01 July 2018
I am Gerald Bushby (pronounced bush bee!) a beekeeper in Weston on the Green, a small village in Oxfordshire. I am going to be writing a monthly blog about the bees in my apiary. I hope you will find it interesting. I should start by saying that I am not an expert, having only kept bees for three years. Anything I say is my own personal opinion; I accept that there may often be other views and opinions.
I ended last months blog intending to watch my hive closely for signs that the bees were about to swarm as I wanted to perform a “split”, producing an additional one or two smaller colonies and making the main colony think that it has swarmed. At the time of the last blog there were no signs of that happening.
Bee colonies naturally “swarm” as a way of reproducing themselves. The queen and as much as half of the worker bees in the hive will leave and look for a new home elsewhere. The remaining bees produce a new queen to head the depleted colony. This tends to happen in spring and early summer so that the swarm and the remaining bees have the time to build up stores to last them through the following winter to spring when the whole process will take place again. There is a mid 17th centaury proverb which runs “a swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon ; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly”. In other words an early swarm is much more valuable than a late swarm so that there is time to build up the colony before autumn.
There are differing schools of thought as to whether swarms are a good thing. Some say it is; It is a natural process and the bees should be left to naturally do what they have always done. Others say it is concerning for the public, especially in urban areas, being confronted by a swarm of bees. It is not liked by the beekeeper who wishes to produce as much honey as possible. If half of the colony leaves the honey production will be cut by at least half in that colony for the season.
Last year, in Oxfordshire, there were lots of swarms and they occurred very early in the year. This year the opposite has occurred. Each county has a “swarm liaison officer” who members of the public can contact to report a swarm to. The swarm liaison officer will then arrange for a beekeeper to go and collect the swarm. By mid June this year, in Oxfordshire, 6 swarms had been reported. At the same time last year the number reported was 200.
One sign that a colony is going to swarm is the production of “queen cells”. These are elongated cells larger and longer than the worker or drone cells and are quite distinctive, hanging down from the face or edge of the comb. A queen cells is similar in size, shape and surface texture to a monkey nut case.
Since last month therefore I have been looking each week for signs of my colony producing queen cells so I could perform a “split”. Unfortunately my bees are acting in a similar manner to other colonies in Oxfordshire and they have shown no signs of producing queen cells at all. I have waited for several weeks now. As time passes the likelihood of them wanting to swarm reduces. I therefore decided to turn to “plan B”. As I have said before bees are clever things. If they are minded to they can produce a queen cell from an egg that has been laid by the queen that is not more than three days old. If therefore I create the correct conditions, I can try to trick them into producing an emergency queen cell. I do this by making them think they are queenless.
From the brood chamber I picked a frame which contained capped worker brood, food stores, pollen and most importantly newly laid eggs. This is not easy as newly laid eggs are very small. They are similar in shape to a grain of rice but much smaller and are laid at the bottom of the cell by the queen so they are not easy to see. I chose a frame that I thought had newly laid eggs and placed this frame in a nucleus, a small brood box containing five frames. Along side this frame I placed another frame from the brood box containing stored honey and three new frames to fill the box up. I replaced the two frames I had taken out of the main colony with two new frames and closed it up. I had checked the two frames I had removed from the main colony to ensure that the queen was not on those frames but was still in the main colony.
By carrying out this procedure I had produced in the nucleus a group of bees with eggs, brood and food that thought they were queenless. After a week I opened up the nucleus and there on the side of the frame taken from the main colony was a queen cell. My photograph this month shows this queen cell. With luck this will develop into a new queen, she will emerge, fly off to be mated, return and start to develop a new colony. Well that is my plan but the bees and nature may again not want to follow my plan. Time will tell. All of the old brood from eggs laid by the original queen will have emerged from the frames in the necleus within 21 days of them being laid. If I see new brood being formed after that time, even if I cannot actually find her, I will know I have a new queen, if not I will have to think of a “plan C”.
I am a proud supporter of the ‘Bees for development’ charity, my love of the bee drew me to this wonderful UK based charity and the great work they do around the world with Bees and the impact they can have on people’s lives. Please help me support this wonderful organisation, as 2BScientific will be doing with donations to this hard-working charity.