Category Archives: Feeding

Spring starvation

A very brief post this week to highlight the dangers of unseasonably warm weather early in the season. February 2019 has entered the record books as the first ‘winter’ month in which the temperature exceeded 20°C (on at least the 25th and 26th in the UK). It’s also been a record with the daily temperature (highs … we’ve had some hard frosts as well) exceeding the historic average daily temperature on almost every day of the month.

Fife temperatures, February 2019

Fife temperatures, February 2019

Even here in Fife on the East coast of Scotland, the weather has been very warm and sometimes even sunny. The graph above shows the daily maximum temperature compared to the monthly average (dashed line).

The contrast with this time last year is very striking. The big winter storm called Anticyclone Hartmut (aka the Beast from the East) arrived in the last week of February.

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

We had six foot deep snow drifts blocking the road to the village and there wasn’t a bee to be seen.

Crocus and snowdrop

Fast forward exactly 12 months and the bees are piling in the pollen and flying well for an extended period. Around here this early pollen probably comes from crocus, snowdrop, hazel and alder, perhaps with a bit of gorse as well which flowers throughout the season.

Brood rearing will have started in earnest. The large amounts of pollen being collected is a pretty good indicator that all is well in the hive, that the queen is starting to ramp up her egg laying rate and the numbers of hungry larvae are increasing.

There’s no need to open the hive to check for brood. Indeed, hive inspections (here at least) are probably at least 6 weeks away.

However, don’t ignore the colonies. The increase in brood rearing is a time when stores levels can quickly get critically low. There’s not a huge range of nectar sources about at the moment and the combination of a warm spell, increasing amounts of brood and a subsequent deterioration in the weather can rapidly result in colonies starving.

Hefting or a sneak peak

If you’ve been regularly hefting the hive to check its weight you should have a reasonable ‘feel’ for what it should be, and whether it’s significantly lighter. More accurately, but also more trouble, you can use luggage scales to record the week-by-week reduction over the winter.

It’s possible to determine whether there are sufficient – or at least some – stores by looking through a perspex crownboard at the tops of the frames.

Emptied bag of fondant

Emptied bag of fondant

Many of my hives went into the winter with the remnants of the autumn-fed fondant still present on the top bars. With a perspex crownboard it’s a trivial task to check if these stores have been used and – if they have – to heft the hive to see if they need more.

Fondant topups

Several hives have already had a fondant topup of about a kilogram placed directly onto the top of the frames. Alternatively, the hives with the Gruyere-like Abelo crownboards 1 get a fondant block slapped directly over the hole above the most concentrated seams of bees.

Fondant absorbs moisture from the atmosphere so you need to protect the faces of the fondant block not accessed by the bees. There are all sorts of ways to do this. A strong plastic bag with a slot or flap cut in the bottom is more than adequate.

Better still is to dole out the fondant into plastic food containers you’ve diligently saved all year. These are reusable, come in a variety of sizes and – ideally – are transparent. You can then easily see when and if the bees need a further topup.

Time for another?

Time for another?

I usually slice up a block of fondant and fill these food containers in midwinter, wrap them in clingfilm and carry them around in the back of the car for my occasional apiary visits. If a hive needs more stores I remove the clingfilm and simply invert the container over the bees.

Do remove the clingfilm! Bees tend to chew it up and drag it down into the brood nest, often embedding it into brace comb. It can be a bit disruptive during cool weather early-season inspections to remove it … hence the suggestion to use a strong plastic bag earlier.

Continued vigilance

Most of my hives will have had at least a kilogram of fondant by the end of February this year. One or two are likely to have had significantly more. I’ll keep a note of these in my records as – all other things being equal – I’d prefer to have frugal bees that don’t need fussing with over the winter.

As the days get longer and the season continues to warm the queen will further increase her laying rate. Until there are both dependable foraging days and good levels of forage there remains the chance of starvation.

Colonies are much more likely to starve in early spring than in the middle of a hard winter. If the latter happens it’s either due to poor winter preparation or possibly disease. However, if they starve in early spring it is probably due to unseasonably warm weather, a lack of available forage, increasing levels of brood and a lack of vigilance by the beekeeper.

Don’t delay!

If a colony is worryingly light don’t wait for a warm sunny day to feed them. Adding a block of fondant as described above takes seconds.

Everynuc fondant topup

Everynuc fondant topup

If a colony needs stores add it as soon as possible.

If it’s cold the bees will be reasonably lethargic and you may not even need to smoke them. I’ve only fired up the smoker once … to topup a colony of psychotic monsters ‘on loan’ from a research collaborator who shall remain nameless.

I managed to add the fondant without using the smoker but they then chased me across the field to thank me 🙁


 

Winter chores

After two weeks of mites, their diets and pedantry we’ll take a break this week for some practical beekeeping.

Or at least as close as you can get to practical beekeeping when it’s been as cold as -8°C.

Midwinter is a time to prepare for the season ahead, to stock up on new equipment during the winter sales, build more frames, plan the strategy for swarm control and think about stock improvement.

And – if you’re anything like as disorganised as me – it’s also the time to tidy up after the season just finished.

Which is what we’ll deal with today.

Tidy the shed

The original research apiary and bee shed is now under an access road for a new school. Fortunately, we managed to rescue the shed which has now been re-assembled in the new apiary.

In the longer term these sheds could together accommodate at least a dozen full colonies. However, in the shorter term it has allowed me to rationalise the storage, giving much more space to work with the colonies in the larger shed.

Supers and brood in the storage shed have all been tidied (see below) and are in labelled stacks ready to use. The other side of the store contains stacks of floors, split boards, clearers and roofs.

It’ll get messier as the season progresses, but it’s a good start.

I also spent a couple of weekends making some minor improvements to the bee shed following the experience last season.

