Two days after hiving the swarm from “C” I had guests at the meadow. We had a look into a couple of the hives where, pleased to say, the occupants seemed more than happy to be the centre of attraction. Then on to the hive housing the swarm, ” Now, this colony is a little different from the ones that you’ve just seen” I announced, ” This is a swarm that I collected just a couple of days ago and they won’t have settled in yet, so, don’t be surprised if they react a bit differently to the others that you’ve just looked at”. I fully expected them to react a little bit differently but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I lifted the roof. Not a single bee in sight, ungrateful little beggars, they’d decamped to pastures new. Doing my best to explain to my bewildered guests, that things like this do occasionally happen, whilst consoling myself with the thought, “that she was probably a swarmy queen anyway and I was well rid of her”,I replaced the roof and moved on to my Apidea nuc’s.
I haven’t examined the queen cells in the Apidea nuc’s.yet, that is a job for today’s visit, although, not before I’ve had a look at another swarm. I’m told the bees have taken a liking to the roof of a garden shed, much to the concern of the home-owner. The property in question isn’t a million miles away from me, so, a simple matter to look in on my way to the meadow. For some unknown reason, this season seems to have attracted far more swarms than usual. I’ve certainly been asked to attend far more swarms this year than I can remember previously. As usual, most have been bumble bees or wasps, but a fair percentage have been honeybees. As you know, we have had two swarms in the space of a week, admittedly, they were the same bees, but still, unusual don’t you think?
Still on the subject of swarms, a friend and fellow society member ‘phoned me a few days ago to ask me if I’d be interested in joining him to have a look at a swarm at a local farm. Seemingly, the farmer had discovered the bees after he had felled a tree at the bottom of one of his fields. The tree had been showing signs of rotting so, rather than having it blown down, he had taken the decision to fell it. The sight of hundreds of bees, all intent on wreaking vengeance on the perpetrator of this outrage convinced him that, at some point, bees had taken up residence in his tree, and that’s where we came in. Pulling up at the farm, we were met by the farmer who pointed roughly to the spot where the tree had once stood. Not unsurprisingly, he declined my offer to join us, so the next few minutes saw us, smoker at the ready, negotiating a path through the, not inconsiderable undergrowth, down to said tree. It was a heck of a slope down to the tree so it was a case of step and slide, not the easiest of journeys for a pair of aging beekeepers. This was the sight that greeted us,
THIS WAS THE SIGHT THAT GREETED US
and as it is with sods law, the tree had landed with the bees entrance face down. Not that at this stage it made too much difference as the branches obscured not only the entrance hole, but the rest of the trunk as well. One good thing, the bees seemed totally unphased by their ordeal and were happily negotiating their way through the jungle of interwoven branches, totally oblivious to us. Agreeing that there was nothing we could do at this stage, we made our way back to the top of the field to where the farmer was waiting. We explained that there was little that could be done before A, the trunk was cut to length to where the hollow section was accessible, B, the branches were pruned back to expose the trunk and C, the whole thing was rolled over so that we could see the entrance hole. “Ok, leave it to me” were his parting words. Recalling his earlier reluctance to accompany us down to the tree, I somehow couldn’t imagine him wielding his chainsaw amongst thousands of angry bees, and dressed only in overalls. Driving home, I consoled myself with the thought that today was probably the last we’d see of the farmer and his bees. My knees are no longer up to the rigours of negotiating one in ten slippery gradients and I have to say, today’s episode had left me really struggling. ” Poor old sod”, did I hear you say?
The evening before last, just settling down in my favourite armchair for a bit of well earned telly, the ‘phone rang, as it so often does! ” ‘Evening Geoff. I’ve had the farmer back on and he’s finished working on the tree, I’ve been down to have a look and I think we can get at the comb. I’ve pinned some board over the ends of the trunk to give them a bit of protection. Do you fancy giving it another go.”
