Posts Tagged ‘nectar’

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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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.

First honey crop of 2011


Honey for sale

With the hives filling very rapidly this year and the bees getting ready to swarm it seemed logical to give the bees back some space and take off the first honey crop of the year. Each of my three main hives had two supers full of ‘capped’ frames with the honey ready to extract.

Capped honey in a frame

The bees cap the honey comb once the water content of the honey has been reduced to less than 19% and there is no risk of it being able to ferment. Due to the size of the colonies I only remove one super from each hive at a time to retain the bees space inside the hive, rather than taking two in one go and condensing the bees down into a smaller space during the very hot weather which may then encorage them to swarm earlier than normal.

Clearer board on a hive

I attended the apiary on the Friday evening and placed clearer boards with porter bee escapes in the hive under the honey super containing the frames to be extracted. The bee escapes are really bee turnstiles, as in they let the bees out of the honey super to be removed but not back in again. You have to be careful that you leave no bee space into the super to be removed as once the bees are out it is very easy for robbing to take place and all your honey crop can disappear in a day!

Returning on a very warm Sunday morning I wasn’t sure how well the clearing would have worked as last year it wasn’t that successful but this year it seemed to have worked far better, maybe this was due to the hives being taller with more hive space beneath and the clearer boards being in place for longer or maybe it was just due to the unseasonal heat. The full supers were swiftly removed and the few lingering bees guarding the frames of honey were gently encouraged to return to the hive. There is little more off putting then a few bees flying around your head whilst you try to extract the stolen honey!

Using the uncapping fork

With bees and honey separated it was time to spin out the honey. The wax capping that seal the honey in the comb are removed using an ‘uncapping fork’ and the frames are then placed in a centrifugal device that allows you to gently spin out the honey, then reverse the frames and repeat this process until the combs are virtually empty.

There will always be traces of honey left in the comb and a little ‘set’ honey and this will be fed back to the bees who will clean it from the ‘wet comb’ and take the honey back down deeper into the hive. Once the frames are cleaned and dry they will be removed and stored until required again.

Once the honey has been removed from the comb it is allowed to pass through a coarse filter and then a very fine filter to remove some of the wax particles, pollen and anything else that may have made its way into the honey. This seems to be the longest part of the extraction process with the honey slowly dripping through the filters.

Fine filtering

Following the extraction and filtering it is allowed to settle for at least 24 hours, this is allow any air bubbles introduced whilst spinning it out of the frames to rise to the surface. There is nothing wrong with these appearing in the honey but cosmetically it it better to lose them. The honey is then literally passed through quality control (tasted for sweetness!) and ‘poured off’ through the honey tap into the sterilised jars and labelled up ready for sale.

Quality control

The cappings contain a fair amount of honey and these are separated from the wax in warm water – this will now form the sugary syrup that will be the base for making this year’s honey mead – and probably form the subject of my next blog entry!

Labelling jars

June 2011 – and the swarming season continues


It seems like the last three weeks of June have gone mad, there seems to have been a swarming frenzy with bees deserting their hives everywhere but luckily with with my friend Paul from Forest Garden Foods on board we have been able to collect and retain many of these swarms.

Swarm in a tree

My last blog explained how I carried out an artificial swarm up at one of the apiaries. There  was only the one hive there so once the artificial swarm had been carried out the risk of a real swarm occuring was very minimal, although having left five new queens cells in the hive there is always the risk of a cast (a smaller swarm leaving with the first born, or subsequent, virgin queens) but on the whole I have now left them alone to get on with re-queening, mating and re-building the colonies.

Close up of swarm in a tree

I was at work in London a couple of weeks ago and the phone rang, my wife has literally stumbled into a small swarm on the ground on the local common whilst walking the dog so Paul popped up and mopped it up, then the very next day a large swarm was seen in flight crossing a field in the Teisse Valley and settling about 200m from the out apiary there.

Again Paul bravely donned his bee keeping suit and happily collected the swarm. Two days later and one of my hives, Ogwen, decided to surprise us with a large swarm which settled in a tree near the Spa Valley apiary and Paul duly collected it into a cardboard box and re-hived in one of the the prepared ‘swarm control’ hives.

Swarm collected in a box

This new swarm stayed for a few hours before deciding to head out again, but due to a well placed queen excluder under the brood body the bees left but returned when they realised they were missing their queen, without which the colony has no chance of survival. I have been contacted yesterday and again today being requested to collect swarms but we seem to have run out of luxury bee accommodation in which to re-house the bees with all the hives now occupied. Buying additional hives right now isn’t an option so we are having to pass these on. Swarming of different colonies in the same area often occurs around the same time each year, I assume some of the factors outside of the beekeepers control that then lead to swarming are common across an area, being weather and forage availability.

