Category Archives: Bee keeping

Bee all and end all

We had some troubling experiences with our bees last year. We had a grumpy Queen producing grumpy daughters intent on stinging anyone they could. Then she left home taking half of her offspring. Those left behind were Queenless and very very grumpy. The next Queen was no better and she only produced drones …. See previous bee posts. Rigsby and Shackleton got stung and Shackleton had particularly bad reactions to the venom. Phil got stung, the worst was when one went down his welly and he got the full whack on the foot, rendering him unable to wear a shoe for almost two weeks. We got a new Queen and they settled nicely. The colony was very small though and we were unsure if they’d be able to make it through winter.

We fed them with a block of fondant and Spring arrived. We saw them flying which was a good sign. Then Phil noticed 8 dead bees on the flight board. He checked inside and the fondant was still there. The food was inches away from them yet they’d failed to find it. The bees had used a lot of energy flying out on the odd unusually warm spring day but with few flowers, there was little food to be had. They have starved to death despite having food right above their heads.

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Dead bees

We have mixed feelings about bee keeping going forward. On the one hand we can all enjoy the garden without fear of air strikes but we can’t help thinking we let them down. Our plan is to continue learning how to be better bee keepers by attending the Oak Bank apiary and maybe just maybe, the bees will be back next year.

Wasp-wasted

We noticed quite a few wasps inside the hive when we inspected last Sunday. They were walking boldly among the bees and stealing the honey stores in the brood box. Wasps are a real menace; not only do they have the potential to kill the Queen but en masse they can completely rob out a hive which means our colony could starve to death. Apparently it takes 5 bees to kill off a single wasp and they will fight to the death, so to give them some help, we set a couple of wasp traps. The first one was a wine bottle containing wine dregs placed behind the hive and so far it has worked well. However, the second one contains a couple of spoons of raspberry and whisky jam, a smidgen of rose wine and a little water. They seem to really go for this one !

Wasp traps

Wasp traps

Today we inspected again and the feeder was empty so we put another in. The bees climb up the inside of the central cone which has ridges so they don’t slide off. Then they climb down to the syrup sitting at the base of the cone. The inverted plastic cup ensures there’s just enough to get to and they don’t drown.

Feeder containing 2:1 sugar and water

Feeder containing 2:1 sugar and water

The wasp traps have been very effective and there were no wasps in the hive. The colony is growing nicely and today we saw eggs, capped brood, honey and pollen.

Eggs can be seen sitting vertically in the bottom of the cells

Eggs can be seen sitting vertically resembling rice grains in the bottom of the cells

Capped brood which contains pupae

Capped brood which contains pupae

Pollen and glistening honey

Pollen and glistening honey

The Queen was going about her business and the bees were calm.

There she is looking resplendent in blue !while a worker deposits a load of pollen from pollen bags on her legs

There she is looking resplendent in blue while a worker deposits a load of pollen from pollen bags on her legs

Before closing up, the last job was to reduce the size of the entrance hole, which reduces the chance of wasps entering. The downside is the bees have to queue to get back in.

Reducing the hive entrance

Reducing the hive entrance

Smaller hole means fewer wasps

Smaller hole means fewer wasps

Bank robbery

The season is drawing to an end and we need to prepare our bees for over-wintering. Our colony is too small to make it through currently; there are not enough bees to prepare cells for the Queen to lay into and not enough nurse bees to look after the eggs and larvae. The answer is to increase the number of bees quickly. We were given a Queenless nucleus of bees by Fiona to combine with our hive in the hope that the Queen will have sufficient resources to boost wax workers and give her a chance to increase the amount of brood. We employed the paper and icing sugar method again (see earlier post the Queen is dead) and put a feeder in with sugar solution made from 2:1 sugar to water. We did this at dusk when all the flying bees were back home. At the same time we removed 3 frames of capped honey. We haven’t taken all their reserves away but I’m keen to have a few jars in return for all our effort.

Upon inspection this weekend, we noted calm bees, we spotted the Queen and there was brood at all stages of development. Some bees were coming home covered in white pollen, so we know they have been on the Himalayan Balsam down by the river Eden. Phil and I took the dogs there this morning and took some photos.

Himalayan Balsam growing by the river Eden

Himalayan Balsam growing by the river Eden

This is an excellent food source for our bees right through ’til October. However, it’s a controversial plant as it out-competes other native marginal species and having very shallow roots, contributes to erosion as it dies back in winter leaving the river bank exposed to flooding.

Bee deep inside Himalayan Balsam flower

According to RHS, Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) is a relative of the Busy Lizzie and in the UK the plant was first introduced in 1839. It grows rapidly and spreads quickly, smothering other vegetation as it goes. It is the tallest annual growing in the UK. It typically grows to 1 to 3 m (3.3 to 10 ft) high, with a soft green or red-tinged stem, and lanceolate leaves 5 to 23 cm (2.0 to 9.1 in) long. The crushed foliage has a strong musty smell. Below the leaf stems the plant has ‘glands’ that produce a sticky, sweet-smelling, and edible nectar. The flowers are varying shades of pink, with a hooded shape.

