Peaceful easy feeling

The 6-8 week period between late June and harvesting the summer honey is a quiet period in the beekeeping calendar. At least, it is in mine. My colonies aren’t going to the heather, so there’s nothing to prepare for that. Swarm control is complete and many colonies are now headed by new queens, so the chance of swarming is minimal. The spring honey – what little there was of it on account of the incessant rain – was extracted in late June. It’s now easy going until the summer honey is taken off and the colonies are prepared for winter.

Inspect, or just observe?

The 7 day cycle of inspections that are so important as the season builds up become much less critical. If there’s a new mated, laying queen in a box with ample space, sufficient supers and enough stores (for adverse periods of weather) there’s actually little to be achieved by rummaging through the box on a weekly basis.

Instead, I generally just observe things from the outside. If pollen is being taken in by foragers, if there are good numbers of bees on orientation flights during warm mornings and if the hive is reassuringly heavy, then there’s probably no need to inspect weekly. A peek through a perspex crownboard can give a pretty good idea of how much space the colony has and whether they’re fully utilising the super. With experience, hefting the hive (gently lifting the back an inch or two and judging the weight) is a good indication of whether they might need an additional super. And that’s it … I generally leave these strong, healthy colonies to simply get on with things during July and into August.

But inspect when appropriate

Of course, some hives will need checking. For example, any hives that are clearly below-strength for an unknown reason should be carefully checked for signs of disease. Varroa levels can be readily, albeit pretty inaccurately, determined by putting a Correx Varroa tray below the open mesh floor and the colony should be inspected for obvious signs of deformed wing virus (DWV) symptoms.

High levels of DWV

High levels of DWV …

If there’s any doubt about the health of the colony consult a good book on the subject (Ted Hooper’s Bees and Honey is a reasonable start though some of the more comprehensively illustrated newer books might be better), ask your mentor or an experienced local association beekeeper and contact the local bee inspector if necessary.

Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) is a high-season problem for big, strong colonies. Sick bees exhibit characteristic shaking or shivering symptoms, look oily or greasy and accumulate in a large smelly pile below the hive entrance. A very distressing sight. I’ll be discussing CBPV in more detail over the next few months as it appears to be an increasing problem.

Queen problems

The other colonies I keep a close eye on are those with known or potential queen problems. These include colonies where the queen may not have mated, or those in which the queen appears to have got mated but the colony shows signs of early supercedure, suggesting that all is not right.

Hopalong Cassidy ...

Hopalong Cassidy …

The queen in the (rather poor) photograph above has a paralysed left rear leg. She’s a 2017 queen and emerged in early/mid June during a period of very poor weather. I found her as a skittish virgin very soon after emergence (quite possibly the day of emergence) then left the colony to get on with things. She was mated by the first week in July. Eggs were present but I didn’t see her in the colony. However, she wasn’t laying particularly well, either in terms of number or pattern.

Since I was disappearing to Malaysia on business for 10 days in late July I thoroughly inspected the colony before leaving. I discovered her hobbling around the frame, clearly with very severely impaired abilities. There was very little open or sealed brood in the colony. In the several minutes I watched her she didn’t lay any eggs despite checking lots of cells that looked polished and ready to me (but I accept she’s probably a better judge of a suitable cell than I am). She clearly could lay, and you can see an egg at the tip of her abdomen. I suspect that, although her walking wasn’t grossly impaired, she was unable to properly ‘reverse’ into the cell.

Not a bee ...

Not a bee …

Don’t delay, act today

Mid-July, a strongish colony with almost no brood, a crippled queen and no means of checking things for a fortnight meant that prompt action was needed. I removed the queen and united the colony over the top of another strong colony. The alternative was to wait and see if the colony disposed of her, or tried to supercede her. Either would have imposed a delay of about a month after my return, there were limited numbers of larvae for the colony to start from, a rapidly ageing worker population and little chance of the colony building up strongly through the autumn to overwinter successfully. This was a case of using them or potentially losing them.

I’ve no idea how the queen came to have a gammy leg. I’d not seen her since she’d been mated. One possibility is that two queens emerged at or near the same time, duelled in the hive leaving one dead and the other partially crippled. Although damaged, the queen still managed to leave the hive to mate successfully, but then struggled to lay properly.

We’ll never know.

Late evening

Finally, if you’ve not visited your apiary late on a warm, calm summer evening then you really should. Strong colonies can be heard from some distance away, a sort of low humming sound. There’s the heady smell of warm honey in the air as they evaporate off water from stored nectar in preparation for capping stores off for the winter ahead. Highly recommended.


† Gammy meaning (especially of a leg) unable to function normally because of injury or chronic pain … in contrast to the fictional cowboy Hopalong Cassidy used to label the image. Hopalong Cassidy had a wooden leg.

Colophon

Peaceful easy feeling was the title of a song by the Eagles released in 1972 on their debut album (Eagles). The band, or what’s left of them after the recent death of Glenn Frey, continue to play live with four concerts last month.

Don Henley has just turned 70 and should really Take it Easy 😉

Size matters

Anyone reading the beekeepingforum.co.uk will be aware that there are a number of contributors there that enthusiastically recommend the treatment of colonies with vaporised (or, perhaps more accurately, sublimated) oxalic acid to reduce Varroa levels.

There goes a few pence ...

There goes a few pence …

Although vaporised oxalic acid (OA) has been used by some for many years, the speed with which it has recently been embraced by many UK beekeepers (at least those that contribute to discussion forums and, perhaps to a lesser extent, those I speak to in associations over the winter) probably reflects two or three things:

  • an awareness of just how effective oxalic acid is as a treatment
  • the increased availability of commercial oxalic acid vaporisers (or Heath Robinson-like plans to build-your-own)
  • the huge price-differential between oxalic acid and most other treatments

There are almost as many homegrown or imported vaporisers as there are treatment regimes to hammer down the mite levels. Of course, there’s the contentious point that oxalic acid is not approved by the VMD (Veterinary Medicines Directorate), despite having been in routine use for decades. Api-Bioxal is, but is probably unsuitable for sublimation due to the inert (as far as Varroa are concerned) additives it contains. Api-Bioxal can be vaporised but leaves a caramelised residue in the vaporiser pan that is hard to clean.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

‘Vaping’ is also popular in the US. Randy Oliver has covered it extensively on his scientificbeekeeping.com site and it’s also regularly discussed on Beesource. OxaVap make/supply a vaporiser that appears very similar to the Sublimox I use. The OxaVap model has a useful temperature display that I would find much easier to read than the red/green diodes on the Sublimox … I’m red/green colourblind.

Active and passive vaporisers

The Sublimox and OxaVap vaporisers are ‘active’ … they blow out a dense cloud of OA-containing vapour through a relatively narrow diameter nozzle (the video below uses water to demonstrate this process). This provides advantages both in terms of ease and speed of delivery. These vaporisers simply need a 7mm hole drilled through the sidewall of the floor (see photo at the top of the page), or through an eke placed over the colony. The OA-containing vapour is ‘squirted’ in, permeates all corners of the hive within seconds and you can then move on to the next hive. The vaporiser doesn’t need cooling between treatments and the dose administered is tightly controlled.

