Posts Tagged ‘apiary’

Autumn’s here and my bees look like ghosts…


October has arrived, the leaves are beginning to fall from the trees and my apiary visits are becoming less frequent now that I have finished treating the bees with Apilife Var for the Varroa Destructor (parasitic mite) and feeding the heavy sugar syrup that will help to sustain my girls through the winter and replaces some of the honey that was removed back in August.

Apart from a  very brief cold spell it has been quite a warm autumn so far in the south and the bees are still busy, the queens in two of my hives are still producing brood, once hatched these will be the workers that remain with her over winter and into the start of the season next year, but all the bees are still flying and bringing in lots of pollen. I am very fortunate that my apiary is located in a semi-rural location and falls adjacent to a heavily forested area with plenty of ivy at this time of year, but my bees do not appear to foraging there, they are returning to hives looking like miniature ghosts dusted in white pollen and not only in the pollen baskets on their rear legs but also all over their thorax as well.

Sloes growing on the blackthorn trees

Sloes growing on the blackthorn bushes

After a brief check on the colonies last weekend I took a wander further down the valley to have a look at the sloes growing on the blackthorn and to see if they were ready to pick and seep in gin, as it was they looked ripe but still feel a little bit hard and its probably best to wait a little longer until they are holding a bit more juice before harvesting.

However as I wandered along the paths through the woodland I was greeted by a familiar buzz and could see my girls working the pink flowers scattered amongst the bramble, ferns and nettles.

A woodland path in the Spa Valley, blanketed in flower of the Himalayan Balsam.

A woodland path in the Spa Valley, blanketed in flower of the Himalayan Balsam.

These flowers are the ‘Himalayan Balsam’ (Impatiens glandulifera) and as the name suggests it is a non-native species that is considered by many to be a weed due to its fast growing and invasive nature. It will tolerate low light conditions and will rapidly displace other plants in the area if not controlled. However my bees seem to absolutely love it with virtually every forager returning to the hive wearing white overalls.

You can see from the two close-up images of the flowers below (apologies these were taken with a phone camera so not that great quality) that the hood-shaped flower invites the bee in to drink nectar held in the central ‘cup’ but there is a small pollen brush above with passes over the top of the thorax as the bees enter and exit, this is a very effective strategy for the plant in order to reproduce.

Himalayan Balsam Flower

Himalayan Balsam Flower open for business

Himalayan Balsam Flower

Himalayan Balsam Flower

I can’t help looking at this and being reminded of one of my favourite quotes from the film ‘Withnail and I’ where Withnails uncle Monty, played by the late Richard Griffiths, is having a rant and says ‘ Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.’

But what is good for the bees is not considered to be so good for other species and a biodiversity balance has to be struck, these plants local to my hives are self-seeded and appear to be spreading year after year and supply a rich source of late forage. In July 2011 the BBKA released a statement specifically relating to this plant that says:

“It is unacceptable (actually illegal) to actively distribute balsam seeds to encourage its spread, but this does not preclude the option for beekeepers to have some balsam in their gardens to provide the late nectar and pollen whilst carefully managing it so it does not spread to other gardens, agricultural land and especially watercourses.”

In my opinion it’s nice to see nature fighting back and giving something positive to the bees when there are so many other environmental pressures currently working against them, whether it be agricultural practises that are actively destroying the habitat that they require through removal of hedgerows and wild spaces, monoculture and the excessive use of dangerous pesticides (neonicotinoids) or the spread of parasitic mites and other bee diseases as well as the increasing threat of the arrival of the Asian Hornet in the UK.

I won’t be back to my hives for a  little while now, I hope that the weather holds and as the brood area reduces the bees fill all available space with stores as winter approaches to give them the best chance of surviving again (I lost one weaker colony to isolation starvation last year in the winter). When I return it will be to fit the metal mouse guards to keep out unwanted visitors, the chicken wire to keep the green woodpeckers away is already in place following reports of damage in Hampshire already this year!

