Tag Archives: forage

No, not really …

Was it good for you? … No, not really.

I recently posted the weather forecast for the week beginning the 15th of August. I was pleased that the forecast was for near-perfect queen mating conditions – sunny, warm and calm – as I had three colonies which should have contained virgin queens that were due to emerge a few days before.

The forecast was very accurate. Conditions were wonderful. I wasn’t around as I had disappeared to Torridon and Skye for a few days. On checking the colonies at the end of the week after I returned, all three contained queens at least two of which were laying.

Beinn Eighe

Beinn Eighe …

All good then …

Well, not entirely, because mid-afternoon on the previous Wednesday I’d been sent an email from my friend at the apiary that read … “Incredible roaring noise attracted me outside the workshop – a swarm moving west through the garden and into the trees.  All caught on camera”. I didn’t receive the email as I was in the howling wilderness. Not that I could have done much about it.

A very quick inspection of the colony in question on my return confirmed that they’d swarmed. D’oh! I’d obviously missed at least one additional queen cell (mistake #1) on the last inspection and a large cast (the queen must have been a virgin as the original queen had been removed from the colony) had disappeared over the fence … mistake #2. There was a queen present but bee numbers were significantly down. I closed the colony up and disappeared on business for a further three weeks … mistake #3.

The weather had been great the entire week I was away in Torridon. I suspect the colony swarmed on the Monday or Tuesday, that it hung around in a nearby tree until the Wednesday while the scout bees found somewhere more desirable to relocate to, and that my friend had seen it leaving the neighbourhood that afternoon.

Lessons learned

  1. Don’t let the colony decide how many queens should emerge. Instead leave only one known charged (occupied) queen cell to emerge. I’d left an open queen cell on a marked frame, but had not returned a few days later to check that a) it was safely sealed and b) that they hadn’t raised anymore. They had 🙁  Consequently they swarmed when the first queen emerged, leaving one or more additional queens to emerge, fight it out and then head the now much-depleted colony (see 3, below).
  2. Leave a bait hive in or near the apiary, even if the main period of swarming has passed. I’ve been very successful with bait hives over the years, successfully attracting my own and others’ swarms. In this instance the main swarming period was well-passed and I’d packed away my bait hives until next Spring. Wrong. Had I left one near the apiary I may well have managed to attract the swarm and so a) not lost the bees, and b) not potentially inflicted the  bees on someone else. I view bait hives (and queen clipping) as part of being a good neighbour.
  3. Don’t leave a weakened colony late in season. On returning from my three week absence for work I discovered the colony had been robbed out and destroyed. Clearly it had been unable to defend itself from robber bees or wasps and had perished. I should have instead made an executive decision on discovering the colony had swarmed and probably sacrificed the virgin queen and united the weakened colony with a strong colony nearby. In retrospect this was an obvious thing to do … the colony was weak, wasps were beginning to be a problem, there was little or no nectar coming in and the weather was uncertain. As it turned out the weather was good enough for queen mating while I was away. However, the combination of a dearth of nectar, a weakened colony and strong neighbouring colonies meant that robbing was inevitable and – for the colony in question – catastrophic.
Skye ...

Skye …

Had I thought carefully about things in mid-August I may have been able to prevent the inevitable carnage when the colony was robbed out. In my defence I’ve only been around for a day or two over the last month, with extended periods out of the country on business. Nevertheless, this was clearly a case of a lesson (or three) learned the hard way …

† If you’ve not read Tom Seeley’s outstanding Honeybee democracy about how a swarm decides where to relocate to you should.

Ribes sanguineum

Ribes ...

Ribes …

It’s often said that the flowering of the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a good indicator of when to conduct the first hive inspection of the year. The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping and the excellent Get Started in Beekeeping by Adrian and Clare Waring (I consider the latter is one of the very best books for beginners) both contain this information. Of course, the advice is qualified by saying it should be a ‘shirtsleeve’ sort of day. I’ve even posted on this before, together with an image of the plant in full flower taken on the 11th of April in the Midlands. Today, more than a fortnight earlier than that photo was taken, I walked past a long row of them in full flower in St. Andrews.

Perhaps there are different strains of the flower as it still feels far too early to inspect colonies. The month has been consistently cool, with temperatures rarely into double figures, even in sheltered locations. Most colonies are starting to get busy, taking pollen in during the warmest couple of hours of the day. However, inspection of the bottom boards shows relatively little brood is being reared yet, with the characteristic darker nibbled wax cappings from only 2-3 frames at best. So … despite the indications of the flowering currant, I’d usually prefer to leave them in peace until they’ve built up a bit more.

Spares ...

