The beekeeping year started out so well. Our two hives had overwintered successfully and powered through spring with neat frames of brood, plentiful pollen stores, and lots of straw-coloured honey. We artificially swarmed one of the hives in June and proudly increased our apiary size by half. To our absolute joy, several swarms landed in our orchard and we managed to catch and settle two of them; one in a new hive, one in a nucleus, adding them to the apiary as well (you can read about that here). We felt like the luckiest beekeepers in Somerset. But then things took a downward turn.
A month of on and off rainy, mizzly weather set in and seemed always to fall on the only days we had free to check the bees. Unable to open the hives in the downpours without incurring the wrath of the colonies, our regular inspections fell off schedule. When the sunshine finally came, we lifted the hive lids to find a series of disappointments.
The two scavenged swarms had swarmed again, leaving a handful of stragglers behind with no brood and no replacement queen. They must have taken off soon after we caught them, as there were no signs that they had begun to set up a permanent home. Perhaps they had a better location in mind for their new hives and we had just been an unwelcome interception to their journey.
In the next hive along, we expected to find our favourite golden queen and her offspring. She had led a swarm into our orchard the year before and the colony had turned out to be both prolific and good tempered. We had tried to suppress her fondness for moving house by tricking her with the artificial swarm earlier in the year, but after a quick look through the frames it was clear it hadn’t worked. She had swarmed anyway. A heavy blow.
We had left the other half of the above colony in a separate hive with a single, knobbly queen cell on one of the frames. As part of the artificial swarm process, we had selected the best looking one to keep. And, to prevent other queens hatching and taking off with smaller swarms, we destroyed all the others with a swift flick of the hive tool. We had intentionally left the hive undisturbed for a few weeks to give the new queen a chance to hatch, mate and start laying but, when the time came to inspect, we could see no sign of her. When we reached the frame with the chosen queen cell, the reason why became clear. The cell was a dud and hadn’t hatched. There were, however, signs of new royalty in the hive in the form of a hatched emergency queen cell. We hopefully scoured the frames for the new scrub queen, or a frame full of eggs to show she was there and laying, but again found only bad news. A determined little worker bee had stepped up to the role instead, clumsily filling the honeycomb with her own unfertilised eggs, two or three to a cell, off-centre or dribbling down the cell sides. The replacement queen must have swarmed too, taking a smaller trickle of worker bees with her; or perhaps she was killed by the colony, who may well have mistaken the laying worker for a suitable queen replacement and felt they didn’t need another.
In our original and final hive there was some good news at last. Our reliable caramel-coloured queen was as productive as ever. We spotted her busily working her way across a frame and filling it up with eggs, while her workers stored pollen in the gaps, and honey in the frame corners and supers above. As the colony is doing well, we swapped one of their brood frames with one from the old golden queen’s hive. Bee numbers in that hive are still fairly high, so by giving them a frame of eggs, they will have a chance to create a new queen. It’s a bit of a long shot at this time of year, but we have nothing to lose.
So, we have one colony at least. We will leave the couple of filled honey supers with the bees, to give them the best chance of getting through the winter and coming out strong on the other side. For us, that means there will be no honey harvest this year. We have enough jars leftover from previous years to keep us going, but it’s disheartening none the less. Here’s hoping we’ll have more luck next year.