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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

Photo Competition winners coming soon

Vita 2015 Calendar Cover

Vita 2015 Calendar Cover

Here’s a shocking teaser!

We are just about to announce the winners of the Vita Photo Competition 2014.

All the winning photos appear in the Vita 2015 Calendar, so here is this year’s cover.

Could your photo be there?

Timely alert on Asian hornets

Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) nest

Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) nest – indoors for once!

With leaves falling and exposing Asian hornet nests high in the tree canopy, Southern French beekeepers say that the next two weeks is the time to destroy the nests.

With the cold about to set in, the Asian hornet queens will soon leave their nests for their winter nooks and crannies. Eliminating queens now, they say, will likely reduce the number of colonies next year.

Meanwhile, a French tractor-driving farmer accidentally hit a nest and died from the stings.

Philippe Grosvalet, president of Loire-Atlantique departmental council, is calling for the hornet to become a “category 1 health danger” after the attack. At the moment they are a Category 2 nuisance.

See Vita’s hornet trap video here.

Yes, it really was an extraordinary season

IMG_4139“Oh, it’s been a strange beekeeping season.” I’ve heard beekeepers say that every year that I’ve kept bees. So I will say it this year and claim that it really has been the oddest of years … in this part of southern England at least.

It started with extraordinary rains (the wettest December/January in 248 years) that raised the water tables in the chalk downlands so high that the road past one of my apiaries was a fast-flowing river for several weeks.

After a very mild winter, I discovered in April a completely unexpected Varroa infestation. The colony recovered well after drastic management through shook-swarming and the application of Apistan.

Spring was waterlogged and sluggish to start. Parts of the oil seed rape fields around my apiaries had been washed out and blossom was limited, so the spring harvest wasn’t huge.

Then came summer — and it was a real one, one of the hottest of the century! The season caught up so rapidly that it concertinaed and there was an early June gap (when there are few flowers and little nectar). Suddenly, bees were sniffing around the bee-shed as if it was August.

With such a high water table, the nectar flowed and the summer harvest was bountiful, with the flow lasting much longer than normal.

But there was payback in August when it was the coolest in a century and the bees decided to stay home and prepare for winter.

However, there were yet more tricks in the seasonal arsenal. September and October blossomed. September was one of the warmest and driest ever.  A big second flush of dandelions turned many fields yellow and the ivy (producing honey only the brave can enjoy) gave bumper yields.

The bees took note and started expanding colonies again — to such an extent that uniting colonies became very problematic. I united two only to find that the resulting single colony swarmed and the stay-at-homes were unable to get a new queen mated, leaving me with a drone-laying colony in October. It’s one way of reducing colonies, I suppose!

It was a record-breaking season for weather and for my honey harvest too. I’m now left with too many colonies going into winter as they are still rather too strong to unite. I’m getting to sound like the archetypal farmer.

And now we await what is expected to be the warmest Hallowe’en in decades with the UK expected to be hotter than Istanbul! Spooky!

Turlough, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

 

 

 

 

Remember your first season?

Up on the roof. BCOT beekeepers Lauren, Tim and Vanessa with Pete of the local beekeeping association (left)

Up on the roof. BCOT beekeepers Lauren, Tim and Vanessa with mentor Pete of Basingstoke Beekeepers (left).

On a rooftop less a few hundred metres from Vita’s HQ, Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) has installed two hives. We have been watching their progress with great interest. The BCoT beekeepers were very well prepared for their first season having taken a course with their local beekeeping organisation, Basingstoke Beekeepers.

So, what did they think of their first season? Lauren McCann tells us …

How many colonies did you start and finish with?
Two and two – although we lost one swarm.

Where is your apiary?
On the college roof – in a sheltered west-facing position. A special mesh has been erected around the hives to make sure that any roof repairers don’t have an unwanted surprise!

BCOT's first year efforts showing great presentation skills.

BCOT’s first year efforts showing great presentation skills.

What was your favourite moment of your beekeeping year?
Discovering that we would have a harvest this year – in our very first season! Tasting the honey too – delicious!

What was the biggest surprise of your beekeeping year?
How placid the bees have been and that we’d harvest some honey. We were very excited to discover this!

What did you think of your first sting?
It was unexpected and it hurt more than I would have expected! I’ve only been stung once though, so I can’t complain too much!

What was the most challenging task you undertook?
Judging how much to burn in the smoker to keep it alight during inspections. And lifting the super off when the frames were full – they were quite heavy!

What was your proudest beekeeping  moment?
Seeing our first labelled jar of honey. Magic! We also made beeswax with lavender polish and students used some honey to make honey cake to sell alongside the products.

Basingstoke's finest?

Basingstoke’s finest?

What do you aim to do better next year?
Get quicker at inspections to minimise the stress caused to the bees. And to improve swarm control: one colony swarmed despite our vigilance and anti-swarming actions. Students will be involved next year too.

What most impressed you about your bees?
Just how docile and focused they’ve been in their community on the task in hand. People could learn a thing or two from our little buzzing friends!

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