Follow our progress running the nursery, watching wild bees, keeping honey bees and creating our own bee-haven in south Oxfordshire

Hive update; first queen cells of the season


Its really amazing how quickly the bees flourish in the right weather conditions. It is only two months since we were feeding them extra fondant to stop them starving in a very cold March and now one of our hives is already producing queen cells. In this picture you can see the queen larva  in a pool of royal jelly.

Hive status:

Denman hive: brood on 5 frames with one of those all eggs. (20% egg/capped ratio). Honey and pollen in brood but none in supers yet. Happy and calm

Rosybee 1: brood on 6 frames, eggs round capped centres. Signs of beginning to put honey in first super

Rosybee 2: brood on 7 frames and uncapped queen cells found on 3 frames, all along the bottom bar indicating swarm cells. Some of the brood frames still have space taken by old 'rape' honey which is taking some of the space and the rest is full of new honey and pollen.  No signs of honey in supers but they are inspecting it. Only 1 complete frame and other bits available for laying so assume it is lack of laying space is the cause of the swarming signs.

Action:  Took artificial swarm, moved one almost capped and very healthy looking queen cell plus 2 other frames of brood and one of honey and pollen. 

We have the local beekeeping group doing an apiary visit next weekend so we will get some expert opinions then.


Bees moving into Rosybee site

Until today our bees have been in their original site near our house. But yesterday, when we checked them, we found queen cells  so we swung into action and today we attempted to take an artificial swarm.  We are completely useless at finding the queen so our method is to move the primed queen cell and a few other frames of brood into the new hive. The frames we took where loaded with bees, which is great for the new colony, but we have to hope that the old queen was not amongst them - it was very hard to check.  Then we wrapped packing tape round the new hive and drove it a mile down to Rosybee.  We read a trick for persuading the foraging bees not to fly home to their old hive. Apparently you put a tree branch in front of the hive to make the look around when they fly out and say to themselves "Eh up, that wasn't there before. Oh, I see, we're in a different field. I'd better remember that and come back here".  Or that is the theory at least.

We have given them sugar syrup to encourage them to draw up the wax on the new frames and now we have to wait and see if a queen emerges and mates. I dont like this stage, when the hive is queen-less but hopefully in about 2 weeks time we will know.

Update 2 days later: yesterday we took a second artificial swarm and repeated the process. It is already apparent that the first hive has retained a lot of 'flying' bees so it looks like the simple process of putting a branch across the front entrance has worked.  Great!! and bang goes the myth that you cannot move bee less than 3 miles.

July update from the hives

So far July has been yet another round of trying to avoid the bees swarming, and failing. The first hive that showed signs of swarming produced 107 queen cells in a single week; we squashed every cell we could find and took an artificial swarm but the probably too late and the queen went.  They have a few remaining queen cells which have now hatched but still no sign of a new queen or laying. We have now added eggs to test if they have a queen or will build another.

The same goes for the new artificial swarm - still no laying so have donated a frame of eggs to focus thier minds.

The other two hives have needed bigger brood spaces; one we have been culling for the eggs in queenless hives and giving them back sheets of foundation to draw up; the other we have raised the queen excluder above the first super and have sacrificed some space was half full of their winter honey stores.

Checking two brood boxes is tedious so I think we will invest in the bigger size national brood boxes for next season.

We have also been feeding some limited amounts of sugar syrup to whatever hives needed to draw up new wax quickly (limited to when I remember to get out there).

As July draws to a close we dont seem to have very much honey laid down and the amount of flower available is rapidly beginning to look autumnal.  The season has been very disrupted by two rounds of swarming after the initial spring honey flow and now I think the priority is ensuring that we have robust colonies to prepare for winter.

If the queenless hives dont recover and have laying queens within the next week I think we will need to recombine. However, the other two hives are currently very full so i am really not sure.

This is only our second season as beekeepers but I suspect these dilemmas are standard part of the job; all advise welcome



107 queen cells in one hive!

Last week I wrote my June hive update stating that all was now calm following the swarming madness of April.  Well, that was clearly tempting fate and only a week later it has all changed again. The good news is that all three of our hives are now laying down honey again.

The bad news is that in one hive, where last week we squashed a few queen cells, this week we found one capped on (we must have missed one) and 107 new queen cells.  Most were just empty cups but quite a few had larvae in.

More worryingly, we couldn't find any eggs - but we did see some very small, 3-day larvae so we are just hoping the queen hasn't vamoosed.

Anyway, even though its now July, we decided to split the hive and force an artificial swarm. There were so many bees that we think the colony can stand it and still settle before winter.

We have both parts of the split colony sugar syrup to help them draw up more wax we will check them again at the weekend so we can see if we have one, two or any queens.


June update from the hives

  After a frantic May with endless worries about losing the queens in swarms, queen cells hatching, more swarms and endless waiting for signs of laying......June has be quite peaceful.

