The Life of Breconshire beekeeper September 2021

Back in July the Brecon and Radnor beekeeping association was able to hold its first gathering of fellow beekeepers and nature lovers in quite a while. This was our hive inspection and bring and buy sale at the apiary near Builth Wells. It was great to talk to like minded folk face to face again and I was chatting to Rich who was telling me about a massive four foot long swarm that he’d tried to capture recently, but failed. I called to Bob to give us some of his wisdom. Rich explained that it was so big it wouldn’t fit into his skep or hive, so he’d put a hive next to it hoping it would go in. Next morning he returned to find the swarm had departed.

Bob’s first reaction was ‘which way did it go?

Bob told us that if it was so big that he didn’t have a container big enough, he would have wrapped the swarm in a sheet. Shaken it onto a sheet and then wrapped it carefully and take it home to re-hive straightaway. Once at home he would prepare a hive and then unwrap the sheet in front of it. The bees would walk up into the hive.

This brings up the question about when to take the swarm away after you’ve captured it.

Some beekeepers say that you should leave the swarm in the skep/box/hive that you’ve shaken them into until evening to allow for all the bees to go in. Others say take it away straight away as it may easily depart before evening, especially if its small.

The following may help you decide which is best.

Tom Seeley wrote about swarms in the May 2021 issue of Bee Craft. In his book Honeybee Democracy, he wrote about the behaviour of nest site scouts as they work to find a home for the swarm. Once the swarm is hanging somewhere, several hundred scout bees are looking for the best place to move to. At that time Tom wrote that the scouts only start looking for a new home once the swarm had departed. In this article in BeeCraft he now knows that scout bees start looking for a new home before the swarm has departed.

So, what I take from applying this new found knowledge is that, if I capture a swarm in a skep, leave in situ until the evening and then re-hive it in the same apiary; all the scout bees are still there, they all know the area very well and are more than likely going to swarm again. (I could remove the queen at this stage and then they wouldn’t swarm, as a contingency).

If I caught the swarm and left it in situ until the evening; there is a chance the bees would depart if the scout bees had agreed on a new home in the meantime (read Honeybee Democracy to understand that the scout bees reach a quorum)

If I caught the swarm and left it in situ until the evening with all the scout bees back in the skep and they hadn’t departed in the meantime then I could take this swarm to a new apiary more that three miles away and re-hive it. Now there is a strong chance that the colony will remain in the hive as the scout bees don’t know the area.

However, given this new bit of knowledge about the scout bees, means that we can now logically deduce what a swarm might do after capture. I will remove the swarm once captured without waiting for the scout bees to come back as long as the situation allows.

The scout bees would go back to their original hive when they returned to where the swarm had been.

This may seem pretty unremarkable, but for me this is about reading the bees. That simple bit of information means that there is a logical answer to the question ‘When should I take the swarm away?

Over the years when catching swarms I have tended to leave the swarm until the evening before taking it away to ensure that I don’t leave bees behind, and I’ve not had any depart before evening. When capturing swarms from my bees I take them to another apiary to re-hive. When taking other swarms I try to isolate them from my own bees until I am happy that they are healthy bees.

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Last time, I posed the question about what it is that triggers a colony to swarm, a long time before they start to make queen cells.

I read the Beekeeper’s pupil a wonderful novel about a blind honeybee enthusiast from Geneva, Francois Huber and his assistant who made some very interesting observations on honeybees back in the time of the French revolution, 1780s.

Huber was the first person to establish that the queen mated on the wing, but to do so he needed an assistant Francois Burnens to do all experiments and to write up the observations and conclusions. Burnens was far more than just a technician and scribe, he also made contributions to Huber’s ideas.

To observe the bees in lengthy detail they made several observation hives, called leaf hives that could be opened up like a book with 12 leaves, each leaf being the width of about a hive frame today. Bear in mind that this work was being carried out long before Langstroth designed the first moveable frame hive, and it is said that he took inspiration from Huber’s work.

Anyway, Huber made some interesting observations over a period of 10 or so years in which time this was the only thing that he and Burnens did, Huber having a private income and Burnens being paid by Huber. Some of these have been supeceded, but others, I believe are of interest as I see no obvious reason why they should not be true.

