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.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Recycling propolis

Last year I photographed bees bringing propolis to the hives in summer and in autumn and it set me wondering about how they collected it in the first place.  So far I haven't been able to find a bee collecting propolis from a tree or plant naturally.  However, at my last inspection I had readied a nucleus hive in case I needed it to deal with swarm control.  In the end I didn't need it but I noticed that a bee was collecting and recycling some of the old propolis on the crown board.

I had time to set up the tripod and camera to record what was happening because the bee was making repeated visits to the nuc.  By watching closely and studying the videos I recorded I can see that the process is, not surprisingly, very different from pollen collection.  The bee first chews off a bit of propolis with her mandibles.

Then she transfers it to her front feet.

The next move is very rapid as she moves it back to the inside of one of her middle legs.

Then it is moved to the corbicula (pollen basket) on the same side

and patted into position.

Here is another sequence.

I have blended together three short slow-motion video clips to show the movement in action.  Even though it is slowed by 4 times, the first transfer from the front leg(s) to a middle leg is still very quick.  Patting the propolis into the corbicula is slower.

Although this was a very warm sunny day the propolis was old and was probably harder than fresh propolis, so presumably easier to manoeuvre without getting plastered in it.  I still want to find a bee collecting fresh propolis on a hot day to see how it is done.  My guess is that the technique will be similar.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Foundationless frames

I have been experimenting with foundationless brood frames in the past few weeks, having read about them first on David Evans' blog.  Most beekeepers use brood frames fitted with wired worker brood foundation.  The benefits of foundationless frames include:
1.   The bees produce their own wax.  Recycled commercial wax may contain residues of chemicals and pesticides.
2.   The bees can decide when and where they want to produce worker brood or drone brood.  Generally they will produce more drone brood than when constrained by worker brood foundation.
3.   The bees can decide the cell size for worker and drone brood.
4.   Comb production is said to be faster if there is no foundation.
5.   The queen will lay earlier.
6.   Foundationless frames are cheaper to make.

The potential disadvantages are;
1.   They take slightly longer to make.
2.   The comb is more fragile until the bees have fixed it securely to the sides and the bottom of the frame so the beekeeper has to be careful during manipulation.
3.   The bees raise more drones, especially in spring.  Probably not a problem but a fact.

Foundationless brood frames require some extra support.  This can be provide by horizontal wires or fishing line but I have been using a design copied from David Evans' blog that uses wooden starter strips and vertical bamboo supports.  He has experimented with different supports and starter strips and has settled on this design. To make one frame you need a DN4 frame, two bamboo skewers (available from the supermarket) and three wooden iced lollipop sticks (from eBay).

The frame is assembled as normal and the wooden fillet which normally holds in the foundation is nailed to hold three wooden lollipop sticks.  I use a dab of wood glue as well.

The three sticks are a perfect fit and define where the bamboo supports will go.  Two 3mm holes are drilled in the top bar where the lollipop sticks meet.  After a dab of wood glue to the holes the bamboo skewers are pushed through.

Further dabs of glue are applied to the bottom bars and the skewers are held with clips until the glue dries.

All that remains then is to cut the skewers flush with the top and bottom bars.

I put the first foundationless frames in my hives 19 days ago.  This is how one of them looks after three days.

Here is a close up of the bees hanging on the bottom of the comb as they make the wax.

Lots of things intrigue me about this.  One is that the bees don't care about the orientation of their hexagons.  If you buy foundation it always looks like this with horizontal rows of hexagons which have the points at the top.

The evidence from the foundationless frames is that the bees are just as happy if it looks like this with vertical rows with horizontals at the top.

Or like this, on a slant.

They also don't produce the same orientation on each bit of comb, as you can see here.

The next thing is that the bees build drone or worker brood wherever they want.  This frame has drone comb in the middle and worker comb either side.

This one is all worker comb.  I wonder who decides what goes where?

It is also fascinating that the queen has laid eggs in the cells even though they are not finished.  You can see here that she has gone almost right to the edge of the comb.

As comb building continues the bees eventually secure it to the sides, which is where the bamboo skewers provide extra support.  Again notice the different cell size and orientation.

This is a frame after 16 days.  The left panel has mostly worker brood with drone brood at the bottom.  The centre panel is all worker brood.  The right panel (incomplete) is all drone comb.

This is the same frame from the other side, so the comb matches on both sides.

And this is the same frame at 19 days, now almost complete.

A couple of important points from David Evans' advice.  The hive must be perfectly horizontal.  If the frames are not vertical the bees will build comb vertically downwards anyway and so will miss the sides of the frames.  And so far I haven't tried putting two new foundationless frames in side by side.  I worried that the bees might join across two frames but having seen what they have got up to so far I don't think the risk of that is high.  David says the main problem is when the frames don't line up with those in the box above or below, when the bees can build a lot of brace comb.  My hives with double brood boxes always have the dummy boards on the same side so I think I am OK there.

The past few days have been warm and sunny with a heavy nectar flow, so perfect for comb building.  My first ten frames are all in the hives so I'll monitor (and photograph) their progress at each inspection and report back here later in the season.

Friday, 4 May 2018


I grow quite a lot of winter-flowering broccoli and each spring I let one or two plants run to flower, mainly for the red mason bees.

However, honey bees are very keen on broccoli as well.  I think the flowers are probably similar to oil seed rape.

When you see bees like this you can understand how pollination works.

Common carder bumblebees like broccoli as well, probably because the flowers suit their tongue length.

And yesterday the first male red mason bee (Osmia bicornis).

The broccoli flowers are good for lazy honey bees as they don't have far to fly.