Ups and downs in beekeeping are about as surprising as the rain in April. After Pepper’s colony had been lost to winter in February, Emily and I delayed the comb change in March due to the cold weather and dwindling sizes of our two surviving hives.
It was a puzzle. These small colonies were just too big for a nuc and yet too weak to keep themselves warm in a regular hive. They needed something inbetween. I had bought a roll of foil insulation that you might use for insulating lofts, which I cut into squares with a pen knife and wrapped around the dummy boards and old empty brood frames to keep both nests warmer. The bees weren’t taking their syrup in the chilly weather either. I left the winter fondant under the roof with more insulation, closed up and hoped for the best.
Andy Pedley took a photo of my insulated dummy board. The other beekeepers were somewhat impressed by my use of odds and sods, at last my induction as a beekeeper was complete.
Meanwhile, regular readers of mine and Emily’s blogs will know that my hive partner has gone on maternity leave to look after a very special little drone. Congratulations to Emily and Drew on the arrival of their wonderful baby boy Thomas who you can read all about on Emily’s blog!
I haven’t told the bees yet, but here’s what they did next.
On the odd bright day in April when I opened up the hive it was like inspecting winter colonies. The bees were clustered over two or three frames with some patchy brood. They were being kept alive through warmth and food, but their situation wasn’t improving much. I managed to reduce Melissa’s colony into one box when visiting the apiary with Jonesy on a Sunday. The colony had nested in the super over winter because it was the warmest spot at the top of the hive beneath the fondant, but they had left behind a couple of frames of bees in the brood box below.
I removed the old brood box and put the super holding the nest on the floor with a new brood box and frames above shaking in the rest of the bees. The forecast was fairly warm for the week ahead and I hoped the bees would be encouraged to move onto the fresh comb, but a week later they had not touched it. It become cold and rainy again, and I abandoned the attempted Bailey comb change.
I could hardly blame the bees. When the nights dropped to 1-4•C and daytime temperatures peaked at 9-12•C, it was a lot to ask these small colonies to keep the hive warm, and draw new comb, and forage for new stores, and rear brood.
It was barely warm enough for some humans to want to go outdoors, but I managed to encourage my dad to the apiary to help clean-up some hive equipment. He enjoyed it once there. He does like to blowtorch stuff.
And seemed a bit disappointed when the job was done.
The queens hid away in April with no sight of new eggs being laid. It was only the workers bringing home pollen and calmly carrying on with their tasks inside the hives which gave me any reason to believe that the colonies were still queen-right. The brood and bees that were there were largely workers, not drones, which also gave me hope that neither the queens had become drone layers nor the workers started laying.
The queens surprised me for May Day. It was the first time this year that Melissa had been spotted as Jonesy pointed over my shoulder at the queen poking her bottom in a cell. Peppermint too was seen walking steadily across the comb and I hadn’t seen her since March.
Melissa is somewhere to be spotted in this photo taken by Jonesy, towards the right of the frame there is a faint pink dot revealing the queen. Despite my joy in seeing her, I didn’t keep her out for long. “Put her back before she gets shy,” said Jonesy.
The days and nights were getting warmer. When opportunity allowed I transferred the frames of brood from both Melissa’s and Peppermint’s colonies into clean brood boxes, standing on clean floors with a clean crownboard and roof above. As the bees were still only occupying three or four frames in the nest, I filled the gaps with insulated dummy boards. I’m pretty sure that the extra insulation in our hives has been vital in keeping them alive this far.
A normal comb change wasn’t going to happen this year, the colonies just weren’t up for it. Instead, I would swop the insulated dummy boards and old brood frames for new foundation as the nests, hopefully, expanded in May and June. I feel it is going to be a year of slow progress for our bees.
Peppermint’s ladies had made quite a fuss when I moved them. I had caged the queen on the comb so I knew where she was during the transfer and her workers were not happy about that. “It would be much easier if you could just put up a sign with an arrow saying ‘This way’,” said Pat who happened to be walking past me. I agreed.