Big Daddy

However, OA dosage isn’t critical. It has been shown to be well-tolerated by bees in studies from groups in the UK and Germany. If the dose isn’t critical and speed really is important then perhaps consider the vmVaporizer. At $3600 it’s about ten times the price of a Sublimox.

vmVaporizer ...

vmVaporizer …

The manufacturers claim you can treat 300 hives an hour with one of these … one every 12 seconds. For comparison, the Sublimox takes 20-30 seconds per hive. However, what takes the time is sealing the hive, moving the generator about, unsealing the hive etc. so you’d need a team of (well protected) helpers and some closely spaced hives to achieve a similar rate. The vmVaporizer is mains (110V) powered so would also need a generator or inverter.

The video above demonstrates the vmVaporizer in action. It produces copious amounts of oxalic acid vapour, albeit less ‘forcefully’ than the Sublimox. It seems the only way to control how much is delivered is by changing the duration the hive is exposed for.

Undoubtedly this is overkill for the majority of readers of this site, but it’s interesting to see what the commercial beekeeping community are using (much like browsing the decapping or bottling machines in the Swienty catalogue). There’s at least one satisfied UK-based beekeeper quoted on the vmVaporizer site so … Mark, if you happen to read this I’d be interested in how well the machine works and whether you can achieve the quoted hive treatment every 12 seconds?

And, does it work with Api-Bioxal?

😉

 

Travel screens

Stressed bees trapped inside a hive generate large amounts of heat which can result in the comb melting and collapsing. If you are moving colonies any distance, for example between distant apiaries (or even nearby apiaries if it’s a warm day), it is really important to provide ample ventilation to the hive.

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

The usual way to do this is to use travel screens. These consist of a wooden-framed metal mesh which is used in place of a crownboard. With a sealed entrance, an open mesh floor and a travel screen, the hive is securely and safely closed up for transport, but air still can circulate freely. On long journeys or particularly hot days (which can be avoided by moving bees at night) water can be poured or sprayed through the mesh travel screen to further aid cooling of the colony.

Moving day

Late evening in the apiary

Late evening in the apiary

I often end up moving colonies in midsummer, either distributing splits to new apiaries or taking my strongest colonies to good areas of forage to exploit the summer flow. Colonies are strapped up during the day and moved either very late in the evening or very early the following morning. This timing ensures that all the flyers are back before sealing the hive and that colonies are moved during the coolest part of the day. In June in Fife this means after 10pm or before 4am if the weather is good.

Nevertheless, despite my moving hives annually, the travel screens would only be in use for a few hours a year. The rest of the time they are simply in the way.

Be flexible

For this reason I don’t use wooden-framed travel screens. I’m not prepared to pay the £15-17 the commercial suppliers charge for something that will languish on top of a stack of supers in storage for almost the entire year.

Instead of framed travel screens I use fibreglass insect mesh (search eBay for that phrase and choose the cheapest – I bet they’re all the same). This is very strong and hardwearing, relatively inexpensive and available by the roll or in a range of sizes. It’s easily cut with strong scissors and you can therefore prepare customs sizes for full hives or nucs. I cut the mesh a few centimetres oversize to allow it to be securely attached to the hive.

I bought mine from eBay a few years ago. Current prices work out at about £1.25 a hive depending on the quantity ordered. It’s usually cut for you from a 1.2 metre wide roll and sold by the metre. Each metre gives you four National-sized travel screens and some offcuts.

Straps or staples

Colonies in transit should be securely strapped – both together and to stop the hive moving in the event of an accident. For full hives I use straps and an eke to hold the mesh in place.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

For nucs, or when I run out of ekes, I staple the mesh in place to keep it secure.

Mesh and staples

The mesh is similar to the stuff sold by Thorne’s to collect propolis (at over £3 a sheet). If left in place for a long period the bees will start to seal the holes up. If you want the propolis put the mesh in a bag in a freezer and scrunch it up to release the frozen propolis.

Foam blocks

While we’re on the subject of transporting hives it’s worth mentioning that the frames must be aligned with the direction of travel. If they’re not, there’s a danger that bees will be crushed as the frames move with the acceleration and deceleration of the car.

You also need to prevent the frames from moving laterally. In a National box, unless heavily propolised, there’s usually space for 11 frames and a dummy board. However, that still leaves a bit of additional space.

On a long journey or on rough roads these can shiggle apart. This causes two problems. Firstly there’s a chance that bees will be crushed as the frames swing from side to side. Secondly, since you won’t be opening the top of the hives immediately upon arrival (the bees need to reorientate rather than have their roof unceremoniously whipped off after the long journey) there’s a chance the bees will build brace comb in the gaps.

Foam block ...

Foam block …

I use closed cell foam blocks wedged tightly into the gap between the dummy board and the side wall – one on each side in line with the side bars of the frames. This keeps everything stable and the blocks can be removed when you first inspect the colony after moving. With nucs, where there’s less to move about, or with very inflexible dummy boards, you can get away with a single block wedged tightly half way along the top bar.

Nuc prepared for transport

Nuc prepared for transport …

If you use Langstroth-sized nucs with integral feeders (like the Thorne’s Everynuc) to allow National frames to fit then it helps to also nail a cross bar over the feeder to stop the frames shifting backwards and forwards during transit.

 

Apis mellifera aquaticus

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

June in Fife was the wettest year on record. It started in a blaze of glory but very quickly turned exceedingly damp. The photo above was taken on the 7th of June. One of my apiaries is in the trees at the back of the picture. Six queens emerged on the 2nd or 3rd of June to be faced with a week-long deluge. The picture was taken on the first dry morning … by the afternoon it was raining again, so delaying their ability to get out and mate (hence prompting the recent post).

And so it continued …

Early July 2017 ...

Early July 2017 …

Here’s the same view on the 1st of July. Almost unchanged … ankle deep water en route to the apiary, the burn in flood and some splits and nucs now being fed fondant to prevent them starving.

A beautiful morning though 😉

Retrospective weather reports

Of course, you shouldn’t really worry about weather that’s been and gone, though comparisons year on year can be interesting. At the very least, knowing that the June monthly rainfall in Eastern Scotland was 223% of the 1961-99 average, I’ll have an excuse why queens took so long to mate and why the June gap was more pronounced than usual. Global warming means summers are getting wetter anyway, but even if you make the comparison with the more recent 1981-2010 average we still got 206% of the June monthly total.

The Met Office publishes retrospective summaries nationally and by region. These include time series graphs of rainfall and temperature since 1910 showing how the climate is getting warmer and wetter. If you prefer, you can also view the data projected on a map, showing the marked discrepancies between the regions.

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010

June 2017 rainfall anomaly cf. 1981-2010 …

Parts of the Midlands and Lewis and Harris were drier than the June long-term average, but Northern England and Central, Southern and Eastern Scotland were very much wetter.

It would be interesting to compare the year-by-year climate changes with the annual cycle of forage plants used by bees. Natural forage, rather than OSR where there is strain variation of flowering time, would be the things to record. As I write this (first week of July) the lime is flowering well and the bees are hammering it. The rosebay willow herb has just started.

