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Down at the apiary – June 2016


I haven’t been that active with the blog this year but the bees have more than made up for my lack of activity.

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Back in December we took the chainsaws into the woods on the land where the apiary is located and cut a new clearing, then moved the bees during the only short cold spell we experienced and it even snowed on the day of the move which at least kept the girls in the hives! Hopefully this will now be a place that they can stay for the next few years surrounded by flowering trees, wild flower meadows,  hedgerows and an RSPB nature reserve which is being returned to heather and gorse.

The warm winter didn’t really see an end to the bees flying and being active in the hives. I treated with oxalic acid at the end of December once we had moved the hives then started to feed bee candy which I do every year as a form of insurance. When I checked the hives in February all was fine but at the next check in March I saw that one colony had died from isolation starvation despite having candy sitting on the frames right above them. This is the second time that I have experienced this in 7 years of beekeeping but it still brings great sadness when you open a hive to find it dead inside with the last bees left head first in the cells trying to find food.

The four remaining colonies expanded fast and two were ready to be artificially swarmed by early May. I carried out the splits easily enough as this is a routine operation in any beekeepers year but subsequent checks saw both swarmed colonies rapidly establish themselves , drawing out new comb only to swarm again leaving new queen cells behind a few weeks later.

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I’ve also been joined by a new helper this year as my 6 great old daughter expressed an interest in coming to see the bees. We were able to buy her a small lightweight suit from ‘Simon the beekeeper’ online which should give her a few years use and she has been helping out every since. To be honest I expected her to be a bit afraid when she first met the ladies but she has shown no fear and just wants to get stuck in despite being covered in bees most of the time…
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Today we have been checking on the swarm hives together to make sure that the new queens have hatched, had successful mating flights and are producing new workers. We found a few and marked them as we went…
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We then checked on the hives that seem to have passed through May without threat of swarming only to find that they have been busy making preparations in the last few days so once again we quickly split the hives and will wait to see what comes over the next few weeks.
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I hope you enjoy sharing my beekeeping journey with me, please feel free to comment or share.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.

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Notes from a talk by David Rudland, ‘Bringing bees from winter into spring’


Another excellent blog post from Emily in west London!

Adventuresinbeeland's Blog

On Wednesday evening I went to a London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) talk by David Rudland on the topic of ‘Bringing bees from winter into spring’.

David and his wife Celia (who came to the meeting too) are commercial beekeepers in Surrey with around 180 hives, producing honey, selling bees and running training courses. David is also a FERA seasonal bee inspector. There are only about 350 commercial beekeepers in the UK, representing about 1% of total beekeeper numbers here.

His talk reminded me that you can never say “I know it all now” – researchers are constantly making new discoveries that have deeply practical relevance to the best way to look after our bees. This is a post about practical beekeeping – it may not make much sense to beginners and probably won’t be very interesting for non-beekeepers! You have been warned.

Winter management – jobs to do over the winter

“I like being…

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Oxalic Acid Treatment Training


Looks like we are all at it these days ……

Mid Bucks Beekeepers Association Blog

We had an excellent apiary training session at the weekend covering Oxalic Acid Treatment, in all 15 members turned up.

If you would like further information on Oxalic Acid treatment, check out the December Newsletter at www.mbbka.org.uk

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Acid and candy – a winter days treat!


Seems like it has been a while since I have added anything to this blog, and I guess that’s because this is generally a quiet time of year for beekeepers in the UK on the whole.

The honey (what honey this year?) has been extracted from the comb many months ago, the bees have been fed a thick sugar syrup which they in turn have further reduced and stored to help sustain them over the long cold winter months and the first set of treatment has been applied to try and knock back the parasitic mite, Varroa Destructor, that inhabit virtually every hive in the UK.

Winter checks

Paul doing the winter checks

During late August and into early September, after the honey crop has been removed,  I used Apilife Var, an organic thymol based treatment with Eucalyptus Oil, Menthol and Camphor as additional active ingredients. This has to be applied whilst the ambient temperature is still warm, and there is brood in the hive so the bees keep the internal temperature around 36 degrees Celsius and therefore it is warm enough to release the vapours and allow their circulation. The mites reproduction cycle mainly takes place within the wax-capped brood cells with the bees own young so it is not possible to remove a large proportion of the sexually mature mites at this stage.

