Posts Tagged ‘season’

April into May but where are my bees going …..


March was dominated by a high pressure system that bought unseasonably warm and dry weather across much of  the UK, continuing drought conditions were forecast for the year ahead and a hosepipe ban has been put in place across much of the country, meanwhile the bees have enjoyed early flying, foraging and the colonies have been building up their strengh.

As it was still early in the year I only carried out one inspection during the month, on a warm day, where the health of the hives, the amount of stores and the strength of the colonies was assessed. I was very pleased that all three of my colonies had survived the winter again. Two were strong healthy colonies but the other hive, named Snowdon, rang a few alarm bells as things weren’t quite right due to the sporadic and weak laying patterns and although there was no sign of the queen there was some sealed brood so I closed up the hives and decided to review the situation at my next inspection.

Workers bringing in pollen

Workers bringing in pollen between April showers

Then  April arrived and so did the the rain,  the UK met office has issued yellow warnings for heavy rain and local flooding in one or more area of the country virtually every day and the heavy rains have continued to pour out of the heavens. This wet period has not only hampered my ability to get down to the hives to check on the bees progress but it has also kept the bees in the hives, unable to collect the fresh pollen and nectar required for brood rearing and the adult bees and  they are using up the last of their winter stores  rapidly.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) and National Bee Unit (NBU) have  put out a number of warnings to check supplies and feed the colonies either with fondant or thin syrup as there is a real risk of starvation. I have given 1kg of thin sugar syrup to each of the colonies this weekend again in the pouring rain as it didn’t involve actually opening the hives fully.

I am very lucky to have a ‘beekeeping buddy’ who allows me to  keep my bees together with his own bees on his forest garden. He is happy to have an occasional look at my bees  if I have been unable to get there for any reason. He rang a couple of weeks back to say he had looked in my hives and that Snowdon now had no eggs, brood or sign of a queen and the colony was very small. There was no sign of an emergency queen cell as you would expect if it was a supercedure  and it is really too early for a healthy colony to be swarming, certainly not without leaving a new queen behind.  In order to try and save the colony he added a frame of young eggs from Ogwen (my strongest colony) to see if the queen-less bees would use these to draw an emergency queen cell.

Buckfast Queen

Buckfast Queen (marked with white dot)

I carried out an inspection the following week and discovered that the bees had capped the brood without drawing a new queen cell and now to add to my problems there is a second hive, Tryfan,  also without a queen, any brood or eggs…. so where are my bees going!

Once again I added a frame of young eggs into Tryfan to see if this colony are more successful at drawing out a queen cell than the inhabitants of Snowdon had been  but we cannot keep taking eggs from my strongest queen without eventually causing her colony to weaken so this is a last shot at queen raising for both these colonies.

The first colony, Snowdon, is now quite reduced in numbers and will not survive without a queen so it is likely that I will unite this with Tryfan when the rain stops, hopefully this hive will have also created a new queen but if not then it looks like I will be back onto http://www.iwantbees.co.uk/ to order another buckfast queen – I have checked with Paynes Bee Farm and they don’t currently have any queens ‘in stock’ as it is too early in the season any but they hope to have queens from mid-May … lets just hope the bees sort themselves out in the interim period and I don’t get laying workers again…..

As ever  I would welcome any thoughts from other beekeepers as too what has happened to my queens this year or to hear from anyone who has experienced similar losses. I place supers and brood bodies over an upturned floor when removed from the hive and frames are inspected over the hive and returned to the supers with great care to avoid damaging the queens, or indeed any of the bees, so I do not think that I have dropped or damaged a queen (I have certainly never done this before!).

Incidentally following up from an entry last year where I re-queened a colony with my first ever ‘purchased’ buckfast queen,  the queen is a strong egg layer and I now have the most docile and calm bee colony that I have ever worked with (she is the queen in the picture above). The eggs that I am using to try and raise a new queen with are from this colony and although I don’t know what their honey producing potential is yet they are a real joy to work with so I would be very happy if I could raise a queen from this hive with similar traits.

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Bee Venom Therapy in action – does it really cure the pain?


Following on from my previous post, titled Bee Venom Therapy (BVT) …. is it a sting too far?, I now want to write a little about the experiences that my wife and I had last year using bee venom to treat her rheumatoid arthritis (RA), if you have just stumbled across this post then I would strongly recommend that you read my previous article to gain some background and understanding of what BVT is and why we are doing this!

