The case of foul brood and the diabolical baby

Emily and me did less tea drinking and more proper beekeeping last weekend, captured beautifully on camera by Emily's 'entourage' Drew Scott!

Things can happen fast in bee-land. Barely a month has passed since the Bailey comb change, but there has been a drone-laying queen, a suspected case of foul brood and the unexpected appearance of a virgin queen. That’s just one hive. I sat on this post for a while thinking back on the lessons learned in the past few weeks.

Rain had prevented our hive inspections for two weekends following the Bailey comb change, but when the sun came out after Easter bank holiday Emily went to check on our bees. What she found inside Queen Rosemary’s hive would worry most beekeepers, so she raised the alarm by emailing the secretary of our association, Andy Pedley.

‘I am worried our hive has some kind of brood disease,’ wrote Emily. ‘There is virtually no healthy worker brood, lots of drone brood, and some dried up larvae, some that look a bit scaly, and some that look a bit bloated.’

Emily thought our bees were grumpy and a bit aggressive, which can be a sign of a failing queen or being queenless. She spotted cells filled with pollen with a film of honey on the top, which can also indicate being queenless.

Andy is a very experienced beekeeper, a sentinel apiarist for the Middlesex area, and apprentice to the queen’s beekeeper, John Chapple. So he really is the bees knees! Andy offered to meet at the apiary on Saturday to test our hive for bacterial disease.

What followed was a week of worry as I wondered how our bees could have declined so quickly. At the last inspection every cell in every brood frame had been scrutinised while we tried to find the queen and eggs, and there was no sign of disease. But now we had a suspected brood disease like European foul brood (EFB), which is not good but can be treated, or American foul brood (AFB), which is untreatable – destroy the hive, burn the remains and salt the earth!

I downloaded these educational images of EFB and AFB from the National Bee Unit.

Healthy bee larvae are curled in half-moon shapes inside cells and are pearly white with yellow tummies from the pollen that they eat. © Crown copyright 2010

Unhealthy brood with EFB look misshapen, dark and slimy. © Crown copyright 2010

The classic 'snot test' for AFB, a matchstick is dipped into a cell – if a stringy mess of slime is pulled out there may be bacterial disease. © Crown copyright 2010

On Saturday we arrived at the apiary to find Andy was already there. When I told how beekeepers from New York had kindly tried to help identify the brood disease on Emily’s blog, Andy shook his head in amazement and marvelled at the inter-web, then he said cheerfully, ‘Right, let’s go have a look’.

Andy used tweezers to pull out and examine a few larvae, then disposed of them in the smoker for hygiene. The first few were healthy white grubs with yellow tummies from the pollen they had eaten. So far so good. He then found a couple of larvae that were discoloured and slimy, and used the EFB and AFB kits to test for disease. The kits are similar to pregnancy tests: a sample is dropped onto an indicator, then you wait three minutes and…

One larvae is popped into a vial of spirit and shaken. It is important to use only one larvae for the test or this can affect the results, Andy explained, because EFB is always present in bee colonies at low levels.

Andy used a pipette to drop a sample on the indicator. Then we waited three minutes. Breathe.

One line under 'C' for 'control' is a negative result, two lines under 'C' and 'T' for 'test' is positive. Both our tests for EFB and AFB only had one line under 'C', phew! You can't see it clearly on this photo so I have drawn a pink line.

All clear! Both tests for bacterial disease were negative, phew! But it was not over…

This was not a case of EFB or AFB but a lack of TLC. The larvae had become cold and hungry because Rosemary was a drone-layer, explained Andy, so there were not enough workers inside the hive to nurse the baby bees. Unless the queen was replaced the whole colony would die out.

This is the moment I had been dreading as a beekeeper – disposing the queen for the good of the hive. In the past, our bees have been very good at superceding their own queens, and Emily and me have preferred to let them do this. However, they may have been unable to supercede Rosemary without enough viable fertile larvae. I felt I should step up to the plate and get the job done, but Andy kindly and quickly did the deed. It seemed fitting because he has a history with our flighty queen.

Andy mashed the honeycomb around the young larvae to encourage the bees to find it and build a queen cell.

Blissfully unaware of the untimely death of her sister, we took a frame from Queen Lavender’s hive that had young worker larvae and placed this inside Rosemary’s hive hoping that our bees would now raise a new queen. Andy mashed the honeycomb around the larvae to encourage the bees to find them and build queen cells.