Rosebay willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Prospective weather forecasts

Bees are influenced by the weather and so is beekeeping. If the forecast is for lousy weather for a fortnight it might be a good idea to postpone queen rearing and to check colonies have sufficient stores. If rain is forecast all day Saturday then inspections might have to be postponed until Sunday.

If you have a bee shed you can inspect when it’s raining. The bees tolerate the hive being opened much better than if it were out in the open. Obviously, all the bees will be in residence, but their temper is usually better. They exit the shed through the window vents and rapidly re-enter the hive through the entrance.

I don’t think there’s much to choose between the various online weather forecast sites in terms of accuracy, particularly for predictions over 3+ days. They’re all as good or as bad as each other. I cautiously use the BBC site, largely because they have an easy-to-read app for my phone.

Do I need an umbrella?

For shorter-term predictions (hours rather than days) I’ve been using Dark Sky. This can usefully – and reasonably accurately – predict that it will start raining in 30 minutes and continue for an hour, after which it will be dry until 6pm.

The forecast in your area might be different 😉

Dark Sky via web browser

Dark Sky via web browser

There’s a well designed app for iOS and Android as well that has neat graphics showing just how wet you’re likely to get, how long the rain will last and which direction the clouds will come from.

Dark Sky on iOS

Dark Sky on iOS

It’s far from perfect, but it’s reasonably good. It might make the difference between getting to the apiary as the rain starts as opposed to having a nice cuppa and then setting off in an hour or two.

Rain stopped play

I’ve posted recently on delays to queen mating caused by the poor weather in June. I’ve now completed inspections of all the splits. Despite both keeping calm and having patience I was disappointed to discover that the last two checked had developed laying workers. Clearly the queen was either lost on her mating flight or – more likely (see the pictures above) – drowned.

I’ve previously posted how I deal with laying workers – I shake the colony out and allow those that can fly to return to a new hive on the original site containing a single frame of eggs and open brood. If they start to draw queen cells in 2-3 days I reckon the colony is saveable and either let them get on with it, or otherwise somehow make them queenright.

One of the laying worker colonies behaved in a textbook manner. A couple of days after shaking them out there were queen cells present. I knocked these back and united the with a spare nuc colony containing a laying queen.

Lime can yield well in July

Lime can yield well in July

The second colony behaved very strangely. I didn’t manage to inspect them until a week after shaking them out. There were no queen cells. Nor was there any evidence of laying worker activity in the frames of drawn comb I’d provided them with. Instead, they’d filled the brood box with nectar from the nearby lime trees. Weird. I united them with a queenright colony and I’ll check how they progress over the next week or two.

Apis mellifera aquaticus

My colonies are usually headed by dark local mongrel queens. My queen rearing records show that some are descended from native black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) from islands off the West coast of Scotland, albeit several generations ago. These bees are renowned for their hardiness, ability to forage in poor weather and general suitability to the climate of Scotland.

Nevertheless, without further natural selection and evolution they will have still needed water wings, a snorkel and flippers to get mated last month 😉

Not waving but drowning


Colophon

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

The taxonomic scheme ‘developed’ by Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) is a rank-based classification approach actually dates back to Plato. In it, organisms are divided into kingdoms (Animals), classes (Insecta), order (Hymenoptera), family (Hymenoptera), genera (Apis) and species (mellifera).

The subspecies is indicated by a further name appended to the end of the species name e.g. Apis mellifera capensis (Cape Honey bees), Apis mellifera mellifera (Black bees)

Apis mellifera aquaticus doesn’t really exist, but might evolve if it remains this wet 😉

Honey and hay fever

300 jars of honey

300 jars of honey

I’m conflicted. As a beekeeper I appreciate offsetting the cost of indulging my hobby from honey sales. In a good year I get much more honey than I could ever give away to friends and family. Despite making some of my own equipment, there are the costs of purchasing (yet more) boxes, miticides, extraction equipment and winter feed. There’s also an ever-growing wishlist of things that, whilst not essential, would be very welcome. Abelo’s heated honey creamer looks very nice 😉  Bottling, labelling and then selling honey – either from the door or from local shops – provides a few quid to help … a sort of self-perpetuating process in which I transfer all that summer effort by the bees into the coffers of Thorne’s and C. Wynne Jones.

However, I regularly get asked for local honey to ‘prevent the symptoms of hay fever’. Emails or phone calls go something like this:

“My son/daughter/husband/wife suffers really badly from hay fever and I read that locally produced honey could help her symptoms” … followed by a request to confirm that what they’ve read is correct and could I sell them some honey.

As a scientist I can’t do the former and so usually fail to achieve the latter. No way to run a business perhaps, but honesty is the best policy.

Achoo!

Bless you

Bless you

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen in the air. About 20% of the population have, or will develop, hay fever. I never had it as a child, but in my 30’s developed a strong reaction to some grass pollens that still makes a fortnight or so in mid/late June pretty miserable. Hive inspections with bad hay fever are really miserable.

Symptoms are characteristic – itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose (where does all that stuff come from?!). Anti-histamines, either prescription or over-the-counter, help prevent the allergic reaction from occurring. Usually this is sufficient to make the symptoms bearable.

Severe hay fever symptoms, where anti-histamines or corticosteroids are insufficient, can be treated by immunotherapy. Over several months, the patient is exposed sub-cutaneously or orally, to low and increasing doses of the allergen (the compound that causes the allergy) to help develop immunity. Full desensitisation takes about three years.

Honey contains pollen

Honey contains small amounts of pollen. The presence of the pollen forms the basis for lots of tricky questions in the BBKA examinations and is a feature used by food standards to discriminate between flavoured sugar syrup and real honey.

This is probably where the ‘honey prevents hay fever” stories originate. It’s this small amount of pollen that is supposed to stimulate the immune system of hay fever sufferers. A sort of DIY desensitisation course using toast or porridge to help deliver the allergen. Tasty 😉

All this seems pretty logical and straightforward. Honey contains pollen. Low doses of pollen are used to stimulate immunity that, in turn, stops hay fever from developing. Local honey prevents hay fever … I must get this printed on my labels to boost sales further.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good theory

Unfortunately, there are a couple of irritating facts that scupper this nice little theory. The first is  a sort of error of omission, the second is the absence of evidence supporting the theory (or, more accurately, the evidence that the theory is wrong).

Honey certainly contains pollen. At least, real honey doesMelissopalynologists – those who study the pollen in honey – can identify the genus of plants that the bees have been visiting and so may be able to deduce the geographic origin of the honey.

The key part of that last sentence is “that the bees have been visiting”. The vast majority of pollens in honey are from the flowers and trees that they visit to gather nectar. These pollens are usually large and sticky so they adhere to the passing bee and are then transferred to another plant when the bee moves on.

What’s missing are any significant quantities of pollens from wind-pollinated plants such as grasses. Studies have shown that almost all pollens that cause allergies such as hay fever are from these wind-pollinated species. It’s logical that these pollens are largely absent … since the flowers, grasses and trees that produce them are anemophilous (wind-pollinated) they don’t need to generate nectar to attract bees, so the bees don’t visit. So there’s little or none of this type of pollen in honey.

