Bee Watch – What’s Happening in July

A frame of stores made from un-capped honey and different coloured pollen from a variety of different plants.

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So over the weeks of this season we have looked at forage for bees and pollinating insects, the development of the honey bee colony from around 10,000 bees that overwinter in a hive by consuming the stores of pollen and honey set up during the previous summer; to now as we approach the most densely populated period for a colony which may see 50,000 busy bees in gathering stores in a hive during July.

A frame of stores made from un-capped honey and different coloured pollen from a variety of different plants.
A frame of stores made from un-capped honey and different coloured pollen from a variety of different plants.

The queen maybe laying 1,000 eggs per day as we go into July and then she will slow down as brood continues to emerge some 21 days after laying, then some 21 days later the young bees venture to forage for stores that will keep the colony fed during winter and also supply the beekeeper with a honey harvest, so this is the busy period; we are hopefully over the swarming season of April – June and now looking to build the stores for winter.

There is just one queen bee in a honey bee colony of some 40,000 bees and we have also discussed the importance of the queen and how queen rearing is an essential part of the beekeepers role; maintaining colonies with productive young queens who also define the colonies characteristics in terms of behaviour, hygiene, virus resistance and other characteristics. Consequently queen rearing is a skill that beekeepers need to practice and develop. I have raised some queen cells recently and these queens should emerge in the next few days. The technique for queen rearing is to graft very young lava into artificial queen cells and to place these in a “builder” colony.

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Here are 7 of my queen cells being built by a host “builder” colony; I grafted young worker lava from worker comb to queen cells and installed the frame in the middle of a brood frames crowded with nurse bees, these bees adopted the queen cells and fed them with Royal Jelly then capped of the cells so the lava can metamorphose to a queen.  

A frame of grafted queen cells, now in capped wax cells soon to hatch in the builder colony.
A frame of grafted queen cells, now in capped wax cells soon to hatch in the builder colony.
Natural queen cell built by honey bees
Natural queen cell built by honey bees

In nature the same process takes place where the queen lays a fertilized egg into a queen cup made by worker bees for the purpose of raising a new queen. The queen cell is built round the growing queen lava, she is larger than sister worker bees to accommodate all the reproduction bits.

The queen cell in the photo is a typical “Swarm Cell” produced when a colony is preparing to swarm; this queen cell is produced to order and the existing queen has laid an egg into a larger cup prepared by the bees in anticipation of swarming. 

In other cases bees adopt a worker egg laid in a worker cell to create queens in either an emergency or as supersedure, not to swarm, and these adopted cells usually appear on the face of the comb, the queen being slightly bent into the cell.

Supersedure queen cells on the face of a frame
Supersedure queen cells on the face of a frame

Queens take 16 days from laying to hatching; the new queen will then mate on the wing with around 20 drones who meet in zones defined as drone congregation areas. Mating with a large number of drones from different colonies adds to genetic diversity in a process evolved over 100 million years.

Returning to today; many different species of bee live in the UK, some 250 including various solitary bees living in small colonies of minor; mason; leafcutter; bumblebees etc. these are all precious creatures and contribute to the pollination of plants throughout the year. 

Our honey bees are social bees and July sees colony numbers peak at between 40 and 50 thousand per colony. At this time they forage widely to feed the colony with diverse forage in terms of pollen and nectar, also bringing water and propolis into the colony. 

In its 6 week lifetime a honey bee may make a quarter of a teaspoon of honey.

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Barry Griffiths

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