The Q-Factor : Vote Now – The Pollen Station Is Open !
Who Is The Fairest Bermondsey Street Queen Of All ?
Amber – Queen of Abbey Hive
- Primrose – Queen of Thames Hive
Scarlett – Queen Of Shard Hive
Welcome to the first Apiary report of 2014. Executive summary: the Bermondsey Street Bees are in great shape.
Just look at how elegantly jammed Abbey Hive was at the very first inspection. To see bees on all the frames – and, on closer inspection, to find 6 frames of brood in all stages (BIAS) – was tremedously encouraging, especially since this is the colony which I have selected to provide my new Queen Bees for 2014 ! We will come back to Abbey, Queens and Queen Cups later in this post.
But first, let’s see how Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive is getting on in the second year of her reign:
Scarlett is a 2013 Queen (hence the slightly faded red marking on her thorax) and has presided over a strong hive, which had already filled half of a honey super (placed under the brood box over winter, to buffer the brood box against chill winter winds). At this inspection, I moved the super above the brood box, checking that Scarlett had not taken her egg-laying extravagence below stairs (she had not – it would be unusual for a Queen to move down – generally, all bees prefer to move up) and adding a Queen Excluder (QE) between the super and the brood, while plonking another super of empty, but fully-drawn comb, on top of that. I will move the super of empty comb under the half-full super, once that has filled up. So all is well with Shard Hive and Queen Scarlett.
On to Thames Hive, which is doing just fine, but is noticeably less ebullient than Abbey and Shard Hives. That is not to say that it isn’t looking promising – especially for this time of year – and indeed this frame of brood from Thames Hive is a delight to observe:
Take a look at the strong ochre semi-circle of worker brood, garnished with a blob of yellower drone brood standing proud just off-centre towards the top right corner. Note also the arcs of honey in the top corners of the frame, and a patchwork no-man’s land of different coloured pollens between the honey arc and the brood semi-circle and in the bottom corners. The nurse bees like to have food for a growing bee population close to hand. So I’m expecting Thames Hive to catch up with the other two colonies in short order.
But let’s loop back to Abbey Hive for a little beekeeping “show and tell“. It was in Abbey Hive that I found a “Queen Cup”, which is the building-block of a Queen Cell. The discovery of one of these is the curtain up for the beekeeper’s most important role, after the health of the bees: swarm prevention. Usually, you would expect to see Queen Cups from mid-April onwards, along with a decent patch or two of domed drone brood amongst the smooth-lidded worker brood. Both Queen Cups and drone brood were present at the very beginning of April !
Anyway, the thing about Queen Cups (also called Play Cups) is that the sight of them is indicational, not informational. There is no harm in finding a Queen Cup in the comb at the bottom of a frame, as long as it is empty. If, on the other hand, you see the glint of a white egg, you need to mark the frame and be vigilant. If indeed the hyphen-like egg is floating in a drop of milky royal jelly, or has even entered the curved larval phase of its development, then the bees will soon draw out the wax to form a true Queen Cell. Then a full swarm prevention protocol is required. Sharpish.
So here is the picture of the Queen Cup in Abbey Hive as I first saw it. I tilted the frame and looked inside to see that there was no egg, nor a pool of royal jelly. So no action was required. But to demonstrate this graphically, I used the hive tool to break down the wax cell wall to show the empty base of the cup. (Fear not – the bees will repair this damage in short order).
So from now until July, I’m on high alert for tell-tale Queen Cups/Play Cups. 2014 is shaping up to be a great beekeeping year.
But let’s not get carried away. A strong start to the year only increases the chances of being taken by surprise with an early swarm. The simple rules are: give the bees plenty of room to expand; add a super as soon as the brood box is more than three-quarters full.; ensure that the Queen has space to lay and is not “honey-blocked” by and excess of honey stores occupying the brood nest; maintain a rigorous 7-day inspection cycle to spot incipient Queen Cells.
