What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

photo_4‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?’ is a question I am often asked by beginner beekeepers at the apiary. Simply put: they are both queen cells but they can be built by the bees for different reasons – to swarm away from the colony or to supersede (replace) the queen.

There are general guidelines to help identify swarm cells from supersedure cells, including:

  • As a general rule swarm cells usually hang from the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells appear nearer the top or on the sides; although sometimes queen cells are found top, bottom and sides which isn’t much help.
  • If the queen cannot be found, and there is no sign of eggs or larvae, it might mean the bees are building supersedure cells to replace her; although you need to be very sure that the queen isn’t present.
  • If only drone is being laid, you may have a drone-laying queen that the bees are trying to supersede.
  • If a colony is bursting at the seams and the queen is present and appears to be laying well then it seems likely the colony is trying to swarm.

This is not an exhaustive list and the bees don’t always follow the books. Last week Emily and I found queen cells in Rose’s hive that we took down because, after carrying out checks, we couldn’t determine whether these were swarm or supersedure cells.The colony is small, with plenty of room for the queen to lay, so there was no need to swarm; that said, small colonies are known to swarm and when it isn’t advantageous for them to do so.

photo_5This week we found ‘emergency’ queen cells built in the middle of a frame (above), which made it clearer that the bees were trying to supersede the current queen, Rose.

We found the queen too, and young larvae (no eggs), but the workers were moving quickly across the frame and were restless, which can be signs that the queen is failing to hold the colony together as a ‘cohesive whole’ and that the workers are not happy with her. Sometimes workers will try to replace what seems like a perfectly good well-laying queen, but this is because the bees know, or sense, something about her that beekeepers don’t.

With four colonies at Perivale apiary – one strong colony, two weaker colonies and a nuc that needs a hive – the way forward seemed clear. Her workers were trying to overthrow her so we should combine our two weaker colonies – Rose’s hive and, the newly named, Queen Chamomile’s hive – which would give us a second strong hive and provide a spare hive for Chili’s colony.

However, the way did not go to plan.

We had successfully checked Queen Chamomile’s hive, and found and marked the queen (a bright yellow dot as I didn’t have this year’s red pen), and had inspected Rose’s colony and caged the queen (you can just see her inside the cage below) so we knew where she was and could remove her when we needed to. When combining hives there should be only one queen to unite the two colonies.

We were going to give Rose, and the frame with the emergency queen cells, to another beekeeper at the apiary who has a queenless colony. Rose may not be a very good queen and the queens who emerge from the emergency cells may also not be very good, but we could at least give them a second chance to prove themselves with another colony.

photo_8Unfortunately as we moved Rose’s brood box over the queen somehow escaped from her cage and the operation had to be abandoned; it was unlikely we would find her again after having been caged once that day and we couldn’t risk combining the hives while both queens were present. The hives had been open a while and the bees were irritated from the manipulations, so we put everything back as it was with the help of Jonesy and a beginner beekeeper. For now queens Rose, Chamomile and Chili would have to wait. At least we had reached a decision about what to do.

Emily went for a well-deserved cup of tea and I had to scoot off, but we are revisiting the bees on Monday evening to try it all again. In some ways this is better; I am finding that with four colonies and a lot of beekeepers, and beginners, at the apiary each week that it is a challenge to make our own decisions about our hives (when, being beekeepers, everyone else has a different opinion about what to do) and to carry them out. It is my fourth year as a beekeeper and it may be that next year I will be ready to spread my wings and leave the apiary completely.

Any bee-loving vicars or gardeners in Northolt who have a spare patch of earth to share with a beekeeper and her bees?

Do visit Emily’s blog to find out how good was the tea and cake, and if anything happened next.

When it doesn’t rain

When it doesn’t rain this is what a Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping looks like.

Emily and I now have four colonies at Perivale apiary: Queen Myrtle’s hive has almost completed the Bailey comb change after a late start in spring; Rose’s colony has been successfully transferred from a nuc into a hive; the second nuc is building up nicely; and we saw a new virgin queen in our hive from Charles. We closed up and left her to fly free.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s short snapshot – much more next week.

Happy beekeeping!

BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour. How honeybees use nectar, pollen, propolis and water

purple crocus bee

My friend Suzanne says, ‘I always know that spring is coming when I see my first big fat bumblebee popping out of a yellow daffodil.’ Last week I saw my first honeybee foraging for luminous orange pollen inside a bright purple crocus. Spring is coming.

Following my last post on the behaviour of the foraging honeybee, it made sense to continue studying the collection, storage and use of nectar, pollen, propolis and water by the honeybee colony. So I’ve skipped ahead to 6.9 on the syllabus to bring these sections together.

6.9 The collection of nectar and water and their use by the colony

A honeybee sees a flower very differently to humans. As Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum describe in A World Without Bees, the two compound eyes on the front of her head are sensitive to ultra violet light ‘expanding the already vibrant colours of the plant world into an explosion of differing hues, and directing the honeybee towards the area of the plant where the nectar and pollen are stored’. The honeybee’s eyes can see lines that guide her to the heart of the flower in a similar way that ‘the lights of an airfield direct planes to the landing strip’. Here’s what happens when she collects nectar for the colony.

nectar collection infographic

6.11 The conversion of nectar to honey including the hydrolysis of sucrose, the evaporation of water and the role of the honeybee in accomplishing these changes

So that’s an overview of how the honeybee collects nectar, processes and stores the nectar as honey, and how the honey is used by the colony. The next flow chart specifically looks at the conversion of nectar to honey.

nectar to honey

Collection and use of water

Honeybees also collect water to bring back to the hive. They tend to collect water from unusual, or what we would consider ‘unclean’, sources such as puddles, drains, bird baths, cow pats and, on occasion, and at the risk of causing annoyance to neighbours, from hanging laundry. The stomach in which water is stored has a valve that microscopically filters and cleans the water that they bring back to the hive.

Water is not stored by the colony so it is collected and used when needed to:

  • dilute honey to be eaten
  • mix with pollen to make brood food (70% water) to feed larvae
  • dissolve hardened granulated sugars
  • cool the hive when temperatures are very high.

6.10 The inter-relationship of nectar, honey and water in the honeybee colony

So this is how nectar and water are brought into the hive and stored and/or used. The simple diagram below brings together their inter-relationship in the honeybee colony.

NECTAR-HONEY-WATER

There is a lot more to learn about nectar, water and honey (as shown on the syllabus for module 3 honeybee products and forage!) but for module 6 I’m focusing on honeybee behaviour.

6.12 The collection, storage and use of pollen by the honeybee colony

Emily and I enjoy watching our bees fly back home with baskets full of brightly coloured pollen. In January and February this is usually a sign that the queen has started to lay eggs again, because the pollen is needed to feed larvae and young bees who need the protein in pollen to develop their bodies. Throughout the year seeing our bees fly home with pollen is usually a good indicator that the colony is ‘queen-right’, meaning that the queen is present and that she is laying, and if our colony has recently re-queened it can be a sign that the new queen has mated successfully and is laying new brood.

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And the different colours of pollen packed into the cells in the honeycomb are not only beautiful to look at, but also give us an idea of what flowers our bees like to visit.

Emily and I use a pollen chart throughout the year to identify the pollen of various flowers brought home by our bees. This tells us what is flowering now and what our bees like to eat.

Emily and me keep a pollen chart in the roof of our hive to identify the different-coloured pollen brought home by our bees.

Foragers use a variety of methods to collect pollen from different flowers. Mark L Winston describes this in The Biology of the Honey Bee according to the type of flower:

Open flowers. The worker bites the anthers with her mandibles and uses the forelegs to pull them toward her body.

Tubular flowers. Workers insert the proboscis into the corolla searching for nectar, and pollen is collected incidentally when it adheres to the mouthparts or forelegs.

Closed flowers. The bee forces the petals apart with her forelegs and then gathers pollen on the mouthparts and forelegs.

Spike or catkin flowers. The bee runs along the spikes or catkins, shaking off pollen onto her body hairs.

Presentation flowers. The pollen is collected by workers pressing their abdomens against the inflorescence, causing a pollen mass to be pushed out of the flowers.’