If April showers bring May flowers then I hope the bees will be as bountiful as the forage. Just to be safe, I will keep their syrup topped up and the nests insulated till both hives fully recover.
Pat kindly gave me a bottle of Hive Alive to add to the syrup. I had noticed a few spots of dysentery on the old brood boxes and thought the bees needed a tonic to boost their health.
The apiary was also starting to spring back to life with some hives small and weak like ours and others already booming with bees. John Chapple brought over some drone comb culled from a colony for varroa control. I felt sorry for the drones but good husbandry can be helpful to the overall health of the hive.
John Chapple and Alan Gibbs have been kindly caretaking some new arrivals at the apiary. These beautiful emerald hives used to belong to Alan Kime who sadly passed away, but thanks to the hard work of John and Alan his bee legacy has continued. I sometimes watch their activity at the entrance after inspecting my hives and they are very nice bees.
In the garden
At home in the garden I was having more luck with mason bees than honeybees. A reward for patience came in April when I saw the first mason bee emerge from his cocoon.
Since then almost all the masons have chewed a hole through their mud-capped tubes and are busy foraging plants at the bottom of the garden. I caught this loved-up couple on a dandelion.
I took advantage of the sunshine last week to tackle the plot at the back and divided the land between humans and bees: half vegetable patch and half wild flower meadow. I left the dandelions and forget-me-nots for the bees and butterflies; John thinks I’m crazy ‘weeding’ around the weeds.
The new insect mansion is also taking shape thanks to my dad’s donation of three wooden pallets and some bricks. I hope to have it finished next week in time for the mason bees to start making their new homes.
My other life as a backyard birder has attracted a sparrowhawk to the garden. I was surprised to see him one day from the kitchen window. He sat conspicuously next to the feeders and the sparrows watched him from a safe distance.
From the birds and the bees to pond life, we lost our oldest fish Richard coming out of winter.
I don’t know much about ponds, yet, but think Richard died of swim bladder brought on by old age. I found him floating on his side and after looking up advice on goldfish forums, gently lifted him out to try an Epsom salt bath for five minutes. He didn’t struggle and the bath made no difference. I put the poor fish in a shallow glass dish and placed him on a shelf in the pond to die peacefully. The other goldfish came over to have a look, but couldn’t disturb him too much in his glass bed. I told them visiting hours were six to nine. He was dead by morning and buried by John beneath a bush.
A few days later I cleaned the pond pump, pulled out some weed, and gave the fish a water change. Two frogs had found the pond over winter and provided a frogspawn buffet for the fish. I scooped out half the spawn into buckets to give the tadpoles a chance. You can see the fish were rather curious about where the tadpoles had gone.
The frogspawn has since hatched and I now have two tubs of tadpoles sitting by the pond.
I’ve fed them crumbled fish pellets and lettuce leaves, which they love, along with half water changes each week and they seem to be thriving. It looks like I may end up having more frogs than bees this summer.
That could be a lot of frogs.
Hundreds! And frog mum has hopped off!
Lovely Emma, very pleased to see your Bug Mansion and is going to look more like a palace to me. How lovely to have a sparrow hawk visit your garden and very cheekily siting next to the bird feeder. Your garden sounds like a haven for wildlife. Have you thought about a couple of chickens 🙂
Thank you Tom, hopefully finishing the bug mansion next week while it’s warm 🙂 Too many foxes around our area for chickens! I think bees, birds, fish and tadpoles are enough for now.
The insulated dummy boards worked a treat. Where did you get the silver tape you wrapped them with?
Sorry to hear about Richard. You gave him a peaceful passing. Make sure the tadpoles don’t get too hot in this weather, keep them in the shade. I lost a tank of tadpoles once after they overheated.