So, ten thirty yesterday morning found us once again, slipping and sliding down the field to where the remnants of the tree now lay. True to his word, the farmer had done all we had asked, the trunk, now little more than a yard long and devoid of it’s branches, lay with the bees entrance now plainly visible and, they were still coming and going as though nothing had happened. I couldn’t begin to visualise just how the farmer had achieved this transformation but, achieve it he had, and without being stung to death which was even more surprising.
THE BASE OF THE TREE SHOWING THE EXTENT OF THE ROT
THE BEES GUARDING THEIR ENTRANCE
SAWN END OF THE TRUNK NOW EXPOSING BEES AND COMB
The comb and the bees were now clearly visible. The first thing that I noticed was the colour of the comb which was almost black, suggesting to me at least, that this tree had been home to these bees for a very long time. The bees took little or no interest in us right up to the moment I started cutting away the comb, and then all hell let loose. I had to reach into the hollow trunk right up to my elbows, which gave the occupants all the time in the world to search out my tender bits on which to wreak their anger. There was no brood, only stores and of course, by the time I had got the comb out my gloves and forearms were covered in honey which for some reason, seemed to excite the bees even more. Soon I could see right up to the flight entrance and had removed all the comb within arms reach. It was as black as any I’d ever seen and still no sign of brood.
THE COMB WAS AS BLACK AS ANY I’D SEEN
The opening at the other end of the trunk was much smaller and only produced a couple of spoonful’s of comb and this was completely empty. So, where was the queen and her brood. We concluded there must be an inner chamber somewhere, but certainly not opposite the entrance. A knife inserted went no further than about six inches. Deciding that there was little more to be done at this visit we covered the ends and made our way back to the car. “What if I come back tomorrow with a frame of brood and place it inside the open trunk where the comb had been” my friend said. What a good idea I agreed, if they are queen-less they will cover the frame and start to draw out queen cells, and if not, the presence of brood on new comb might entice the queen out of hiding. So, that is the current situation, we’ll return in a day or two and re-assess the situation. An odd one though, don’t you think !!
July so far has been as busy as any I can previously remember, and we’re barely through the second week. Apart from the colony in the fallen tree, we’ve had our own swarm to deal with and another I’ve been asked to visit. I’ve managed to repair and return the bird table and spent half a day with my friend Liz’s bees. We’ve supplied the observation hive for our local village street fayre which thankfully attracted a lot of interest and hopefully, a new generation of beekeepers. I’m very pleased to say, I’ve received a couple more requests, from complete strangers I might add, for them to come and visit my bees, and I’ve been trying to get that arranged. All of these pleasurable tasks but I sometimes have to ask myself, how did I ever find the time to go to work!!
I managed to get to “C” on Monday and went first to the nuc. which had formed the base of the observation hive at Saturday’s street fayre. I forgot to mention that after I had set up the observation hive and had got the frame with the queen on up into the observation section, I managed, in the process of barrowing the thing down to the car park, to find the one exposed root in the lawn and deposited the whole hive out onto the grass. Of course, it had to land upside down and having just filled the frame feeder with syrup, I’ll leave it to you to imagine the mess. I couldn’t open the hive as I didn’t want the bees to escape and by now, I only had a half an hour or so to get to the street fayre. Before I could attempt to put it into the car, I had to prop it on an angle and wait for the majority of the syrup to run out. I eventually got the whole thing to our stall where I was able to have a look for my queen. She was there but there wasn’t a lot of movement, in fact, all of the bees appeared somewhat subdued, only to be expected I suppose after their ordeal. I kept a watchful eye on her most of the afternoon but she seemed far from happy. Even when I got the hive back home and re-instated the frame with her on, back in the brood section, she still wasn’t moving much. So today, it was to the observation nuc. I first addressed my attentions, and now you know why.
