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I have had two swarm calls so far but they were only casts. This is a small secondary swarm headed by a virgin queen. They are bees never-the-less and by uniting them I have recouped one of my colony losses. They were treated with 24 hours of Apivar at the same time as hiving to knock down any varroa which had hitched a ride.

The girls have been foraging for oil-seed-rape honey but the nectar flow wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped due to the continual dry weather. This was also accompanied by foraging for hawthorn nectar on the may blossom. This is a rare honey which changes the aroma of the rape honey and crystallises very coarsely.

May blossom in the spinney

Queen cells had started appearing so now was the time to start making nucleus colonies to replace my winter losses. One QC in hive 3 was used to start a nucleus but the girls in their wisdom tore it down. A week later they had made 6 emergency queen cells.

One hive made three beautiful queen cells so I established another nucleus and gave the third cell to the other nucleus with the emergency cells.

The colony making the queen cells has not made any more so no need to do an artificial swarm.

During the CV lockdown, the road passing the apiary is no longer a tunnel of air pollution so the bees can can forage right up to the roadside.

Another lockdown effect that we have noticed is that without the noise pollution we can hear the whole garden humming.

On 12th of May, there were bees all round the garden pond so I knew the rape had finished. In the absence of nectar to fan for cooling and also thirst quenching they had resorted to water. I put clearer-boards on early next morning so I could do the first extraction the following day.

A second brief extraction for just two tubs and that was that. The June gap had already started a week before the end of May.

Although on the surface it looked as if all 10 hives had survived the winter, the first spring inspections revealed otherwise. Two were queenless and two had drone-laying queens. The fifth was so weak it really didn’t deserve to survive.

Result; I have lost half my stock. Only once before in over 40 years have I ever lost colonies in the winter.

What was strange was that queenless hives 5 and 6 continued to forage keenly bringing in both nectar and pollen. The latter is said to indicate a colony being queen-right. Test frames of eggs from another colony were inserted into both. Had they no source of queen pheromones they would have immediately started to draw out emergency queen cells. No such cells were developed which was a weird phenomenon. The colonies continued to dwindle as no eggs were being laid.

They had to be united with another colony but a normal unite wouldn’t work as they thought they already had a queen. Their population was used to supplement the abysmally small, but queenright hive 2. Bit by bit they were moved closer together until they could be shaken out in front of 2. First I caged the queen in hive 2 just as a precaution and shook out the smaller colony and took their hive right away. A few days later I then did the same with the larger. The result is that hive 2 now has sufficient bees to care for brood and the queen is merrily laying away. By the beginning of May they should be large enough to take a super.

The rape came on flower and the first supers have gone onto the five healthy hives. This is where the excitement starts to build and we see the distinct difference between colonies. By the last week of April, hive 3 has three supers and hive 4 is still on its first.

The month has been gloriously sunny and as I gardened each day, the air was full of the gentle hum of the girls hard at work in the greengage branches and down at ground level on the wallflowers.

Of course, continual sunshine meant that the nectar dried up and by week four they were getting a little cross. A solid day’s rain in the last week has hopefully corrected the situation.

However, only half the usual number of bees means half the usual amount of honey so they’ll have to work twice as hard. Maybe the lack of air pollution due to CV lockdown will give them extra impetus.

To those I promised bees this spring, don’t hold your breath.

Four of the hives have now been spring-cleaned. A freshly scorched box, floor, entrance block and crown board are positioned alongside the hive and frames are removed one by one, inspected, scraped clean and placed in the new box. Halfway through the exercise, boxes are exchanged whilst they are easier to lift, and the remaining frames moved across. Hopefully the queen will be seen and the egg laying rate assessed. Unfortunately the first hive I did this year had a drone-laying queen. How could I tell? The larvae and brood in worker-size cells had domed cappings like full-sized drone brood. The quickest and easiest way to rescue what remained of the colony was to unite rapidly. The whole colony was shaken out during the afternoon and the workers wasted no time in seeking refuge in the neighbouring hive.

Comb with drone cappings in worker cells

At the time of cleaning, the Apivar has been removed as the weekly varroa counts have dropped to zero or the odd 1.

This has been the month when the world was hit by the CV19 virus. Not only were supermarkets hit by panic buying but honey sales as well. In four days I sold an average month’s number of jars. No sooner had I instituted rationing and put a notice in the porch to that effect than the government introduced a lock-down so sales ceased.

The foragers are more interested in pollen rather than nectar. The hives I’ve cleaned still have loads of honey stores but are in need of pollen for brood food. I’ve removed several nice clean frames full of honey and replaced them with drawn comb in order to give more laying capacity. The honey-full combs are being sterilized and will be used as food for any swarms.