Having read Charles Mraz’s book we felt quite confident with the actual direct application of  venom at the target sites. We informally discussed the process that we were about to undertake with our GP so that he was aware, and although western medicine doesn’t really prescribe this sort of treatment I think he was both intrigued and entertained at the same time, however he was not dismissive having heard anecdotal stories of similar treatments in the past and has maintained an interest in the results since.

Before the main treatments began we borrowed an epipen (just in case of an emergency!), we then carried out a single ‘test sting’ on the hand to make sure that my wife didn’t have an allergy to bee venom, even though she had previously been stung we needed to make sure that an allergy hadn’t subsequently developed in the intervening years. This also gave a taster or reminder of the pain that would be experienced in the coming weeks and an opportunity for her to change her mind. This whole treatment had to be very patient led, so I did not push the sessions and let my wife decide where she felt she wanted the stings to be applied. Luckily as a chiropractor who also does dry needling she has a very good understanding of the bodies mechanisms and where the trigger points or target areas should be.

Bees in a jar

Bees waiting their 'turn to help'

The bees are collected into a jar during the normal hive checks and this also set the frequency that the BVT sessions took place, purely through convenience as my bees are located in an ‘out apiary’ (so not kept at home) and we didn’t want to disturb the colonies more than we already do (also bees don’t ‘store’ that well once bottled). The collection jar is just an empty  jar with air holes drilled in the lid and some foliage for supporting the bees as they struggle to grip on the glass sides. If they were being left overnight a little honey was also added although this is best avoided as even the bees get sticky.

When the bees are to be ‘used’ they are plucked from the jar using ‘reverse’ tweezers, sometimes called jewellery makers tweezers, that close shut when the finger pressure is released rather than open as in normal tweezers, this allowed me to clamp the bees ready for application of the sting.

Bee in 'reverse tweezers'

Bee held in 'reverse tweezers'

I can’t say that my wife really relished the thought of being stung numerous times, and although she had seen the minor effect it had on me during my previous seasons as a beekeeper she had also seen the slightly more entertaining and dramatic effect of the histamine production when I was stung on my top lip. With the ‘test sting’ being a resounding success we decided to push on with the BVT.

The bees were collected and stings applied on average every 10 days or so, we applied between 10 – 12 stings at each session. Normally this would involve 2 in each foot or on the ankles, 2 on each of the knees and two on each hand, anywhere on the knuckles but we varied this routine depending if one area was  particularly painful with the arthritis  prior to that session. The stings were left in place for anywhere between 2 and 10 minutes so that  full venom dose was received. When the stingers are removed it is important not to use an alcohol wipe on the sting site as this neutralises the effect of the venom. Unfortunately the bee dies after they have used their sting and they also release a pheromone so the dying bees were removed from the immediate area as the BVT sessions took place outdoors and we didn’t want attract any extra non-participants into the area.  A few bees flying around your head when you are not behind a veil can be very off-putting!

Stings applied to joints on both hands

Stings applied to the knuckle joints on both hands

By the end of the 2011 season my wife had been stung 129 times, so you must now be thinking that she is either a very brave or possibly a slightly mad women, but if you had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 35, if it was in your body and your joints, and you were told that the only answer that modern medicine had to offer was to spend the rest of your life taking a cocktail of anti-inflammatory and other drugs (with pretty unappealing side effects in their own right) then maybe you to would be willing to take the chance that an alternative cure could be found.

Well of course I know that that my wife is an intelligent, level-headed women and as I have previously stated we didn’t start this whole process without a lot of thought, research and planning, I guess it was just a case of weighing up the options available to us and the western medicine route felt a bit like giving up hope.

Sting swelling

Localised swelling shortly after applying the sting

The stings did exactly what it said on the (yellow and black) packet. They caused localised pain for a short period, followed by a slight redness and swelling at the sting site. Then as histamine is produced by the body the swelling spreads across a larger area of the body, often causing  large red swollen areas that last for several days.As the season progressed Emma definitely developed a tolerance to the venom, in the same way that beekeepers often do, and the effects of the venom became less visibly evident.  I think that the most discomfort was caused, not by the initial pain of the sting as one may have thought, but rather by the itching over the next few hours and sometimes days, particularly during the hotter days of the summer.

So was the BVT effective? 

When my wife was first diagnosed with the RA in 2010 she attended an appointment with an NHS rheumatologist. She had blood samples and x-rays taken to assess her current condition and the extent of any existing joint damage.

