A tale of two colonies

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‘Your blog is like a soap opera. Each week I tune in to find out what the bees will do next,’ my friend Danielle had said a few years ago. ‘The twists and turns of your queens has been really dramatic!’ She was talking about the bee saga of 2012 when a season of prolonged rainfall and drone-laying queens had made beekeeping more interesting than usual.

This year I was hopeful for strong colonies, steady queens, fair weather and plentiful flows. How we get the season going is an important part of its success and this year we were well prepared, but as Emily and I have learned, anything can happen in bee land.

This is a long post, written in the raw to get my thoughts and feelings down.

Day one

Last Saturday’s all-day sunshine made it a great day to kick off the season. The apiary was pretty in the sun as I waited for Emily. We were going to change the comb. Regular readers will know that beekeepers in the UK are advised to replace the old brood comb once a year, with fresh comb, using methods like the shook swarm or Bailey comb change. The thinking behind this is to manage the levels of diseases and parasites that often live within a bee colony. Even if you can’t see any visible signs of disease, there are parasites that live with the bees all year round and it’s best not to let them get out of hand.

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For the past two years we had used the Bailey comb change, because this is a gentler method, and while we had enjoyable seasons beekeeping and learned a lot, the bees had not done that well. They were slow to complete the Bailey – whether due to poor weather, failing queens, or the collective characteristic of the colony being too complacent and slow – and last year our longest-standing hive didn’t complete the Bailey at all, which meant some comb was now two-years old.

I had a positive experience in my first-year beekeeping of shook swarming my hive. The bees had risen to the challenge and the colony had boomed, thrived and burst over with bees and honey. Having thought and read about this for months in winter, I wondered if it was time to try out the shook swarm again, at least with a couple of colonies, to re-invigorate the bees and to get rid of comb that wasn’t changed last year. Emily’s inspection of the bees, while John and I were in Dubai, showed Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were strong enough to shook swarm, but Chamomile’s was weak and might be better for a Bailey.

That decided, I lit my first smoker of the season and we opened up Myrtle’s hive. After a few frames in, I was delighted to see our favourite queen. There she was big, beautiful and dark with an amber tinge. Emily gently caged her with a few workers to keep her company, then placed the cage in a small blue tub to the side of the hive, in the shade to keep the queen cool and safe.

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That done, we did the business of the shook swarm. The original hive was moved to one side and a clean floor placed on the original hive site – so the foraging bees will not get confused when flying home to the same spot – then we placed a queen excluder on the floor, so the queen can’t abscond with her colony after the shook swarm, which she might do if the upheaval upsets her. On top went the new brood chamber with fresh frames, the centre four frames removed to provide a space to shake all the bees from the old combs.

I shook the bees from the old hive into the new hive as one of my first-year mentors had taught me: holding each of the old brood frames a third of the way into the empty chamber of the new hive and giving a sudden shake downward, careful not to knock the frame or bees against the sides. My shaking method was successful as almost all the bees fell off, leaving Emily and I to brush off the rest with leaves.

Incredibly, we barely had to use the smoker at all! Our lovely girls were well behaved throughout the whole shook swarm process and we worked quickly together as hive partners to make sure the upheaval to the bees was over as soon as possible. I shook and handed Emily the old frames to put into bin liners (to be tidy as we worked) ready to be discarded into the apiary’s burner.

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The old brood frames, some with unhatched brood, is burned. Thankfully, as it is still early in the year, there was not much unhatched brood on the frames, so we wouldn’t have to destroy many un-emerged bees. I noticed a few bees were starting to chew away the wax cappings and, not being completely heartless, I suggested Emily use the tweezers in our kit to help these bees emerge before the frames went on the bonfire. Emily rescued as many unhatched bees as she could, while I continued shook swarming.

It was soon over. We carefully put Myrtle into the new hive with her daughters and placed the crownboard (not a queen excluder, this is an important point to remember later in this post) on top of the new brood nest. The bees would now be busy drawing new comb from the foundation in a completely clean hive for a fresh start. I was particularly hoping the shook swarm would invigorate this laid-back colony, though it is my favourite, from ambling around all summer to properly ‘get-going’ this year.

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Even so, shaking two boxes of bees into another box isn’t easy – a lot of workers stubbornly stayed in the old hive boxes around the corners and sides. I used Joseph’s trick of propping up these old hive parts near the entrance of the new hive. The bees would soon figure out that the queen was inside and walk in to join her.

