The following may be of interest to other Oxfordshire beeks experiencing a similar climate. I should mention, for readers looking back at this after 2012, that we’ve just had the wettest April on record: for the last 6 weeks, it seemed that whenever the bees popped out for a bit of foraging it began raining again within half an hour. There are even reports of a sizable tornado moving through Oxfordshire yesterday! I’ve been feeding them some weak syrup recently (1kg sugar to 1 litre water with some nettles, lemon juice and lavender).
Last weekend the sun emerged and I finally managed to get an inspection of our two hives done. The stores situation could be summarised as “plenty of pollen, very light on nectar”. One had no capped honey at all. But no sign of disease and loads of bees.
I invited a neighbour with a conventional hive to watch. Both of us have noticed our bees have had difficulty gathering stores in this weather / location. Their bees had swarmed the day before (they recaptured them), mine didn’t seem quite ready – see below. Once we opened up the first TBH they were quite surprised at just how many bees there were – about 13 – 14 bars full, which I suppose is about 40,000 bees. So that may be an interesting comparison between a TBH and a National.
Other contrasts with conventional hives: when explaining how we do a split with TBH’s, my neighbour started to say “but how do you know which half has the queen?” Then, realising it didn’t matter, laughed “but that’s too easy! It’s cheating!” They were also fascinated to see bees chaining, which of course you don’t see with framed combs. They also commented on the large number of drones, and how cell sizes for drones were so huge in freely built comb – how do bees make drones with foundation?! – and on one comb you could see large drone cells near the centre, but smaller ones at the bottom, which I thought rather unusual.
The first hive had several queen cells along the periphery of some combs, so we assumed they were about to swarm; but on further inspection these cells were empty. Patches of healthy looking brood could be seen even on bar 13 [i.e. 13 away from the entrance] – I didn’t like that, I want some pure-honeycomb combs to harvest later in the year; perhaps I need to remove those to encourage concentrated brood combs nearer the entrance.
The second hive was doing better overall, i.e. actually had a little capped honey in reserve, but hadn’t got any queen cells. I would have liked to split both hives to avoid losing bees once the stores hit critical mass, but there just weren’t enough stores to do so. It seemed to me that neither colony looked interested in swarming quite yet, perhaps because if all the flying workers zoomed off, the remaining colony would have insufficient stores to survive before new foragers were getting enough food in. Also, in the exceptional weather we’ve had for weeks, any swarm leaving the hive would have a high chance of being caught in heavy rain and dying.