Tag Archives: uniting

Cut your losses

The stats for winter losses in the UK, Europe and USA can make for rather sobering reading.

In the UK, losses over the last 12 years have fluctuated between 9% and 34%. This self-selecting survey includes responses from about 10% of the British Beekeepers Association membership (primarily England and Wales, despite the name). The average number of hives maintained by a BBKA member is about 5, meaning – all other things being equal 1 – that most beekeepers should expect to lose about 1 hive every winter.

BBKA winter losses survey

About 30 countries, mainly Northern hemisphere, contribute to the COLOSS survey which is significantly larger scale. The most recent 2 data published (for the ’16/’17 winter) had data from ~15,000 respondents 3 managing over 400,000 hives. Of these, ~21% were lost for a variety of reasons. COLOSS data is presented as an unwieldy table, rather than graphically. Further details, including recently published results, are linked from their website.

In the USA the Bee Informed Partnership surveys losses – both winter and summer – and claims to have results that cover ~10% of all the colonies in the country (so probably between 250,000 and 275,000 hives). Winter losses in the USA are rarely reported at less than 20% and were as high as 35% in the ’18/’19 winter 4.

Bee Informed Partnership annual colony losses

Are these figures to be trusted?

Who knows?

Each survey is accompanied by a variety of statistics. However, since they all appear to be based upon voluntary reporting by a subset of beekeepers, there are opportunities for all sorts of data to be included (and even more to be missed entirely). 

The problem with surveys

Is the successful beekeeper who managed to get all her colonies through the winter more likely to respond?

A form of ‘bragging rights’.

What about the beekeeper that lost all his colonies?

Does he respond out of a sense of responsibility?

Or does he keep quiet because he doesn’t want to be reminded of those cold, quiet, mouldy boxes opened on the first warm day of spring?

One and two year beekeepers

What about the high level of annual ‘churn’ amongst beekeepers? They buy a nuc in May, filled with enthusiasm about the jars of golden honey they’ll have for family and friends in late summer.

To say nothing of all the “saving the bees” they’ll be doing.

But by late summer the colony is queenless and has an unpleasant temperament

Beekeeping should be enjoyable ...

Beekeeping should be enjoyable …

Psychopathic you might say … if you were feeling uncharitable.

Consequently the Varroa treatment goes on far too late,. Or is quietly forgotten. The winter bees have high viral loads and ‘die like flies’ 5, resulting in the colony succumbing by the year end.

But this colony loss is never recorded on any surveys.

The once enthusiastic beekeeper has moved on and is now passionate about growing prize-winning vegetables or cheesemaking or keeping chickens. 

Beekeeping associations train lots of new beekeepers and – although membership numbers are increasing – it’s well below the rate they’re trained at.

Some may not be ‘joiners’ and go their own way.

Many just quietly stop after a year or two.

How many people have you met that say “Oh yes, I used to keep bees”

Did you ask them whether they ever completed a winter losses survey?

I’m not sure any of the surveys listed above do much ‘groundtruthing’ to establish whether the data they collect is truly representative of the population actually surveyed. With large numbers of respondents spread across a wide geographic and climatic range it’s not an easy thing to do.

So, treat these surveys with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Undoubtedly there are high levels of winter losses – at least sometimes – and the overall level of losses varies from year to year.

Losses and costs

The direct financial cost of these colony losses to beekeepers is very high.

Ignoring time invested and ‘consumables’ like food, miticides and foundation these costs in ’16/’17 for just Austria, the Czech Republic and Macedonia were estimated at €56 million 😯  

These figures simply reflect lost honey production and the value of the lost colonies. They do not include the indirect costs resulting from lost pollination.

But, for the small scale beekeeper, these economic losses are irrelevant.

Most of these beekeepers do not rely on bees for their income.

The real cost is emotional 🙁

It still saddens me when I lose a colony, particularly when I think that the loss was avoidable or due to my incompetence, carelessness or stupidity 6.

Little snow, big snow. Big snow, little snow.

