Although natural beeks employ a low intervention approach, there can come times when some direct intervention may be appropriate.
I do not use miticides, rather allowing the colonies to utilise natural selection to find those that have the right behaviours to deal with varroa themselves and keep the mites’ numbers low. This has been working quite well. However, the unusually warm winter resulted in no brood break this year, and one of my hives, previously untroubled by varroa, developed an alarming number of mites. Any colony, even a mite-resistant one, can be overwhelmed by varroa if the numbers are high enough to reproduce faster than they are groomed off. So, with the varroa drop count reaching levels of ~50 a day, I finally decided to intervene directly with this colony and undertook to produce a shook swarm.
This is a drastic manipulation where the adult bees are transferred to a new hive, abandoning the infested brood. You have to bear in mind that with this high mite load in a small spring colony, the colony is otherwise doomed: the important thing I felt was to give the superorganism a fighting chance, as it had thus far proven to have reasonably robust genetics.
While not completely eliminating the varroa, the shook swarm technique reduces their numbers dramatically as the varroa spend most of their life-cycle in the brood cells and only a few “phoretic” mites are hitching a ride on the adults at any one time. As long as the bees can eliminate varroa faster than they breed, the colony should thrive.
First find the queen
The basic procedure is simple in theory – set up a clean empty hive, ideally in the same location as the original one so returning foragers don’t get confused; transfer the queen and adult bees.
First catch the queen in a queen clip (a specialised item a bit like a hair clip, with gaps wide enough for workers to get in/out but not the larger queen). Pop the queen in her clip into your pocket, where it is warm and dark and out of harm’s way, and then move the adult bees to the new hive where they can build new, clean comb – gently brushing or shaking them off the old brood comb, which is then discarded. Release the queen into her new hive.
Well – that’s the theory.
I began by looking for the queen, who as everyone knows is always to be found on the brood comb. And as everyone knows, the brood comb in a Warré is always in the lowest box, with honey stored above. There were only two occupied boxes, so it was obvious which one she’d be in. So, I set aside the top ‘honey’ box and proceeded to look for her majesty in the second box down.
Bees don’t read the books
However, as I worked my way towards the last comb of that lower box seeking her, it dawned on me that I had not yet seen any brood… Yes, in this hive, the bees had put the honey in the lower box and the brood in the top!
As soon as I peeled back the cloth on top of the other box it was obvious from observing where the bees clustered most densely that the nest was the three bars at one side of that box. Possibly they set up their winter nest there to be warmer and, later, got a significant input of food (syrup) from me and nectar from ivy which they stored below.
Following this observation it was fairly straightforward to locate the queen. But by the time I spotted her and caught her in the queen clip, I had probably spent ~30 minutes messing around and the colony was spread all over the open mass of boxes and comb. But now I could finally begin to transfer bees into the new hive.
As the colony was now a little dispersed, I first placed the queen, still in her clip, inside the new hive, so the others could smell her and stay put once transferred. Then I used a goose feather to brush the bees off the old combs and into the hive. It’s the first time I’ve used a feather and unlike my bee brush, the firm but very soft feather didn’t seem to bother them at all. If you can get a nice big one, I recommend using it.
Most of the bees were now in or around the new hive and so I freed the queen and closed the hive up to allow them to settle. Placing a feeder in the quilt box, I fed them back some of the honey from their own, just harvested, combs.
What did I do wrong?
Apart from taking rather a long time to find the queen, can you spot the obvious mistake?
Well, initially I made the error of leaving them with NO actual comb, and no options. And although I started feeding them back their own liquid honey, they soon stopped taking it.
One sees the same thing with small swarms with insufficient comb to have both brood and stores. Feeding can then cease, so that the stores in their comb get used freeing some space for brood. After 2 days, realising my mistake and checking with Gareth, I put two half-empty honeycombs back into the hive. They began feeding again, but after about 2 jars’ worth they lost interest but seemed happy with the stores they had, and I could see they had begun some fresh new comb on another bar.
It’s perhaps worth noting that during this entire operation, I was looking at the bees and comb closely, using this as an opportunity to do a really thorough inspection and filling in an inspection record. I only saw a small handful of bees with deformed wings, so perhaps the high varroa load was not an insuperable issue (the main reason varroa are a problem is that they spread Deformed Wing Virus). It was also notable that there were no drones or signs of queen cells – our late Spring has delayed the build-up of numbers and the swarming instinct.
I was amazed how calm the bees were throughout. They didn’t seem to associate me with the ongoing destruction of their home, and they were not aggressive the next day either.
Two weeks later
At the hive entrance, you can see the bees are carrying in pollen, so it looks like the queen is laying OK.
This view through a window shows the new comb as bright white against the older honeycomb at the side.
In the evening, all these combs are covered by a mass of bees, but during the day most are out foraging, leaving some clustered over the new comb they have built. This must be brood comb – they are not re-using the old honeycomb I left them for raising young: I think they are using empty cells in the old comb to process (evaporate) nectar.
What about the varroa?
The number of varroa counted by observing those caught on a sticky floor is just a fraction of the mites in the colony. Estimates of the ratio of mites-in-brood-cells to phoretic mites outside brood cells vary, but it’s at least 5 to 1. The National Bee Unit has a calculator which reckons 53/day on the floor at this time of year, equated to 2,700 in the entire colony. Which is why I knew I needed to do something dramatic to save the colony.
Following the shook swarm, the varroa infestation has been knocked back from a peak of 53/day to just 4/day. This gives the bees the opportunity to build up their numbers without most of the brood being infested by mites.
And the honey?
I gave two bars of capped honeycomb back to the colony. I then froze some of the honeycomb in case we need to emergency-feed this colony later in the year, and crushed and strained the rest into jars.
I got several jars of remarkably clear, liquid honey. Unfortunately… while it was certainly sweet, it was pretty tasteless, with very little floral component; and incredibly runny, even though the water content is only 17% (measured with a refractometer). It just pours off my toast. I suspect it’s mainly just the ‘honeyed’ sugar I fed them last autumn to ensure they had sufficient stores for winter.
And that raises a couple of interesting points. Firstly it is notable that Warré colonies don’t need nearly as many stores to survive winter as thin walled framed hives (my impression from monitoring forums is about one third). Secondly, it makes you wonder just how much flavourless artificial feed there is in cheap honey.
Drumming the bees out
A reader of this article has suggested that a simpler approach might have been to drum the bees out and into a new box as shown in this short YouTube clip. This is an increasingly common practise in Germany.
I would be interested to have any feedback. I will update this post if anything dramatic happens like colony failure, and will continue to monitor mite drop, but it looks like the colony is now set to survive and thrive.
Six weeks later in late May, the colony has six combs and is growing steadily. It seems very healthy.