No bees legs ...

No bees legs …

Testing, testing …

So that’s the error of omission. What about scientific support, or otherwise, for the theory that local honey prevents hay fever? After all, this must be an easy (and tasty) experiment to do. Feed a group of people honey and compare their hay fever symptoms with a group fed synthetic honey (or perhaps imported pseudo-honey sold from a supermarket near you).

Researchers in Connecticut did this experiment in 2002. They published their results in a snappily-titled paper “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis” published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Rhinoconjunctivitis, or perhaps more correctly, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, is the symptoms of hay fever – the itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose. Three groups of a dozen hay fever sufferers, pre-screened for reactivity to common wind-borne allergens, were randomly assigned to receive local ‘raw‘ honey, filtered non-local honey and honey-flavoured syrup (the placebo group). They took one tablespoon of honey, or substitute, a day and recorded their hay fever symptoms. The abstract of the paper neatly summarises the results:

Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.

… leading the authors to conclude that:

This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.

Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence

So, this study does not confirm (prove) that honey prevents hay fever. What about the opposite? Can we use it as evidence that honey does not prevent hay fever symptoms?

1934 Loch Ness haox

1934 Loch Ness hoax

Tricky … as the skeptic James Randi asserted, you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. However, in the absence of convincing evidence that it does exist, I can be reasonably sure that Nessie is a 6th Century tale, embellished in the 19th Century and blatantly exploited by the 21st Century tourist industry.

Of course, lake monsters are ‘found’ worldwide, which isn’t evidence that any of them actually exist 😉

We’re getting into the messy intersection of science and philosophy here. I think it’s sufficient to say that there’s no scientific evidence that honey prevents hay fever. The Connecticut experiment was a properly controlled random study. To my mind (as a scientist) this is much more compelling evidence than any amount of anecdotal stories to the contrary.

An abbreviated version of which is what I tell potential customers who want me to confirm that buying my local honey will help alleviate their hay fever symptoms. Essentially, it won’t.

Sure, they might not get hay fever after eating my honey, but that’s almost certainly a coincidence. It’s a coincidence I’m happy to live with, but not one I’m happy to promote as a reason to buy my local honey.

Why buy local honey?

I don’t think it’s necessary to cite dubious medical benefits when encouraging people to buy local honey.

Why claim something that’s probably not true?

Far better to claim the things that are true, some of which are also clearly demonstrable:

  • It’s local, from the hedges and fields within 3 miles of the apiary. It wasn’t imported by the tonne from a location or locations unknown.
  • It’s a very high quality product – clearly to claim this you need to ensure it looks wonderful and that there are no legs or antennae lurking in the jar.
  • It hasn’t been excessively heated before jarring – all the goodness is still present, including pollen, just not the sort of pollen that will prevent hay fever.
  • The honey hasn’t been micro-filtered, pasteurised or tampered with in any way.
  • It varies during the season as the forage changes – a jar of spring OSR honey is very different  in flavour from a jar of mid-summer floral (hedgerow) honey. It’s a wonderful edible snapshot of the changing seasons.
  • Buying it supports a local cottage industry.
  • It tastes fantastic – clearly demonstrable.

The ‘taste test’ is usually the deciding factor. A couple of tester jars – clearly labelled – a limitless supply of plastic coffee stirrers and a discard pot will allow customers ample opportunity to ‘try before they buy’.

Which they surely will … 🙂


∑ Honesty is the best policy is an idiom dating back to the late 16th Century when Sir Edwin Sandys, a founder of the Virginia Company and one of the first settlers in America, stated “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie”.

A corruption of the saying by Mark Twain “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”. 

† Jean Emberlin (2009). “Grass, tree, and weed pollen”. In Kay et al. The Scientific Basis of Allergy. Allergy and Allergic Diseases. 1:942-962. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444300925

‡ This isn’t xenophobia. The UK is a net importer of honey. 95% of the honey eaten in the UK is imported – 50% of the 34,000 tonnes imported in 2012 came from China. Most honey on the supermarket shelves contains some rather vague term like Produce of EU and non-EU countries. You don’t know where it came from, and probably nor does the supermarket. There have been bans on imported honey due to it being not honey (just doctored corn syrup), or being contaminated with antibiotics.

Keep Calm and Have Patience

Around this time of the season§ the discussion forums are awash with questions about virgin queens failing to emerge, or get out to mate, or return from mating flights, or start laying eggs, or any of a myriad of other possible things that can go wrong between a sealed queen cell and a nicely laying queen.

Or where to buy a new queen for a terminally queenless colony.

Followed a week later by a question about what to do with a recently purchased, and soon to be delivered, queen that is now surplus to requirement as – miraculously – a beautiful mated and laying queen is now obviously present and busy in the hive 😉

There she is ...

There she is …

Practice makes perfect

There’s good evidence from recent genetic studies that the honey bee (Apis mellifera) evolved about 300,000 years ago from Asian cavity-nesting bees. This was determined by analysing 140 bees sampled from around the world. The genetic differences between them (over 8.3 million in total) were identified and then – knowing the rate at which differences arise – it was possible to extrapolate backwards to define the approximate time the first honey bee (Eve?) evolved.

Early human ...

Early human …

For comparison, humans – modern man, Homo sapiens – have been around for about the same length of time.

Coincidence? Probably.

300,000 years is a long time when compared to the lifespan of a human, or a bee. However, it’s a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. It also means that bees, and humans, are relatively recent arrivals when compared with fig wasps (34 million years), coelacanths (65 million years) or elephant sharks (420 million years).

Nevertheless, although bees might be evolutionary newcomers, they have been getting it right for about 300,000 years. Which means they’ve been superceding and swarming ever since modern man was recognisably modern man.

Which means they’re reasonably good at it … ‘it’ being reproduction, and more specifically getting the queen mated.

If they weren’t any good at it they’d be long gone by now.

Going by the book

The development of the queen takes 16 days from egg to eclosed (emerged) virgin. Three days as an egg, a further 6 days as a larva at which point the cell is sealed. Pupation then lasts for a further 7 days. The recently emerged queen needs to become sexually mature. This process takes a further 5 to 6 days before she goes on one (or more) matings flight(s). After mating she then returns to the hive and, after a further 2-3 days, starts laying eggs.

So, under optimal conditions, it takes a minimum of ~23-25 days to go from egg to mated and laying queen i.e. about three and a half weeks.

If a queen is removed from the hive, deliberately or by accident, there could be a new, mated laying queen present about three and a half weeks later.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

In fact, it’s possible the new queen could be mated and laying in less time than this. The queenless colony might start to rear young larvae as queens, so ‘saving’ a few days. It’s generally reckoned that larvae up to about three days old can be selected by the colony and reared as queens, though younger is better as they are better fed for longer.

Bees can’t read

However, things rarely go by the book. Although development time is pretty-much fixed at 16 days from newly laid egg to emerged virgin, there’s plenty of opportunity to lengthen (and rarely shorten, as outlined above) the time taken before the queen starts laying.