A frame of young larvae placed in Rosemary's hive so her daughters can raise a new queen to ensure the colony survives. They will have to work fast as there are not many workers left, I caught one on camera immediately flying over the frame to where we had put the new larvae.

Lavender’s hive was thriving with healthy-looking bees, lots of workers and brood. I found Lavender happily climbing on a frame so we caged her to complete the Bailey comb change. With Lavender now in the top brood box and queen excluder beneath, all the bees can move up into their new home.

Emily releases Queen Lavender from her cage and into the top brood box. (She is the largest bee in the colony, I have put a pink circle around her.)

Emily’s boyfriend, Drew, took these lovely shots of us doing some proper beekeeping.

Looking for the queen. © Drew Scott

Still looking. It's difficult to spot one bee among hundreds of fast-moving insects on a frame! © Drew Scott

It was a busy day at the apiary, Andy and Pat were also shook swarming a couple of hives.

Andy shook swarming the hive belonging to David. This is a prolific colony of very fierce bees. Ghetto bees.

Drew took a shot of me shooting Pat! I gave David's bees oxalic acid treatment in December which they didn't enjoy, so I kept my distance in case they remembered. © Drew Scott

The business of beekeeping done for the day, there was still the afternoon meeting at the scout hut for the second Saturday of the month. Elsa had brought a chocolate celebration cake and I got the tea on.

On Monday the bee inspector visited the apiary and there was a surprise email from Andy titled ‘Rosemary’s baby’:

‘When Caroline checked the hive, we found an emerged queen cell in the bottom corner of one frame. Caroline then spotted a queen – very dark coloured. The frame that we put in had not got queen cells pulled out and indeed the section that was prepared for queen cells was being repaired!’

I thought we were one step ahead of our bees. Silly beekeeper. The workers were already preparing a new queen. © Drew Scott

So it seems our bees were one step ahead of us as usual, and were already raising a new queen to replace Rosemary. While we are hoping that Rosemary’s baby is not diabolical, it has inspired a name for our new queen thanks to Deborah Delong of Romancing the Bee who gave me this verse about myrrh:

‘Its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom.’

Queen Myrrh has emerged in a storm of rain and wind this week – not good for a virgin queen who must fly out and mate. Fingers crossed that our diabolical queen will have fair weather soon!

10 reasons to have a hive partner

Following on from my post Reflections on a year in beekeeping, I have been lucky to share my bee adventures this year. Here are 10 reasons why every beek should have a hive partner.

#1 Beekeeping is a two-man woman job. An extra pair of hands (and eyes) is handy for hive inspections. You can both lift parts of the hive when they are sticky (particularly propolised queen excluders) and work with levers and smoke to close the hive without squishing bees.

#2 You have to make a lot of frames. 11 frames per brood box and 10 frames per super (National hive). With a hive partner you can knock these up in half the time when you need to put another brood box or super on the hive. At least, that’s the theory.

#3 A super of honey weighs around 60 pounds. If like Queen Elizabeth I you have the heart and stomach of a beekeeper but the body of a weak and feeble woman, you will need a hive partner to help lift a full super of honey. This is true.

#4 There are about 50,000 bees and only one of you. A hive partner helps even the odds.

#5 Queens can be tricksy. Even experienced beeks can sometimes have trouble spotting and caging queens – she is good at running and hiding. Try holding up a frame covered by about 2,000 bees, spotting the queen, caging her and marking her as the workers try to free her – with only two hands. Good luck! Three beeks couldn’t cage and mark our flighty queen.

#6 Two beeks are better than one. Staying one step ahead of the bees and predicting what they will do next is not easy. When you find a queen cell, or perhaps five, it helps to discuss a plan of action with a hive partner preferably over tea and cake.

#7 Extracting honey is a lot of work. Clearing bees from supers is the easy bit, but it helps to have a hive partner to shake off stragglers and take home bee-free frames. Then there’s decapping frames, spinning off the honey, filtering, jarring and labelling. It’s more than an evening’s work for just six frames one hive, so it helps to share honey extraction with a hive partner.

