The saddest sight a beekeeper can see is a huddle of dead bees, heads thrust deep inside empty wax cells, with the queen dead in the middle. And the wretched thing is that they had starved just an inch away from a broad, golden arc of honey. This phenomenon is called “Isolation Starvation“.
I’m going to call last weekend’s events “mishaps”. Not misadventures and not disasters. Not yet.
Here’s a heavily edited version of what transpired at my Suffolk apiary. That’s because when I wrote down what actually happened on Saturday afternoon, the catalogue of woe was bigger and wider than Argos’s Christmas edition. So I binned it and started again.
Executive summary: 3 out of 4 hives turned out to be Queenless. Ness Hive was as conspicuously Queenless as a radical, regicidal republic. Castle Hive reverberated with an unmistakeable “queenless roar” as soon as I flipped the lid off. And Snape Hive, the pride of the apiary this year, had its brood frames ravaged by a drone-laying-Queen (DLQ) depositing drone eggs haphazardly in the brood box and, incredibly, sleighting through a metal queen excluder, ovipositing in the super. I ask you !
The first thing a beekeeper wants to see when a beehive is opened is clear evidence of Queen activity. If a perusal of “the Court circular” draws a blank for Her Majesty’s recent engagements, anxiety levels begin to rise. But there is one time of year when an AWOL monarch really sets the nerves jangling. And this is it. Autumn. The reason is that there is n0 breeding window left to replace her. Quite simply, no Queen means no new bees in a hive, assuring a long, dwindling death as the workers die of old age, unreplaced. A DLQ means a quicker annihilation, as drones gobble up precious resources both before and after emerging from their wax cells on a one-way ticket to oblivion.
I needed a plan. What I got instead was a confection of intuition and bee-knowledge, bow-tied with a ribbon of guesswork. I would dismantle Snape Hive and merge it with Ness Hive, feed and medicate the merged bees, then add a spare Queen next week. Readers of a sensitive disposition should feel free to skip the next two paragraphs, which contain explicit references to bee-husbandry. Some may find this offensive. And too technical by half.
Here goes: I restored 4 frames of foundation to the recently dummied-down Ness Hive and moved it to Snape Hive’s stand, adding lemongrass to the entrance to mask the distinct odours of Ness and Snape Hives as they united. (The flying bees from Ness Hive would return to an empty space, but would drift to neighbouring queenright Iken Hive). I moved Snape Hive 20 metres away and smoked it heavily, so that the bees would be crammed with honey to pay the price of admission to a foreign hive. Then I disassembled Snape Hive, shaking the bees frame by frame into the air and brushing off any stragglers onto the lawn. Finally a sharp bang on the brood box, for good measure, to dislodge any recalcitrant bees.
The evicted workers flew off to the newly-positioned Ness Hive – now renamed Snape Hive and crowned with Snape’s trademark roof, a sinuous white ‘S’. Initially, there was plenty of congestion on the threshold of the hive, since I have drawing-pinned a Queen excluder across the the entrance, to keep out any DLQ or drones. Half-an-hour later, I checked that there was no DLQ craving admission, then took off the QE and replaced the entrance block. I fed the uniting hive with 2 ½ gallons of thymolated syrup (to combat nosema), which will I hope the bees will use, unseasonably, to draw out the brood comb on the four new frames, ready to accept a new laying Queen.
Well, that’s the trailer. No doubt it is one of those trailers which is better than the actual movie. This could be a devastating setback to my Suffolk apiary as autumn sets in. Thank goodness I have spare queens in London (the adage about smooth succession being assured by “an heir and a spare” works just as well for bee dynasties as for human ones).
All is not yet lost, but I’m up against it in my first full year as a rural Suffolk beekeeper – and no mistake.
I had a cup of tea with John Chapple last weekend. Any yes, some biscuits were involved. Viennese whirls, to be precise.
On his second cup, John offered the simple observation that the high level of honeybee colony losses was largely due to 2 years of horrible weather, which has dramatically reduced the overall health and well-being of colonies, so that opportunistic infections have taken a heavy toll of the debilitated bees. In my view, John is the best bee-mentor in London, so I listened intently….
He likened this elevated mortality in bees to pneumonia (defined as an inflammatory condition of the lung caused by various bacterial, viral and fungal infections) in England the 19th century. Then pneumonia was the major cause of death, with the health of the general population at a lower baseline and the absence of medicines to counter the root causes.