Fly agaric

Fly agaric growing in the woodland adjacent to the apiary, October 2013

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

 
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Busy busy bees – new queens on their way


Following on from my apiary visits at the beginning of the month where I had found new queen cells I carried out a textbook artificial swarm, once I had found the elusive and newly slimmed down queen. The queen cups were already built and these had eggs in them rather than larva or pupa so it was quite early in the whole swarming process so I returned last week to carry out another quick check just to make sure that the bees had continued their journey to requeening the colony once the original fertile queen had been removed and re-hived with her flying workers.

Queen cells - June 2013

Queen cells – June 2013

I need not have worried as the bees had done what nature has taught them is required when the colony is queenless and they had the advantage of eggs laid in queen cells as opposed to having to draw out an emergency queen using an egg laid in a normal worker cell – never the best solution and these tend to get superseded very quickly.

Queen cells - June 2013

Queen cells – June 2013

The uncapped queen cell  in the image above has been abandoned and did not contain a larva, however this hive had produced four new queens from the cells that I had spotted in my earlier visit and these are all capped, surprisingly they had also produced some slightly smaller cells which I assume were also queens on an outside frame in the brood box – these were all on new comb so lighter in colour than those above – I have not seen this before and hope that these were not emergency queens due to their being a problem with the other earlier queens in the hive? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this, please comment if you have any ideas?

Queen cells on new comb on an outside frame

Queen cells on new comb on an outside frame

The original queen that I moved onto new foundation in a single brood box had also been busy and after a week or so in her new home she had completely filled the single brood box on the hive almost to the outside frames with eggs so these bees desperately needed new space for colony expansion and storing food so I gave them an extension in the form of a new super on the brood – I am beginning to think that I may need to go with a double brood system next year if my queens keep working so hard – I have not had any problems with the colony expansions this year. I put this down to re-queening last year (naturally), early feed during the spring and the great location of the apiary on the Kent/Sussex borders surrounded by established woodland, agricultural land and urban areas within reach of the foraging bees.

I spent part of the weekend cutting out old comb, cleansing frames before adding new foundation, sterilising supers and brood boxes and generally getting myself ready for the summer flow which is just beginning – I have greater hope for my bees than last year and the weather is supposedly going to return to near average temperatures again by the end of the week, or so we are told. I hope that your girls are doing as well and you are having as much fun!

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.

Bees in my garden ….


I think its very hard to be a beekeeper and not take an active interest in all the bees, and other insects, that you come across in your garden or when out and about. I don’t keep my honey bees at home due to living in a build-up urban area with smaller gardens so I don’t often get the chance to just sit and watch my bees outside of my apiary visits.

I do however grow as many bee friendly plants as I can and try and encourage both wild bees and honey bees into the garden as well as producing a source of pollen and nectar to help conserve these solitary bees. Over the last couple of weeks I have been really enjoying watching the bumblebees tumbling all over the flowers on my raspberry plants – there are several distinct species and there is a great tool online from the Natural History Museum website to help you identify them – it helps if you take a photo for reference, here are a few of mine below (clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window):

Bombus pratorum (Early Bumblebee)

Bombus pratorum (Early Bumblebee)

Whilst I was studying these bees I noticed some appeared to be falling to the ground and landing on the grass, on closer inspection it also appeared that the bees were fighting amongst themselves – all very strange and certainly not something that I had witnessed before so I contacted a local entomologist, Dr Ian Beavis, who is a great source of knowledge (as well as an enthusiastic leader of many bug safaris in our local wild spaces) to see if he could shed some light on this unusual behaviour.

Bombus Hypnorum - disorientated on the grass after a fall from flight

Bombus Hypnorum – disorientated on the grass after a fall from flight

He replied to say not all is as it first appears, the bees are looking for a mate and will barge into and grab a partner whilst in flight, then reject them when they realise that they are the wrong species or sex which leave the slightly disorientated bees falling to the ground. They don’t seem to get hurt and soon recover enough to carry on their foraging amongst the flowers, until the next suitor arrives on the scene that is….