The lighting has been increased and repositioned so it is ‘over the shoulder’ when doing inspections. On a dull winter day it is dazzlingly bright 1 but I fear it will still not be enough. I’m looking at creating some reflectors to direct the light better.

I’ve also used a few tubes of exterior sealant to block up all the holes and cracks around the edge of the shed roof. Last season was a bad one for wasps and we were plagued with the little stripy blighters.

Tidy the frames

Two of the most valuable resources a beekeeper has are drawn super frames and capped stores in brood frames.

Look after them!

I often end up uniting colonies late in the season, but then overwinter the bees in a single brood box. This means I can end up with spare frames of sealed stores. These should be protected from wax moth and mice (or anything else) as they are really useful the following year for boosting colonies that are light on stores or making up nucs.

Drawn supers can be used time and time again, year after year. They also need to be protected but – if your extraction is as chaotic as mine – they also usually need to be tidied up so they are ready for the following season.

I load my extractor to balance it properly, rather than just super by super. Inevitably this means the extracted frames are all mixed up. Since frames are also often drawn out unevenly this leaves me with a 250 piece jigsaw with billions of possible permutations, but only a few correct solutions.

Little and large - untidy frames and a breadknife

Little and large – untidy frames and a breadknife

And that’s ignoring all the frames with brace comb that accumulate during a good flow.

So, in midwinter I tidy up all the cleared super frames, levelling off the worst of the waviness with a sharp breadknife, removing the brace comb, scraping down the top bar and arranging them – 9 to 11 at a time 2 – in supers stored neatly in covered stacks.

And, if you’ve got a lot, label them so you know what’s where.

An hour or two of work on a dingy midwinter day can help avoid those irritating moments when – in the middle of a strong flow – you grab a super to find it contains just five ill-fitting frames, one of which has a broken lug.

The wax removed during this tidying up is usually lovely and white. Save it for making soaps, cosmetics or top-quality candles.

Wax extraction

Brood comb has a finite life. After about three years of repeated brood rearing cycles it should be replaced. Old comb contains relatively little wax but what’s there can be recovered using a solar or steam wax extractor. This also allows the cleaned frames to be re-used.

Processing a few dozen brood frames with a solar wax extractor during a Scottish winter is an exercise in futility. For years I’ve used a DIY steam wax extractor which worked pretty well but was starting to fall apart. I therefore recently took advantage of the winter sales and purchased a Thorne’s Easi-steam 3.

The Easi-steam works well and with a little further processing generates a few kilograms of wax for making firelighters or trading in … and a large stack of frames for re-use.

Remember to keep a few old dark brood frames aside for using in bait hives

Keep an eye on your bees

In between all these winter chores don’t forget to check on your bees.

There’s not a lot to do, but these checks are important.

Make sure the entrances are clear, that the mouse guards 4 are in place and that the roofs are secure.

Storm Eric brought us 50-60 mph winds and a couple of my hives lost their roofs. These had survived a couple of previous storms, but the wind was from a different direction and lifted the roofs and the bricks stacked on top. I got to them the following day but we’ll have to wait until the season warms up to determine if there’s any harm done.

Fondant top up

Fondant top up

Finally, as the days lengthen and it gets marginally warmer colonies should have started rearing brood again. Make sure they have sufficient stores by regularly ‘hefting‘ the hive. If stores are low, top them up with a block or two of fondant. This should be placed directly over the cluster, either over a hole in the crownboard or on the top bars of the frames.


 

Responsibilities

In draughty church halls the length and breadth of the country potential apiarists are just starting their “Beginning beekeeping” courses run by local associations. The content of these courses varies a bit but usually contains (in no particular order):

  • The Beekeeping Year
  • The hive and/or beekeeping equipment
  • The life cycle of the honey bee
  • Colony inspections
  • Pests and diseases
  • Swarm prevention and control
  • Products of the hive

I’ve seen these courses from both sides. I took one before I started beekeeping and I’ve subsequently taught on them.

Although I’m not convinced the seven topics above are the optimal way to cover the basics of beekeeping (perhaps that’s something for a future post?), I am a strong supporter of the need to educate new beekeepers.

Theory and practice

You can learn some of the theoretical aspects of beekeeping on dark winter evenings. In my experience a liberal supply of tea and digestives hugely helps this learning process 😉

However, beekeeping is essentially a practical subject and any responsible association will offer apiary-based training sessions once the season starts. A good association will run these throughout the season, enabling beginners to experience all aspects of the beekeeping year.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

If they don’t, they should (both run them and run them through the season).

The reason is simple … ‘hands on’ with the bees is a much better way of appreciating some of the most important characteristics of the colony. It’s strength and temperament, the rate at which it’s developing, the levels of stores etc.

But all this takes time. A couple of early-season apiary sessions might be held on cool evenings in failing light, or dodging Spring weekend showers. This means that ‘hive time’ is often restricted and beginners only get a small snapshot of the beekeeping season.

Curb your enthusiasm

Inevitably, many new beekeepers are desperate to get their own bees as soon as possible. After all, the season has started and there are kilograms of nectar out there waiting to be collected and converted into delicious honey for friends and family.

Demand for overwintered nucs is very high (usually significantly outstripping supply, meaning a considerable price premium) and a purchased colony, which should be strong and building up fast, becomes the property of someone who potentially has yet to see an open hive.

The seasonal nature of the hobby and the way we train beginners creates a very steep learning curve for new beekeepers 1. Almost as soon as they’re out of the classroom (or draughty church hall) they’re faced with the start of their first swarm season.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Their inevitable – and completely understandable – enthusiasm to start practical beekeeping reaches a crescendo at a time when they are singularly poorly equipped to manage the colony 2.

What’s missing?

The emphasis on the theory and practical aspects of beekeeping is understandable. There’s a lot to learn in a relatively short time.

However, this focus on the practicalities often overlooks emphasising the responsibilities of beekeepers.

