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Year 2 of life in a honeybee fishbowl

IMG_5902Last year, I wrote of my experiences in installing and managing an observation hive in my office. It was a fascinating experience and a great distraction from my work, so a second year was essential.

But first to complete last year’s story. I didn’t overwinter the bees in the observation hive because during the season I saw how quickly the balance of such a small colony can be upset. I knew that I would be away for several weeks leaving the bees unattended, so they were transferred to a nucleus and transported to one of my apiaries.

In June this year I started again with a queen-making colony. I installed a Langstroth brood frame with two super frames above it. The brood frame had two sealed queen cells as I wanted to have an insurance in case one failed. Even if both were viable and neither destroyed by the bees, I might just be lucky enough to be around when a swarm departed. I was!

One June morning, a lot of squalking started coming from the hive. The noise was queen piping, so I suspected that a swarm might be imminent. Just before lunchtime the colony became increasingly agitated, running in gangs in all directions around the observation hive. Some found the entrance and poured down the exit tube much to the bewilderment of returning foragers which continued to try to squeeze themselves past and into the hive. When about half had reached the open air, they left with their virgin queen. Naturally it was a very small swarm and I saw it fly across neighbouring gardens, but I don’t think anyone else noticed and I never heard from them again.

That left the other queen to emerge and I waited patiently for her to mate. I spotted her in the hive one day, so I knew she existed, but I never discovered what became of her. She didn’t start laying and eventually I had to introduce a replacement brood frame with a new queen cell.

That new queen also emerged and at one point I thought she had mated because I even saw her going through the motions of depositing eggs in cells. But no eggs or larvae ever appeared! She eventually disappeared leaving a broodless colony.

I introduced a third replacement frame with a queen cell. A tiny queen emerged, but again failed to mate and lay.

Perhaps each queen had difficulty in relocating the hive entrance after a mating flight. Perhaps they were just unlucky to become a bird’s lunchtime inflight snack. Interestingly, Karl Tautz in his fascinating book The Buzz about Bees says that nucleii moved to a new mating apiary have high rates of queen loss during mating flights. Their disappearance remains a mystery to me and quite unlike my previous year’s experience.

However, there was lots of fascination to be had watching even a queenless colony. I especially enjoyed watching the bee dances which for some bees culminated in a quick kiss of nectar with the dancing bee before leaving to forage.

I was also intrigued by the confusion house-cleaning bees showed in failing to find the exit. They would wander round and round the hive with a piece of larva, sometimes walking unwittingly right across the exit! I would very much like to know if this cluelessness about the layout of their home results from the design of the observation hive or if this happens in every hive. It certainly wastes a lot of energy and is reminiscent of the children’s game, blind man’s buff.

So I look forward to more experiments next year and am already planning some changes, one of which is to make the entrance very clear to returning mated queens.

Here, I have been able to touch only on a little of what I saw in between emails and telephone calls. But be warned: observation hives and deadlines don’t mix!

Turlough, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

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