With July presenting what could be considered the busiest time of the year for beekeepers, Andy Bailey shares his experiences of the month in his latest diary entry which features a guest account from PA to our Managing Director, Vicki Simpson – who has also paid a recent visit to the hives. Over to Andy:

Projects pick up pace

As the “New Normal” slowly emerges, my work with the World Wildlife Fund and Woodland Trust gets busier with markets and festivals popping up in various parts of the country. It’s been a busy month with my time shared between two allotments and 18 beehives in four locations.

The great news for July is that the EPC-UK hives have continued to thrive and most of the splits that I took earlier in the season, with the exception of one, are showing signs of development. In fact, one has been re-housed in a full hive and another will be hived next week as the brood continues to grow at a rapid rate. It will only be a matter of a week or so before they run out of room in the nuc box and look to pile in the stores for the winter, so they need space.

A first time visit for Vicki

On 6th July I undertook an inspection accompanied, at a safe social distance, by Vicki Simpson from EPC-UK. It was just a routine inspection for me, but a first-time experience for Vicki. Here’s what she thought:

“I have quite a keen interest in nature, with a daily routine feeding the various birds that visit my small garden and the hedgehogs that appear on my front doorstep in an evening for their supper. Little did I expect last December that I would end up becoming a B&B to five little hoglets that were much too small to survive the winter and needed keeping warm indoors overnight before going to a local wildlife sanctuary for the winter.

 

“Since joining EPC-UK in 2019, I have enjoyed reading Andy’s monthly beekeeping diary and was delighted to spend a couple of hours – socially distanced – with him to learn more about the bees at our Rough Close Works’ site.

 

“Firstly, Andy kitted me out with the special beekeeping suit – I looked ridiculous, but I was extremely glad to be wearing it when the bees started disconcertingly buzzing around my head when we got close to the hives. I was especially concerned when Andy advised me not to wear any perfume as the bees hate this, given that I had already liberally sprayed myself with some that morning. I was even more worried when he mentioned one of the hives was quite feisty.

 

“I was amazed to learn about the number of bees in a hive – Andy informed me that hives start with around 10,000 bees (minimum 5,000) with a hive containing around 50,000 bees and if the weather is poor then the bees will consume the honey.

 

“In order to safely access the hives, Andy set up a smoker unit which is used to encourage the bees to gorge themselves on honey and become calmer and easier to handle so that he could open the hives and check the brood frames for eggs and the ‘super’ frames for honey. Andy pointed out the difference in appearance between worker cells and drone bee cells (drone cells being more raised).

 

“Previously I’ve only taken notice of bumble bees, but the honey bees look completely different and to my untrained eye resemble a wasp, although Andy pointed out a rogue wasp in one of the hives which was a much brighter colour than the darker coloured bees.

 

“Andy is a font of knowledge on the subject of bees, having spent many years beekeeping since leaving the Forces and I spent a most interesting couple of hours with him at the hives. I’d love another visit to see how the bees are getting on but will stick with my day job and leave the beekeeping to the skilled Andy.”

 

“Thanks Andy!”

Vicki Simpson

Swarm clouds

It was great to offer Vicki an experience of being at the hives. As it’s currently prime swarming season it was necessary for us both to be fully alert. Queen cells are easy to miss and the bees often hide them so they are not always obvious. Whilst going through the hive with Vicki I clearly missed a queen cell in hive four and when I popped back to do a manipulation four days later, the air was thick with bees.

A prime swarm was in the process of issuing from the hive and the black cloud buzzed around my head for several minutes whilst the scout bees found a place to settle. I watched the cloud of bees forming almost like a murmuration of starlings before they settled on a tree behind the hives.

Fortunately, my home is only about fifteen minutes away so I doubled back, loaded my car up with a ladder and a nucleus box and returned to the apiary. I managed to get close enough to the swarm to be able to reach the bees and brushed them off the tree, into the nuc box. Balancing up a ladder with a bee brush in one hand and a nuc box full of bees in the other is not something I would recommend! Anyway, safely getting back to terra firma, I was happy that I had the queen boxed as the bees were displaying the typical fanning that they do as a signal to the rest of the swarm that this is home.

Pheromone messages

The bees have a gland called a Nasonov gland, which gives off a pheromone telling the other bees that this is where they are and the queen is in residence. Their rear ends raise up and they fan their wings to spread this pheromone, so when I saw this I was happy that the queen was in the cluster. I also noticed that the few bees that were still in the tree were slowly making their way to their new home. The signs were all good.

If I had been in possession of a spare hive I would have transferred the bees and placed a queen excluder on the floor to stop the queen from leaving again. Normally after a few days in a new hive they settle and the queen excluder can be removed. Unfortunately, at the time, I only had a nuc box and without an excluder there is no guarantee that the swarm will stay put. So, fingers crossed, I left the swarm in the hope that they would still be there on my next visit.

Honey loss

When you lose a swarm you also lose your honey, as the bees gorge themselves on it before they swarm in order to carry them through a few days without food. It also helps them to form new wax cells for the queen to lay her eggs in – so not only do you lose half your bees, but also your year’s work to produce honey goes up in smoke.

Sadly when I returned the following Monday to check the hives, the nuc was empty and the captured swarm had escaped once again – somebody, somewhere, will now be the owner of a prime swarm; free bees which would cost about £125 to buy.

Strong but feisty

Hive one, the furthest hive on the right, has always been the strongest colony but is also quite feisty. The bees hate being inspected and will try to get any bit of bare flesh not covered in a bee suit full of stings. They also follow for a distance of a hundred yards or more after you have inspected them. None of these traits are desirable and the only way to stop the behaviours is to re-queen the colony.

On 10th July I removed the original queen and having purchased a new queen I introduced her into the colony. Paying upwards of £35 for one insect might seem bizarre but depending on the breed, purity and provenance of the bee, £100 is not unusual.

A delicate procedure

There is always a risk that the new queen will not be accepted and despite all best efforts she could be killed. It is vital to remove the old queen for a day before so that the bees know they are queenless. The new queen is introduced in a queen cage with a plug of candy at one end. There are always a few worker bees in the queen cage to look after the queen and feed her. The theory is that the worker bees inside the queen cage will eat their way out and the bees on the outside of the cage eat their way in. By the time they meet, the new queen’s pheromones have spread throughout the hive and she is accepted. A risky business, but I think we have been successful. I will know more in a couple of weeks if I see signs of eggs and brood in the hive.

The best news of all is that I have managed to get a crop of honey from three of the colonies, so this year’s hard work has been rewarded. Now it’s time to let the bees get as much food on board as possible to get them through the winter ahead and then any more honey that they produce, they will keep. A little bit of honey for me, some for EPC-UK and some for the bees! That all seems fair!

Until next month,
Andy