Lose your bees to a swarm and you are, by definition, not a bee-keeper. I reserve the title “bee-squirter” for myself or any others who allow half of a beehive to abscond into the wide blue yonder. And it is not just one’s beekeeping pride which would be dented by losing a swarm – you can be sure that the honey crop will take a huge hit from having half the workforce take a hike.
Half-empty or half-full, Queen Cups are fundamentally important to successful beekeeping.
If you have ever been to Whitby on the North Yorkshire Coast, you will be familiar with its literary history as the beach-head of British vampirism. In the form of a black dog, the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel sprang ashore from the Russian schooner “Demeter” and mounted the 199 steps to the graveyard of the Church of St. Mary, perched below the ruins of Whitby Abbey. Cue a century of black cloaks, bat puppetry, fake fangs and heaving bosoms.
Indeed, from the melodramatic technicolor gore of 1960s Hammer Horror films to Hollywood’s mellow-dramatic, baby-faced mannequins in “Twilight“, vampires have never had it so good. Yet thanks to Buffy, we can sleep safe in our beds, secure in the knowledge that Dracula, vampirism and all that blood-sucking lark is just rollicking good fiction….. Or is it ?
On the science (Renfield’s syndrome; porphyria) and mythology (Vlad “The Impaler” Tsepesh; cult of the undead) of the vampiric condition, I defer to gothic master – and great friend – Sandy Crole. But I can reveal that, in the world of the honeybee, vampirical behaviour is epidemic. Meet the varroa mite…or varroa destructor, to give it its full, ghastly nomenclature.
And it is the female which is the more fiendish of this species. These oval vamps, the colour of dried blood, sink their fangs into the pale, defenceless larval bee. Consider if you will, a dinner-plate-sized succubus bolted with sharp claws to the middle of your back, sucking your life-blood. That is the human equivalent of what varroa-infected bees experience.
And not only does the varroa parasite gorge on haemolymph (the blood of the bees’ circulatory system), depleting the protein values of the residual fluid, but it also acts as portal for other diseases to enter the bees’ system. Weakened by the loss of vital nutrition and with its exoskelton breached, the bee is vulnerable to varroasis (spotty brood, disfigured and deformed wings) and is dramatically more likely to succumb to viral diseases such as Acute Paralysis Virus and Chronic Paralysis Virus.
Like vampires, varroa delight in the coffin-dark environment of the bee-hive, either living on the bee itself (called the “phoretic” phase, which is like the “hanging off your neck” phase) or in the brood cell (called the “reproductive” phase, which is “I thought that they only showed that sort of thing after the watershed” phase). Indeed, varroa mites can only reproduce in honeybee brood cells. So they have to bother honeybees that way that vampires importune virgins.
Let’s assume that varying levels of varroa exists in all bee-hives. The problem then arises that we need to diagnose the varroa “load”, before deciding on appropriate steps to combat it. The first thing to do is to place a varroa tray under the mesh floor of the beehive (a mesh floor alone is said to reduce varroa load by 14%, relative to a solid floor). This catches debris, including live and dead varroa mites, falling out of the hive. Morbid, maybe, but it’s a simple job to tot up the number of mites and note the number of days for which the tray was in place.
Step forward the Van Helsing of the varroa-world: the Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) varroa calculator website. Just load your varroa data into this black box and it will tell you the level of infestation and suggest a treatment strategy to deal with your Varroa Count. I am reliably informed by Dedva (Department for Dracula & Vampire Affairs) that this calculator is also a pretty good rough-reckoner for assessing the level of vampire infestation in your neck of the woods. Just substitute “Vampire” for “Varroa Mite” and hit “Calculate“.
By a spooky coincidence, one of my hives is called Abbey Hive. So I took two 3-day readings, which I averaged and entered into the varroa calculator:
Natural Mite Drop
1 Mites detected over 3 days
Drone Brood level: Low
Average Daily Mite Fall = 0.3 varroa mites
Estimated number of adult varroa mites in the colony = between 16 and 130
Treatment is recommended in about 4 to 7 months time
That’s the equivalent of a clean bill of health (thank goodness that the garlic, crucifixes and wooden stakes have staved off the vampires and my Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques have done the job on suppressing the varroa). Whatever else may happen, Abbey Hive is unlikely to be vampirically challenged until the honey harvest in August.
