What's happening in the colonies this month? Penny Forsyth
January January is another quiet month in the apiary: our bees will still be in their winter cluster, feeding on their stores and using their strong thoracic muscles to generate the heat necessary for their winter survival. When there is no brood to rear the temperature at the centre of the cluster will be about 20C, with the outer shell being not below 8C- any lower and the outermost bees will fall off and die. It is vital that the bees have enough accessible stores to consume, especially as the queen may already have started laying, and this requires the bees to raise the nest temperature to 34.5C or very close if the brood is to survive. This demand for food is why many beekeepers say that spring feeding is done in the autumn. By now we should have got used to hefting our hives to estimate the weight of the stores inside and will know if we need to feed our bees. It is too cold to feed sugar syrup as the bees will not break the cluster and come up to a feeder, therefore we must feed fondant or candy either directly on the top bars or over the feeder hole if the cluster is centrally situated within the hive. Whether you use bakers’ fondant or a product specifically formulated for bees, put the cake or slice into a plastic bag or container with a couple of access slits on the underside so that the bees can eat it without the risk of it drying out or, conversely, melting and running down onto the cluster. Use an eke or empty super to give enough space and cover loosely with insulating material. You may like to feed a pollen supplement or substitute at the same time to give your bees an extra boost. If you haven’t already done so, there is still time to treat your colonies for varroa using the newly approved treatments, Api-bioxal or Oxuvar. If using the trickle method, ideally work with a partner to cut down the time each hive is open and use a warmed solution. You can locate the cluster easily if you check the floor insert for signs of uncapping.
check the hives are protected against predators especially woodpeckers
check that the hive entrance is clear of snow and debris
continue to check stores by hefting-recent warning form Bee Base
if using oxalic acid, treat early this month during a broodless period
December December is the quietest month for bees and beekeepers alike. Our bees should be in their winter cluster- secure, warm, dry and well-provisioned if we beekeepers have done our job properly- and will not be seen outside the hive unless on a cleansing mission or to collect water. The population of each hive is now very much diminished, as few as 5,000 bees and these form a cluster with the queen and remaining brood at the centre. The priority now is heat conservation and the protection of queen, brood and colony through the coldest months of the year. The cluster is formed with an outer shell of bees facing inwards, abdomens outwards, creating an insulating layer against heat loss: the bees can also protrude their stings should an intruder threaten the cluster. Within this outer shell the bees can move freely and can access their stores- vital as they maintain heat in the centre of the cluster by eating honey and vibrating their strong flight muscles. Larvae also produce heat by consuming food. During a broodless period the temperature within the cluster is between 20C-30C and the cluster can expand or contract to maintain this range and to ensure that the outer wall does not get too cold. Bees from the centre will change places with bees from the outer layer to give them some time in the warmth and the cluster will loosen from time to time in order to move to a new area of stores. In very cold weather the bees may be unable to move far enough and can perish through isolation starvation- beekeeper vigilance is required here. In the apiary there is little to do other than to continue checking that hives are intact and sound and that entrances are not blocked by snow, debris or dead bees. It is very important to regularly heft the hives to estimate the amount of stores remaining and to take action if there is cause for concern- a quick look in does no harm if you suspect isolation starvation to be a risk. Many beekeepers give their bees a present of fondant on Christmas Day, and why not- they will ignore it if they don’t need it and it will be welcome if they do. Around New Year there is often a broodless period when oxalic acid treatment can be applied: on a still day put on suit, gloves and veil and work quickly with warmed solution. Winter is also a good time to move hives as the bees aren’t flying so you can ignore the “less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles” rule, the bees will re-orientate when they start flying again in warmer weather.
Jobs for December ~ pay attention to hive insulation and ventilation ~ continue to visually check hives ~ continue to heft the hives to estimate stores, feed if required-fondant is best in winter ~ continue to monitor varroa drop ~ treat with oxalic acid during a brood-less period, if that is part of your IPM plan ~ continue to clean and repair last season’s equipment- soda crystals and a blowtorch are your best friends here ~ make up all the flatpacks you bought in the sales ~ make up plenty of frames but don’t wax them until you need them ~ read and learn, maybe sign up for a course ~ you are allowed a holiday in the winter!
