Yes, it’s that time of year again. If you are anxiously inspecting your colonies, dreading that you might find a queen cell, then you are not alone!
The swarming process can be very confusing and stressful, especially if you are in your early years of beekeeping. Everything seems to be going so well: the hive is full of bees and you start visualising those jars of golden honey when suddenly, it seems that you lose all control – and then half your bees!
For me, swarming has been the cause of tears, injuries, marital discord and hangovers! All beekeepers have their ‘swarm stories’. And yet, now that I’ve worked it out, I realise how easy the swarming process is to manage.
Swarming is, after all, a natural behaviour that we need to work with, and not try to stop it or suppress it. Even before you find that first queen cell, there is a lot you can do to control or at least influence your bees’ swarming preparations.
Why all the drama?
As I said, swarming is completely natural. But that doesn’t lessen the panic you feel when your neighbours are enjoying a perfect Sunday afternoon in their garden and all hell breaks loose. Or so it seems to them and you.
Seeing a hive swarm is incredible and fascinating. You really feel the full animal force of the super organism as it divides and reproduces! However if you’re not a beekeeper, you would undoubtedly be more likely to run away than stand in awe. I understand why people who aren’t wearing bee suits feel a need to flee the scene.
Then of course there is the strange aftermath with swarms hanging around in trees or wherever – imagine if one of those suddenly appeared in your garden with its busy scouts flying to and fro. (Obviously as beeks, we’d put it in a hive, but if you’re not a beekeeper . . . ?!)
So I think that swarming can indeed cause a lot of drama – but in itself it isn’t something to panic about. You are not a bad beekeeper if your bees swarm! But the goal is to find a way of managing their natural swarming behaviour to avoid a swarm issuing from the hive in the first place.
It takes time, attention and experience to do this, but it can be done without the drama – I’m living proof!
Can someone name a swarm control method after me please?
My first nuc swarmed when I’d had it for two weeks. I now know that shouldn’t have happened, but nevertheless I was scarred from the start!
Determined to tackle swarm control, I tried using the Pagden method of artificial swarming in my first two years. It was like the dummy’s guide to swarm control: I went through the manipulation but didn’t always understand why. I don’t think I ever went through the process of moving the parent hive to the other side of the swarm hive.
As I grew more confident, and space became an issue in my garden, I switched to vertical methods such as Demaree and Snelgrove Boards.
But to be honest, none of these really worked for me. No doubt there were things that I wasn’t doing correctly. But at the end of the day, I like things that are simple and that work. I don’t like equipment or methods that you have to fiddle around with all the time. And my problem with the swarm methods I was using was that they supposedly required a full spare hive for each colony, and lots of lifting and shifting stuff around.
In searching for a new swarm control method I became overwhelmed with all the options and ideas out there. Every time I opened a beekeeping journal there was something new to me, named after someone! This added to my anxiety: was I doing the right thing? Would my bees suffer from my ignorance??!!
The kindness of beekeepers
Beware: when you ask for advice about swarming, set aside an hour or so for the answer. Beekeepers are notorious for conflicting opinions and contradicting themselves! I think we all know what I mean! Should you leave two queen cells or one? Does the first queen to emerge always sting other queen cells? Is the cell always capped on day seven? Etc.
I once had two beautiful queen cells to choose from in a swarming colony, and asked fellow beekeepers if I could leave both. Some said yes, some said no. I left the two cells and the first queen to emerge didn’t sting the other cell as I had been told. Instead they cast, leaving me with even less bees. Still, it was ultimately my decision – and I learned a valuable lesson!
Having said that, when you are at the point where you need support or just don’t know what to do with a colony, ask a beekeeper! I have always found beekeepers to be kind and supportive (as well as driving me nuts!). Don’t suffer through swarming alone – ask for help.
So, what is the answer to drama-free swarm control?
