I was once again ploughing through the brood box, in search of some signs of queenly activity, I heard a voice excitedly enquiring, ” have you seen this”? My friend was on her knees indicating that as a matter of some urgency, I should have a look underneath the hive. Not being one to disappoint a lady, I did as I was bid and the sight I witnessed, surprised even me.

Hive 3 swarm under stand Station 011

Hive 3 swarm under stand Station 001

THE SIGHT I WITNESSED SURPRISED EVEN ME. A FULLY FLEDGED COLONY ABOUT THE SIZE OF A FOOTBALL.

So, the swarm from three that I’d left entering the nuc. had, as soon as my back was turned, decided to set up home under the hive floor. Returning, as I did, the following day to find the nuc.empty, I’d immediately assumed they had set off for pastures new. Stupidly, it didn’t occur to me to take a look under the hive, had I done so, I would have seen, what was by now, a fully fledged colony of bees about the size of a football. With the bees apparently entering and exiting on the same flight path, it didn’t occur to me that half of them were in fact, not entering the hive but instead, going under it. The fact that the swarm hadn’t left any queen cells behind should have alerted me to the fact that something unusual was occurring and the fact that they hadn’t started any queen cells on the frame of brood that I’d given them, should have re-enforced that fact.

Looking closely at this colony of bees suspended beneath the hive, I was immediately struck by the beauty and symmetry of the structure. Pure white comb and living proof, if proof were needed that bees, if left to there own devices, will always observe a perfect “bee-space” between combs.

Removing underfloor swarm hive 3 004

PROOF, IF PROOF WERE NEEDED, OF NATURAL ”BEE-SPACE”.

So, where do I go from here? This was the first question that came into my head. My first thoughts were that I had to somehow get this colony back into the hive, but how best to go about it. I knew there was no way I could achieve this unaided, so I did what I always do when confronted by a bee related problem for the first time, which as usual, begins with a ‘phone call to my friend Liz. Her response was, as always, exactly what I was hoping to hear, ” when would you like me to come over to give you a hand?”. The result of which found us, suited up and approaching hive three around eleven o’clock the following morning. To cut a long story short, we decided that the best course of action would be to somehow get the bees back into the hive from which they’d come, the question was, how. After some head scratching, we decided that the best way to do this, would be to remove this colony from the floor to which they had affixed themselves, get them into an empty brood chamber and then unite this to the hive.

Having decided on a plan of attack, this is how we set about it. It was obvious that the first job was to get the hive away from the floor, at least, this would allow us to see the wood from the trees. Placing a new floor next to the hive, the next step was to get the hive on to it. With two pairs of hands, this was quite a simple task and thankfully, throughout all of this upheaval, the bees remained remarkably placid. Now that we were able to look down through the mesh floor we could see that all but one of the combs were in fact attached to the mesh with only one attached to the stand.

Removing underfloor swarm hive 3 007

ALL BUT ONE OF THE COMBS WERE ATTACHED TO THE MESH FLOOR

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ONLY ONE COMB ATTACHED TO THE STAND

Thankfully we had a number of comb cages which I had made sometime earlier.

queen cell in cage 004

COMB CAGES MADE SOMETIME EARLIER

Having used on several previous occasions with a fair degree of success, we decided that to use these again would, was probably the best course of action, hopefully, enabling us to get all of the combs, complete with bees, into an empty brood chamber placed adjacent. It was quite a simple matter, using a sharp knife, to cut the one comb from the stand and get it into the comb cage. Having placed it into the empty

station swarm pics.enlarged (stills) 002

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1ST COMB SAFELY INTO CAGE

brood chamber we proceeded to upend the floor and remove and cage the remaining combs. “There’s the queen”, I heard Liz excitedly remark as she indicated with her finger in the direction of the next comb to be removed. As usual, she had disappeared before I could focus my eyes on the spot where Liz had pointed but it was good news indeed. The large amount of brood at all stages confirmed (a) the length of time they had been under the hive, and (b) that this was a very fertile queen and one well worth saving. From this point we continued to carefully continue removing and caging the remaining combs. We didn’t see the queen again but the mood of the bees, combined with their fanning convinced us that we had safely got her into the brood box. All that remained then was to return the original brood box, on a new floor, to it’s original position and place the box containing the colony from beneath the floor, on top for the bees to reunite. No need for paper obviously, as these were all bees from the same parent colony. A week later I returned and re-arranged the hive to get all of the frames into the bottom box. As this box is configured 14″x12″ it now houses a mixture of frame sizes but I shall leave them to over-winter like this and sort them out in the Spring. I am really pleased with the result. Their mood during a subsequent visit, combined with the amount of fresh brood, confirmed that the whole exercise had been a success.