Huber noticed that queens cells are started once the drone larvae are about 20 days old in the hive, so if a queen takes 16 days to emerge from this point there should be drones around the age of about two weeks old. (This is new for me so I will watch it closely….as closely as I can…I only have a modern style observation hive with two brood and one super frames. In my experience drones in the hive doesn’t necessarily mean the colony will swarm).

Worker bees will only start to lengthen the walls of a queen cell once an egg has been laid in it

Worker bees do not move or reposition eggs, but they do eat them. (There are people who still say that workers move eggs. Show me the evidence? Put in the hours that Huber did….where is the video showing a worker bee doing this?)

A virgin queen will usually go out to mate, weather permitting when she is 5 or 6 days old. Once mated she will lay 46 hours later….so precise…

If a virgin does not mate within 21 days of emerging she will only lay drone eggs even if she mates after this time. Huber went to great lengths to hold virgin queens in the hive to establish this fact.

Those of us who have reared queens know that this is about right, but I for one have never tested it to the precise level that Huber did

Huber goes on to state that a newly mated queen will lay only worker eggs for the first 11 months of her life…you know what….with all the nucs I’ve made up, I can’t say this is wrong. Something else I’ll look out for.

Of the swarms that came into my apiaries this year, three of them had no drones. This implies to me that they have newly mated queens. So, my experience is that bees will still swarm without having drones of their own. These three colonies had no drones all year….

In a queenright colony drones are driven out at the end of summer, we all know this, but Huber observed the drones being driven to the bottom of the hive and stung to death by workers. Of course I’ve not seen this, but because I don’t tend to observe the bottom of the hive day in day out. Huber put open hives onto glass tables to be able to observe this.

A colony will accept a new queen 24 hours after losing their original queen, any earlier and the bees will tend to ‘ball’ her. Again something that we are aware of when introducing a queen to a colony. But he is so precise with this timing.

A drone laying queen will lay an egg in a queen cup and the bees will feed the young drone royal jelly…but they soon realise that it’s not going to be a queen. I’ve seen this too and wondered what’s going on….have the workers held back a fertile egg? Well, no, if Huber is right….

The bees in a queenless colony are languid, they lack activity. (Once again I’ve seen this in colonies and my experience has shown that they are queenless, but often waiting for the virgin to mate)

Queens produced at swarming time are held back in their cells and fed by the workers. This is to allow several swarms to be cast. If a virgin queen is released it is held back from the other queens in their cells by the workers to stop it killing them. As the swarms go out sometimes two or three virgins escape their captivity at the same time, but they invariably leave with the next cast.

Queens produced in an emergency are allowed to kill other unborn queens in their cells, but this is the only scenario that they are allowed to by the bees. This is the queen being produced in a non swarming condition. One produced for survival.

The two scenarios above are commonly known by beekeepers, but I was not aware that worker bees deliberately stopped virgins from killing other queens in their cells at the time of swarming. I was aware that they kept the virgins in their cells as it is often best to release all trapped virgins if you happen to find a colony like this so that they can fight it out and not swarm. Huber has made a clear distinction between swarming and emergency.

So, I have pulled these facts out of the Huber’s book; ‘New observations on the natural history of bees‘ , there are many that I haven’t shared because they’re not so relevant to my interests and I do feel that some have clearly bee superseded by others observations and research.

I repeat that this is work carried out around 250 years ago, but the work that Huber and Burnens did was so meticulous, I’ve not seen or read anything that gets close to it in modern times, and a lot of it is what I experience myself, but haven’t been able to measure so precisely.

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At this time of year wasps and European Hornets can be a pest to bees. I was in one of my apiaries last month and saw a European Hornet take a honeybee from the landing board of the hive up onto a branch of a tree and proceed to butcher it, cutting off its abdomen and letting it fall. This shows that these hornets are just pests they do take bees for their young.

I was also lucky enough to see a swarm come into a bait hive:

A few photos of honeybees on flowers at this time of year. Check out my instagram account

Wasp nest in a stored honey super

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I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Yeats; The Lake Isle of Innisfree 1888

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