So I can relax for the time being (uh-oh, as any seasoned horror film aficionado or beekeeper knows, that’s almost invariably fatal!) and recommend that, if you do happen to be in Whitby – yes, the Abbey and its the Church of St. Mary are superb, but the Fish & Chips from the Magpie, eaten on the harbour wall, mobbed by greedy gulls, ain’t half bad, either !
The hives are hosting the maximum amount of bees at this time of year – the Queen has decreased her rate of laying from her 2,000 eggs-a-day peak around the summer solstice in late June. Right now, a single colony’s inhabitants can number 75,000 bees (especially in Langstroth hives or the larger “14 x 12” National brood boxes which we use in the Bermondsey Street apiary), as opposed to an overwintering tally of just 10,000-15,000 bees. This is the tipping-point of the bee-year.
Soon, the balance in the hive will shift, with productive foraging bees outnumbering hungry youngsters. The “income” which they have been bringing into the hive will continue to outweigh the “expense” of rearing new bees – and a honey surplus should result until the nectar flows dwindle in early August.
Each colony has its own story to tell, though – here’s how the Bermondsey Street Bees line up in the second half of July 2013. Let’s start with a snapshot of Amber, Queen of Abbey Hive – I like to think of her as the Dame Maggie Smith of the apiary!
Abbey Hive: The Stately Queen Amber
Abbey Hive is the textbook hive of 2013. Amber, a late-bred 2012 Queen has presided over a calm, industrious colony – and has provided new Queens for the two small Kieler mating hives and, more importantly, for Shard Hive, this year’s problem hive. This mutual helping-out between hives is why beekeepers should ideally maintain more than a single hive.
Thames Hive : A Nice Brood Frame, Building Up New Bees
This hive had built up nicely with Primrose, a home-grown, late-mated 2012 Queen (pedigree: CK1.1.L.5.12.BS) producing bees which are a delight to work with. Thames has recovered nicely from the knock which it took with the failure of one half of a Snelgrove manipulation in June. Thames Hive is a real survivor !
Shard Hive : Scarlett, New Queen of Shard Hive!
At one stage this year, I thought that Shard Hive would see more luckless Queens pass through it than Henry VIII’s bedchamber. Fortunately, Scarlett, Queen of Shard Hive was preceded by only two curtailed Queens (a 2012 drone-layer and a New Zealand import – which sound somewhat similar to some of Henry’s infertile and foreign-imported attempts to find a suitable Queen). As you can see from the photograph, Scarlett has a long, sleek abdomen and stalky legs. These seem to be good indicators of success in Bermondsey (and often in Hollywood, too!). She also has some “go-faster-stripes” on her red marking – the heat of the day kept the marking fluid liquid for longer than usual, so when Scarlett hurried out of the make-up wagon, some of her rouge got smeared !
While the world celebrates our new Prince George, we have our own Bermondsey-born Princess ! I am hoping for great things in 2014 from our promising new starlet, Scarlett (or CK1.2.L.6.13.BS, her pedigree name!).
Well, there’s been a bit of a rush on in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary in mid-June. About time, too, since the longest day of the year is almost upon us ! As regular readers will be aware, the cold, wet Winter, rotten Spring and dubious early Summer seasons have not been propitious for bees.
But a few days of fine weather, dotted with sporadic downpours, have set the scene for a late rally. The Snelgrove manipulation on Abbey Hive has yielded three more potentially viable colonies: the old Abbey Queen (the grande dame of the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary, resplendent in last season’s high-vis yellow livery) and Abbey’s older, foraging bees believe that they have swarmed to a new location, and are building up their brood nest afresh, while the young nurse bees and the brood from Abbey Hive, separated from their old matriarch, got busy making new virgin queens.