Honeybees can often be seen in flowers their bodies covered with bright yellow or orange pollen grains, which they then ‘dust off’ and brush into baskets on their hind legs.

Here’s another infographic summarising the relationship between bees and pollen.

pollen collection infographic

And finally, propolis…

6.13 The collection and use of propolis by the honeybee colony

Our ladies were too busy sticking propolis on frames to notice we had opened the hive

On a mild day in September 2011, Emily and I visited the apiary while the other beekeepers were away to do some secret beekeeping. We had to work hard with the hive tools to prise open the hive, which was very sticky. When we looked inside our bees were so busy chewing and sticking propolis all over the hive that they completely ignored us!

Propolis, or ‘bee glue’ is a resinous substance collected from sticky buds or tree bark, and seen as shiny blobs on the third legs of foragers flying home. It is most often seen by beekeepers in late summer and in autumn when bees use it to insulate the hive for winter – it makes all the hive parts very sticky and inspections can become difficult.

Here’s why the bees like it though.

pollen collection infographic

My next (and penultimate) revision post before the exam will be written from the point of view of one of our queens and it’s all about swarming and supercedure, something Emily and I know a lot about!

Related links

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
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing
BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour 6.6 The social network including bee dances
BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour 6.7 the foraging bee

Snowmageddon

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As temperatures in Sydney, Australia soared to a record-breaking 45.7˚C this week, my ex-pat friends complained that they were missing the snow in England. Holly Galt tweeted: ‘Ah London, you are making me so homesick! Love a good snow day. #Snowmageddon’ @hollygalt

The snow hadn’t yet arrived, but as Holly is from 12 hours in the future it was possible she knew something that I didn’t. And on Friday the snow arrived.

My work’s Medicinal Garden looked very pretty in the snow.

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However, as nice as it looked around Regent’s Park, I didn’t want to sleep at my desk overnight, so we all left early while the trains and buses were still running. I enjoyed a snowy walk home through Northolt Village.

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On Saturday morning I awoke to find Narnia outside my window and temperatures around 0°C. Positively balmy! Being one of the few beekeepers insane enough to prove that we can still have our tea and cake on a Saturday afternoon – even in snow, I arrived at the apiary not surprised to find a small crowd.

I found Emily, Stan and Albert doing some detective work having found evidence of bird footprints in the snow on hive roofs and a suspicious dent in the wood of John’s hive. Could it be that an Ealing woodpecker has discovered the tasty treats inside our hives?

snowbees5 snowbees3

Emily and I checked on our bees next. The hive is still quite heavy with stores, although they have eaten a large hole in the fondant. This allows us to observe the colony in winter and see that the bees look healthy and are active. A few workers were light coloured and fuzzy, they might be new bees if the queen started laying again in late December.

snowbees1 snowbees2 snowbees4

By now my body temperature was around -1°C, so we went to join John and the boys huddled around the kettle and Emily’s delicious jam cake.

Snow is forecast to return on Sunday, while the sun continues to shine in Sydney. As Holly would say, I know where I’d rather be. #London #snow

Winter watch for bees

woodpecker damage

‘Do they ever do any beekeeping at this cafe?’ asked someone while we sat around the apiary table on Saturday afternoon. The first weekend after new year and Ealing’s beekeepers had made no resolutions to give up tea and cake.

Luckily, Pat had brought something to show why bees need keeping in winter – a feeder tray with a hole bored in the side of the wood by a woodpecker. Woodpecker damage to bee hives is not common in West London, but this case of break-and-entry shows why we should keep watch. The woodpecker had attacked Pat’s hive at Osterley first by boring a hole into the top of the feeder tray, where it wouldn’t have found anything interesting, next drilling the wood below before getting fed up or disturbed and flying off. ‘It must have been very disappointed,’ said Pat.

