Nine of us gathered in Steeple Aston to share lunch, exchange beekeeping experiences, and inspect a Warré hive in a back garden apiary on what turned out to be a very sunny afternoon in mid-April.
We were joined by seasonal Oxfordshire bee inspector Phil Spillane, whom we quizzed mercilessly to take advantage of his extensive experience. The weather was fine and the mood of both the bees and humans was calm and harmonious throughout.
Everyone had something interesting to share over a pot-luck lunch. We saw pictures of rope stays to prevent tall Warré stacks toppling in high winds, bearding on hives where the bees are overheating inside, discussed rebates and other hive carpentry details such as the subtle ventilation needed to stop condensation in Warré quilts, how to prepare Warré bars with ridges of wax, and it turned out that several people had brought samples of honey which we felt compelled to compare (yum). We also talked about how to extract honey and wash wax – at this apiary we use the simple method of crushing comb in a strainer that drips honey into a container below, and washing the wax, still in the strainer afterwards. We covered why you should not harvest uncapped honey (it ferments), and whether you can eat wax (yes). Robert described how he freezes comb so it can be fed back to a colony in danger of starvation; and how he finds if he remains calm after making a mistake and riling up the bees, it will soothe them.
Phil the bee inspector handed out leaflets on the Small Hive Beetle, and how to identify Foul Brood, and fielded a variety of questions, including:
Q. How do you choose where to inspect? A. Bee inspectors concentrate the bulk of their inspections in areas where there is a disease outbreak – their primary job is to control disease. (Phil recommends signing up with BeeBase for early warning of local problems.)
Q. When bees hang out on the front of a hive in a big cluster is it an indicator that they about to swarm? A. It’s called bearding, and is thought to happen most often on hot days because the hive is overheating, so spare workers are parked outside.
Q. Last August one hive seemed to be half drones and total population was dwindling, whilst neighbouring hives had very few drones and lots more workers. We assumed its queen had failed and it was full of drone laying workers, but later it bounced back and is thriving again. What was going on? A. Sometimes workers get fed up with a queen (she may be not laying well or damaged in some way) and start raising a new one (supercedure). At this point they stop excluding drones. August is about the time that other hives chuck their drones out, and drones often visit other hives, so they can all end up at the hive “in anarchy” for a free lunch. It sounds like this probably happened with the workers resuming orderly behaviour once the new queen was enthroned, eventually evicting all the drones and building up stores for winter.
Q. Do Inspectors have the correct tools suitable for inspecting Warré / Top Bar hives? A. All bee inspectors are being issued with a new tool, like an extra long hive tool with a blade at the end, to help them inspect Top Bar and Warré hives. (Phil also noted that Thorne will be stocking this tool soon).
Warré Hive inspection
There are three Warré hives at this apiary. Their varroa mite drops had been checked the previous week and averaged 5, 1 and 0 mites / day over 5 days. Note that the danger signal to watch for is not a particular number of mites per day, but whether the drop rate suddenly increases, indicating the colony can no longer control the varroa load.
The 5 mites/day colony has survived quite happily with this kind of load previously and unless the rate rises significantly, it should be fine on past performance as it seems to have good hygeine behaviours. In fact it is worth noting that the last time any colony in this apiary was treated was July 2012 (almost 3 years – initially, one colony derived from Buckfasts died, but we restocked from local mongrel swarms and bees from other natural beeks and haven’t had significant varroa problems since – Oxfordshire’s bees seem to be getting increasingly varroa-resistant). However, perhaps ironically, the zero-drop colony worried me because it is a small colony and while they are carrying pollen in, the total lack of any varroa in the sample made me suspect queen failure. (No varroa implies no brood. Even “varroa resistant” colonies generally drop one or two mites a day.)
We examined the sticky vaselined paper used to monitor the mite fall and discussed what else we could tell from this, and looked at actual mites; it was clear that debris falls in bands under combs, with most of the mites found in one area (under the brood nest) and a different, lighter colour of debris further from the hive entrance where honey is being processed. More populous hives have more debris.
People took the opportunity to heft hives to get a feel for what a box full of honey weighs, and peer at bees on comb through the hive windows.
Phil helped inspect the small, zero-drop colony. There were two combs with reasonable amounts of capped workers, no signs of disease, no deformed wings (which would be another sign of varroa); we saw queen, eggs and larvae. He decreed it was doing fine, it just has a slower cycle than most colonies and looked like it was concentrating all its resources on raising workers to “critical mass” – the threshold where the colony has enough spare workers to build up excess stores and brood, rather than just maintain population – and was about to explode in numbers. The fact that it was not currently raising any drones perhaps contributes to the 0 varroa drop, as varroa breed more profusely in the larger drone cells.
This reinforced my view that whilst this colony may be small and poor at producing a honey crop, the genetics are very worth preserving. It survived winter in an incredibly small cluster and with very few stores – I had assumed it would starve but the Warré was well insulated – which, combined with zero varroa drop are traits worth conserving.
Note that we only inspected one hive, where there was a specific question that we wanted to resolve. We did not inspect the other hives, because there’s no reason to think they have a problem. They’re carrying pollen in, have plenty of bees, and are exceptionally calm. There are no dead bees outside the entrance and varroa counts are not alarming. One clearly has at least a box of stores (8 combs) above its brood box. The other hive is trickier to inspect – the bees are actually in a grow-down above Warré boxes in an attempt to convert a Top bar colony into a Warré one – but the varroa count, and observations of behaviour at the hive entrance combined with the notable weight of the grow-down box indicate that the colony is healthy.
This is expected to be late May – prime swarm season! – more news once arrangements are finalised.