I eventually arrived at a simple method of swarm control that doesn’t require a whole spare hive, or moving hives around. I will explain the process in Part 2 of this blog, but for now, the clue is ‘polynuc’!
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘swarm therapy’ session. I certainly feel better to have got some of these things off my chest. Just don’t ask me about the time I tried to collect a swarm in my dressing gown!
Whether your apiary is at home or away, it’s important to consider whether it is safe and convenient for you. I’m not talking about ‘health and safety gone mad’, just common sense!
Fly poster by subdude
An apiary should work for the beekeeper as well as the bees. And as I’ve discovered recently, there are a number of danger zones in my apiary that need attention. Spring is the time to asses your apiary and rectify anything that doesn’t work for you.
Take a look at the following: a taut wire (in the foreground), a fence post from a fallen-down fence, a thicket of brambles and nettles, and some broken breeze blocks thrown in for good measure:
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it did go wrong the other day and certain parts of my anatomy are still tingling from the thorns and nettle stings! I’m lucky that it wasn’t worse. I could have knocked myself out or disembowelled myself with my hive tool.
Luckily no-one was there to witness my humiliation but the most embarrassing thing about it is that I’ve tripped there before and I did nothing to remedy it.
There are other things that keep happening: hitting my heat on overhanging tree branches, not having enough space to work certain colonies and mossy logs lying camouflaged on the ground which I always take great care to step over . . . that is, until I’m carrying equipment and can’t see them.
This makes me sound like a sloppy beekeeper but I definitely am not that. I just get so wrapped up in what’s best for the bees (and the public) that I de-prioritise my own convenience.
It is completely about applying common sense.
Allow me to share some tips from my own experience. Hopefully I have made these mistakes so that you don’t have to!
First, take time to cut back those brambles and anything else that can trip you or catch hold of you. Trim back branches so they don’t hit you on the head or slap you in the face! Ducking and dodging is risky and inconvenient.
Arrange your apiary so that you have adequate space to inspect hives in comfort, including putting roofs on the ground, lifting and stacking supers and generally moving around. If you’re in a small space that is uncomfortable it risks the chance of falling over or of being clumsy and disturbing the bees. If you can’t move a hive consider changing the frames from warm way to cold way or vice versa.
When it comes to equipment, remember that your hive tool is like a weapon – it’s strong, sharp and would get you arrested if you carried it in certain situations! Learn to use it properly and be careful when it’s in the pocket of your bee suit.
You’ll think I’m really pointing out the obvious now, but smokers can and do set fire to things – like dry grass at your apiary or the back of your car! Suddenly your car is full of smoke and other drivers are frantically gesticulating at you. Yes, I know that this need to spell things out probably explains a lot about my own mishaps, but it did really happen to me and others I know!
Lie smokers on their side and plug the spout with a knot of green grass or a cork. Check that they are cool and fully extinguished. If you’re not careful the lid can slip open when you’re driving along, letting in oxygen which re-ignites the fire. Some beekeepers put them in a tin which seems like a good idea, I just have to find a tin that’s big enough.
On a more serious note, something happened that really scared me one evening: I was hassled by two people who wouldn’t go away. My apiary is tucked away and not visible. My phone was in my car and I couldn’t get to it. I thought that if they came any closer I would push over a beehive.
Luckily it didn’t come to that but now I do keep my mobile on me and fully charged and I tell someone where I’m going. I think that’s especially important for us girls. And I do keep Piriton in the car in case I react to a sting (which has never happened, touchwood, but I have beekeeping friends who this has happened to).
To me, beekeeping is beautiful thing and anything that niggles me in my apiary is an unwanted distraction from quality time with my bees.
The moral of these sad stories?: a happy beekeeper helps to keep bees happy too!
Ah birthdays, don’t you love them? I am discovering that I don’t love them as much as I used to! But I do love it that every year my friends and family take time to find bee-themed cards and presents.
Mind you, I am very easy to please as I adore anything with bees on it. Everything from postcards to coffee mugs, fridge magnets and honey itself.