Bombus Hypnorum -

Bombus Hypnorum – feeding on raspberry

A recent NERC study ‘Lonely bees make better guests’  has suggested that solitary bees are twice as likely to pollinate the flowers they visit as their more sociable counterparts so we must consider these bees equally as important as the honeybees we are used to tending to and  look to try and prevent their decline with as much energy, if not more so, as at  least the beekeeper can split a colony or breed additional queens to make up for losses.

Bombus Hypnorum -

Bombus Hypnorum – easily identified with its distinctive red/brown jacket and grey/white tail

Of course the bees are not the only visitors to my raspberry patch – right now there seems to be a wealth of insects flying around and feeding on the rich nectar including this Harlequin ladybird, image below. If you spot any of the different ladybird species in your gardens it would be greatly appreciated if you could help out with the UK Ladybird Survey, again there are all sorts of tools and downloadable PDF’s to help you identify the ones that you find and this is also a great activity to carry out with kids, teaching them the importance of nature.

Harlequin ladybird

Harlequin ladybird

A new ladybird has arrived in Britain . But not just any ladybird: this is the harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, the most invasive ladybird on Earth.

The harlequin ladybird was introduced to North America in 1988, where it is now the most widespread ladybird species on the continent. It has already invaded much of of north-western Europe, and arrived in Britain in summer 2004.

There are 46 species of ladybird (Coccinellidae) resident in Britain and the recent arrival of the harlequin ladybird has the potential to jeopardise many of these. The Harlequin Ladybird Survey will monitor its spread across Britain and assess its impact on native ladybirds.

Monitoring ladybirds across the country has never been more important!

My lavender is just coming into flower and this always seems to attract more honey bees than I see on the raspberries so I am looking forward to watching these assuming that the weather improves enough for them to get out and forage this year!

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.

June arrives bringing warmer weather but also swarms galore


Apiary - June 2013

At the apiary – June 2013

It’s been a cold and slow start to the beekeeping year, allegedly the coldest in 46 years and one of the 4 coldest since records began in 1910 and all this is on top of the appalling wet year that we had in 2012. Beekeepers all over the UK recorded above normal losses of bees during the extended winter months and although the coverage about pesticide use and bee loss has continued to dominate the  media many of these bees were simply lost to starvation and the cold weather. I sadly also lost a colony as I reported earlier in the year despite there being fresh bee candy in the hive literally millimeters above the bees…

Healthy bees in may as the colony starts to enlarge

Healthy bees at the hive entrance in may as the colony starts to enlarge

So the flowers were late, I fed my bees a light syrup as spring arrived and the colonies expanded really fast this year – it was great to see and as the belated wild blooms broke through the workers were ready to take advantage and I have had great joy watching the air around the apiary alive with pollen laden bees making their return flights back to the hives during the warmer and sunny days.

During my recent inspections I have seen large and healthy colonies, with the ‘brood and a half’ hive formation full of eggs, brood and stores with no room to spare. My first honey supers went on back in May and these are also now full to overflowing, although the honey is not yet capped. This weekend I added a second super to one hive with a smile as this was done a lot later last year so I feel very optimistic  that  the bees are having a better year already… I certainly hope so!

Chalk brood ejected from the hive

Chalk brood ejected from the hive

Hive checks back in May did reveal a higher level of chalk brood than I had previously seen, I wasn’t worried but interested to know why – then whilst reading another great beekeeping blog – ‘Adventuresinbeeland’s Blog by Emily Heath about her beekeeping in Ealing, West London, she happened to mention chalkbrood in her question/answer section of her informative revision notes for the BBKA exams:

Chalkbrood is an extremely common brood disease which is often present at low levels in colonies. It is thought to become a noticeable problem when the colony is weak and when levels of carbon dioxide rise above normal, because the bees are failing to maintain the correct conditions in the hive. It is also linked to stresses such as insufficient nurse bees, pollen shortage and the presence of sac brood.