#8 Beekeeping is an expensive hobby. Bees are high-maintenance. Assume one extra hive for every colony for a shook swarm or bailey comb change, nucs and spare hives for artificial swarms, spare frames, jars and labels, mouse guards, sugar and fondant, medicines… It’s easier to spread the cost of a year in beekeeping between two beekeepers!

#9 You will have more than one hive. Once you are started on this dodgy path there is no stopping. By the end of your second year beekeeping, it’s likely you will have at least two hives to keep.

#10 Beekeepers don’t have holidays. We don’t joke about this. You don’t know what naughtiness your bees will get up to while you are away. A hive partner can cover your holidays between March and September.

And finally..

#11 Beekeepers need tea and cake after hive inspections. I forgot to add this, but it is essential. Make sure you get a hive partner who bakes.

The secret beekeepers

Secret goings on inside the hive by our September bees

Every second Saturday of the month, Ealing’s beekeepers have a workshop at the scout hut. While the apiary is free of visitors, Emily and I can do some secret beekeeping.

At this time of year we need to check that our hives have enough stores. One hive needs about 35lb of honey for winter. When I hefted our hives a few weeks ago they felt a little light, so I have been feeding both colonies syrup twice a week and it has made a real difference. Emily has written a great post about feeding bees for winter: Some good advice.

Our bees squirrel away stores for winter

We got our lavender-scented smoker roaring with flames, although we only need a few puffs for our ladies. Rosemary’s hive was very busy as usual. Bees were frantically flying in and out overloaded with bright golden and orange pollen, trying to make the most of the last days of sunshine.

It took both our hive tools to get the crown board off Rosemary’s hive. This is why…

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

Our ladies were so busy chewing and sticking propolis to the top bars of the frames that they barely glanced up to say hello. Propolis is a resin that bees collect from trees to seal up the hive for winter. You can buy it in health-food stores as a supplement to boost the immune system because of its anti-microbial properties. We don’t harvest the propolis from our hives as London bees have a tendency to collect resin from road tar and roofs. Not very healthy!

I lifted out the dummy board to find that a foil lid from an Apiguard tray had been stuck down with propolis. Our bees are like Wombles, they investigate everything that they find inside the hive!

Foragers push their sisters out of the way looking for a place to unload. You can see some larvae cosily curled up here too (pink arrow)

Rosemary’s hive has about five frames of honey and six frames of worker brood (they have stopped making drone). I think this colony will be strong and healthy going into winter. We say plenty of forager bees waddling on the frames. They look funny trying to walk with heavy baskets of pollen, and I noticed that they elbow other bees out of the way looking for a cell to unload their shopping.

Bees use pollen as a source of protein and not just for making beautiful patterns for us to admire…

Autumnal varieties of pollen tightly packed into cells

Emily spotted Rosemary running across a frame, alive and well, but her blue dot is hard to spot. Here she is…

The camera spotted Rosemary even if I didn't! Our queen is marked with a blue dot on her back that is quite difficult to spot

We took the honey off this hive at the beginning of August, but left a space between the brood and the super to encourage our bees to take the remaining honey into the brood. They mostly cooperated, but there was one frame that still had a patch of precious honey.

Mmm, it's all about the honey!

I used my hive tool to scoop out the honeycomb and placed it on the top bars of the brood. It didn’t take long for our ladies to start chowing down. We left Rosemary’s hive happily munching on fresh comb oozing with golden-amber honey. Mmmm.

'Gosh! Where did all this honey come from? Rub it all over yer face!'

A little wasp was spotted loitering, so we were careful that she didn’t sneak inside as we closed the hive.

Wasps are starving at this time of year and desperately scavenging for food. This little wasp sat so quietly and innocently as we inspected our hive – she almost looked cute. Almost

We opened Lavender’s hive to find the bees had taken all the syrup that I gave them on Thursday (only two days ago) and were desperately poking their tongues through the feeder trying to get the last sugary drops.

'I can just reach it'

Last week Emily and I wondered if Lavender had mated with Albert’s New Zealand drones, because our ladies looked lighter and more golden in colour. Here is the proof…

Evidence! Our golden ladies have built a Kiwi-bee style conservatory in the roof

We opened the hive to find that our bees have built a conservatory in the roof – identical to the little hang-out that Albert’s bees have built in their hive! Sadly we had to remove their play area as we don’t want them to store honeycomb in the roof for winter. Emily observed that our bees seem to enjoy making their own comb. I suggested that we experiment next year by alternating frames with and without foundation – we’ll have a 50:50 chance of either practice working.