The last three weeks have seen high pressure and unseasonably hot weather and as the colonies near their peak numbers life in the hives must be very warm and congested. The long dry spring has allowed the bees to work hard and bring in much nectar and the supers are filling very fast. Time to crop some honey …..

A beekeeping library


Whilst it is quiet on the actual bee keeping front over winter it is the perfect time to catch up on some background reading, take onboard new knowledge that can applied to your bee keeping practise throughout the following year and increase your enjoyment and understanding of the actual bees themselves and not just the practice of trying to maximise a honey crop.

Bee library

Bee library

Since I started with the bee keeping about three years ago I seem to have gathered quite a few books on the subject, some bought by me and others given as presents. My first book on the subjest was ‘Bees at the bottom of the garden’ which seemed to be a popular choice for including in the bee keeping starter packs that the equipment suppliers provide. This was great introductory book but soon led onto more slightly  indepth books on the subject.

With the risk of being called ‘nerdy’ I thought I would briefly add a few web reviews the books I have here:


Bees at the bottom of my garden

Beekeeping is a hobby any interested amateur could explore - that is the message of this work which aims to take the mystique out of keeping bees. Alan Campion uses his own experiences to describe in plain terms how to go about setting up a hive, and what to expect from your bees.


Keeping bees and making honey

This is a comprehensive and attractive lifestyle guide to beekeeping - from finding your bees to getting them home, housing them, collecting honey and using their produce.It includes a detailed look at the history of bees and beekeeping, and an extensive introduction to help you to fully understand your bees and keep them happy.Whether you have a tiny balcony or acres of land; live in the middle of a city or in the countryside surrounded by flowers, this book caters for every situation, discussing the different types of hive available for every eventuality.It features a detailed section on gardening for bees, as well as comprehensive advice on how to safely collect your honey and wax, with recipes and ideas on how to use them."Bees" fuses contemporary lifestyle design and an authoritative text, to appeal not only to those who already have bees, but to those who are thinking of having them or even just like the idea of having them - it will 'sell the dream'.

 

Guide To Bees And Honey

Intended for both new and experienced beekeepers, this invaluable and highly illustrated volume provides answers to virtually every beekeeping question - from avoiding swarms to setting a hive up for winter."Guide to Bees and Honey" also presents expert advice for readers who plan to maintain a few hives for personal, recreational use, as well as those who want to expand an existing colony into a commercial venture.Also included in this volume is a section on the Varroa mite - a particularly nasty parasite that has proved fatal to many British hives. It explains what it does, how it spreads, and effective ways to treat and prevent infestation.


Hive Management

Offers concise, up-to-date information on beekeeping tasks, including how to prevent, capture, and control swarms, when and how to harvest honey, and dealing successfully with queens.


Honey Farming

This is one of the great beekeeping books of all time. Manley draws on his commercial esperience to explain all aspects of beekeeping. This is a book which is a joy to read, you read it, then reread it. As your experience improves you will understand more & more of the value of Manleys words. STRONLY RECOMMENDED



Bees And Honey - From Flower To Jar

Bees make honey; we all know that. But what happens between the bee buzzing around our garden, and the sticky knife in the jar, is a mystery to most of us. Based on careful observation and years of experience, Michael Weiler here reveals the secret life of bees. He looks at all aspects of a bee's life and work and vividly describes their remarkable world. Did you know that it takes approximately 12,000 bee-hours to make one jar of honey? (At GBP5.30 per hour, that would mean one jar should cost around GBP63,600.) This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the intricacies of nature and our world.


Honey - natures golden healer

There is growing evidence to show that honey is hugely beneficial to our health, from its antibacterial properties to helping relieve hay fever to even inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. Drawing on her background in the biological sciences, Gloria Havenhand reveals how we can harvest the beehive for anything from reviving tonics to beauty treats. Not only does she demonstrate how honey is essential for healthy living, but tackles other under-appreciated and lesser-known bee products such as propolis, a sticky resin, which can help skin conditions such as psoriasis; pollen used to relieve hay fever and boost the immune system and royal jelly and beeswax uesd in cosmetics to rejuvenate the skin. With increasing numbers of people interested in ditching drugs for natural alternatives to combat health problems from allergies to acne, this book is a timely look at how the beehive can help us look and feel better.


