The wasp palace

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The afternoon had turned out perfectly nice for beekeeping. A low sun brought its warmth closer to the bees who were flying out and about like on a spring day. Mushrooms with long shadows had popped up all over the place to remind me it was autumn.

It was the second Saturday of the month which meant that Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop. But I was not the only visitor to the apiary, there were also the wasps. Last Sunday I had laid a couple of traps to deter wandering wasps from bothering our hives. Yesterday I found out it might not be so easy.

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This is as close as l’m going to get to a (suspected) wasps’ nest, even in a bee suit. A small burrow in the ground with fast-flying insects coming and going in a blur. Too small for bumbles and too many for solitaries. Had I stumbled on a wasp palace?

Wherever the wasps were hiding, the Wasp Queen had given orders to attack Queen Chamomile’s bees. As Emily arrived and stepped through the mushroom path, I had found a dent in the woodwork of Chamomile’s hive that hadn’t been there before. It seemed too early for woodpeckers who would still have lots of other tasty things to eat. “They don’t usually become a problem until the ground gets hard,” said Emily.

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EDIT: wood damage from rot, woodpeckers or very determined wasps! Some helpful suggestions in the comments below.

Irritated by the wasps circling the hive boxes like sharks in the water, I looked at the front and saw a row of wasps scraping and gnawing at the wood, determined to get inside.

Luckily, Emily and I had some spare duct tape and together we taped around the vulnerable seams of wood between the hive boxes and the crownboard. The wasps weren’t happy and retreated back to their queen for new orders.

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There is nothing more tempting to a beekeeper on a sunny day than a wooden box full of insects. But we resisted the temptation to open the hives. The opportunity for wasps to fly in and stress the bees would be too great. Instead we cleaned and topped up feeders with syrup.

We also left small bags of dry sugar under the roofs of Melissa’s and Chamomile’s hives as an experiment. Emily had read that some beekeepers feed hives dry sugar in autumn and spring, leaving the bees to add the water themselves. Though all our colonies are heavy with winter stores, Melissa’s inquisitive workers immediately checked out the spilled sugar. We’ll see next week if they liked it or not, as it’s a useful tip to know if we’re ever caught short of syrup or fondant.

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We then walked around the apiary to visit the other beekeepers’ hives. The new bees living in David’s old green hive seemed much better tempered and were content for us to watch them come and go. Although I spotted a hitchhiker on a returning forager (image above, bottom left).

Emily found a worker crawling beneath the apiary’s top bar hive with shrivelled wings, likely caused by deformed wing virus (DWV). Another clue that varroa was always lurking and that we must be ever vigilant against bee diseases even after a good season.

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The wasps would probably finish off the hapless bee. They are, after all, useful scavengers. Incidentally, we should also thank wasps for beer and bread.

A new beekeeper had arrived not realising that everyone else was at the scout hut. He had recently got a colony of bees from John Chapple and was giddy with excitement. “I can’t stop watching them.”

John Chapple would tell us to leave the bees alone as, despite appearances being contrary with bees flying in and out with brightly coloured pollen, they were making preparations for winter. Preparations that would be undone by nosy beekeepers pulling at frames to say hello.

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With that we closed the gate and left the bees, and the wasps and the mushrooms, to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in peace.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!

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14 thoughts on “The wasp palace

  1. I would make a trap with banana peels (just one portion of an entire peel), soda (not diet), and enough vinegar to make it SMELL vinegary. Place the mixture in a plastic container, cut a hole towards the top and, hang it nearby the suspected wasp nest. This is the hornet and wasp trap I use, it works very well, the “aging” of the mixture is very attractive to them.

    • Thanks for the recipe Anna. I’ll take that along if the wasps are still there next week. I dislike killing insects but as the wasps are at the end of their life cycle then I’d rather stop then harassing our bees!

  2. I had no idea wasps could be so destructive! I’ve not noticed any wasps’ nests in the ground over here, I’ve seen more the solitary ones using the bee hotels or making little paper nests which are not annoying at all. The thought of all that honey must make them mad. I had never thought much about where wasps live but I suppose there must be as many types as bees. I love your autumn photographs, very seasonal. Amelia

    • Well I’m only guessing the wasps caused the damage to the wood, seeing as we caught them red handed! 😉 Though it might yet be a woodpecker. Bees have lots of pests to contend with in winter, so we’ll have to put up mouseguards and chicken wire soon. Social wasps are usually moodier than solitary ones, I’ve found, and more angry at the end of summer as their nest breaks up and they starve. Despite them bothering our bees, they don’t seem a very aggressive wasp colony but I’d still rather they go away soon!

    • I hope so, I’ve been worrying about woodpeckers all day and wondering whether to go back and get out the chicken wire. It wasn’t there last week, would wood rot off so quickly? It has been a wet week and there was a storm on Friday night.

      • It wouldn’t rot in a week. It’s possible that it was already rotten and something helped it along to produce the hole, for example if someone had poked it. If you have a look at the wood around the dent, if it is rot it will be crumbly, discoloured and very wet, if it is other damage the wood will be basically intact except where the attacker has had a go, it will also be dry.

      • I’d never know all that about rotting wood! 😉 When I touched the dent trying to figure out what it was, it didn’t crumble or look discoloured, although I couldn’t tell if it was wet through my marigolds. That’s a good test to know, so I shall check again. I’m glad we taped round the dent and where the crownboard meets the hive boxes. The wasps were climbing all around and inspecting every possible gap from the roof to the floor to find a way to get in 😦 They seem to have figured out Chamomile’s is a weaker colony.

  3. Our leader at Hughenden Manor apiary explained a wasp guard he had tried. Basically, it is a cylinder about an inch in diameter and the length is the width of the hive. Along one side is a slit to coincide with the reduced entrance to the hive. Attaching the cyclinder so there is no gap at this entrance (drawing pins, strong tape, depends on what your cylinder is made from). The bees soon learn they need to enter the cylinder and then go to one side or another to get outside. These two ends are much easier to defend, especially as if some wasps enter that way, there is a long, narrow corridor which is easier for the bees to defend than if they wasps get into the hive through the entrance. I haven’t tried it myself yet. is it my imagination or aren’t the wasps usually dying off by now?

    • I’ve heard of something like this, though not so well described. Would it work for hornets too? Another beekeeper at the apiary said he had a problem with hornets around his hive. The wasps should be (almost) gone by now (I hope), I’ve never known them to be such a nuisance.

      We opened our weakest hive last weekend to check the feed and had almost 30 wasps trying to get in, quite horrible. Perhaps it’s because there is a nest nearby, or perhaps wasp populations have recovered from the bad summer of 2012, which isn’t such a bad thing I suppose 🙂

  4. Oh, those horrid wasps! I think your taping up of the hives to stop them getting in is a very good idea. Good job you didn’t risk opening the hives too. Beautiful photos. Love the mushrooms, they’re quite magical looking 👍🐝

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