In the frenetic early-season enthusiasm to ‘become a beekeeper’ these might seem unimportant, superfluous or entirely obvious.

But they’re not.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

Later in the season the colony can become bad tempered, unmanageably large or ignored. Some or all of these happen with new (and not-so-new) beekeepers. The OSR goes over and colonies get stroppy, April’s 5-frame nuc “explodes” to occupy a towering double brood monstrosity or a new-found enthusiasm for dahlias or crown green bowls becomes all-consuming.

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

This is when the responsibilities of beekeepers become really important.

What are the responsibilities of beekeepers?

As I see it, as beekeepers we have responsibilities to:

  • The general public
  • Other beekeepers
  • The bees 3

As I stated above, these might seem entirely obvious. However, every year new beekeepers start with the best of intentions but some have a near-total lack of awareness of what these responsibilities are (or mean).

The general public

The combination of calm bees, careful handling and appropriate protective clothing means that bees essentially pose no risk to the beekeeper.

However, strange as it may seem to a beekeeper, some people are terrified of bees (mellisophobics). Others, due to adverse allergic reactions (anaphylactic shock), may have their lives endangered by bee stings. Finally – and thankfully by far the largest group – are the remainder of the public who should never feel bothered or threatened by our bees, whether we consider this a rational response or not.

What does this mean in terms of practical beekeeping? I think it can be distilled to just three points:

  1. Keep calm bees
  2. Keep bees and the public well-separated
  3. Restrict beekeeping activities to times when the public are not inconvenienced

The first point is sensible, whether or not there’s anyone else around. It makes beekeeping a much more relaxing and rewarding experience.

The second point involves either keeping bees in unfrequented locations (infinitely preferable) or ensuring that bees are forced to fly up and away from the hives (by suitable screening) and well-away from passers-by.

The final point is the most inconvenient, but also the most important. If there are members of the public around who might be bothered by your bees – walkers strolling across the field towards your apiary, kids playing in the garden next door – don’t open the hives.

My apiaries have generally been in large rural gardens, private farmland and very well screened. I’ve also kept bees in urban environments, with no problems from the neighbours. However, I have always maintained out apiaries to move my bees to should they exhibit poor temper. Additionally, I’d only conduct inspections when the adjacent gardens were empty … meaning inspections were often carried out in sub-optimal weather or late in the evening.

Finally, while many beekeepers consider the sight of a swarm is one of the truly great sights of beekeeping, this isn’t a sentiment shared by most non-beekeepers.

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Keep non-swarmy bees, clip the queen and keep a bait hive prepared to lure any swarms that do emerge.

Other beekeepers

The responsibilities beekeepers have to other beekeepers are probably restricted to:

  1. Courtesy
  2. Disease

The first is straightforward. Don’t do things that negatively impact other beekeepers 4. For example, don’t plonk two dozen hives over the fence from an established apiary, unless you’ve first discussed it with the beekeeper and you’re both happy that the local forage is sufficient.

And, of course, don’t steal hives or colonies 5.

Disease is perhaps less obvious and more insidious. The health of your bees influences the health of other colonies in the area. Over short distances bees drift from one hive to another. Over much longer distances strong colonies can rob weaker colonies.

All these bee exchanges also move the parasites and diseases they carry between hives. This includes VarroaNosema, a panoply of pathogenic viruses and European and American foulbrood.

Of these, the foulbroods are statutory notifiable diseases and beekeepers are legally required to report suspected diseased colonies under the Bee Diseases and Pests Control Order 2006 (and amendments). Responsible beekeepers will register their apiaries on the National Bee Unit’s Beebase so they are notified of local outbreaks, and so the bee inspectors can check their colonies if there is a nearby outbreak.

National Bee Unit Beebase

National Bee Unit Beebase

Whilst not notifiable, the remaining parasites and pathogens are also best avoided … and certainly should not be foisted upon other local beekeepers.

If your colony is weak, disease-riddled and poorly managed it may get robbed-out by other local strong colonies. In doing so, your bees will transfer (some of) the pathogen load to the stronger colony.

That is irresponsible beekeeping.

US beekeepers use the term ‘mite bomb’ to refer to an unmanaged, Varroa-riddled, collapsing colony that introduces significantly higher mite levels to local strong colonies as it’s robbed. This is more extreme, but not dissimilar, to beekeepers that treat with miticides far too late in the season. Their colonies retain high mite levels and can spread them to nearby hives. One way to avoid this is to coordinately treat mites in the same geographic area.

The bees

Bees may or may not be classified as livestock. The standard definition 6 of “domestic animals kept on a farm for use or profit; esp. cattle, sheep, and pigs” is perhaps a little restrictive 7 so lets accept for the moment that they are livestock.

If you keep livestock you usually need to register them and vaccinate them, and you always need to look after their health, feed and transport them properly and generally take responsibility for them.

If you don’t look after their welfare you may be prosecuted.

Of course, bees are invertebrates, not mammals or animals with backbones. Legally invertebrates are not usually considered as animals in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 8 which defines the law on animal welfare.

But all these definitions are a distraction.

In my view, if you keep bees you have a responsibility to look after them properly.

Even if this isn’t a legal requirement, its a moral responsibility.

This responsibility to your bees includes – but is not restricted to – preventing and treating them for disease when appropriate and ensuring they have sufficient stores going into winter (and during periods with no nectar).

If you can’t do this perhaps take up crown green bowls instead.

Blimey, this is all getting a bit heavy isn’t it?

Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Actually, they’re quite the opposite.

Proper management means that there are certain things that must be done at a particular time. This includes treating for mites at the end of the summer honey season, feeding the colony up for winter and swarm prevention and control.

If you work abroad for April and May or if you holiday on the Maldives for six weeks every autumn you’re unlikely to become a successful beekeeper.

