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  I expect to find either that the queen was superseded and there is a new unmarked queen, or that the new queen was produced too late to get mated and is a drone-layer, or that the colony is queenless.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.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Boomerang swarm

This was a hive I split last week.  When I had looked at it then I found two sealed queen cells, three unsealed but charged cells and the yellow-marked queen.  I put the queen and two frames of sealed brood in a nuc and made a note to go back after five days to reduce the queen cells to one.  However, having been away for a few days I got a bit mixed up with the timing.  My neighbour Gill told me last night that the bees had "escaped" again yesterday but had flown around her garden without settling like they usually do (poor Gill is used to my swarms). After that she didn't see what had happened to them.

This morning I inspected the hive and found an opened queen cell (!), three sealed cells and two charged cells. As I did so I could hear a queen piping and I hoped, and assumed, it was coming from the one queen cell I had decided to leave.  I checked the ones I removed and they only contained early white pupae.  An hour or so later I was looking through the last of six hives when I heard a roar and saw a swarm emerging from the first hive.  The bees flew over the fence into Gill's garden and as I watched they swirled around but didn't settle or coalesce. After a few minutes I could see they were flying back over the fence and within a few more minutes they had started to settle on the front of their own hive.

There were also bees all over the plants in front of the hive and on the ground.

The video shows them arriving back.

Despite the roof being too hot for me to touch in the sunshine the bees were walking and standing on it.  Here is the front row of bees taking the strain.

Within minutes lots of bees were fanning at the entrance and those bees nearest started to walk down to the entrance.

Within half an hour of landing they were all back in the hive.

My curiosity got the better of me and I decided to look in again this afternoon.  I noticed there were a lot of bees on top of the frame with the one remaining queen cell (marked with a red drawing pin).

And the queen cell was still sealed.  And I could still hear the piping, coming from somewhere on the same frame.  After searching I eventually spotted the new queen.  She was small and mobile.  I tried very hard to video her but every time she disappeared under a scrum of bees.  I did manage to record her - listen carefully at the start of this clip - but I don't think she is in the picture.

I did manage to get a slightly blurry photo - she is right in the centre.

All this was quite difficult, balancing the frame in one hand and videoing with the phone in the other in bright sunshine.  I didn't want to lose the queen so I removed the last queen cell and put her frame back in the hive and closed up.

I then had a look at the queen cell I had removed.  The bee within it was very obviously dead and had been for some time.  There was also a white blob which may have been a larva.  If the dead bee was a queen I assume she had been killed by the first queen to emerge, presumably yesterday or the day before.  However, thinking about it, the dead bee was small and looked as though it had been dead for more than a day or two - could it have been a mummified worker sealed up with the queen larva by mistake?

All this is something I have not seen before and several other questions come to mind.

1.   Did the bees return to the hive after swarming yesterday as they did today, and if so why?  If they were lead by the new queen, at that stage there was a viable sealed queen cell still in the hive.

2.   Were the bees programmed to swarm with the new queen and only then "realised" at the last moment that there were no viable queen cells left behind after I removed all but one (and the one was a dud)?

3.   Was the piping warning the bees that the virgin queen was planning to lead a swarm?

Any comments will be very much appreciated.