Some updates to answer a few questions we got this month . . .
bees clustering outside the hive
Recently, you've probably noticed bees clustering outside the hive. This isn't a problem, but the bees are trying to reduce heat in the hive, because, even though it's wet, it's quite warm. Liz has erected an umbrella over her hive - thanks, a great idea :) Lots of bodies in the hive means a good amount of heat generated, so they'll camp outside to reduce it. They also do this in the dry, hot weather. It's not a precurser to swarming, and this shouldn't be a problem at this time of year. You're wlcome to place a shade over the hive if you like, to give some shade, although the bees will be ok as they are.. A dish of water placed nearby, with shingle or a rock in it helps give a safe water supply if there's no natural water available. Bees use water to help process nectar to honey. You may see bees at troughs, puddles or bird-baths etc sometimes.
Another concern was swarming. We did have a few swarms head off early in the season. This is normal bee behaviour, their natural way of spreading! The old queen leaves, with a group of workers to find a new site. Scouts will have already been and searched out a new spot to make the new nest. Back in the original hive will be some new queens about to hatch, reared especially to take over the hive in the old queens' absence. There will also be lots of brood in various stages and enough workers to care for the remaining hive. Drones will usually be lurking around too, or will have taken flight to chase other queens out on their mating flights. So both hives will survive and continue as normal. The new queens hatch and the strongest one will either kill or chase off lesser ones, who may sometimes make a smaller swarm and leave to find a new home.
A swarm of bees looks scarey, and the movies have made a meal of it, but bees are actually very passive and a swarm can be handled quite easily by the brave and/or initiated, as they are not protecting their hive or honey stores. If you see a swarm or your hive swarms, please let us know. We can sometimes retrieve it or call someone who can. It's sad to let them get completely away, as the varroa will soon kill it off. Sometimes, however, it can't be helped, and it is after all, a natural behaviour, which we can't always prevent. Giving plenty of space for the queen to lay into usually helps, although sometimes, even after we added a brand new box to Craig's, they still went - half an hour later! Nature can't really be bargained with, ay :)
Queen bees have one mating in their lifetime. When she first hatches, she'll spend a week or two as a virgin, hanging around in the hive getting strong, with the occasional practice flight. Then she'll decide 'it's time' and leave, alone, flying high in the sky, her pheremones (sex hormones) calling drones from all over the region (they can 'smell' a queen, much the same as dogs will smell a bitch in heat from miles away!) She will lead the boys higher and higher, until only the strongest guys will be able to keep up. She'll mate with many of them over a couple of flights, thus gaining good, strong and varied genes for her thousands of offspring. Throughout her life (up to about 5 years in the wild) she'll lay all her eggs from this one period of mating flights. She won't continue mating through her life, nor does she mate in the hive with the drones present (her sons!).
Contrary to popular belief, drones don't mate with their mum, but will fly out to mate other virgin queens on their maiden flights. They then die, spent but happy lads :) You may sometimes see drones (larger than workers) dead on the ground in early summer. (you'll know it's a drone by the smile)
Please check your hive, as this wet weather may cause flooding around the hive and it may need to be moved to higher ground. Many thanks to those of you who have done so! You can block up the entrance quickly with a cloth/towel and will need two people to lift or drag the hive, making sure you hold the bottom board (base) and take care not to push the boxes apart :) Don't leave blocked overnight though, or they may suffocate if lots of bees. Please only do this if you feel confident.