Chief amongst these is getting conditions suitable for queen mating. Typically this needs to be warm and settled weather. High teens centigrade, sunny and light winds between late morning and mid/late afternoon. If this doesn’t occur the queen stays put in the hive.

There’s also a time window within which successful mating must occur. This starts when the queen reaches sexual maturity (~5-6 days after emergence) and ends three to four weeks later (~26-33 days after emergence). A few days of poor weather during this period may well delay mating. Three weeks of lousy weather can be catastrophic – she may well turn out to be poorly mated or, if she doesn’t mate, a drone laying queen.

Depending on where you live, it’s rare to get three continuous weeks of terrible weather during the predominant swarming period (late April to late-July perhaps). However, it’s not uncommon to get a week or so of ‘unseasonable’ weather. In 2017, June was the wettest on record in Fife – precisely when I expected my virgins to be going out to mate.

Keep calm and Have Patience

Keep Calm ...

Keep Calm …

All this means is that you need patience when waiting for newly mated and laying queens in your colonies. In my experience it usually takes longer than it could, and it’s almost always longer than I want.

You should be able to calculate when the virgin queen will emerge to within a day or so of the colony becoming queenless. Better still, judge the development of queen cells and add 7 days to the date on which the cell become capped.

I usually check to make sure there’s a virgin queen in the hive. They’re small, skittish and often tricky to spot. They don’t get the same sort of attention from the workers as a mated queen gets. They can fly, and do if you disturb them too much. It’s reassuring to know there’s an emerged virgin present, but don’t keep checking. I try and check on the day after emergence. If you check too late and the weather is good there’s a chance you’ll interrupt her returning from a mating flight, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Then wait.

Observe the bees at the hive entrance and look for them returning laden with pollen. If you must inspect the colony (why?) do so early or late in the day. Don’t bother looking for the queen. Instead look for polished cells in the middle of the central frames … and eggs of course.

Dates from my diary

In June 2017 new queens should have emerged from my vertical splits on or shortly after the 2nd. Under optimal conditions I could hope these virgins would be mated and laying by the 12th at the latest. The splits were all set up on the same day. I didn’t check every hive for the presence of a virgin, and didn’t find one in every hive I checked, but I did find the expected vacated queen cell.

It then started raining. Lots. One of my apiaries flooded.

I had a quick look on the 12th in a couple of hives – no eggs. I checked again around the 22nd. The 18th had near-perfect weather for queen mating – sunny, 20+°C, light winds – and found mated, laying queens in a couple of boxes. But not in all of them. It wasn’t until the 27th that I found evidence that the latest queen was mated and laying well. She’d obviously started a day or so earlier as there were already eggs across two full frames.

All but two splits appears to have been successful – defined by presence of a laying queen. None were mated and laying anywhere near the minimal possible 9-10 days after emergence. One developed laying workers and I suspect the queen got lost on a mating flight quite early on. The second looks promising and I’ve not yet given up hope on this remaining colony.

I don’t keep records of the time it takes for new queens to get mated. However, from emergence (the date of which I usually do know) I wouldn’t be surprised if the average was a little over 21 days.

The shortest mating times I’ve seen occur in ideal weather conditions when using mini-nucs for queen rearing – under these circumstances ~11-12 days is not uncommon. But that’s a post for the future …

Keep Calm and Carry On


§ This was written in mid/late June in Fife, Scotland … about two weeks after the peak of the swarm season.

Wallberg  et al., A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera. Nature Genetics, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/NG.3077

‡ Huber et al., New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature, 2017; DOI:10.1038/nature22336

∞ OK … formally, I know that supercedure might not be considered as ‘reproduction’.

∑ Though how it can be considered unseasonable when it’s not uncommon is a mystery 😉

∏ Of course, the true measure of success when rearing new queens is much more rigorous than this. They need to primarily lay fertilised worker eggs, have a tight laying pattern, mother well-behaved, calm bees that work well in the local environment, do not have a tendency to swarm, are frugal with winter stores and build up well in early Spring. And the rest …

Colophon

Keep Calm and Carry On was the text on a motivational poster produced in 1939 in the run up to World War II. Millions of copies were printed but few were ever displayed … in fact, many were pulped in 1940 to help overcome a serious paper shortage.

There’s an excellent account of the history and (many) compromises made during the design and preparation of the poster (almost 78 years to the day I’m writing this) on the Government history blog – highly recommended.

The poster was largely forgotten until 2000 when it was re-discovered. The rest, as they say, is history … it’s now ubiquitous, corrupted in a load of different ways and used on all sorts of novelty and decorative products.

You can even design your own …

 

The Autumn of the Matriarch

I’ve previously commented that weak colonies that build up very slowly in Spring are more trouble than they’re worth. The resources they need – syrup, frames of emerging brood, more TLC – are rarely reflected in the subsequent honey yield.

Quite the contrary, they’re often a lost cause and it could be argued that, from a purely efficiency point of view, it would be better if the colony succumbed during the winter than staggered on into the Spring.

Better still, assuming they’re disease free, use the bees in the autumn by sacrificing the queen and uniting the colony with a strong colony. You’ll boost the latter and strong colonies both overwinter better and build up better the following year.

Do as I say, don’t do as I do.

All the above makes perfect sense, but a combination of sentimentality and ill-placed optimism means that it’s not unusual – in late Spring – to find myself being reminded that “weak colonies that build up very slowly in Spring are more trouble than they’re worth”.

And it’s happened again.

One of my colonies was undersized in late autumn and had built up very slowly this Spring. The queen was a little older than most in the apiary but she’d done well in the past and I thought she might have another season in her. Varroa drops in late autumn and mid-winter had been very low and the bees were beautifully tempered, calm, steady on the comb and a pleasure to work with.

But in the first inspection of the year (10th of May) there just weren’t enough of them. The queen was laying, pollen was coming in, there were no signs of disease and the colony behaviour remained exemplary.

Lagging behind

Comparison between colonies is very informative. That’s why it’s easier to maintain two colonies than one. Other colonies in the same apiary were building up well. By late May I was starting swarm prevention measures on these, using pre-emptive vertical splits.

The small colony was largely forgotten or ignored. I peeked through the perspex crownboard a couple of times and could see they were building up.

Slowly.

I got distracted harvesting the early season honey from other colonies, running out of frames and with more swarm prevention and control. I finally completed a full inspection of the colony on the 17th of June, shortly before the summer solstice and the first official day of summer (so still technically Spring).

Queen failure … not epic, but failure nevertheless

The colony had only a couple of frames of brood and covered a frame or two more than that. The temper and behaviour was still very good. The queen was present and laying. She was being attended by a retinue of workers and not being ignored or harassed.

Failing queen ...

Failing queen …

But she was clearly losing her faculties. Many of the cells contained two or more eggs.

Multiple eggs in cells are often seen with laying workers and sometimes seen when a newly mated queen first starts laying. With laying workers the eggs are often placed on the sidewalls of cells and, as they’re unmated, they develop into drones. The brood pattern is scattered randomly around the frame. With newly mated queens the eggs are usually correctly placed in the base of the cell.