Your hives should be quiet in winter, but it hurts when they are silent in spring.

Anatomy of a death

The COLOSS surveys give a breakdown of winter losses in three categories:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • dead colonies

Natural disasters are things like bears, honey badgers, flooding or falling trees.

We can probably safely ignore honey badgers in the UK, but climate change is increasing the weather extremes that causes flooding and falling trees.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

Don’t assume that poly hives are the answer to potential flooding.

They do float, though not necessarily the right way up 🙁

Queen problems cover a variety of issues ranging from reduced fecundity to poor mating (and consequent drone laying) to very early or late – and failed – supersedure 7.

Beekeepers with a lot more experience than me report that queen problems are increasing.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Perhaps the issues with fecundity and drone laying are related to toxic levels of miticides in commercial foundation? It’s certainly known that these residues reduce drone sperm fertility significantly. I intend to return to this topic sometime during the approaching winter … perhaps in time to encourage the use of some foundationless frames for (fertile) drone production 😉

In the ’16/’17 COLOSS data, natural disasters accounted for 1.6% of all overwintered colonies (so ~7.5% of losses), queen problems resulted in the loss of 5.1% of colonies (i.e. ~24% of losses) and the remainder (14.1% of colonies, ~68% of losses) just died.

Just died?

We’ll return to natural disasters (but not bears or honey badgers) and queen problems shortly. What about the majority of losses in which the colony ‘just died’?

If you discuss colony post-mortems with beekeepers they sometimes divide the ‘just died’ category (i.e. those not readily attributable to failed queens, marauding grizzlies or tsunamis) into four groups:

  • disease
  • isolation starvation
  • starvation
  • don’t know 

The most important disease associated with overwintering colony losses is high levels of Deformed wing virus (DWV). This results from uncontrolled or inadequately controlled Varroa infestation. For any new readers of this site, please refer back to many of the articles I’ve already written on Varroa management 8.

I strongly suspect that a significant proportion of the reported isolation starvation is actually also due to disease, rather than isolation per se.

A consequence of high levels of DWV is that winter bees die prematurely. Consequently, the colony shrinks faster than it would otherwise do. It starts the size of a basketball but (too) rapidly ends up the size of a grapefruit … or an orange.

Isolation starvation and disease

The small cluster is then unable to remain in contact with stores, and so starves. 

Yes, the colony died from ‘isolation starvation’, but the cause was the high levels of Varroa and the viruses it transmits.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

What about regular starvation?

Not because the cluster became isolated from the stores, but simply because they had insufficient stores to get through the winter.

Whose fault was that?

And the last category, the “don’t knows”?

I bet most of these are due to high levels of Varroa and DWV as well 🙁

Yes, there will be other reasons … but probably not a huge number. 

What’s more … if you don’t know the reason for the colony loss there’s very little you can do to mitigate against it in future seasons.

And, other than wild and increasingly vague speculation, there’s little I can write about if the reason for the loss remains unknown 9.

Avoiding winter losses

So, let’s rationalise those earlier lists into the probable (known) major causes of overwintering colony losses:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • starvation
  • disease (but probably mainly DWV and Varroa

As the long, hot days of summer gradually shorten and cool as early autumn approaches, you should be thinking about each of these potential causes of overwintering colony loss … and doing what you can to ensure it doesn’t happen to you (or, more correctly, your bees).

Ardnamurchan autumn

Ardnamurchan autumn

Some are easier to deal with than others.

Here’s a whistle-stop tour of some more specific problems and some practical solutions 10. Some, all or none may apply to your bees – it depends upon your location, your climate, your experience and future plans as a beekeeper. 

Natural disasters

These fall into two broad groups:

  • things you can do almost nothing about (but might be able to avoid)
  • things you can relatively easily solve

Flooding, falling trees, lightning, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes etc. all fall into the first group.

If you can avoid them, do. 

Your local council will have information on areas at risk from flooding. There are also searchable maps available from SEPA. Do not underestimate the severity of some of the recent flooding. Some parts of Scotland and Northern England had 600 mm of rain in two days in 2015.

