Visitors get up close and personal with our bees

We were lucky with the weather for our second open day – we managed to pick a sunny gap between some rather heavy showers to open up the hive and check out our bees.

They continue to do well, with a good healthy brood nest, and a good amount of stores up in the honey supers. Whether there is enough for us to take a crop of honey off will depend on their ability to take advantage of the main flow of nectar over the next month or so.

Below, Kathy checks a play cup for an egg.

Last week we put a partly drawn shallow frame into the brood box to replace a broken frame we had removed, and they have been busy girls over the past week.

This is what it looked like last week….

And this is what they have done in a week….

This is a method of varroa control. What they have done (by the book!) is drawn out the foundation within the wooden frame into worker cells (because that was how the foundation is imprinted), and then built ‘wild’ or ‘free’ comb below the frame, and you can see from the picture that this has larger cells than the worker comb. This is drone comb, and the queen will lay unfertilised eggs, which will turn into drones (males), which are larger than their female counterparts. Varroa mites will preferentially inhabit drone cells because of their longer pupation period (which gives the varroa longer to breed). Gilla had not started laying in these cells yet, but she should very soon, and by next week there should be young larvae in the cells.

A week later, the cells will be capped and we can then remove all of the drone comb, complete with larvae and, more critically, lots of varroa. We’ll freeze it to kill everything. The drones are good for nothing (they only exist to mate with a queen, they don’t do any work or collect nectar), so apart from the energy that has been used to build the comb and make the bees, we have lost very little… except for a lot of varroa… at least that’s the plan.

As well as being a method of controlling the numbers of varroa, it is also a way of assessing the level of infestation by uncapping the brood and counting the numbers of varroa – which is a bit messy, but it will help us to assess whether we need to take further control measures.

Come and visit our hive

Next weekend (Sunday 24th of June, 1pm) we are having an open day at the hive – your chance to visit, put on a bee suit and get up close and personal with our bees!

If you are interested in coming along, please contact us at ealingcommunitygarden@gmail.com so we can give you details of how to find us, what to wear etc.

We ask for a gold coin donation – any money raised is put back into the project to provide training of the beekeepers and equipment.

Time to start culling some drones

We started this week, as we always do, by lighting the smoker. A few puffs of smoke into the hive will make the bees think there is a fire, and that they might all need to leave. In preparation, they fill themselves up on honey, which makes them calmer, and can also get them out of the way. Beekeepers will generally have a smoker to hand, and the judicious use of smoke will help to make the inspection go smoothly. That is if you can keep it lit!

A few weeks ago, the lugs on one of our frames broke, so we needed to get rid of the frame, but it was covered in brood. Not wanting to lose all those potential bees, we decided to keep it in the hive, but we moved it to the edge of the hive, and on the other side of the dummy board, to prevent the queen from laying new eggs in it. The cunning plan worked, and 3 weeks later, the last of the brood were emerging, some helped into the world by Kathy!

Because it has been fairly cool, and because the frame was away from the middle of the brood cluster, some bees seem to have died from being chilled, but most of them seem to have made it.

The girls seem to be doing well, despite the mixed weather, and the brood frames have plenty of bees on them.

One of the threats (to the beekeeper) of a strong colony is that they find themselves so strong that they can split the colony in two, a process known as swarming, and the natural means of reproducing the ‘superorganism’. We keep a strong lookout for signs of potential swarming each week by checking for queen cells. We have found plenty of ‘play cups’, which are a bit like practice queen cells, over the last few weeks, but this week we found the first that was getting closer to a queen cell. There was no egg in it, so we can relax… at least for the next week.

The brood seems to be healthy, and the picture below shows nice capped worker brood, as well as nice, white, c-shaped larvae, nicely segmented – all signs of good health. And to the top right you can see pollen stored. They seem to have stored loads of pollen.

Although the brood looks healthy, one thing we need to remain constantly vigilant for is varroa. The mite is present in all hives throughout the UK (and much of the world), and is tolerated at low levels, but carries disease, and at high levels of infestation can destroy a colony, mainly as a result of the diseases that it transfers to the bees.

With widespread resistance to pyrethroids in the UK (through misuse), we have lost what used to be a very effective measure against varroa, and so have to rely on a series of small measures to keep the numbers to a tolerable level.

One of these is drone culling, which involves encouraging the hive to create drones (male bees), and then removing and killing the drone brood when it is capped. Because mites prefer drone brood (as it is capped for longer, and therefore gives the mite longer to reproduce), lots of the mites will be in the drone brood, and so if you remove and destroy it, you have destroyed the mites.

And so, we have replaced our broken frame with a shallower ‘super’ frame from the honey super, which is partly drawn out. The bees should build ‘wild’ comb below this, and it will be drone comb. We can then easily remove it once it has been capped.

We shall see how it goes…

A strong colony is developing

Every time we open up the hive we never know quite what we are going to see. And every time we see different things and learn something new.

We were concerned when we saw the frame below that we might have chalk brood when we saw the white pupa. Chalk brood is a disease that turns the larvae into mummified, ‘chalk’ like substance. But then we realised that we had just probably bumped the cappings off some drone brood as we pulled the frame from the hive, and exposed the pupating larvae.

One of the larvae had a varroa mite on it – they are easier to see against the white larvae, and they prefer drone brood because of its longer pupation period (which gives the varroa mite longer to reproduce).

The undertaker bees immediately got to work removing the remaining pupa.

They have plenty of pollen stores, in a beautiful mosaic pattern around the edge of the frames. The variety of colours indicates they have been foraging from a range of plants, so they will produce a wonderful multifloral honey, typical of urban honies.

In the picture below, you can see a drone larva, just about to be capped over ready to pupate. The nice, white, segmented larva looks nice and healthy.

We also saw a number of bees emerging. You can just see a head poking out in the middle of the picture below, and an antenna poking through just above it. The newly emerged bees are slightly lighter in colour, and tend to be all fluffy.

The first honey super is getting nicely filled up. The nectar that is brought in by the bees is emptied from their honey stomachs into the cells, and then they evaporate the water from it, until it is about 80% sugar – at this concentration it is now ‘honey’ rather than ‘nectar’ and is stable so it won’t ferment. At this point the bees will build a thin wax capping over each cell to safely store the honey.

We were perhaps a little optimistic giving them a second box of super frames last week, as they haven’t started to draw them out at all – but we know the space is there when they need it, and depending on the weather and availability of forage, they might want to move into it before too long.

Bees are constantly in contact with one another, and as a result the queen’s pheromone is spread throughout the colony – their signal that all is OK. The bees in the picture below at the hive entrance are probably passing honey from one to the other, and at the same time will be passing a bit of pheromone to one another.