Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Brood! We have brood!

Towards the end of August two mini hives, each containing a virgin queen, a cupful of worker bees and some fondant (food), were installed in a secluded area of the woodlands at Tŷ Hyll. The idea being that the virgin queens would mate with drones from nearby hives and go on to produce a pure breed of native ‘northern European dark’ bees as opposed to more exotic species less suited to our climate.

This was our first go at mating and there was much anticipation two weeks later when we opened the mini hives to see what had happened. Pete Barrar, from the National Beekeeping Centre for Wales, eased off the roof and lifted out the empty queen cell. It was good that it was empty but where was the queen? Had she been accepted or had she been killed by the other bees? Had she mated and started laying eggs?

Lots of bees were buzzing away as we gazed on through the mesh of our bee suits and then Pete exclaimed ‘Brood! We have capped brood!’ It was a bit like Houston saying ‘we have lift off’. Bees crawled all over the frame and as we watched the queen, with her body longer than the others, she reversed into a cell to deposit an egg, but at that moment a worker walked on her head and put her off her stride.
Brood! We have brood!
Peter Barrar, National Beekeeping Centre for Wales

Frames were delicately reinserted into the expanded polystyrene hive, not very aesthetic but they are strong and with good insulating properties. A slab of fondant, which looked like sticky icing sugar, was cut out of a pack and placed at the end of the hive. Then a plastic sheet was laid over the tops of the frames to encourage the bees downwards so that the roof could be replaced without squashing anyone.

We moved to mini hive number two, perched on a pedestal with a stone on top to weigh it down. There were lots of bees inside but no brood to be seen. This queen was a couple of days younger than the other and maybe she needed a bit more time? Or maybe the process hadn’t worked? Either way we were all elated that we had proved the point that we could rear queen bees.

Pete explained that the queen would have mated maybe fifteen times (i.e. with fifteen drones), over the course of one to three nuptial flights, until her spermatheca was full. This holds something like six million sperm which the queen selectively releases during her productive life. Unlike species from warmer climates such as the Mediterranean, which lay eggs at full speed throughout the year, native queens reduce the number of eggs to reflect the climate and the amount of available forage. In the summer our queen could be producing up to 2,000 eggs per day.

Our mated queen will be used to requeen a colony that needs a new queen, to keep that colony going through the winter months. September is too late in the season for a queen to create a new colony to be strong enough to get through the winter so next year we will start the mating much earlier.  ‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly’ .... for it is then too late to store up honey before the flowers begin to fade.

Thank you to everyone who has helped to make this wonderful act of creation possible and establish a process which will significantly help local beekeepers, native bees and the knock-on benefits of pollination.

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