Occam’s razor

The colony was clearly doomed. They showed no sign of trying to replace the queen, without which the future was bleak. I needed to rescue something from the situation. The choice depended on my interpretation of what had gone wrong. The options were:

  1. Queen failure, plain and simple
  2. Laying workers in a colony with a failed queen still present (an unusual situation)
  3. A new, recently mated, queen was also present with the old queen (supercedure)

A thorough inspection of the colony failed to find another queen or any evidence of a recently vacated queen cell. Frankly this didn’t take long, the colony was simply too small to ‘hide’ either of these. Option 3 could therefore be discounted. The presence of another queen would be really important if I was considering requeening the colony or uniting it with a queenright hive – both these are likely to go badly if there was a queen still present.

There was no drone brood at all in the colony and the laying pattern was clustered as would be expected from eggs laid by a queen. Option 2 could therefore almost certainly be discounted. Fortunately again as it’s difficult to requeen a colony containing laying workers. As another aside, I can’t remember seeing a colony with laying workers that also contained a (failed) queen.

That left the most likely explanation for the multiple eggs (and the undersized colony) was the simple failure of the queen. For whatever reason, she was laying at a much lower rate than usual and had started laying multiple eggs in cells. Of the three possibilities, this is the most straightforward. Occam’s razor (William of Ockham, ~1287-1347) is the problem-solving principle that states that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one.

Better late than never

The queen was removed from the colony and it was united over newspaper on top of a strong hive in the same apiary. Two days later the Varroa board underneath the colony was covered in shredded paper indicating that the colonies were united successfully.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Which is what I should have done in mid-autumn last year.

Better late than never  😉

A few days later I rearranged the colony, placing the two frames of brood into the bottom brood box and putting a clearer board underneath the top brood box. The resulting single colony, now a bit stronger, will be well-placed for the summer nectar flow and the nine frames of drawn comb vacated by the colony will be reused making up nucs for overwintering.


† Interestingly, I’ve never seen several larvae developing in cells after the multiple eggs hatch. Either the excess eggs or larvae must be removed by workers. I presume this means that the workers can’t count eggs, but may be able to count larvae – not literally of course, but by the amount of pheromones produced presumably. If they could count eggs they’d remove the excess and leave only one, making the identification of laying workers (or a recently mated misfiring queen) much more difficult. Something to be thankful for perhaps? They can, of course, identify the origin of eggs – this process is the basis of worker policing which was touched on in discussion of Apis mellifera capensis, and is of relevance to those using grafting for queen rearing.

Colophon

The title of this post is a corruption of The Autumn of the Patriarch, a book by the Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, written in 1975. The book is about the God-like power and status of a dictator, the General, and the awe in which he is held by the people. Of course, this isn’t the situation in matriarchal honey bee colonies, the structure of which is determined as much – if not more – by the workers, the brood and the circulating pheromones.

Foundationless frames update

A few weeks ago I described foundationless frames built with vertical bamboo supports. In a related post on starter strips I explained that I was going to compare homemade (dipped) wax strips with simple wooden strips or laths, the latter made from tongue depressors.

Here’s an update on the progress the bees have made with these frames so far.

Disclaimer

This trial wasn’t properly scientific, it was poorly controlled, it was conducted over several weeks in two apiaries with bees from a variety of sources. As a scientific study it was deeply, deeply flawed. I know a bit about these things. You have been warned. Caveat emptor.

Starter strips – KISS is better

Essentially I could see no difference in the acceptance rate (effectively the rate at which bees started comb) between the three types of starter strips tested. These were homemade wax strips or wood (tongue depressors) strips glued to the top bar with adhesive and either left bare or coated with molten wax.

Some of the frames I’ve been using even had one of each of these types of starter strips in each of the three ‘panels’ (see below) on the frames.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Frames like these were used in hives with packages or shook swarms and were readily accepted by the bees and rapidly drawn out (either with a good flow of nectar from the OSR, or 1:1 syrup made up from leftover fondant). By the time I went to check all three ‘segments’ were started in the hives. I didn’t monitor which was the first to be used … I’d have needed to be inspecting hourly and I have a life (and job and family).

As far as I could tell there appeared to be no preference to the type of starter strip used.

Just starting out ...

Just starting out …

Of the 20-30 frames like this used so far this season, all have remained attached during inspections, whether started on wood or wax. I’m reasonably careful handling frames, but I reckon these could cope with all but the most cack-handed beekeeper. Colonies in the bee shed have been exposed to temperatures in the mid-high 30’s (°C for overseas readers) with no adverse effects, other than the expected softening of comb at high temperatures.

Conclusion – since the outcome was indistinguishable there seems no reason not to use simple unwaxed wooden strips as starter strips in foundationless frames. The KISS principle applies here.

There are two or three additional benefits from the observation that simple wooden laths are perfectly acceptable as starter strips; 1) there’s no need to go through the interminable and messy process of making your own wax starter strips, 2) there are no foundation costs involved, 3) the frames can be recycled through a steam wax extractor without damaging them.

Bamboo … zled

Foundationless frames built with vertical 4mm bamboo skewers are easy and inexpensive to construct. I’ve used about 50 of these already this season with almost no problems. The bees usually avoid the vertical skewers until the comb is nearly completely built. Often this is well after the queen has started laying in the upper section of the frame or the bees start to store honey in the upper cells.

Foundationless triptych ...

Foundationless triptych …

It’s not until the frames are well occupied with brood or nectar that the vertical gaps on either side of the bamboo skewers are usually filled in§. Until then the comb is only attached at the underside of the top bar. This is a potential weakness … until the comb is completed there is little lateral support or stability.

Handling the frames, particularly in hot weather, requires some care. I found myself going through the same frame handling methods I was taught several years ago – turn through 90°, rotate around the top bar, turn back through 90° etc. to inspect the other side of the (now inverted) frame.

Re-reading that it still doesn’t sound quite correct, but anyone who has attended a winter training course for new beekeepers will be familiar with what I’m talking about.

Nearly completed ...

Nearly completed …

Once the gaps are filled the comb is pretty robust and can be (mis)handled with the usual amount of care used for comb built on wired foundation. In addition, you can smile smugly to yourself as the woodwork was probably built from second quality frame partsΔ, there were no foundation costs involved and the wax is clean and untainted by residues.

Worker, drone, worker … worker, worker, drone

One of the striking features of hives containing a significant amount of foundationless frames is that the bees draw significantly more drone comb than is usually found. On standard foundation the bees squeeze drone comb into the corners of the frames, often making the comb uneven and misshapen. On foundationless frames they draw lots more, but the comb is generally not as misshapen.

If you use horizontally wired foundationless frames there will be large swathes of the comb dedicated to rearing drones. This may be intermixed with worker comb.

In contrast, frames built with vertical bamboo skewers tend to be drawn in thirds … with each third being ‘dedicated’ to either (or largely) worker or drone brood.