This month in your apiary: September
September is the month when the beekeeping year really begins – the honey crop has been removed and our actions now will determine how well our colonies will fare in the winter months ahead. This month our inspections need to focus on the amount of stores in the hives and whether our colonies are big enough and healthy enough to overwinter successfully: it’s time to treat for varroa and to start autumn feeding. Whichever varroa treatment you decide on- and there’s plenty of advice out there- you must keep records for at least five years: you can download a record card from BeeBase. As I write this in mid-August, here in the North of the county my bees are still bringing in stores of nectar and pollen from rosebay willowherb, bramble and Himalayan balsam and these they will keep for the winter. Wasps have been far less of a problem around my apiaries than in previous years, giving my smaller colonies a better chance of building up their stores. For autumn feeding we use a ratio of 2:1- that is 2 pounds of sugar dissolved in 1 pint of hot water (1 kg in 625 mil for the metrically-minded). Use white granulated sugar dissolved into hot water and allow it to cool before putting it on the hive- never heat the syrup. Use contact feeders (bucket feeders), rapid feeders (these have a central, covered, cone-shaped access) or large capacity feeders such as Miller or Ashworth. Feed early in the month to give the bees time to process the syrup sufficiently- too dilute and the syrup will ferment, causing dysentery. When feeding take care not to excite robbing in your apiary: ensure you don’t spill any syrup, check that the box surrounding the feeder has no gaps which could allow wasps or robber bees to enter, and feed only in the evenings. If you haven’t already done so, reduce entrances and set up wasp traps if required. Each full-sized colony will need around 20kg (44lbs) of stores as a minimum, more if the winter is mild. How do we measure the weight of a hive? Various scales and spring balances can be used but an easier, if less scientific way, is to lift one corner of the hive about half an inch (hefting): if it feels so heavy you can scarcely lift it (feels as if it’s nailed down), then the stores are likely to be adequate. Small colonies- 5 frames of brood or fewer- have difficulty maintaining an adequate temperature in the cluster during the colder months and so have a lower chance of survival than larger ones. If you do decide to overwinter them you will need to give them extra protection, perhaps in a polystyrene nucleus box- I’ve successfully used polystyrene blocks around the brood nest in a standard National brood box. You may also wish to consider uniting small colonies: this provides an opportunity to select for your best queens. You will find instructions on how to unite colonies in beekeeping books and magazines, online and by asking more experienced beekeepers.
Jobs for September ~ estimate winter food stores by hefting hives and/or inspecting each frame ~ top up the stores to +- 20kg by feeding heavy syrup ~ monitor for varroa mites and treat immediately if the natural drop exceeds 20 mites per day ~ monitor again after treatment to ensure it has been successful ~ remove the queen excluder towards the end of the month if you are leaving a super of honey on the hive. Clean it and store it under the roof ready for use.
This month in your apiary: April March 30th 2016
April generally marks the beginning of the active season with improving weather and the appearance of early blossom. In many parts of the country the weather has been unseasonably mild and many of the spring flowers have appeared well before their usual time: up here in the extreme North of the county the blackthorn has been in bloom for at least a month, as have early garden flowers and shrubs, and my bees have been taking full advantage. The flowering currant is out and there are even a few flowers on the oilseed rape but we cannot be complacent- a prolonged spell of cold and wet weather now could set everything back. Spring can be a dangerous time for our bees: the queens increase their laying rate as the days lengthen and, as stores in the hive dwindle, our bees need to go out foraging at every opportunity. No forage, no food and if poor weather prevents foraging there is the risk that our winter bees will perish before the colony has new foragers to take on the task. Bees can starve in an astonishingly short time- beekeepers need to maintain their vigilance where stores are concerned and feed where necessary with syrup in a contact feeder once bees are flying freely. The arrival of spring means it’s time for regular inspections and the completion of any winter tasks we didn’t quite get round to because soon we will have to turn our full attention to swarm prevention and control. Don’t panic, there’s plenty of help and information out there- just ask. If you need extra equipment and missed Bee Tradex there are opportunities to buy (and maybe get a bargain) at the county auctions: the BBKA Spring Convention brings further opportunities and the chance to increase your beekeeping knowledge by attending lectures and workshops. There’s a busy and exciting time ahead!
Tasks for April ~ continue to check stores by hefting, checking floor inserts or a quick look in
~ carry out your first detailed inspection if you haven’t already done so Be clear what you are looking for: queen present & laying? brood at all stages? good brood pattern with biscuit-coloured cappings? bees looking normal & healthy? acting normally? any sign of disease or varroa mites (be sure to check floor inserts)? are there enough stores to last the bees to your next inspection? has the colony got enough room?
~ check the queen’s mark and renew if indistinct
~ add a queen excluder and super when the brood box is full of bees, not stores
~ replace any dirty, mouldy or damaged comb with frames of sterilised comb or new foundation or move these frames to the outside of the brood nest to replace later
~ read up on your chosen method of swarm control and assemble equipment
~ assemble the equipment you will need for swarm collection and read up on how to do it
~ keep on reading and asking questions but most of all, watch your bees and learn
June : What to do in the apiary.
~ continue weekly inspections and undertake swarm control if required ~ if inspections reveal that food stores are low, feed 1:1 syrup in a contact feeder, if there are no supers on, or fondant. Remember to only feed in the evening and to reduce the hive entrance to avoid robbing. ~ add another super when the current one is almost full of bees, not honey ~ extract oilseed rape honey as soon as the bees start capping it and if no droplets fly out of uncapped cells when you quickly shake the frame (over the hive to prevent spillage which induces robbing.) A refractometer reading must be below 20%. ~ mark any new queens - blue is this year’s colour. ~ monitor for Varroa: An average daily mite fall of 10 or more means the colony is in trouble and needs treating. MAQS can be used with your honey supers on.