Too much fiddling can be disastrous for your bees
I have just been to visit a couple of our members in Crowborough. They are a couple who have not done our beginners course and despite keeping bees for three years they still do not have a sense of what a strong colony should look like.
Those who do our beginners course should by the end of the summer have a sense of what a strong colony looks like. They should understand how many bees a 14×12 brood box can contain. They hopefully gain an understanding that the bees need to expand over nearly all the frames in the brood box before a super is added. If you put a draughty super above a queen excluder on a small box of bees there is no way that they are ever going to use it! Please, please remember that everybody.
The scenario that I saw yesterday is similar but different. For a start the colony was on a brood and a half. The beekeepers in question had in their enthusiasm taken out drawn frames from the brood box into which the Queen might have been able to expand and replaced them with foundation. Wax is an insulator and the result of removing the drawn comb was to create an even colder unit for this poor colony. Now the litany of poor decisions doesn't stop there. They had also added a super to allow the Queen to expand. Please don't add supers if the bees have not drawn out almost all the frames in your brood box. Experienced beekeepers know that a queen always moves upwards so it is important not to add a super until most of the frames in the bottom box have been drawn out. They had furthermore added a queen excluder and another super on top of that for good measure. Then to compound the difficulty for that poor colony, they had taken a frame of foundation and placed it in the middle of the brood nest. We have been having really cold nights,even if the daytime temperatures have been quite unseasonably mild, and in consequence brood in that colony was chilled and had died. The bees had just been unable to cluster over the brood. The owners of the colony thought there must be a problem with disease. I'm afraid the only problem was the poor decisions that they had made. They are the ones who are responsible for that brood being chilled and dying.
The Queen looked lovely but there were very few eggs because the bees were struggling to keep the cluster warm. You may think from what I have listed above that not much else could be going wrong. Well, you are wrong. Because the bees are on a brood and a half, the beekeepers in question had unfortunately rearranged the brood frames in the super so that they were no longer above the frames with brood in the bottom box. They had not grasped the fundamental idea that the brood nest is rugby ball shaped and the bees only expand the brood nest when there are enough of them to keep the young larvae warm. I know I have talked about splitting the brood nest with a frame of foundation in one of my emails. Perhaps I was unwise to do so. The only time that you can commit this sin is when you have got an extremely large and prosperous colony and you want to delay them from swarming. Please note that the act of adding a frame of foundation is a "sin". Only sin if you are absolutely sure that the bees can cope with it! In other words be really really sure that the colony is big enough. If in doubt, don't do it!
It is so hard for beginners when they do not have the experience of handling different boxes of bees. It is a privilege for them if they manage to get a nucleus from one of our members and beginners really do not realise how difficult it is to get them bees. In their enthusiasm they can fiddle and over fiddle and this is not always good for their charges. A colony expands gradually and reaches, at some stage, a tipping point. Once you get to the tipping point it's very tough to hold them back. And a colony that is rapidly expanding needs a huge amount of space. But the inverse is true. A small, struggling colony needs to be left alone so that they can get on with what they do best which is build up on a nectar flow. You can try feeding but if a colony is really small even that will stress them out, particularly if the temperatures are really cold. Sorry to have a rant. If the cap fits, wear it and do something differently in the future. Needless to say I shall be checking that colony and their owners every week from now on. The bees deserve better.!!!
Malcolm Wilkie May 11th 2017