A second part of my ‘integrated pest management’ strategy is to apply Oxalic acid to the hives during the winter months. The Apilife Var would no longer be effective with cooler ambient temperatures and a drastically reduced hive temperature there would be no vapourisation of the oils. The hive temperature drops to around 20 degrees during the short period at the end of December and early January when the queen is not laying and there are no eggs  or brood present. The higher temperature normally maintained in the hive is required for brood rearing so by dropping the heat the bees are able to conserve energy and therefore use slightly less of their valuable stores, 50 million years of evolution has taught them how to survive and not starve! The queen will start to build the colony up again soon in order that she has a new healthy adult workforce ready to take advantage of the spring flowers and early pollen and nectar flows that they bring.

It really helps if you have a ‘bee buddy’ to speed up the acid application process and reduce the stress of cold exposure to the bees.

Oxalic acid

Oxalic acid

Trickling acid between the seams

Trickling acid between the seams

Many of the older beekeepers talk of great summers when their hives were taller than themselves, stacked full of supers of sweet golden honey, but sadly these days seem to have been lost with a change in agricultural techniques, removal of hedgerows, over-use of toxic chemical pesticides, mass-urbanisation, a shift in climate and weather patterns and a number of other factors leading to less areas of natural forage and increasing the struggle for colony survival.

I do not really like the thought of using the acid on my beautiful bees but feel it gives them some additional chances of pulling through to the spring. The weak acid is applied diluted in a sugar syrup solution and is carefully trickled into the hive along the seams, or gaps, between the frames.

In order not to overdose the bees it should be applied evenly across the hive at 5ml per seam (10 seams = 50ml), the acid should be harmless to the bees but burns the feet and mouth parts of the mites meaning they can no longer hold onto their hosts and feed on them so is very effective. The hives are only opened for a minute or so and the frames are not removed or disturbed.

IT IS HOWEVER HIGHLY TOXIC TO HUMANS, INSTRUCTIONS SHOULD BE READ AND PROTECTIVE CLOTHING WORN!

One nice thing about applying the acid is that you have a chance to check the bees are still alive, having only occasionally seen any movement around the hives since late October. All my colonies are now clustered at the top of the hives under the crown board, they were surprising active on December 28th when we dosed them with acid but then it was quite warm outside, around 8 degrees centigrade, and a few of the more inquisitive ladies tried to get up my sleeves.

Bee candy

Bee candy placed over feed hole in crown board

Before closing up the hives again a block of home-made bee candy is placed over the central feed hole  in the crown board. Even if you have heaved your hives and feel there is plenty of stores available the bees may not travel sideways in search of food and can starve in a well supplied hive, they will however travel up so it is another insurance process, if they don’t need it they won’t touch it – don’t worry the bees will not get obese – but I would rather it was wasted than they starved. There is of course the argument that a sudden increase in food leads to the queen laying early, increasing colony size when there is no pollen to feed the young and increased activity uses up the food source far too quickly – you make your own mind up. From my experience over the last few years hives standing in the apiary shoulder to shoulder with similar size colonies and amount of stores have used the sugar at very different rates but ultimately all have survived.

Finally the hive entrances are checked to make sure that they are clear of dead bees. I use mesh floors so don’t suffer from flooding but if you have solid floors on it is worth checking that the hive is slightly tilted forward and there is no standing water inside which would make it too damp for the bees to be comfortable and may well lead to their decline. With these visual checks carried out its back on with the woodpecker guards until my next visit which will be in three to four weeks time to see how they are gettig on with the candy.

Woodpecker protection

Woodpecker protection is replaced

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.

Dan

N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

Applying oxalic acid

Applying oxalic acid

So where do all the bees go over winter?


September is virtually on our doorstep, sadly it is beginning to feel distinctly autumnal in the UK with below average temperatures and continued bands of rain crossing the UK and I am now turning my thoughts to preparing my bees for the long winter period ahead.

I often get asked ‘so where do the bees go over winter?’ I would like to say that they escape for some winter sun, the Canaries are a popular destination …. but the reality is not quite so nice. The bees have worked hard all spring and summer, on the few dry and warm days when they have been able to fly, collecting the various different nectars from flowering plants and trees. The nectar has been converted into honey, then its water content has been further reduced to stop it fermenting before it has been safely stored away inside a ‘capped’ wax cell to help sustain the colony over winter. Along comes the beekeeper in August and a certain amount of this honey is removed from the hives, and although a fair bit is also left on the hives, it is necessary to give the bees something back to try and prevent them from starving over the winter, or far more likely during the early spring period.

