QUEENS OF THE SUNSHINE AND THAT LAZARUS MOMENT

Unmarked queen honeybee Apis mellifera tended by workers

Queen bee

Queen bee

This spell of great sunshine we’ve experienced in Norneverland has come as something of a surprise.We’re not used to it and it takes some time readjusting to the sultry heat and the sight of so much exposed white flesh as the denizens throw off their winter woolies and raid the dressing- up box.It’s no time to be sitting at a keyboard tapping away when I should be lolling in that same sunshine , but I had to take a break from it and stagger into i the shade with a cool glass of ale or two .Brew Dog’s “Punk IPA” is currently hitting that cool spot. …a tasty but lethal little brew.
Another surprise came when I inspected my honeybees. I knew they’d be very active in the intensity of this glorious, sparkling sunshine ,so it is an excellent time to look in on them without exposing them to the cold. They are usually calmer too when there is plenty to do ,busily traversing their domain across several local square miles . The blossoms are in full bloom in the garden , but they’re probably foraging several miles away on the white flowering hedgerows or the last of the apple blossom. They seem to love the idea of wild travel on the winds ,the scouts plotting their courses by the position of the sun as they communicate with their waggle -dances, the best treasure of pollen and nectar, to locate.
I mentioned earlier that I was down to three viable hives after a particularly mild Winter and a pitifully damp Springtime .I lost two colonies, much to my chagrin. The remaining three hives appeared to be healthy , though ,so I was glad to see activity around each of them. I noticed too how rampant the vegetation had been around the hives. This area is corralled off with no more than a stout trellis to separate it from the tidier main garden.The good wife would prefer that the tidyness would continue throughout , but the fact is that honeybees have their own unique way of allowing their area to go back to the wild. If you’ve ever tried gardening wrapped from head to toe in a bee-suit and protective clothing , you’ll already know how stifling that can be . In any case , I had to get on with my hive inspection and discovered that the three hives were indeed thriving and the bees were beginning to store some extra honey in the upper super boxes above the queen excluder; not a huge quantity but it meant that they seemed to have adequate stores of food for the youngsters in the brood chambers already. The most recent hive was very productive so I decided to add another super box on top of that one to give them more storage space. Although the smoker went out at a crucial moment when I was trying to replace the roof I retreated momentarily and got it relit with some old hessian rags and drove the bees back down without any being crushed . They’d never have moved away from the edge without a blast of smoke and I didn’t want to crush any of them . It’s wonderful watching how a stream of smoke will herd them back down as though a sheepdog was at work.I was satisfied enough by this stage to close everything up and do a little tidying up to assuage the good wife. I easily filled a wheelbarrow with redshank , long , straggly sods of grass and weeds that I tore from the gravel and was about to walk away when i noticed some activity at the entrance of one of the two “dead” hives.
If you’ll remember, I had to clear both out and shake a quantity of dead bees from the floors of the hives onto the gravel. The birds had long-since cleared those away. I had closed both of these up and left them for a week or two . I had already noticed a few honeybees coming back to one of the hives but thought that they’d been a few foraging stragglers who’d been out when I disposed of their dead sisters. These were attempting to re-enter the hive at a very specific upper corner because the entrance at the bottom was blocked. They persisted for a few days until I decided to open the bottom entrance again, thinking even though they seemed insistant , they’d soon die away anyway.The smoker was still seeping cool white smoke so I thought it would do no real harm to puff a few cooling blasts inside the deserted hive and investigate further.There was nothing in the few supers on top….. but wait ! There seemed to be some activity down in the brood box below. There weren’t a lot of bees present but suddenly I got a flash of something and I knew immediately that something important was afoot.I turned the frame over in my hands just in time to see another amber flash, but it was quickly gone again.
Turning the frame again there she was!
It’s unmistakeable when you spot a queen honeybee. There’s nothing quite like it. When you’ve a large heaving hive of thousands of bees, it’s almost impossible to spot a queen unless you’ve painted a little spot on her back.That can be a fiddly task so I usually don’t bother with the paint marker or the Tippex.If a hive is viable you’ll usually assume that there a good breeding queen in there anyway. They’ll always run for the shadows, away from the light and there’s a coterie of attendants shadowing their every movement . She’ll move differently too to the others. It’s great to see a queen , though …and it’s especially good to see one which has been presumed dead. On the other hand the few remaining bees that I saw originally may well have raised a new queen to replace their missing ruler and I may have assumed that there was no life left. They do that by feeding an ordinary worker with royal jelly and that produces the proper hormonal mix to enable her to assume command of the colony when she is born.
This queen bee was unmistakeable and a small joy to see . She had the long-elongated amber body , quite unlike her striped female workers or squat male drones. She was alive ! The hive was reborn.I felt that this was a small triumph although everything would depend on how fertile she was or how well mated she might otherwise be. She’d need to get very busy if the hive was to survive. In the meantime I closed the lid back on and left to do some thinking. It seemed time to break my self-imposed rule this year of not feeding them some sugar syrup and letting them develop completely natural.This hive possibly needed a feed boost to grow in strength before the wasps appeared in a month or two and played havoc with this weakened hive . They would raid it until it was completely dead and kill the queen. I decided that I would reduce the hive entrance slightly to allow any guard bees a fair chance to defend the hive against intruders and then put a feeder in place .It might be the chance they needed, I thought, my enthusiasm rising again . Would it be possible to get this weakened hive back to life before the Summer’s end?
Life really is full of surprises. This was one of those Lazarus moments, indeed.