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After flowering between June and October, the plant forms seed pods 2 to 3 cm (¾ to 1¼ in) long and 8 mm broad (¼ in), which explode when disturbed, scattering the seeds up to 7 metres (23 feet). So entertaining can it be to see the pods “pop” that apparently it has even been marketed as a novelty for children – “Mr Noisy’s Exploding Plant” – once sold by, among other outlets, Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Apparently, the green seed pods, seeds, young leaves and shoots are all edible and the flowers can be turned into a jam or parfait.

Sunday we went to our Bee Buddy Stuart’s home and met fellow local Beekeepers for afternoon tea. We discussed the pros and cons of sugar solution feed v Ambrosia, swapped swarm stories, debated the value of Himalayan Balsam as an abundant bee food source against erosion of the river bank and discussed the value of expanded foam loft insulation in the hive roof or old towels for winter warmth. Fiona was there and summed it up rather nicely ….. ‘It’s like the blind leading the partially sighted’. Our conclusion is ask 6 bee keepers for an opinion on the solution to a problem and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers !

Beeten….. Well almost !

Well after all we’ve been through it feels like the bees have beaten us. The last straw was when Shackleton stood on a bee that was wandering through the grass and got stung on the paw. He’d been stung the previous week and vomited about five times within 10 minutes. This time he vomited once but then his little face started to swell, his eyes were itchy and began to close and his lips and muzzle swelled. We rang the emergency vet who suggested that it was not quite an anaphylactic reaction but the next one might be and to give him piriton, watch and wait. It did the trick but we are concerned that if it happens again, the reaction could be even worse. Phil also got stung when one went down his welly and his ankle and foot became huge and painful. Later big blisters developed on the top of his foot and back of the ankle and a cluster of blisters near the ankle bone. He couldn’t wear a shoe for three days and walking was near impossible. Drastic defence action was required as you will see in the picture below and they have to go from our garden. We tried our best.

Phil's pat-pending defence against upwardly mobile bees !

Phil’s pat-pending defence against upwardly mobile bees 

It’s been three weeks since we united the two hives using the newspaper and icing sugar method. Fiona  has suggested that we could keep our hive in her orchard which would be a good option for the dogs. Last inspection,  we opened the hive and noted a neat hole where they’d chewed through the Cumberland News; note the article featuring Phil and Alex and the refurbishment of the Lonsdale cinema stained glass panels featuring Carlisle castle, top right.

Chewed by bees

Chewed by bees

There were three frames of bees with grubs and capped brood and we spotted the Queen resplendent with her blue thorax (upper right).

Frame of bees with capped brood and Queen marked with blue pen.

Frame of bees with capped brood and Queen marked with blue pen.

They were calm having had some smoke and we saw multicoloured pollen stores. From these It is possible to tell what they have been foraging on.

Multicouloured pollen stores.

Multicouloured pollen stores to feed the grubs and glistening honey to feed the staff.

Pollen chart from Kentbee.com

Pollen chart from Kentbee.com

They had eaten the contents of a full frame of honey that we’d put in when combining the hives, as they were on the brink of starvation. The bad weather and lack of sunshine this summer has reduced their number of trips out to forage and so the plan is to put a rapid feeder in to give  the wax workers a boost. Then the Queen will have cells to lay in and hopefully the colony will grow sufficiently to over-winter. We noted that there were many dead bees on the Queen exluder and on closer inspection these were all drones. This is a natural process as once the drones have done their job and mated they die and are expelled by the girls.

So, we now have a smaller but calmer colony and as the risk to the dogs is reducing as we head towards the Autumn, we are considering over-wintering the hive here and moving it to Fiona’s orchard in the spring.

The Queen is dead.

We went round to Fiona’s apiary on Friday to go through her hives. She had re-Queened her colonies that had Drone-laying Queens and now we saw eggs and brood indicating that the issue had resolved. We saw the Queen too as she had been marked. The bees were still a bit tetchy though despite the presence of Queens. Fiona then came over to look at our hives.

The new hive that contained the nucleus was a sorry affair. There were lots of dead bees which we determined to be starving because there were insufficient bees to bring pollen home and they hadn’t any food reserves in the comb. They’d worn the capping on the brood due to walking about. This colony needed more bees if it was to survive.

The other hive still had lots of Drone comb and eggs. We’d seen multiple eggs previously and deduced this to be the result of a laying worker. However, Fiona spotted a Queen. We quickly marked her blue (blue for this year) and then she flew off. We found out that it is possible to have a Drone laying Queen and laying worker at the same time because if the Queen is failing (which this one is) the workers can start laying, but this strategy won’t work because they can’t raise a new Queen from laying worker eggs, only more Drones. The colony is doomed unless it is re-Queened.

