Bee Blogs – May 2018

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My bees are still struggling and I am struggling to come to terms with the decimation that occurred this winter and into the spring. Last week I met a bee-keeping friend in Tyrone, Larry Monteith who  had a similar experience this spring.  As he rightly said,  “we always tend to blame ourselves first when things go wrong”.  He puts his losses down to the exposed location of his colonies and the long drawn out winter. Here is an explanation on the Thorne’s webpage. “This winter past we have observed a large loss of colonies. The colonies that have died out seem to fall into three groups: sizable colonies that have died out with lots of stores (usually ivy or rape honey, set so hard the bees can’t use it), small colonies too weak to survive, that probably should have been united to give a stronger stock (20/20 hind sight is a wonderful thing). The third group are colonies that appear to have dwindled away (sometimes the queen is still present, often she isn’t). This latter group are usually put down to poorly mated or failing queens”.

As  I said last month, I am trying to nurse my remaining hives back to health and have given them pollen supplement and I also treated them for varroa using apivar, a treatment I have not used before. Apivar is a longer treatment process than others but it does hit the mites at all stages in their breeding cycle during the weeks it is in the hive. This gives a lower mite drop in the first instance but a larger mite drop overall.

There is no sign of swarms although Larry had a swarm arrive in one of his vacant hives last week. There are two colonies of bees in the eaves of  roofs here – I am hoping that they may throw off a swarm and go into one of the bait hives I have set up. What is very good news is that they have survived the last two winters and no one treated them for varroa or gave them a pollen supplement!

People often say to me, Glenstal must be an idyllic place to keep bees – all those big, brightly coloured flowers – rhododendrons etc. The truth of the matter is somewhat different – rhododendrons can cause paralysis in honey bees though bumble bees seem to love them!

It is not the brightly coloured flowers that produce nectar it is the less showy ones and ones which you often don’t even notice. Why is this? Flowers have a problem with sexual reproduction – they can’t move! And so they need to employ an outside agency to deliver their male gamete to the female. Some plants use wind and others use insects. Insects need some incentive to persuade them to come visit.

We have elaborate strategies to attract a mate but plants had invented them long before we came on the scene – bright colours ( red, yellow, purple) – scent and nectar. Nectar is a food reward for the insects.

Some plants hedge their bets and use belt and braces – colour and scent – others use scent and nectar…others just produce nectar. It is this third category that are of most interest to bees and other pollinators; bramble, clover, sycamore trees, white thorn, and ivy. As these plants  produce nectar, they don’t need to dress up in elaborate, brightly coloured petals to attract insects – their flowers remain so small that some people don’t even notice the flowers -many people are surprised to hear that ivy has a flower at all.

Several flowers also use colour for a secondary purpose – to help insects save time and not  visit a flower when it is already pollinated and no longer producing nectar. The horse chestnut flower when it opens has a yellow spot at the base to guide the bees to the nectar pot – when the pot is empty flower the yellow spot goes red. Bees don’t see red and so this labelling device stops bees wasting time on flowers that are no longer productive.

Bees under threat.

A third of Irish bee species are threatened with extinction with bumblebee populations are falling year-on-year due to removal of hedgerows and ditches, use of pesticides and insecticides and climate change.

May 20th was the first ever global World Bee Day and hopefully the EU ban on insecticides linked to declining bee populations ,will help prevent further deterioration of the pollinators here.

We can help bees by maintaining hedgerows and planting bee-friendly flowers including snowdrops, wallflower, lavender and crocus. Professor Jane Stout, of TCD, who helped establish the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, said while “pretty tough”, bees were under pressure.  “It’s not just pesticides but fungicides and insecticides too,” she said. “It’s also changes in how land is managed, which impact on habitats to nest and over-winter, and there’s fewer flowers to feed on. “We also have diseases which are becoming more prolific along with changes in climate with extreme weather events. “Bees are pretty tough, but all of these different drivers seem to be pushing them to the edge.”

The recent survey of Irish bumblebee populations in 2017 found that they had fallen by 14.2pc compared with 2012. Of the 100 bee species here, 30pc are under threat of extinction.  I must get myself a guide to the bumblebee species in Ireland. I was watching and listening to them working on a huge rhododendron last week – there were at least three species evident.

Gerry Ryan, from Dundrum, Co Tipperary,  president of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations, said cutting of hedgerows, removal of ditches and use of pesticides was having an impact.  “The natural environment is the best,” he said. “This time of the year you have the blackthorn in flower, and next week you’ll have the whitethorn and they’re very valuable for our bees. Bigger farmers and horse owners are taking out all our natural hedgerows left to us by generations of people who have gone before us.

“There is a decline, but in honeybee terms we’re holding our own. I’m in a nearly organic environment, but we have members in south Tipperary, Meath and Kildare who are decimated.”


Some interesting and important points about Drones also on Thorne’s website

Last year I decided to increase the number of drones in my hives to improve mating. Various beekeepers advised against it… The general perceived wisdom is that drones cost the hive in honey, they contribute nothing and act as a vector for Varroa, the removal of them to trap Varroa is their only redeeming benefit. If this is the case why do wild colonies contain between ten and twenty percent drone comb?


I put one frame of drone comb into my 14”x12” Nationals as part of a Bailey comb change, ensuring the comb was spaced to allow the drone cells to be capped (the standard spacing of DN4 Hoffman frames only allows one bee space between frames, stopping the capping of Drones). The drone comb was placed in the middle of the nest; it was the first comb drawn by the wax workers, and the first comb laid by the Queen.


Once the drones started to hatch I monitored the Varroa levels very carefully, there was no discernible increase. The temper of the two colonies I did this to was fine to start with, and if anything they have become even calmer and more laid back. There is a suggestion in the literature that an increase of Drones in the colony reduces swarming… Both colonies I did this to last year produced no cells at all, and only an odd play cell so far this year.


The books suggests that workers are genetically only 50% related to the Queen, and come pre-disposed to try and raise an egg from their cohort to a Queen Cell, having a 75% investment. The Queen is happier with lots of her Drones around as they are all 100% snapshots of her DNA, a happy relaxed (less stressed) Queen should be in better pheromonal control of her colony. The increase in the number of drones from one in a hundred to 10 or 20% makes the activities of the workers futile and Queen cell production is reduced.


One observation from last year suggests that I should have moved the Drone Comb to the side of the brood nest once the queen had stopped producing drones; as it was the workers filled the Drone comb with honey splitting the nest into two. The Queen continued to lay in the 5 frames on the warm side of the hive, the other half of the nest hatched out, and was then filled with honey. I wondered if the queen would start to one side of the barrier in spring… I needn’t have worried first inspection in March showed the nest on 7 frames – 3 frames on either side of the Drone frame, and the drone frame fully laid up with drones. This was mirrored in the second colony, and the Varroa numbers are still low and bees happy and healthy. There may be something in the saying “A happy hive is a hive with drones”.


Useful tip: Cross fire Smoking

If you smoke straight in the front of a hive you are likely to split the bees and encourage they to move to the sides of the hive and make it more difficult to find the queen – an alternative is to point your smoker left and right and encourage them to move to the centre.


Murroe Website EditorBee Blogs – May 2018