Here’s the recipe to make perfect Queen bees: take 6 new queen cells (“made earlier” in the Abbey Snelgrove top box); leave two in situ and place two each in two Kieler breeding mini-hives, together with some starter wax strips to get the brood comb started; add 250g of bakers’ fondant; finally pour in a “cupful” of young bees. Leave to prove for 2 1/2 weeks. Et voila, you have made two virgin queen bees in each mini-hive (the first of which to vacate her cell will despatch her unhatched sister, her rival for the throne). Then pray for a few days of a temperature over 20C and a distracted local bird population, which will allow your virgin queen to gather her strength and fly off for her (one and only!) mating flight, hooking up with as many as twenty drone partners, then returning to the hive as a delicious and fertile new Queen.
So from this shocking story of sororicide and binge mating, you may well be forgiven in assuming that the white “X” on top of the green roof is a British Film Censor certificate for what goes on in and around a Kieler nucleus hive. But no, this is just a distinctive geometric sign to “mark the spot”of the hive for the Queen when she returns from her mating flight (by a strange co-incidence, my other Kieler mating nuc is called “O” – but that, as they say, is another Story….). These two mini-hives are intended to provide a starting-point to build up bees to overwinter as viable colonies, which will become honey-producing entities in 2014 (btw my fashionista spies tell me that Green will be all the rage as the keynote colour for next year’s Queen bee collections).
But, like all recipes, things can go horribly wrong (just ask Nigella !). In my case, kitted out in my best beekeeping whites, I confidently adopted the Snelgrove manoeuvre as my new signature dish. So I decided to repeat the process on Thames Hive, 10 days after Abbey Hive. Given that the colony had built up from a 5-frame nucleus to a 12-frame hive, it was a little behind Abbey Hive in its development, but I have to say that Primrose, Queen of Thames Hive had earned her star billing and was laying spectacularly even, cornflake-crisp worker brood. So I gathered the ingredients and followed the recipe, as before. Primrose and her foragers were induced to “swarm” into the new lower brood box, while the younger bees, food stores and the brood inhabited the old top box.
Four days later, the top box suffered a virulent attack of nosema, which displayed its classic symptoms of brown splatter and seriously listless bees, so I broke the hives into two separate units and isolated the nosema-ridden box and treated with Vitafeed Gold, a health preparation often used against nosema.
This emergency separation may well have saved Primrose and her older squadron of bees from being afflicted with this dread parasitic fungus (which had already done for Shard Hive in another corner of my Apiary at the end of May) and I sprayed any tell-tale spots outside the hive with a dilute fungicide after the bees had returned to their hives for the night.
I am at a loss to discover why, after 5 years, nosema has been so destructive for my bees in 2013. Last year’s Autumn feed, with a dash of thymol emulsion, kept them well through the grim Winter, but in the late Spring and early Summer, even after the Vitafeed Gold treatment, two colonies out of 5 have been smitten with this disease!
Here are my top three theories about this epidemic:
Time to hang up the beekeeper’s whites for today, after slaving over some hot hives – and I don’t mind telling you: “Beekeeping doesn’t get tougher than this!”
In the vocabulary of beekeepers, there’s a lot of room for name-dropping. For example, I have just deployed a “Snelgrove board” for the first time, on Abbey Hive.
But I could equally well be droning on about a “Bailey comb change”, a “Butler cage”, a “Porter bee-escape” a “WBC (William Broughton Carr) Hive”, a “Buckfast bee”, the “Horsley method” or a “Smith grobulator” (OK, so I made the last one up, but you get my drift…).
These italicised monickers, highlighting phrases strewn around the beekeepers’ lexicon, describe bits of kit, management techniques, or even strains of bee. Proper names are the basis for much technical bee-terminology. Very proper names, in fact. These sound as quintessentially English as the summery crack of leather on willow on the village green. I bet if you visited any churchyard in the deep countryside, humming with bees, you could read off half of those names from the worn headstones !