This year’s birthday cards were especially lovely so I just had to share my favourites.
First, this is very special to me as it’s from friends Noah and Maeve who live in Sydney and they made it themselves. I love the stripey bee nest! Shouldn’t every fashion-conscious bee have a matching hive?!
The bees seem to be flying in loops out of sheer delight! There are even real flowers pasted to the card:
Noah and Maeve have a colony of Australian native stingless bees in their garden. I couldn’t resist including a photo of them in this ‘Beeday’ blog because they are very different to our UK bees and equally as fascinating. These amazing tiny creatures produce comb in the shape of a rose:
Isn’t that beautiful?
Another favourite birthday card came from friends Peter and Jane. This card is just so positive and uplifting. Every day that has bees in it is a good day for me! (Except when they’re outwitting me with their cunning plans!)
Here’s to drawing the blinds to many sunny days this year:
Happy Beedays to all of us . . . .
I am hopeless at getting equipment cleaned and prepared over winter BUT this year I promised myself it would be different! No more panics or searching for substitutes! Now that the bees are flying more often and bringing in pollen, it’s time to get my act together . . .
Robbing screens are a very good thing to have ready at the end of summer so why not get ahead and make them now? I talked about them in our first podcast. I used them last year when a very aggressive episode of robbing started at my apiary. It was very stressful and alarming, and that was just for the beekeeper, never mind the poor bees! Full supers of honey disappeared, some colonies were badly weakened and members of the public upset. Not an experience I want to repeat.
Robbing screens helped to restore some order in this chaos. There are various designs out there but some of the more sophisticated seem to involve carpentry skills that I unfortunately don’t have. A simple but effective design is an easier and cheaper option for me.
Design for a basic robbing screen
This is the design that I use:
How does it work?
Its very simple: the screen is pinned over the hive entrance, long ways. The bees that live in the colony will enter through the V-shaped gaps at the sides. The robbers, who are chancers that zig-zag in front of the hive entrance, will be confused and won’t work out how to get in.
With the screen in place, you don’t have to reduce the hive entrance which is much better for ventilation and reducing heat in the colony.
You can use gaffer tape to close off one end of the entrance, leaving the bees with one side entrance that is easier for the colony to defend.
Remember though that this is just one tactic in the war against robbing and it won’t work in isolation: you still have to follow the usual rules to ensure that your apiary is a harmonious place! You still need to ensure that you don’t feed during the day, that you feed all colonies at the same time, that you don’t leave syrup or comb lying around and that you don’t open colonies at the end of summer without very good reason . . . ok, lecture over!
How to make a simple robbing screen
I bought the mesh from an independent local hardware store and assume it’s widely available:
It came in one large sheet, approx 70cm x 70 cm. It is important that it is thin enough to cut with scissors and fold into shape by hand. The gauge is small enough to stop bees passing through but large enough for ventilation.
Using kitchen scissors, I cut a piece long enough to cover the hive entrance and wide enough to fold three times. I tend to eyeball measurements but if I had to guess I would say the dimensions are roughly 25 cm x 15 cm (please measure against your own hives first!!).
Make the folds by turning and pressing the mesh under and over until it forms an approximate ‘W’ shape when you open it up:
Because the mesh is sharp, I line the entrance points (the V points at the sides) with some gaffer tape to protect the bees. The pen is pointing to the entrance that the bees use:
Here is another version that you can make which is a bit more fiddly but effective nonetheless. The flat sides are pinned to the hive. The bees enter through the top:
I hope that’s shown you how easy it is to make a robbing screen. And to show you a robbing screen in action, click on the link below to take a look at a video of the robbing frenzy in my apiary last September. The screen immediately stopped the robbers getting in and things settled down despite the severity. This year I’ll be fitting them earlier to prevent robbing in the first place!!
2016 was a rollercoaster for me and my beekeeping, thanks mainly to the unreliable weather, a shortage of queens, and general disorganisation on my part (when will I learn that winter should be used for cleaning equipment, making up frames etc.?!).