Powder blue surgeonfish, Maldives

Bees? What bees? They’ll be OK …

And you’re certainly unlikely to be a responsible beekeeper.

You might start with bees, but you’re unlikely to keep them …

What prompted this post? A combination of things … cabin fever and online discussion forum posts from beekeepers puzzling why their colonies all died (no mite treatment, ever) or starved (no feeding before winter) or hadn’t been inspected in the last 15 months (“I’ve been busy”).

It’s going to be a long winter … 9


 

Fondant fancies

My colonies are all busy piling in the calories in preparation for winter.

Late season supers hiding fondant blocks

Late season supers hiding fondant blocks

As always, at this time of the year I only feed my colonies using bakers fondant. This is exactly the same stuff you get on the top of iced buns. It’s available plastic-wrapped and boxed in 12.5kg blocks from a variety of sources ranging from your friendly local baker to wholesale food suppliers.

I purchase it on a pallet with friends in my local beekeeping association. If you buy enough delivery is free and this year we’ve been paying about £10.50 per block (12.5kg) when purchasing about half a metric tonne.

It’s worth buying in bulk as it keeps well. Store it somewhere dry and cool. Don’t stack it more than 3-4 blocks high if it’s likely to get warm … we kept some in the bee shed for a year and the boxes at the bottom of the pile were horribly misshapen after a warm summer. Next year sugar prices might be significantly more and it will always come in.

300kg of fondant

300kg of fondant

Convenience foods

I’ve discussed the benefits of feeding fondant in 2014 and 2016. Many of the benefits can be grouped under the heading of convenience.

  1. It’s easy to transport, easy to store, keeps well and is ready to use.
  2. Takes minutes (or less) to add to a hive.
  3. Needs no specialised feeders (so there’s also nothing to be stored for the other 11 months of the year).

However, as important, I think there are significant beekeeping benefits from feeding fondant.

  1. Compatible with most/all autumn Varroa treatments – sublimation, Amitraz, Apiguard etc.
  2. No spillages … so less risk of encouraging robbing by wasps or bees.
  3. Taken down more slowly than syrup, so leaving space in the brood box for the all-important rearing of late-season brood for overwintering.

Feeding fondant

Full-sized colonies get an entire block of fondant in late summer. As described previously, simply slice the block in half using a breadknife (or spade), open it up like a book and place it face down on top of the frames.

Do not remove the plastic. Leave it in place to stop the fondant drying out. The bees access it from below and – in due course – leave an empty ‘husk’ of blue plastic that can be removed late in the year 1.

Adding the fondant block takes seconds and, with a very small amount of smoke, barely disturbs the colony.

Sticky stuff

The fondant block is heavy and sticky. If, for whatever reason, you want to access the hive whilst you’re feeding the colony do not place the fondant directly on top of the frames 2.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

You probably don’t need to conduct inspections this late in the season, but there may be reasons you need to go into the brood box. If this is the case make your life easier by putting the fondant face down on top of a framed wire queen excluder 3. You can then simply lift the entire block off, do what you need to do, and replace it very easily.

I use a lot of Abelo hives and they have a rather fussy crownboard. It turns out these are ideal for feeding fondant. Simply pop out a few of the ventilated disks and add the fondant on top. The crownboard is rigid and so can easily be lifted off if needed and the bees have no problems accessing the fondant.

Headspace

A fondant block is about 17x17x31 cm. Cut in half it’s therefore a little over 8cm thick. You need to provide space to accommodate this under the crownboard and roof.

The simplest solution is to use an empty super. Alternatively, the insulated crownboards I use are reversible and provide 5cm of headspace. I either use these with a simple eke, or – by judicious use of a wellington boot and my weight (!) – squash the fondant block until it’s 5cm thick.

Either way I try and keep the top of the hive insulated and warm (for example, using polystyrene supers and/or insulation over the crownboard) so that the bees continue to take the fondant down even if the temperature outside is dropping.

Feeding nucs

Although I own a few Miller-type feeders for nucs I generally feed fondant directly in the nuc brood box, taking advantage of the inbuilt feeder in the Everynucs I favour.

Fondant blocks for nucs

Fondant blocks for nucs

These have a limited capacity so I prepare blocks of fondant wrapped in clingfilm and add them as the bees finish the last block off.

Everynuc fondant topup

Everynuc fondant topup

As long as the feeding compartment is largely vacant you can easily prise up the plastic crownboard and slide a couple of blocks of unwrapped fondant into the feeder.

Relax

That’s it.

It’s all over.

With colonies treated for Varroa 4 and fed for winter, now is the time to take a holiday.

Serra de Tramuntana, Mallorca

Serra de Tramuntana, Mallorca

Which is what I’m now doing 😉


Colophon

If you came here looking for a recipe for fondant fancies and have had to wade through paragraphs of irrelevant beekeeping information then I recommend you try these by Mary Berry.

Mary Berry's fondant fancies

Mary Berry’s fondant fancies

They think it’s all over!

We’re gently but inexorably segueing into early autumn after an excellent beekeeping season. The rosebay willow herb is almost over, the farmers are busy taking in the harvest and colonies are – or should be – crowded with under-occupied workers.

Rosebay willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Drones are being ejected, wasps are persistently looking for access and there’s a long winter – or at least non-beekeeping period – ahead.

There’s a poignancy now in being in the apiary conducting the last few inspections of the season. Only a few short weeks ago, during late May and early June, the apiary was a scene of frenetic productivity … or complete turmoil, depending upon your level of organisation or competence.

Now there’s little activity as there’s not much forage available.

Colonies are busy doing nothing.

The most important time of the season

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do.

Rather, I’d argue that late August and early September is probably the most important period during the beekeeping year.

However well or badly the season progressed, this is the time that colonies have to be prepared for the coming winter. With good preparation, colonies will come through the winter well. They’ll build up strongly in spring and be ready to exploit the early season nectar flows.

