An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
The snow from those late cold fronts has cleared from the ranges and the temperature is now touching 20°C.
Distinctive perfumes are coming from the bush sources now starting to flower. Lemonwood or tarata (Pittosporum eugenioides) seems to be more prevalent at night, while the heavy perfume from hangehange (Geniostoma ligustrifolium) can be smelt during the day. Most of the early willows have flowered, with golden willow (Salix alba ‘Vitellina’) the next to flower.
Everything in the bush is budding up and about to flower. The sources that cause swarming will soon be flowering, primarily cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) and hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha) because they produce a lot of nectar and pollen.
All of these early spring sources have boosted the hives, which are developing well. Bees can now be seen fanning at the entrance, indicating that nectar is coming in. It doesn’t take very long for bees to fill the spare combs with nectar before they start storing it in the brood area, leading to congestion and then swarming.
Most beekeepers will have reversed their brood supers and added a honey super to keep the brood at the bottom of the hive and eliminate congestion. Those who use an excluder to confine the queen to the bottom super would have started bringing up frames of emerging brood above the excluder to give the queen more laying area.
There are several methods of removing congestion in a hive. Before undertaking any of these methods, check the brood frames in each hive for AFB:
add more supers with drawn frames immediately above the brood nest
swap the position of a weak hive with a strong hive. The field bees coming home will boost the weak hive’s population and reduce the field population in the strong hive
find the queen, keep her safe and shake the nurse bees off one or two brood frames into the entrance of the weak hive. The field bees will return to their hive and the nurse bees will walk in unopposed, thus boosting the population
roofs on beehives in Australia fit directly on top (flush), with the top super leaving a space in the roof cavity. Spare bees will cluster in the cavity mostly drawing out new comb. Beekeepers there simply swap the roofs so these bees are transferred to a weak hive.
Most commercial beekeepers have been splitting hives and adding 10-day-old protected queen cells to the queenless half. This is something they have planned well in advance. To mate queens, beekeepers need 40-day-old drones and 20°C temperatures during the day for the new queens to fly to the drone-congregating area to mate, hopefully with more than 20 mature drones.
This quick development in the hive often catches out those with one or two hives, and suddenly there’s a swarm hanging off the top branch in a nearby tree. To get an understanding of the dynamics of a swarm, look on YouTube at Tom Seeley’s “swarm intelligence”.
What often happens is that as soon as you touch a swarm hanging on a branch, it immediately takes off and is lost. Therefore, the first thing you do is gently spray it with cold water, whether from a garden hose or a spray bottle to cool the surface bees. This makes the swarm a little easier to handle.
I generally carry a fold-up cat carrier in the back of the cab for just such an occasion. Unzip it and work the swarm into the wide- open top, then give the branch a hard bump to dislodge the swarm into the bag. An alternative carrier can be a cardboard wine or beer box.
If the bees don’t all go in on the first attempt, let what’s left form into a cluster again and repeat so 99% are in the bag. If you’re using a box, put the flaps down and fold them under and over for form a roof, leaving one flap slightly ajar so the remaining bees move in through the hole. Then hang the bag/box or put it under a tree in a cool, shaded place until the end of the day.
Now you have to attend to the hive the swarm came from. Here are some options:
remove all the queen cells and put the swarm back on the old hive; however, it will often swarm again.
cut out or squash all but two queen cells and leave the hive alone. Often the bees will swarm again if the cells do not emerge at the same time or if you miss a developing queen cell.
I prefer to split the hives into two, three or four five-frame nucs (depending on the size of the hive) with a queen cell in each so that at least a few of the queens mate successfully and start laying. Those nucs that fail to raise a new queen are united with a nuc that has been successful.
When selecting queen cells, look for the longest queen cells that have a slightly dark tip at the bottom of the cell: these are the queen cells that are about to emerge. The bees have removed the wax and only the silk cocoon is showing. Remove all the other queen cells as they can initiate after-swarms.
You can use the capped cells to make splits in other strong hives. Gently wrap a little aluminium oven foil around the cell, keeping it upright all the time, but leaving the bottom four millimetres clear so the queen can emerge. An alternative is to place the cell in an old hair curler. Bees will tear down a foreign queen cell by going in through the side. The foil or hair curler prevents that and allows the queen to emerge.
Queen cells are susceptible to damage on the ninth day when the queen wing buds are touching the inside of the cell. A drop or bang will damage the wing buds so they won’t develop fully.
To make a split in a queenright hive, divide the hive vertically so each half has equal proportions of brood and honey. Set one half up in the bottom super (with brood in the middle) and place the other half in the second super, after shaking all the bees off the frames from the second super into the first super.
Place a queen excluder between the two supers and leave for two to three hours depending upon temperature (it’s quicker when it’s warmer). During this time the nurse bees will have come up and covered the brood frames in the upper super. You now have a hive with the old queen in the bottom super and a queenless super on top, full of bees.
Separate the two halves, and press a protected queen cell into the centre of a frame of brood in the top queenless super (make a little gap for it by cutting out a few capped cells). Then remove the queen excluder and replace it with a split board, with the entrance facing away from the main hive entrance (a split board is a crown board with an small entrance on one end). Replace the roof and you have made a split.
