Sunday, 21 April 2019


This is not something you see every day - a queen beside a sealed queen cell.

Two days ago I did my first inspections of the year, taking advantage of the warm weather.  In the first hive the queen was on the very first frame, a sign that things were getting crowded.  The colony in hive three, by contrast, was small with lots of room and stores but not so many bees.  I found three frames with brood, including eggs, larvae and sealed cells but on the first of these there was a well developed queen cell containing a fair-sized larva.  I assumed this must be a supersedure cell but couldn't see the queen, even though the hive wasn't very busy.

As the weather has stayed warm and I wanted to check on what was going on I had another look today.  The queen cell was now sealed and a couple of inches away was the queen. (Most of her paint had worn off, perhaps partly explaining why I missed her the first time.)  As I watched she walked across to the queen cell and appeared to take an interest in it.  I whipped out the camera but this was the only shot I got of her on the cell before she moved.

Here she is partly underneath the queen cell.

The bees are a bit stroppy which is out of character and might also suggest a failing queen.  My plan now is to leave them alone for three weeks.  The new queen should emerge in 7 or 8 days from now and be mated in the following week, weather permitting.  It will be interesting to see who is in charge when I next look in.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

February bees

My bees have been making the most of the recent mild sunny weather.  Although we are still officially in winter they think it is spring.  The first warm sunny day of the year with bees foraging on the snowdrops in the wood is cheering and usually sees my first bee photos of the year.

Snowdrops produce a lot of pollen and the bees get plastered in it.  As a result they have to spend a lot of time cleaning up.  The photos and videos provide an opportunity to see how they do it, typically hanging from a flower by one front foot and using the other five legs to move the pollen back and stow it in the corbiculae.

Here are a couple of videos.

When all is done they fly back to the hives to unload - only a few metres away.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

An unexpected death

It is normal to see a few dead bees outside the hives at this time of year.  Any winter bees that haven't made it through the winter are pushed out of the entrance by the undertakers.  However, this afternoon I was surprised to see one corpse outside hive 3 that looked a bit larger than the others.

When I turned it over it was the queen.  She was marked last summer and was present and correct at my last inspection at the end of September.

Obviously something has gone wrong but I won't be able to do an inspection for the next few weeks.  I expect to find either that the queen was superseded and there is a new unmarked queen, or that the new queen was produced too late to get mated and is a drone-layer, or that the colony is queenless.  If I find anything interesting I'll report back here.

Monday, 12 November 2018

November bees in the kitchen garden

After a long hot summer we have been enjoying a mild sunny autumn and the bees have been making the most of it.  They were very active in the garden today as there are still quite a lot of flowers about.  I still have borage, viper's bugloss and dahlias in the kitchen garden and they were also very keen on the neighbour's mahonia which hangs over the fence.  It was interesting to see pollen being taken into the hives as well.  The borage bees in particular were collecting its white pollen.

Not bad for 55° North in mid November.  The weather looks OK for the next couple of weeks as well.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Bad news for bumblebees

This post also appears on my main blog but I thought it may also be of interest to beekeepers.

I came across this poor bee while doing my monthly bumblebee count for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.  It is a newly emerged queen red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius).  It was crawling around in the hedgerow, unable to fly.  The reason is obvious as it has no wings, just shrivelled stumps where they should be.

The appearances are very similar to those we see in honey bees affected by deformed wing virus (DWV).  This is the major cause of disease in honey bees and is transmitted by the varroa mite (Varroa destructor).  This photo shows an affected worker honey bee (Apis mellifera) with a varroa mite on its thorax.

