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

Collecting bee swarms can be tricky

We have kept bees for three years but this is the first year that we have collected swarms. We did not advertise the fact or go out of our way to find them but there were so many swarms in our area (including a few of our own) that we just kept finding them or being told about them.  We have now collected 7 in total; a couple have been kept as new colonies, one offered back to a clear 'owner' and the rest merged in with our existing stock with mixed results. The trickiness comes in two elements: 1. Capturing them from wherever they have chosen to land and 2. Then deciding what to do with them.

The picture above shows me attempting to collect the last and most tricky challenge, in the fork of an ivy-bound tree, above a stream and balancing on a plank of wood. Not ideal!  And the queen was so wedged into the V of the tree trunk that it took 4 attempts over 12 hours to scoop her out and get her into a nuc. Each previous time the swarm regrouped back in the tree within a hour of being scooped out. Its a miracle that they survived. The queen went on to prove to be a good and calm layer and we have just attempted to use her to replace a very aggressive queen.  I hope she has survived that too. Next instalment coming soon.....

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



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?


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.