MY FIRST INSPECTION,HAS THE YEAR FINALLY BEGUN ?

I mentioned earlier that I am a member of our local beekeeping society and amongst other activities, they organise, through the Summer, monthly visits to member’s apiaries. These meetings are usually themed and accompanied by a local expert who speaks and demonstrates on the chosen subject. The first such meeting this year, was held on the last Saturday in April. I was especially looking forward to going as, due to the dreadful weather we’ve experienced so far this year, I hadn’t as yet opened my hives, and I was eager to see and hear how other beekeepers in the area were fairing. The week had not been too clever weather wise and even up to the Saturday morning I had my doubts as to whether the meeting would go ahead, but I needn’t have worried. Mid morning the sun made an appearance and by the time the meeting was scheduled to start it had turned into quite a nice day. I was pleased, not only because I wanted to see for myself how these bees were coping, so as to be able to compare them with my own, but as I know from experience, a lot of effort goes into organising one of these events and if it has to be called off at the last moment it’s a real disappointment. Also, I knew the guest speaker would be driving a considerable distance  to be with us and being the first meeting of the season, a large number of members would turn out, so it was great to see the sun shining and the car park full when I arrived.

These meetings are a great opportunity to re-aquaint with other members and to meet with new ones. Ideas are freely exchanged and words of wisdom imparted, along with a fair amount of nonsense it has to be said. So, all suited up, with smoker at the ready, we trooped single file down to where the apiary was sited. I always think, at this point, to the uninitiated, we must look like a group of aliens on some sort of moon walk. There were by now, plenty of bees flying. They were obviously as pleased as we were to see the sun and went about their business totally oblivious to us. A good omen I thought. Both the hives at this apiary were configured on brood and a half and revealed when opened, all the brood and stores along with most of the bees in the top shallow box. The abundance of brood and the brood pattern suggested both had top quality Queens in residence and boded well for the future. It was an excellent afternoon rounded off with a lovely tea. A good day, I left in high spirits, knowing now what I could expect to find when I opened up my own hives which I planned to do at the first opportunity.

I didn’t have too long to wait, the following Tuesday, the sun shone and the cold wind had dropped. Mid-day saw me suited up, smoker at the ready, striding down across the meadow to my little apiary. I couldn’t help but notice, nearly every dandilion I passed had a bee busily in attendance. Thank goodness for them I thought, there’s precious little else for the bees to forage on, goodness knows when the Blackthorn is going to make an appearance.

So, where better to start than with hive number one. I had really high hopes as I removed the roof and levered the crown board off. There seemed to be plenty of activity at the hive entrance, they had all received syrup and candy to help them cope with the poor Spring weather but I was to be disappointed. There were barely two frames of brood and even less stores. I quickly boxed them up and moved on to number two. I won’t bore you with all the sordid details, suffice to say, with the exception of the two colonies which had overwintered on double brood, they none of them came up to my expectations.

So, retire to the top of the meadow to consider my next course of action. The weather had started to close in so there was little more to be done that day, and of course,this has been the main problem this season so far, the ****** weather. It has been impossible to plan in advance and as for the bees, for every day that they have been able to leave the hive, they have spent another two or three unable to fly due to the appalling conditions. 

The first thing they needed was feeding I decided and the next day they were all given a surface feeder of syrup. Surface feeders are great in this situation I find as the bees will attack the syrup quickly and the feeders, because only the hive roof has to be removed, can be installed in virtually any weather. The term surface feeders sound pretty grand but in reality, mine are simply large jam jars with the lids perforated. They are kept above the crown board by four strategically placed match sticks. The benefits of using jars, apart from their cheapness and availability, is that you can see at a glance how much syrup has been taken down and if they do need a top-up, it takes only seconds.

So, with the syrup I’d bought myself a few days, just as well because the weather forecast for the rest of the week was pretty grim. Some four or five days later saw me at last suited up and on my way down the meadow, feeling not a little apprehensive it has to be said. Hives one and seven had given me the greatest cause for alarm which had really surprised me as they had appeared earlier to have overwintered in fine form. So, what to do, the choice as I saw it, was to unite the two of them now or give them another week or two and make the decision then. I gave them all a brief inspection and was pleased to see that both one and seven had improved. I decided that both five and eight could spare a frame of brood each and so these were duly given to their ailing neighbours. With the exception of eight which had two frames of brood in the bottom box, all the activity in the others seemed to be confined to the top boxes. I reasoned, this was probably because the top box was warmer but I did wonder whether queens may naturally be reluctant to cross the divide between boxes, after all, left to their own devices the bees just keep extending the comb downwards as far as they want, don’t they!

One thing the transfer of brood did illustrate was the potential nuisance value of having some colonies on brood and a half. I had thought to transfer a frame of brood from six to seven but six being on brood and a half would have involved placing a shallow frame in a deep box. Not the end of the world I know,but messy. You are then faced with the problem that at sometime you have to disturb the colony again when you replace the shallow frame with a deep one. What concerned me more was, what if it was the other way about, you can’t fit a deep frame into a shallow box can you. I resolved there and then to dispense with the shallow brood boxes at the earliest opportunity. I gave one and seven a syrup top-up and departed feeling a lot happier than I had a week earlier. In the days that followed I gave some serious thought to the brood and a half situation and also the brood frames spacing. With hindsight, I wish I had started my beekeeping adventure with hives having extended brood chambers, but unfortunately hindsight always comes after the event doesn’t it, pity really.