The Honey Bee - Inside Out

This book is designed to present detailed information about the anatomy and physiology of the honey bee in a clear and concise format. Each of the eight chapters covers an aspect of bee biology and all are copiously illustrated. The author has drawn most of the diagrams from her own dissections, giving a realistic, rather than idealistic impression of the parts involved. Also included, are an appendix giving the background to scientific terminology, a wide-ranging glossary including phonetic spellings and suggestions for further reading. This is a book that will inform anybody who is interested in this fascinating insect. It is based on the examination modules set by the British Beekeepers' Association, but this text will prove interesting for anyone wanting to know more about our honey bees.

BeeCraft

On top of the books membership to the British Beekeepers Association also includes a monthly magazine called BeeCraft. The local branch of the BBKA also have a book library with some of the rarer books as well as newer titles. http://www.bee-craft.com/

January checks – are the bees still alive?


As I said in my previous post the winter months are pretty quiet for the bee keeper. So long as you have taken the time to ensure that the hives were fed syrup at the end of the summer and each now have enough stores to feed them over winter, have a healthy laying queen and are as disease free as possible then it is a bit of a waiting game to see if they survive the colder months or not.

The bees are now clustering around the queen in the hive, keeping the temperature at 34 degrees. They do not keep the hive at this temperature but the brood area is kept this warm. The queen will have started laying again somewhere around Christmas day so now is far more critical to the colonies survival than earlier in the winter.

On warmer days occasionally bees can be seen leaving the hive and travelling a short distance before returning. With a lack of forage these flights are purely for defecation purposes so it is best to avoid the flight path!

Bees leaving the hive for defecation flights

It is re-assuring for the bee keeper to see his bees are still active and alive. Gently rocking the hive or knocking on its side will respond in a gentle roar from the bees, another sign that they are still alive. If the returned noise is more like a groan or moan it is likely that the colony is without a queen and therefore unlikely to survive the winter.

It is important for the bee keeper to remove the mouse guards and clear the dead bees from the entrance during the winter. The bees are very efficient at cleaning the hive to remove the risk of disease during the summer months but this becomes increasing difficult during the winter with less bees to perform the task and a large perforated strip of metal across the hive entrance (the mouse guard!). A long bladed screw driver is perfect for scrapping out the dead bees from the hive floor – this is perfectly natural!

Winter checks on the colonies

Winter checks onthe hive - a little assistance required

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whilst there is no brood in the hive the bees are very inactive, they do not need to generate as much heat and they consume very little stores (with no young to feed). As soon as the queen starts to lay again the bees will start to slowly move across the frames and access the honey and pollen that they stored up in the summer months and use as much as 4 to 6 times the amount as they did before. They tend to access only the frames that are immediately adjacent to, or above, the brood so it is not uncommon for a hive to starve whilst they still have adequate honey supplies stored in the hive. It is also possible for a colony to have adequate stores that have hardened and crystallised and therefore the bees are unable to ‘dilute it’ and remove it from the cells.

It is important for the bee keeper to be aware of the amount of supplies within each hive but it is not really acceptable to open the hives for more than a few minutes during the colder weather without the risk of chilling, and therefore killing, the brood.

Traditionally the beekeeper would ‘heft’ the hive on its stand to try and assess the amount of stores left and a hive at this time of year will still require about 25 kg. If the winter has been particularly cold and it is possible that the bees may have consumed a greater amount of the honey stored you can supplement the feed with bee candy or fondant. This is made by boiling 2kg white granulated sugar in  1 pint of water and bringing it up to 117 degrees. The resultant candy will store for several months when wrapped in plastic and can be feed direct to the bees either over a feed hole on the crown board or direct across the frames. It is far more common for the bees to starve in February and into early March as the hives consumption increases with no way of replenishing the stores.

  • Bee candydy over the feed hole on the crown board
  • Feeding the colony at this stage will also help promote egg laying in the queen and therefore get your colony size building up prior to the spring nectar flow arriving and making sure the colony is strong and ready to forage when it does. – this can make all the difference to the size of the honey crop come August.

    Now is also the time to organise your bee keeping equipment before the start of the next season. New equipment can be ordered (many suppliers have sales over the winter months) and old equipment can be repaired and re-treated before being put back into the elements.

    Organising equipment before the summer season

    Finally you can retire back into the warmth, happy that your bees have survived this far into the year and hoping that they make it out again in the spring ahead.

    What happens to the bees over-winter? Putting the bees to bed.


    The beekeepers year is pretty much over once the honey has been extracted, the bees have been fed sugar syrup and treated for varroa mite. Now it is a matter of good housekeeping to give the bees the best chance of surviving into the next year and to encourage early build-up of the colony.

