Beekeeping in isolation

Spring is showing her face; the rain has relented and some eager flowers have opened up their petals for the warmth of the sun. Around us pink and yellow primroses are sprinkled, their shapes like the classic flowers children draw. A few fruit trees have started to blossom. Bright yellow dandelions and blue forget-me-nots decorate my overgrown garden.

Pink primroses

And just as all this is going on, just as the beekeeper is getting excited, we are locked in our homes by a deadly virus. There will be no friendly meet ups with tea and cake this season.

My preparations continue regardless; I must hammer together some brood frames ready to do a Bailey comb change sometime in April so that the bees can draw out fresh comb. When to do this, between looking after two small children, I’m not sure – maybe 2am?! I am not particularly looking forward trying to find the queen, as both hives have been quite aggressive this winter. I’m just hoping it was the rain and wind that made them grumpy. Last week I ended up running for it, as I made the mistake of removing the mouse guards in a bee suit but with regular shoes which exposed my socks. Their woodpecker protection (a wire cage) is off now too.

These are strange and unexpected times which have made me appreciate how easy my life was before (and still is in many ways). There was so much I took for granted. Stay safe everyone.

Blossom

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Waiting for spring

Two storms have wailed past the bee hives. And still the Cornish winter continues, a rarely relenting fall of rain and hail, accompanied by a bitter wind.

I don’t know how the bees feel about it, but I am certainly finding it hard to keep my spirits up. I see them flying still, collecting pollen from the few flowers out there. Somehow they keep going.

I check on them every week or so, making sure their entrance holes are not clogged up with dead bees. I remove the hive roofs, peel back the insulation and quickly put fondant in before the bees discover my intrusion. If I am too slow, too curious, they come for me in anger.

Will they survive this winter? I have done things differently this year, distracted by the arrival of our own queen bee. I did not feed syrup in the autumn as I usually do, leaving each hive a super of honey instead. And though I had an anti-varroa Api-Bioxal treatment ready, Holly arrived a week early and I didn’t manage to trickle it.

The colony in our chimney survives of course, defying the usual expectation that bees untreated for varroa will die out. If I poke my head out of the attic in a rare dry moment, I see the workers returning to their crack.

There are signs of spring of course, some earlier than ever: frog spawn in January, daffodils in December. Our camellia tree has begun presenting its enormous pink blooms to the sky.  Before I know it, just as the winter seems to have lasted forever, I’ll be collecting swarms from trees.

Bombus hypnorum

Bombus hypnorum, spotted in February

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A new queen arrives for Christmas

Happy Boxing Day/Day after Christmas everyone – was a busy one for us as we have a new Queen in the family. Holly Cariad Elowen arrived on Sunday. She doesn’t issue many commands yet but I have a feeling that may change!

Holly Cariad Elowen

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All tucked in for winter

A quick post on what I do to get my bees ready for winter. Here’s how the hives are looking right now.

Poly hive with woodpecker protection

Over the years I’ve found this works for me:

  • A thymol based anti-varroa treatment in late August – I count this as part of my winter preparations, as it’s about the bees being able to rear healthy young workers to last the winter.
  • Feeding 2:1 strength sugar syrup in September (though this year I haven’t and left a super of honey on each hive instead – we’ll see how well that works out)
  • Mouse-guard on (late October-early November, once ivy pollen has stopped coming in)
  • Chicken wire cage put around the hives when the first frosts arrive, to protect against woodpeckers
  • Fondant put over crown board during December, then topped up as necessary
  • Sheets of loft insulation tucked in over crown board, to keep the top of the hive insulated
  • Open mesh floor on bottom of hive
  • Hives strapped down, with a brick on top to protect against the wind
  • Oxalic acid drizzle done around the winter solstice

What works for you?

I am still not very confident about overwintering in Cornwall, as the weather is so soggy here compared to London. We’ve had a few mini-hail storms since November. Also I’ve taken a risk by not feeding syrup in autumn as I would normally do.

The life of a winter bee is all about hunkering down, keeping the queen warm and surviving the short, cold days. Below is an illustration I did a few years ago of the differences between a summer bee’s abdomen and a winter bee’s abdomen. When it’s too cold to fly, the winter bee stores up all her waste inside… imagine the relief when she finally gets out! My bees have still been flying, so are not at this stage yet.