You might be surprised (and from an insurance aspect, devastated) at the classification of some areas now ‘at risk’. 

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Consider moving hives to higher ground before the winter rains start. One consequence of climate change is that heavy rainfall is now ~20% heavier than it was a few decades ago. This means that floods occur more frequently, are more extensive and the water levels rise faster. You might not have a chance to move the hives if flooding does occur,

More rain and stronger winds (particularly before leaf fall) mean more trees will come down. You might be able to identify trees potentially at risk from falling. It makes sense to remove them (or site your hives elsewhere). 

No risk of this larch tree falling on my hives

Lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes … all a possibility though I would 11 probably worry about Varroa and woodpeckers first 😉

Solvable natural disasters

The ‘solvable’ natural disasters include preventing your colonies being robbed by other bees or wasps. Or ransacked by mice or woodpeckers after the first hard frosts start. A solution to many of these are ‘reduced size entrances’ which either enable the colony to better defend itself, or physically restricts access to critters.

The L-shaped ‘kewl floors‘ I use prevent mice from accessing the brood box. They are also easier for the colony to defend from bees/wasps, but can also easily be reduced in size with a narrow piece of hardwood. If you don’t use these types of floor you should probably use a mouseguard.

Polyhives and polythene

Polyhives and polythene …

Woodpeckers 12 need to cling onto the outside of the hive to hammer their way through the side. You can either place a wire mesh cage around the hive, or wrap the box in something like damp proof membrane (or polythene) to prevent them gaining purchase on the side walls.

Keep off Woody

Keep off Woody

Doing both is probably overkill though 😉

Strong colonies

Before we move onto queen problems – though it is related – it’s worth emphasising that an even better solution to prevent robbing by bees or wasps is to maintain really strong colonies.

Strong colonies with a well balanced population of bees can almost always defend themselves successfully against wasps and robbing bees.

Nucs, that are both weaker and – at least shortly after being made up – unbalanced, are far less able to defend themselves and need some sort of access restriction.

By ‘balanced’ I mean that the numbers and proportions of bees fulfilling the various roles in the nucleus colony are reflective of a full hive e.g. nurse bees, foragers, guard bees. 

Reduced entrance ...

Reduced entrance …

But the benefits of strong colonies are far greater than just being able to prevent wasps or robbing bees. There is compelling scientific evidence that strong colonies overwinter better

I don’t mean strong summer colonies, I mean colonies that are strong in the late autumn when they are fully populated with the winter bees.

Almost the entire complement of bees in the hive are replaced between late summer and late autumn. Remember that a really strong summer colony may not be strong in the winter if Varroa and virus levels have not been controlled.

How do you ensure your colonies are strong?

  1. Minimise disease by controlling Varroa levels in early autumn to guarantee the all-important winter bees are reared without being exposed to high levels of DWV.
  2. Try and use a miticide treatment that does not reduce the laying rate of the queen.
  3. Avoid blocking the brood nest with stores where the queen should be laying eggs.
  4. Requeen your colonies regularly. Young queens lay more eggs later into the autumn. As a consequence the colonies have increased populations of winter bees.
  5. Unite weak colonies (assuming they are disease-free) with stronger colonies. The former may well not survive anyway, and the latter will have a better chance of surviving if it is even stronger – see below. 
  6. Use local bees. There’s good evidence that local bees (i.e. reared locally, not imported from elsewhere) overwinter better, not least because they produce stronger colonies.

Uniting – take your losses in the autumn

My regular colony inspections every 7-10 days during May and June are pretty much abandoned by July. The risk of swarming is very much reduced after the ‘June gap’ in my experience. 

I still check the colonies periodically and I’m usually still rearing queens. However, the rigour with which I check for queen cells is much reduced. By July my colonies are usually committed to single-mindedly filling the supers with summer nectar.

They are already making their own preparations for the long winter ahead.

