The story of our summer bees

Life has twists and turns with surprises on the way. In a turbulent year for UK beekeepers, stories of prolonged rain and poorly mated queens have proved an unfortunate combination for the honey crop. However, beekeeping is not all about the honey – it is about keeping bees and making sure that the season ends with a strong and healthy colony.

Our bees have kept on going through a bad summer and we have helped by providing feed, insulation, opportunities to make new queens and combining colonies, if necessary, to ensure the survival of the many. While not the best example of the principle of survival of the fittest, at times nature does get stuck in a dead end.

The disappearance of our Jubilee queen, Neroli, and yet another drone layer, Ginger, this time in the Osterley hive, left us worried that neither colony would be prepared for winter. So that’s where we left our bees in August with all hopes pinned on our Olympic queens, Myrtle and Mandarin.

Manna from heaven – a worker bee is relieved to find that sugar syrup drops from the sky as well as rain!

Mandarin was poorly mated and laid drone, or nothing at all, for over a month and her workers became increasingly agitated. The beginner beekeepers visiting our hives at the last inspection noticed the difference in temperament between the two colonies: Mandarin’s bees were noticeably irritable and moving erratically on the frame, and Myrtle’s bees were calm and working industriously.

While Myrtle was laying nicely, her colony was not strong enough to spare a frame of brood for a new queen for Mandarin’s colony. Individually, both colonies were small and weak and low in honey stores. Together, they would be a stronger, medium-sized colony with more stores of honey. It was time to hive-combine again.

Queen Myrtle on a frame and clearly cosseted by her workers in a tightly formed retinue. She is laying as well as her mother, Neroli, let’s hope she doesn’t disappear like her too!

The next day we returned late in the afternoon. We opened the Osterley hive and found our drone layer quickly enough, caging her with two workers. Emily wisely cautioned against making a decision about Mandarin until we had checked Myrtle’s hive and reassured ourselves that all was well. Once we were certain that Myrtle was alive and laying, I killed Mandarin.

When I became a beekeeper I vowed never to kill a queen, because I felt that the bees know best when to overthrow a queen and make a new one. (Also, because I don’t like to harm living things.) This year I have killed two queens and both times it was a choice between the death of a queen or an entire colony; not really a choice at all.

Most UK beekeepers are hobbyists and I don’t think even bearded beeks get used to ‘dethroning’ queens. I heard once that an experienced beekeeper in our association retired a favourite old queen to a nuc rather than kill her, and we did consider this. However, the queen can’t care for herself and as her workers died off, she would slowly starve and freeze to death.

Emily points to Queen Mandarin on her frame. Sadly, she mated poorly and laid drone. Image © Drew Scott

That done, we placed the brood box of Mandarin’s now queenless colony on top of the brood box of Myrtle’s hive with a sheet of newspaper between them. We made a few slits in the paper with our hive tools to get the bees started and didn’t make the mistake of putting the queen excluder between the two colonies, which trapped angry drones in the top box the last time we combined two hives.

The newspaper method is a proven and reliable method of combining colonies. Still it was a relief to return on Friday to find that it had worked. I took off the roof and crownboard, removed a few frames from the top brood box and looked at the bottom to see the newspaper chewed away and the two colonies working happily together.

What a difference a queen makes! Mandarin’s former colony was now calm and the bees were moving methodically on the frame each with a job to do. We even had a nice surprise of finding Myrtle walking on a frame in the top brood box showing that she had accepted Mandarin’s bees into her colony and they had accepted her.

We gave our newly combined hive their first tray of Apiguard, which is a thymol-based treatment to lower levels of varroa. Thymol also helps to fight nosema, which can become a problem for bee colonies going into autumn and winter.

To complete the hive combining, we put Myrtle back inside the bottom brood box with the queen excluder on top and placed an empty super between the two boxes to get the bees to ‘rob’ the top stores of honey. This way, we’ll have a medium-sized colony of bees and stores in one brood box, which is better for over-wintering.

So that’s how we left our summer bees. Emily picks up the story in her post Hungry New Zealanders hunt for food.

A reminder that the year is moving on was the sight of several workers harassing drones across the frames. Poor drones: over the next few weeks their sisters will turn on them and throw them out of the hive where they will die of cold and starvation or be eaten by wasps and spiders! It’s a drone’s life! The following week Emily sent me a photo of a grisly discovery outside the hive: lots of little drone bodies efficiently massacred by Myrtle’s workers who have no need of fat drones to guzzle on honey during the autumn and winter.

There are far fewer drones than workers now. I noticed workers harassing drones inside the hive – pulling and pushing, biting and dragging them. Sisters turn upon their brothers and evict them from the colony at the end of summer.

An exciting twist of the summer has been the offer of a new site to keep bees next year. I had mentioned to Thomas, an Ealing beekeeper, that I was thinking of finding a site sunnier than our shady apiary to keep bees. He then put Emily and me in touch with a vicarage in Hanwell where the vicar would like beekeepers to keep a hive. Thomas, Emily and me went to visit the vicarage, which was just lovely – a secret garden behind the church – and blue-egg laying hens there too!

We’re hoping to share the site with Thomas next year, who has kindly offered his help in setting up. We’re grateful for the generous vicar who would share his land with the bees. Habitat loss is a major cause of insect pollinator decline in the UK and in Europe, so it’s nice when people can give a little bit of land back to nature.

We met this pretty bee (shrill carder bee, perhaps) as we left the vicarage. She seemed very happy there – as happy as I hope our bees will be!

I think this pretty bee may be a shrill carder bee? She seemed happy living at the vicarage.

An interesting link

Fellow blogger Ruth E Reveal left a link to a short film about two London beekeepers made by two students on her Visual Anthropology course at Goldsmiths. It’s really great, I hope you enjoy it! Thanks, Ruth!