So what does Mr. Snelgrove’s eponymous board actually do ? For starters, it involves a vertical artificial swarm. This is very useful for beekeepers like me, who have limited space in their apiaries. An artificial swarm prevents the glorious chaos of an uncontrolled swarm and allows the beekeeper to raise new Queens from his own stock, if required.
Usually, you would perform an artificial swarm by splitting the existing Queen, together with a small quantity of nurse bees and all of the flying, foraging bees into a new hive (which mimics what a swarm would do) and leaving behind the brood nest and most workers to raise a new Queen in the original brood box. That would leave you with two hives a few feet apart. By inserting the Snelgrove board above the new hive containing the old queen and the flyers, you can position the old hive on top of the new hive. That’s where the vertical bit comes in. Much more convenient for rooftop urban beekeeping – and pretty consistent with the local architecture !
So there it is, the Snelgrove board is a dual purpose device for swarm prevention and making increase. By sequencing the opening and closing of the entrances on the board (determined by the precision-timed development cycle of bee-brood) means that a new Queen can be raised, with minimal surrender of the honey-crop, using Mr. Snelgrove’s exceedingly good board.
In The Apiary : Mid-May : A Bad Day On The Hives
My third ever Tweet (@BermondseyBees) this evening ran : “Unusual problem for London beekeepers right now: plenty of forage, not enough bees!” I don’t know why, but I was feeling, well, sardonic. And then, as the sun emerged for the first time today, I brightened and climbed into my bee-suit and onto the roof. Hello, girls!
I wish now that I had left it until tomorrow, but there you go….it was one of those days: a couple of beekeeping blunders and a bit of bad news on our local celebrity newcomer, Queen Ruby of Shard Hive. Nothing terminal, mind. Just a little vexation. And self-reproach. And frustration. I suppose that I’m lucky that I don’t play golf, or I’d feel like that all the time…..
But let’s start with the good stuff: some close-ups from Abbey Hive (where I clumsily dropped the Queen into the hive while clipping her wings – for swarm prevention: essential in the inner city)
A play cup (hanging down from the comb, in the centre at the bottom of the picture) is the foundation stone of Queen cell. If there is no egg, or larva with pearlesque royal jelly inside, then it’s a play cup. One it becomes inhabited, the bees are telling you that they intend to swarm within days – the cell will then be elongated – and becomes an uncapped Queen cell, no longer a play cup.
So here are 2/3-day old eggs in Abbey Hive, the white flecks near the middle of the cells in the top left of the picture. Great – that’s the number one priority for a beekeeper during an inspection!
A bit of a schoolboy error here : getting the scissors onto the Queen’s wing and jamming the blades, then opening and shutting them again – Crunch! – strange noise, could that be a leg? (The Queen may attempt to brush the blades away from her wing-tips using a back leg). Gosh I hope not – but now she is clipped anyway. I shall just have to watch out for supercedure, if the bees think that she’s now damaged goods.
I’m disappointed at mis-handling two good Queens in a single evening inspection. So fed up, in fact that I’m just going to post a picture of various items of kit : from left to right: smoker, frame-holder and hive-tool being cleaned in washing soda. Not a bee in sight!
I had hoped to build up this hive with food and hatching brood from other vigorous, healthy hives. I suspect that either the transition to a windier, cooler hive, of the lack of “nurse bees” after a long and broodless Winter had done for 75% of the hatching brood who failed to make it out of their brood cells into the big wide world. The food stores were still there though, but I decided to chuck away the frames, suspecting that these bees never quite shook off the Nosema noted in late Winter and that the spores of the fungus will still be on the comb. So I have transferred Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive, into this neat little nuc (nucleus) box with a “cup” of bees.
It’s a bit of a come-down in the world for a recently-crowned Queen to be evicted from her penthouse prestige hive to a one-bedroom flat, but that has been the fate of Queen Ruby of Shard Hive. From a luxury cedar 14×12 hive (with added dummy-boards) with a splendid view of the Shard, to a polystyrene Keiler breeding nuc overlooking the pub.
