Today I have been down at the apiary watching Caroline Washington, our local FERA Bee Inspector, go through our hives. She was taking samples of bees as part of a nationwide analysis FERA are doing of the diseases present in UK hives. The results for each hive will eventually be available on the Beebase website via logging in.
It was quite a learning experience watching Caroline. She took samples by getting someone to hold a frame up and then scooping up bees using a small plastic container, making sure beforehand that the queen was not on the frame!
Here you can see the containers. I think about 30 bees are needed for each sample. Caroline added a liquid to the containers which killed the bees.
Our hive was inspected third. Everything had looked fine when we inspected on Saturday. Was it fine when Caroline came? Of course not! All the frames were looking grand until the frame second from the front had a whopping beauty of a queen cell on the bottom of it. And Caroline spent quite some time looking but couldn’t find the queen, although eggs were present.
So…since they have only produced one queen cell it may be that the queen has died within the past three days (eggs hatch into larvae after three days) or that they want to supersede her, even though she’s less than a year old. Bees thinking of swarming would usually produce multiple queen cells. It’s a bit of a headache and Caroline advised me to wait till Saturday to see if they produce further queen cells and then take action.
After four hives we stopped for a cup of tea, as we were all freezing. It’s meant to be 15C in London today but it’s always a lot chillier under the apiary’s trees. Yesterday I was walking around in shorts and a t-shirt, today I was huddled up in jeans, a jumper, coat and bee suit. That’s British weather for you.
After warming ourselves up a bit Caroline went on inspecting. Her smoker lasted for ages, she put pine combs and twigs in it which produced a lovely smell too. In-between each hive she disinfected her hive tool and uncapping fork in a bucket of washing soda solution. The hive below Caroline unfortunately didn’t think was going to make it. There aren’t enough bees and the brood showed signs of disease. This brood here Caroline said had an unhealthy looking discolouration. She used her tweezers to pull out the larvae, several of which had rotted inside the cells.
This frame Caroline told us newbies watching to take note of as an unhealthy brood pattern. It is far too patchy and several young bees toward the top of the frame have started emerging head first but never made it out.
The next hive we looked at, with a New Zealand queen, was doing better, with far more bees and healthy brood inside. However Caroline felt the queen should be laying more productively and advised requeening. She also found some unhealthy looking bees. It’s hard to see in the photo below, but this bee she found had died pulling on its proboscis, which she said is a sign of distress. Another one showed signs of deformed wing virus, which she said is the biggest problem for bees in London, as a result of varroa.
The hives at the apiary have not done very well over the winter – we started with fifteen and are now down to nine, several of which are not strong colonies. Caroline thought this might be to do with the heavy tree cover keeping the hives cold, so there will be efforts made to reduce this. Varroa is obviously also a major problem too. She said she despairs of beekeepers who refuse to treat for varroa, subsequently spreading the mites to neighbouring hives through bees drifting from one hive to another.
It is becoming fashionable to practice “natural beekeeping” in top bar or Warre hives (vertical top bar hives) where the bees produce their own comb rather than being given foundation sheets to build on. The Warre hives can be a nightmare for the bee inspectors to inspect as the combs can be huge, requiring the inspectors to work in pairs, unlike the National type boxes used in the Ealing apiary. Sometimes beekeepers using these type of hives are not carrying out any swarm control, causing neighbours to get tetchy when the hives swarm several times a season. Rightly or wrongly, frequent swarms can mean beekeepers become banned from allotment sites as the other allotment holders don’t want to put up with it. That isn’t really fair on beekeepers who do keep an eye on their bees.
I’m glad I was able to watch Caroline today, it was fascinating to hear all her advice. Fingers crossed our bees don’t swarm before Saturday!
EDIT: A Daily Telegraph article by beekeeper journalist Ian Douglas, who was also paid a visit by Caroline, has since been published: www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/beekeeping/8567865/Beekeeping-Diary-an-inspector-calls.html