Oxford Bees

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Bees flying and foraging at Headington Hill Hall perpetual hive

The bees in the perpetual hive in Headington Hill Hall park were flying at 1pm today -- 13th February.

There were flights every 3-5 seconds and I saw one bee land near me which had dark red pollen baskets. I couldn't check that she was carrying pollen but it seems the most likely. There were red Hellebores nearby which I think were probably the source of the pollen

The flowers in bloom nearby were

  • Hellebore (half a dozen or so within 20m of the hive. Some were red)
  • Snowdrop
  • Crocus (several hundred in flower within 150m of the hive)
  • Mahonia (very few flowers)
  • Lawn Daisy (very few flowers)

Pollen is usually a sign that there is brood in the hive.

November weather

It's been windy and rainy recently. I checked yesterday on the 3 colonies in my out apiary. They're all upright (which is nice) and ticking over. There is evidence of brood emerging, with lots of Varroa mixed into the chewed cappings. The cold spring must have knocked back the Varroa but they built up again in the Autumn.

So far, so fine.

The Varroa finally appear

The weather has turned colder, with only a few hours when it's warm enough for the bees to fly. Yesterday they were very busy in my out apiary.

My bee group remarked that their hives had a lot of activity at their entrances, with lots of orientation flights. They suggested that there had been a burst of young bees hatched in the previous days and these were getting to know the area. The drop off in brood rearing may also have been releasing nurse bees to fly.

There were a lot of chewed brood cappings on my hive floors showing that there have been lots of hatching. The flip side of this was that there were finally a few more Varroa bodies to count. The volume of hive floor debris made it hard to count accurately -- I would have needed to mix the debris with Methylated Spirits to see them clearly. I estimate that there were 2-4 dozen mites on the floors of colonies 8 and 12. There were only half a dozen or so on the floor of colony 4. I suspect that colony 4 had less because their dearth of stores may have reduced their number of brood.

All the hives look fine. All had strong defenses and plenty of flying bees. There was not very much pollen coming in, nor was there much pollen on the hive floors.

Colony 11 united with Colony 1 but was it a success?

A week ago I brought Colony 11 back to my apiary in Headington and combined it with Colony 1. I'm not sure whether to call it a success or a failure but it is now done.

I moved Colony 11 again from its temporary location back to Headington on the evening of Saturday 8th Sept. Early the next morning. I removed the top of Hive A and Hive B. I placed a sheet of newspaper over the crown board. I cracked the body of Hive B from its base and placed it on top of of the newspaper. The hives were now separated but joined.

Twenty four hours later, on Monday morning, there were the corpses of 2 or 3 dozen bees on the landing board. I suppose that these were casualties from the combination which had been dragged out of the hive and left for later disposal. Later that day they were all gone. This pile of corpses was alarming but it was not a huge number of dead. I don't know whether this is normal.

Colony 1 seems untroubled by the combination. It is still strong, with bees flying on foraging expeditions and pollen coming in. The base board shows some wax moth but very few Varroa. I took the body of Hive B off yesterday. It still had some honey in it but the Commercial frames are too big for my extractor. I put it away from the hive and allowed the bees to rob the remainder from it.

I have misgivings about encouraging robbing but there is only one hive in my Headington apiary so it shouldn't trigger the worst aspects of contagious robbing. I don't know how else to remove honey from a hive which will be empty over winter. It makes sense to remove the honey to deter Wax Moth and to reduce the risk of spreading disease. I wanted the bees in Hive A to move it but they were reluctant to move sealed stores down into their main area. I would have had to unseal the honey cells which is difficult with my tools (ie a knife).

The task is almost complete and mostly successful. I'm sorry that Colony 11 didn't make it. It was a survivor colony -- untreated and with low incident of Varroa. I would have been interested to see how it fared.

Ivy Honey

Ivy is a major late crop for bees. There is a lot available around Oxford and the bees love it.

The problem for bee keepers is that the Ivy honey sets very hard and doesn't taste nice. The taste is not much of a problem because the honey won't spin out in an extractor but the hard set makes it less useful in Winter for the bees.

Honey which sets releases water during crystallisation which can ferment inside the cell. Apparently the fermented liquid can give the bees Dysentry.

The bees have to work quite hard to clear out crystallised honey from cells. I frequently find sugar crystals on the hive floor which have been laboriously excavated by worker bees.

The end for Colony 11

I moved Colony 11 to another site in the hope that it would recover. I put honey in a feeder to bolster it. It didn't stop the robbing, although it did significantly reduce it.

Yesterday I plucked up courage and actually examined the comb in the brood area. There were no brood and I couldn't find a Queen. I decided that there was no point feeding wasps or other bees. It was time to combine Hive B (Colony 11) with Hive A (Colony 1).

Last night I shut the hive. At 7pm there was a great deal of activity at the hive entrance which suggested robbing by bees. I came back after 9pm and all was quiet. This morning at 5am I moved the hive back to my home apiary.