In the ‘Foundationless triptych …’ image above the left and central panel are largely worker comb, with the right being drone. In the image below the left and right panels start as worker but soon transition to all drone comb, the central panel is worker.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

I see this as a very significant advantage of this type of foundationless frame. Since the demarcation between drone and worker brood is pretty clear and since there are no wires to be cut, it will be a simple task to excise the unwanted segment (whether drone or worker) as required. We do this type of manipulation all the time when harvesting brood from our research colonies and the bees rapidly rebuild the damage if there is a nectar flow. It does not seem to result in weirdly shaped brace comb appearing throughout the hive.

Conclusion – bamboo skewers make good supports for foundationless brood frames. Before being completely drawn the frames need to be treated a little more gently than those with horizontal (wire or monofilament) supports which are more rapidly incorporated into comb. In my view the robustness and ease of construction using bamboo skewers outweighs this transitory lack of support.

Beautifully simple and simply beautiful

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Freshly drawn foundationless comb is really lovely stuff …

Beautiful newly drawn comb ...

Beautiful newly drawn comb …


† The KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid) dates back to the early 1960’s. It was originally a naval design term and was an expression meaning that most systems work better if they are kept simple rather than being made more complicated. Simplicity was therefore the design goal and unnecessary complexity was to be avoided.

‡ As a comparison, 1000 tongue depressors cost about £17 delivered. This is sufficient for well over 300 frames that are usable in perpetuity, or at least as long as the joints remain intact. In parallel to frames made with homemade foundation I have also used another 20-30 with commercial foundation. These worked as well, or badly, as any of the other starter strips used.

Foundationless frame ...

Foundationless frame …

§ It’s interesting (to me at least) that vertical 4mm supports are avoided whereas horizontal 1mm monofilament is readily incorporated – for example, compare the image on the right with those above. Is it the thickness or the orientation that makes them acceptable? How would the bees cope with very thin vertical supports? Alternatively, would they readily build comb ‘down’ through 4mm horizontal bamboo skewers? The latter is tricky to test as the longest skewers I’ve been able to find (35cm) are too short for a National frame. However, the ability to more willingly incorporate a thinner vertical supports can easily be tested and will be something I may well investigate next season. I suspect it’s the thickness of the ‘barrier’ rather than the orientation that’s important. Very thin wooden skewers would be flimsy (even if they were available), but there are a variety of other materials that could be tested.

Δ In my experience, other than a few poorly placed knots, second-quality frames are perfectly acceptable for building foundationless frames. One of their few failings, at least from some purchased from Thorne’s, is that the foundation channels in the side bars are sometimes off centre. Obviously, this is of no relevance when preparing foundationless frames.

 

Prime numbers and cast offs

This post was prompted by a recent search used to reach this website. The question posed was can a prime swarm be led by virgin queen if [the] old clipped queen dies trying to lead a swarm?”

Swarming is the natural way that honey bee colonies reproduce. The process is triggered by a number of factors – overcrowding and diminishing levels of queen pheromone being two of the most important.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

Both these are, directly or indirectly, measures of how strong the colony is. If the queen has nowhere to lay because the box is wall-to-wall brood or stuffed with nectar, the colony is effectively overcrowded. In contrast, if the colony has ample space but there are so many bees that the queen pheromone is ‘diluted’, the colony will sense this indirect measure of strength and make swarm preparations.

In addition, as queens age they naturally produce less queen pheromone; colonies headed by older queens are therefore more likely to swarm than those headed by first year queens.

Prime swarms

You’ll see two definitions of prime swarms. Some define it as the swarm headed by the mated, laying queen and others use it to mean the first swarm to issue from a hive.

They’re usually one and the same thing.

Developing queen cells in the hive are capped on the 9th day after the egg they contained was laid. If the weather conditions are suitable – typically early afternoon on a warm, sunny day – the mated queen leaves the hive with up to half the workers.

This swarm – headed by the mated queen and often containing perhaps 20 – 30,000 bees – is the prime swarm. It’s the first to leave the hive … but it might not be the last …

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc …

Casts (or cast swarms)

Seven days after the queen cells were sealed the new, virgin queen emerges (or ecloses). For the continued viability of the original colony this queen needs to be mated and return to the colony. She does this on a warm, sunny day a few days after eclosion.

However, there are often several developing queen cells remaining in a hive after a prime swarm disappears over the fence to the howling wilderness.

This is where things get interesting.

All sorts of things can happen at this point. If the colony is strong enough it will throw off one or more casts. These are small swarms, headed by a virgin queen. Small is a relative term. They’re small in comparison to a prime swarm. Once started a colony can continue to throw off smaller and smaller casts. Some are these small in comparison to a mug of tea.

The continued loss of bees means the colony may effectively ‘swarm-out’, reducing in strength until perhaps only 10% of the original colony remains. If this happens any opportunity of a honey harvest is also lost and there’s a chance the colony will not recover sufficiently in time to overwinter successfully.

To complicate matters further, if multiple queens emerge casts can contain more than one queen. Sometimes you’ll open a hive at the same time as multiple queens are emerging. It can be bedlam trying to catch half-a-dozen virgins scuttling around a busy brood box.

Hiving casts

Large casts – perhaps football-sized – are worth catching and dumping into a nuc. Once the queen gets mated they can develop into a worthwhile colony. Ted Hooper describes ‘rescuing’ smaller casts by uniting them over a queen excluder on top of the supers on a strong hive. The bees unite and the queen is prevented from entering the hive by the excluder. I’ve not had to do this. I’ve lost one or two colonies that swarmed out but missed the ever-diminishing casts altogether.

A cast ...

A cast …

The cast swarm above was collected in a skep and allowed to settle for a few hours. When I lifted the skep from the sheet to dump the bees into a nuc there was a single bee corpse remaining … a dead queen. The cast obviously contained at least two queens. On checking the nuc a week later, after a week of almost continuous rain, I found a single skittish queen running around. Her behaviour suggested she hadn’t yet had an opportunity to get out and mate.

A cast in the skep ...

A cast in the skep …

And the answer is … ?

Consider again the original question … can a prime swarm be led by virgin queen if [the] old clipped queen dies trying to lead a swarm?”. The answer isn’t necessarily straightforward.

I think I’d argue that a swarm led by a virgin queen, despite being the first swarm to leave the hive, is not a prime swarm. It’s viability still depends absolutely on the virgin getting mated.

I would consider it as a cast.

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

Clipped queens have one wing trimmed to restrict their flight. This is a well-established method of swarm control. If the colony swarms the queen drops to the ground and the swarm often clusters with her under the hive. Colonies with clipped queens usually swarm a bit later in the development cycle of the new queen(s) in the colony. However, they are only delayed by a day or two.

I’m therefore puzzled why – as suggested in the question – there was both a clipped queen and an emerged virgin in the colony simultaneously. Or perhaps there wasn’t, but the query was whether a subsequent emerging virgin would head the swarm …

I’m afraid the puzzle will remain. The question came from an internet search … unless the person who posed it reads this and responds all we can do is speculate.


Or perhaps to establish themselves in your neighbours soffits. The same neighbour who has always complained about your bees chasing their dog and stinging their children. Reason enough to try and not lose swarms.