Summer bee/winter bee abdomens

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Honeyland film review

Today I went to see Honeyland, which was being shown at the Falmouth Poly cinema as part of the Cornwall film festival. It’s a documentary about a female beekeeper named Hatidze; she and her elderly mother are the last inhabitants left in their remote Macedonian village, eking out a living from the sweetness of honey.

Honeyland film - Hatidze beekeeping

Half for me, half for you

Any British beekeeper will be familiar with the bumper catalogues of beekeeping suppliers here, packed with every possible accessory you can think of. Hatidze’s equipment is a basic veil, a smoker fuelled by dry dung, plus some jars for her honey. Her ‘hives’ are cavities in walls or clifftops, with a removable stone in front as an entrance. To harvest she simply reaches in and pulls out vibrant yellow honey combs, brushing the bees off with her fingers. They seem remarkably placid – perhaps because her mantra is ‘half for me, half for you’, so she always leaves enough for them to survive the harsh winters.

Back at home, Hatidze’s mother is sick, spending her days lying in their home, only sitting up so that Hatidze can feed her small titbits of food – honey, or bananas, or watermelon. The two of them have an amusing relationship, with their bickering making the audience giggle at several points. To sell her honey Hatidze travels to the Macedonian capital Skopje, where we see her talent as a saleswoman, chattering away to the market traders. She returns with money, bananas, hair dye and a fan to keep the flies away from her mother.

New neighbours

Suddenly, unexpected noise comes into her life when a travelling family pulls up with their caravan and herd of cows. I never managed to count how many children they had until the end, when the credits revealed the total to be seven. “One kid a year!” their father Hussein says. Bigger toddlers hold smaller toddlers, smaller toddlers clutch kittens. Chickens cluck in and out of the caravan. Lean older boys of perhaps seven or eight help their constantly busy mother tie up cows for milking, getting hefty kicks in the process.

At first, Hatidze gets on well with her new neighbours, sharing brandy, music from her radio and her beekeeping expertise with them. Hussein becomes interested when she tells them how much her honey sells for, and soon we see trailers pulling up with wooden hives similar to the Nationals beekeepers here use. These bees are not so placid, but Hussein’s equipment is just as basic, so once the boxes are opened the whole family gets stung. Little children are running about screaming in pain, pulling bees out of their hair, while Hussein pulls the reluctant older boys out of the caravan to assist him in futile puffs of the smoker.

A lesson ignored

We see Hatidze warn Hussein that enough honey must be left for the bees, otherwise his bees will come and raid hers. But, under pressure from a local honey dealer to take more, and with so many mouths to feed, he doesn’t follow her advice. We see shots of bees fighting outside her hive entrances. Next, her colonies are dead. Hussein blames the losses on the weather.

With her only form of income gone, we see a distraught Hatidze crying to her mother. What will become of them both? Powerless to help, her mother can only sympathise – “May god burn their livers!”. Winter draws in and the wolves are very literally howling at the door. Yet it’s easy to empathise with Hussein and his family too – the money they got for their honey appears to be spent on nothing more luxurious than feeding the children. Still, as spring approaches, there may be some hope coming Hatidze’s way.

Even if you have no interest in beekeeping, I think you would still enjoy this film for its humour, the stunning views of the Macedonian mountains and the insights into rural life there. And for us beekeepers seeing the techniques used in traditional Macedonian beekeeping, including what seemed like some form of chanting and tanging to collect swarms, makes the film even more fascinating.

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Watching for Asian hornets

My notes from our final talk – by Phil and Karen Green – at our Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference this September.

Phil is the Asian hornet co-ordinator for the WCBA (this means he co-ordinates efforts to keep the hornets out, not to encourage them in). Phil and Karen had some photos of nests from their visits to Jersey, where the hornets have taken hold – 61 nests were found there this year.

Look out for ‘yellow socks’ – the hornets are nicknamed ‘the yellow-legged hornets’.

Asian hornet

Asian hornet

Usually the nests are high up in a tree, but they have also been found low down in hedges. Between 300-500 new queens can be generated in one year by just one nest.

Asian hornet nest - Jersey

Asian hornet nest – Jersey

The hornets are very docile unless you disturb their nest. If you do disturb a nest, their sting is 6mm long. However, their stings are meant to be no greater risk to humans than bees, wasps, European hornets etc. The ladder by the hedge in the photo below marks where a nest was discovered, alongside a bowling green.

