Beekeeper, Paul Totterdell's roundup of news from the Honeydale Apiary this month.
So finally the weather has warmed up enough to begin our weekly inspections after a long, cold and dry spring. Having said this, the bees have done very well over the winter and I am really pleased to have two full and healthy colonies thriving again in the Honeydale Farm apiary.
Two hives were re-populated last year due to losing one colony last winter 2019, and then the remaining colony to wasps early Spring 2020. This resulted in both hives being largely empty for the majority of 2020.
Both queens were keen to be seen during the inspection, making themselves clearly visible amongst the workers. Both queens had been laying very well with lots of eggs visible on most frames, lovely & plentiful brood cell patterns, and a good amount of honey stored too, so much so that supers were required on both hives last week.
Due to the healthy number of bees in both colonies I am expecting some swarming soon, and in the national hive I spotted some swarm cups containing eggs last week, which means swarming was likely to happen within 7-10 days. When I visited on 12th May I was expecting to see partially completed queen cells in preparation for swarming, but thankfully the wet weather has slowed their activities somewhat. I've no doubt they will try to swarm soon, but I will have to keep my eyes open, and if I can catch them at the right time I will perform an artificial swarm to try and maintain as many bees as possible.
What is swarming and why do bees do it? Swarming is a natural process of colony multiplication. Once a colony reaches capacity, it will try to multiply by splitting in half. It does this by rearing a new queen. Once the new queen is sufficiently developed, the old queen leaves the colony and takes the more mature worker bees with her to begin building another colony and hive elsewhere. This leaves the new queen to hatch and recover the population of the existing colony, with a new generation of workers. When the old queen leaves she ensures that there is plenty of developing brood to bolster the colony while the new queen hatches and becomes mated herself, because until then she cannot lay any eggs.
Why perform an artificial swarm?
Performing an artificial swarm allows the bees to perform the natural swarming process, but rather than the old queen flying away with half of the hive population to an unknown location, we put her and her loyal worker bees into a new hive in the apiary, so that they are not lost. The added bonus for us is that we gain a colony of bees, although both halves of the original colony do take a little while to build up their numbers to a fully operational colony again.
How do I perform an artificial swarm?
An artificial swarm consists of taking the old queen along with a healthy frame of brood and putting it into a new hive, but in the original hive's location. The mature workers naturally follow her into the new hive, since she is their queen after all (!) and they are used to the original hive location. This leaves the newly reared queen, the remaining nurse bees and brood to continue the colony in the old brood box, but in a new location within the apiary.
My beekeeping mentor Chris Wells of Cotswold Bees has put together some really useful videos on swarms and swarm management here:
Swarm Management Part 1 - https://youtu.be/kuR34TLRgYk
Swarm Management Part 2 - https://youtu.be/_ySZHgxYdsY
Why not just let the colony swarm naturally?
You might think that losing half of the bees is a natural part of the process, which it is, however due to various factors around 90% of swarm colonies do not survive in the wild. This has been attributed to many factors such as loss of habitat, climate change and many argue that the use of agricultural chemicals could have a large part to play too.
Bees have become a predominantly farmed animal in the struggle to prevent extinction and now managed hives make up the vast majority of honey bees in the UK, which themselves have evolved to be less aggressive and easier to handle creatures, but in turn less independent in the wild. This is amazing when you think about it, humans have so far successfully staved off honey bee extinction, but it has come at the cost of partial domestication. It is such a shame that left to their own devices most swarm colonies would most likely die away, but this is the situation we now find ourselves in as beekeepers.