Feeding the bees

Feeding the bees

The colony size increases early in the year, with a large workforce required to collect pollen to feed the brood and nectar to feed workers as well as process the stores, but as summer nears its end the queen slows her egg laying down and the colony size reduces again so that there are less mouths to feed over winter. The bees being produced now (all female workers) will have a longer life span than their siblings born earlier in the year, surviving for several months as opposed to about 5 weeks, as the flowering plants reduce and finally disappear these bees will have hive duties only so will not literally work themselves to death. Instead their lives will be about protecting the queen over the winter and preparing the hive for the colony expansion to coincide with spring next year. The job of the drones (male bees) was mainly to fertilise any virgin queens and with this task completed for 2012 their lives as idle layabouts with all needs being tended to ends abruptly, the workers don’t need extra mouths to feed during the hard months ahead, and they are driven out of the hives into the cold and wet when they will perish. The queen will produce more drones next year when they are required!

Once the honey has been removed the hives are assessed for levels of stores left behind and any shortfall is made up using a heavy sugar syrup (1kg sugar: 500ml water). This must be done in August and early September to utilise a workforce that is still large enough to process the syrup and generate temperatures high enough inside the hive to reduce its water content sufficiently, once the ambient temperature drops and the colony reduces in size it would become a much harder, near impossible task and there would be a risk of fermentation which would lead to approximately 12,000  bees with diarrhea being trapped in a small wooden box together for the next 5 months – not a particularly nice thought.

Contact feeder on the hive

Contact feeder on the hive

The sugar syrup is feed to the bees above the crown board on top of the hive. As it is ‘outside’ of the hive as far as the bees are concerned they work tirelessly to ‘rob’ this new nectar source and store it in the comb cells below. Different types of feeder are used, I have always used ‘contact feeders’, an inverted bucket with a gauze panel where the bees can access the syrup. The vacuum in the bucket prevents the syrup from pouring into the hive, this year I am also trialling an ‘Ashforth feeder’  which is about the size of a honey super with holes along one side to allow the bees to climb up into the box. The advantage of this is that you can put a large volume of syrup on the hive in one hit rather than having to keep returning to refill the smaller contact feeder, the disadvantages is that the bees have to climb up into the box and find it. I dribbled a little syrup through the holes when I placed it on the hive and it was near empty after the first week (3kg sugar syrup) so I am now happy that it works.

Ashforth feeder on the hive

Ashforth feeder on the hive

I try to disturb the bees as little as possible during this period, they are not likely to swarm (although not totally unheard of) but it is necessary to treat the colony for mite infestation. There is a lot already written on-line about Varroa Destructor, basically a bee parasite that is an Asiatic mite that breeds in the brood cells and sucks the blood from the adult bees. The mites reproduction cycle is only 10 days so is substantially quicker than that of the bees, they hatch from the bees cells as mature mites often mated and ready to lay eggs, therefore they can increase their number at a much faster rate. As the bees reduce their numbers for the winter the mites still reproduce, further weakening the colony. The mites prefer to reproduce in the slightly larger drone cells but as the queen stops laying drone eggs the mites move into the worker cells and if a critical level is reached they then have the potential to collapse (or kill) the colony.  This has become a widespread problem in the UK over the last 20 years and most beekeepers have an integrated pest management plan that they implement each year to reduce the mite numbers and colony stress.

Varroa Destructor - treatment

Varroa Destructor – treatment

Personally I treat the bees with an organic treatment called Apilife Var during August and September whilst I am feeding the syrup, I then return at the end of December when there is no brood in the hive and treat again with oxalic acid which kills the mite but doesn’t seem to harm the bees. The Apilife Var is a strip of material that is placed  into the hive directly above the brood and then releases strong thymol vapours. This is repeated on a weekly basis for a four week period so ties in nicely with the syrup feeds.

I also use open mesh floors under the hives, this increases ventilation and prevents water pooling in the bottom of the hive (a potential problem with solid floors if the hive is not level or slightly sloped forwards – damp is a bigger killer of bees than the cold!) but it also allows any mites that drop off the bees to fall through the mesh and they are unable to return to the hosts. I am not convinced that many drop off naturally but the main use of a mesh floor is to allow a ‘count board’ to be placed under the hive during mite treatment, or at other times of the year. This is left on for a number of days before removal and the number of mites are counted, divided by the number of days the board was in place and using an on-line calculator gives an indication of the level of infestation in the hive.