Asian hornet nest location in hedge - Jersey

Asian hornet nest’s location in hedge – Jersey

Bait stations

In the UK we can all keep an eye out for hornets by putting out a bait station and watching it. This can simply be stones or pebbles in a dish containing jam, beer, or a product called ‘Trap it’. If it’s attracting wasps, you’ve probably got it right. Don’t put a bait station near your hives.

If you are lucky (?!) enough to catch an Asian hornet, either swat it or capture it. Then the hornet can be sent to the National Bee Unit for ID’ing – but freeze first! The NBU don’t need a lot of the hornet to ID it – so don’t worry if it’s a bit flat.

What we can do

Phil and Karen had a request for the audience – that we all reach out to two groups or organisations in our local community and give them some info on the hornets. You could direct them to wcbka.org.uk/asian-hornet-action-team or print out one of the posters available from the National Bee Unit’s Beebase Asian hornet page. Below is a photo of a poster WBCA have produced.

Asian hornet poster

Asian hornet poster

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Swarming from the bees’ perspective

My notes from our second talk by Scottish bee farmer Tony Harris at Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference this September. I’ve read books on swarm behaviour and studied it for the BBKA’s module exams, but still Tony taught me quite a few new things!

There is “perhaps no more spectacular event in the bees’ lifetime” said Tony – I have to agree with him. This summer I was sitting on a lawn when the nearby swarm I had been planning to collect in a minute suddenly took off. Bees filled the air, before rapidly zooming over my head, disappearing over hedges into the distance. I was sad to lose them, but it was a beautiful sight.

“What’s the earliest swarm you’ve had?” Tony asked the audience. The winner was: 23rd March (this is Cornwall, remember!). According to research by swarm expert Tom Seeley, most wild colonies swarm once in spring, but 40% of those swarms will swarm again before the end of the summer. Seeley’s studies indicate that the average survival rate of wild swarms may be low, with around 80% of swarms moving into natural cavities failing to survive their first winter.

Swarming countdown

Below is a photo I took of one of Tony’s slides, showing the timings leading up to a swarm, which I thought was quite helpful. Bee maths! He showed us some videos of behaviour such as the Dorsoventral abdominal vibration (DVAV) shaking dance, which can be done up to 300 times an hour on the old queen as the first queen cell is sealed. The workers grab hold of the queen and rapidly vibrate her. As a result, her egg laying behaviour is inhibited – she’s being harassed too much to have time to lay! The DVAV dances stop a few hours before the swarm departs. The workers will also do dances on sealed queen cells – communicating with the virgin queen inside.

Swarming countdown chart

Swarming countdown chart

Composition of a swarm

  • 70% of workers less than ten days old leave with the swarm.
  • Drones make up less than 1% of the swarm population

Choosing a new home

Once the swarm leaves, they will temporarily settle in a spot (such as an inconveniently high tree – or, for some lucky beekeepers, a low bush!). The swarm sends out a small number of scout bees, who will explore an area of up to 30 square miles in their search for an ideal home. Below is one of Tony’s slides summarising what a perfect bee home looks like, based on research by Winston and Seeley & Morse. Although bees are supposed to prefer high-up locations, Tony noted that he’s had more success with bait hives placed on the ground!

Swarm site selection criteria

Swarm site selection criteria

Meanwhile the swarm hangs clustered together. They can maintain their temperature at 35C in their core and 17C for the outside bees, regardless of the ambient temperature that day. The scout bees return to the cluster and carry out waggle dances for the best location they’ve discovered. If it happens to rain, the waggle dances will be paused!

Gradually, a consensus will be reached once all the scout bees are dancing for the same location.  When that happens, the cluster will soon take off and head for their new home. If you need to buy yourself some time while you get equipment ready to collect a swarm, Tony suggested gently spraying the hanging swarm with cold water (please don’t train a hose on them!). The reason behind this is that all the bees need to warm their flight muscles up to 35C to be ready to fly.

Virgin queens

Back in the old parent colony, the first virgin to emerge from her cell will often seek out any ‘quacking’ virgins still in their cells. The quacking noise is produced by the virgins vibrating their flight muscles, pressing their thorax against the comb as they do so. The emerged virgin’s sting is long enough to reach her rival queens and kill them before they hatch.

If two virgins emerge at the same time, they may fight, using their mandibles to grasp each other. Another possibility is that a virgin will leave with a secondary ‘cast’ swarm, taking a smaller number of bees off with her.

Aren’t swarms wonderful? As long as they’re not in your chimney, of course. Below are a few photos from my 2019 summer swarms.

The third swarm

Swarm on wall closeup

Swarm on wall

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