Beekeeping notes from Amanda Millar
Early swarming? forage, inspections, solitary bees, and the fungicide chlorothalonil ban:
I wonder whether any bees have swarmed so far, I expect the lovely Easter weather brought a few out. I did hear of a bunch of bees found under a mesh floor at the end of March, which sounds a bit like an attempted swarm returning to a clipped queen. I was thankful to be able to check mine thoroughly when we had a couple of earlier spells of nice weather in Feb and one in late March. In fact I experienced what was probably my first honey flow in late March and I put a super on every colony. However, in the nearly three weeks of cold wind, rain, frosts and temperatures afterwards it was too cold to open them and I think they ate most of it. Indeed, I was a little concerned about their stores as I had taken off one or two full frames of surplus mixed winter stores from several, prior to adding the super (so it would not contaminate the honey) and I knew their populations had expanded greatly. I had to give my lightest colony a contact feeder and returned its two frames of winter stores.
In spite of the cool temperatures, there was a lot of forage around me and bees were going out, although still collecting a lot of water (they were all over my damp pot plants), which implies consumption of stores rather than using incoming nectar. They will keep visiting an open water butt and drowning in it. I draped grass and twigs over it but they still fell in until I draped a bit of net curtain and that seems to do the trick. In the cold weather I found 7 which had fallen in within two hours since I last checked but two feebly moved a leg when fished out, so I put them on tissue in a pot in the boiler room and 15 minutes later they were all buzzing around and flew off strongly when released. It gave me a warm buzz to see them go. Also in the cold wind weather I found nearly 100 chilled outside two hives; a night in a bucket in the boiler room with a drizzle of honey water and they were all ready to go next morning. A few bees crawling outside can indicate a virus and the bees have committed altruistic self-removal to die away from the colony, so judgement is required and I did not put them back in the hives, rather let them fly back themselves.
In March when I put on a super, which they have filled with brood, I also took the opportunity to put a shallow frame of drone foundation at the edge of the brood nest in my best colonies. I was amazed to find about five days later that this had been all drawn out and had eggs already. When I was at last able to check just before Easter when the weather improved, I was relieved to find they were not making queen cells although some were congested and all required another super. Three days later, on Easter Sunday, two had a couple of charged queen cells. So I am now shifting to swarm control. I found some colonies had filled the space between the brood boxes with brace drone brood, because they had no room, this broke when the boxes were separated. I removed this brace to avoid squashing bees when I put the super back on.
I am now checking principally for space for brood expansion and space for nectar storage and queen cells. I have already given them a thorough brood inspection for disease and am just finishing off a the varroa in couple of colonies which missed the full Oxalic Acid vapourisation, using icing sugar. Swarm prevention needs to be in place and control equipment should be ready just in case, bait hives out. Prevention techniques which seem to work for me - some of the time - include making sure all their frames are useable by removing old pollen clogged or damaged frames (think about this in the autumn); anticipating their needs for space for brood and nectar storage before they need it, by judging the weather and nectar flow – easier said than done! I thought I was on top of it but yesterday had to put yet another super on 5 of them just three days after giving them a super! This is best using drawn comb if it is to prevent swarm preparations, and it can be put between the brood and the rest of the supers. As I no longer use queen excluders, they can choose whether they wish to fill it with brood or nectar and acts as a swarm prevention measure. Or at least it delays swarm preparations and I find that queen cells are often started between the brood boxes, so it is usually sufficient to get an idea of their intentions just by lifting one side of the super and looking along the bottom bars, instead of going through each frame.I have now used up most of my drawn comb and must prepare some frames with foundation in the next day or two. Boxes of foundation I generally put on top or under a nearly full super in a nectar flow. Finally, have you tried checkerboarding, to prevent a band of capped honey forming above the brood nest which would otherwise makes them think they have achieved enough stores and can then start on reproductive swarming? You alternate a frame of nectar with empty drawn frame. It does not work with foundation, which acts as a barrier. There is a good description on the Honeybeesuite website. I also try to rear queens, nucs etc from my colonies which supersede and not from colonies which try to swarm even though it might be easier. Last year less than 30% of my colonies started making queen cells and Control methods (artificial swarm, taking the queen off in a nuc etc), prevented any loss of swarms. I don’t think I will achieve that this year as several preventative measures (anticipating super requirement, checkerboarding) rely on being able to inspect every week but the cold spell messed up that plan at a critical time and now they seem to be one step ahead of me.
Osmia the Red Mason and probably the Blue Mason
Over the Easter holiday it was warm enough to bring out my solitary bees and I had dozens of Osmia squabbling over the holes in my home-made bee hotels. Two species, initially shiny blue males of one species waiting for females to hatch and then I saw some Red Mason females. I might have to make some more hotels very soon! Also the mining bees have been busy in the lawn for several weeks, over Easter, I spotted a number of the parasitic Nomada bees which lay their eggs in these mining bee burrows. They are black and yellow striped and look a bit like small wasps; indeed the Nomada bees are quite difficult to distinguish from the little solitary wasps which are great little pest controllers; laying their eggs in caterpillars etc. They do move quickly though and are much less tolerant of an approaching arm with camera on the end than my honey bees which seem to get on with business regardless. It is good to see that there have been some articles in the press recently about the adverse competition the increasing number of honey bee colonies have on our dwindling other pollinators in cities. It would be good if more people realised that to “save our pollinators” the answer is not to just set up yet more beehives, but to plant more flowers and put up solitary bee hotels. The hive population in London, for example, is twice the recommended density to achieve a balance of all pollinators. Brighton is not far behind.
The Red Mason Bee
The fungicide chlorothalonil is to be banned by the EU in late April to early May and expected to take effect about 3 weeks later. It has been found to be linked to declines in bees, by killing essential beneficial gut bacteria. It also harms amphibians and fish and possibly human DNA. Good riddance! However, the chemicals which Bayer is marketing as replacements for the banned neonicotinoids (sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone) are apparently so similar to neonics that it is feared they could also be dangerous to bees and other insects especially when used in conjunction with fungicides. Out of the frying pan into the fire!