I used the newspaper combining method. Take the top off the destination hive. Place a sheet of newspaper over the top of the hive. Remove the floor of the source hive. Place on top of the destination hive so that both hives are separated by the newspaper. The smell of the two hives should mingle so that there won't be fighting once the newspaper is punctured.

I opened Hive A but left the crown board on top. I placed a  thin stick on the crown board and laid the newspaper over it. I then cracked Hive B off its floor and placed it on top. The smell of banana wafted up from Hive A as its bees signaled alarm but only for a moment. The two hives were joined in under 5 minutes. The only near upset was when the newspaper blew off. Once Hive B was on top I made a tiny adjustment to its position and then regretted doing so. Newspaper is very easily torn so it would have been better to place it badly and leave it than to rip the paper. I think that I got away with it.

The bees from Hive A were flying strongly at 6:30am. I didn't see any evidence of fighting. I'll look again later in the day.

Ivy is flowering

I smelled the first scent of Ivy flowering today. There was also appeared to be a bit more activity at the hive entrances. There is a lot of Ivy around Oxford.

Robbery! Colony 11 not fine after all

The unfortunate Colony 11 has been robbed today by Colony 1. I think that I've stemmed the robbing but I will have to move Colony 11 for the second time tonight.

The action began around lunchtime today. There was a big increase in activity at the entrance of Colony 11 and Colony 1. There were bees flying widely around my garden; their flight paths were hard to follow. There were bees behind the hive and under it too. They crawled under the base board. I thought this was strange but didn't see immediately that it was robbing.

All through this afternoon there has been lots of activity around Colony 11. There have also been crawling bees -- some of them tired; some appearing to have paralysed wings; one missing legs. I tried shielding the hive entrance with a wooden sheet (just visible in the photograph) but this didn't appear to stop the robbing. Eventually I stopped up most of the entrance. I've seen bees squeezing through the remaining gap. I haven't see whether this has stopped the robbing.

Colony 11 moved and apparently fine

I moved Colony 11 on Thursday night (30th Aug). The move was simple and worked smoothly. I removed empty supers during the day and then strapped up the hive. I then waited until after dusk, blocked the entrance and then lifted the whole hive down to a waiting car. At the other end it was simple too. After half an hour on the stand in my garden I opened the door to the hive. No drama.

Yesterday morning (Friday) there were orientation flights leaving from the hive. All day there was activity. The bees were not even slightly defensive. I will look out for pollen coming in today.

The next question is how to recover them before winter. I will have to feed them but I don't want to create the conditions for them to be robbed here too. There are active foraging wasps here. I don't think that they're as aggressive and persistent as those in central Oxford. If there is an opportunity today I shall cover the entrances and try to get a feeder onto the hive.

Wasps overwhelming Colony 11

Two weeks have passed since I declared that there was 'no drama'. Today Colony 11 is under severe pressure from wasp attack. Today there were maybe 3 or 4 wasps using the entrance for every bee. Inside there were far fewer bees than I would have expected and there was less honey. On the floor of the hive were a great many severed bee legs.

I removed the top 2 supers which were superfluous. I put a piece of thick paper over the hive entrance which seemed to stop the approach of the wasps -- at least for the moment. I am considering moving the hive as soon as possible.

Wax Moth!

Today I earned the exclamation mark! I found the largest infestation of Wax Moth that I've ever seen.

It was my own fault, of course. I had left a stack of brood comb on my workbench and forgotten about it. I found it today a day or two after the larvae had woven their cocoons but before pupation had properly begun. There was a lump of cocoons half as big as my fist.

There were hundreds of larvae and cocoons. I had left the combs on top of some tools and a hive part. The cocoons were everywhere. I had to pick them out of frame grooves; around a hanging ruler; from inside a wood plane; and from off the bench top. Wherever there was a hole or covered area there were cocoons.

We keep chickens. Chickens love live food and they are very attentive when you give them wax moth larvae. I spent at least half an hour picking the larvae and cocoons off stuff from my shed. They spent a little bit longer extracting the larvae. I won't say that it was good work but the timing was lucky and the chickens were happy. Things could have been worse.

Cleaning out after a harvest

I harvested a super of honey from Colony 1 a couple of weeks ago. I also had some uncapped honey in frames which had been Hive C containing Colony 11 before I went through all the complicated rearrangements.

The conventional view is that the bees will thoroughly and carefully clean comb if you put it on their hive. In my wisdom I found an exception to this view.

I put an Ashforth style feeder on the hive and then placed the hive parts on top. An Ashforth completely covers the top of a National hive body so it all fitted together neatly. The bees could get to the comb to clean it. Everything should have been fine.

The problem was that, while the bees did move up into this new addition to their hive, they did not remove the honey from. Instead they just sat around. Some of them built a weird structure in the feeder. It looked like honey comb which had been designed by Gaudi.

The comb was built around some wax which I'd given them to clean up. They encased it and built comb up over it. I have an idea that the bees only build straight comb when the smell of the hive is right. Sometimes they go haywire but usually, if there's a nectar flow going,  they'll build beautiful straight and regular comb. Not this time.

