A very important message from the bee inspectors for June

The National Bee Unit (NBU) issued a starvation risk this week and urged UK beekeepers to check their colonies for food supplies:

‘With the continued spell of poor weather in many areas of the UK, reports are coming in from Regional and Seasonal Bee Inspectors of starving bee colonies, where the beekeeper is not aware that the bees are severely short of food, or the colony(s) have already starved to death.’

While in May it seemed unusual that we were still feeding our bees, the NBU’s latest news alert – a starvation risk in June – reinforced what an unsettled year this has been for many UK beekeepers and their bees.

There is forage for pollinators like this hoverfly I spotted in my workplace’s medicinal garden, but the rain has made it difficult to collect nectar and pollen.

Bee colonies at particular risk of starving include those with the supers (honey crop) removed, hives which have been split or artificially swarmed, nucleus colonies, colonies collected from swarms, and even larger hives which haven’t swarmed but which haven’t gathered sufficient food due to rain. So basically most hives are at risk because of the poor weather in the UK!

‘Please, sir? Can we have some more?’ Nucleus hives which are smaller and more vulnerable may be at risk of starvation.

Emily and me have fed our bees all season as a combination of rain and drone laying queens has prevented our hives from growing to full strength. Yet I was concerned by the NBU’s alert and emailed Andy Pedley to send the news to Ealing beekeepers. On Saturday morning I mixed enough sugar syrup for our two hives and the other colonies at the apiary.

Hefting a heavy bag of beekeeping supplies on tube and foot, I arrived at the apiary in time to tag along with Andy’s beginner beekeepers session. Emily, Albert and me have all taken the introduction to beekeeping course, but we watched and listened to Andy’s practical tutorial with interest. In beekeeping it never hurts to be reminded of the basics and there is always something new to learn when observing an experienced beekeeper inspect a hive.

Spotted – a group of beginner beekeepers at the apiary.

Andy picks out a frame from a nuc to show the group. There are black bees and light gold bees which may indicate that the queen has mated and is laying different coloured bees, or that two colonies were combined to make a nuc.

Andy and the beginners had fed the colonies they visited, so Emily and me opted for ginger beer and cake before inspecting our bees. Emily had brought a bottle of ginger beer and there was plenty of cake to choose – almond and fruit to chocolate and pecan. It was like Jubilee all over again!

Beekeepers well fed, we visited our recently combined hive and the new nucleus colony with Albert and Pete, a beekeeper-in-training.

A gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park was found sitting next to our spare hive last week!

Last Saturday we had received a gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park, which the apiary has given us to keep as a training hive for beginners. The Osterley bees had filled their five-frame nuc, so we moved them across to a hive and I spotted the new queen, another bright orange beauty, who we named Ginger. We had closed up the small colony with dummy boards and insulation in the roof to keep them warm, and, of course, left a full feeder of syrup above the crownboard.

This Saturday was our first real inspection of the Osterley bees, but they were not doing as well as hoped. The extra frame of foundation was barely drawn out with comb and there was not much sign of worker brood.

Our new Osterley bees are gentle and calm – Emily and me have always been lucky to have good natured bees.

Albert noticed that the queen was moving too fast and erratically across the frame, and Emily observed drone cells in the centre of the comb – two signs that all might not be well with the queen. Without knowing the full history of these bees, it was too early to decide what could be happening so we closed the hive with insulation and freshly made sugar syrup in the roof.

Fortunately, our combined hive is doing well and Neroli has settled into her queenly duties. On the Jubilee weekend we had combined our two hives because one hive had failed to re-queen and was too weak to continue. But last week revealed that the colonies had not combined successfully and the bees in the top box were bad tempered. It was one of those moments in beekeeping when three beekeepers stand in front of a box of bees scratching their heads and wondering what to do next. Believe me, it happens quite often!

Grumpy bees – last week the drones in the top box of our combined hive were not too happy!

Albert had been there that Saturday and the three of us managed to work out the problem. The queen excluder above the bottom box had also excluded the drones (who are larger than workers) in the top box from moving down. The poor frustrated drones had been trapped in the top box for a week and were letting us know that they were not happy by buzzing loudly.

It was easily remedied by removing the queen excluder and remaining newspaper allowing the two colonies to meet up. We had separated the two brood boxes with a super to encourage the bees to move honey from the top box into the bottom box.

The bees have started taking the honey from the comb in the top box to move into the bottom box. Notice the large holes in the wax comb at the bottom of the frame – our bees also tend to rob wax from frames to use in other parts of the hive.

Happily, this week the bees had followed the books and were getting along just fine. The frames of honey in the top box directly above the brood nest had been emptied, good girls! Albert suggested giving our bees a helping hand by using a hive tool to score across the remaining combs of honey, and then place these above the brood nest again. The workers seemed to appreciate our efforts and immediately got to work. Hopefully, next week the top brood box can be removed completely and both colonies will be in one box.