In Fife, this is about 8 months away 🙁

This explains the poignancy.

There are some colonies inspected last weekend that probably won’t get properly opened again until mid/late April 2019. Queens I saw for the first time in August won’t get marked or clipped until next spring 1.

Au revoir!

Spot the queen ...

Spot the queen …

To survive the winter and build up well in the spring the colony has few requirements. But they are important. A lack of attention now can result in the loss of the colony later.

To appreciate their needs it’s important to understand what the colony does during the winter.

Suspended animation

Honey bees don’t hibernate in winter. In cold weather (under ~7°C) they cluster tightly to conserve energy and protect the queen and any brood in the colony.

At higher temperatures the cluster breaks but they largely remain within the hive. After all, there’s little or no forage available, so they use their honey and pollen stores.

The fat-bodied overwintering bees that are reared in autumn have a very different physiology to the ephemeral summer workers. The latter have a life-expectancy of 5-6 weeks whereas overwintering bees can live for many months 2.

But they’re not immortal.

Throughout the winter there’s a slow and steady attrition of these workers. As they die off the clustered colony gradually reduces in volume, shrinking from the size of a medicine ball, to a football, to a grapefruit … you get the picture.

Some brood rearing does occur. The queen often stops laying after the summer nectar flows stop 3 and laying might be sporadic through the autumn, dependent upon weather and forage availability.

Late summer brood frame from a nuc ...

Late summer brood frame from a nuc …

However, by the turn of the year she starts laying again. At a much reduced level to her maximum rate, but laying nevertheless and, with sufficient workers in the colony and as forage become available, this rate will increase.

The amount of brood reared during the winter period (late autumn to early spring) isn’t enough to make up for the losses that occur through attrition. This explains why colonies are much smaller in the spring than the early autumn.

Strong, healthy, well-provisioned and weathertight

Knowing what’s happening in the colony during the winter makes the requirements that must be met understandable.

  • Strong colonies start the winter with ample bees. Assuming the same attrition rate, a larger colony will get through the winter stronger than a smaller one. There will be more workers available to ‘reach’ stores (I’ll deal with this in the next week or two) and keep the queen and brood warm. Hence there will be more foragers to exploit the early crocus, snowdrop and willow.
  • Healthy colonies will have a lower attrition rate. The overwintering workers will live longer. High levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) are known to shorten the life of winter bees. To minimise the levels of DWV you must reduce the levels of Varroa in the colony. Critically, you must protect the overwintering bees from Varroa exposure. Treat too late in the season and they will already be heavily infected …
  • Well-provisioned colonies have more than enough stores to survive the winter. The clustered colony will have to move relatively short distances to access the stores. As a beekeeper, you won’t have to constantly meddle with the colony, lifting the lid and crownboard to add additional stores in midwinter.
  • Weathertight colonies will be protected from draughts and damp 4.The hive must be weathertight and, preferably, not situated in a frost pocket or damp location 5.

Winter preparation

Once the honey supers are off all activities in the apiary are focused on ensuring that these four requirements for successful overwintering are achieved in a timely manner.

Clearing bees from wet supers ...

Clearing bees from wet supers …

Weak colonies are united with strong colonies. At this stage in the season – other than disease – the main reason a colony is likely to be weak is because the queen isn’t up to the job. If she’s not now, what chance has the colony got over the winter or early spring? 6

Varroa treatment is started as early as reasonably possible with the intention of protecting the overwintering bees from the ravages of DWV. This means now, not early October. Use an appropriate treatment and use it correctly. Apiguard, oxalic acid (Api-Bioxal), Apivar etc. … all have been discussed extensively here previously. All are equivalently effective if used correctly.

All colonies get at least one block (12.5kg) of bakers fondant, opened like a book and slapped (gently!) on the tops of the frames. An eke or an empty super provides the ‘headspace’ for the fondant block. All of the Varroa treatments listed above are compatible with this type of feeding simultaneously 7.

Hopefully, hives are already weathertight and secure. Other than strapping them to the hive stands to survive winter gales there’s little to do.

They think it’s all over!?

It is … almost 🙂


Colophon

They think it’s all over! is a quote by Kenneth Wolstenholme made in the closing stages of the 1966 World Cup final. Some fans had spilled onto the pitch just before Geoff Hurst scored the the last goal of the match (England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time), which Wolstenholme announced with “It is now, it’s four!”. This was the only World Cup final England have reached, whereas Germany have won four.

As Gary Lineker says “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”

Fondant topups

Perhaps surprisingly if the weather is still very wintery, inside your hives brood rearing has probably started 1. It’s about half way through the winter, there’s no forage available and the colonies are surviving on the stores they laid down in the autumn last year.

But now they have a few more mouths to feed … as a consequence, they’re likely to start using the stores at a higher rate.

I’ve recently written about the importance of hefting hives in the winter to judge (very approximately) how much stores they have remaining. It’s an imprecise science at the best of times, but it is important to ensure they don’t run out.

If they do, the colony will starve to death.

Fondant topups

If the colony is feeling a bit light you need to give it sugar as soon as practical and as close to the clustered bees as possible. The most convenient type of sugar to give is bakers fondant. This is the same stuff you get on Chelsea buns. You can buy fondant in 12.5 kg blocks for about a tenner (in bulk … one-off purchases are likely to be more expensive) from wholesale suppliers.

Fondant keeps well for several years and so it’s worth stockpiling some for emergencies. Since I use fondant for all my autumn feeding as well I buy in bulk (200+ kg) every year or two and stack it somewhere safe, dry and protected from vermin (and other beekeepers 😉 ).

Feeding fondant can be as simple as cutting a thick slice of fondant off the block and laying it across the top bars of the hive. You’ll need an eke or a reversible crownboard to provide the ‘headspace’ over the colony. Replace the roof and any insulation and the colony should be OK … but don’t stop checking for the rest of the winter.

