JUNE 2018 UPDATE :
It’s an ever-changing world in the life of a honeybee-apiary. Last summer I was working with eight hives of honeybees. I tried out a couple of mini-nucs which didn’t work too well due to unexpected events in the shape of some very violent wasp attacks . These wasps appeared in strong numbers and proceeded to invade any hives too weak to withstand their assault.Three small hives fell completely.Everything including brood, honey and finally the laying queens were routed, dismembered and carried off to be eaten.The wasp attacks continued well into late autumn and they were still active as late as November.A further hive did not survive the following winter and as early Spring arrived there were only four hives standing.Of the four, one which I had re-queened with a gentle, golden Buckfast queen had lost her to the elements .That hive was still full of bees but appeared to have no direction . There was no laying pattern so I assumed that one or more of the workers had started laying unferilised eggs, like hens without a rooster.The hive was not growing so it needed re-queening again, …and soon .Of the other three hives One appeared to have a good queen while the other two were not as strong.Of these two I could only find a queen in one of the hives but in the other one ,if there was a queen at all, she was very elusive .With this in mind I thought it might be timely to finally get around to marking all the queens I could find so that should a hive become angry or unproductive for any reason later in the season or the following year ,I would be able to find her and replace her.
The process of marking a queen is an interesting one .It involves finding her among some 50,000 honeybees in an average hive , isolating her and marking her back with a spot of paint. Some beekeepers can simply lift her by the wings with an ungloved hand, turn her over to grip her legs and then deftly paint a little spot on her back with a paint -pen.That is fine and well if everything goes to plan and her legs are not crushed in the process and if the other bees keep quiet and don’t sting the dickens out of your hands.The queen has no sting herself , but all her helpers, with the exception of those lazy male drones ,are each equipped for battle. Some beekeepers even take a little pair of nail-scissors and clip her wings to curtail any long range swarming flight .It should be borne in mind that a queen honeybee is currently valued at £40 .00 sterling, so should one be accidently killed for whatever reason there is a cost involved to quickly replace her with a bee with the genetics of your personal choice and with an already painted spot on her back.If bought from a breeder she will arrive with a colour signifying her year of origin so that you can easily tell how many good laying years she might have ahead of her. Queens usually go on sale around June at the earliest. Some beekeepers will change their queens every year to make sure that their hives remain viable.I’m coming around to that train of thought having experienced two “hot” hives during last season.When a queen has been eventually superceeded a few generations into the future ,the later queen’s genetics may have strayed to the wilder side and such queens and their hives can develop an overly defensive nature. No garden -beekeeper can easily deal with this situation. The beekeeping books rarely mention such an event happening but every beekeeper will experience it at some time if one of his hives turns very nasty and “goes to the wild”.Bees like that can be defensive over an extensive area and if that is the case, the queen, whose genetics are causing the localised mayhem will have to be found and killed.Then the replacement queen might safely(!) be introduced.The bees, of course, do not read the books ,so anything might happen .They might “ball” and kill the newcomer in a scrum if she arrives too soon and they are not receptive ,or another new virgin queen might already have been made by the bees before she shows up and that queen could easily kill the new rival before her maiden flight ;she in turn might get lost or be picked up by a bird.This is a roundabout way of saying it pays to know exactly where your queens are and it probably pays to find each one of them every year and replace them.
This is the point I have reached after several years of trial and error.Making mistakes is the only way to really learn the craft of beekeeping. Even learning to keep a smoker burning for a long time is something well worth learning ,especially when confronted with some vicious bees with no other defence at hand ……but that’s a tale for another day.