‡ I know this was a cast headed by a virgin queen because it came from a vertical split in which the queenless half was left overly strong. The clipped and mated queen was ‘all present and correct’ in the queenright half of the split – I checked. I’m intending to write a bit more about how to prevent casts in the future … once I’m a little better at it than I’ve been this Spring  😥

Scouting for girls

A swarm of bees is a wonderful sight … if it’s arriving in your bait hive. It’s still dramatic, but perhaps slightly less wonderful, if it’s disappearing over the fence from your apiary 😉

Although some will disagree, I think beekeepers have a responsibility to both control swarming of their own stock, and capture – or attract – swarms lost by others. Although perhaps incomprehensible to us, some don’t share our passion for bees. Many are frightened and a large swarm is an intimidating sight for the melissophobic.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Aside from frightening people, if they move into the church tower or an old hollow tree, they’re likely to develop high levels of Varroa and the pathogenic viruses the mite transmits. As a consequence, they can act as a source of disease to bees in local apiaries, until they’re killed off in the winter. Which they almost certainly will be.

I therefore always put out bait hives in late Spring, well ahead of the expected start of the swarming season (which often coincides with the oil seed rape finishing). I’ve described the basics of bait hives previously – a National-sized, bee-smelling box containing one frame of old, dark comb and half a dozen foundationless frames. I often use stacked supers from the, otherwise-awful, Paradise poly hives for this purpose.

Dyb dyb dyb

One of the greats sights of the swarming season is the appearance of the first scout bees at the bait hive. First one or two, then a dozen and, within hours or days, hundreds. They check out the entrance and the inside the bait hive. They fly all around the perimeter. They’re unaggressive and you can get up close to watch them at work. If you listen carefully you can hear them pinging into the sidewalls and floor of the bait hive as they move about inside.

They actually probably measure the volume by a combination of walking around the inner walls and determining the mean free path length – the average length of all straight lines from wall-to-wall in the hive – in short flights. For an interesting and easily readable discussion of the physics behind this I recommend the short paper by Nigel Franks and Anna Dornhaus (PDF) How might individual honeybees measure massive volumes?

In my view, this alone is a good reason to use foundationless frames in a bait hive.

Scouts often arrive early at the bait hive and leave late. Their numbers will fluctuate with weather and temperature – they’ll disappear altogether in the rain, but reappear in force once a shower has passed.

Scouting around

This short video was taken about 9am, two or three days before a large prime swarm occupied the bait hive. The first scout bees I’d seen had been almost two weeks previously. By midday there were hundreds of bees checking the hive.

However, if you look closely, their behaviour is distinctively different from a colony ‘in residence’. They’re much more hesitant in entering the hive and they tend to check the immediate environment much more closely. In contrast, foragers returning to a colony don’t bother doing a couple of laps of the hive … they approach directly and enter with minimal delay.

Seeley’s swarms

The definitive guide to how scout bees choose suitable locations and then ‘persuade’ the swarm to relocate is Honeybee Democracy by Tom Seeley. This is an outstanding book, beautifully written and illustrated.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

Swarming is a two-stage process. The queen and flying bees leave the hive and settle nearby – on a branch, a fence post or (irritatingly) the top of a nearby conifer – creating the classic ‘beard-shaped’ cluster of bees. If you’re lucky with your timing and their location you can knock these into a box and, voila, you have a new colony.

Tom Seeley describes his own studies (based on the equally elegant work of Martin Lindauer in the 1950’s) that determine how scout bees convince the swarm to move from this temporary staging post to a new nesting location – a tree cavity, the church tower or your bait hive. The scout bees use a variation of the classic waggle dance – on the surface of the swarm hanging in the tree – to ‘persuade’ other scouts to check out the location they’ve found. Through repeated cycles of recruitment and reinforcement a consensus is reached and the scouts then lead the swarm to their new home.

That’s the abridged version. Read the book. There are subtleties and anecdotes throughout Honeybee Democracy that mean it’s the sort of book you can go back to time and time again, learning something new each time.

Early scouts

I was puzzled by the swarm that arrived in my bait hive. The first scouts appeared early in the first week of May. I was abroad from the 7th to the 14th and confidently expected the swarm to be waiting for me when I got back. However, it wasn’t until at least another week had elapsed – during which scout bee interest continued unabated – that the swarm arrived.

Honeybee democracy

Honeybee democracy

I went back to Honeybee Democracy and re-read the second chapter (‘Life in a honeybee colony’) and learnt – or was reminded – that there are early scout bees that are able to judge both nest site quality and the state of the colony preparing to swarm. These scouts are at work before the colony swarms. Uniquely these bees are judging both the availability and suitability of new homes and the readiness of the colony to swarm.

They can also tell whether it’s a nice day. The coincidence of these factors – good weather, readiness of the colony to swarm (i.e. sealed queen cells) and potential nest sites – initiate a behavioural change in these scouts that leads to the colony swarming.

Are these scouts the earliest sign of swarm preparation?

What Seeley doesn’t say is just how early in the swarming cycle these scout bees start their initial explorations.

Queens take 16 days to develop from new-laid eggs to eclosion, and just nine days to the sealing of the queen cell. If we assume that the first scouts I saw were from the same hive that subsequently swarmed (and delivered itself to my bait hive) then these scouts were out and about well-before queen cells were even started.

Of course, I have no way of telling whether the first scouts I saw were from the same colony that finally swarmed and arrived. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting thought. Perhaps scout bee interest in a bait hive pre-dates the first definitive swarm preparation signs beekeepers can usually recognise – the appearance of charged queen cells?

Considering the density of beekeepers (by which I mean apiaries 😉 ) in the UK it’s not easy to see how this would be useful … unless you’re the only beekeeper on an isolated island.

However, if you see do scout bee activity at your bait hives it might be worth being more assiduous than usual when checking your own colonies in the neighbourhood.

 


Dyb dyb dyb is an abbreviation for ‘do your best‘. This was part of a cub (not scout) ceremony and was followed by Dob dob dob (‘do our best‘). It was abandoned in the late sixties, but lives on in tricky questions on Qi.

Colophon

Scouting for Boys

Scouting for Boys …

The title of this post is a play on ‘Scouting for Boys‘, the book on Boy Scout training, written and illustrated (originally) by Robert Baden-Powell and published in 1908. The book contains sections on scoutcraft, woodcraft, tracking, camp life, endurance, chivalry, life saving and patriotism. It was the inspiration for the scout movement and Baden-Powell was the founder and first Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts Association (and the founder of the Girl Guides). It is estimated that 4 million copies sold in the UK alone, with global sales in the 20th Century exceeding 100 million.

The book even contains reference to honey bees with the statement that bees form a ‘model community, for they respect their Queen and kill their unemployed’.

The Boy Scouts of America used to offer merit badges in Beefarming (1915-1955) and Beekeeping (from 1955). The Beekeeping merit badge was discontinued in 1995.

Scouting for Girls is an English pop rock band. They have recently announced their 10th Anniversary Tour (Oct/Nov 2017) which means they’re much too new for me to know any of their music 😉