As I got closer it was obvious that the bees were in high spirits, plenty of bees, lots of them carrying pollen, always a good sign. It always gives me cause for concern when I see little or no activity at the hive entrances, especially when there doesn’t seem to be any apparent reason. When it’s raining or overcast I expect things to be quiet but, that’s not always the case. I’ve watched them coming and going during quite heavy showers, when I’ve questioned my own sanity for standing there watching them, me getting soaked and them seemingly oblivious to what’s going on around them. I’ve also seen them, on, what I would describe as quite a mild day, queuing at the hive entrance, apparently reluctant to leave. I wonder whether it might have something to do with air pressure, I don’t know, but whatever it is, the bees can obviously sense something that we can’t. Anyway, it was the nuc’s which I had come to see today, so, first to the bees still in the observation nuc. Plenty of bees running about on the cross bars and there on the second frame, their queen, now moving with purpose between her subjects. A much different scene from when I’d last seen her, also a couple of very promising patches of brood. I carefully replaced the frame, closed up and moved on to nuc. number two. Thankfully, much the same story, queen going about her business, nice patches of brood and stores. Job done I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way back to the car. I decided to leave hives one and three for my next visit as they should both be, at this minute, busy drawing out new queens and we know how skittish new queens can be if disturbed. The last thing I wanted to see, now that things were beginning to look up at “C”, was one of my new queens disappearing over my shoulder so, it’ll be the next visit or even the one after, before I disturb either of them.
It seems that almost every other ‘phone call I get lately is to enquire as to the honey situation. This would be brilliant if we had any but although some of the supers are back-breakingly heavy, for some reason the bees, thus far, seem reluctant to cap them. I’ve seen this at other apiaries and nobody I’ve spoken so far, has been able to come up with a viable reason. In addition to not capping the honey in the supers, it appears that the bees are filling every available space in the brood chambers with stores. This is putting pressure on the queens who, I don’t suppose, are used to fighting for space in which to lay and could be the reason why so many colonies are swarming this year. Anyway, the prime reason for today’s visit to the meadow bees was to check on the progress within the supers and thankfully, things were finally going to plan. I’m sure in my mind that, barring any unforeseen catastrophes, we shall be extracting next week. I’ve mentioned several times that hive four has without a doubt, been my best colony, both in temperament and industry. Not wishing to disturb them unduly, I haven’t fully examined the brood chamber so far. I’ve always seen the queen on the first or second frame of brood and this has been enough to satisfy me that all was well. Added to that, I haven’t wanted to chance accidently damaging her, so as I said, I’ve not as yet ventured beyond the frame that she was occupying. Today’s examination of the supers on four took hardly any time at all, so full were they, and almost fully capped, I decided, on this occasion, to go through the brood chamber thoroughly. Another reason why I hadn’t worried too much about four swarming was that here we had the last of our bought-in queens, barely a year old, of impeccable pedigree and in a 14×12″ hive. So, I reasoned with aging queens and overcrowding not figuring in the equation, why would they possibly want to swarm.
One reason for today’s decision to examine four more closely was that it suddenly occurred to me that I’d already had two of the colonies at “C” swarm this year and, both of them had young queens and were on extended brood. So, rather than re-instate the supers it was off with the queen excluder and remove the first frame. As before, frames one and two were made up mainly with pollen, nectar and honey but frames three and four, where previously I’d seen the queen quietly going about her business, now each had a supersedure cell and what’s more, both cells had been broken down. There were seven cells in all, each on the face of a different comb and each one broken down. Each frame was filled with sealed brood with a little un-sealed in evidence, but no sign of a queen. There were far too many bees for them to have swarmed, added to which, the queen was clipped, so, where was she and which of them had broken down the queen cells. There was no signs of a cell from which a queen might have emerged. The bees were obviously unhappy with their queen for them to have drawn out so many cells, so, had she broken the cells down or had the bees had a change of heart. Unlikely I thought, and, where was she? I’d reached the last frame and was just about to remove it and there she was. On the top bar of the frame, no more than an inch from the edge of the hive body. Now, I’ve been keeping bees for a while but I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered anything like this before. Queens are usually to be found in the proximity of the brood nest, I’ve found them on the queen excluder before now, and on the walls and floor but invariably close to the brood. I’ve never seen one on the top bar of the end frame before. She didn’t seem unduly agitated so I made to pick her off the frame and deposit her back with her brood but before I could, a worker jumped on her and made as if to sting her. I was in no doubt what she had in mind as her abdomen was fully arched under that of the queen’s and I could see that her sting was extended. I flicked her away and gently picked up the queen, releasing her over the brood. I watched as she disappeared down between two of the frames. Two days later I was back at the meadow and straight to hive four. I removed the supers and queen excluder and there she was, dead and laying on the top bar of the frame where I had released her just two days previously. A sad although not totally,unexpected sight.
