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February Notes from the Abbey Beekeeper

We are in the middle of a cold snap with perishing, biting east winds. There was one pet day earlier this week (19thFeb) and the bees took full advantage of the benign conditions to come out and enjoy the brief sunshine and warmth.

As we head into a new beekeeping season it is good to remind ourselves of the huge importance of bees to our world and its future. We know that approximately 70% of all the food we eat is dependent on pollination by bees and other insects. It was Einstein who calculated that without bees, human beings would only survive for four years. While largely confined to commercial beekeepers the sudden disappearance of  bees (CCD) is a cause of concern. We beekeepers must do what we can to ensure, not only the survival of the honeybee but of human life itself! That should provide all the motivation we need to get ready for the new season.

I came across an interesting snippet somewhere on improving the temperament of a colony by reducing drone brood to a minimum. It is generally thought that temperament is largely the result of  male influence, so if you have a bad tempered hive, removing the drones could help to calm them!

But then I read about reducing Varroa using drone comb as a Varroa sink. The idea is that since varroa prefer drone brood, we encourage the building of drone brood and remove it when it is full of varroa! But some people suggest that this also has its problems! We are expecting a queen to lay thousands of extra drone eggs. In a bad year, asking a poorly mated queen to lay extra drones maybe detrimental to the colony.

I have done very little in the apiary in the last month. The one big thing is that I now have a solar wax extractor in place. It is an experimental design and may need refinement as they year goes on. It does mean that all those bits of wax will now find a useful end instead of being stored and ending up as a meal for the wax moth.
It is time to get working on preparing frames and cleaning brood boxes for the new season and  maybe more important deciding on ones beekeeping strategy for the coming year.

Hints

Up to this point in the year ventilation has been the priority in the hive, but now that brood rearing is starting the priority switches to heat conservation. We can help conserve heat by closing feed holes, reducing entrances and adding inserts under Varroa floors.

At this time of the year it may be an idea to refresh our knowledge about the hive inmates. Over the next months I will deal with the queen, workers and drones.

Queen

The life of the colony revolves round the queen. She has a regal title but she doesn’t actually rule the hive for she has no real power. But without her the colony dies as she is the only fertile female, (the egg laying machine), in the hive.

She mates during the first month of life with several drones and spends practically all of her life in darkness deep in the hive, only emerging on two occasions:  to mate and later to swarm. She lives for four or five years but two or three is the norm.

In addition to laying eggs the queen provides cohesion in the hive through the secretion of  pheromones. This queen substance keeps the workers happy and secure. Once her fertility drops the chemical composition of her pheromones changes and workers pick this up and can become aimless, listless and even agitated.

The attendant worker bees noting the change in the queen’s health, feed an egg with royal jelly to build an emergency queen cell.  Sixteen days later a queen emerges in a process called supersede. She kills her own mother and takes control of the colony. A queenless colony will normally produce a number of replacement cells but the first out will destroy any potential usurpers.

The queen is laid in queen cells and fed continuously on royal jelly, a glandular secretion that is full of hormones and honey that makes the queen grow rapidly.  Three days after hatching she is ready to mate and leaves the hive if the temperature outside is 16 centigrade or higher and flies about thirty feet  into the air followed by a number of drones.

Once mated she is ready to lay and does so by backing her into one of the cells and attaching an egg to the rear wall of a cell with bee glue. She then moves to the next cell laying up to 2000 eggs a day. Each egg looks like a small grain of rice and is laid so that it stands upright. As it develops over the next few days it falls over onto its side. It takes three days to hatch from the egg and when it does it requires feeding.

If not destined to become a queen the diet changes to a diet of pollen and honey.  The larva then moults several times and takes on a crescent shape. Six days later the larva straightens out and stops eating. At this point the cell is capped by workers using a mixture of wax and proposes. During the next 12 days the larva pupates spins a cocoon and transforms from a grub to an insect .

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