Let’s see how our Ruby gets on in her new digs opposite “The Woolpack”…in the mid-June report from “In The Apiary”
The first inspections of 2013 in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ Apiary took place in the balmy evening sunshine on Thursday 25th April 2013.
Result! 4 frames of dense worker brood. This hive is firing on all cylinders, all things considered after this never-ending Winter. If anything, there is a danger of “honey-block” here – where the 5 frames of honey stores limit the room available for the Queen (centre frame in picture above, with Yellow dot on her thorax) to lay eggs. Will swap some frames of honey for empty frames of drawn wax comb for the Q to lay in – and also spare a frame of emerging brood to help the new Q-in-waiting to build up Shard hive when she moves in this weekend.
Much better than I could have hoped for. The bees were calm and relaxed in the 18c sunshine. I found and marked the small, black Queen from last year (Yellow was the “in” colour for Qs in 2012 – see above – this year’s Queen hatches will all be marked with a Red dot on their thorax). The picture shows the Q in a “Crown Of Thorns”, which is a gentle restraining device, having been marked with the distinctive Yellow dot. Glad to say that there’s no need to re-Queen now, but the bees might decide to supercede her if she turns out to be poorly mated. I will add 1 frame of honey stores from Abbey Hive to give her subjects a little boost.
Again, no surprises here, but a big disappointment nonetheless: a really good-looking, leggy Queen was eventually tracked down – a drone laying Queen (DLQ) – as evidenced by the two cricket-ball-sized clumps of domed drone brood on the frames (see the slightly long-focus picture of the domed Drone cappings above). The worker bees would not have permitted her to lay more idle, layabout male bees. Without intervention, this colony is doomed., despite plentiful and colourful Pollen stores. The DLQ was removed (sorry, Elaine, I know that you were rooting for Shard hive !) and she will be succeeded by a NZ Queen from London’s pre-eminent beekeeper, John Chapple, this weekend.
So my predictions about the state of each hive were pretty much spot on – a neat trick. How’s it done? Well, I took note of what was going into the hive (pollen / nectar / water) and the energy/listlessness of the flying bees at the hive entrance. And then I looked at the hive debris under the open mesh hive floor, for signs of wax, pollen (and even varroa mite) activity. That told me a lot about the closed-up hives….certainly enough to guess all three hives right before they were opened for the first inspections – and after all, first impressions are lasting impressions !
In the Apiary : Late April : The Big Day
There are some weeks when whole months happen. This week is shaping up to be one of those weeks in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary. Next up: all 3 hives will be opened for their first inspections of the year.
Right now, they’re sitting there like wrapped-up birthday presents: you can see the shape and size, you can even heft the weight, or let your imagination scud back over past packages – but you can’t look inside until The Big Day dawns. And that is only when the conditions are right – 14C and above and, at most, a light breeze.
Ok, let’s play a little bee-game: here are my predictions for what I think will be revealed when each hive is “unwrapped”:
Abbey Hive: this is the big one. Looks populous and healthy, with a young 2012 Queen and docile productive bees. I’m expecting at least 3 full frames of worker Brood in All Stages (BIAS) and that I will be adding supers for the bees to store surplus honey within a week or so.
Shard Hive: a problem hive. More exposed to the elements and its late-mated 2012 Queen may be a drone-layer (ie no worker bee brood) and possibly weakened by a late Spring bout of nosema. I’m expecting just a frame and half of brood here – and keeping my fingers crossed for it to be worker brood.
Thames Hive: the real troublemaker. Another late-mated Queen, but one which has produced a feisty, pinging bunch of bovver-bees, which have gulped down more sugar-syrup feed pro rata that the other hives. I anticipate 2 full frames of BIAS here – but I am already hatching plans to depose her Majesty….bad-tempered bees need requeening to repent!
So what will it be: tears before bedtime, or over-excited whoops of joy? All will be revealed – and pictures, too – in the next episode of this Bermondsey Street “honey opera”……