Next, Chili’s hive. This queen took us longer to find than Myrtle, but then we spotted her familiar red dot and long orangey-brown striped body. I thought again how lovely it was to see our queens after winter. We caged Chili and shook swarmed her colony into the new hive, propping up the old hive boxes to the entrance so unshook bees could walk in.

Both Myrtle’s and Chili’s colonies would now be fed lots of sugar syrup over the next few weeks to help the hives build up – the bees use the sugar to produce wax for comb-building. The nectar flow is strong at the moment, so if the bees don’t want the syrup then they can leave it, but we liked it there just in case.

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As Chamomile’s hive was weaker we decided to leave the comb change till next week, to give these bees a chance to settle into the season and us more time to decide what to do. The apiary was also starting to get busy with beekeepers and I always find it harder to concentrate when there are lots of people around.

Pat had kindly helped Emily get started with the burner and as the fire roared the old brood frames were destroyed, to be hygienic to the apiary and neighbouring hives. I had a quick scout around the apiary to collect up dead wood to be burned.

Walking back to our newly shook-swarmed hives, I saw Joseph’s trick had worked its magic again. The straggler bees had gone into the new hives and the old hive parts were now completely empty. I neatly stacked them the side and cleared everything away into our kit box. These empty hive boxes, along with wooden dummy boards, crownboards, queen excluders, roofs and floors, would be blow-torched clean in a few weeks’ time, ready to fill with new frames should the bees expand this season or kept aside for next year’s comb change.

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With our two hives shook swarmed I suddenly felt very nervous. What if it was not the right decision? What if our colonies were not strong enough to survive the upheaval? The Bailey now felt like a better choice where we didn’t lose all the honeycomb, brood and stores from the hive in one day and anxiously waited a week for the bees to recover and rebuild. However, if I’ve learned anything as a beekeeper it’s that I must have the courage to make my own decisions and learn from my own mistakes. The decision to shook swarm seemed right at the time given the strength, personalities and circumstances of the colonies in past years where the Bailey hadn’t quite worked. So we’d just have to wait and see.

I think it’s important as a beekeeper to try the different methods and observing their effects a number of times for yourself in the first 5–10 years’ beekeeping, because you build the skill and experience to know what to do and how to do it when faced with different colonies in different situations. Whether it’s a shook swarm, Bailey or doing nothing at all, it’s about having a big bag of tricks as a beekeeper. I’d only done a shook swarm once before, it was time to learn about it first-hand again. Nature would soon tell me if I was wrong.

Day two

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The day after the shook swarm John drove me back to the apiary to refill the feeders with syrup. I remembered in my first year that shook-swarmed colonies need to be fed a lot of sugar to help them recover. John waited outside as I suited up and walked to the hives. I took the roof off Myrtle’s hive and my heart stopped. There she was, our precious queen, floundering in the feeder with the workers. Her long body dipping precariously in the syrup.

Before I could think why the queen had wandered into the feeder, where she should never be, I quickly removed it, got out the queen and hastily put her back inside the hive where she rolled unceremoniously to the floor. The bees were furious and I had to ignore them as I closed up, this time putting a queen excluder on top (remember earlier, the shook swarm instructions don’t include putting an excluder above the nest) so the queen could not possibly find her way into syrup again. As I topped up the feeders in both Myrtle’s and Chili’s hive, I reflected on why Myrtle had walked up there. Day two after the shook swarm, the queen has nowhere to lay eggs and nothing to do but wait for the workers to build comb with cells to lay eggs. To do this, the workers need lots of energy, from sugar, to produce wax, and they would all cluster in the feeder taking down syrup. It was probably warm and tempting up there for Myrtle, who went to join her daughters or maybe she was just looking for a place to lay. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t risk this inquisitive queen falling into the syrup to a sweet sugary death.

I thought about putting a queen excluder on top of Chili’s hive too, but it was late in the day and the bees were testy after the disturbance. So I left the apiary and worried about the bees for three days.

