Bee Update April by Peter Smith

It’s been an eventful month for Rosamund’s bees, from a TV appearance to a sad turn of events. To find out more, read on for Peter’s May update:

The bees are famous!

The bees – headed by Queen Rosie – seem to have settled down after their time in the spotlight (see our Countryfile episode). Actually, not that much of the bee footage was used. We had, I thought, some lovely footage of a new bee emerging from its cell while I sang Happy Birthday although, in hindsight, I’m thinking that perhaps the film was fine but the soundtrack might have let it down. 

The idea was to feature two ‘stories’. The first being the transfer of the overwintered bees to their new home. And the second to show the bees in the other hive being fed fondant because they’d used up all their winter stores – milder winters mean the bees stay active and use more stores. So even if a large amount of honey is left for them they may still need feeding. 

The director really wanted to show the fondant being made as well as being fed to the bees but as this wasn’t really practical (it involves a lot of boiling sugar and I don’t think our solar array would have quite delivered the power – quite apart from not having a cooker) so this story fell a bit by the wayside. The shots of the bees eating the white fondant remain but didn’t get a full explanation.

We were quite lucky to get a spell of a couple of hours when the hives could be opened up as it has really been too cold over the last few weeks – anything below 12 degrees is really too cold. This has also meant I haven’t really had the chance to do a proper inspection – and as late April/early May is the time when the risk of swarming is at its highest I’ve been itching for a few warm days to take a proper look. 

Sad news for one of our hives

Having taken a proper look, I found that the colony on the right (not Rosie’s) had died. It must have all happened quite suddenly, as they seemed fine when I took a peek a couple of weeks ago. I think what happened was ‘isolation starvation’ – when there is food available but the core of bees is just at the wrong end of the hive and in a cold wet spell they just can’t get across to the food. It’s really sad to have come all through winter with lots of added food provided to have this happen.

On swarming 

Swarming is quite natural – but it’s best avoided if possible as it means we lose the queen and half of the bees. It also takes about 6 weeks to get a new queen laying (which has an impact on honey production). We don’t really want swarms flying around terrifying our neighbours. 

If a colony really wants to swarm there’s not a great deal you can do about it but the idea is to minimise the swarming instinct by giving them lots of room (adding additional brood and storage space). 

You can also conduct certain procedures to create an artificial swarm – meaning the bees think they’ve swarmed. The easiest way to do this is to remove the queen (along with some frames of workers and eggs) to create a second colony. The bees in the first colony then raise another queen as would happen in a real swarm. All very well but it means you then have another colony of bees, and this is where a lot of beekeepers go wrong and from one hive go to two to four to eight and so on – too many bees! 

The other methods are a bit more complex although my favourite is a shook swarm which is worth watching – from a distance! I’ll keep you posted.

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