ONBG meeting April 2022 – swarm prep

18 bee-folk gathered at Paul’s out-apiary to discuss catching and hiving swarms, inspect TBHs and picnic and gabble about bees. Other topics were winter losses, the 2023 Learning from the Bees conference and mushrooms.

Between us we had 10 different hive types, so there was a lot of experience to draw on and compare. People mentioned: Top Bar Hives, a Cathedral, Warrés, a Freedom hive, a Drayton, WBCs, Nationals, a poly hive, a skep, an alveary, a log hive, and Eric has created a number of customised variants like the “Dreadnought”, a modified WBC with a tunnel between the inner and outer entrances to eliminate the WBC’s susceptibility to wasp raids.

Photo courtesy of Jan

Jan reported on her sideboard bees, (Jack misheard this as cyborg bees which would be even more intriguing). This is a wild colony which swarmed into a sideboard on a covered patio last year. They have successfully overwintered, and she planned to do a cut-out and move them into a National soon. Watch this blog for more info on this breaking story!


Swarms are beginning to appear in our region and Paul gave a brief talk on how to catch and hive them, ably assisted by David acting as a tree while Helen demonstrated how to scrape bees off a wall (David again) into a box with a flexible mat. Some points to bear in mind when catching swarms:

  • Walk away from dangerous collections high up, hanging over water etc. Don’t overlook that swarms are heavy and can overbalance you up a ladder when they suddenly drop into your collecting box.
  • You know if the queen is in the swarm box by the distinctive fanning of Nasonov pheromone by lines of bees, calling the others into the box.
  • Ventilation is important for swarm boxes – swarms can overheat in sunny weather, especially in cars. Rather than just poking holes in a box, Paul said it’s better to use reusable metal mesh (search online for “metal insect mesh”).
  • Use good quality duct tape – the swarm’s heat can melt the glue of cheap types and the bees will get out!
  • Let the bees calm down for at least an hour in a cool spot after moving them to near their final location, or they may still be agitated and abscond.
  • Hive an hour before sunset. The temperature drop at sunset is a big incentive to go in the hive.
  • Do not feed a swarm unless you know it has been hanging around for 3 days and thus used up all its honey stores. You want it to digest any disease spores in that honey. Feeding should be unnecessary unless there is terrible weather.
  • Look at the surface of the swarm cluster. If it is still, you can take your time boxing it. If there is a lot of movement – the scouts are dancing, i.e. directing where to go and the swarm is likely to take off within minutes.

Update: As of 4th May the group has already caught and hived 7 swarms.

Winter losses

ONBG losses (blue) vs other surveys. The most direct comparison is with the BBKA all-Britain results (red). US results haven’t been published as of July.

Each Spring, we survey our non-treatment hives to see how winter losses compare with conventional beekeepers’. This year the survey covered 126 colonies across Oxfordshire (and a handful beyond).

This is one of the few metrics where we can do a semi comparison between our style of beekeeping and conventionally managed hives. However, the BBKA survey doesn’t count colonies going into winter with less than 5 frames of bees, and conventional beekeepers often requeen each year, so it is not a like-for-like comparison – our criteria are tougher.

We tend to use local bees, and harvest relatively little honey. Apart from one year, we generally have more or less the same winter losses, despite not treating or feeding massively – which appears to reinforce our view that bees can manage their health quite well without help.

The graph will be updated with the BBKA results when they are published (probably in ~3 weeks). Other surveys publish even later.

Learning from the Bees 2023

The international LfB conference has previously been in the Netherlands and Germany, but next year is on our doorstep. As the local natural beekeeping groups, we and Hampshire Natural Bees have been asked to provide local support.

TBH inspection

Checking winter debris on inspection board with magnifying glass

After demonstrating the general principles with an empty TBH, we first did an external inspection on hive 6. Hefting showed it was heavy so I had high hopes of harvesting honey.  The bees were taking pollen in at the entrance and behaving purposefully, and the knock test also indicated they were queen right. The inspection panel below the mesh was thick with debris (first time it’s been checked this year) and Jack found some varroa which we examined with a magnifying glass. (Varroa resistance means the hive is in balance with a low level of varroa and thrives despite them – not a total lack of mites.) Through the window we could see comb filled about 60% of the hive and that the polycarbonate window had warped, so bees could emerge. I’ll have to mention that to the manufacturer. (But when we opened the hive we found the bees were filling the gap with propolis.)

Photo courtesy of Jack

After this non-invasive inspection we opened hive 6, rather cautiously as the bees inside can be rather feisty when stressed. Instead we found they were incredibly content today, no health issues and plenty of food coming in. The bees were very thick on the combs, busy raising brood and building new comb. New, white comb has been added this year but alas! The weight was mainly nectar, only a couple of patches of capped honey so no harvest today.

After looking at 3 progressively larger new honeycombs we came to a noticeably darker brood comb with capped worker and drone brood. No sign of problems (unless you fret about swarms and drones). No need to disrupt the colony further – we closed the hive up.

This entry was posted in Apiary visits, Hives, Inspections, Meetings, ONBG, TBH and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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