Bee larvae can make tasty treats for hungry woodpeckers in cold weather, and maybe bees too, while causing considerable damage to the brood nest. However, Ted Hooper says that woodpecker damage to bee hives is a learned behaviour:

‘Woodpeckers learn that they can find a good meal in a beehive much in the way that bluetits learn to open milk bottles for the cream. You may keep bees in an apiary for years with lots of green woodpeckers about without any damage and then suddenly they learn the trick and through the hive wall they go, leaving behind a dead colony and several 3 inch holes. Whether all the damage is done by the woodpeckers or whether rats finish the job off I am not sure, but I have seen brood chambers in which the frames have been turned into a pile of wooden splinters, no piece being larger than a match. Covering the hive with wire netting or fish netting before the first frosts is the usual remedy.’
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey.

The chicken wire is on order for the Osterley hives.

EDIT: Pat kindly let me use this photo of his hive at Osterley now safely protected by wire netting. He advises using chicken wire wrapped around the whole hive to keep woodpeckers off and to ‘make sure there’s a good clearance all the way round so they can’t peck through it’.

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Image © Pat Turner

A walk around our apiary showed that the woodpeckers haven’t learned about the delicious morsels inside our hives – yet.

I carried out a few other winter checks including:

  • hefting the hive to check the weight of stores – it’s heavy
  • lifting the roof to look at the fondant – the bees are tucking in greedily and the hole in the fondant (a ‘window’ into the winter hive) suggests the cluster inside is loose
  • observing the entrance – foragers are flying home with bright yellow pollen suggesting that the queen has started laying.

Overall, the signs indicate that our bees are well and active, perhaps because of the mild weather, although in January they should be conserving energy. All that flying means eating a lot of honey, but at this time of year there won’t be much nectar about to replace it. We’ll need to keep a close eye on the hive’s weight and amount of fondant between now and spring.

I went back to the apiary table to report my findings. John agreed: ‘It’s much easier to get a hive through a very cold winter than a mild one, because they don’t fly about as much.’ I asked where the bees might be finding the yellow pollen and Pat thought it was from mahonia. There wasn’t much else to be done except have another cup of tea and try Cliff’s culinary invention – the ‘pake’.

the pake

It’s a mix between a cake and a pie, explained Cliff. ‘The top half is a raspberry muffin and the bottom half is a mince pie.’ I wasn’t entirely convinced but the men beekeepers were thrilled to find the mince pie half-way inside. A pake was left on the table for the apiary’s family of robins who swooped down as we left. Hopefully, it will satisfy any peckish woodpeckers too.

Merry Christmas Queen Myrtle and her bees!

tinsel for our hive

Not to be outdone by the elder beekeepers reading books to bees, this afternoon Emily and I made sure our hive was the most festive at the apiary. A Christmas card to ‘Queen Myrtle and bees’ was also slipped under the roof.

However, if it sounds like we were having too much fun, there was some proper beekeeping to be done: giving the bees oxalic acid.

Pat giving his bees oxalic acid

Oxalic acid is a winter treatment for bees. Above, you can see Pat treating his hive with Emily looking on.

Oxalic acid burns the feet and tongues of varroa mites so they fall off bees. The treatment is particularly effective in winter when the mites are living on adult bees, because there is little or no capped brood for them to hide inside.

Our apiary uses a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup and about 5ml is dribbled on each ‘seam of bees’, that is the gap between each frame which has bees. It is important to get the dosage right as over-dosing may be harmful. Last year I took this video of Giving the bees oxalic acid.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) has a good advisory leaflet on oxalic acid. Not all beekeepers like to use this treatment for a number of reasons, such as: it is not ‘natural’ (although oxalic acid is a naturally occurring substance; although cyanide is naturally occurring too, so this might not say much!); accumulative effects of annual treatments may harm the queen (I haven’t read enough to know if this is a risk); it may harm the bees (the winter workers will die in spring to be replaced by new bees so its effects on the colony may not be long-lasting). I think it is advisable to treat hives in an apiary environment in a city, because disease may spread more easily.

giving bees oxalic acid

After a challenging year for our bees, it was great to see them alive and well for their midwinter oxalic acid ‘gift’. When we lifted the roof they were happily tucking into the bag of sugar fondant, although the hive is quite heavy with honey stores. They should be tightly clustered inside the hive, but today was quite mild and the cluster had become loose.

Above, Emily treats our bees with oxalic acid. They were much better behaved than last year and didn’t make much fuss. Myrtle must be a gentle-natured queen.