Emily uses a hive tool to score across the comb and make it easier for the bees to rob out the honey.

We carried out a quick inspection of the bottom box because there was no need to disturb the recently mated queen and her bees. There were signs of healthy worker brood nicely patterned across the comb, growing stores of pollen and nectar, and even a propolised ‘dance’ floor at the entrance of the hive. Neroli appears to be an excellent queen like her mother Lavender.

It was another good Saturday’s beekeeping. Here is a short clip of our activities.

Related links

National Bee Unit guidelines on feeding bees: the NBU has provided advice for beekeepers who are concerned or unsure about food supplies in their hives:

  • Heft a hive by lifting the hive from below the floor to check its weight. If the hive is light, it should be fed.
  • Feed with sugar and water mixed at 2:1 ratio or using a ready mixed syrup from a beekeeping supplier.
  • Use fondant in an emergency if nothing else is available, although liquid feed is more appropriate for this time in the season.
  • Large starving colonies will take 1 gallon (5 litres) of syrup and smaller colonies can take ½ gallon (2.5 litres), but the hives should be checked after feeding within a few days.

Further guidance on feeding bees is provided in the National Bee Unit Best Practice Guideline No. 7.

Celebrity beekeepers told to buzz off

This interesting article in the London Evening Standard explores an area that has worried the city’s expert beekeepers for some time. Are there too many hives in London and not enough forage for bees? Read about it here.

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28 thoughts on “A very important message from the bee inspectors for June

    • That’s my favourite bit! I think our voices sound so similar on video that when I am editing the clips at home I have trouble recognising who is who. Enjoying doing the videos though, now if only I had a brilliant hive partner who constantly divulges little gems of information about bees that I could interview…

  1. A worry about that “starvation” alert, this should be the period of abundance due to flowers like clover coming out.

    • It is a worry, I hope it is not a sign of changing climate patterns to come, but nature is unpredictable so we will have to wait and see. The food is out there but the bees have not been able to sufficiently forage because of the rain. After a wet period, bees need to wait for tree and flowers to dry out before they can forage and also too much rain can dilute nectar and wash away pollen so there is not much for bees to collect. Nature is a very delicate balance.

  2. Pingback: Starving bees in the UK « The Liberated Way

  3. I have a question after reading your post and Emily’s post. Do the wild bees come to the hives that you are feeding? If bees are finding it hard to forage due to weather, what do the wild bees do? Do they search for new homes, or just make due on the rations they collected until the weather breaks?

    • Gosh, that is a good question. I wish that I knew more about wild honeybees, but I have no experience observing a feral colony of bees over time so I am probably not the right person to ask. However, feral honeybees would need to forage for enough food to feed 20–30,000 individuals and to collect enough nectar and pollen to store for overwintering just like domesticated honeybees. So I expect they would have the same problems as our bees finding forage this year. I haven’t noticed any wild honeybees trying to rob our hive but there is only one nest of feral honeybees in our local area that I know of.

      Bumbles and solitary bees might have similar problems but they don’t need as much forage as bumblebee nests have only around 50–100 individuals and only the queen overwinters, and, of course, solitary bees only have to feed themselves.

      Honeybees, whether wild or in hives, need to collect enough nectar and pollen during spring and summer to feed much bigger colonies and to sustain a colony of around 10,000 bees throughout winter. So I hope that the wild bees are doing ok.

      Emily did find a dead bumblebee in our hive a few weeks ago. They sometimes wander inside for warmth, shelter and food. Our bees had killed her and bitten off all her fur. They don’t take kindly to robbers, I’m afraid 😦

      • Wow, and interesting story on bees entering the wrong hive. Bees must be very territorial. There is a feral hive of honeybees at the farm. I should go take photos of it sometime. It is interesting that they live in hollowed out trees. The farm owner leaves the hollow trees just for the bees. The bees are useful on a tree farm.

      • How kind of the farmer to leave the home for the bees. He must know that they are good for pollinating his crops 🙂 At the Middlesex Federation Beekeepers Day this year, a scientist from Reading University suggested that loss of natural habitat is one of the main reasons insect pollinators are in decline, so it’s good to know that some people are prepared to leave spaces for wild bees. I’d be interested in photos and any stories you can find out about the feral bees at the farm. If the colony has been observed there for a few years, they must have swarmed quite often and I wonder if the swarms found other homes in the area?

        Yes, honeybees can be territorial and there are sometimes skirmishes at the entrance between guard bees and cheeky workers from other hives trying to sneak in and rob some honey. Sometimes workers can bribe their way into other hives if they have nectar or pollen to offer, perhaps they got lost or something happened to their hive and they need to find a new home. It can happen. However, drones are allowed to drift from hive to hive and do bed and breakfast as they please!

