The Life of a Breconshire Beekeeper July 2020

My first thought about July is that is was pretty uneventful, but on reflection there was plenty going on.

There were more swarms in July this year than in May or June. Two of my colonies decided to swarm and I had a swarm come into an old box of comb in my beeyard.

I and a couple of other beekeepers have been looking after an apiary for our local beekeeping association. These colonies are usually used on the Spring training course that we run, but this year it wasn’t possible to hold it. The bees have remained at their over wintering apiary which is in a beautiful location next to an outdoor business. The association has made increase over the years from within its own stock and from whatever drones are around; the bees can be feisty and mean particularly when the weather is overcast. This has meant that colony inspections can only take place on the weekend as the people in the works next door can get stung when we are looking at the bees.

As a result of this there were some weekends in July when we simply couldn’t open the hives as it was raining and relatively cold; the bees weren’t flying. Following one of these weekends I had a message from the business owner to say that there were two swarms in the apiary. It was a Saturday evening and I went over to collect these two swarms to take them to our sister apiary. I had planned to look through the colonies the following day. The two swarms, both casts with virgin queens as it turns out, were added to a failing colony. Here’s a video of me collecting one into a skep

Here I shake the swarm into a nuc box, note how the bees don’t fly out while I leave them to go and get some frames to put in and a lid:

The books will tell you to wait until the evening before picking up and moving the captured swarm, this allows the flying scout bees to be with the swarm. Although not my experience some beekeepers will take the swarm once most bees are in the skep as they have experienced the swarm departing again before evening, particularly if its a cast swarm. This will mean that some bees will be left behind. Good advice if the swarm isn’t that big.

As the bees from the swarms were finding their way into the skep and nuc box respectively having been shaken into them, I looked at the colonies in the apiary to see if there were any signs from where they had come from. There were two clear candidates, but there was a third that had little activity outside, so I would have to wait and see tomorrow which ones had lost the majority of their bees.

What to do with a swarm at this or any time of the year can be tricky if you have no hives free to put them in. I added the two swarms to the queenless colony at our sister apiary using newspaper between the two colonies with a few cuts in the paper made with a hive tool. I put an extra box on top of the newspaper with about five or six frames removed from the centre. The swarms can then be ‘poured’ into the gap with a tap or shake to make sure they’re all in the box. then place the frames carefully back into the centre of the box and let them slowly go down under gravity as the bees move out of the way. It is surprising how the bees don’t all fly up as you might expect.

I read a book by Willie Robson recently called ‘Reflections on beekeeping‘ where he reflects on how he, his father and Willie Smith, the inventor of the Smith hive used to keep bees on the Scottish border. Willie talks about how the father of a farm beekeeper would sit in the apiary and catch the swarms that issued, then throw them into several hive entrances for them to distribute themselves by walking into them. A virgin might oust an existing queen and some colonies may be queenless, but towards the end of the season they were more interested in getting honey and by then it was heather honey where a strong colony is needed

On the Sunday, we looked through the colonies and indeed the two I had guessed might be the candidates for the swarms were indeed those two colonies, the third one was a colony that had been queenless for a while and not been able to re-queen since losing its queen earlier in the season.

Within the association the beginners are offered the chance of building up a nucleus with a new laying queen that they can then purchase at a subsidised rate following completion of the course. There are several benefits to doing this, the main one being that the beginner gets valuable time working with bees, rearing a queen and creating a nucleus alongside experienced beekeepers. The association gets the support of the beginner with the apiary for the time they are there. Beekeeping associations struggle to get volunteers to support them and this relationship helps that. 

The association had moved from British Standard Nationals to BS 14×12 larger frame hives; however, most beginners want standard BS nucs. 

For this reason we have been making increase at the ‘wintering’ apiary this year with the aim of creating new colonies in BS hives not BS 14×12 hives.

The colonies that we have been looking after mostly started out in  14×12 brood boxes and with most we supered them with a BS brood box in preparation for splitting. Several nucs have been produced with good laying queens.

Today though, we wanted to get a colony off 14×12 and onto BS by using a Bailey comb change. The plan being to stop the queen from laying in the 14×12 and concentrate on laying in the BS brood box supered above the 14×12. First step was to find the queen which we did luckily in the upper BS brood box. We used a Cloake board without the screen to create an entrance above the 14×12 brood box with a queen excluder between the Cloake board and the 14×12 to prevent the queen from getting down into it. This process takes about four weeks to ensure that all brood in the lower box has emerged; drones take around 24 days to emerge, workers 21 days and as we inspect weekly then 28 days is the most obvious milestone to remove the 14×12 all being well. We found that over this time period the queen was going well in the BS brood box with two supers above. The Bailey comb change is great for changing old comb which is important to do on a regular basis; maybe at a rate of change of every three years for each frame. With the box below the main brood the bees don’t store honey in it and it becomes quite empty ready for the frames to be steamed clean.

We took some supers off the more prolific colonies using a fume board to get the bees to move down and out of the supers. Thorne Bees sell a fume board and its invaluable when you don’t want to have to return the next day to take the supers off the hive. The frames can then have the honey spun out and the ‘wet’ supers returned to the colony to clean out.

This raises a question about where you put the wet super assuming you want to give it back to the bees to clean out? On the top of the other existing supers or under the supers on the QE. All beekeepers have their own way of doing things, but a very experienced beekeeper friend puts the wet super right at the top. He says that if you split the colony from the other supers after June 21st then the bees may start storing nectar in the brood box and not in the supers. It is also my experience from my early days when I hived a good swarm, later put one super on that they drew the comb on foundation and filled with honey, but then put a second super on between the the first super and the brood chamber and the bees totally ignored it.

The summer wild flowers are in full bloom, I have captured honeybees and other pollinators onto including; Rosebay Willowherb, Meadowsweet, Hairy Vetch, Bush Vetch, Birds Foot Trefoil to name a few, and also in a short video here:

Finally, the third week of July is usually when the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show takes place. Unfortunately this year it was cancelled, but I was asked to make a short video to show the Honey Section that we as volunteers run and support for a Virtual RWAS.


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