Our bees have been busy

Wow, the weather has been incredibly warm this week, and it seems that we put our super on at the right time – the girls have been busy this week! But more of that later.

Last week we put a monitoring board underneath our open mesh floor. The idea is to count the number of varroa that have fallen down, which gives you an idea of the level of infestation in the hive.

So we started our inspection by examining the monitoring board and estimating the number of mites. There are several mites on the board below – the dark brown, round shapes, e.g. just below and to the left of the finger.

Using the guide produced by FERA on varroa, we concluded that our mite drop was acceptable and that no action was needed at this time, but we will continue to monitor the situation throughout the season.

Today was our first open day, where we opened up our hive to visitors to come and have a look – and what a beautiful day it is!

Thanks to the exceptionally warm weather over the last week our girls have been incredibly busy. Last week we put in a whole new super box full of frames – well almost. The box takes 11 frames, but I had miscounted what I brought and only had 9 frames to put in.

As they have been pretty slow at drawing out foundation in the brood box over the last few weeks, we figured 9 would be enough to keep them going. Well they had drawn out the foundation in all 9 frames, and built some wild comb in the gap, which you can see hanging from the crown board! Not only that, they had made a good start at filling all the frames with nectar.

We found Gilla again this week – much easier now that she is marked. You can see her long abdomen in the picture below.

Given the progress they have made on their super, we decided to put another one on to make sure they don’t run out of space. So our hive is starting to get quite tall!

We found Gilla

Well, today we found our queen, to our excitement. Although we knew she was there because we have always found eggs, it is always reassuring to be able to see her. We managed to mark her with a white dot so she is easier to find next time. This is the best photo we got (she is in the middle of the photo, you can just make out the white dot, although she is rather obscured by other bees).

It is customary to mark queens with a sequence of five colours white-yellow-red-green-blue (remembered by Will You Raise Good Bees), corresponding to the year they were born. Queens can live up to five years (although they are rarely kept that long), hence 5 colours. So ours is white, as she is a 2011 queen.

It is also customary to name the queen, and ours is called Gilla as a result of a vote on a number of potential names by our BeeShare holders. (An old name for Ealing was ‘Gillingas’ meaning people associataed with Gilla, which was a personal name).

The brood is looking healthy, with a good pattern as seen in the frame above, and they are expanding the brood nest onto most of the frames.  Most of the biscuit coloured area in the middle of the frame is capped worker (female bee) brood, with the larger dome shaped cells up the top right being capped drone (male bee) brood.

As they are filling up the bottom ‘brood’ box, we decided to put on a queen excluder and a honey super. The queen excluder is basically a plastic sheet with slotted holes in it. The holes are big enough for the worker bees to get through, but too small for the queen to get through. This means that she can’t get into the frames above the queen excluder, so there will be no eggs or larvae in them – just honey! This is where the ‘superfluous’ honey will be stored, hopefully enough for us to be able to take some off at the end of the season, fingers crossed.

Bad weather for bees

The weather has been, and still is, miserable! And bad for bees. With so much rain there has been little chance for them to get out and forage. The NBU sent out an advisory note this week warning that there is a risk of starvation of colonies. With such mild (and in some cases record breaking) warm temperatures in March, colonies have built up, and now there are lots of hungry mouths to feed – and without the chance now to get out and forage, the bees are in a vulnerable situation.

We fed our bees with syrup when we transferred them into their hive to make sure that they could get off to a good start and they had taken all of that feed this week, so we topped it up to make sure they can get through the next couple of weeks, which looks set to remain cold and rainy.

Once again, it is far from ideal conditions to be opening up a hive, but we needed to sort out the spacers on the frames, as the nucleus came with different types of spacers to the new frames we built, and these don’t match up. The concept of ‘bee space’ was developed by Langstroth in the mid 1800s and is a fundamental part of the way the modern hive is made up. The idea is that there is an ideal space between and around the frames that the bees will live within. Too small and the bees will fill it up with propolis, too big and they will build wild comb (which we then have to break apart when we open up the hive). Just right and they’ll leave it alone. The spacers keep the frames the ‘just right’ distance apart. We managed to get the right spacers onto the new frames, and remove some of the wild comb that they had already started to build up, which should help make things easier for future inspections.

This week the bees seemed slightly more settled (or maybe we were just more brave!), and so we had a quick look through all of the frames, which we didn’t do last week. Keeping the smoker lit helped – the egg cartons seemed to work well as a fuel supply. But again we were conscious of the weather, and so didn’t want to keep the hive open for too long, and so didn’t spot the queen. But there were eggs, so we know she is there.

We also spotted a bee with deformed wing virus, which is a sign of varroa mites (which are vectors for viruses and other diseases), so we’ll need to keep an eye on that. These days all colonies will have some level of varroa mite population, but the beekeeper’s role is to keep the number of mites at a tolerable level with a variety of control measures.

Let’s hope that the weather picks up and our bees can get back to pollinating the orchard and other trees and flowers, or this year could be a tough one for crops and for bees.

First hive inspection

Well the weather has been pretty rubbish. As it was pretty cold we needed to keep our inspection fairly quick, – most beekeepers probably wouldn’t open the hive and disturb the bees in this weather, but there were a few things we needed to check:

1. Do they have enough food?

2. What progress have they made in drawing out the frames of foundation we put in, and do we need to give them more room?

3. Is the queen present (especially as we didn’t see her when transferring them in)?

Before we opened up the hive, we watched them coming in and out of the entrance. Although it was reasonably cool, it was sunny and sheltered and there were plenty of bees coming and going, mostly laden with pollen. Based on the pollen guide on the Bristol Beekeepers website my guess is they were bringing in apple (they live in an orchard!), crabapple and dandelion. Bringing in pollen is a good sign – it means that they are raising brood (larvae), as the pollen provides protein for brood development.

We put a feeder on last week as the bees came with minimal stores on their frames, and the weather has been cool, so there is not a lot of opportunity for them to go out and forage. This will make sure that they don’t starve, and also help stimulate them to draw out the new foundation. We had topped it up during the week, and there was still plenty left this inspection, so we left it as is.

They hadn’t made much progress drawing out the foundation – just part of one side of one frame, so they definitely didn’t need more room!

We found eggs, which tells us that the queen is there. As eggs take three days to hatch into a larva, this means that the queen has been there within the last three days – i.e. since we transferred them in. As it was cool, and the bees were pretty agitated, we decided to close up the hive, as we’d seen all we needed to see.

We hadn’t yet seen the queen, but we knew she was there.

But then once we were home, Angela sent around her photos and the eagle-eyed Kathy spotted our queen on one of them. She’s unmarked, so tricky to spot. She is bigger than the worker bees, and has a long, pointed abdomen. Once it gets warm enough to spend more time with the hive open we’ll try and find her and mark her so she is easier to find.