Fondant block ...

Fondant block …

Don’t be stingy and don’t delay

It’s not worth adding a measly few ounces of fondant. If it’s midwinter and the colony is already light, a couple of hundred grams is going to only last a few days.

Don’t be stingy. Add at least a couple of kilograms.

Don’t wait for a balmy midwinter day to add the fondant. Add it as soon as you realise they’re light. It won’t harm the colony to open it up for the few seconds it takes to add the block.

Wear a veil … some colonies can be semi-torpid, others can be quite feisty. How would you feel about having the roof ripped off on a grey midwinter afternoon? You might be trying to save them from starvation, but their reaction might be something a little less than appreciative 😉

Add the fondant as close to the clustered bees as possible. A small cluster cannot move far in very cold weather. Even inches is too much. There are few sights more tragic than a cluster of starved bees just a few centimetres from lashings of sealed stores or a large lump of fondant.

Finally, don’t spend ages clearing bees off the top bars with little puffs of smoke. The colony will be getting chilled and the disturbance will be worse than the loss of the few bees you might inadvertently squash under the fondant block.

Think of the greater good … speaking of which.

Takeaways

When I feed colonies in the autumn I simply slice a complete block of fondant in half with a spade, open it like a book and lay it on top of the colony. With smaller amounts you can use a breadknife to (carefully … mind your fingers!) cut the block up. It’s a lot easier if the block is at room temperature.

For real convenience you can pack plastic food trays with fondant, wrap them in clingfilm and take a couple with you when you visit the apiary. If needed, simply unwrap them and invert them over the top bars of the hive. Large takeaway food containers or one of the many semi-solid types of plastic packaging used by supermarkets are ideal. Tortellini packets are good and just about fit the ekes I’ve built.

Preparing fondant

Preparing fondant …

Wash them thoroughly before use rather than subjecting your bees to last nights Chef’s Special Chow Mein 😉

Finally, remove the clingfilm completely before use. Bees tend to chew through clingfilm and drag it down into the broodnest, even incorporating it into the bits of brace comb they build. Getting rid of the traces of clingfilm during the first spring inspection is a pain, and best avoided.


 

Everynuc feeder

I bought a few of these Ashforth-style feeders when I standardised on using Everynucs from Thorne’s a year or two ago. They’ve sat more or less unused since then, largely because the design of this poly nuc – a Langstroth-sized box adapted to take National frames – includes an integral feeder. This year I’ve used these nucs for queen mating and holding ‘spare’ queens when undertaking swarm control. Most of these have either migrated up to a full colony or been returned to the original hive, but I have a few left to take through the winter. These are now being fed up for the coming months. All are, or will be, housed in the bee shed overwinter for additional protection, though I’ve previously overwintered colonies in them outside reasonably successfully.

Everynuc feeder ...

Everynuc feeder …

Syrup and paint

The feeder is well designed, with an opening at one end leading to a good-sized reservoir for syrup or fondant. The volume of the reservoir is a little more that 3.5 litres when filled to dangerously near the brim. When using syrup – which I don’t – there’s a folded wire mesh screen that should prevent the bees drowning. They can climb up and over the dam to reach the syrup, but don’t have free access to the reservoir. This should reduce that distressingly high ‘body count’ sometimes seen with badly designed feeders. Additionally, the mesh screen prevents bees from leaving the hive when the clear plastic crownboard is removed to top up the reservoir. Convenient  🙂

Rodent damage ...

Rodent damage …

Like all poly hives, and particularly poly feeders, these should be painted before use (remember, Do as I say, don’t do as I do … some of mine aren’t painted due to poor planning). Syrup soaks into the poly if the surface isn’t sealed first. This can lead to problems with fungus growth and attack by rodents when the feeders are stored. As an aside, I try and remember to seal the entrances of my poly hives when not in use to prevent mice from destroying them … they seem very enthusiastic about having polystyrene chip parties at my expense. A couple of my poly bait hives have already been attacked this autumn – these just smell of bees and propolis (and now strongly of mouse 🙁 ) without the added attraction of syrup residues which would just make things worse.

The wire mesh screen on the Everynuc feeders is a bit ‘springy’ and probably needs holding in place with a couple of drawing pins (see image above). Additionally, both sides of the dam wall should also be painted and, when still wet, sprinkled with sand to improve the grip for bees accessing the syrup (as I show on the landing boards on my kewl floors).

Fondant

Feeder with fondant

Feeder with fondant …

At one end of the feeder, opposite the syrup reservoir, is a well that can be filled with fondant if the wire mesh screen is fitted. My crude measurements suggest it should hold about 1.5 kg of fondant if packed in tight. It might be possible to directly carve off suitably sized lumps from an intact block but it’s easier to pack it with a variety of offcuts and squeeze them down. Bees are be able to access the fondant from underneath and adjacent to the dam wall. As with syrup, feeding them like this means the fondant can be topped up without bees escaping.

Alternatively (and see the next section) you can simply stuff a big lump of fondant into the well of the feeder and omit the wire mesh – as shown above.

Easy top-ups

Easy top-ups …

I had a few concerns about how well the bees would access the fondant through the mesh – might the fondant dry out too quickly, would access be restricted as the fondant block shrank in size etc? Therefore, before it got too cold I set a couple up of feeders with or without the mesh fitted to see how readily the bees could access and take down the fondant (this post was started in mid-September). Both methods seemed to work fine though I suspect feeding through the mesh directly above the frames is likely to work better as the weather cools further, simply because it’s less far for the bees to travel and likely to be a little bit warmer.