So for those beekeepers who have lost (and continue to lose, by all accounts!) colonies this year, do not despair – your beekeeping basics are sound. Our bees are being brought low by diseases to which they would not normally succumb.
“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the rallying call in another, now distant, crisis. To combat the current manifest of maladies and affliction in our bee-hives, I would propose the antidote which worked for me last weekend, swapping bee-stories with John Chapple: “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”
And today I heard a whisper that John has been invited to make a comeback to the London Beekeepers’ Association, headlining a couple of courses this summer, to add some much-needed expertise and experience to the line-up. JC’s second coming to the LBKA would certainly be an occasion to relish – definitely time to “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”
Well, there’s been a bit of a rush on in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary in mid-June. About time, too, since the longest day of the year is almost upon us ! As regular readers will be aware, the cold, wet Winter, rotten Spring and dubious early Summer seasons have not been propitious for bees.
But a few days of fine weather, dotted with sporadic downpours, have set the scene for a late rally. The Snelgrove manipulation on Abbey Hive has yielded three more potentially viable colonies: the old Abbey Queen (the grande dame of the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary, resplendent in last season’s high-vis yellow livery) and Abbey’s older, foraging bees believe that they have swarmed to a new location, and are building up their brood nest afresh, while the young nurse bees and the brood from Abbey Hive, separated from their old matriarch, got busy making new virgin queens.
Here’s the recipe to make perfect Queen bees: take 6 new queen cells (“made earlier” in the Abbey Snelgrove top box); leave two in situ and place two each in two Kieler breeding mini-hives, together with some starter wax strips to get the brood comb started; add 250g of bakers’ fondant; finally pour in a “cupful” of young bees. Leave to prove for 2 1/2 weeks. Et voila, you have made two virgin queen bees in each mini-hive (the first of which to vacate her cell will despatch her unhatched sister, her rival for the throne). Then pray for a few days of a temperature over 20C and a distracted local bird population, which will allow your virgin queen to gather her strength and fly off for her (one and only!) mating flight, hooking up with as many as twenty drone partners, then returning to the hive as a delicious and fertile new Queen.
So from this shocking story of sororicide and binge mating, you may well be forgiven in assuming that the white “X” on top of the green roof is a British Film Censor certificate for what goes on in and around a Kieler nucleus hive. But no, this is just a distinctive geometric sign to “mark the spot”of the hive for the Queen when she returns from her mating flight (by a strange co-incidence, my other Kieler mating nuc is called “O” – but that, as they say, is another Story….). These two mini-hives are intended to provide a starting-point to build up bees to overwinter as viable colonies, which will become honey-producing entities in 2014 (btw my fashionista spies tell me that Green will be all the rage as the keynote colour for next year’s Queen bee collections).
But, like all recipes, things can go horribly wrong (just ask Nigella !). In my case, kitted out in my best beekeeping whites, I confidently adopted the Snelgrove manoeuvre as my new signature dish. So I decided to repeat the process on Thames Hive, 10 days after Abbey Hive. Given that the colony had built up from a 5-frame nucleus to a 12-frame hive, it was a little behind Abbey Hive in its development, but I have to say that Primrose, Queen of Thames Hive had earned her star billing and was laying spectacularly even, cornflake-crisp worker brood. So I gathered the ingredients and followed the recipe, as before. Primrose and her foragers were induced to “swarm” into the new lower brood box, while the younger bees, food stores and the brood inhabited the old top box.
Four days later, the top box suffered a virulent attack of nosema, which displayed its classic symptoms of brown splatter and seriously listless bees, so I broke the hives into two separate units and isolated the nosema-ridden box and treated with Vitafeed Gold, a health preparation often used against nosema.
This emergency separation may well have saved Primrose and her older squadron of bees from being afflicted with this dread parasitic fungus (which had already done for Shard Hive in another corner of my Apiary at the end of May) and I sprayed any tell-tale spots outside the hive with a dilute fungicide after the bees had returned to their hives for the night.
I am at a loss to discover why, after 5 years, nosema has been so destructive for my bees in 2013. Last year’s Autumn feed, with a dash of thymol emulsion, kept them well through the grim Winter, but in the late Spring and early Summer, even after the Vitafeed Gold treatment, two colonies out of 5 have been smitten with this disease!
Here are my top three theories about this epidemic:
- The withdrawal of Fumidil-B by the European Union’s EPA last year deprived the beekeeper of a first-line antibiotic defence against nosema. I used to treat prophylactically against nosema with Fumidil-B. Controversial. Still, it is a poor workman who blames his tools (or the lack of a particularly useful one in the tool-box).