Lesson one: get my act together, plan properly and use winter to prepare equipment for the coming season!
My key goal for the year was to increase the number of colonies to produce more honey for the land owner I work for.
Things didn’t start well as I broke my ankle and by April it was still in plaster and I was on crutches. Instead of accepting the limitations of this I tried to carry on regardless, on one occasion causing complete mayhem in my apiary by dropping a full brood box. Luckily no damage was done (except to my nerves), and my beekeeping friends stepped in to help get things back on track by the end of April.
Lesson two: fellow beekeepers are always ready to lend a hand, so ask for help!
My apiary is colder than other areas in South London so my bees are always a couple of weeks behind. After a burst of late March sunshine and pollen, the bees were preparing to swarm. I have my swarm prevention and control process pretty much worked out thanks to years of trial and error. But last year’s spring had a sting in its tail with weeks of cool, wet, miserable weather meaning that the emerging queens mated poorly (some turning into drone layers all too quickly) and others simply went stale.
While I had some over-wintered nucs, I simply didn’t have enough mated and laying queens banked to replace all the failing/poorly mated queens. I had fall back on uniting some colonies. So my goal to expand my apiary wasn’t unfolding as planned!
Lesson three: rear enough queens to ensure that young, mated and laying queens are always to hand.
In an act of desperation, I decided to buy in some nucs with extensions. Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with buying nucs from a reputable source. And I used a reputable source. But I failed to factor in that I had been selecting my bees for years and that they were mostly good tempered, productive, prolific colonies that I knew and (mostly!) loved. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the bees that I brought in and found that they weren’t exactly friendly and seemed to only produce bees. The new colonies got bigger and bigger but there was no honey to harvest, and their temperament got worse. In the end a passer-by was stung and I had to remove them. I should have simply taken my best colony and split it into six as advised by other beekeepers.
Lesson four: increase stocks by using your own well-tempered bees or bees whose traits are known to you.
All was not lost, I managed to make up some nucs from my best colonies. But I learned the hard way that I was not going to achieve an increase without an organised queen rearing programme to support it. One for 2017 – watch this space!
The main flow when it began wasn’t as strong as the previous year because local forage was affected by the long wet spring. However I did harvest almost as much honey as the previous year so at least that was something.
Varroa populations were high at the end of summer. I often do shook swarms in spring to help manage varroa but I couldn’t in 2016 as the weather was so rubbish and not ideal for drawing new comb. In September I treated some colonies with Apiguard and some with MAQS (depending on the nature of the colony – small ones that needed a lot of feeding got MAQS). In recent years I have been finding that varroa can then build up again going into December. I treated all colonies with Apibioxil trickle method (in 1:1 syrup) in late December. In 2017 I’ll use the vaporisation method as it has been found to have higher efficacy.
2016 had one final lesson for me in the form of robbing: it was unbelievable and on a frenzied scale that I’d not seen before. I had to put in some serious detective work to find out who the robbing bees were. Late one night I closed up all my hives and came back to my apiary the next morning to find it full of bees trying to rob the closed hives. So the robbers must have been someone else’s bees, from another apiary! I learned how to make robbing screens which helped a lot and everything calmed down, although damage had been done to a few smaller colonies.
Lesson five: prevent robbing before it happens – fit robbing screens before autumn feeding and carefully following guidelines around feeding e.g. feed all colonies at the same time, feed at night, don’t spill syrup etc.!
In the end I came out of 2016 with 10 strong colonies and four large nucs. While 2016 didn’t go according to plan, I learned a lot and became much more confident in handling and clipping queens.
And while it wasn’t the easiest of beekeeping years, I still enjoyed those magical moments when you are working with the bees and you think “How amazing are these creatures, and how lucky am I to be working with them.”
I hope your bees are overwintering well and that the season to come will be a good one for us all.