Lavender seems to have taken after her mother and sister. She is a hard-working queen who has produced quite a lot of brood in the past few weeks and who continues to give us gentle-natured bees.

Lavender has been hard at work creating lots of winter bees

The honeycomb in the last frame was flat and hard on one side. ‘This is the dance floor,’ said Emily. ‘The bees sometimes store propolis in the last comb to make a flat, hard surface for the waggle dances to be heard throughout the hive.’ Bees are so clever!

A propolis 'dance floor' for bees to communicate by vibrating messages to the rest of the hive. Genius

On the other side of the frame we saw foragers head-butting pollen of many varieties tightly into cells.

Lavender's ladies are still finding sources of blue and grey pollen. I wonder what is flowering nearby?

We put a mouse guard on this hive last week to help our smaller colony defend itself against would-be intruders, such as wasps, robber bees and mice. There was quite a lot of activity around the entrance showing that this hive is growing from strength to strength.

A mouse guard helps protect our bees in autumn and winter from would-be robbers and pests. You can see a little guard bee vigilantly peering out (pink arrow)

We closed the hive and topped up the feeder to keep our ladies happy and busy till next week.

Finally, I apologise in advance to my hive partner for the next photo…

These curious autumn spiders intrigue me. What are they?

Every autumn I am intrigued by these pretty-patterned spiders with enormous webs. What are they? I much prefer this spider to the big hairy sort that rampage like a lunatic around your house in September. This fellow wasn’t at all bothered when I poked a bright pink camera in his face.

This weekend we will be feeding our bees fumidil with their syrup – if I can just do the maths! I hope our ladies will still be hungry!

Reflections on a year in beekeeping

This year has been all about the queen. Queen Rose split from her court in early spring and was succeeded by her daughter, Queen Rosemary. Taking objection to her coronation, Rosemary briefly abdicated in a royal huff before returning to her throne. Rose, in her newly founded kingdom, made fewer public appearances before eventually going MIA. We then discovered five queens-in-waiting in July. Our royal saga concluded with the coronation of Queen Lavender.

Lavender made her debut at the end of a busy afternoon’s beekeeping: bees had been cleared, our honey crop removed and Apiguard given to treat varroa. The beekeeping year starts and ends in August. The honey crop summons the end of our annual activities as preparations for overwintering begin the new year. Bees are a bit pagan.

Emily brought dried lavender for the smoker to calm our late summer bees, while we nicked their honey and gave them medicine. So it seemed appropriate when Sarah spotted our new queen running across a frame in our baby hive that she was christened Lavender.

Remembering the drama of our runaway queen earlier this year, Lavender was swiftly caged without hesitation and marked white – on her head, wings and thorax! Future inspections will tell if she survived my clumsy coronation attempt intact.

I think I may have squashed two workers while securing the queen in her cage. Ugh, more guilt! Catching and marking a queen is tricky business. Try to catch one bee from thousands on a frame inside a cage, then mark her as the workers try to set her free. That’s when you need a hive partner! It is a good idea to practise caging and marking with drones early in the year. They are bigger and fairly amiable about it, and it doesn’t matter quite as much if you damage a drone.

So our beekeeping year ends with Queen Rosemary reigning over our fully grown hive, which is bursting at the seams with bees, and with Queen Lavender inheriting our baby hive, which is slowly filling the brood box. Emily and I wondered how well our July queen mated late in the season and with August rains. So we were happy to find new brood and larvae during our last inspection.

I thought that the bees in our baby hive looked lighter and more golden, unlike Lavender who inherited her mother’s dark looks. Emily suggested that Lavender may have mated with Albert’s drones. We might have Kiwi bees!

As an aromatherapist, I named my first queen after an essential oil and this tradition has continued with the hives I share with Emily. So far the queens have taken after their namesakes of Jasmine, a beautiful relaxing oil, Rose, a warm mothering fragrance, and Rosemary, an energetic invigorating aroma. Lavender is renowned for its gentleness and effectiveness, I hope our new queen has these qualities.

Our adventures in beekeeping have kept us busy this year – building hives and shook swarms, frame-making workshops and beards of bees, runaway queens, a new nuc, rainbows of pollen and honey, a quintet of queen cells, weird bees, a honey crop, and a honey festival! I haven’t even taken my basic beekeeping assessment yet!

