In the Apiary: July

In the Apiary in July.
Nigel  Salmon.

1 Main flow – enough supers on hives?

2 Reduce entrances on nuclei/weak hives

3 Monitor varroa population/mite drop

4 Open mesh floors

Writing these notes in the second week of June, it is quite difficult to predict when plants and trees will begin flowering – for many years now everything has flowered very early, up to a month early in some cases. We had a hot spell of weather at the end of May, and the oilseed rape yielded very well – I have just finished extracting 260 pounds honey from my 2 hives in the garden, and the honey in the final two supers was definitely becoming very viscous (another week and it would probably have become solid). I, and I’m sure other beekeepers, am always getting caught in the perennial problem of  ‘if I don’t get it off within a week it may start to crystallise in the comb, but if I take it too early it will not have less than 20% water content and so will not be saleable’. Perhaps they could genetically modify the plant so that it produced a nectar that was lower in glucose and higher in fructose, then rapidly crystallising honey would not be a problem.

At the last beginners meeting at the association apiary we all saw how easy it was to accidently kill a queen bee; a hive was being dismantled prior to inspection and on trying to lift the final super it was found that the plastic excluder was still stuck to the underside even though the hive tool had been inserted all the way round to try and free it. The super was lowered back down and the excluder fully freed, but on removal of the super we found the queen jammed with her thorax firmly wedged in one of the slots – dead of course! The lesson to be learned is that you MUST make sure the excluder is fully free before lifting the final super, and the top bars are clear of bees before replacing it after the inspection. Needless to say this is not a problem with framed wire excluders, which I prefer to use.

It is noticeable that over the years the so-called ‘June gap’ just doesn’t seem to happen anymore, and we are more likely to have a late July/August gap.

From about the second or third week of June to the middle of July, limes, blackberry, sweet chestnut, summer flowering (spring-sown) oilseed rape, white clover and a huge variety of cultivated and wild flowers will bloom. If the weather is hot, and there has been enough rainfall in the preceeding weeks/months, (and there certainly has this year!), you can expect a good, steady flow.  Bees will be fully occupied, with a constant stream of foragers coming and going from the hives, and they can be handled with the minimum of fuss. However, more often than not, the weather is changeable and the bees become frustrated by being couped up in the hive unable to forage freely, with a consequent falling off in their good behaviour.

Advice this month is to make sure they have enough supers for the incoming nectar. As we get towards the middle of July, I would refrain from adding any more as the nectar flow will usually slow and finally stop altogether, and you don’t want a number of half-full supers to extract, but be prepared to be flexible.

Once the flows have all but stopped, the bees will turn their attention to defending their hoard, and for up to a week, can be unapproachable. If there is no good reason for disturbing them, then I would leave them alone to get on with ripening and sealing the honey. With little income, bees will now be on the look-out for free sweets, so it will pay you to make sure that all hive parts fit together well without any gaps through which bees can gain entry – it is amazing how quickly robbing bees can clear a hive out of all its honey. By the same token, ensure that bees gain no access to cleared (or clearing) supers, even for only a few minutes, by covering all supers until they can be removed to a bee-tight building. The excitement caused by allowing bees access to honey at this time of the year will make sure you don’t do it again!

Any hive that is low on numbers of bees, and all nuclei, should have their entrances reduced so that they can keep robbing bees (and wasps) out. If you become aware of robbing in progress (a lot of activity around a couple of hives when all others are quiet), then try to ascertain who is the robber and who is doing the robbing, close up the hive being robbed (with ventilation – leave the varroa tray out, with just the mesh in place, for instance) trapping as many of the robbers inside as possible, then temporarily move the hive to another apiary or site at least 3 miles away. The trapped bees doing the robbing will now treat this hive as their own. Now go back to the original apiary and temporarily reduce ALL the entrances – they can, if desired, be opened again after a few days. The removed hive can be returned after a few weeks or so, by which time the robbing bees should have forgotten their old site.

Monitor the varroa situation very carefully this month – if your uncapped drone brood indicates that the mite population may be getting out of hand (it is the percentage of infected drone cells rather than the number of mites that you need to ascertain), or occasional bees are seen falling from the hive entrances with deformed wings,

then you must treat as soon as possible; if there is still honey on the hive, then check the literature to see whether your preferred treatment has a withdrawal period for honey.

At the end of July/beginning of August, some colonies may slow or stop their queen from laying, so if you check a colony and find only sealed brood and no queen, eggs or larvae, do not jump to the conclusion that they are queenless. Nearly all of the queenless hives that I have examined have shown bees clustering thickly over the brood combs, such that it is difficult to see the comb underneath (bees do not normally cluster in large numbers in the broodnest unless preparing to swarm or it is cold). If the bees look and behave normally, then they are probably fine.

For a few years I ran my hives on open-mesh floors, only replacing the collecting trays when treating with Apiguard. Leaving the collecting tray out means that all the hive debris falls clear of the hive, along with any live mites (up to 20% mites drop off or are knocked or brushed off the bees – they can’t return if they fall through an open mesh floor).  Leaving the collecting trays out also reduces the incidence of wax moth to almost nil. I did not detect any detrimental effect on colony behaviour or temper – if anything they were slightly better behaved. In hot weather they don’t cluster all up the hive front and nectar is ripened more quickly; top ventilation is not required at any time of year.  Unfortunately, they have no effect on the swarming urge of the bees! However, I have gone back to leaving the collecting trays in all year, cleaning them at least once a week. I nearly lost my bees during the winter of 2010/2011, and the weather just doesn’t seem warm enough during the greater part of the summer to warrant leaving the bees unprotected below. I also found that combs were never fully drawn to the bottom bar if the collecting tray was left out.

If you keep your bees in an out-apiary then rearing your own queens is a very good idea. You don’t need to do grafting – de-queen a colony that you can afford to produce less honey, destroy any queen cells they make themselves, then add a frame of eggs/very young larvae from your best colony. They will make queen cells on this frame, and once they are sealed you can carefully cut them out and put them in Apideas with a small number of workers.  Once the queens have emerged, mated and are laying they can be introduced to small nuclei and left to build up slowly. A judgement can then be made on their relative docility (don’t use smoke), and any that fall short of your expectations can be culled. The others can be used to re-queen your hives in the autumn, and any left over can be kept in nuclei over the winter in case of losses; any surplus nuclei can be sold in the spring.

If, like me, you only have a couple of hives in your back garden then you will probably feel it is safer to get your queens from a reliable bee breeder to guarantee docility. I would personally recommend Buckfast queens from Ged Marshall as they also have the advantage of very low swarming and high productivity along with the aforementioned docility.

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