A SAD ALTHOUGH NOT TOTALLY UNEXPECTED SIGHT
I decided to have another look through the brood chamber sure in my mind that I must have missed a clue to the broken down queen cells at my last visit, and sure enough I had. An empty cell from which a new queen had emerged. The sight of all of those broken down queen cells had caused me to take my eye off the ball and I’d missed the one cell I’d been looking for. The empty cell was on the fourth frame and I decided not to go any further at this visit. Hopefully she will have mated successfully and will take up her duties in time. Whilst all this was going on, the bees were taking very little notice of me, just going about their respective tasks. All of this led me to believe that the colony now had a queen that they were satisfied with and so, I took the decision to box them up and leave them to it, at least for the next week or so.
You’ll remember the colony in the fallen tree and how we had left them with a frame of brood and one of stores at the last visit. Well, we returned yesterday, removing the covering that my friend had installed before leaving, revealed the brood frame, now covered with bees. Close examination revealed several emergency queen cells. So, as we suspected the colony was queenless, she may well have been killed when the tree fell or might have taken umbrage that her home had gone from vertical to horizontal and cleared off, I rather suspect the former. Both frames were placed into the nuc.along with some fresh comb that the bees had drawn which we tied into an empty frame. We placed the nuc. with the entrance as close to the entrance hole in the tree-trunk as possible and immediately some of the flying bees started entering. With the majority ignoring the nuc. and continuing into the trunk, the object of the exercise was now to get all the bees to switch their attentions to the nuc. So, next step to flood the trunk with smoke which immediately achieved the desired effect in that the air was suddenly filled with flying bees. Blocking the bees entrance in the trunk and replacing the covering over the sawn end and it was almost “job done”. Most of the bees were now entering the nuc. and with bees now fanning at the entrance, we made it back to the car. Barring any unforeseen mishaps, we were feeling pretty certain that on our next visit, we would find that for most of the bees, if not all, their home in the hollow tree was but a distant memory.
The evening before we had decided to collect the nuc.,and hopefully after the bees had ceased flying, my friend visited the site and closed the nuc. entrance.
NUC. ENTRANCE NOW CLOSED
Thankfully, this did the trick and by the time we arrived you could have counted the flying bees on one hand. Not only that, but the hollow trunk was now completely devoid of bees.
TRUNK NOW DEVOID OF BEES
Barely an hour later, the nuc. complete with occupants, was safely installed at the meadow. I haven’t decided on their final outcome, so for the moment, they are on the roof of hive nine which is currently unoccupied. I opened the entrance and left them to it. The day following, I returned with a frame feeder and gave both them and the bird table nuc. a feed of syrup. Neither seemed at all phased by my latest intrusions, in fact, considering the events of the last couple of weeks, the new nuc. was remarkably good humoured. I couldn’t help thinking that the nuc’s.at “C” could benefit from a lesson in manners from these two. Two or three days later I was back at the new nuc. I wanted to check on their progress and also the state of the queen cells they were drawing out. You’ll remember that we had tied the fresh comb that the bees had drawn into a shallow frame and installed it into the nuc. along with the bees. Well, they obviously weren’t too impressed with our knot-tying as the following pic. will illustrate.
OCCUPANTS OBVIOUSLY NOT TOO IMPRESSED WITH OUR TYING SKILLS
Considering that there were three lengths of string, each firmly knotted, and about eighteen inches in length, I think this is a remarkable achievement and illustrates, if nothing else, if our bees aren’t happy with something, they’ll move heaven and earth to shift it.