The first attempts at queen-marking earlier in the month were “interesting”, to say the least.The device used is simple enough ;the marking is done with a colour touch-up pen just like those used for minor scratches on motor vehicles;the other isolating tool is known very ominously as a “crown of thorns”.What it actually consists of is a circular cage supported on little downward facing spikes round the sides, something like a miniature trampoline . Mine was a plastic affair although they can be made from wood and wire. The uppermost part is a lattice through which a dab of paint can be applied.When the queen is finally located after much head -scratching , peering and exasperation, she is corralled against the hive frame by gently pressing the device down on her onto the wax surface. This is enough to constrict any more movement. At this point the surrounding bees might become a little more energetic than usual and begin to distract you and butt at your veil.Before I got to that stage I found her …then lost her…found her again …dropped her, of course, onto a frame that I’d previously removed under which she crawled to hide from the sunlight .Using the flat blade of the hive tool rather than lifting her with clumsy gloved hand I finally deposited her on the frame and got her isolated under the crown of thorns.I deftly dabbed the paint pen on the top of the neighbouring hive lid to make sure there was a good paint flow and finally placed a neat little dot on her back.Of course that is not what actually happened in the real world.When I touched her gently through the mesh with the paint- pen , the yellow paint dropped down like a particularly strong nosebleed and covered her entirely!!!!!
” Jezzzzis!” I muttered.
What you are supposed to do when you mark a queen, is keep the crown of thorns on for a moment or two until the paint dries a little .The queen’s attendant retinue who provide every intimate service for her , from feeding her to cleaning up after her ,would immediately begin to clean off your neat yellow marking, otherwise.This current scenario was not in the book , though, so I immediately whipped off the restrainer to see what unholy damage I had cackhandedly wrought .Was she even alive after this exercise?There she sat, a dayglo yellow vision of a queen honeybee impersonating a canary.You’d have no bother finding this lady in future…… if she survived .Her wings, back and legs were now encased in pure yellow armour .Could she still walk carrying this extra freight ?Would she be able to breathe. I immediately replaced the frame carrying her back into the hive -body and she scuttled off ,with what I assumed was a limp, into the welcoming darkness.Would her children even recognise her pheromones?I quickly closed off the hive and moved to the next.This one was much easier to deal with, given that it appeared to be my most stable colony this season, by far. These bees were industrious and the queen was laying in the proper text-book fashion.Lovely rounded brood pattern ,surrounded by brightly coloured pastel pollens of yellows , greens and reds and with some sweet-smelling honey on the outer reaches.This queen was placid, too.An organised lady with a mission, obviously.She did not run or hide , but simply proceeded in a business-like fashion to lay eggs and produce new bees.That made her so easy to see and track.A queen bee moves in a specific way ,unlike the other bees, so when your eyes have adjusted to the overall tenor of the hive and if there is no aggression, she is easier to find.Iwanted to mark her before the hive got any bigger, so I applied the same technique, but this time , having had my practice run, I was more cautious.Even so, she had more paint than I would have liked!
A week later as I introduced two other pre-marked new queens to my other hives, I inspected these previous two hives and was pleased to discover that both of my now “dayglo -yellow queens” were still moving easily , still mobile and hopefully still in business. Time will tell how they get on as the summer progresses, but I shouldn’t have any bother finding them this year ,if they survive!.
UPDATE JUNE 2017 :
Two mini-nucs which can accomodate two frames of bees with a upper box containing a feeder.In this case , the feeder is a 2 litre plastic carton cut in half to fit.
BEE FEEDING LADDER This allows the bees to climb up through a tunnel from underneath in the brood box and walk down into the sugar- syrup to drink without drowning which can sometimes happen.
This box is a “Queen Castle”.In essence it is two mini-nucs in one box with a division board separating them Each side has its own entrance at opposite ends of the box and each has its own inner lid and feeding frame .I’ve attempted to incorporate anti-drown ladders in these feeding frames but I may replace them with some kind of overhead feeders eventually.The beauty of overhead feeders is that a nuc can be fed withoutout lifting the lid and disturbing the new colony too much.Bees can be very sensitive to changes like that and may “blame “their new queen .
