Quiet months at the apiary but there is still plenty to do!

Well I have been relaxing,  enjoying last years honey on warm toast and taking a break from my bee blog over the last few months as there hasn’t been a huge amount of great interest to report and I have resisted the urge to write something purely for the sake of blogging, but the life of a bee keeper  isn’t totally abandoned during the quieter winter months – there are still many things that you could and should be doing both in and out of your apiaries.

At the apiary

By now you should have carried out any treatment within the hives to knock back mite numbers with oxalic acid. This is normally carried out at the end of December or early January when the queen has stopped laying and there is little or no brood in the hive as the acid will have no effect on mite that are sealed in with the brood. It’s been an unusual winter this year with temperature levels staying well above average and some queens have continued to lay all the way through.

Feeding the bees candy

This leads quite nicely onto your next checks for feeding the bees. The additional bee numbers and early brood raising will use the supplies in the hive far quicker than in a normal year and there is a very real chance that your bees will starve in February even if you fed them as much syrup as they would take down back in August and September.

My hives are over-wintered as a ‘brood and a half’ so they have a whole super of honey as they go into the winter as well as the stores around the brood in the main box. I hear of people hefting hives, or even lifting one side with a spring balance, to try and gauge the weight and therefore the level or stores in the hive and maybe one day I will have enough experience to rely on this method. In the meantime I feed my bees home-made fondant – this goes above the crown board over the central feeder hole (make sure this is orientated to go across the frames, not run parallel to them). Many books indicate that if you don’t make an eke and put the fondant directly onto the frames the bees won’t find it but I have have not yet had this problem with my clever girls! With three hives standing shoulder to shoulder in the same apiary over winter, all with strong colonies, one is on their second candy block, one is half way through and the third hive have not yet touched it other than a few nibbles. In my opinion you are better off feeding candy and the bees not touching it rather than skimping and letting the bees starve, but this of course is open to discussion.

Winter checks

If you have a mouse-guard or entrance reducer in place you will need to make sure that the hive entrance is clear of dead bees. Normally the bees in a healthy colony are very efficient at removing the dead but during the winter the entrance can become congested with dead bees – a quick sweep of the hive floor (through the entrance) with a long twig, screwdriver or coat-hanger will keep the entrance clear and help with the airflow and hive hygiene.
Check the hives for damage – at this time of year we can expect attacks from green woodpeckers as they get hungry and once they have learnt to break into a hive your apiary will never be safe again! Also large animals can accidentally knock the hives and sadly there is always the risk of theft or deliberate vandalism

Be aware of the weather! The roof on your hives should have a brick or weighted object in place to prevent strong winds lifting it off and in the event of deep drifting snow the entrance of the hive can become blocked. Snow also reflects sunlight back into the hive and this can encourage bees out flying on days where they chill rapidly and fail to make it back to the hive, thus reducing the numbers of worker bees to support the colony. You can shield the entrance to try and prevent this.

Repair and clean equipment

Now that you have checked up and made sure that you r bees are healthy, not hungry and ready to take on the weather attention can turn to ‘workshop’ repairs and cleaning of all those hive components that you discarded hurriedly after use and extraction back in the summer but will need, normally in an emergency, come spring and into the summer. If you are cleaning from scratch remove the wax and propolis from hive components with a scraper then use a blow torch to lightly scorch the wood paying close attention to corners and any openings where parasites and their eggs may be lurking. Frames can also be scrubbed using a solution made up of soda crystals. Don’t forget to clean your bee suit, hive tools, frame holders and any other equipment that you may use at the apiary to help prevent the spread of disease.

When taking stock of your equipment during the winter it is also a good time to buy new or replacement frames and wax etc. Many of the bee-keeping suppliers have sales over the winter months with some great deals and also offer ‘seconds’ at greatly reduced prices – a little planning now can save you plenty come the summer.

Reading, blogs and attending courses

The long winter evenings are a great time to catch up on your beekeeping reading. They say that old beekeepers die still learning and there is always something new to take on board, the more you study and understand the more you find yourself asking questions and looking for answers. I am currently reading Thomas Seeley’s  ‘Honeybee Democracy’ and have learn’t a huge amount about swarm behaviour from this book, prior to that I was reading ‘Breeding Better Bee’s’ and feel determined to have a go at breeding my own queens this year rather than purely creating them through artificial swarms as I have done in previous years. For members of the BBKA there is also the monthly issues of Bee Craft and the BBKA newsletter to look forward to.

Well if you have read this far then you obviously enjoy reading ‘bee blogs’ but as well as light entertainment (?) these can also be a great source of information whether its from local or international beekeepers, of course the discussions and opinions given are not necessarily always right but they can be thought provoking and  often have great photos included!

As well as the blogs there are a number of other forums and on-line groups that you can join and have more of an interactive experience with – several are on facebook, including:

British Beekeepers

Bee Keeping / Apiculture

Fans of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects

The Beginner Beekeeper Page

The usual suppliers also have a web prescence on facebook and twitter and can give you seasonal advice as well as running competitions and letting you know when they are having sales.

The winter evenings can also be a useful time to attend lectures at your local BBKA branch or attend beginner or improver bee courses.

PLAN YOUR BEE YEAR AHEAD!

Although reality says that you cannot really have any idea what your next season will bring you in the way of colony survival, swarms lost and gained, health and disease and that bumper honey crop you can at least plan ahead to make sure that you are ready for most eventuality’s armed with the knowledge that you will need as well as the correct equipment to hand, or at least an idea of where you can borrow it in an emergency.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog entry and as ever feel free to comment, contact me, share ideas or even come and join us at British Beekeepers on Facebook where we have an open discussion and everyone is welcome.

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