Amanda's Beekeeping Notes May 2020

Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar

After another fine week in the latter half of April all the bees have been very busy, expanding and collecting nectar. I hope you have managed to keep on top of their needs for supers for nectar and also space for expanding brood. Congestion in either area may lead to swarm preparations, which would be very inconvenient to collect during this lockdown. A few days of cool weather mid-April (following a cold March when inspections were not possible) meant my second full inspection was 12 days after the first instead of 7 and in that time three of mine had started queen cells, one even had sealed queen cells but the queen was still there as that day the weather had only just improved and they had not got round to swarming, also she was clipped. I do urge you to try clipping a wing of your queens, it saves so much trouble especially as weather seems to be more unpredictable and extreme these days interfering with inspections.

I carried out two artificial swarms and took the queen off in a nuc in a third. I was unable to do the Demaree I mentioned last month as I did not have two drawn supers to put between the broods. In late April there is time to split, get the virgin mated and laying and merge them before the main nectar flow starting June.  The Demarree method would be ideal for a later swarm control as the colony stays together and will be large enough to collect nectar. The nuc is doing well, in one artificial swarm many of the bees returned to the parent instead of staying with their queen as I was unable to point the parent far enough away to make the foragers go to the artificial swarm part on the original site. The following day I remedied this. Don’t forget to put a queen excluder between the floor and the artificial swarm or they can easily swarm off, although if the queen is clipped they will not go far. This can stay in place for a week until they are settled then remove it. In my experience, they can decide to go 6 days later even though they have the queen laying.

The queen cells in the parent parts need to be thinned to one or two, 4 or 5 days later, but it depends on the stage of the original queen cells.  If you carry out the artificial swarm leaving open queen cells with visible larvae and charged full of royal jelly as recommended then 5 days is fine. However in my case with some good quality sealed cells which I judged might hatch in 4 days; I thinned them 3 days later.  I will check again 4 days later in case the bees make queen cells from newly hatched eggs; remember eggs for 3 days, larvae for 5 days and they can make queen cells on up to two day old larvae, and they often do in response to the changes you have wrought. A missed emergency queen cell could lead to problems later. Taking good note of dates I usually check 2 days after she was due to hatch so I can make sure the queen cell has hatched normally and forestall early queen/brood lack, which could lead to drone laying workers. Any later than this and they will probably have torn down the old cell and it will be impossible to tell if she actually hatched. 

Tips for thinning queen cells: if its your first inspection after artificial swarm or other reason and you need to thin the cells, go for ones which you can see have loads of royal jelly and a larva in, also go for large dimpled ones especially if all you have are sealed ones.  Smallish undimpled ones on the face of the brood are usually emergency cells and may not be as good. You may find both sorts after an artificial swarm. Think also about where they are. Those sticking out from the bottom bars may be vulnerable to damage when you put the hive back together, those on the outside of the brood area may not get the best attention, so perhaps move in towards the centre. I mark the top bar of my chosen cell(s) with a drawing pin so I can go straight to it or be especially careful when moving.

Honey bee on Ramsons 22.4.20 showing the white spot of pollen they receive between the eyes (same place as the yellow oil seed rape pollen)

Because of the cool weather in early April, confining my large colonies indoors it encouraged an outbreak of Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) in one of my larger colonies – it always hits the largest! I decided to cull them as they were clearly susceptible and risking the others. So far, touch wood, the rest seem to have avoided or outgrown it. Twenty years ago CBPV was rare and only found covertly in about 1-2% of colonies, now it is present in about 60% or more colonies; becomes an overt infection when large colonies are confined indoors with inadequate ‘social distancing’ enabling the virus to spread; so it is seen in large colonies in the active season when weather is not ideal; something which is going to become more prevalent as climate changes, I fear. That colony should have had more space but I missed noticing their rapid expansion in the cool spell when I could not inspect. My motto is rear queens from my best colonies, cull the worst and diseased ones in order to slowly improve the quality and health of my bees. I wish more people did this.

Honey bees drinking from damp soil in tray of Allium seedlings early April

The weather ahead seems to be uncertain, unsettled at times even for the first week or so in May. This is just when some of my virgins will need to go on their mating flights; I hope we are not going to have another rubbish mating season like last year!

Other things to think about in May include checking for varroa which will be building with the increase in brood, keeping up with their super requirements and don’t forget to remove the honey promptly if you have oil seed rape near you.

I came across an interesting paper recently on the best wildflowers for wild bees (Nichols, R.N., Goulson, D. & Holland, J.M. The best wildflowers for wild bees. J Insect Conserv 23, 819–830 (2019) You should be able to get the full paper if you search on the web, unfortunately the link I have does not seem to work when pasted in.

pair of Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) Note the conspicuous white mohican haircut on the male on top and the two 'horns' on the head of the female below. Both freshly emerged from my solitary bee tubes

This study looked at the relative attractiveness of 40 species of wild flower to bumblebees and solitary bees. Surprisingly, the flowers which most attracted wild bees are not included in commercial pollinator mixes and one that is (clover sp) was not found to be particularly attractive. The best flowers differed depending upon whether bumblebees or solitary bee visits were counted but either way the best flowers seem to be Meadow cranesbill, Kidney vetch, Greater knapweed, Origanum, Primrose, Musk mallow and wild carrot. These are nice plants to have in any flowerbed, other wild flowers which are also popular with bees but have a tendency to be invasive are Smooth hawksbeard, Dandelion, Wild mustard, Field bindweed, Rough chervil. I spend a lot of time battling the bindweed so will not tolerate that one but the others could be cut as soon as flowering is over, every morning at this time of year I go round the garden and remove the spent dandelion flowers. I have meadow cranesbill and primrose in my wild meadow and I try to encourage the musk mallow, which pops up in my flowerbeds and veg patch where my rows of veg do a dog leg round them.

Blue Mason bee (I think) Osmia caerulescens on an Asphodel

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