Just to update: The bees came through a relatively mild Winter with varying degrees of success.Five hives survived intact but were much depleted .The huge hive which had produced so much honey last season was well-reduced.In all these hives it was extremely difficult to locate the unmarked queens. The older hives have long-since produced their own new queens, the daughters of the original hives having mated with the locals.Some of these hives have become “hot” and defensive, so I’m intent on gradually changing the tenor of these newer hives by replacing any queens with new marked queens whose provenance I have a better idea of.With this in mind I’ve already successfully introduced a new marked queen into a small poly – nucleus with the intention of eventually using her to breed some newer and milder daughters.Hopefully she will stay as mild-mannered as she appears to be at present. There is a large and robust hive growing over in the corner which will probably need splitting into two but the other hives are smaller and slower to grow. I combined two of them with the “newspaper” method and that appears to have worked .It’s still early in the season to judge the success or otherwise of the remaining hives but the intent is to breed some newer queens and hopefully mark them while they are easier to find in the smaaller nuclius boxes..I ‘ve been building “queen castles” or mating nucs with the intent of bringing on queens into 2-frame or 3-frame nucleus arrangements. These will be bred either from queen-cells or possibly from young, uncapped brood.
UPDATE DEC 2016
I finished this beekeeping year with five hives going into winter. Hopefully they will make it through and be ready for spring to get back to work. This year was my best year yet for honey and it was mostly down to one very vigorous hive and its queen.
This is my first honey of 2014. it was very crystallised so I had to separate the wax by heating it a little . It has the consistency of runny toffee but with a wildflower kick in the aftertaste. Really quite a robust flavour unlike anything I’ve ever tasted from a shop.I only took a few frames as I’m hoping the bees will give me some more honey later this season with two good hives but lighter and more easily extracted honey later in the season.
At the moment my bees are very active. I began the season with two strong hives and am currently running with seven hives . I initially had to make three splits when queen cells appeared in the strongest hive .Within days this strong hive split again anyway and I had to retrieve this particular split from my neighbour’s garden . I got them in a tree and collected them in a cardboard box, but in my haste forgot my boots and picked up a few stings on my ankles.That was enough excitement for one week….
Just yesterday the bees started spiralling and spinning around the hive again and I had to suit up and chase and catch another split.It’s a busy time and I had to ready new brood boxes for the e new nuclei.It was time to get more frames built …it’s going to be an interesting summer. I’ll be busy inspecting and maintaining seven hives.
UPDATE JUNE 2013
This is what happened when I was collecting a swarm of honeybees from above my head in a tree. Most of the bees dropped into my waiting box when I shook the branch , but the queen fell behind my head .That was where the remaining bees went to find her , so they clustered behind my neck leaving me helpless to reach them or shake them off. Had it not been for the assistance of my wife , I’m not sure how I could have removed them.
Last winter I lost my entire first honeybee colony. Truthfully, they didn’t grow as quickly as I had originally hoped, but they survived wasp attacks akin to the Battle of Britain and came into the autumn in seemingly good health. I can only imagine that either the extreme dampness in November or the fact that there were not enough of them to retain sufficent heat to sustain themselves caused their demise. I fed them and they were given the various required treatments but maybe there wasn’t enough forage or possibly the farmers sprayed the fields with something harmful to wildlife.
There are a lot of possible factors and bees have been dying worldwide on a large scale for some years now.In any case , every one of them died so I’m starting again. Last year I ordered another queen and nucleus. They should arrive in a day or two. Proposed delivery is the first Saturday morning in June. Fragile Planet have already been in touch with delivery details so keep those fingers crossed. Here we go again…
3RD JUNE 2011
You couldn’t make it up : Fragile Planet called yesterday to tell me my nucleus of bees were finally ready and would be with me within twentyfour hours. Little did I realise that it would be my old mate Rafferty [ the original Postman Pat!] who would drive up in his big red van and tentatively hand over the little buzzin’ box. The little critters are currently sitting on top of the hive waiting for their great installation tomorrow. It’s a beautiful day here so hopefully more will follow, as will photographic evidence when I get it organised. Nicole took these first day snaps while I was otherwise occupied! Keep watching the skies!!
2 JULY 2012:
Sometime in the first few weeks the queen left or died. I got onto Fragile Planet right away and they posted out a new queen right away. Duly installed in her little queen cage, she was introduced and released to the brood body, I checked a few days later to see if the bees had accepted her and luckily all was well. I closed up for a week and on my birthday I checked again. We managed to get some photos of her this time. She has a white spot for 2011 so she’s easy enough to find now.