Chalk brood is caused by a fungus named Ascosphaera apis. This delightful organism begins to germinate when a larva takes in its spores with its food. Inside the gut, the spores start to grow, producing multiple branches of fine cotton-like threads. These break through the gut wall and continue to grow throughout the body of the poor larva, until eventually it becomes “a swollen mass of fluffy white fungus with a small yellow lump where its head used to be“, as Celia Davis puts it in her excellent book ‘The Honey Bee Around & About’ (2007).

The infected larva dries to a hard chalk-like lump called a ‘mummy’, which can be white, grey or black. These will rattle when the comb is shaken. Death occurs after the cells have been sealed, so workers will tear the cappings open to remove the mummies and dispose of them outside the hive. Unfortunately the mummy spores are sticky and will attach to the bees, causing them to infect larvae when they re-enter the hive. Yet another reason to change brood comb regularly – the spores are resistant to heat and have a life of between 3-38 years.

Like chilled brood, beekeepers are most likely to see chalk brood in the spring when colonies are expanding the brood nest rapidly, but do not yet have a large adult bee population. Even if the resulting chilling is not sufficient to kill the larvae, it seems to encourage the growth of the Ascosphaera fungus.

And as the highlighted section indicates maybe my early feeding and rapid colony expansion was out of sync with the availability pollen to feed the brood once the bees had used that stored over winter in the hives. I guess I could have used a pollen substitute as a supplementary feed (there are many recipes online as well as those commercially produced) but as it is the bees effectively removed all the chalkbrood and it does not seem to have affected them or their ability to fill the hive with brood again and it no longer seems to be a problem at all. Interestingly it also only affected one hive in the apiary.

Buckfast queen back in May, plump and laying very well

Buckfast queen back in May, plump and egg-laying very well

So the colonies are healthy, the queens are fruitful and the number of bees in each hive has rapidly expanded, so much so that the hives had become congested by early June so it was a given that they would try to swarm as soon as the weather improved! My black british queen was first to go – I checked the hive and didn’t spot anything (nor the queen) then came back 10 days later and bang – three fully formed capped queen cells and a fourth in the making – I attempted to carry out an artificial swarm but this was hampered by a sudden downfall of rain and despite going through the hive three times I just couldn’t find that elusive queen so had to assume she had already gone, which kind of defeats the object of an artificial swarm so I moved the whole original hive back into its original location and have now left it to its own devices. The first visual swarm recorded at the apiary this year, and collected by my bee buddy Paul, was likely to have been the first of these virgin queens leaving with a cast or secondary swarm.

Queen in a queen clip

Queen (marked white on left) visible in a queen clip during artificial swarm

Last Friday I checked my  second hive and sure enough my second generation buckfast queen had also been busy with three queen cells formed with eggs laid in them, although quite early in the process I decided to carry out another artificial swarm on the hive but again I struggled to find the queen.

On my last inspection this queen was large and plump and easy to spot due to having been marked earlier in the season. Finally I found her, slimmed down as the bees prepare her for swarming and flight, I popped her into a ‘queen clip’ designed to hold the queen due to her greater size but allowing free movement of smaller worker bees, anyway she walked straight out so it definitely wasn’t my imagination that she was slimmed down! Once she was found again, the artificial swarm was a textbook exercise and I left the queen with three frames of brood and food and a few workers on drawn comb as all the returning workers flying that day will join her, along with those that fly from the daughter hive the following day.

Now its a case of sitting back and counting the days until I check the hives to see how the new and old queens are  getting on and also keeping an eye out for the occasional swarm from Paul’s Warre hives.

Hives after artificial swarm - one has all 'non-flying workers', brood and honey, the other the artificial swarm

Hives after artificial swarm – the nearest one has all ‘non-flying workers’, brood and honey, the next nearest to the right houses the artificial swarm

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.

