Preparing for winter – Treating Varroa mite and feeding the bees

After the excitement of taking the honey off the hives, straining, settling and jarring it all up, it almost seems like the beekeeping year is over but in reality there is still alot of work to do before October if you are going to keep your colony strong, mite free and with half a chance of surviving the winter.

The British bee colonies have been under attack from Varroa Destructor for the last few years, this Asiatic mite attacks the very young bees and is considered widely to be responsible in many colonies failing to survive the winter so it must be treated, to remove or at least drastically reduce numbers in the hive, before the bee population number also reduces and the few remaining bees prepare to slow down for the winter. My weapon of choice this year was a Thymol based product called Apilife Var, it is supplied in strips and is cut into squares and placed directly above the brood body within the hive directly across the frames, this then releases a vapour that kills the mites but does not affect the health of the bees, although they may object to the smell a bit! The treatment is repeated four times in each hive on a weekly basis and must be done whilst the ambient temperature is still above 20 degrees. Two of the hives did not seem to object to the treatment, but the other responded differently with the bees ‘hanging ‘ on the outside of the hive around the entrance when the treatment was first administered and on my return a week later I found that the Thymol squares had been chewed into small pieces and ejected from the hive, this however did not seem to prevent the treatment being very effective with a large number of dead mites being collected on the hives bottom board!

Hive treatmentApilife Var - hive treatment for varroa

Apilife Var Varroa Destructer, dead on count board

As well as treating for mite the bees must also be fed sugar syrup in order to replenish the honey that was removed in August. The feeding must commence as soon as the honey is removed and whilst the ambient temperatures are still warm and the bee population is still large enough to deal with the  massive task of taking the syrup from the feeder, moving it down into empty comb and reducing the water content enough in order to stop it fermenting, and to save as a food for the bees that will over winter in the hive.

I only removed honey from one hive this year but have fed all three hives as this will give them a good chance of each having enough reserves to survive the winter, additionally by feeding all three colonies it cuts down the robbing instinct bought on by a sudden abundance of food when the real nectar flow has effectively stopped for the year. As the queen slows down her rate of egg laying, space within the brood chamber is freed up and the bees will now use this to move their winter stores closer to where they will need them once the cold weather sets in. Each hive took about 12kg of sugar mixed into syrup (36 kg in total). The best way to make this up was to use boiling water to dissolve the sugar at home, approximately 600ml water to every kg sugar, and then transport the syrup to the out apiary in a jerry can – this speeded up the feeding process, caused less disturbance and excitement amongst the bees and made sure that the sugar was properly dissolved before pouring into the contact feeders as any loose sugar in the solution rapidly settles and blocks the holes in the feeder gauze leaving the bees hungry and more likely to try and rob the neighbouring hives.

30kg sugar to make into syrupSugar syrup in a contact feeder

Contact feeder on the hiveBees in a rapid feeder

Once the bees have been fed and treated for mite the years work is almost over, the colony must now be checked for overall health and to make sure that the colony is still queen right and will actually survive the winter and into next year. Then the condition of the hive must also be checked and any holes blocked up. These were fine earlier in the year as the bee population was great enough that they were able to guard against robbing at any number of entrances but now the numbers are dropping rapidly and soon the bees only task will be to protect the queen and maintain the temperature within the hive. The hive entrance is reduced and now is also a good time to treat the outside of the hive with any protective paint, a task normally carried out with the bees still inside.

Wear and damage on hive boxes Hive entrance block in place

The bees will soon remain huddled in a cluster around the queen; they enter in almost inactive state where little food is required to sustain them over the winter months until the queen starts to lay eggs again in February. In October there are approximately 50,000 bees in the hive but this number will dip as low as 10,000 by February before the queen starts laying to build the colony up again for next year’s work.

Winter is also the time of year that ‘visitors’ such as mice also find the hive very attractive, afterall it is heated to 36 degrees and has an abundant supply of honey and the bees are too busy huddling to evict any intruders so the answer is too attach a metal mouse guard over the entrance at the beginning of October (after removing the entrance reducing block!). This will help keep the mice out but also allow good air circulation in the hive which in turn will help to reduce condensation and prevent the combs on the outside from going mouldy during the winter months. It is also a good time of year to wrap chicken wire loosely around the hive in areas where green woodpeckers reside as these are known to turn a whole beehive into matchsticks in a very short amount of time, chilling the bees and their brood so killing the colony and destroying your hive!

Finally it is time to put your feet up with a hot cup of tea and some honey on toast in front of the woodburner. The bees will not require much attention now until early April next year, other than the occassional check to make sure that they are not starving and that the entrance is clear in the event of heavy snowfall.

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