The early signs are that the RA is in remission but more importantly than that, having just had the autumn and winter period so dreaded by many RA sufferers as their symptoms worsen during this period my wife has not complained of, nor suffered from painfully swollen joints as she  had done during the previous year. So it looks like the BVT has gone some way into reducing both the swelling and pain, the thing we need to find out now is if it prevents damage to the joints or even reverses the process.

The subsequent visits to the rheumatologist has involved further x-rays and tests and although they feel that, against the odds, that Emma is definitely showing signs of remission they do not have much interest in the BVT or accept that it is a potential contributing factor. We will have to now wait until further tests are carried out in future months to see how the BVT is really working, but all the early signs are positive.

I should point out that during the period that the stings were applied my wife was also undergoing other treatments such as acupuncture and a cleansing diet (to me this was harsher than the stings!) so any remission may be attributable to a combination of these treatments. When we reached the end of the beekeeping season in 2011 my wife became concerned that with the bees being ‘away’ and no longer being stung that the symptoms would become worse again and she became quite worried about not being stung, a complete reverse of a few months earlier!

Over the last few weeks my wife has also started to take ‘honeygar’, a combination of honey, cider vinegar and a little water, as a medicine. This come highly recommended in Margaret Hills book ‘Curing arthritis the drug free way’ as well as having more modern day champions such as Ranulph Fiennes, who swears by it for his own arthritis control.

So what is the plan for the future?

As the new beekeeping season is about to begin in 2012, and the girls are out flying again, we will also be starting the next set of BVT sessions. This is my wife’s choice so it shows that she must feel that there was a strong enough benefit from last years BVT to subject herself to the pain and swelling again and hopefully we will continue to see the RA in remission. In the testimonials that I have read people are sometimes ‘cured’ after just a few treatments and others have a longer journey. I guess it is part dependant on the level of RA being treated in the  patient as well as other factors such as the level that their auto-immune system is functioning at.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article, if you have any experience of BVT, either personally or anecdotal, or would like to make a comment I would love to hear from you. It is still early days for us but sharing this experience is important and maybe it can also be of help to others.

June and the swarming season has arrived!


It’s been a while since I have written anything on my bee blog – partly as I have been busy with life and partly as there has not been much to report as each colony inspection has gone smoothly (apart from the occassional sting), the bees have been very active, working hard to bring in a huge amount of pollen and nectar and the colonies have grown fast with strong queens and the hives have stayed healthy.

A check on one colony about three weeks ago revealed far more ‘play cups’ than there were present in either of the other two colonies (the early indicator of a queen cell). This colony was also collected as a swam itself last year so would have had an older queen, previoulsy driven from a hive, and it looks like the colony had decided to eject her once again and start over with a new virgin queen.

Play cell - an early indicator of swarming behaviour

The checks carried out every ten days or so by beekeepers between April and August are partly to spot these signs of swarming and queen replacement and allow enough time to try to carry out some form of preventative action to avoid losing half your bees and therefore half your work force (and the honey that they will make) as well as being a responsible beekeeper and not allowing the hive to randomly throw swarms that then become a nusiance to other people.

I checked to make sure that the old queen was still present in the hive then removed some of the play cells – this would not prevent a swarm but at least buy me back a little bit more time before they were ready to go. At the next visit, carried out 9 days later, I took along a spare hive with frames of wax made up. This would be useful for swarm control if I needed it but if the hive wasn’t quite ready to swarm I could leave it set up at the apiary as a ‘bait hive’ and then if a swarm were to happen and I wasn’t around there is still a fair chance that the scout bees, searching for a new home, would simply come across the empty hive, realise it was dry and safe, about the right size and move the colony in without my assistance.

An audience with the queen

As it was, a quick check on the colony revealed 6 new queen cells, one of which was completed and capped – that is to say the larva stage had already been fed royal jelly and then sealed in to start her transformation into a new queen.

I removed the capped queen cell as I did not know how long it has been capped for and therefore have no idea when the new queen would arrive. This left 5 queens almost ready to be capped in the hive, only one of whom would eventually rule.

Queen Cells on a brood frame

Queen cells on a brood frame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some beekeepers would now try and split the colony into more than two hives at this stage if they were wanting to expand their apiary rapidly, but time only really allows for me to deal with three colonies at the moment so I decided to split the ‘ready to swarm’ colony into two.