More information on managing Varroa can be found at the BeeBase website which also includes the current advisory leaflet.

Invaders must die!

Invaders must die!

Other pests are often removed from the hives by the bees themselves, like this optimistic slug that fancied some honey!

Once the bees have stopped flying for the year they will cluster in the hive, protecting the queen and maintaining a temperature, slightly lower than required for rearing young, but warm enough to keep them from freezing. 100 million years of evolution has allowed them to perfect this comatose state where very little energy is used and therefore very little food is required. However when the queen starts egg laying  at the beginning of next year getting ready for the spring flow the bees will break open their stores of honey and pollen and that is why this period poses the greatest risk for starvation to the colony. If the spring flowers are late again or it is particularly wet the beekeeper needs to feed a light syrup to the bees to prevent this.

With the current changes in the UK weather patterns that have been recorded over the recent years the bees need all the help they can get if they are going to carry on pollinating the crops that produce the  food that we require to survive – only a fool would think that they need us to survive long term, sadly the reversal of this statement is not quite so true.

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.

Dan

N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

August arrives but still no joy for the bees….


What a wet year this has been …. July was again dominated by low pressure fronts bringing in cloud and wet conditions for the first three weeks then it was unseasonably hot but this only lasted for a few days before the unsettled weather returned. The bees have been unable to fly on many days and even though many plants have been late to flower this year the bees just seem to be playing catch up all the time.

By the beginning of August last year I had three full honey supers on two of my hives and two on the other, full of delicious golden honey ready to extract but then the bees took advantage of the exceptionally warm and dry spring, this year I have about 1 1/2 supers to extract and even that has not been fully capped yet and it is still ‘loose’ so is unlikely to be reduced enough yet to prevent it fermenting in the jar – I have decided to leave it on for a bit longer to see if the current warm weather and late flowering brings a late crop or if the bees decides to take the honey down for winter stores, then that is also fine.

Hive inspection

Hive inspection before removing this years honey

I started this beekeeping year with 3 strong colonies, I have lost queens, added new queens, lost swarms only to catch and rehouse them – at one point there were 5 hives on the go but now I am back down to four with one being queen-less and with so few bees (about 3 frames) that I am letting them go rather than merging them this late in the year and risk damage to a laying queen preparing for winter so I will enter winter once again with three very strong colonies and all with healthy fertile 2012 queens.

Fanning bee

Bee fanning at the hive entrance to help regulate the temperature for brood rearing and honey reduction

Having started this blog entry at the beginning of August I have waited until slightly better weather in mid-August before I decided to extract the honey. I attended the apiary on Saturday morning (the hottest day of the year so far) to shake the bees out of the honey supers as best as I could and place the clearer boards with bee escapes in over an eke (‘spacer’ box) above the hive. The idea of adding an empty eke or super under the clearer boards is that it allows a bit more space and prevents congestion as the bees leave the honey super through the bee escapes, which in turn do not allow them to return.

Uncapped honey

Uncapped ‘ripe honey’ being worked in the hive

 

 

The theory is that in 24 hours your honey supers are clear of bees and ready for you to carry off unnoticed… of course the reality each year is that the the supers still have bees in them that need brushing and shaking off . I do this frame by frame, placing the clear frames of honey in a super over an upturned roof with a towel over the top to keep the bees out. This year there was an added complication of lots and lots of wasps in the apiary, as soon as I lifted the honey super off wasps were carrying the dead bees from the crown board off to feed their young, guess that’s nature and it saves them going to waste but angry wasps flying around your head is very off putting even to a beekeeper!

Frame of capped honey

Frame of honey before extraction

 

The honey frames are removed to a wasp and bee free space and uncapped, literally cut open, to allow the honey to flow out and then placed into a centrifugal extractor when they are spun at high speed to allow the honey to fly out, hit the sides and drain to the base of the drum.

 

 

Once the frames are all emptied into the base of the extractor the honey is run through a coarse, then finer filter, to remove any larger pieces of pollen and wax, these won’t effect the quality of the honey, indeed they add much to it’s aromatics, texture and beneficial qualities that have been removed from highly processed supermarket honey to give it a longer shelf life as runny honey.

Uncapping fork

Using the uncapping fork
to ‘open’ the honey cells

 

As soon as the honey has been removed it is time to feed the bees with a heavy sugar syrup to make sure that the removal of the honey has not depleted their food stores so much that they would not survive the winter.