Although the inspections are less rigorous, I do keep a careful watch on the strength of each colony. Often this is directly related to the number of supers I’ve had to pile on top.

Colonies that are underperforming, and – more specifically – understrength are almost always united with a stronger colony.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

Experience has taught me that an understrength colony is usually more trouble than it’s worth. If it’s disease-free it may well overwinter reasonably well. However, it’s likely to start brood rearing more slowly and build up less well. It may also need more mollycoddling 13 in the autumn e.g. protection from wasps or robbing bees.

However, a colony that is not flourishing in the summer is much more likely to struggle and fail during the winter. Perhaps the queen is not quite ‘firing on all cylinders’ and laying at a really good rate, or she might be poorly mated.

Far better that the workforce contributes to strengthening another hive, rather than collect an underwhelming amount of honey before entering the winter and eventually becoming a statistic.

My winter losses are low and, over the last decade, reducing.

That’s partly because my Varroa management is reasonably thorough.

However, it’s probably mainly due to ensuring only strong colonies go into the winter in the first place.

Newspaper

I’ve dealt with uniting in several previous posts.

It’s a two minute job. 

You remove the queen from the weak colony, stack one brood box over the other separated by a sheet or two of newspaper with a very small (~3mm) hole in the middle. Add the roof and leave them to get on with things.

I don’t think it makes any difference whether the strong colony goes on the top or the bottom.

I place the colony I’m moving above the box I’m uniting it with. My – wildly unscientific – rationale being that the bees in the top box will have to negotiate the route to the hive entrance and, in doing so, will help them orientate to the new location faster 14.

If you unite colonies early or late in the day most foragers will be ‘at home’ so not too many bees will return to find their hive missing.

If there are supers on one or both hives you can separate them with newspaper as well. Alternatively, use a clearer the day before to empty the supers prior to uniting the colonies. You can then add back the supers you want and redistribute the remainder to other hives in the apiary.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to check for successful uniting.

Leave them a week. The last thing you want is for the queen to get killed in an unseemly melee caused by you disturbing them before they have properly settled.

Done properly, uniting is almost foolproof. I reckon over 95% of colonies I unite are successful.

That’s all folks … more on ‘Cutting your losses’ next week 🙂


Notes

At just over 3000 words this post got a bit out of control … I’ll deal with more significant queen problems, feeding colonies, the weather and some miscellaneous ‘odds and sods’ next week.

Upstairs, downstairs?

There are two common hive manipulations that involve stacking two brood boxes on top of each other – the vertical split and uniting colonies. Should the queenright colony go on the top or bottom when uniting colonies over newspaper? What about when conducting a vertical split? Does it make a difference?

In the following discussion I’m assuming the colonies being stacked are originally in single brood boxes. This is so I don’t have to qualify how many boxes are involved every time. For convenience, let’s also assume that you are uniting a queenless and queenright colony, rather than getting into a discussion of the benefits or otherwise of regicide.

Uniting colonies

There are a number of methods to unite (merge) two colonies. The simplest, the most often taught during beginners courses and – in my view – the (almost) foolproof method if you are not in a rush is uniting over newspaper.

All gone ...

All gone …

To unite over newspaper the roof and crownboard from one colony are removed and one or two sheets of newspaper are laid over the top bars of the frames. One or two small holes are made through the newspaper and the second brood box is placed on top. Replace the crownboard and roof. The only precaution that needs to be taken is to ensure there isn’t brace comb on the bottom of the frames of the top box – this would puncture the newspaper and allow the bees to mix too quickly. This is also why I stressed a small hole in the paper.

Over the next 24-48 hours the colonies slowly chew holes through the paper, allowing the bees to gradually mix. It’s best not to interfere for a few more days. One week after uniting the frames can be rearranged and the bees cleared down to a single box if needed.

What matters and what doesn’t when uniting?

You’ll read three bits of advice about uniting using the method described above:

  1. The queenright colony should be on the bottom.
  2. The weaker colony should go on the top.
  3. The colony moved should be at the top.

Frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference whether the queen is in the top or bottom box. I’ve done it either way many times and never noticed a difference in success rates (generally very high), or the speed with which shredded newspaper is chucked out of the hive entrance. I think you can safely ignore this bit of advice. I can’t even think of a logical explanation as to why it’s beneficial to have the queen in the bottom box. Can you? After uniting I usually find the queen in the top box a week later.

If colonies differ markedly in strength I do try and arrange the top box as the weaker one. I suspect this is beneficial as it stops the foraging bees from the strong hive trying to get out or return mob-handed, potentially overwhelming the weaker colony.

I think it’s also sensible to locate the moved colony at the top of the stack. I think forcing them to negotiate the bottom box encourages the foragers from the moved hive to reorientate to the new hive location.

Vertical splits

A vertical split is a hive manipulation that can be used as a swarm control strategy or as a means of ‘making increase’ – the beekeeping term for generating a new queenright colony. Whatever the reason, the practicalities are broadly the same and have been described in detail previously. Briefly, the queen and flying bees are separated vertically from the nurse bees and brood in two brood boxes with separate and opposing entrances.

Split board

Split board …

As described, the queen is placed in the top box with the split board entrance facing the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The logic here is that the flying bees are depleted from the queenright half of the colony, so both reducing the swarming impulse and boosting the strength of the half rearing a new queen.

After one week the hive is reversed on the stand – the front becomes the back and the back becomes the front. This results in depletion of flying bees from the queenless half, so reducing the chances of them throwing off a cast should multiple virgin queens emerge. Simultaneously the queenright half is strengthened, boosting its nectar-gathering capabilities.

The problem with vertical splits

Although I’m an enthusiastic proponent of the vertical split I acknowledge there are some drawbacks to the process.

Once there are supers involved things can get pretty heavy. Simply reversing a double brood box can be taxing for some (me included). I’m dabbling with building some floors and split boards with opposing entrances to try and simplify (or at least reduce the strain of) this aspect of the process.

A second problem is the need for subsequent inspections of the colonies. When used for making increase (or for that matter replacing the queen) nothing final can be done with the colonies until the new queen – reared in the bottom box – is mated and laying well.

Inspections

Of course, determining whether she is ‘mated and laying well’ involves splitting the boxes and carefully examining the lower colony. This inspection should probably take place about a month after the initial split (up to 16 days from egg to emerged queen, a week or so for her to get mated and a further week for the laying pattern to be established). Depending on colony strength, weather and the temperament of the colonies, this inspection might have to be conducted in a maelstrom of bees returning to the upper colony (which has had to be removed for the inspection). Perhaps not the most conducive conditions to find, mark and perhaps clip the new queen.

During the month that the new queen is being reared and mated there’s probably little or no need to inspect the queenright colony. They have ample laying room if you’ve provided them with drawn comb. If you gave them foundation only, or foundationless frames, they will likely need thin syrup if there’s a dearth of nectar. If you’re using a standard frame feeder this is a pretty quick and painless process.

Under the conditions described above I think it makes relatively little difference whether the original queen is ‘upstairs or downstairs’ at the outset of the split (though see the comments at the end on the entrance). However, having the new queen in the bottom box might dissuade you from inspecting too often or too soon – neither is to be encouraged where a new queen is expected.

More queens from more ambitious vertical splits

You can use a version of the vertical split to rear several queen cells. Rather than then reversing the colony and depleting the queenless half of bees you can use it to create a number of 2-3 frame nucs, each populated with a big fat ripe queen cell. In this way you can quickly make increase – trebling, quadrupling or perhaps quintupling the original hive number. The precise details are outside the scope of this article – which is already too long – but Wally Shaw covers it in his usual comprehensive manner (PDF) elsewhere.

For this you want to make the initial queenless half to be as strong as possible (to rear good queens). You also want it to be as easy to access as possible to facilitate checking on the development of the new queen cells. Under these conditions I think there’s good reason to start with the original mated queen ‘downstairs’.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

A higher entrance

Remember that at the start of a vertical split, and for a couple of days after, bees will be exiting the rear entrance and returning to the ‘front’ of the hive to which they originally orientated.