Bees on veil during an artificial swarm

Bees on my veil during an artificial swarm, people often ask if it bothers me – flying stinging insects all around my face – the answer is NO until they find a way in – always buy a good bee suit!

April arrives and the first apiary check of 2013


Strong colony

Strong colonies emerge after a very long winter

After a very long drawn out winter with bitter easterly winds and one of the coldest March’s since records began we have returned to an Atlantic airflow and finally begun to see  the thermometers rising with the milder weather bringing in some sunshine along with the normal April showers but this has at least also bought on the start of spring.  With flowers appearing and trees in blossom the bees have started flying again and so at last we can go into the apiary and have a quick look inside the hives.

I was particularly keen to see how the bees were doing as I had lost one colony to starvation back in February, despite there being home-made fondant on all the hives. I had been feeding the bees since late December and had also started feeding a light syrup (1kg sugar per liter water) during the last week of March.

Healthy bees

Healthy bees fill the hives

The National Bee Unit (NBU – part of FERA/DEFRA) are still recommending the use of fondant at the beginning of April but it has been slightly warmer in Kent than elsewhere in the UK and my bees had already broken from their winter cluster, during the day at least, and syrup given in a contact feeder is much easier for the bees to use. Fondant stores well, does not freeze or ferment, so can sit on the hive until the bees need it but it requires chewing and diluting with water before the bees can use it so a thin syrup is preferable in my opinion once the bees are active.

I had not opened any of the hives, other than removing the roof to give fondant or syrup, since the last week in December when the oxalic acid was applied to try and reduce the numbers of the parasitic mite, varroa destructor, and even then the crown board is only raised for a few moments and no frames are lifted so it is always with great excitement that you carry out the first inspection of the season.

On a warm and sunny but breezy afternoon (15-16 degrees) I attended the apiary unsure of whether I would actually get the chance to look into the hives, but I wanted to remove the contact feeders, mouse guards and wood pecker protection anyway so it wouldn’t be a wasted visit. You can also tell a lot about the health of a colony just by observing the bees at the hive entrance and intrusive measures are not always required (click on the link to access a pdf copy of H. Storch’s book of the same title). I wanted to see if the bees were flying and if they were returning loaded with pollen as they had been on previous days.

At the hive entrance

At the hive entrance with an entrance reducer in place to prevent early robbing

A break in the wind and we were in, I used a little smoke as the bees had been quite ‘friendly’ when I had put feeders on a few days earlier so I decided to let them know I was here this time. I prised the crown boards away from the top brood boxes where the bees had firmly fixed them with ample amounts of propolis over the winter months and was greeted with hives full of bees, really good size healthy looking colonies. The crown boards were checked to make sure the queen wasn’t on them as there are currently no queen excluders used in the hives and then, as I didn’t want to chill the brood or disturb the bees to much, I only removed a few frames from the top brood box for inspection and again was very happy to see that there were sealed brood, larva, eggs and freshly stored yellow pollen (looks like willow) in the classic brood pattern spread over several frames.

I didn’t need to see the queen to know that she had been there recently, that could wait for a warmer day, but the bees were active, looking healthy and building up numbers well with plenty of stored food so it was time to carefully close up the hives until my next visit when hopefully better conditions will allow for me to dig deeper into the hives.

Paul inspecting his hives

Paul inspecting his national hives with a big smile on his face

My bee buddy Paul was also on hand checking his hives and was pleased to report no winter losses, including his two Warre hives which have not had any intervention or feeding over the winter months, the bees are flying but we do not know how large or strong those colonies are yet. The smaller colony that had over-wintered in a poly-nuc is  doing well and I may well invest in some of these one day.

Once the hives were closed up it was time to turn thoughts towards the rapid approach of spring and inevitable swarming that will start as hives fill up and become congested. We sorted through our equipment and took stock of how many ‘spare’ hives were already set and ready to go when needed and which needed repair or new wax installed. Hopefully the warmer weather will stay long enough for the colonies to build strength in time for the main spring flowers as they arrive.