So, the next step was to unite the colonies after first finding the failing Queen and dispatching her. In the meantime, Fiona advised that we needed to shake off the bees into the grass, cut out all the Drone cells and put the these frames to one side so the bees could recover the honey and take it back home. The combining operation would happen that evening after all the bees had returned. Later that evening, we opened up the hive and easily spotted the Queen as she was marked. She was quickly despatched.

Dead Queen

Dead Queen

We put a sheet of newspaper on top of the nucleus hive and scattered icing sugar and poked some small holes through the paper. Then we stacked the other hive on top.

Uniting the two colonies with newspaper and icing sugar between the hives

Uniting the two colonies with newspaper and icing sugar between the hives

The bees in the top box will then eat through the paper. The icing sugar drops onto the bees below and then they will groom one another and take on the pheromones of the Queen in the bottom box. Thus, they will recognise her and not kill her off. We have to wait 10 days now before we open up again and assess the state of play.

Droning on

Yesterday I was round at Fiona’s helping her go through her hives, I reckon the more I see and handle bees the quicker I will become confident and competent. However, it’s not only us having trouble with bees. The first 2 hives we went through had frame after frame of Drone brood and no worker brood. This indicates a Drone laying Queen and isn’t good news. A Done-laying queen arises after a Queen has run out of sperm or when a virgin Queen fails to mate properly. In either case, the Queen does not lay any fertilized eggs so the colony is unable to raise a new Queen. In time, the colony will dwindle and die, because Drones are incapable of foraging and there will be no new workers to collect food.

Drone brood is larger and looks like raised knobbles

Drone brood is larger than worker brood and looks like raised knobbles

Drone and worker brood. The worker cells are smaller and flat in appearance

Drone and worker brood. The worker cells are smaller and flat in appearance

The previous day we inspected our own hive and saw multiple eggs in cells that should only contain a single egg. This is evidence of a Laying Worker bee. What puzzled us was that the colony could be Queenless but calm. We learned that Laying Workers have just enough pheromone to convince the others there’s a Queen present in the hive, hence they remain placid. For this reason, re-Queening would not be possible because they would kill the introduced Queen. Also bad news because they can’t produce fertile eggs, so they can’t raise a Queen or workers either, only Drones, which will result ultimately in failure of the colony. Fiona’s coming back on Tues to assist with the next inspection and we may have to replace with a new swarm which she collected yesterday.

 

 

 

Bee-wildering

We inspected our hives yesterday under the guidance of Fiona who is an experienced local beekeeper. We looked at the new hive first and she confirmed it to be a failed colony. There were half emerged dead bees on the comb and a handful of bewildered looking bees wandering around.

Half emerged dead bees

Half emerged dead bees

Then she said ‘there’s the Queen ! …… It is very unusual to have a Queen with so few bees.’ On closer inspection, Phil found a hatched Queen cell, which would probably account for her presence. The Queen we’d walked in and coloured blue was nowhere to be seen. This would appear to be a virgin Queen. All she needed was a viable colony with Drones to mate with so we planned to transport her to Fiona’s nucleus hive which was recently Queenless.

Hatched Queen cell

Hatched Queen cell

This nucleus colony had come from a new swarm and usually a swarm will contain a laying Queen. However, sometimes the Queen is lost during collection of the swarm or she may not be viable for some reason. Fiona had brought a Queen cage to introduce our Queen to the nucleus. This had a piece of fondant covering an exit hole. When this is placed in the nucleus, the bees will eat their way into her because they will detect Queen pheromone. This takes a few days by which time, the nucleus colony will be totally familiar with her ‘scent’ and accept her as their own. Fiona captured the Queen and put a couple of attendants in with her. I put the cage in my pocket to keep her warm during the drive to Fiona’s.

Queen cage

Queen cage

The nucleus colony was quite different in behaviour and seemed agitated at being disturbed. This is a sign of being Queenless. Phil hooked the cage over a frame with wire and later that evening when the bees had all gone to bed, we transported the nucleus back to our house. The plan is to look again mid week when hopefully the Queen will have been released and she should be easier to spot amongst this smaller colony. We were advised not to mark her as she is probably unmated. We won’t make the same mistake this time.

Nucleus hive placed in position of ne hive so that when transferred, the bees will know exactly where home is.

Nucleus hive placed in position of new hive so that when transferred, the bees will know exactly where home is.

Our main hive looked much happier. The bees were very calm and we inspected each frame to find the Queen but didn’t see her. The frame of eggs we had inserted last weekend had a small sealed Queen cell on it and there were another half dozen supersedure Queen cells on frame 4. It’s all very confusing; we saw eggs and grubs which would indicate a laying Queen, but why would they be making Queen cells if they already have  a laying Queen ? Clearly our bees don’t read the books ! We were advised to remove these Queen cells except for one and then check again in a week. Today we are off to a Penrith Beekeepers Association event at B&Q and will discuss with other Beekeepers.