Beehive kewl floor landing board and plastic skirt

Kewl floor – fixed …

If you decide to leave the original queen in the lower box this will necessitate reversing the hive at the very start of the process, then placing the split board entrance at the hive front. Bees cope well with this vertical relocation of a hive entrance. Sure, there’ll be a bit of milling about and general confusion, but they’ll very quickly adjust to a hive entrance situated about 25cm above the original one. In the original description of the vertical split they had to make precisely this adjustment at the 7 day hive reversal. It helps to try and restrict bees from accessing the underside of the open mesh floor during these hive reversals – for example with a simple plastic skirt (see above right).

In conclusion

Bees are pretty adaptable to the sorts of manipulations described above. Yes, there are certainly wrong ways to do things, but while being careful to avoid these, there are several different ways to manipulate the process to achieve the desired goal(s).

It’s worth thinking about the goal and the likely behaviour of the bees. Then have a go … what’s the worst that could happen?

 

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.

DLQ RIP

I conducted my first inspections of colonies outside the bee shed last week. One colony that had looked good going into the winter had about 5-6 ‘seams’ of bees when I lifted the crown board … but some of the first bees to take off were big fat drones. Even without seeing them you can hear their distinctive buzz as they fly off clumsily. Something was wrong. It’s still too early for significant numbers of drones to be about in what is turning out to be a late Spring.

Drone laying queens

Sure enough, the first few frames contained ample stores and the frames in the middle of what should be the brood nest had been cleared, cleaned and prepared for the queen to lay in. However, the only brood was a rather pathetic patch of drone cells. Clearly the queen had failed early this season and had become a drone laying queen (DLQ). The brood was in a distinct patch indicating it was a DLQ rather than laying workers which scatter brood all over the frames. There were no young larvae, a few late stage larvae, some sealed brood and a few dozen adult drones. The absence of eggs and young larvae suggested that the queen might have either recently given up or been disposed of. There was even a rather pathetic queen cell, no doubt also containing a drone pupa.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

I think this colony superseded late last season so the queen would have been unmarked. It also might explain why she was poorly mated. However, a quick but thorough search through the box failed to locate her. I was short of equipment, newspaper and time so shook all the bees off the frames and removed the hive … the hope being that the bees would reorientate to the other hives in the apiary.

Think, then act

I tidied things up, made sure the smoker was out and packed away safely and quickly checked the location where the colony had been sited … there was a pretty good sized cluster of bees accumulated on the stand. It was getting cooler and it was clear that the bees were not going to “reorientate to the other hives in the apiary” as I’d hoped. More likely they were going to perish overnight as the temperature was predicted to drop to 3°C.

I never think it’s worth mollycoddling weak or failing (failed?) colonies in the Spring as they’re unlikely to do well enough to get a good crop of honey. However, I also try and avoid simply letting bees perish because of lack of time or preparation on my part. I therefore put a small number of frames – including one of stores – into a poly nuc and placed it on the stand in place of the old hive. Within minutes the bees were streaming in, in much the same way as a swarm shaken out on a sheet enters a hive. I left them to it and rushed back to collect some newspaper. By the time I returned they were all in the poly nuc.

Since I still wasn’t certain where the DLQ was, or even if she was still present, I placed a couple of sheets of newspaper across the top of the brood box on a strong colony, held in place with a queen excluder. I made a couple of small tears through the newspaper with the hive tool and then placed the DLQ colony on top.

Uniting over newspaper

Uniting over newspaper …

The following day there was lots of activity at the hive entrance and a peek through the perspex crownboard showed that the bees had chewed through a big patch of the newspaper and were now mingling freely. I’ll check again in a few days (it’s getting cold again) and will then remove the top box and shake the remaining bees out – if there’s a queen present (which is pretty unlikely now) she won’t know how to return to the new site.