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.

Pollen under hive

Pollen dropped through the mesh floor building up under the hives

Death of a colony – a beekeepers loss


The cold spell that has dominated the last couple of weeks has finally broken this weekend and I was keen to get down to my apiary to see how the bees were faring. The hives were last opened and checked at the end of December, about 3 1/2 weeks ago, when I applied the oxalic acid and fed large blocks of home-made bee candy to each.

My new apiary assistant to help with the bees

My new apiary assistant ready to help with the bees

We had five national hives and a poly nuc to check on this visit as the Warre hives are being left to their own devices over winter and we were only checking to see how the bees were doing with the candy feed and replenishing if needed. The first hive that we checked had a late swarm, collected in August and headed by a buckfast cross breed queen. At the end of last year they seemed to be doing quite well, the queen was a good layer, and although the colony was smaller than the others it seemed to be building at a steady rate and the bees were very chilled, beautiful to handle and I assumed they would be one of my success stories of 2013.

A dead colony clusters on the frames

A dead bee colony clusters on the frames

Dead bees clustering on the frame and covering the floor

Dead clustering on the frame and covering the floor

When we opened the hive I realised pretty quickly that there wasn’t the normal activity I would expect to see at this time of year, especially as the ambient temperature was around 9 degrees Celsius when bees would normally have broken from their winter cluster around the queen and resumed normal hive activities during the day. On closer inspection we found that the colony was completely dead with the bees clustering on the frames as they would have done in life.

It was a sad moment for me as this is the first colony I have lost to starvation in five years of keeping bees.

This hive had a reasonable level of stores when checked in December and a 400g block of bee candy was placed over the feed hole in the centre of the crown board but frustratingly this had not been touched despite the bee cluster being directly below it.

The starving bees had filled the cells in the frames head first, I assume looking for food, and many had died in this position.

Dead bees in the frames

Dead bees searching for food fill the frames

The other hives were checked and all appeared normal, three had finished their candy feeds but the fourth hive, with a similar size colony but different type of queen, had only just started to use it.

I have now doubled up the feed on each of the hives to take them up to the warmer weather when I can give a thin sugar syrup as a spring feed to help the colonies build strength again.

Candy feed on crown board just being started

Candy feed on crown board just being started

Doubled up blocks of candy on a hive

Doubled up blocks of candy on a hive

I am left wondering if I had used a small eke (spacer) to raise the crown board and put the candy direct on the frames would they have taken it, but then again they had full access to the candy and were right below it and hadn’t touched it so maybe not. Should I have moved them into a nuc for over-wintering or culled the new queen and consolidated them with a stronger colony? There is no point dwelling on the loss to much but their demise seems harsher than a colony losing a queen or having laying workers as you end up feeling responsible for their fate to some extent.

As a beekeeper it is lovely to have the opportunity to visit your bees during the long winter months, to see them flying again with the promise of another spring arriving and as the new plants are just beginning to appear through the receding snowline.

Bee in a poly nuc

Bee in a poly nuc

The bees in the poly nuc appear to be doing quite well. This a bit of an experiment this year as Paul only obtained the nuc in 2012 and populated it with a swarm he collected. The greater insulation should be keeping the bees warm and require less use of their precious stores but the downfall with this type of ‘housing’ is when it comes to feeding as the ‘crown board’ is a flexible sheet of clear plastic, with no feed hole, and no room under the roof for candy. Does anyone know if you can get a poly nuc eke to raise the roof, or if syrup feed is used in the built-in feeder (bottom of the picture) does it freeze or will the bees even take it during the winter months? Be good to hear of your experiences of using these new hives.

Dead frames, the comb will be removed for candles and the boxes sterilised with a blowtorch

Dead frames, the comb will be removed for candles and the boxes sterilised with a blowtorch

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.

The apiary - January 2013

The apiary – January 2013

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