With a new year around the corner, I wonder what our bees will do next!

When the queen’s away the bees will play…

After waiting a week to find out what our bees did next, it rained. Then it poured. So it seemed the Mystery of the July Queens would have to wait.

Last week Emily and I made the unexpected discovery of five queen cells in Rose’s hive. The jury was out on whether our bees were planning to swarm or trying to replace Queen Rose who was MIA for a second week.

A break in the clouds came and we rushed to the apiary to find we were the only ones mad enough to visit the bees on such a blustery day. I was expecting to find very grumpy honeybees, because our little ladies don’t like the rain. Instead, we found them behaving quite strangely.

Someone forgot her umbrella – instead of flying in and out, our bees were clustered at the entrance of the hive out of the rain.

Emily thought they might be fanning their wings to create warm air vents, keeping the baby bees in the brood toasty and dry.

Fascinated, we lingered a little too long and forgot basic beekeeping 101 – don’t block the entrance of the hive. When we moved away there was a little dark cloud of bees hovering behind us, patiently waiting to enter the hive with their pollen loads. We made them wait in the rain, how awful!

We decided not to disturb Queen Rosemary’s hive in unsettled weather and moved on to Queen Rose’s hive. A ray of sunshine penetrated the dark canopy of the apiary, so we took a look inside hoping that our bees hadn’t swarmed.

Our ladies were there, along with a bright golden New Zealand intruder.

Can you spot the golden New Zealand honeybee among our darker British bees?

I suspect she is one of Albert’s bees who bribed her way into our hive with some good pollen.

Three of the five queen cells were no longer there. I can only imagine the dark turn of events during the week: a new queen, or two, hatched and tore down the cells of her rival sisters in an act of royal genocide. There was no sign of Rose and I suspect her crown has been passed. We’ll miss her – she was a good queen who gave us happy-tempered, hard-working bees. But such is life in the hive.

We found two remaining queen cells heavily covered in workers. I wondered if they were ‘taking down’ these cells, but Emily thought they might be trapping the unhatched queens as an insurance policy should the new queen not survive her mating flight. ‘Trapped queens “quack” in their cells,’ said Emily. ‘To tell the workers to let them out.’

It was then that we remembered beekeeping 101 again – don’t open a hive for a couple of weeks when you suspect a new queen has hatched. A hive inspection could upset a queen returning from her mating flight and, not settled in the hive, she may abscond. Drat! In our curiosity to see if our bees had swarmed or chosen supercedure, we forgot that. That’s why our bees have queens-in-waiting – as insurance against our blunders. Silly beekeepers!

As we finished our inspection we came across yet more strange behaviour. Look what our bees have done, the little weirdos!

A rainbow of pollen on the honeycomb (pink arrow) but why are our bees eating holes through the wax (blue arrows)?

They had eaten tiny little holes through the wax. They are not supposed to do that! Perfectly round, I caught a couple of workers peering at each other through a peephole like these were the best thing ever. Perhaps this is what happens while the queen is away – anarchy. Does anyone know why our bees would do this?

More rainbows of brightly coloured pollen in the honeycomb suggests where our bees get their honey. Blue pollen may be from poppies.

It's a bit blurry, but peer closely and you'll see a worker carrying a basket of blue pollen. This might be from a poppy.

As we closed the hive, someone sped past and dropped a red dollop of propolis on the frames we had just cleaned. The culprit was a blur.

Hey! We just cleaned that. The culprit is caught on camera.

The forecast for the rest of the weekend was rain and more rain, so Emily topped up the feeder with syrup and the usual suspects clambered excitedly to drink manna from heaven.

During our inspection, we noticed that some of our bees had white stripes on their thorax, which wouldn’t rub off with our fingers. We found this same phenomenon on bees flying into other hives at the apiary.

White-striped honeybees that have collected pollen and nectar from Himalayan balsam – more clues about the origins of the honey from our apiary!

When bees forage on Himalayan balsam the white pollen rubs their back and leaves a white stripe that they can’t clean off. This also happens to wasps. So if you see a bee or wasp flying around with a white stripe, you know what flower they have just visited.

Not to be confused with white-bottomed bumble bees.