Lessons learned … firstly, be prepared during early-season inspections for failed queens and have the necessary equipment to hand – newspaper for uniting, a queen excluder etc. Secondly, there’s no need to rush. These bees had been headed by a DLQ for a significant period – going by the numbers of adult drones and small remaining amount of sealed and unsealed drone brood – another day or two wouldn’t make any difference. Rather than shaking them out as the afternoon cooled I’d have been better returning another afternoon with the necessary kit to make the best of a bad situation.

Repeat as required

I checked another apiary later in the week and discovered another couple of hives with DLQ’s 🙁  In both cases the queen was either unmarked and invisible, or AWOL. If the former they’d have again been supercedure queens as they should have been marked white and clipped from a batch raised and mated in late May/early June last season using a circle split. However, this time I was prepared and united the boxes in the same way over newspaper held down with a queen excluder. All the other colonies I checked were strong. However, these three DLQ colonies – all nominally headed by queens raised last year – are the most I’ve ever had in a single winter and confirm what a poor year 2015 was for queen mating.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Remaining stores

These three failed colonies – in addition to the presence of variable amounts of drones or drone brood – were also notable for the large amounts of stores still present in the hive. Although it’s been unseasonably cold this April (with regular overnight frosts and strong northerly winds keeping the temperatures – and the beekeepers – depressed) healthy colonies are still building up well, using remaining stores when they can’t get out to forage. As a consequence there’s a real risk of colonies starving. In contrast, colonies with failed queens will be raising little or no brood, so the stores remain unused.

Assuming the colony is disease-free these frames can be put aside somewhere safe (and bee proof) for use during preparation of nucs later in the season.


Of course … I probably learned these lessons last season as well but managed to forget them in the intervening period 😉

Waving not drowning

Marooned ...

Marooned …

It’s been a miserable wet winter in Fife … but the days are now noticeably longer (and drier), though I’m still usually driving to and from the office with headlights and wipers on. However, finally there are signs that spring is on the way. I heard my first skylark yesterday and there are drifts of snowdrops in the hedgerows …

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

Having moved here last summer with the expectation that the east coast would be dry but cold (remember, these things are all relative) the winter has delivered almost the complete opposite. It’s been spectacularly damp. Not only here in Fife of course. Most of the northern half of the UK has enjoyed some terrible weather, with significant levels of flooding in major cities like York. For the last three months the rain has been ~200% of the 30 year average:

The graphs above (from the excellent Met Office website) are the rainfall anomaly from the 1981-2010 average, with the darkest blue indicating at least 200% of the average. In contrast, the temperature has been at or above the average, with December being very much warmer (more than 2.5°C above the average, which is 2-4°C).

It’s not clear to me whether warm and wet winters benefit either bees or beekeepers. In inclement weather the bees can’t get out to forage – not that there’s much for them to forage on – and the warm temperatures prevent them from clustering tightly. They probably get through their stores more quickly and may continue to raise brood – inevitably this makes midwinter Varroa treatments by trickling or sublimation less effective. On the other hand, there are probably fewer losses of weaker colonies through isolation starvation when it’s too cold for them to move across the frames to the sealed stores.

However, my preference would always be for short and cold winters. It might sound heartless but I’d prefer weak colonies didn’t survive the winter as they are usually slow starting in the spring and remain unproductive – if they survive at all – through the year. Far better is to realistically assess all colonies in the autumn and unite weak ones with strong ones, boosting the latter and increasing their chances of overwintering successfully. There is no point in uniting weak colonies with other weak colonies, unless you’re stuffing three into one (and the ‘one’ is a strong colony). It shouldn’t be necessary to say it – but I will anyway – if a colony is weak because of overt disease it should not be used to ‘boost’ a strong colony … it’ll do nothing of the sort.

Colonies that went into the winter apparently strong, but dwindle rapidly and get significantly weaker may well have dangerously high levels of pathogenic viruses such as deformed wing virus. This might occur if Varroa control was left too late in the season.

