I visited these bees with Paul a few weeks ago to see about removing them. The cottage is due to be renovated at some point, and as we wanted bees for the Marsh, it would be somewhere to relocate these bees before work began. Now is a good time to try and remove bees as they will have minimal stores, but not large amounts of brood, and they should be in the right frame of mind to rebuild comb and build up, thus mitigating the disruption from being disturbed somewhat. We didn’t know where they were in the wall as they were going in through a crack in the brickwork, but at least we would have access to them by removing the plasterboard, given that the cottage is in poor repair.
We had the help of wardens Michael and Andrew to crowbar the plasterboard off the inside wall, and the combs were directly behind the entrance, and the five or so years that the bees had been there had resulted in sizeable combs:
There was a huge amount of stored honey but very little brood, and no eggs or larvae that we could see. We removed the combs as best we could, but they were anchored firmly to the brickwork and very curved, so we couldn’t put them in to frames. I wasn’t hugely bothered by this as I think the bees can make the best of stacked, free range comb if the nest structure is respected (ie brood in the centre, stores around the edge) and if the combs aren’t straight, you can’t really affix them to frames anyway. We removed much of the old, dark comb and kept the newer combs and a good stock of honey.
We managed to get a fair portion of the bees in to the hive, but it was difficult to scoop them up as there was a lot of broken honeycomb and the bees by this stage were getting rather cross at us dismantling their home and starting to sting. We hoped that we had got the queen in when we transferred over the brood combs , and the bees were fanning around the top of the crownboard so we were hopeful that this was indeed the case, and if we left them to calm down and pick up the fanned pheromone, the remainder would go in to the box, or at least the majority of them.
Paul returned to the cottage that evening to see how they were doing and found that they had, in fact, rejected our offer of a hive box full of combs and clustered back up under the windowsill:
Hmm. So, we decided to leave them for the night and go back in the morning and scoop them in to a proper hive, with frames, as it seemed pointless to put them back in the jumbled box when we could put them on to frames. There was a small cluster on the underside of the crownboard for some reason, and we wondered if the queen was in fact, in there?
The following morning we shook the bees from the small cluster into the new hive, and scooped as many bees as we could from the wall cluster. They started fanning and humming contentedly and we gently picked more small clumps of bees off the combs and put them in through the holes in the crownboard. There were some flying bees and some still clinging on to the combs, but we decided to leave them to settle and check on them later.
Paul went back to the hive in the evening to put the roof on the hive and see how they were doing:
Nooooo!! None in the box. All back on the combs apart from this strange cluster again on the corner of the hive. We wondered if the queen was in the small group but the bees were unimpressed with the hive and so were voting with their feet despite the queen being away from the cluster. There is a general maxim that if you have the queen, you have the bees, but it doesn’t always work, in that the bees actually make decisions for the colony; the queen lays eggs and produces the pheromone which holds the colony together. If the queen is in one place but the majority of the bees are elsewhere, they reach an impasse.
The following morning, Paul went down to the bees again and checked that little cluster to see if the queen was in there. She wasn’t. Again, the bees were scooped into the hive and put up a bit higher so the entrance was more accessible for them. Paul put a small drop of lemongrass in the hive to encourage them in as it is used as a swarm attractant. However, by this evening they were all back out again on the wall.
So, what is going on? It could be one of the following:
- the queen has been killed or damaged and the bees have no pheromone or coherence to function correctly
- the queen is tucked up high between the combs on the underside of the windowsill
- the bees simply don’t like the hive: perhaps it is too unfamiliar, or large
- the pheromone or hive scent from the comb is still very strong, and keeping them there
What to do now? The only way to tell if we have the queen (unless we spot her) is to see if she lays eggs, and that could be a week or so off given the disruption. We wondered about locking them in, as in scooping as many as we could in to the hive and shutting the entrance, but we still don’t know if they have a queen. The difficulty with rooting around trying to cut out every last bit of comb from under the windowsill is that if the queen is there, we could easily damage her. We considered smoking the combs to remove any scent of home but that also masks the homecoming, or Nasanov, pheromone from the bees, which we want to encourage to get them to go in the hive. The bees are now quite listless and disinterested, in that there was no fanning or particular energy from them. Paul used some card to make a platform between the bees on the wall and the entrance to the hive, and left them to settle and decide what to do.
The problem with ‘forcing’ the bees to stay in the hive is that if they don’t want to be there, they will abscond and leave as soon as they get the chance, or just sit in a cluster on the frames instead of on the wall. This time of year is tricky as it is too early to replace a queen: that requires drones and queen cells and we have neither yet here in Sussex.
The longer the bees stay out of the hive, the less chance they have of making it work as the queen needs to lay eggs, and the new bees will hatch out in 3 weeks. They will be able to build wax, and there is plenty of honey and pollen. We put a frame of drawn comb in to the hive so the queen can lay straight away, but at the moment we are unable to do anything until the bees take us up on our offer! It is always difficult to know what to do with cut-outs as some are more straightforward than others, and a with any wild animal, they don’t always make it. It would be a huge shame to lose them but we will just have to see if they perk up and take the initiative.
Thanks to Paul and Michael for the photos.