An ‘artificial swarm’ works on some very simple principles of bee behaviour that 50 million years of evolution has taught them, namely that their ‘homes’ do not move (these would normally be in  a hollow tree or similar in nature) and that if the ‘flying’ or ‘foraging’ bees suddenly find themselves in an new home with no honey, brood or worker bees then they have swarmed – even if they didn’t actually leave the hive themselves.

An artificial swarm involves firstly finding the old queen in the hive, a difficult task on a damp day when nearly all 60,000 bees are at home, but luckily I had found and remarked this queen with a white dot on her back during my previous visit and so it wasn’t long before she was found and safely removed in a ‘queen clip’, a device that looks and works like a hair clip but has slots to allow the worker bees to escape but traps the slightly larger queen.

Introducing the old queen to a new hive

Once the old queen is safely held a new, empty hive is set up in exactly the same location that the old hive had been stood with a queen excluder underneath the brood box – this is a sheet of metal or plastic, again with slots large enough to allow the worker bees free passage but to small for the queen to fit through – this prevents the queen from swarming straight away again. Sheets of wax foundation are added and also a frame of honey to prevent the swarmed colony from starving is included in the new house  deal. Bees from the original colony are added to the hive and then the old queen is re-introduced to her split colony before closing up the hive.

The original hive is set up a few feet away from its original location and now left alone for enough time for the new queens to hatch, the first of which will either kill her unborn sisters or flee the hive with a small number of foraging bees and allow the second born queen to reign. Any ‘flying’ bees left in this hive will leave the hive the morning following the split to forage for food but then return to the newly set-up empty hive as it is now in the original location, so after 24 hours or so you have split the old queen and all the flying bees from all the younger workers, brood, eggs and honey and unborn queens and its time to sit back and wait.

Artificially swarmed bees

As this has all occured during the first half of June there is not much forage for the ‘swarmed’ colony and there is a very real risk that they will simply starve in the hive so I have fed them 4kg of sugar as syrup to help them pull through to the start of the summer nectar flow in July and also to stimulate the bees wax glands so that they draw out the new comb rapidly and the old queen can start laying the next generation of workers straight away.

As a beekeeper there is always the temptation to take a ‘peek’ in the hive and see if everything is going to plan or the bees are slowly starving to death but by following the artificial swarm technique you give the ‘swarmed’ bees the best chance of survival and you really have to leave them alone to do their own thing.

Expansion and a happy apiary

Something of interest as a beekeeper is that you hear of other local swarms, and my wife even found one whilst walking the dog on Tunbridge Wells common this week,  it seems that bees really do all have one unique body clock in an area and seem to know exactly when to swarm at the same time, almost as one body. Well worth noting down for next years swarm control!

Without the preventative measure of the artificial swarm it is almost certain that my bees would have gone at the same time and unless you are there to witness it and catch and re-hive the swarm you stand to lose approximately  20,000 bees each time. Luckily on this occassion it looks like I stopped it in time and subsequent visits to the ‘swarmed’ hive to feed syrup have indicated a very full and lively hive (and another sting on the elbow and swollen arm!) and I am really looking forward to seeing how the colony expands during the sumer before the long autumn amd winter period spent in the hive.

Spring 2011 and the first proper apiary check of the year


Yesterday was the warmest day of the year so far, and whilst the thermometer was hitting 18 degrees in the sun, the bees were very busy flying. Unlike my earlier apiary visits this year they are now collecting huge amounts of pollen to feed to the brood – a good sign that the hives are healthy and that the queens have survived the winter and the colonies are building up strength again.

It really lifts your spirits to arrive at the hives and see the amount of activity around them. This to me really signifies more than anything that spring has arrived and the bees are flying in heavily loaded with sulphur-yellow pollen from the nearby Willow trees.

First inspection of the year 2011

I have been down to check on the bees on a few occasions over the long winter months and have hefted the hives to test for the weight of supplies left, my in-experience unfortunately gets the better of me here and I decided to feed candy to the bees despite there being sufficient honey left in the hives. A colony can starve with lots of honey stores untouched simply because they tend to travel up in the hive looking for food rather than going sideways to find the full frames.  A cake of candy placed over the centre of the hive on the clearer board takes care of that and the bees had polished off all that I have fed them in the last few weeks. This early feeding has allowed the queens to start laying earlier and build up the worker numbers prior to the start of the spring nectar flow.