They did seem to help – I got the foil roll and silver tape from B&Q, although they didn’t believe me it was for bees. Fingers crossed our bees have got it in them to build up their nests now the weather is getting warmer. Peppermint’s colony was flying like mad this weekend but Melissa’s colony less so. Poor tadpoles, I put a tea towel over half their tubs yesterday so hopefully helped to keep them cool. 🙂
You have had a difficult spring for the bees. As a beginner, I thought that if you got them through the winter it was easy after that – I’m learning. It is interesting that your queens have been slow. We are finding that new queens are taking their time in our hives that have swarmed. It was a great picture of the Sparrowhawk. One once came and perched near our birdfeeder when we were sitting outside but since then I’ve seen no more. It’s been a good spring for our mason bees, they are a lot less work than the honey bees! Amelia
It depends what kind of winter but spring is a tricky time. It’s a waiting game now to see if continuing to keep the hives warm and fed as the weather improves will save them from dwindling away. If it doesn’t then it may suggest something is wrong with the queens other than being cold and hungry, here’s hoping that’s not the case. New queens can sometimes be slow and I’ve found it can sometimes take up to four or five weeks after emerging for a new queen to really get into her stride laying for the colony. It just depends on the queen and conditions inside and outside the hive. I haven’t seen the sparrowhawk since but I must be keeping the sparrows well fed for him to visit the garden. I’d rather like him to come back when I’m more camera-ready. The mason bees are less work and just as much fun, although they do take some protecting from the ants and birds in the garden too 🙂
I hope your hives are warming up now. I may have to copy your idea for insulating come this fall. I think our climate is much like yours, and between the damp and the cold, it’s really hard on them over the winter. Beekeepers here cite the damp being the bigger of the two issues. I love the tadpoles! I don’t think any of my (mostly salamander) eggs made it this year; no fish, but my tiny pond is being overrun with water iris, then the dogs slopping in and out of it to cool off, and the dry spring weather combined to make it a tough year for amphibian reproduction. Love the insect mansion. And great photo of the sparrowhawk, too! Now I’m off to read about Emily’s new drone! 😉
Thank you, I will pass on your warm wishes to the bees 🙂 John Chapple once told me that he’d rather have a bitterly cold winter than a mild damp one, and I think I agree. In a cold winter the bees cluster and conserve more stores till spring, and the break in brood is good for disease control. In a mild winter they might consume all their stores and be unprepared for a chilly spring, and without a break in brood any varroa treatments overwinter will probably be less effective. This spring is the weakest I’ve seen our bees. The insulation boards seem to have helped so far but if Melissa’s colony gets any smaller I’ll then transfer them to a polynuc, which is really warm. A shame about your salamanders, I’d love to have some of them in the pond. The local cats and birds were very interested in our pond when we moved in, so my dad built a pond cage and the fish, and frogs, have been undisturbed since 🙂 I wish you and your bees and dogs a bountiful summer ahead!
Lovely pictures as always, does your Dad have horns?
Oh I see what you mean! 😉
Horns, no, but I forgot to mention the apiary fox is fascinated by him and has come out whenever he visits. So perhaps some woodland powers after all 😉
Glad to hear your mason bees are doing well. A few have emerged down here from my overwintering tubes but not very many. I am a bit concerned that I have done something wrong but I havent a clue what that might be.
I don’t think you can do anything right or wrong with mason bees – nature decides. I have another insect house where they are slowly emerging but are weeks behind the others. I think more will come as the weather continues to get warmer and for your mason bees too 🙂
Thanks Emma, that’s very reassuring.
It’s so interesting to hear how your bees are doing in another part of London. It’s such a contrast to the state of my colonies at the moment – weird.
I love your insect hotel, I’m hoping to build something similar in our garden at some point. Our garden gives me so much joy, I love seeing all types of bees and birds visiting as well as growing lots of fruit and veggies!