There was a small crowd led by Pat and John to treat all the hives at the apiary and after all that hard work it was time for tea with homemade mince pies and a generous-sized apple pie! There was also honey mead so the banter was quite lively. Yet another exposé on what Ealing beekeepers really get up to!

mince pies and apple tart

Soon it will be January and we will be looking for the first signs of spring when we can see our bees again. Merry Christmas everyone from Queen Myrtle and her bees!

BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.4 a honeybee year

winter bees

The third revision post for BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour covers syllabus item 6.4, which looks at the honeybee colony throughout the seasons.

6.4 The seasonal variations in population size of a honeybee colony and an explanation of such variations.

Winter to spring
In winter when the days are short and the nights are long, frost bites the air and snow covers the ground, the bees cluster together inside the hive to stay warm. As outside temperatures reach around 18°C the bees begin to huddle and as temperatures continue to fall the colony forms a small, tight ball around the queen. She may have stopped egg-laying completely, but there are still tasks for her workers in a broodless hive.

At the centre of the broodless cluster the bees vibrate their flight muscles to maintain a core temperature of around 21–24°C, while the outer edges are insulated by a layer of resting bees. The bees at the centre of the cluster take turns in changing places with the bees at the edges of the cluster, so everyone has a chance to stay warm! However, many bees will freeze to death during the coldest months of winter; 8°C is thought to be the lower lethal temperature at which a bee will die. Occasionally, on a clear, mild day, the bees will venture outside on a ‘cleansing flight’ to avoid defaecating inside the hive.

feeding snow bees

The bees tuck into their honey stores, because generating all that heat requires a lot of energy. ‘During the winter a colony will use an average of about 1kg per week just for heat production. (So do not skimp on feeding!)’ says Celia F Davis, The Honey Bee Inside Out.

The population of the overwintering colony is around 10–15,000 worker honeybees and the queen. In late January, as daylight hours increase, the queen begins egg-laying again and the workers raise the temperature for rearing the brood to about 34°C.

Spring to summer
The days grow longer and warmer and the plants begin to flower bringing nectar and pollen. The queen’s egg-laying depends on how much she is fed, so as the weather improves and more forage becomes available, particularly pollen for brood, the queen will lay more eggs. It may be as soon as late February or early March that honeybees are seen flying home laden with baskets of pollen to feed the spring brood.

This is a perilous time for bees. The old, overwintered workers are dying off as brood is increasing and new bees are hatching, but their winter stores are now very low. The colony relies heavily on fair weather to forage to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Between January and March is when many colonies are most likely to die and beekeepers should keep careful watch.

spring forage

As spring moves into early summer the queen may lay more than 1,500 eggs a day, including drones to mate with virgin queens. A healthy, well-fed colony should grow from strength to strength and vary from 30,000 to 40,000 individuals at the height of the season. The colony continues to build up from May to June, which is usually the swarming season, although they may swarm earlier or later than this.

The workers put the queen on a diet to make sure that she is light and slim enough to fly – as a result, her egg-laying drops a week or two before the swarm. Swarming causes the population of the colony to fall by about a half and this combined with the break in brood both before and after the swarm, while waiting for a new queen to mate, means that the remaining population must work hard to build up numbers and stores again.

Summer to autumn
The longest day of the year has passed and daylight hours grow shorter and cooler. The queen’s egg-laying slows, less brood is produced, fewer bees hatch and the shorter-lived summer workers are dying off. The colony is becoming much smaller in size.

Foragers can be seen bringing home red-jewelled propolis on their legs. This sticky, resinous substance exuded by trees is used to disinfect and insulate the hive as the colony prepares to overwinter. In early autumn, the drones, having served their purpose throughout spring and summer to mate with virgin queens, are evicted by their sisters who do not want to feed them in winter. The bees that hatch in autumn will live for almost six months surviving on summer stores.

The seasons turn full circle as temperatures begin to drop and the colony clusters together waiting for spring to return.

snowdrops

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

A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 3rd Honeybee behaviour revision posts: the queen’s egg laying behaviour & seasonal variations in the size of a 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