Sandringham Report 2021

Sandringham Native Bee Project

One of BIBBA’s Members, Eric Marshall, approached the Trustees to see if they would support a project to breed and rear native bees. Eric lives close to the Royal Sandringham Estate and it has been a key aim of BIBBA to develop a Special Apiary Project at Sandringham that would fit in with HRH the Prince of Wales’s objectives to manage the Estate as a fully organic enterprise farming naturally and sustainably.

One of our Trustees, Brian Holdcroft assessed the Proposal and after discussion by the Committee of Trustees, it was agreed that it would make an excellent new Special Apiary Project and fit within our strategic sustainable bees objective, Approval was given for it to start and for BIBBA to provide funding.
These are Eric’s reflections on the first year of the Project:

Eric Marshall writes:

Little did I think when I dropped an e-mail to Brian Holdcroft what the consequence would be. I was simply interested in finding one or two local beekeepers who were interested in raising local Amm queens. The reply informed me about BIBBA’s plan to start rearing Amm queens on the Sandringham Estate and since I only lived a couple of miles away would I be interested in getting   a project off the ground!

The initial aim was to get a couple of sites identified and some colonies on site. Cooperation from the Farm Manager allowed two sites to be identified in November 2020, although for several reasons we have only used one this season. Being on my own I moved two single brood box colonies on site in February 2021. Late in February, fellow BIBBA Member Kevin Thorn gave a presentation about the Aberton Project to West Norfolk and King’s Lynn Beekeeping Association (WNKLBA). There was considerable interest and arising from that meeting three local beekeepers expressed interest in the Project. One particularly, Chris Barrett,  has been fully committed to helping throughout the Season.

As all will be aware the Spring this year was cold and late. The bees at Sandringham were not particularly strong colonies which would be needed if any queen rearing was to take place. So queens were removed from two of my other colonies to allow them to be united with the two already at Sandringham. As a point of interest, as I was not keen to kill the queens, I put each in a mini-nuc with a cupful of young bees and the feed section full of wet sugar (I didn’t have any fondant to hand). They thrived and were later re-expanded to full-size colonies. The two colonies at Sandringham were transferred to a two tower John Hopkins unit, which I had built for interest over the Winter. This was used because we favoured queen-right queen rearing and wanted to assess this unit as an on-going source of queen cells.

At this point it was realised that we would not only need at least a couple of Amm queens to provide graft larvae, but also colonies in support. This was where another helper from WNKLBA, Barry Thrower, proved most helpful. As swarm co-ordinator for the Association he was willing and able to direct Chris and I to local swarms, which we collected to build up a supply of colonies to back up the queen cell rearing. Bees are essential for making up mating nucs, whether they be mini-nucs only requiring a cup-full of bees or a 2-frame nuc requiring a frame of stores, a frame of bees and largely sealed brood and three frames of empty comb for the queen to lay up once mated.

Daughter queen from the project

Our Amm queens did not arrive until the end of June. A painful lesson was inflicted on us when one of the queens was killed when introduced to a supposedly queenless nuc – we are more careful now to ensure that they are queenless before introducing a mated queen! Another problem beset us, which no doubt all queen rearers experience is that of poor mating, so that a queen becomes a drone layer – this happened with our replacement Amm queen! Before the supplier is blamed we need to remember that the weather in May was not conducive to good queen mating. We have operated on the basis of a regular weekly visit for grafting and other related operations, although occasional short visits have been made by some of us individually to check the status of hives or graft acceptance.

Problems that have arisen have been:

  • a relatively poor level of graft acceptance,
  • loss of queens in sealed cells in the finishing colony, and
  • some loss of virgin queens from mini-nucs used for mating.
john Harding System
The John Harding system

Our original unit for graft starting was a John Harding (JH) arrangement. Some problems arose here   because at different times the queens in each tower were superseded, resulting in some reduction in colony strengths and apparently less inclination for the bees to raise queens. We now believe that the queen excluders between the two towers were defective and that queens could pass through them. They were zinc excluders and are being replaced with wire excluders that are more rigid and less easily deformed. We ran another hive using the Ben Harden method, which like the JH unit seeks to raise queen cells  under the supersedure impulse. This did somewhat better than the JH unit for a while.

We also split a colony to provide a queenless queen cell starter unit; this worked well initially but like the other two units failed to start a single graft cell when we introduced grafts on 16th August. It is not clear why this should have been so, but the bees were clearly beginning to prepare for Winter – drone numbers were very low and a lot of propolis used to seal the boxes together. Temperatures did not exceed 20C in the last 10 days of the month so although the bees were working there was no significant honey flow.

mini nuc
One of our mini nucs

The second problem was that on two successive grafts the queen cells in the finishing colony failed  to hatch – two that did died before we could move them to a mating nuc. We believe that this resulted because there was little or no brood with young bees attending in the box above the queen excluder where the developing sealed queen cells were being held.

Three more enthusiastic helpers have joined Chris and me, which will ease the workload, give opportunity for us to learn together and to work independently on different tasks to stream-line the queen rearing process.

This year has been challenging but worthwhile and we feel more confident about the next season. Without doubt simply going through a regular routine of grafting, moving cells to finishing colonies, making up mating nucs, introducing virgin queens for mating, moving the mated queens on to bigger nucleus colonies has developed our skills and confidence. We think that we have learnt a lot about bees and about queen rearing that should equip us for progress next season.

One thing is very clear. These projects work well when those involved commit to regular involvement. The benefits of working together are immense, both in terms of physical help, and also in terms of ideas and observations when handling the bees and the unexpected situations that can arise.

mating frame
a comb from the doubled up Abelo mating nuc

We are also experimenting with overwintering a colony in a two compartment Abelo mating nuc (12 frames). If this is successful it provides a mated laying queen in the Spring to head a colony that needs a replacement queen; and can then be split into 4 mating nucs to take newly produced virgin queens for mating.

It may not look like a resounding success but we have three mated Amm daughter queens to overwinter. We also have about 10 colonies to support the queen rearing activity. We have learnt a  lot and feel more confident for next season.
We have enjoyed working together.

If you are interested in the Sandringham Project contact Eric Marshall