Now, I don’t know whether extended brood is more efficient than double but I do know there’s only one way to find out. On the face of it, it certainly should be but would it be worth the expense. I mentioned all this to the guest speaker at our last apiary meeting. “You could always extend a standard brood box with an eke” he suggested. Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, he went on. “Make an eke and stand your brood box on it”. So, there was the solution. I mentioned earlier that I had lost colony number three which had been on double brood so I did have a spare hive at my disposal. The inclusion of an eke, if it worked, would not only solve the extended brood problem but free up a brood box which would in turn convert one of my brood and a half colonies. I told earlier of the benefits of regular apiary meetings and the worth of knowledgeable guests, well, here was proof if proof were needed.

Having some reclaimed pallet timbers at my disposal, I set about making the eke to convert to extended brood. It is surprising how useful pallet timber is. I’ve used it in the past to make my hive stands and my solar wax extractor amongst other things. Given a regular, liberal coat of preservative it’s surprising how long it lasts, well worth looking out for.

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                                                           In the raw

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                                                               Eke in place

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                                                    The finished article

As you can see, it doesn’t pretend to be a thing of beauty, but the whole thing fits together well and I’m sure will suit the task, It took about an hour to make and apart from the preservative and a handful of nails, cost nothing. I’m going to use 38mm frame spacing in this hive so it will be an opportunity to test both ideas.

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PIC’S SHOWING DEEP FRAMES AND FINISHED HIVE IN POSITION

Now that the new hive is finished I’m impatient to press it into service. I have high expectations of this new format. The best Queen I have at the moment is without a doubt in hive eight. I may well Demaree the colony and transfer her into the new hive, I’ll make the decision after the next inspection, but on current showing, she certainly seems to be the ideal candidate. I had a quick look at the colonies last week and was pleased to see a marked improvement in all of them especially one and seven. I took the opportunity to top-up the syrup. They were all happily going about their business and took little or no notice of me, a good sign I always think. I don’t think it will be necessary to unite any of them but I intend to give them a detailed inspection this week, weather permitting, and I’ll make the final decision then. I may well decide to swap the brood boxes of the colonies on brood and a half if they have built up sufficiently, I want to encourage the Queens into the deep boxes where there is obviously a lot more room. It may be that they have moved downstairs into the deep boxes of their own accord but there was little sign of that happening when last I looked. These are some of the ideas I shall be considering when next I’m walking down the meadow.

By the time I arrived at the meadow yesterday I was still having some doubts as to the best course of action regarding populating the new hive so I did what I always do when I’m unsure as to whether I’ve made the correct decisions, I ‘phoned my friend Liz. It was, if you recall, Liz who had originally introduced me to beekeeping and who has, ever since, tried to keep me on “the straight and narrow”. “Too early to split a colony”, was Liz’s immediate reply to my Demaree idea, ” Give them a chance to build up to full strength, leave it at least until the middle of June”. It was as usual good advice, to chance losing one’s best colony for the sake of a few weeks would have indeed been a stupid risk to take. As Liz said, they may well provide you with a queen cell or two over the next couple of weeks and you can use them to start off new nuc’s with no need to split the colony. Once again I was suffering from tunnel vision. I was so eager to get the new hive operational and to try out my new ideas, I had blinded myself to the risks. I mentioned the new frame spacings I was going to try and my efforts with the pins. “Why don’t you fit narrow spacers to the frames ” asked Liz, “That will give you 38mm spacings and you’ll be able to move the frames more easily than with your pins idea”. You see, there really is nothing new under the sun, I thought I’d come up with a revolutionary new idea when all I’d really done was to overlook the obvious. All this proves, if further proof was needed, there is no substitute for a friend like Liz !

I mentioned how at my last inspection it was noticeable how totally ignorant of my presence they were. And so it was on this occasion until I got to number four. As soon as I lifted the roof I was aware of a change of mood within. The rise in pitch of the buzzing from inside the hive told me all was not well. “Queen problems” came immediately to mind. I gave them a whiff of smoke and lifted the crown board. More smoke but to little avail, they were in a foul mood and intent on taking their wrath out on someone, in this instance, yours truly. The brood pattern and the number of drone cells,confirmed my thoughts that here we had an ailing Queen. The large supersedure cell in the middle of the brood nest was to my mind, more proof if more were needed. I boxed them up, not before they had inflicted several stings to my person I have to report, and vowed to leave them for a couple of weeks. Now, as if that wasn’t enough, I found exactly the same in number six. Irritable bees and a couple of Queen cells. The position of the cells combined with the poor brood pattern and drone cell numbers convinced me that here we also had an ailing Queen and a colony preparing to supersede. I broke down the smaller of the cells and left them to get on with it. Both these colonies had last year’s Queens which earlier had seemed to be doing, well in fact, going in to the winter, colony four had looked exceptionally good. So why the change. I am of the opinion that both these Queens were poorly mated and this was in the main due to the very poor Summer we had here in the west country. Hopefully they will supersede satisfactorily but I shall be keeping a watchful eye on them with a view to re-queening later.

What a difference a week or two makes in beekeeping. Two weeks ago I was convinced that I would have to unite one and seven or risk losing them. Two feeds and a fortnight later, boxes almost filled with brood in both cases, plenty of stores and Queens looking good. Plenty of flying bees.I was so pleased with their progress to the point where I installed a super on seven. Four and six seemed a lot happier with lots of pollen going into six. I haven’t disturbed either of them but I’m satisfied that six has now a laying Queen. Whether the old Queen has started laying again or if they have superseded I don’t yet know but the outward signs are good. As I said, four seems a lot happier too so I have high hopes that I shall find all is well when next I examine them both.

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