Alternatively

Peter Edwards has recently written a short article in BIBBA’s Bee Improvement on modifying the Miller-style feeder supplied by Maisemores for their poly nuc. He simply drilled a series of ~25mm holes through the bottom of the one side of the feeder, leaving the other side unbutchered for delivering syrup if needed. A simple but effective solution ideally suited to Maisie’s double-sided feeder. Since I’m so wedded to the use of fondant for my autumn/winter feeding I may do this on a few of these Everynuc feeders as well … accepting that they’ll be trashed for use with syrup.

That’s all folks

The last week has seen temperatures peaking in the low teens, with the first overnight frosts of the year. Active beekeeping is effectively over for the season. Colonies checked at the end of last week are taking fondant down well and two that I briefly inspected had reasonable levels of brood in all stages, wth the queen laying at a consistent rate albeit much less than earlier in the season. These new bees will help the colony get through the winter and – because mite treatments were completed several weeks ago – will have been reared in a hive with very low Varroa levels, ensuring they are protected from virulent strains of deformed wing virus. I have a couple more colonies to check in the next few days and one more nuc to move to the bee shed.

However, before the autumn tidying and winter tasks are started there’s still some reasonable weather to get out and enjoy the beautiful Fife countryside.

Ballo Reservoir and West Lomond

Ballo Reservoir and West Lomond

 


 The Ashforth-style feeder has the entrance at one end or side, the feeder with the double entrance in the middle is the Miller feeder.

 

Fife’s fondant mountain

A little later in the year than usual due to work commitments …

In late August 2014 I described how I feed my bees fondant in the autumn. It’s a simple, quick, clean and efficient way to feed colonies. Additionally, I’m reasonably convinced that there are advantages for the bees as well as the beekeeper. The advantages (over syrup, either homemade or Ambrosia for example) are numerous:

  1. Readily available, pre-packed and very easy to store.
  2. Ready to use … just unbox it, slice it open and add to the hive.
  3. Addition takes only a minute or two per hive.
  4. Compatible with many Varroa treatments (Apiguard and sublimation are two I’ve used at the same time as feeding fondant).
  5. No spillages (during preparation or delivery) so far less risk of attracting wasps or getting into trouble in the kitchen.
  6. No need for specialised equipment such as Miller or Ashworth feeders that need to be stored for the remaining 11 months of the year.
  7. It’s taken down and stored better in cold weather (than syrup) as evaporation of excess water isn’t needed.
  8. You can get later brood rearing as the brood nest isn’t packed out with syrup (possibly, see below).

Point 8 is perhaps debatable. This is my impression having used it for several years, though I’ll admit to never conducting a proper side-by-side comparison. Fondant is certainly taken down more slowly than syrup. A full block (12.5 kg) might take 4-5 weeks, though it can disappear much faster. Since the water content of fondant is not wildly different from honey it takes about the same amount of storage space. In contrast, even thick syrup (2:1 sugar to water by weight) needs to be concentrated by the bees, requiring more temporary storage (where the queen might be laying or you might want her to lay to raise those all-important winter bees), reasonable temperatures and more energy.

Don’t take my word for it …

Peter Edwards of Stratford BKA used to have a posting on feeding fondant but I’m reliably informed it’s disappeared in a website revamp. He was a strong a advocate of the ease and benefits of using fondant … so don’t think that this is just my crackpot idea. Actually, it’s not his crackpot idea either … it’s not crackpot at all. And there are very few new ideas in beekeeping.

I’ve used nothing but fondant for winter feeding for at least 5 years. I’m not aware of any problems doing this. My overwintering colony losses are satisfactorily low and almost always attributable to issues other than feeding. Like a Mac, “It just works.

How to feed fondant

Open the box and slice the block of fondant in half. There are two easy ways to do this:

  1. Use a strong breadknife in the kitchen. Cover the opposing faces with clingfilm. The idea here is to stop the fondant ‘fusing’ back together as you transport it to the apiary.
  2. Use a nice sharp spade in the apiary … forget the finesse, just stomp down hard and cut the block in two. Don’t worry about the few bits of mud and grass that get included.
Neater but harder ...

Neater but harder …

In both cases leave the plastic wrapping on and don’t cut right through it … the idea is to open the block out like a book and place it face down onto the top of the frames. I used to leave the queen excluder in place but generally only do this if there’s a reason I might need to inspect the colony again (with care you can lift the QE and fondant off together). The plastic wrapping on 5 sides of each half block stops the fondant drying out.

Finesse ... nul points ...

Finesse … nul points …

A block of fondant is about 20 x 20 x 32 cm. You’ll therefore need to work out a way of providing sufficient ‘headroom’ under the crownboard. The easiest way is to use an empty super. Alternatively, where I’ve got insulated perspex crownboards, I invert them over a simple eke allowing me to see how fast the fondant is used and top it up as necessary. If, like me, you consider hive insulation important leave this in place under the roof. If I’m using a super to enclose the fondant I try and use a polystyrene one for the same reason.

Poly super and fondant ...

Poly super and fondant …

I usually remove the empty  bag when I do the midwinter Varroa treatment, or before if they’ve finished it (in which case I might add another half block or so if ”hefting the hive’ indicates it’s still a bit light). The bees usually build some brace comb on the top of the frames extending into the bag. Just gently smoke them down and scrape it off, or leave it there until the Spring.

The end is nigh

Feeding the colony up for winter marks the end of the practical beekeeping season for me. I usually experience a mixture of sadness that it’s over again for the year, together with anticipation of what’s to come the following season. With the exception of a few nucs and some colonies in the bee shed, inspections and any sort of regular checks on the colonies are over. The summer honey harvest has been taken – hopeless this season unfortunately – and Varroa levels have been monitored and minimised.

Nevertheless, winter preparations such as feeding the colony up, uniting weak colonies which are unlikely to overwinter well, protecting the colony from mice or woodpeckers and hammering down the Varroa levels are some of the most important activities of the year. If done successfully there’s every reason to look forward to having strong, healthy colonies to start the following season.