We ended up with one extra hive from artificial swarming, taking our meager total to three.  Two of the three hives had a long period without a queen so it has taken all month for the masses of new brood to hatch and get to the stage of maturity where they can fly and begin produce honey. All that time the baby bees have been eating the winter stores and cleaning up the empty frames we extracted honey from.

The brood production in each hive looks very healthy; in one hive we have 10 frames of brood and so far, no queen cells but they are storing pollen in with the honey so we may need to give them more space.

In the other two, the have space but are both producing queen cells each week. In one, I think they are behind schedule for drawing up wax to provide space to lay - althought they have 5 frames of foundations sitting there - so we are giving them sugar syrup to help with wax production.  The other is just a really large colony which might be trying to split.   It is probably a bit late in the season for an artificial swarm but we can probably be lead by their judgment; so far this year they have been smarter than us!


The hives have re-queened (at last)

We have had a traumatic 5 weeks ever since our hives started to produce masses of queen cells in mid April.   We tried to do artificial swarms but got the timings wrong resulting in multiple hive swarming and getting lost.  Then we waited for the new queen cells to hatch. They did but no sign of queens or laying so we waited.....and waited.... Eventually one hive was found with a laying queen and we were able to take eggs and put them into the other two remaining hives to encourage emergency queens. Last week when we checked, they were raising emergency queens nicely.  But yesterday, to my great surprise, we found that those emergency queen cells were still only at 'cup' stage........but the hives had newly laid eggs.  So the queens must have been there after all but took a very long time - 4 weeks - to start laying.

So, finally each of our hives has an active queen and hopefully they can begin to recover their numbers and get back to full health.  I cannot tell you what a relief this is.

We took honey off them last weekend and have given them back the empty messy frames.  I hope this gives them a nice honey boost as the clean them up.

May - update from the hives

Its been a really eventful month in which the highlights have been

  • production of many queen cells
  • attempting to artificial swarm but messing up the timings
  • swarming and loss of both original queens
  • painful waiting for the hives to hatch queen cells and requeen
  • queen cells hatching but after two weeks still no signs of laying in 3 out of four hives.

So, a month on from the first sight of queen cells, we finally have one new and very productive queen. On the other hives it looks fairly desperate;  all the brood has hatched, the bee numbers  are beginning to drop and the drones are pillaging the honey stores.

In an attempt to salvage something we have merged two of  the others back together and added a frame of eggs to see if there is a maiden queen or if they start to develop queen cells.  I am not sure they have time to grow a new queen from scratch we so we will also consider buying one once we see what they do.

This is definitely not as easy as it sounds in the books!

Being 'between queens'

So, to recap: we had carelessly let our queen cells get too mature and our old queens swarmed off.  Luckily we still had robust numbers of bees left and queen cells in each of our (now) 4 hives. On our last check we found that queen cells had hatched in 3 out of the 4 hives but even after a further 4 days couldnt see either queens or any signs of laying.

We assume that we are waiting for the queens to perform their maiden flights. From what we have read, it can take a few days for the queens to get round to this but its not very clear how long.  One source said 1 to 5 days; another said 10 days and yet another said up to 5 weeks!   As its already been 3 weeks since any new eggs were laid. By my reckoning the colony will die out in another 3 three so anything longer than 10 days for a maiden flight sounds risky to me.

Id love to see the maiden flight but, unfortunately, I currently work some 60 miles away and  I don't think sitting in the field with my laptop, blackberry and mobile is going to happen.

To add to the fun, the last hive to hatch its queens appears to have swarmed again. We had left two queen cells (cant quite bring myself to risk only one) and we thought that risk of swarming was very low because the colony size was reduced from its previous swarm.  Well, we were unlucky as our neighbour saw them go past and we have definitely lost more bee stock.

Ah well,  we are learning the hard way.   I hope we see eggs in at least some of the hives this weekend so we know we havnt lost them all.


Have our queens swarmed?

Its a difficult business being a new beekeeper.  We probably should have spent more time getting trained but learning from books seemed to be going quite well till recently. A week ago we had lots of queen cell activity and were working on how to manage an artificial swarm.  However another week on and we find that neither of our original hives seem to have any new eggs or larvae which strongly suggests that our queens have swarmed.   So our current status is:

  • one original colony has two capped queen cells and only capped brood - assume old queen swarmed a week ago just after our last check. There are slightly fewer bees but still a viable quantity. Luckily we missed squashing a couple of cells so hopefully one of them will hatch and carry on the colony.
  • the other original colony has loads of queen cells, some capped, and some small larvae but no eggs and no sign of the queen who was marked.  Looks like the old queen swarmed a few days ago so we should have taken action on this hive last week to avoid this.  The good news is that there are still a lot of bees.
  • new artificial swarm colony - the queen cell has not hatched after 8+ days so is probably not viable and they have started to create an emergency queen cell.  About a third of the larvae appear to have died but some are fine; we probably didnt have enough nursery bees to look after them properly.  Not great but we have decided to just wait and see what happens to this colony.