- It is said that stress can be a potential trigger for nosema in honeybees – but with the recently-improved weather and sufficient stores, there was little reason for the upper half of Thames Hive to be in any way traumatised.
- And it can come down to a single, nosema-infected bee, perhaps unknowingly squished during a manipulation, which may have released nosema spores inside the hive which otherwise would have been deposited outside, causing such a sudden and unexpected flare-up…
Time to hang up the beekeeper’s whites for today, after slaving over some hot hives – and I don’t mind telling you: “Beekeeping doesn’t get tougher than this!”
“A Wax Opera” has all the hallmarks of the best soap-operas: a colourful and much-sought-after leading lady, improbable plot-lines, painful incidents, treacherous rapscallions, tortured relationships, gung-ho alpha males, sensationalist twist and turns – and always leaves you wondering quite what will happen next. “A Wax Opera” is what happens when high drama hits my beehives.
Regrettably, in many glossy epics, the prima donna meets with misadventure and is written out of the script. Deprived of her familiar image on the screen, the audience suffers temporary bereavement, but, after a short period of mourning, warms to the replacement heroine. Taking that message to heart, we bid a fond “adieu” to Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive and prime the PR pumps for Primrose, Queen of Thames Hive – as the Bermondsey Street Bees’ new diva.
I shall not dwell on Ruby’s sad demise from the Apis channel – suffice it to say that she was a victim of nosema and that she was ushered to her obituary by this very beekeeper. While there is no room for sentimentality in rear-view-mirror beekeeping, let me confess to a sad failure of judgment, exacerbated by an abysmal British Spring. I shall not forget the lessons learned.
Think of it like the new Doctor Who: there’s plentiful fuss in the media about how different and exciting the new star will be for the show, but the smart money knows to anticipate little, or no real change to the narrative. The Doctor is always, essentially, The Doctor. Similarly, the business of a honeybee colony is to breed bees and to do that you have to have a Queen. Whether Primrose or Ruby, the show must go on ! The cast of characters in the daily drama at Thames Hive will ebb and flow, with Primrose at the centre of the story-line – but remember that this can be as changeable as a Wimbledon-week weather forecast. For example, this week’s revelation is that Primrose is clipped, but not crocked (as I had feared she might be in Happenstance), as you can see from her latest publicity shot above !
My job as a beekeeper is to offer the bees direction. Like head-strong starlets, they will often interpret the script rather differently from the director, but that just makes the job more interesting. In the end, we are working towards the same goals: a thriving beehive and a plentiful supply of honey. And unlike the guy sitting in the soap-opera’s director’s chair, a beekeeper only ever gets a single “take” for each scene – each time you intervene with your bees, the results are an indelible “print” ! So when the roof goes back onto a hive after each new episode, I can almost hear my inner director calling it :
“Well done, CK.1.2.L.10.12.BS, errr, I mean, Primrose, thanks, everyone. Nice work today…it’s a wrap!”
No matter that Shard Hive was put to bed last year with a feed of thymolated sugar syrup and was given a tonic dose of Vitagold in a Spring feed (which was virtually untouched) earlier this year, it has finally succumbed to nosema. The parapet around the hive is sprinkled with healthy-looking, but comatose “zombie” bees, the cupful of bees inside Shard has dwindled to a skeleton crew – and Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive, was wandering alone in poor condition inside a much depleted hive. Drat and double drat!
I guess that, this year, anything which started out wonky in the hives has proved to be really hard to set right. I made the mistake of hoping that, come the sunshine and some big nectar flows, a touch of nosema would be busily swept away – and that substituting a drone-laying 2012 Queen with a nubile, red-dotted youngster would restore Shard to its former glories. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
So I have cut my losses, closed up the Shard breeding nuc (to prevent robbing of its food stores by other bees, who would then acquire the parasitic nosema fungus and take it back to their own hive) and I have “banked” Queen Ruby in a Butler Cage in Abbey Hive, ahead of starting a big manipulation on that hive this weekend.
I will be getting out my microscope to check my diagnosis of nosema (looking out for those Arborio-rice-like spores in the image above), but I’m pretty sure that the brown streaks on the landing board and the listless bees tell me all that I need to know. It’s the same diagnosis as the first inspection of the year in late April…
Well, the weather forecast is getting summery from here on, but it’s too late for Shard Hive. Call me obtuse, but I’m chalking this up as a “winter loss” even though June starts tomorrow !