Tag Archives: favours

The gentle art of beekeeping

High summer.

The swarm season had been and gone. The June gap was over. Grafts made at the peak of the swarm season had developed into lovely big fat queen cells and been distributed around nucleus colonies for mating.

That was almost six weeks ago.

From eclosion to laying takes a minimum of about 8 days. The weather had been almost perfect for queen mating, so I was hopeful they’d got out promptly, done ‘the business’, and returned to start laying.

That would have been about a month ago.

Good queens

I’d spent a long morning in the apiary checking the nucs and the colonies they were destined for. In the former I was looking for evidence that the queen was mated and laying well. That meant looking for nice even frames of sealed worker brood, with some – the first day or two of often patchy egg laying – now emerging.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

It was warming up. More significantly, it was getting distinctly close and muggy. I knew that thunderstorms were predicted late in the afternoon, but by late morning it already had that oppressive ‘heavy’ feel to the air. Almost as though there wasn’t quite enough oxygen in it.

Never mind the weather, the queens were looking good. 90% of them were mated and laying well.

Just one no-show. She’d emerged from the cell, but there was no sign of her in the nuc, and precious few bees left either.

Queenless nucs often haemorrhage workers to nearby queenright colonies (or nucs), leaving a pathetic remainder that may develop laying workers. There’s no point in trying to save a colony like that.

Actually, it’s not even a colony … it’s a box with a few hundred abandoned and rapidly ageing workers. Adding resources to it – a new queen or a frame of eggs and young larvae – is almost certainly a waste of resources. They’d better serve the colonies they were already in. The remaining workers were probably over a month old and only had another week or two before they would be lost, ‘missing in action’, and fail to return from a foraging flight.

If you keep livestock, you’ll have dead stock.

These weren’t dead stock, but they were on their last legs, er, wings. I shook the workers out in front of a row of strong colonies and removed the nuc box so there was nowhere for them to return. The workers wouldn’t help the other colonies much, but it was a better fate than simply allowing them to dwindle.

Spare queens

Most of the nucs were going to be used to requeen production colonies. A couple had been promised to beginners and would be ready in another week or so.

Midseason is a good time to get a nuc to start beekeeping. The weather – the predicted (and seemingly increasingly imminent) afternoon thunder notwithstanding – is more dependable, and much warmer. The inevitably protracted inspections by a tyro won’t chill the brood and nucs are almost always better tempered than full colonies. In addition, the new beekeeper has the pleasure of watching the nuc build up to a full colony and preparing it for winter. This is a valuable learning experience.

Late season bramble

Late season bramble

It’s too late to get a honey crop from these midseason nucs (usually, there may be exceptional years) but that’s probably also good training for the new beekeeper. An understanding that beekeeping requires a degree of patience may be a tough lesson to learn but it’s an easier one than discovering that an overcrowded nuc purchased in April, swarms in May, gets really ratty in June and needs a new queen at the beginning of July.

But, after uniting the nucs to requeen the production hives it turned out that I had one queen spare.

Which was fortunate as I’d been asked by a friend for an old leftover queen to help them improve the behaviour of their only colony. Rather than give them one of the ageing queens she could have the spare one from this year.

A queen has a remarkable influence over the behaviour and performance of the colony. Good quality queens head calm, strong colonies that are a pleasure to work with. But it’s not all good genes. You can sometimes detect the influence of a good new queen in a poor colony well before any of the brood she has laid emerges. I assume this is due to pheromones (and with bees, if it’s not genetics or pheromones I’m not sure what else could explain it – ley lines, phase of the moon, 5G masts nearby?).

Go west, young(er) man

My friend lived about 45 minutes away. I found the queen in the nuc, popped her into a marking cage and placed her safely in light shade at the back of the apiary while I rearranged the nuc for uniting over a strong queenright colony.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

A few minutes later I’d recovered the queen, clipped her and marked her with a white Posca pen. I alternate blue and white (and sometimes yellow if neither of those work or can be found) and rely on my notes to remind me of her age should I need to know it. I’m colourblind and cannot see – or at least distinguish – red and green, either from each other or from lots of other colours in the hive.

I transferred the marked queen into a JzBz queen cage and capped the exit tube. Of all the huge variety of queen introduction cages that are available these are my favourite. They’re also the only ones I was given a bucket of … something that had a big part to play in influencing my choice 🙂

JzBz queen cages

JzBz queen cages

I put the caged queen in the breast pocket of my beesuit, extinguished the smoker and tidied up the apiary. It was warm, dark and humid in the pocket – for an hour or so she would be fine.

Actually, it was getting increasingly humid and the heaviness in the air was, if anything, getting more oppressive.

What I’d really like now would be a couple of large mugs of tea … I’d inspected a dozen large colonies and nearly the same number of nucs. The colonies that needed requeening had been united with the nucs (having found and removed the ageing queens) and I’d neatly stacked up all the empty nuc boxes in the shed. Finally, I’d retuned all the supers, some reassuringly heavy, and left everything ready for the next inspection in a fortnight or so 1.

That’s a lot of lifting, carrying, bending, squinting, prising, turning, rearranging and then gently replacing the crownboard and the roof.