Having done our research after yesterdays inspection we have decided to get home from work early this evening so we can go back into the 2nd hive to deal with the surplus of queen cells; we need at least one to replace the old queen but multiple queens risk a further swarm.

But where do the swarms go? We have had no complaints from neighbours and our lure hive is untouched.  Do they just disappear?


April - update from the bee hives

A week ago (first week in April) we did a full check through the hives.  It had been three weeks since our previous check and the change was dramatic.  Previously they had been active and healthy, bringing in lots of pollen, beginning to lay in multiple frames but still had some winter stores left in their one super.  We had added an extra super just in case. By last week the 2nd supers of both hives had drawn up comb and about half full of honey.  Not bad in 3 weeks!  But also both hives had several queen cells which which we thing are due running out of space in the brood box and thinking of swarming; the brood boxes (standard National) are well over half full of brood in various stages.  The queen cells were still uncapped but we could see larva in some.

One other point of interest is that we had followed the FERA advice for varroa control and added a super frame into each brood box to encourage them to make free-comb for drone brood.  To our surprise this worked perfectly in both hives although one had capped drone brood and the in the other some of the cells were already vacated.  The plan with this system is that you cut off and discard the drone brood and with it a disproportionate share of the varroa brood.  We did as instructed but found the drone brood to be entirely free of varroa. This seems a bit wasteful of the bees energy but they dont need that many drones anyway and it is quite an easy system so we shall continue.

As this is only our second year as beekeepers we needed to ponder on what to do with the queen cells. During the week we took advise on how to increase your colonies without needing to find the queen and managed to work out a plan.  Yesterday we went back into the first hive and, as you might expect, most of the queen cells were now capped. We selected a nice looking 'dimpled' one, brushed all the bees off (see top pic) and transferred that and a couple more frames into a new brood box.  We then squished all the other queen cells left in the old brood box.

The new brood box then went back on the same hive stack above an additional queen excluder to allow the bees to sort themselves out inside and some nursery bees to rise up the stack to tend the transferred brood.

Well it work fine with the exception of one unforeseen incident; our queen cell was at the base of the frame so we had not realised that when we placed the new brood box on top of the stack that cell was sticking out of the bottom fo the box with nowhere to go. We noticed immediately as the frame rose up at the top. The result was a slightly flattened tip to our queen cell and we have no way of knowing yet if that will prove fatal.  We resolved this issue by adding in an eke to provide the vital extra space. The stacked looked massive when we had finished. (see pic)

Today we had a brood box of bees which we moved to its new site.  Fingers crossed we didnt do damage and that by next week we will have a new colony.




Trying to find the Queen bee

It is just us or is finding the queen almost impossible? We started our beekeeping last June with two “nucs”.  One lot came with an unmarked queen and the other with a small mark which then must have been rubbed off in winter.  We have occasionally glimpsed a queen - resulting in conversations that go something like this:

R: "was that her? I don’t know, she's disappeared round the back now." P: "Hold it still will you? R: "Turn it to the light. She was somewhere over there" P: "I can’t see anything. Are you sure you saw her?" R: "No, but I thought I did."

We know both queens are there because they are laying fine and with each check we find fresh eggs. But all the same, without spotting them we feel like really bad beekeepers unable to achieve this mark of competence.

This year we want to try and increase our hives by using artificial swarming. All the methods talk about moving the frame with the queen on into a new brood box. Well, that means we have to find her.  At the weekend we spent about 20 minutes carefully checking through every frame and failed to see any sign of them.  But we did find queen cells so we will need to decide on our strategy and quick.

I did see a artificial swarming method in a publication recently where you didn’t need to find the queen, but having turned the house upside-down last night hunting, I can’t find it. Typical!  From memory you remove the frames with capped queen cells into an extra box that you place above an additional queen excluder on top of the stack you took them from. Then allow the worker bees to sort themselves out before moving the brood box to a new site.

If any of you have any advice for artificial swarming without knowing where your queen is that would be most welcome.

A 'queen cup' in March!

This weekend it was 13 degrees and sunny so we took the opportunity to open the hives and have the first full check of the season. Here is what we found:Hive 1 - both the remaining super and the brood boxes were really full of bees. Since we checked thier food stores last month they have eaten about half of the remaining set honey. This is good news as we want them to empty these frames to make room for the fresh new honey. I caught a glimpse of the queen but I was too slow to catch and mark her. There are about 4 frames of brood in all stages of development. Happy hive.

Hive 2 - a lot fewer bees here. During the winter we had worried about this one but they seem to have made it. They had a full super of honey left; the lesser number of bees havnt consumed as much as the other hive. The exciting thing in this hive was the brood box; some capped brood and lavae but about 4 frames just of nice tidy laid eggs.

But also, a queen cup, tucked in the middle of one frames face with no other signs of laying around it; wierd. The current queen is obviously healthy and they are not short of space so we have no idea why they have created this. Its empty at present so we decided to just leave it and monitor regularly. It might be that we have the type of colony that just naturally and calmly replaces the queen each year. If so, great, as it will save re-queening.

We will let you know what happens.