Bee candy

There is always the temptation to peek inside the hive whilst checking the state of the candy in late February and early March but the queen will have started laying eggs in late December or early January and there is a very real risk of chilling the brood and killing the new workers that are being prepared so that they can replace the bees that have over- wintered with the queen and are ready to fly in time with the start of the spring nectar flow in order to bring in much needed supplies after the winter.

The last full hive check was back in late September and the bees have been hiding away over the winter months, clustered around the queen and using minimal energy to survive. The hive temperature was bought back up to around 34 degrees in the brood area when the queen started laying eggs and the stores would have started to diminish as the young were fed. The last few weeks leading up to spring are the highest risk period for the death of a colony through starvation.

A great piece of advice that I was given was that every apiary visit should have a set purpose. You can tell a lot about the condition and health of the colony through observation without opening a hive, but if you are going to intrude into the colony you need to have a good reason.

The first visit of the year is to check the overall health of the colony, to see if the queen is present either through spotting her or through the presence of eggs, pupa and sealed brood, to establish how much brood is present (how many frames does it cover), is there any evidence of brood disease, are there sufficient supplies to sustain the colony (both honey and pollen) and is there still enough space in the hive (a colony can build up size surprisingly early in the year and a crowded colony will have a tendency to swarm early).

Changing the hive floors

The visit also involves a little bit of house work, replacing the hive floor with a clean one or cleaning the floors that are there is you don’t have a spare. This is done by moving the hive boxes and removing the solid floor, scrapping off the mite, pollen, wax and bits off dead insect and then running a blowtorch (or heat-gun) over the floor just enough to gently scorch the wood. This makes sure that any parasites (or eggs) that are in the hive wood are destroyed.

Spring inspection of hive

Opening the hives one at a time is a great joy, the familiar smells of wax and honey and the sounds of the hives changing as the bees communicate never fails to  impress. I used a little smoke to pacify the bees, although this may not be that necessary at this time of year whilst the colonies are still small it gives you a feeling of confidence knowing your smoker is lit and to hand if the bees decide to get a little too amorous! The bees have been busy sealing up the boxes with propolis over the winter months and the hive tool (a large flat bladed chisel) is given a little extra leverage to part them for the first time in the year. The bees are all going about their set tasks and take little notice of the beekeeper as he carries out his quick inspection of each frame.

I have been lucky this year, although I fed the bees syrup and treated for varroa mite back in early September you never know if the colonies will pull through, and this year all three have. The queens have been busy, and although I didn’t have the hives open long enough to spot them, there were about 5 frames covered in eggs, pupa and sealed brood present in each hive and still plenty of last year’s honey and this year’s pollen stored. There was no visible evidence of brood disease so I got on with the task of changing floors. I currently use solid floors with varroa mesh inserts above on two of my hives, the other has the more expensive purpose built varroa floor from Thornes, and so I only had to change two floors. It amazes me how much pollen seems to be lost through the mesh, with large streaks of bright yellow pollen formed in line with the arrangement of frames above, radiating out from the hive entrance.

Willow pollen on hive floor Pollen on hive floor Hive floors cleaned with a blow torch

With the checks and house work complete the hives are sealed back up. With the colonies still low in numbers I have left the entrance reducer blocks in as this makes the hive easier to defend but soon these will be removed to allow more movement of bees in and out of the hive and better ventilation as the worker numbers increase. I also left the woodpecker protection in place, this doesn’t seem to bother the bees at all but would still discourage a hungry green woodpecker from turning my hives into matchsticks (which they do with great efficiency!).

Entrance blocks left in Woodpecker protection

The next hive checks will be mid-April as there is little risk of the colony being large enough to consider swarming before then, and following that the checks will be carried out on a 7-10 day frequency to try and prevent, or more probably deal with, potential swarming as it arises until late July.

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!

    The beekeepers timetable


    This is a really useful beekeeping chart, giving the weeks of the year across the top and bottom and an indication of the brood and adult bee population increasing then declining as the season progresses, the main forage plants (based on Devon, UK) and the jobs that the beekeeper should be carrying out at that particular time, including hive treatments.

    I have seen this attempted in many beekeeping books but none seem to have captured it quite as well on a single sheet as G.R. Davies – so many thanks!

    A Beekeeping  Timetable

    It is also available from the following link as a pdf file that can be saved or printed – have a look and let me know what you think.

    A Beekeeping Timetable