Not really hard work, but enough.

Actually, quite enough … I’d really like that cuppa.

Was that thunder? Way off to the west … a sound so faint I might have imagined it. There were towering cumulus clouds building along the horizon.

Cloud

Threatening

Time to get a move on.

With the car packed I lock the apiary gate and set off.

West.

Leaving the flat agricultural land I climbed gently into low rolling hills. The land became more wooded, restricting my view of the thunderheads building, now strongly, in the direction I was heading. The sun was now intermittently hidden between the wispy clouds ahead of the storm front.

Could you do me a favour?

The bad weather was still a long way off. I’d have ample time to drop the queen off, slurp down a cuppa and be back home before any rain arrived. If my friend was sensible she’d just leave the new queen hanging in her cage in a super. The workers would feed her until the weather was a little more conducive to opening the hive and finding the old queen.

I pull into the driveway and my friend comes out to meet me. We share beekeeping chat about the weather, forage, the now-passed swarm season, the possibility of getting a nuc for next season 2.

“Could you perhaps requeen the colony? I’m really bad at finding the queen and they’ve been a bit bolshy 3 recently. I’ll put the kettle on while you’re doing it.”

I did a quick mental calculation … weighing up the positives (kettle on) and the negatives (bolshy, the distant – but approaching – thunder) and was surprised to find that my yearning for a cuppa tipped the balance enough for me to agree to do it.

I returned to the car for my smoker and some queen candy which I used to plug the neck of the JzBz cage. At the same time I also found a small piece of wire to hang the cage between the frames from.

“They’re in the back garden on the bench by the gate to the orchard.”

I look through the kitchen window across the unkempt lawn (was the mower broken?). Sure enough, there was a double brooded National hive topped with two supers on a garden bench about 30 metres away.

“I’ll stay here if you don’t mind … they gave me a bit of a fright when I last checked them.”

Sure. No problem. I’ve done this a hundred times. White, no sugar and, yes, I’d love a cookie as well.

Be properly prepared

I stepped into the back garden and fired up the smoker. It was still warm from being used for my own bees and the mix of cardboard, woodshavings and dried grass quickly started smouldering nicely. A couple of bees had come to investigate but had just done a few laps of my head and disappeared.

But they returned as I walked across the lawn.

And they brought reinforcements.

By the time I was half way across the lawn I’d been pinged a couple of times. Not stung, but the sort of glancing blow that shows intent.

A shot across the bows, if you like.

I didn’t like.

I pulled the veil over my head and zipped it up quickly, before rummaging through my pockets to find a pair of gloves. Mismatched gloved. A yellow Marigold for my left hand and a thin long-cuff blue nitrile for my right. It’s an odd look 4 but an effective combination. The Marigold is easy to get on and off, and provides ample protection.

Nitriles ...

Nitriles …

The nitrile is a bit of a nightmare to get on when it’s still damp inside. Another couple of bees dive bomb my veil, one clinging on and making that higher pitched whining sound they make when they’re trying to get through. I brushed her off with the Marigold, turned the nitrile inside out, blew into it to inflate the fingers, and finally got it on.

Why two different gloves? Two reasons. I’d lost the other Marigold and because nitriles are thin enough to easily pick a queen up with, and that’s what I’d been doing most of the morning.

And hoped to do again shortly when I found the old queen in the agitated colony.

Opening hostilities

I approached the hive. It was a strong colony. Very strong. It was tipped back slightly on the bench and didn’t look all that stable 5. I gave them a couple of puffs of smoke at the entrance and prised the supers up and off, placing them propped against the leg of the bench.

I was faintly aware of the smell of bananas and the, still distant, sound of thunder. It probably wasn’t getting any closer, but it certainly wasn’t disappearing either.

The thunder that is.

The smell of bananas was new … it’s the alarm pheromone.

Actually, it’s one of the alarm pheromones. Importantly, it’s the one released from the Koschevnikov gland at the base of the sting. This meant that one or two bees had already pressed home a full attack and stung me. Felt nowt. Presumably they’d hit a fold in the beesuit or the cuff of the Marigold.

Or my adrenaline levels were sufficiently elevated to suppress my pain response.

I was increasingly aware of the number of really unpleasant bees that were in the hive.

And, more to the point, coming out of the hive.

But I was most aware that I was only wearing a single thickness beesuit in the presence of 50,000 sociopaths with a thunderstorm approaching. Under the suit I had a thin short sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts.

It might be raining in half an hour … this could get ugly.

It was late July, it was a hot day, my bees are calm. I wasn’t dressed appropriately for these psychos.

I felt I needed chain mail … and an umbrella.

Time for a rethink

I gave the hive a couple of larger puffs from the smoker and retreated back to the car, ducking under and through – twice – some dense overhanging shrubs to deter and deflect the bees attempting to hasten my retreat.

Ideally I’d have put a fleece on under the beesuit. That makes you more or less impervious to stings.

Did I mention it was a warm day in July? No fleece 🙁

However, I did have a beekeeping jacket in the car. This is what I wear for most of my beekeeping (unless I’m wearing shorts). I removed the jacket hood and put it on over the beesuit, remembering to transfer the queen to the outer jacket pocket. I also found another nitrile glove and put it on to be double gloved.