    The hive is checked again on a warm day in October to make sure that there is still a queen and there is no evidence of disease before packing the bees up for the winter months ahead. Once the last flowering plants, such as ivy, no longer have a nectar supply then the bees stop the foraging flights and entrance activity in the hive drastically reduces, with only occasional flights for toileting purposes.

    The colony itself is shrinking in preparation for the winter months ahead with the remaining 20,000 workers living for 5 months or so in order to cluster around the queen and maintain the hive temperature. This number will decline even further, maybe as few as 10,000, before the queen starts laying again in February with the bees emerging as adults in time to coincide with the start of the spring flowers and spring nectar flow.

    The October checks are also to assess that there are adequate stores of honey in the hive to feed the remaining bees over the next few months, as well as a good supply of pollen for feeding to the young and encourage early brood rearing in February.

    Hives are undamaged and soundHives preparing for winterThe crown board is propped upFeed holes in the crown board are coveredMouse guard fitted over the hive entrance

    The hives themselves need to be sound and undamaged. Back in the summer any holes in the hive would have been heavily guarded and just used as an additional entrance or exit, but now the bees are beginning to cluster this will be left unguarded and leave the hive open to robbing, particularly by wasps. It will also let in the cold and wet. Bees are far more likely to be killed by the damp then by the cold. The hives should be sloped slightly forward to allow the bottom board to drain (obviously not a problem if you are using a mesh floor!) and the entrance should be faced away, or at least protected from, the prevailing wind. The crown board is propped on two corners with matchsticks or similar size twigs and the feed holes (or porter escape holes) are covered, this is to prevent too much condensation building up in the hive. The warm moist air rises to the crown board and is pushed out of the top of the hive, rather than condensing on the crown board which can then lead to the outside frames becoming mouldy or even to the death of the colony.

    The roof is then replaced and the hive can either be strapped (but the straps will weather and perish and will definitely not be suitable for moving the hives later on – they are bound to fail at the most inconvenient moment) or use the traditional method by placing a brick on top to avoid the roof being blown off in strong winds – if the apiary is in a very windy location then use two bricks!

    The hives attract attention from several unwanted visitors over the winter months when other food sources are scarce. The hives are very inviting to mice, they offer a warm, dry shelter with honey on tap and the mouse is unlikely to be evicted by the bees until the spring by which time the damage to the comb has been dome. A thin strip of metal with 9mm holes is pinned over the entrance as a mouse guard (check there are no mice in there before attaching it). I have tried to align the bottom set of holes with the hive floor to make it easier for the bees to carry out their hive duties and eject any debris and dead bees before it is removed in spring.

    Woodpecker protectionLittle entrance activity in NovemberHives now ready for winter

    If green woodpeckers are known to nest locally the hive is wrapped in chicken wire with a 13mm mesh or alternatively strips of plastic sheeting are placed over the hive (this prevents the woodpeckers from getting a grip on the hive). Apparently beekeepers who have had no history of problems at an apiary site for many many years with the woodpeckers being present then find one learns a trick and they break and enter the hives, damaging the brood boxes and destroying the frames, comb and colony very quickly.

    Occasional visits to monitor the entrance activity and check the hives have not been ‘nudged’ by deer or badgers are useful. The bees are then left to their own devices until spring. Some beekeepers feed a fondant candy to supplement the honey at the end of December (a form of Christmas offering) and others treat the hive using a weak solution of oxalic acid in sugar syrup. This does not affect the bees but helps to attack the varroa mite and removes their ability to ‘cling on’ to the bees. This should only be administered to the hive when there is no brood present (as it will not affect mite sealed into the brood) and there is no honey in the hive that will later be extracted for human consumption.

    In the event of a heavy snow fall the hive entrance should be cleared to allow a free flow of air and the light shielded away from the entrance or else there is a risk of the bees flying and becoming chilled and unable to return to the hives.

    Finally the hives components not being used over winter should be cleaned and stored. Supers and brood boxes should be scorched internally to kill any parasites and eggs buried in the woodwork. This is also a good time to repair and treat the boxes. The comb should be stored, either wet or dry, so that it is not accessible to wax moths. Sheets of newspaper placed between each super helps. The wax moth lay their eggs of the wax and when hatched feed on the cocoons of the bees so they are most likely to occur in the stored brood comb. A healthy colony of bees will not tolerate wax moth in the hive but the pose a threat to your stored comb.

    Finally time to relax and wait for that warm day in early spring where you get to see if all those preparations for the winter have paid off and your colonies have survived the British winter – good luck!