Winter cluster ...

Winter cluster …

Anyway, enough discussing stuff that should have been sorted out months ago … the weather is belatedly showing signs of winter, with temperatures below freezing for several nights in a row, a bit of snow here and there, interspersed with some cold, clear days. I’ve not seen a bee venturing out on a cleansing flight for days and the colonies visible under the perspex crownboards are tightly clustered. Nevertheless, there are some very obvious signs of spring, with daffodils, snowdrops and celandines flowering, the leaves unfurling on the hawthorn bushes and the willow buds just about breaking.

I realise that this is mostly another ‘not beekeeping‘ post, but I thought something slightly easier than the graphs and chemistry of Varroa treatments might be welcome. With the season proper fast approaching, now is the time to make plans and to ensure everything is ready for those early season hive inspections.

Yet more snowdrops ...

Yet more snowdrops …


The title of this post is a play on the title of a poem by Stevie SmithNot waving but drowning, in which she describes the thrashing of a drowning man being mistaken for waving. It might not have been wet enough this winter to drown, but it sometimes felt like it …

Use them or lose them

Colonies with queen problems at this time of the season are unlikely to get through the winter. It’s therefore better to identify these early enough to try and rescue the situation. Having completed my Varroa treatment I check colonies to determine whether they have a laying queen. If the colony is piling in the pollen, bulging with bees and has few, if any, drones I don’t even bother to open the box. In contrast, a colony with any of the following signs gets a more thorough check:

  • little or no pollen being taken in … remember this might be because there’s none available, another example of where comparisons between colonies are useful
  • slow to take the fondant down (or syrup, though I only now use fondant for autumn feeding), but not because the box is obviously already stuffed with stores
  • lots of drones (almost all of these should have been evicted by now), indicative of a drone laying queen
  • an obviously weak colony

With a perspex crownboard you can detect all of these without disturbing the bees or opening the box.

I checked the colonies in one of my apiaries as I’d noticed two that were causing some concern at the final OA vaporisation treatment. One had a good level of stores, but the colony was weak and there were no eggs, larvae or sealed brood. The clipped and marked queen – mated earlier this year – was still present but had clearly failed* and, this late in the season, there was no chance of the colony replacing her. The bees were otherwise fine, with no signs of disease, well tempered and were well worth saving.

Rescuing the situation

I disposed of the queen and united them over newspaper with a strong colony on a nearby hive stand. In a few days I’ll put a clearer board under the upper brood box, then rearrange the frames of stores to leave the remaining box packed. Any spare frames of stores – and there should be at least half a dozen – will be used to boost other colonies.

Uniting over newspaper ...

Uniting over newspaper …

Of course, I’m not really saving these bees at all. Instead I’m using their potential to strengthen another colony, so maximising the chances of getting the recipient colony through the winter. With no brood of any sort in the colony it’s likely the queen failed at least 3 weeks ago. This means that the bees present were unlikely to be ‘winter bees’ and would therefore be expected to perish over the next few weeks. However, in the meantime, they will help strengthen the recipient colony – enhancing it’s ability to raise new brood and increasing the pollen and nectar collected as the season winds down.

Nearly ready

Nearly ready

The second colony was weaker than I’d have liked, but – reassuringly – there were 2-3 frames of brood in all stages, together with an unmarked and unclipped queen. Since all the queens in the apiary were clipped and marked earlier in the season this was clearly a supercedure queen, raised in the last few weeks. The colony was beautifully calm so I gently closed them up. My bee house will be ready soon, so I’ll make sure this colony is one of the first to occupy it. The additional shelter should help them through the winter. With the new queen laying well and the weather set fair for the rest of this week, there’s a good opportunity for the colony to build up before they’re moved.

* Remember … some Varroa treatments can cause the queen to stop laying. For example, Apiguard is tolerated by some queens but not others who can stop laying for two or more weeks. The colony with the failed queen (above) had not been treated with Apiguard so I was pretty sure she was a dud.