DWV is endemic in honey bees but is present in much higher levels in the presence of Varroa infestation.  It is also found in bumblebees.  In 2006 Genersch et al reported wing deformities in Bombus pascuorum and Bombus terrestris affected by DWV.  More recently Fürst et al found DWV to be present in 11% of British bumblebees, with evidence of virus replication in one third of those, suggesting active infection.  Little is known about the prevalence of wing deformities in bumblebees.  They cannot fly and presumably die quickly so they will not be detected by standard surveillance methods.  Bumblebees are not affected by Varroa but they share flowers with honey bees and may well acquire the infection that way.  Most responsible beekeepers treat their bees to help control varroa infections, and thus reduce the levels of DWV, but there is little or nothing that can be done to prevent infection of bumblebees.  I suspect nothing at all is known about wing deformities or DWV infection in solitary bees, although a similar deformity has recently been observed in a Colletes bee.

Fürst MA, McMahon DP, Osborne JL, Paxton RJ, Brown MJF. Disease associations between honeybees and bumblebees as a threat to wild pollinators. Nature. 2014;506(7488):364-366. doi:10.1038/nature 12977.  available here.

Genersch E, Yue C, Fries I, Miranda, J. (2006). Detection of Deformed Wing Virus, a honey bee viral pathogen, in bumble bees (Bombus terrestris and Bombus pascuorum) with wing deformities. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology. 91. 61-3. 10.1016/j.jip.2005.10.002.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Under attack

At around this time of year I usually think to myself that I have never eaten so many raspberries before and I have never seen so many wasps before.  This year, for once, both things are probably true.  It has been a good (or bad, depending how you look at it) year for wasps but now they are turning their attention to the hives.  I have put out wasp traps which are catching some but there are plenty of others left to make a nuisance of themselves.

The guards do their best but it is difficult for them to stop all the intruders.

When they do catch one it is usually bad news for the wasp.

One of my hives seemed to being targeted more than the others so I have already reduced the entrance to two bees wide.  This makes it easier for the guards to police the incomers and doesn't seem to cause any congestion, even at busy times of the day.  I'll plan to do the same with the other hives in the next few days.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

A steam-powered wax extractor

Earlier in the season I tried making a solar wax extractor from a large plastic box but, despite sunny weather and the fact that the temperature inside the box went off the scale on my greenhouse thermometer (>50℃), it never got hot enough to melt the wax. Then I saw an article in the July 2018 edition of the BBKA magazine with a design for a home made steam wax extractor.  The design, by Steve & Marie Attrill, used a small stainless steel sink and a wallpaper stripper but seemed quite complicated, building a wooden platform for the sink and a wooden frame at the top to deliver the steam.

I decided to simplify the design and I think it works just as well.  I bought a small stainless steel sink and a wallpaper steamer from B&Q, each less than £30 with my pensioners' discount.  I used a few scraps of wood and chipboard to support the sink.

Two small pieces of wood, each with a hole ∼25mm⌀, attach the steam hose to the hole for the tap.

I closed the side overflow hole in the sink with a piece of gaffer tape.  Then I cut a piece of mesh to fit over the sink and that was it.

The sink is 480mm square so a national brood box (460mm square) fits perfectly on top.  The old brood frames go in the brood box and a crown board seals the top.  A roof would do just as well.

The steamer takes a few minutes to get up steam and within a few more minutes the wax starts running out of the hole in the bottom of the sink into a container.  I put a small amount of water in the bottom of the container so the wax will float and not stick.

There is a little bit of water condensation as well and a small amount of steam escapes from under the crown board but as I run this in the greenhouse it is no problem.  After 20 minutes or so the wax stops running and the process is complete.  The wax is pretty clean as all the debris is caught on the mesh floor but it will need refining and filtering at some stage.

The frames are easily scraped clean while they are still warm and are then ready for fitting with new foundation. The frames and brood box get sterilised in the process as well.

Most of the first frames I treated this way were quite old and dark.  It was fascinating to see that the propolis linings from multiple uses of the brood cells still form a comb when all the wax has been melted out.

It seems a shame to throw away perfectly good frames so I am pleased to have found an easy way to reuse them.  After a few dozen the machine will even have paid for itself.