Day five

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Midweek I went back to the apiary to feed the hives again. Myrtle’s hive had half taken the syrup down and Chili’s had finished theirs. I’ve read that you shouldn’t disturb a shook-swarmed hive for a week – just feed and feed – but I couldn’t resist a peek inside Myrtle’s colony to see all was well. Taking off the crownboard, I stared through the queen excluder and five seams of bees stared back at me. To my relief the colony was calm, suggesting Myrtle was alright, and appeared to be building wax across five frames already. I closed up and left the bees in peace.

Day eight

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Yesterday Emily and I carried out the first inspection on the two hives since the shook swarm. I was nervous what we would find – and it was a happy discovery. Myrtle was alive and well in her hive, walking in her playful way across the frame. The bees were building comb across five–six frames and the queen had even laid eggs. Not bad for our normally complacent bees, they had risen to the challenge and I was very proud of them. The more cautious Chili was found scrutinising cells in her hive and her bees had industriously started drawing comb on eight–nine frames, there were even rainbows of pollen alongside glistening stores of nectar.

While I’m not sure that I would shook swarm every year, it felt like what was needed this year and so far the signs were good. Let’s hope it stays that way.

We fed the bees more syrup and will continue feeding them until they don’t want it anymore. Emily also left pollen supplements alongside the frames – as we’d caused the upheaval to the bees, it was up to us to give them a helping hand.

The overcast weather meant it wasn’t a good day for a full inspection, and we were satisfied that we’d seen the queens and the two colonies were recovering well from the shook swarm. So we closed up and went for a cup of tea and cake.

While all this drama was happening in Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives, Chamomile’s hive was having its own misadventure. More on that next time.

Reflections…

This was a difficult post to write – I expect many beekeepers, particularly those who use natural methods, will disagree and criticise me for doing a shook swarm. I’ve nothing against any method, in particular, if it works for the beekeeper and their bees. But I need to learn my own way. Here, I’ve dissected all my thoughts and feelings around the decision to shook swarm and my reaction afterwards, and I’ve been harder on myself this past week than anyone else could be. Whether I shook swarm again or not, this was a valuable learning experience to record, so that it will help guide me in future years as a beekeeper.

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing

While listening to the restless humming inside the hives, spring seemed a long way off this weekend. Though rumours of snowdrops persist and the daylight is stretching further, I’m impatient to open our hives and see whether our queens, Myrtle, Chamomile and Chili, have survived the winter. As I walked home, I remembered this inspiring TEDTalk by Marla Spivak, a researcher in bee behaviour and biology, and watched it again for a dose of honeybee. Here it is, in case you missed it.

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing 

Our fascination for this wonderful creature, the bee, grows as does our need for them. The bees are disappearing, while there is ‘Worldwide 300% increase in crop production requiring bee pollination’, says Marla. But her talk is hopeful because it reminds us that there is much we can do to help the bee. Get planting bee-friendly flowers for spring: RHS Perfect for Pollinators Plant List.

I hope you enjoyed this video as much as I do each time.

Marla’s talk is on TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing.html
Her bio is available on TED’s website: http://www.ted.com/speakers/marla_spivak.html

For more TEDTalks:

TED.com http://www.ted.com/
Follow TED news on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tednews
Like TED on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TED

The wheel turns

‘Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.’
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The sun was hard and bright as we drove to the apiary on Sunday morning. With the passing of the winter solstice the days begin to lengthen. The honeybee colony senses the incremental increases in daylight hours and the queen stirs deep within the cluster. She will soon start to lay for the coming spring.

In the UK beekeepers treat their hives with oxalic acid around 21/22 December. This is thought to be an effective anti-varroa treatment when there is little or no capped brood inside the hive. The varroa mites have nowhere to hide and are most vulnerable to treatment.

Last year I made this video of Emily dribbling oxalic acid on our hives.

As I wrote then, ‘Giving the bees oxalic acid‘, the treatment is given as a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup with 5ml of solution dribbled across each seam of bees.

Emily had treated our Hanwell bees with oxalic acid and now we had three hives waiting at Perivale. John waited outside the apiary as I pulled on my beekeeping suit and untangled the hives from wrappings of chicken wire.

I opened up Myrtle’s hive – our oldest, and my favourite, queen – and peered into the still darkness. All was quiet. Then the workers ran up as one and peered back at me. To anyone but a beekeeper it would be disconcerting. A couple of young-looking fuzzy workers flew out and buzzed curiously around my veil. I realised it was time to stop enjoying the bees. They were losing precious heat, so I dispensed oxalic acid between each frame and closed the hive.