So true and even at the apiary there are different hives doing differently with at least three hives almost bursting with bees. My queens obviously need a better recruitment strategy! Oh I do understand about the garden – it gives me such joy to watch all the wildlife visitors and working to make it a haven for them. Which veggies have you noticed most visited in your garden? I’ve put a scare owl on our plot to keep the robin away from the bee hotels in that part of the garden 🙂
They certainly are fascinating creatures – love to keep us guessing!
The bees love our chives, Rosemary, raspberries, broad beans,tomatoes and fruit – I love the fact that we get lots to eat thanks to their hard work! I’m working on cramming in as many bee friendly things as possible.
The owl is a great idea, I have a couple of cats for that job!
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I’m asking all you European beekeepers what you know about the thermalsolar hive http://thermosolarhive.com/en/homepage/. I know absolutely nothing but am intrigued and hopeful that it might actually offer non-chemical hope in the fight against varroa. We don’t have varroa in Australia (HOORAY) yet so I only hear the odd titbit about new advances in the fight but this one looked interesting. So, have you heard about it? What do you think?
Wow – I hadn’t heard if the thermalsolar hive Laura. I’ll share the link among British beekeepers through my association after first having a read about it. At first glance I’m interested in a hot hive that helps keep colonies warm – something that would really help our weaker colonies in spring buildup and in getting overall stronger with better resistance and less stress from bee diseases. Thank you 🙂
A great overview of your experience of this funny old Spring! Poor bees must wonder if they’re coming or going. Fabulous mason bee hotel and quite magical to see your overwintering guests emerging successfully. Hope the fish rests in peace!
Thank you! Yes it has been a funny time for the bees and will just have to wait and see whether they can recover. Even the mason seem to be struggling for forage so we have bought them an apple tree in blossom. Lets hope there’s more peaceful times ahead for nature this year 🙂
Oh dear I will try for the third time, I am in the WordPress App and for some reason I keep losing my comment here as it flicks a window .
Sorry to hear you lost peppers hive over winter.. But a clever idea of yours to lag the hive with foil. Good to know you have a helping hand with your Dad too.
Congratulations also on passing your Induction for BeeKeeping
And Also Pass on the Congrats to Emily and Hubby to their new arrival .. 🙂 Wonderful news.
We also lost a fish over winter, it was one of our oldest it was around 5 or 6 yrs old.. It had Dropsy, Sadly nothing could be done.. The others are fine..
And now I see how many tadpoles you have .. No wonder you have your hands full LOL
Sorry that you lost Peppers Hive, this has been a weird wet Spring/Summer for sure.. I am always fascinated reading about your bees and loved how you helped warm up the hive with that foil idea.. Clever you and Congratulations On your completed induction of a BeeKeeper. Well done..
You Look so happy amongst your Bees too, doing what you love and congrats too to the new baby arrival 🙂 May certainl a Happy time to celabrate. 😉
And I can see now as I read back just How Much Frog spawn and tadpoles there are..
We also lost a fist too, He/She was about 5 and was the largest in the pond. It had Dropsy
It was sad to lose Pepper’s hive as she turned out to be a good queen by her second year, but at least she was survived by her daughter Peppermint. The foil frames appear to have helped our hives in their weak state to hang on till summer, but in the past two weeks both hives have superseded and I nervously wait to find out whether the queens have been successfully replaced.
Our frog story certainly was a success this year – the weather has been good for frogs if not bees 😉
I’m sorry to hear you lost a fish too – it’s so hard to know what to do with goldfish when they get sick. So far I’ve opted for a softer approach so they don’t get more distressed but our pond is looking nice at the moment thanks to a some handy tools to keep the bindweed under control 🙂
Fingers crossed for Peppermint.. And our Pond was lovely and clear after winter, then it went green again very suddenly and hubby did a part waterchange with rain water we collect in a barrel from the greenhouse roof.. Its settled down and is clearing again now, The water lily is rampant and we have a bud, it didn’t flower last year so hoping to take a photo when it does 🙂