You can purchase fondant from bakers and wholesale bakery suppliers such as Fleming Howden. The price I paid – thanks to a friend in the East of Scotland Beekeepers Association – was  £10.55 for 12.5 kg. Ordering in bulk – for example via a co-operative purchasing scheme through your local association – makes a lot of sense and will reduce (or remove altogether) the delivery costs. Single blocks purchased from your local baker might cost 50% more than the price I’ve quoted. Sugar prices vary on the commodities markets … in 2013 I paid about the same as this year, but in 2014 paid only about £9 a box.

BFP wholesale used to sell fondant and had regional outlets (Tamworth in the Midlands and Livingstone in Scotland) from which collection was possible. However, although they have gone into administration, I saw one of their lorries on the way to the office this morning and it appears that the Leeds and Livingstone branches may have been bought and remain operational.

 If you have the storage space it makes sense to buy in bulk. Keep it dry and away from wasps, rodents (and other beekeepers) and it has a shelf life of at least three years. You’ll also find it useful for a mid-winter boost, for feeding mini-nucs when queen rearing, for blocking queen cages and for Chelsea buns 😉

Baby, it’s cold outside

Beekeepers in Scotland (and possibly elsewhere) should be aware that the continuing cold weather will mean that strong colonies may have dangerously low levels of stores. Brood rearing has started in earnest by now and the increased number of larvae mean that stores are depleted at a very much higher rate than a week or two ago. For exactly the same reason, colonies in which the queen fails in the winter or early Spring (see the post in a few days) can often be identified by significant levels of uneaten fondant or stores, even before you open the colony and properly inspect them.

I checked two colonies in the bee shed this morning. One is very strong; they’re already at 8+ frames of brood and even managed to store a little nectar in the super during two warm days last week. There are drones already present and more sealed drone cells on the way. There are even a couple of ‘play cups’ in evidence, but no charged queen cells.

Late April weather

Late April weather …

However, the most important thing that wasn’t present was stores. With the low temperatures predicted to continue for at least the next fortnight there’s a real danger of the colonies starving. I replaced one of the outside frames with a full frame of sealed stores to tide them over for a bit (alternatively I could have added a block of fondant or some thin syrup, but I keep frames of sealed stores for just this type of eventuality). When I next check them I’ll almost certainly give them a second brood box with some drawn comb and a couple more frames of stores. That way the colony can continue to expand without starving and I can use the extra brood to make up nucs for queen mating once the weather improves.

The National Bee Unit have also recently released a warning about the April double-whammy of low food levels and high mite levels … this includes the sentence “Some of you may not have gotten round to treating your colonies with oxalic acid as the weather was so mild in winter“.

Gotten? Really?

Anyway, their advice usefully includes ways to control high mite levels at this time of year. This includes Apistan and Amitraz-containing compounds (though resistance to the former is widespread) whereas treatments that are temperature-dependent for efficacy, such as Apiguard and MAQS, should be avoided. Alternatively, three treatments with vaporised oxalic acid would be effective.

Varroa tray ...

Varroa tray …

The mite levels in the colonies in the bee shed are very closely monitored using Varroa trays in sealed floor units (so none blow away or get dragged off and eaten by creepy-crawlies – mite drop numbers are notoriously poor at giving a proper measure of mite infestation levels). Since the 23rd of February – 62 days ago – the two colonies in the shed have dropped 3 mites each in total. These colonies only received vaporised oxalic acid treatment last season – as early as possible after the honey supers were removed and in midwinter.


Frank Loesser wrote Baby, it’s cold outside in 1944 and it was performed by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán in the 1949 film Neptune’s daughter – see the clip from the original film at the top of the page.

 

 

Isolation starvation

Early Spring in the apiary

Early Spring in the apiary

During the autumn I united all but one of the weaker colonies in my apiaries (uniting the small colony with a large, healthy colony … there’s little to be gained by uniting weak colonies together at that time of year). The one small colony that did go into the winter has recently succumbed during the extended cold period we’ve had. On a day when other colonies had flying bees bringing in early pollen this one was suspiciously quiet. I lifted the crownboard and found a classic case of isolation starvation. The small cluster of bees were stuck with their heads buried in cells, despite the presence of sealed stores no more than 15cm away. There was no sign of disease, just a pathetic little cluster of bees. My records from the autumn indicated I thought this colony was “a bit on the small side … we’ll see”.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

You can see in the image that the bees had started rearing brood – there are about 30 capped cells in the picture and a few on the adjacent frame. There were good levels of pollen in the frames and sealed stores around the edge of several of the frames. However, in the prolonged cold snap the clustered bees were presumably unable to relocate to the stores and so perished.

Strong overwintered colony

Strong overwintered colony

Although all my other colonies had flying bees I took advantage of the sunny afternoon to add a block of fondant to them all, under a reversible insulated crownboard. I use the leftover fondant from autumn feeding which I’ve kept wrapped in plastic in the garage in a big box. The fondant is chopped up and stuffed into “carry-out” plastic food containers and covered with a sheet of thick plastic with a hole cut in the middle. Don’t use cling film to cover the fondant as the bees chew it up and make a terrible mess. Adding the fondant takes moments … a quick waft of smoke at the entrance, remove the roof, take the insulation out of the crownboard, lift the crownboard (giving it a sharp bash on the side to drop adhering bees onto the tops of the frames), add the fondant block near the cluster, replace the inverted crownboard, add the insulation on top and replace the roof. It takes longer to write than to do.

It’s even easier to add fondant to the Everynuc poly nucs. These have come through the winter really well and are bursting with bees. It takes seconds to peel back the plastic crownboard and slide a big lump of fondant into the feeder.

The added fondant should keep them going until either they need another top-up or the spring nectar flows start. Not long to go now 🙂

Snowdrops

Snowdrops