The Dartington hive is finished. I’ve cut some letter-box slots for the varroa tray and finished painting it. Supers will have to wait as doing real beekeeping now calls.

Work continues in both the apiary and the workshop.

We’ve had no long cold spell again this winter. Maybe climate change means they are a thing of the past?

Never-the-less oxalic acid treatment had to be done, brood or no brood. Total drop varied from 570 down to 70 which I didn’t think was too bad. There was still a small natural drop the following week so I’ve followed up with an Apivar treatment.

Weeks of dull cloudy and cold weather has kept the bees confined to hive but a morning sunshine early in the month brought them out. It wasn’t just cleansing flights either. The aroma of the winter honeysuckle was hanging like a cloud around the shrub and the girls were foraging madly. I have at long last succeeded in getting some winter aconite to grow in the damson copse and their gloriously yellow blooms were a real magnet. No aconite in the spinney yet which is a real disappointment

Honeybees working the aconite

The Dartington Long-hive continues (unapace) to grow steadily. I have tried to do a little each day through the winter. The brood box is now finished, the roof is assembled and it is all ready for proofing. Honeyboxes and insulated dummy-boards can be gradually completed throughout the spring. The former are of course not vital as I can always use conventional supers if necessary.

The honey DNA testing results have come back from the CEH (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology). Some results were as expected but there were some surprises as well. The three varieties of open-pollenated rape were the main leaders in the spring and they showed up quite distinctly. The surprise was a noticeable content of sycamore. The spinney, which is only a third of an acre, consists of sycamore and elm 50:50 about twenty five years old but already yielding well. Unfortunately sycamore is an alien species and everyone I’ve consulted about the spinney’s future has said “You can get those out!”. We’ll see.

In addition to giving my smoker a thorough clean-out I shall also be going through the cupboards in the bee-shed and clearing things which haven’t been used for years.

In addition I’ve decided to return to a long-waiting project. This autumn, Saffron Walden Beekeepers had a visiting speaker who talked about different hive designs. One in particular which he was recommending was a Dartington Long Hive.

Some years ago, when Saffron Walden division organised the Essex Beekeepers conference we had Robin Dartington as one of our visiting speakers and he demonstrated how to use his new hive to the most advantage. I was very impressed and bought all his publications. I followed this with a visit to his apiary where we spent half a day working his hives.

Robin Dartington inspecting a colony in a long hive

I bought some of the wood to make my own hive but then the bee season started and it got shelved. I have now resurrected all the pieces from the back of the bee-shed and hope the workshop won’t be too cold to enable me to push the project further along. As it is now fifteen years since I started the project, I’ve accumulated a lot of off-cuts in various sizes so hopefully I will be able to finish using recycled wood.

Cut timber for a Dartington Long Hive

That’s it for another year.

The harvest was just sufficient to meet my annual needs as it passed my target by a mere 5kg. I still have a super of comb to cut but that is only about half full and much of that not really suitable for the size of the cutter. However, we’ll see.

All the honey in the supers has been extracted and brood-box frames have been moved around to ensure that all colonies have sufficient stores until I give them their winter feed.

Having extracted the honey, I replaced the supers of wet frames above an empty box with the crown board feed-hole cracked open. Three supers a day and they soon had them all licked clean and dry. The excitement started some potential robbing so the affected hives were fitted with an entrance block with a one-bee-width hole; much easier to defend.

The girls have been plagued with CBPV (Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus) this year and I fear that several colonies wont make it through the winter. I have united colonies down to a total of ten in number rather than the usual eight just to be on the safe side.

Varroa-drop figures are still being collected. Hive 9 became frighteningly high so on Stuart Roweth’s advice I have increased the number of Beegyms to three. There is now a distinct pattern of varroa drop beneath these.

Feeding starts soon so I’d better buy my sugar for a 2:1 feed.

We had some rape honey this year albeit only a small amount but rape honey never-the-less. With judicious blending and seeding this could give a year’s supply of creamed honey.

Seeding? You warm and clear a tub of honey and then when it’s cool you add 10% of a creamed honey which has a nice smooth consistency. Provided the cleared honey would have eventually crystalised this will now do so at a much faster rate and with the same consistency as the seeding material.

All bar two of my 2018 queened colonies needed artificial swarming due probably to the weather. These were successfully completed but it did mean several under-strength colonies and a lot of hives. Combine this with the swarms I’d had to take and I was approaching my hive-insurance limit.

At least four virgin queens failed to return from mating flights. I don’t know why I should be so prone to this problem. Any ideas? Inserting test frames and allowing them to develop emergency queens did allow a temporary solution. Not the best, admittedly, but a later supersedure would then correct the problem.

