The bees in my garden, that I have looked after or rather looked at for the past four years, are in the process of failing. It’s sad and I’m puzzling over why this had to happen. I have a few ideas and would welcome comment on them if it helps to make sense of the situation. I ‘asked the bees’ what was going on (before it became so clear they were failing). The word which came to me (and I didn’t know what it meant exactly) was moribund. I thought it meant stagnation but it was worse – dying. So the queen was dying , not dead yet, but dying.
Hive size matters
They appeared to be such a healthy colony last summer and the hive was heavy with winter stores – I couldn’t lift it. They had 3 brood boxes and a super and I was so proud of how they had built up but have I fallen foul of the quality-over-quantity maxim that I hold so dear? Could my hive be too big? I hear Thomas Seeley believes the optimum size of hive to be 40 litres. Does it mean they didn’t swarm when the opportunity was there in the summer because they didn’t need the extra room and then when the queen drew close to the end of her natural life in the winter it was too late? It seems odd that they would get the timing wrong. (For those who, like me, don’t have a clue what 40 litres looks like here’s a nice rucksack)
My next question was if she was still laying brood at all could they not supersede ie feed any larva the royal diet and grow a new queen? At the time the miserable weather made it unlikely there would be flying drones to mate with a virgin queen but that could (and duly did) change. So I left it and watched.
We’re advised to take honey at this point but I don’t mind if wasps and other honey bees eat the stores. And I couldn’t quite let go of the hope that it could turn around. So I waited.
Another theory is that the comb was old now and they choose not to lay new brood in it a fourth year. Time to move then? This decision would have to be taken in the summer when they can swarm and continue their bloodline but it wasn’t. Which raises the possibility – do they want to pass on their genes to the next generation?
My line of thinking presupposes a bee intelligence, I realize that and believe it could be a rewarding way of thinking about how they live. I have chosen not to blame myself for possible errors, for instance I should have change the comb/nadired so they have fresh comb for their new brood. I’m increasingly happy with being an observer of my bees and if they decide they want to move because the house hasn’t been cleaned for years I will wave them off with a tear in my eye and wish them good luck. I will try and offer a new home too.
Skeps and alvearies
In fact my thoughts are now very much on what the optimum homes might be – ones that don’t require the woodwork skills I don’t have. I may be about to bypass the attractive Warré hives that I would have preferred to my Nationals and go for skeps and alvearies. On Sunday I shall make my first straw skep and I have just built the frame of a willow alveary. Will the bees choose to live in one of them? It certainly won’t offer four story Chelsea accommodation but maybe the humble cottagey conditions will encourage timely swarming. It’s a long way from queen wing-clipping isn’t it?
Next: Skep and alveary progress. How to shelter these. Might bees prefer them?