Healthy bees

We've had our bee colony now for nearly a month now, and yesterday the bee inspector came to check their health for us. I'm happy to report that we got the all-clear along with a ton of useful advice, but more on that later. They've produced stores and brood, and it feels like we've got a colony for good now. And this is where the real work begins.

Given how much I tend to go on about them to people, and how I'm likely to be writing about them more frequently than on a weekly basis, I'm going to use this part of my site to let people know about what's happening in our little woodland apiary, as well as back home in Somerset.

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I've been told by beekeeping course leaders several times that if you ever get the offer of a visit from the bee inspector, to accept it and to listen to everything they say. They are experienced practical beekeepers who are appointed by the National Bee Unit (part of the Animal and Plant Health Agency). They are trained in the recognition and control of bee pests and diseases, and part of their job is to look for these and help to eradicate them. My local area is unfortunately a hotspot for European Foul Brood, and with four cases in recent months, we were offered a visit from Avril Earl, our local inspector. This is one of the reasons why registering and updating your BeeBase record is a good idea.

Although no evidence of disease was found, that's not to say everything was quite right inside the hive. Soon after I collected the colony in July, many of them decided to stay in the roof of the hive where I'd left 2kg of sucrose fondant as a housewarming gift. After not long they'd sealed it up with propolis. Fearing we'd cause them to swarm again if we cracked it open, we left it for a few weeks. Avril opened it up, and it was about two-thirds full of wild comb, containing honey and brood. Dan, with his superhuman vision, found the queen doddering around on the inside of the roof, which explains where that brood came from. The only access to the roof was via the two holes in the crownboard. Though we were pretty sure the bees could still move between the levels, the wild comb likely didn't help too much. And so, the queen, along with all the comb, was relocated to the brood box, and a queen excluder added to keep her there.

All this tidying up will help a lot with making feeding a simple and less of an intrusion for the bees. This morning I added a Porter bee escape to the room, encouranging them to get back into the brood box, so feeding just involves removing the roof, opening the rapid feeder, and pouring in syrup. They've helpfully glued the rapid feeder down to the crownboard, so it's pretty secure there now. Winter is coming, and so as their caretakers we will have to keep feeding them so they can build stores to see them through and keep them strong. The food of choice is thick 2:1 sugar syrup, which means less processing and work for the bees before their stores can be capped.

They are a pretty small colony, so the other benefit of this tidying up is to give them a space they're more comfortable in. Avril agreed with Dan's idea that the entrance block should be replaced to help them defend. In the last week or two I've noticed that there are a lot of wasps around. I put it back today and, though a few bees were a bit confused about how to get back in, they seem fine with it. Pretty soon we will also add a mouse guard and consider fitting an anti-robbing screen consisting of a tube the bees have to walk to enter and leave the hive but wasps cannot. I think Wasp Out from Thorne is one example of this. I do wonder about whether this affects the flow of bees coming in and out and what it means for the mysterious world of pheromonal communication, among other things.

Another surprise was that in the middle of one of the broodbox frames were four supersedure cells, two rather new and two more which had been there a little while. The possibility that the queen was isolated became more important now as we tried to work out what the colony may have decided in building these cells. The queen we saw had a red spot, indicating she hatched in 2018, so she's getting on a bit now. It's common practice to destroy queen cells in the name of managing the colony, but not something Dan and I are keen on. Should we override their decision and destroy the two weaker ones? We decided not to interfere, that 'bees know best', especially where maximising the chances of a queenright status of their colony is concerned.

All in all, it was a really educational experience, with that education carefully delivered with consideration for the principles with which we wanted to approach our beekeeping. During the inspection, we spent a long time with our bees, and they were really docile, not even trying to sting. They're so good! I learned more than it's really possible to write up in any detail here (including how to recognise a fluffy young bee, or what happens when a newly-hatched queen bee emerges). Perhaps best of all, we now know we're starting our Wiltshire apiary with a healthy and calm colony of bees. Hopefully from here we can help Colony One become stronger and stronger.