In January, the great river of fast moving air known as the ‘Jet Steam’ elected due to circumstance, to push into the north Atlantic Ocean. Not normally an issue, but a contributor to some lousy weather in the British Isles some months later. This year, for some reason, instead of moving on and away, it stayed on station and created weather misery for us all, on these green and pleasant islands, lands that soak up weather fronts from the Atlantic and turn that rain into bright green grass, billions of flowers, and untold hectares of healthy fertile crops.
The extended poor weather resulted in fewer crops of flowers and food for our bees. Many of our hives are showing signs of a serious struggle to grow, to remain stable or to be as productive as they need to be. Our bees need their own stock of honey and of pollen in order to survive the coming winter. Though a warm summers evening with smoke gently drifting lazily through sunlit branches may seem that all is well, it indeed masked the terrible war that was taking place.
Jack, Our Bee Sciences Officer and I cleaned out the tool shed at the apiary two weeks ago and were stunned by the volume of wasps in the shed. We felt certain a nest had to be there, but after cleaning out everything, and after I removed all the sugar and fondant, the wasps slowly stopped returning to the shed to gorge themselves on our carelessly spilled sugar feeds. This week there was little sign of those wasps in the shed. But the war for food was in effect still taking place. Wasps will, like the bees, hunt for any meagre food source. The wasps cannot survive in a healthy hive as the bees kill them and dump them out of the hive. Some of our hives are not so healthy.
I will protect the hive I am referring to by calling her ‘M’. I knew ‘M’ was weak and without her Queen, we had re-Queened her and the bee population was dwindling fast, we fed them sugar in the hopes they would use it to build comb for the queen to lay eggs in. We promised to lay in some comb from another hive, Ian, our Apiary Manager wanted to use a precious comb or two from his good hive. It is a gamble. I did not fully understand everything that was happening, hindsight is a wonderful tool.
In the few days we were away from the apiary, wasps came to the hive and methodically ate their way through the bees and the stocks. The bees could not defend the hive due to their low numbers as the wasps treated it like some fast food drive through. When I inspected the hive I was saddened that there were so few bees, and the Queen was missing. The comb was dry for the most part with very few stores, and the wasps were everywhere. It is the first time I had seen it like this, a new experience. No eggs from the new queen, no larvae, nothing.
Pulling the varroa board to check for mites and other clues to the sadness of the hive alarmed me. I just could not believe what I was looking at. Legs, bee heads, wings, antennae and even the odd abdomen. Not just some, but a lot, an awful lot. I saw what was left of bees that had fought to the death, of bees that had been carved up and packaged for flight, of the war between a few bees in hive ‘M’ and an endless supply of wasps calling in for dinner.
We have reduced the entrance to the smallest hole and re-queened her. Ian has inserted an active frame of brood. We are giving ‘M’ every chance to fight back and recover from the sad and sick war that has been happening in her hive. Bee keeping can be a lot of fun, but it carries a perilous responsibility to maintain control over the pests and difficulties that beset an active hive. The weather has not helped and it can be easy to shrug it off and blame the endless rain, the location or even the wasps, when in reality, the fault does not lie in any of those things. Sure they contributed, but I feel my lack of knowledge and awareness was the biggest single contributor to the damage I found in the hive. If only I had known.