“The queen’s not marked”, my friend shouted to me as I walked back across the garden, “Sorry!”

Now you tell me …

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

I returned to the hive. To reduce the immediate concentration of bees, I split the two brood boxes off the floor, placing each several metres away on separate garden chairs. I balanced the supers on the original floor to allow returning foragers and the increasing maelstrom of flying bees to have somewhere to return if needed.

And then I found the unmarked queen.

As simple as that.

Amazingly, it was on the first pass through the second brood box.

Each box was dealt with in the same way. I gently split the propolis sealing the frames together – first down one side of the box, then the other. I removed the outer frame, inspected it carefully and placed it on the ground leaning against the chair leg. With space to work I then methodically went through every frame, calmly but quickly.

I didn’t expect to find her so easily. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find her at all.

It helped that she was huge and pale. It helped that she was calmly ambling around on the frame, clearly confident in the knowledge that there were 50,000 acolytes willing to lay down their lives to protect her.

Her confidence was misplaced 🙁

Veiled threat

And then a bee got inside the veil.

This happens now and then. I suspect they sneak through the gap where the zips meet at the front or the back. There are little Velcro patches to hold everything together, but it was an old suit 6 and the Velcro was a bit worn.

There are few things more disconcerting that 50,000 psychos encouraging a Ninja worker that’s managed to break through your defences and is just in your peripheral vision. Or worse, in your hair. With a calm colony you can retreat and deal with the interloper. You have to take the veil off. Sometimes you have to take the suit off.

Removing the veil would have been unwise. Perhaps suicidal. I retreated a few yards and dealt with the bee. It was never going to end well for one of us 🙁

Reassemble in the reverse order

Returning to the original bench, I removed the supers that were now festooned with thousands of bees, balancing them against the leg again. I found a pencil-thick twig and used it under one corner of the floor to stop everything wobbling. Both brood boxes were returned, trying to avoid crushing too many bees at the interface. A combination of a well aimed puff or two of smoke, brushing the bees away with the back of my hand and placing the box down at an angle and then rotating it into position reduced what can otherwise cause carnage.

I hung the new queen in her cage between the top bars of the central frames in the upper box, returned the queen excluder and the supers and closed the hive up.

It took 15 minutes to avoid and evade the followers before I could remove the beesuit safely. I’d been stung several times but none had penetrated more than the suit.

I finally got my cup of tea.

Confidence

This was several years ago. I took a few risks towards the end with the queen introduction but got away with it. The colony released the queen, accepted her and a month or so later were calm and well behaved.

I was lucky to find the queen so quickly in such a strong colony. I didn’t have to resort to some of the tricks sometimes needed to find elusive queens.

Ideally I’d have left the queen cage sealed to see if they were aggressive to her, only removing the cap once I was sure they’d accept her. This can take a day or two, but you need to check them.

There was no way I was going back into the hive and my friend definitely wasn’t.

The rain and thunder never arrived … like many summer storms it was all bluster but eventually dissipated as the day cooled.

This was the worst colony I’ve ever handled as a beekeeper. At least for out and out, close quarter, bare knuckle aggression. By any measure I’d have said they were unusable for beekeeping. I’ve had colonies with followers chase me 300 metres up the meadow, though the hive itself wasn’t too hot 7. This colony was an order of magnitude worse, though the followers were less persistent.

I suspect that aggression (or, more correctly, defensiveness) and following have different genetic determinants in honey bees.

Lessons

  • Knowing when to retreat is important. Smoking them gently before I returned to the car for a jacket helped mask the alarm pheromone in the hive and gave me both time to think and renewed confidence that I was now better protected.
  • Confidence is very important when dealing with an unpleasant hive. It allows you to be unhurried and gentle, when your instincts are screaming ‘get a move on, they’re going postal’.
  • Confidence comes with experience and with belief in the protective clothing you use. It doesn’t need to be stingproof, but it does need to protect the soft bits (my forearms, ankles and face react very badly when stung).
  • Indeed, it might be better if it’s not completely stingproof. It’s important to be aware of the reactions of the colony, which is why I prefer nitrile gloves to Marigolds, and why I never use gauntlets.
  • Many colonies are defensive in poor weather or with approaching thunderstorms. If I’d known just how defensive this colony were I’d have planned the day differently.
  • The unstable ‘hive stand’ would have agitated the bees in windy weather or during inspections.

Bad bees

It turned out the colony had been purchased, sight unseen, as a nuc the year before. By the end of the season it had become unmanageable. The supers had been on since the previous summer and the colony hadn’t been treated for mites.

They appeared healthy, but their behaviour was negatively influencing their management (and the upkeep of the garden). Beekeeping isn’t fun if you’re frightened of the bees. You find excuses to not open the hive, or not mow the lawn.

The story ended well. The new queen settled well and the bees became a pleasure to work with. My friend regained her confidence and is happy to requeen her own colonies now.

She has even started using proper hive stands rather than the garden bench … which you can now use for relaxing on with a mug of tea and a cookie.

While watching the bees 🙂