How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower.
We are now entering the business part of the bee keeping year – not just the business end but the busiest time of the year also – the time when one has to make difficult decisions about intervention in the life of your hives. It is the time when you should have all your equipment ready and probably don’t…life gets in the way! I am busily getting frames made up and waxed.
The unseasonable cold weather over the last three weeks must have checked the development of colonies which should mean that swarming will be later this year. The cold has also prevented any full inspections in the last month. There is in fact a danger of losing colonies from starvation. Food supplies will be running down just at the time when the quantity of hungry brood is increasing. Keep an eye on food supplies – I hear that there have been many losses especially in the South of the country. I got a call from a beekeeper recommending that I feed all colonies with some warm syrup to give them a boost.
Don’t forget bees need lots of water at this time of year especially if they are depending on breaking down crystallised ivy stores. Set up a water source in the sun so that it is warm for them. Bees prefer collecting from shallow place as water warms more quickly. Containers filled with peat or potting compost and topped up with water are ideal as they allow easy landing for the bees. A container filled with pebbles and water also works. I think I mentioned before not to place the sources in the flight path of the hives as it could get contaminated.
At this time of the year I need to remind myself that our bees are not domesticated animals and the degree to which we can exercise control is limited. We can influence behaviour primarily by selecting queens with the characteristics we desire.
May is the month of the queen – she determines the economy of your hive. By now she should be clipped and marked . If you don’t do this, or at least mark her, management is extremely difficult.
May is also the swarmiest month – the bees will be building up and thinking of reproducing and setting up a new colony. Describing it like this makes it sound like there is some sort of decision- making process in the hive. There is a process but there is no inner council, committee or ruling group!
Jurgen Tautz in his book “The Buzz about Bees – Biology of a Superorganism” (2008 Springer-Verlag) describes the process in these terms: “The bee colony is a complex adaptive animal community, consisting of many thousands of individuals that are continuously active and respond to the conditions of their surroundings and to the presence of their nest mates. There is no ruling body, instead the overall behaviour of the colony results from the co-operation and competition between bees”.
The colony may decide that the best course of action is to reproduce itself. If that decision is made then a number of queen cells are created and eggs laid or placed in them and these hatch into larvae. These royal progeny are fed on a constant diet of Royal Jelly that causes them to develop into queens.
Once the first queen cell is ready for sealing, the first or Prime swarm containing the original queen, the mother of the colony, flies off taking at least half the flying bees with her to begin a new colony elsewhere.
Virgin queens start to hatch and one may take over having killed the remaining queens or a number may be retained to swarm separately. The first swarm after the prime swarm is known as a ‘cast’ and will be considerably smaller then a prime swarm.
Subsequent casts will be smaller again and sometimes no bigger than an adult fist. You want to avoid these casts as they are depleting your colony even further. The way to do this is to cut out all but one of the queen cells once the prime swarm has left.
It is received wisdom that the best queens are those reared naturally under the swarming impulse. That may be true but it is also true that some strains or ‘lines’ of bees are much more inclined to swarm than others and it is generally not a good idea to have colonies of bees headed by queens that genetically carry a propensity toward swarming.
We tend to be very wasteful of valuable queen cells. Maybe I should just speak for myself! When I find multiple queen cells, I tend to cut them out and destroy them rather than harvest them and rear them so I always have a supply of queens. Obviously you would only harvest them from your best hive(s). But you need to be organised to do this – each cell needs to go into a mini hive or Apidea or a nuc or used in a queenless colony.
NB If you are buying wax and are given a choice between premium or economy wax chose the premium as economy tends to be a mixture of waxes from multiple sources and may well harbour undesirable chemicals.