Spares …

Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous day and the bees were flying strongly when I checked on them at the bee shed. It was just over 10°C outside in the sun, but a balmy 19°C inside the shed. I fired up the smoker, popped on a jacket and had a brief look through one of the colonies. Ample stores, ample space and – most encouragingly – about 5 good frames of brood with the queen calmly sauntering about looking to fill in the gaps around the edges of the frame I found her on. Lovely. I switched a couple of frames of partially used stores to the outside, swapping them for drawn comb, so the colony could expand into the space, and quickly tidied up and closed the colony. I was finished in less than 5 minutes.

While the smoker cooled down the few bees that had escaped made their way out through the windows, the colony settled quickly and I re-stacked some piles of spare equipment for the season ahead. It’ll still be a week or three before I open up other colonies, particularly those ‘outside’, but it’s good to be beekeeping again.

Future promise

Winter-sown OSR

Winter-sown OSR …

With the days getting shorter, the weather worsening and the bees hunkering down until the spring there’s little to do in the apiary. The warm weather, weekly inspections, swarm collection and queen rearing are months away … and it feels like it 🙁  However, things are already happening in the fields that hint at the season to come. The winter-sown oil seed rape (OSR) has been through for at least a month and is now 4-6″ tall. There’s a field just outside the village with acres of the stuff and it will be good to watch it develop into a sea of yellow next spring.

I have a few colonies well within range of this field, as do at least a couple of other beekeepers. Using a Google Maps Area Tool I measured the field at about 17 hectares. Although primarily self-pollinated there’s evidence that the yield and quality (i.e. the percentage that germinates) of OSR seed or its oil content, are all increased if honeybees are present at a density of about 2 colonies per hectare. So, ample to go round for the colonies I’m aware of in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, if colonies are located close to the OSR field boundaries, honeybees forage for a considerable distance across the field – certainly hundreds of metres. This is in contrast to wild pollinators – like solitary bees and bumble bees – which tend to decline in density away from the field margins (see also this recent paper which reports the same thing; PDF). Whilst this is a compelling argument for wide, species-rich field margins and smaller fields, the reality of modern farming is unfortunately very different. However, the benefits of honeybees (and for honeybees) mean that it might be worth having a chat with the farmer and moving a few colonies onto the field.

OSR honey isn’t to everyones taste and it certainly involves more work for the beekeeper. It must be extracted soon after the supers are collected or it crystallises in the comb. In addition, unless it’s converted into soft-set or ‘creamed’ honey it will inevitably set rock-hard in the jar, resulting in many bent teaspoons. On a more positive note, the availability of large amounts of pollen and nectar relatively early in the season helps colonies build up strongly. With good weather it’s an ideal time to replace comb, getting the bees to use the OSR nectar to build brand new comb – perhaps on foundationless frames – free of diseases for the season ahead. A great way to start the year.

And finally, a reminder of what’s to come …

Early May 2015 OSR ...

Early May 2015 OSR …

Going over

Two images from the last week showing the oilseed rape (OSR) going over. The first – from the last day of May – nicely sums up the weather we’ve enjoyed this Spring. The OSR is already fading fast.

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

The excellent Bablake School weather station recorded May 2015 as having more rain, less sunshine and colder temperatures than the 30 year average for Coventry. The average maximum temperature was 15.2ºC (1.4ºC lower than average) explaining the slow build-up of colonies. The OSR was in full flower before most colonies were able to fully exploit it and even strong colonies were hampered from foraging by the weather.

Yellow path ...

Yellow path …

And a week later (7th June) it’s gone. Typically, colonies that have been foraging on OSR get bad tempered once flowering is over. It’ll be interesting to see whether this happens this year when they’ve hardly had the opportunity to use the OSR. In the photo above it’s not clear why the only OSR flowering is along the footpath … I suspect these were slightly lower growing plants which were a bit more sheltered. Some of the sheltered field margins also had flowers lingering. However, there were almost no bees on the flowers and it’s effectively over for the year.

Bait hive – fail

The year continues to be unseasonably cool, with daytime maximum temperatures being at least a couple of degrees (ºC) below the thirty year average for this region. Nevertheless, colonies are building up reasonably well and some are starting to make preparations to swarm – drone brood levels are rising, the number of ‘play cups’ are increasing and one or two had queen cells at the last inspection.

Bait hives deployed

A small swarm


In the hope that the temperature will increase and that swarming will occur I always put a few bait hives out in likely locations, including odd corners of my apiaries. Although my queens are all clipped and marked (I think) there’s one I’ve yet to spot this year and she just might have been superseded late last season. Clipping doesn’t stop swarming, but it stops the queen and the prime swarm disappearing over the fence to someone else’s bait hive or, worse, chimney. However, there’s a high density of beekeepers in this area and – going by the number of swarms and successful bait hives in previous seasons – some don’t practise effective swarm control. Last season I caught four swarms, though one was little more than a tiny cast, in bait hives.