  4. Honestly, your posts are so enjoyable and educational, that after reading I get motivated to seek out info locally. See if any area beekeepers offer courses, or accept volunteers. However the article about London possibly having not enough foraging food is troubling. More bee-friendly gardens please! Andy seems like a great instructor. Oh and the video was great, if short. Fascinating about how they leave a hole to help with their vibrations. Keep the updates coming, please. Across the pond, and happily hooked (oops.. maybe not a great word to use with bee-keepers 😉 ) Good luck with the Osterley bees!

    • Thank you, Gina. It would be really lovely if everyone who had a garden made it bee-friendly, I am sure it would make a big difference. Unfortunately, local councils don’t seem to make it a priority to plant bee-friendly plants in parks and public gardens so some work needs to be done there. Glad you enjoyed the video – I’ll try to do more next time, although my camera/video skills are not great yet so most of pictures and clips never make it to a post 🙂

      • A campaign to persuade local councils to plant bee-friendly plants, maybe…?? The school in my village is planting a wild-flower area in the corner of the otherwise green, bald, mown playing field – which is nice to see. I have heard that just mowing lawns less often helps – as 2-3 weeks between is enough time for daisies, buttercups etc to come up. Not sure how good daisies etc are as bee-food, but presumably better than nothing! Out here in rural Suffolk we also lack plants for bees/other insects – but because of farming practices ie lots of spraying = far fewer wild flowers. Anyway – loved the picture of the newbie beekeepers – hope that will be me soon. Thanks for all the info, I am learning a lot!

      • That’s good news. Unmown lawns are very helpful to bees particularly if clover, one of their favourite foods, springs up. I think people are used to seeing nature look ‘tidy’ around urban areas but there is always room for wild flowers which are beautiful. You are right, it’s just about spreading awareness. Good luck becoming a newbie beekeeper, they are lovely creatures to keep 🙂

  5. Good luck! It’s neat to see photos of beekeeping equipment in the UK – the subtle differences between what we use on the west coast of Canada all to support the same species of bee! Wishing you a warm, sunny spell to support foraging!

    • Thank you for the sunny wishes from Canada 🙂 I was interested to read that the National hive is mostly used in the UK, although top bar hives are becoming popular (they do look very pretty). You might be right about different hives supporting the same species as some say the National is the best hive to keep bees warm in the UK, although I suppose insulation could be used in top bars. A beekeeper at our apiary also has a Langstroth in her garden next to the hen coop. It looks lovely 🙂

  6. Hi Emma – thanks for this post. I’m a newbee beekeeper and I’ve noticed that I am having to feed my new hive about a gallon of sugar water every few days. We’ve had a small drought here in West Virginia here in the States and it’s getting hot so there isn’t much flower and forage right now. I was worried a bit but after reading your post realize that it’s the lack of rain that is necessitating it. Whatever the cause I know they wouldn’t be drinking it so fast if they didn’t need it. They are also a nucleus getting started in a new location so they also need it for that reason. Thanks as always for your posts – I always learn something from them.
    But one question: how can you tell when bees are grumpy? I am trying to learn their sounds. Thanks – Amanda West

    • Hi Amanda! Gosh, with all this rain I didn’t stop to think that too much sun could cause the same problem, but you are right – rain is needed for the nectar flow. Hope your drought ends soon, maybe we can swop some sun for a few clouds? 😉

      Nucs can need feeding lots to build up, and the bees usually tell you when they don’t want the syrup anymore, because they will stop taking it. Good luck with your nuc, I hope the bees settle into their new home.

      Grumpy bees have a higher pitched buzzing sound, they lose the pleasant hum and buzz and start sounding whiny. They will probably send out guard bees as they become more bad tempered who bomb your suit, rather than float around in the air.

      I’ve found most hives are good natured most of the time, but they can get moody if the weather conditions are not right, or if they have been opened too long, or maybe they don’t like the smell of something or a particular way of handling. Emily and me keep our weekly hive notes that include weather conditions and temperament of the bees. It helps us get to know the character of our hives and what upsets them, if there are any patterns. Hope that helps 🙂

  7. Good grief, EST. Not only are your posts essential reading for any beephile, but your comments columns are expanding too… No time to eat. Thanks so much for the ‘On a Roll’ inclusion; reciprocated, of course. Best from RH

    • The trouble is that I have such fantastic commenters! 🙂 No time to sleep either, just like a bee. Thank you for the reciprocal link, I’m happy to point people to the lovely fishy things and sunny skies on your blog 🙂

    • Gosh, thanks Sara. That is so kind of you 🙂 Have fun at your shindig tonight, looking forward to a post and pictures. Sorry I can’t make it, but a boring tummy bug has me on Heinz chicken soup and lucozade today! 😦

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