After a few days I took the 2 boxes off the top of the hive and took the risky step of setting them outside to be robbed. I placed them uncovered over least 5 metres from the hive. The bees went nuts and had cleaned out all the honey in a few hours.

The wasps set about robbing too. It's my belief that the smell of the wasps is made acceptable when they've been eating honey. If they've been robbing then they acquire that smell. This made me concerned that they might then successfully rob the hive but I've seen no evidence of them getting in.

No drama from my city hives

There is very little to report from my hives in Oxford. They're bringing in pollen; there are Drones leaving and returning; there are very few Varroa falling onto the base board*; there are lots of wasps but none getting into the hives.

It's all very calm.

* maybe a dozen between the 4 hives

Heatwave 2018

The UK has been experiencing a heatwave for at least six weeks:

Maximum temperatures at RAF Benson airfield, Oxfordshire during heatwave of June-July 2018
Source: UK Met Office Weather Observations Website

The bees have been fine. There has been forage and there are water sources for them to use. We have not been fine. It's hot and we're not used to it.

A few days ago I put on my bee suit at 4pm and in under 10 minutes I was drenched with sweat. Sweat dripped from my nose and puddled on the visor of my veil. It soaked my t-shirt and my socks and ran down my chest as I leaned over. It wasn't nice.

This is a downside to bee keeping. Suits are really hot. If you have an angry hive it also helps to layer up under your suit -- which makes it even hotter. It's enough to make you want to be a low intervention bee keeper who inspects mostly be examining what falls out of the hive :-)

It hasn't only been hot. It's been very very dry. Weather stations around Oxford show that there has been rain in the county, but in Headington we've seen only about 3 occasions of rain during the 6 weeks, and those were only a few minutes of light rain. Oxford city and Headington seem to have lower rainfall than the surrounding county. It may be the topography, but equally it could be my imagination.

The consequence of this extended hot, dry period haven't been too bad. The winter was wet so we haven't had a drought. Most deeper rooted annuals and perennials have been fine, with excellent flowers, fruit and seeds. There was almost no June gap in flowering, possibly because the cold spring delayed the onset of flowering. Grass has fared very badly where it's been cut and I expect to see heat stress affecting trees which we'll see for several years. The grass has particularly affected the look of the heatwave, with brown parks and gardens. Where grass has been left uncut it hasn't been badly affected.

Cooler Autumnal weather is on its way. There's even rain predicted. I'll be interested to see whether it turns up.

Wasps everywhere but none appear to be getting inside

My hives are surrounded by at least half a dozen wasps which want to rob them. They zig-zag in front of the entrance; they crawl in under the Varroa screen; they wait at the edges and drink from the water tray. They want the honey but they can't get in.

All of the hives in central Oxford have small doors and strong guards. Three of the four have at least 20 bees visible on the outside of the hive entrance. One hive had fewer visible but appeared to be just as effective at guarding.

Having so many Wasps around makes it hard to open the hives. Once robbers get in they are more likely to return. They're as happy to gain entry from the roof as through the door. I think that they're also more likely to successfully return and re-enter the hive because they smell of the honey from that hive. Robbing can become a storm which only abates when the hive is moved out of range of the robbers. That's a lot of work just for a look inside.

Robbers notwithstanding, I took a very quick look inside the hives in central Oxford to check that none had run out of space. They all have sufficient space for the moment. They are also all dropping pollen, which suggests they're still laying and there  is forage for them. There is plenty of door activity at all the hives. I found no Varroa mites on the base board. I was some evidence of Wax Moth and some evidence of new comb.

Colony 1 in Headington is also faring well. There are some wasps, but fewer than in central Oxford. There is pollen being dropped and plenty of door activity.

Busy but steady across all hives

Things seem to be going well in all my colonies. They're all busy at their entrances. There are wasps near the entrance to every hive but they don't appear to be getting in. The Varroa counts are very low and there's pollen on all the base boards.

Colony 1 still has ants infesting the base board so it's hard to be confident that I'm seeing the whole story. Certainly the bees are still removing and dropping crystallised honey -- presumably from last season. They are bringing in pollen which suggests they have unsealed brood. There are brood cappings which suggest that they also have emerging brood. All good signs. I saw what I took to be wax moth around the hives but I may have been mistaken.

Colony 11 is still vigorous. It has pollen and cappings on the base board. There was a smattering of wax platelets indicating new comb. I looked hard and found one solitary Varroa mite. It was alive.

Colony 04 is collecting pollen again which suggests that it now has brood again. I suspect that it took a break an unconfirmed swarming event in late June. There may be some wax moth in the hive but otherwise everything looks good. I found one solitary Varroa mite in this hive too.

Colonies 08 and 12 are doing fine. Bringing in pollen; keeping out the wasps. Colony 12 had about half a dozen Varroa mites, all dead.

I'm curious about why there are so few Varroa mites visible on the base board. The season is getting on and I would expect to see a lot more. I have ideas about what is going on which I'll put into another blog post.