Next, Chamomile’s bees were clustered above the frames tucking into fondant. They were slightly more indignant, although not bad tempered, at being disturbed. So I didn’t linger. Last, Chili’s bees, having strangely taken to the medicine with the sugar, were too busy investigating the sweet drops to make a complaint. Yes, I too have noticed Chili’s bees are a bit weird.

Recent research has challenged the traditional way in which we give oxalic acid treatment, as Emily reports in her post ‘The great Facebook oxalic acid controversy‘. While I enjoy a midwinter visit to the bees, I feel uncomfortable about disturbing the winter cluster. The thought of a further inspection and destroying sealed brood when the colony is about to enter its most perilous time of year fills me with doubt.

However, as I reach the end of my fourth year as a beekeeper, I realise that I must become less sentimental about the bees. As beekeepers we love every bee and often anthropomorphise about life inside the hive, but the honeybee colony can be a ‘vast and cool and unsympathetic’ intellect acting as one mind. Workers will dispose unhealthy larvae, retire old queens and dispatch drones for the good of the whole. If this new research proves to be the best approach then we may have to change the way oxalic acid is given in future. But for now, I’d rather wait and see.

It has been a busy year for our bees, but we have reached the end. I’m taking a break from blogging for the holidays, so here are some of my favourite beekeeping moments from 2013.

Happy Christmas everyone and see you in the New Year!

Best beekeeping pictures of 2013

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Snowmageddon – Emily finds evidence of woodpeckers in the snow.

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My first sighting of a honeybee this year foraging on a purple crocus.

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This could get out of hand – our bees make new queens.

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A wonderful Bee Surprise from my boyfriend John and his friends.

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Autumn is coming – the year passes too quickly and soon the bees are preparing for autumn.

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My favourite queen Myrtle walking across the frame. She’s a long amber beauty.

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Our bees love building wax comb where they’re not supposed to!

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One of my favourite pictures of Emily beekeeping this year – What is a swarm cell and what is a superseder cell?

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Beekeepers in Iceland!

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And last but not least, a congregation of Ealing beekeepers.

BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing

Mod 6.5 leadA worker honeybee is patrolling the hive. She walks around the colony watching her sisters clean cells, nurse brood, build comb and fan nectar. She sees drones being pushed aside by returning foragers impatient to unload heavy baskets of pollen. She turns as the queen walks past looking for suitable cells to lay eggs.

Such is the constant activity of the hive that it almost causes her to miss a haphazardly laid egg. Almost. She pauses. The egg lies lopsided along the wall of the cell, not neatly deposited at the bottom. The queen, a precise egg-layer, is never so careless, so the worker climbs in the cell to investigate. Every egg laid by the queen has a signature scent (pheromone) but this egg does not have her mother’s tag – it has been laid by one of her sisters, a rebellious laying worker.

The queen does not need to fear insurrection because her daughters are very efficient at policing themselves. Without hesitation, our worker eats her sister’s egg and if she happens to catch her sister laying more eggs, she will not treat her kindly.

My fourth post for BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour covers syllabus item 6.5, which discusses the social organisation of the honeybee colony as a well-structured and highly hierarchical community. This time my revision notes are summarised and illustrated by beautiful infographics created for my blog by designer Keith Whitlock.

6.5 The social organisation of the honeybee colony including worker policing.

The honeybee is a eusocial insect, which describes an advanced level of social organisation. The most familiar examples of eusocial insects are bees, ants and wasps, which all belong to the insect order Hymenoptera.

Eusociality is demonstrated by:

  • colony of overlapping generations from eggs and larvae to young and fully mature adults
  • caste system that divides labour between reproductive individuals (queen) and sterile individuals (workers)
  • responsibility for rearing young shared by large numbers of sterile individuals on behalf of the reproductives

The organisation of a honeybee colony revealing a eusocial society is given below:

Mod 6.5 infographic eusociality

Now that’s understood, here’s how the bees get organised inside the hive.

The queen
(diploid, fertile reproductive individual)
The queen is the most important bee in the colony. She lays eggs, providing a constant supply of new bees, and produces queen substance to control the workers and keep the colony working together as a cohesive whole.