I always leave my bees in a ‘brood and a half’, over the winter months, effectively I leave an additional super on as this allows them to have a greater level stores in the hive to try and prevent them from starving and also gives the space for the queen to lay up a large brood early next year when they are fed a weaker syrup to give them a boost in the spring.

The bees also start their treatment to combat the Varroa Destructor, a parasitic mite that are present in virtually every UK hive these days.

Coarse honey sieve

Sieving the honey for coarse bits of pollen and wax

Once the honey has been filtered it is allowed to sit in a settling tank for at least 24 hours so that any air bubbles introduced into the honey during the rapid spinning at extraction escape, again this is purely for aesthetics – it wont affect the quality of the honey but people seem to think it looks much nicer without them. Finally the honey is run off into freshly sterilised jars and the labels are attached ready for sale, or in the case of a lower crop like this year, ready for eating and making more mead!

There are many European rules and regulations relating to the labelling of foods, including honey, and these can be found at the ‘Foods Standards Agency’ website by clicking here, but if you don’t have time to read all 23 pages there is a quick summary at the bees-online webpage here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.

Dan

N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

Spa Valley Honey

Spa Valley Honey

Murder, swarming and too many queens ….


What a month May turned out to be with plenty of activity in the apiary and the bees have hardly had a chance to leave the hives! It seems to have pretty much rained since the last week in March and as we enter the second week in June the heavens have only teased us with occasional glimmer of sunlight through the clouds and in  southern England we have been given more flood warnings and are set to experience even more rain into this weekend and next week.

The National Bee Unit (NBU), part of FERA, have again issued a warning this week for beekeepers to check their hives and feed the bees thin syrup if in any doubt about the amount of stores in the hives. This is of particular importance if the hive is made up from a split or a swarm this year as there is a very real chance that the bees will starve if they cannot fly.

The Apiary early June 2012

The Apiary early June 2012

All this rain has also hampered the ability to get into the hives and properly assess what is going on, colony splits were made back in early May and new queens introduced to those colonies that required them but having ended April with 5 hives in the apiary we are now up to 11 hives following a serious of both artificial swarms and natural secondary swarms called  casts. Each ‘parent’ hive had at least two or three queen cells left in and as the new virgin queens hatched they will have fled with a small number of workers, if they stay in the hives there is a very real risk of one of their siblings killing them.  In nature these ‘casts’ would have little chance of surviving in the current weather conditions but my bee buddy Paul has been busy collecting all the swarms and re-homing them in his vertical top bar Warre hives (as below, click on the images to enlarge).

Paul's Warre hives

Paul’s Warre ‘vertical top bar’ hives

Cast swarm re-homed in a nucleus hive

Hatched queen cells line the comb, each virgin queen may have led to a swarm taking place.

Hatched queen cells line the comb
(in this case there were 5), each virgin queen
may have led to a secondary swarm taking place.

The inspections that have been carried out are to see if, and how many, queens have hatched from their cells, whether they have successfully mated and are  laying healthy worker brood. For those that have survived they seem to have been unable to get out on their mating flights so are in the hive but not egg laying yet and this will only widen the gap between the workers produced by the previous queens and those who will eventually be laid by the new queens, meaning far smaller colonies than in previous years and I am hoping that the bees produce enough honey to feed themselves over winter (this is preferable to sugar syrup) and I will be lucky if I manage to extract an excess of honey this year, but then that was not the reason for taking up bee keeping in the first place.

My inspections this week saw new virgin queens being marked in two of the hives (the queen is temporarily ‘trapped’ beneath a cage that she is too large to escape from and a coloured dot is put on her back to make it easier to spot her in the hive during subsequent inspections), a third hive has the queen donated to me by Bob Fitzpatrick and although I couldn’t find her the hive if full of eggs and brood so I know that she is mated and in there somewhere working very hard. The other two hives that I checked had no sign of the queen, no eggs or brood but it doesn’t mean that she is not in there so I will return in 10 days or so and re-assess how they are getting on.

The inspections are also to assess the overall health of the colonies, and other than a little ‘chalk brood’ ( fungal infection) in one of the hives they all seem pretty good so far this year.

The bees are still managing to get some foraging in and there is plenty of flowering plants and trees around the apiary and adjoining agricultural and woodland to feed them when they get the chance, including the borage plants planted all over the forest garden.

Honey bee on borage

Honey bees forage on the borage

The apiary at the end of June 2012 with hives everywhere!

As ever I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog, feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.

Dan