Some commercial beekeepers will remove the bottom super entirely and move it to a different apiary or a different location in the same yard. The field bees return to the old hive position boosting the population of the top split.
Back to the swarm. Experience and size will tell the beekeeper if it’s a prime swarm or a cast or second swarm. If you can’t tell, it’s a good idea to include a frame of open brood in the middle of the prepared hive to use the bee’s instinct to look after brood, rather then swarm off again following a virgin queen. (This technique works most of the time but not always.)
Adding a frame of open brood also gives the swarm a head start towards establishing a new hive. I also include three or four foundation frames interspersed with frames of drawn comb so that bees with wax glands in full production can draw out the foundation frames.
In the late afternoon, place the prepared hive in its permanent location and take the swarm container to it. Select a frame of open brood from another hive and shake off all the bees. (You can include a frame or two of honey if the weather is about to change.)
Place the brood comb in the centre of the super. Remove three outside frames from the super and pour half the bees into the gap created, then gently put the frames back in. The frames will go down on their own as the bees spread out into the box. Put on the crown board and roof, then tip the rest of the bees out on to the entrance so they can walk in. I generally place a small sheet of coreflute in front of the entrance so the bees can walk straight into the entrance. You now have a new hive.
The swarm can be used as an increase or after the new queen in the original hive is laying, remove the old queen from the swarm hive and unite the bees back onto the original hive by using two sheets of newsprint between the boxes.
Remember that strong hives have the potential to swarm right up until the main honey flow starts. Continue to do quick inspections for queen cells every seven to 10 days by lifting the top brood super back and looking along the bottom bars for developing queen cells. Once you see an egg or a larva in the queen cells, split the hive or reduce the hive’s congestion in some way.
November in our countryside is a time of dearth as the weather is often inclement due to equinoctial winds. Ground sources such as dandelion have finished and willows have finished, so there’s very little pollen and nectar coming in. The bees can quickly use any stored nectar and pollen in brood rearing and if we have a period of wet weather, the hives can rapidly run out of stores. If the bees don’t get any nourishment promptly, they will cannibalise the young brood in order to survive.
Hives generally need feeding during this dearth period to keep brood production going, as the main flow is about 30 days away and the bees produced now are the ones that will bring in your honey crop. A break in brood rearing due to starvation means fewer bees to bring in the crop.
As I’ve stated in earlier columns, a hive with two supers full of bees is a good production unit. However, a single super with seven frames of brood and bees filling the whole super will also be a reasonable production unit by December, and won’t have a tendency to swarm as long as you give it enough drawn frames in the honey supers.
New beekeepers: continue to feed the hive using a solution of two parts sugar to one part water to keep the bees drawing out frames and storing the sugar water. Ideally we want the bees to have drawn out two supers of frames.
The same advice goes for those with top-bar hives. It’s very important to get frames drawn out so the bees can fill them all with nectar before winter. Most hives that died during the last winter will have died from starvation, through reinvasion by varroa mites or simply because varroa treatments were put in too late. It was a warm winter and bees were active in my region all the way through. Those that didn’t put in extra treatments in June and July will have lost hives.
The warm winter has also meant that a lot of our pests have had an easy time. Rats have breeding up and are now chewing away at my hives. It only takes them a few nights to eat right through a super to get to the honey supplies.
Mice are also a problem. I accounted for 11 mice in one of my dead-out hives—this hive was the most active in winter, robbing honey and shortly afterwards, it was dead due to mites. Then the mice moved in through the top feeder and were onto their second generation when I discovered the mess. They had eaten nearly all the dead capped brood, so it was hard to determine if any disease was involved.
After dispatching all but one that got away, I put a super with brood and bees on top and will monitor what happen in the next few months. I believe it should be all right as I hadn’t found any other disease in that apiary.
The method I used to dispatch the mice was to drive them down into the bottom two supers and block the entrance. I gradually removed the frames, then sliced and jabbed them with the hive tool as I removed the frames.
Another bad wasp season?
Recently there was an item on the breakfast news that a beekeeper in the central North Island lost 400 hives to wasps this autumn. It’s devastating to put all the work in and get the hives going, only to lose them during the robbing season. Wasps collect nectar year round to support their nests and when flowering stops, they resort to raiding beehives. Some beekeepers have found that Carniolan bees are far better at defending their hives than our Italian-cross bees, which tend to give up under a determined attack.
I have found the odd queen wasp hibernating under the roof of some hives but forgot to check whether the wasps had mites underneath before I squashed them. I’m not very good at live and let live as far as wasps are concerned.
Check feed and pollen (there should be pollen in the outside brood nest frames and a good band of pollen around the top of the frames. Check for AFB cells in frames of emerging brood. Raise queen cells. Super hives ahead of their needs.
Requeen any failing hives for spotty/patchy brood. Check every seven to 10 days for queen cell development. Cull out old frames and any with broken lugs. Fit foundation into comb honey frames.
Check that your spring varroa treatments have worked with a sugar shake or alcohol wash and get the treatments out well before the honey flow starts. In the USA they are recommending a total treatment time of six weeks to prevent chemical build-up in the wax.