I always have a bait hive in my garden. The sight of a swarm arriving is one of the truly great experiences in beekeeping and I’m far more likely to witness it there than the corner of a field. A day or two in advance the scout bees check the hive, repeatedly visiting in increasing numbers. They fly around the entrance, going in and out to determine the size of the cavity, then flying round and round the hive checking suitability. Many dozens can appear, standing around on the landing board (if there is one) seemingly discussing whether it is a ‘des res‘. They then disappear altogether. This is either because they’ve chosen a different site (other scout bees have been checking different locations and, as Tom Seeley describes in Honeybee democracy, they reach a consensus for the swarm) or because they’re busy leading the swarm to your bait hive.

Suddenly the sky fills with a whirling mass of bees that descend in a seemingly chaotic yet organised manner to the bait hive, ‘bearding’ at the entrance and gradually entering. This can take an hour or two and is a fantastic sight.

Epic fail

Although I’d seen no scout bees I periodically check all of my bait hives. I also top up the lemongrass oil, adding a couple of drops to the top bar of a frame. The bait hive in the corner of the garden was occupied … by a wasps nest attached to the starter strip in a foundationless frame.

Despite the beautiful architecture and the presence of a dozen or so wriggling larvae, they had to go. In late August this lot, or their progeny, would be terrorising my mini-nucs containing late-mating queens, robbing out weak colonies and causing a general nuisance during the honey harvest.

And the hawthorn is flowering …



Oilseed rape 2015

Almost exactly two months ago I photographed a farmer spraying the oilseed rape (OSR) crop. At the time it was about 5″ tall, with perhaps 4-6 leaves. Here’s an image (below) from the same gateway – it’s now in full flower and should be providing an orgy of nectar and pollen opportunities for colonies within range. However, the spring has been cold and many colonies have yet to build up properly. Our local weather station reports that last week was 2.6ºC below the average temperature for the 18th week of the year.

Oil seed rape

Oil seed rape

Yesterday was warmer, but ended in rain and it’s chucking it down as I write … it looks like the OSR won’t give a bumper crop this year. However, it looks set to reach 15ºC or more next week and a bit of warm and settled weather – although it might be too late for the majority of the OSR – means some of my generous neighbours might be donating some swarms for my bait hives 😉

In addition, the hawthorn is preparing to flower … this can be a good source of pollen and nectar, but beekeepers often apparently mistake it (not the tree, but the source of nectar being collected) for sycamore which flowers at the same time.

Hawthorn ...

Hawthorn …

So much for my queen rearing plans … that’s on hold for another week at least until the cell raisers are ready. In the meantime, I have identified some well-behaved colonies as a source of suitable larvae.

Early season pollen

Colonies should be bringing in good amounts of pollen by now to help raise the all-important early season brood. The willows near one of my apiaries are buzzing with foraging honey and bumblebees during the warmest part of the day. I’ve also given a few colonies an additional boost of dried pollen simply spooned onto a piece of card. They soon find this and the majority use it up quickly.

Oddly a few colonies ignore it completely … in previous years it’s not clear whether this is related to colony strength, laying rate of the queen or the amount of pollen already stored (or something else entirely).

Winter water

Freezing here overnight but the sun warmed the hives sufficiently that a few foragers emerged to collect water. They appeared particularly attracted to the pool of melted ice around this brick holding down a Correx roof. Presumably the black colour helped warm the water and there were some minerals leaching out of the brick.

Winter water

Winter water

And the first snowdrops are out …



I treat all my stored drawn comb with acetic acid going into the winter. It then needs to air thoroughly before use the following season. I stacked a pile of treated supers on top of some empties on the patio. Unfortunately I forgot that acetic acid corrodes concrete and now have this to get rid of …

Acetic acid damage

Acetic acid damage


Ivy season is here

The ivy is flowering well here and the bees are working it hard to collect late season pollen and nectar. On a walk last weekend every bush in the sun was alive with bees.

Flowering ivy

Flowering ivy


My colonies never collect enough ivy nectar to get much of a crop of honey from, but I’m told it’s an acquired taste. When it crystallises it sets rock hard and the bees often cannot or do not use it as stores during the winter. When you open the colony in the spring there is still a part-filled frame of hard dark honey, usually with a waxy appearance, from the previous season’s ivy.

By feeding relatively early in the season (mid/late August) I get the Varroa treatment completed with the intention of giving the bees time to generate those all-important overwintering bees once the queen starts laying again (Apiguard often slows or stops the queen from laying). Perhaps the brood box is already packed with stores? However, the ivy pollen is very useful, both for brood rearing now and for early spring.

Late season pollen

Late season pollen …