Egg layer
The queen fulfils the role of egg-layer thanks to the royal jelly that she is continually fed in copious amounts as a young larva, thus ensuring she has fully developed ovaries and is able to mate. It is only the queen who can lay both fertilised eggs (which become female workers or potential new queens) and unfertilised eggs (which become male drones).

The queen mates not long after hatching and lays around 1,500 eggs per day; she may live between 3–5 years (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). She is not only a prolific egg-layer, she is also precise. With her long abdomen, she carefully deposits one egg, placed neatly in the centre, at the bottom of a cell (fertilised with a single sperm or left unfertilised) and marked by a pheromone so that the workers can recognise eggs laid by the queen.

Queen substance
The queen secretes a substance from her mandibular glands called queen substance – a heady mix of chemicals of which the main component is the pheromone 9-oxodec-2-enoic acid (9-ODA). The queen substance is constantly spread throughout the hive as workers lick the queen and then pass the chemicals to other bees. Queen substance, combined with a pheromone given off by her own brood, inhibits the development of the workers’ ovaries – effectively it acts as a natural contraceptive! It is quite effective as normally only 0.01% of workers can produce full-sized eggs and only 0.1% of drones in a hive are the sons of laying workers.

Queen substance modifies worker behaviour in other ways:

  • inhibits building of new queen cells
  • stimulates foraging activities for nectar and pollen
  • encourages workers to build honeycomb

The pheromone 9-ODA is also released by the queen as a scent to attract male drones during her mating flight.

As the queen gets older her queen substance becomes weaker, and her egg-laying decreases, so that she has less control over her workers. They will eventually build queen cells to replace her.

Mod 6.5 infographic queen

Workers and worker policing
(diploid, infertile non-reproductive individual)
If you see a honeybee foraging on a flower in spring and summer she is likely to be a female worker. Almost every bee inside the hive is a worker and female.

Workers are the worker caste and carry out all the tasks for the colony (see revision post 6.1 the role of the worker bee). They live for around 40 days in spring and summer and between 5–6 months over autumn and winter.

Development of infertile females
After hatching, all young larvae are fed royal jelly for three days and then put on a diet of brood food, unless specially selected to become queens. Larvae who are continually fed royal jelly become queens with fully developed ovaries and are able to mate. Worker larvae are not fed royal jelly after day three of their development, have under-developed ovaries and are not able to mate. Their ovaries are unlikely to develop as adult bees due to the pheromones given off by the queen substance and the brood.

Worker policing
However, some workers may produce full-size eggs in their ovaries and become laying workers. Their progeny are destined to become drone because they cannot mate and have no sperm to fertilise their eggs.

Laying workers are quite careless. They may lay more than one egg per cell and because their abdomens are shorter than the queen’s the eggs are often laid haphazardly against the cell wall. They do not differentiate between worker-sized and drone-sized cells, laying drone eggs in worker-sized cells that hatch as drones with stunted growth.

Most importantly, worker-laid eggs are not marked by the queen’s pheromone, which helps other workers to police their illegal egg-laying activities. Worker-laid eggs are usually removed from cells and eaten by other workers (a practice known as oophagy).

Mod 6.5 infographic worker police

Drones
(haploid, fertile reproductive individual)
Drones are the male bees of the colony and it is thought that their only role is to mate with virgin queens (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). A drone hatches from an unfertilised egg and inherits one set of chromosomes from his mother, the queen; for this reason, a queen cannot mate with drones from her own colony due to the risks of inbreeding.

Drones that mate with a virgin queen on her mating flight will die in the act, and drones that don’t mate but live to the end of the summer will eventually outlive their usefulness to the colony and be evicted by their sisters.

Drones do no work inside the hive, although beekeepers have observed in spring and summer that colonies with fewer drones can be bad tempered. Perhaps drones fulfil another purpose not yet discovered.

Mod 6.5 infographic drones

I’m looking forward to exploring the next item on the syllabus – dancing bees!

Related links

BBKA examination path and BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.1 the role of the worker bee
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.4 a honeybee year

A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 4th Honeybee behaviour revision post: social organisation of the colony

Mid Buck Beekeepers Association Blog’s excellent revision notes for BBKA module 6

Recommended reading

Celia F Davis. The Honey Bee Inside Out. Bee Craft Ltd, ISBN-10: 0900147075
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey. Northern Bee Books, ISBN-10: 1904846513