The June gap was much more noticeable this year and spanned the entire month. I can measure it by the amount of bee activity at the pond. In the absence of nectar to evaporate down, the colonies need water as a substitute liquid for their air conditioning.

It is now the end of the month and the swarm colonies are being united down to a sensible number before an end of season unite with my selected queen colonies. Two of them had somehow rendered themselves queenless so a quick test frame and they were united with the colony alongside. This was done with the newspaper method to mask the colony odour as they nibbled through.

Uniting two colonies using the newspaper method

Hive number 6 is without doubt the best producing this year. No artificial swarm was needed the the queen continued with copious laying. As I write, I have already extracted 5½ supers and there is still much to come

Hive 6 with six supers

Six of my colonies had 2018 queens and the remaining two were older. The oldest was marked white as a 2015 queen but she was still the most prolific layer producing some very enthusiastic workers. Out of all of these it was the younger queens which started making swarm cells along the bottoms of the central frames. Their first attempts were cut away to try and discourage them but in the end I had to perform some Pagden artificial swarms and make up nucleus colonies with the better queen cells. Within a matter of days the number of hives grew from single figures to rapidly approaching twenty.

We had a visit from Greg Smith of the Hill Street Chocolatiers who wanted to see and photograph the little ladies producing the delicious filling for some of their extra special chocolates.

The hornet traps don’t seem to have been very effective. I removed the tin can holding the apple juice as the ascorbic acid effected the tin-plate producing a most unpleasant odour. Straight juice in the plastic bait holder was not very effective as I watched a queen wasp gathering nest material from a wooden door right alongside. I’ll take them down now and clean them out.

Weekly inspections continued in earnest as the honey harvest mounted throughout the month. Fortunately the open-pollenated oil-seed-rape was much better than the hybrid variety and for the first time if three years I now have some rape honey. I also have about ten supers of partially crystallised honey but these are being washed out one by one as I have the hose-pipe on to water the garden.

I have been called to several swarms, one of which was in the grounds of Wimbish Primary School so we had an impromptu outdoor lesson on honeybees and how to collect a swarm. A lesson I’m sure they’ll remember for a long time.

Other swarms have been collected in Saffron Walden, Debden, Camps End, and one lucky one which came from elsewhere but chose to hang up in the apiary right alongside its new home.

Six of the hives have now been spring-cleaned which puts me way ahead of last year. Several new frames of foundation were introduced and several 2018 queens clipped and marked.

Hive 2 is a disappointment as the queen was a late hatching in 2018 and failed to mate successfully. Although she is laying, she is a poor little specimen, hardly bigger than a worker and is trying valiantly to keep the colony going. Deformed Wing Virus is also clearly visible. There are four little hand-size patches of brood and a small quantity of bees so I’ll move them into a nucleus hive and keep them going until I can re-queen with a better specimen. This was one of the beegym hives so the gyms have now been moved to hive three which is of a more respectable size.

On the 13th March a most enjoyable evening was held at Thaxted Day Centre when we had a DIY session on making your own Asian Hornet trap. Following my demonstration, members of Saffron Walden Beekeepers each used plastic bottles and coat hangers to manufacture their own and then went home proudly carrying their evening’s efforts. My two traps are now baited with home-pressed apple juice with one hanging in the apiary and the other by the bee shed.

We had one freak week in February when the temperature was high enough to start spring cleaning. If you can do gardening in your shirtsleeves then it’s warm enough to open a hive.

Two hives were completed, being given a cleaned and sanitized brood box, floor and crown board. The amount of brood unfortunately was not as much as I would have expected given the mildness of the winter. Both hives only had four patches of brood; one on either side of the two central frames. The weather turned chilly again so the other colonies will have to wait. Although there was still plenty of stores, most of it had crystallized so for the first time ever I’ve had to offer them fondant. Not all have taken it down as there is plenty of water around for them to use the crystallized. In addition there has also been plenty of fresh forage. The large ornamental plum has been positively alive with workers when it’s had the sun on it and the white bullace was also worked vigorously when that was in flower

Plum tree in flower

Again, oxalic acid treatment was not as effective as I wished so I’ve had to follow it up with Apivar. Weekly counts of varroa drop show the numbers now down into single figures but hopefully I’ll get six of the hives down to continuous zero before the Apivar has to come out.

Only six of the hives have the chemical treatment as hives 1 and 2 are running another experiment with Beegyms. Stuart Roweth found better results by placing the gyms above the brood frames so I’ve placed two gyms in an eke above the brood in these hives. I’ll let you know the figures as they progress