The bees in this area have been acting very unusually this season: firstly high mortality at the end of winter, and now far fewer swarms than usual. We’ve been discussing this amongst ourselves and here are some preliminary conclusions.
We’ve only had a handful of swarms this year; and comparing notes with the OBKA swarms liaison officer they are seeing a similar lack of swarms across the county – he’s had about 6 calls where 2 years ago he’d have had 200 by now. [Although this number reduced dramatically after BBKA introduced the new online find-a-local-swarm-collector thing on their website].
He notes his bees are just staying in their hives rather than swarming. This reinforces our own group’s experiences: massive, crowded colonies. “I’ve never known a year like this” he says. “And in 2 – 3 weeks it won’t be worth collecting them as it will be too late in the year for them to build up stores for winter”.
Currently we have ~20 people wanting ~40 swarms. Last year we collected at least 30 swarms and had expected no problem fulfilling our requirements. But as they say, bees don’t read the beekeeping manuals. So it looks like we will have a lot of disappointed people – we just have to use this as a useful lesson and learn what we can from it.
Obviously if a swarm does show up, we’ll prioritise members with no bees at all.
As this lack of swarms seems common all across Oxfordshire and maybe beyond, I’ve no doubt the unusual weather this year has something to do with it. We started with a “false spring” followed by a week long very cold snap (the “Beast form the East” as the papers called it). This false start tricked many colonies into expending too many resources when they started laying brood, and as Gino spotted, is the most likely reason so many died. [They clustered over the brood to keep it warm and once nearby food was eaten, they starved inches away from stores.]
A further factor may be: here in rural north Oxfordshire, the mass blossoming of spring flowers and trees suddenly switched off around June 1st. I’ve never seen such a dramatic and pronounced “June gap” (semi starvation period for bees). Although some other things are flowering it is in nowhere near the same quantity as a week ago. This will probably also discourage bees from swarming. So, I expect them to stay in hives this year. The likely consequences are mixed:
- They will not experience a brood break so parasite levels (especially varroa) will be high, so we will probably see a lot of deformed wings on colonies which have only recently switched to a no-treatment regime.
- On the other hand they will not squander resources swarming, their numbers will be high and you can expect them to build up bumper honey reserves this year.
- Watch for lots of drones, because when hives don’t produce queens (producing a swarm is a high risk strategy) they produce drones to pass their genes to whatever queens are in the area.
Another thing we’ve seen is that of those swarms we’ve collected, several have immediately absconded (which was very rare in previous years). Gareth has commented that prime swarms have the oldest, most experienced workers and perhaps they’ve already preselected a new home if the mass of the swarm is kept in a while by poor weather. He’s seen a swarm come straight out of a hive and off to a new home without first clustering. So it may be an idea to hive swarms more than 3 miles from their pickup point, especially if we think they are prime swarms, so they don’t know where they are and are more likely to stay in the hive. However there is a balance to keep here as we know local bees thrive best in their own locale, so “not much more than 3 miles” is probably optimum.
Local forage issues?
OBKA’s swarm control officer mentioned something else interesting: he has several apiaries and the ones on arable land had massive losses, 8/10 at one location. He saw they had some kind of problem back in June – they stopped being “hives of activity”. Forage problems? Whereas his hives in other areas, like on a livestock farm, were all fine and are producing good crops of honey. Again this reflects what Gino in an Oxfordshire village has commented on: rural honey yields these days seem to depend entirely on what farmers decide to grow near you, there is little wild land to forage on.