Late season miscellany

I was struggling for a title for the post this week. It’s really just a rambling discourse on a variety of different and loosely related, or unrelated, topics.

Something for everyone perhaps?

Or nothing for anyone?

Beekeeping myths – bees don’t store fondant’

I only feed fondant in the autumn. I discussed how and why a month ago. Inevitably some people question this practice.

I’ve heard that bees don’t store fondant, don’t they just eat it when needed?

‘X’ (a commercial/old/decorated/opinionated beekeeper) assures me that bees do not store fondant.

Many beekeepers, even experienced beekeepers, seem to be under the impression that bees will not store fondant.

All gone!

So, let’s correct that ‘fact’ for starters, and file it forever where it belongs … in 101 Beekeeping Myths.

I added a single 12.5 kg block of fondant to all my colonies on the 28th of August. I checked them again on the 2nd of October (i.e. exactly 5 weeks later). About 80% had completely emptied the bag of fondant. All that remained was the empty blue plastic ‘husk’.

The few that had not completely emptied the bag were ~75% through it and I expect it to be all gone in a week or so.

Blue plastic ‘husks’ from ~60 kg of fondant.

So where has the fondant gone?

There are only two options 1. They’ve either eaten the fondant and used it to rear new brood, or stored it.

That amount of fondant is far more than they could consume and not rear lots of brood. So, it’s gone somewhere …

The weather has been OK. Bees are still gathering pollen and a small amount of late season nectar. They’ve not been locked away for a month just scoffing the fondant to keep warm.

They have been rearing brood – see below – but in ever-diminishing amounts, so this is unlikely to account for those empty blue bags.

But the biggest giveaway is the fact that the hives are now very heavy and almost every frame is packed solid with stores – again, see below.

The hives are actually very much heavier than they were at the end of August.

There’s not enough late season nectar flow to account for this increase in weight. There are also empty fondant bags on the top bars.

Although correlation does not necessarily imply causation, in this case, it does 😉

Bees do store fondant 2. It’s just sugar, why wouldn’t they?

Wall to wall brood stores

Out of interest I opened a couple of colonies to check the levels of stores and brood.

I only did this on colonies that had finished eating storing the fondant. Assuming the hive is heavy enough I remove the empty bag and the queen excluder from these, prior to closing the hive up for the winter. If they are still underweight I add another half block.

And another … all gone!

A 10-frame colony in the bee shed was typical. This was in a Swienty National poly brood box. These colonies are oriented ‘warm way’ and inspected from the back i.e. the opposite side of the hive to the entrance.

The first six frames were packed with capped stores.

Nothing else.

No brood, no gaps, nothing. Solid, heavy frames of nothing but stores.

The seventh frame had a small patch of eggs, larvae and a few open cells. In total an area no larger than my rather modestly sized mobile phone 3. Other than some pollen, the rest of the frame was filled with stores, again all capped.

Frame eight had a mobile-phone sized patch of sealed brood on both sides of the frame, with the remainder being filled with stores.

The ninth frame looked like the seventh and I didn’t bother checking the last frame in the box as the front face of it looked like it was just packed with stores.

I accept that the far side of that frame could have been a huge sheet of sealed brood, but I doubt it. This colony hadn’t been opened for more than a month, so the brood nest had not been rearranged by my amateur fumbling … it’s just as the bees had arranged it.

So, in total, the colony had less brood (eggs, larvae and capped) than would comfortably fit on a single side of one frame i.e. less than one twentieth of the comb area available to them. The rest, almost every cell, was sealed stores.

On the basis that a capped full National brood frame contains ~2.3 kg of stores 4 then this brood box contained about 22 kg of stores, which should be sufficient to get them through the winter.

Apivar strips

I treated all these colonies with Apivar at the same time as I fed them. Apivar needs to be present for 6-10 weeks, so it is still too soon to remove the strips.

However, it’s worth checking the strips haven’t been propolised up, or got embedded into the comb they’re adjacent to.

Apivar strip on wire hanger

Apivar is a contact miticide. The bees need to walk back and forwards over the strips. Therefore, if parts of the strips are gummed up with propolis, or integrated into comb, the bees will not have access.

Apivar strip partially gummed up with wax and propolis

You may remember that I tried hanging the strips on wire twists this season (see photo), rather than using the integrated plastic ‘spike’ to attach them to the comb. These wire hangers have worked well, for two reasons:

  1. The strips are more or less equidistant between the flanking combs. They are therefore less likely to get integrated into the comb 5, consequently …
  2. They are a lot easier to remove 🙂

I checked all the strips, scraping down any with the hive tool that had been coated with wax or propolis. This should ensure they retain maximal miticidal activity until it is time to remove them 6.

Scraped clean Apivar strip … ready for a couple more weeks of mite killing

And, it’s worth stressing the importance of removing the strips after the treatment period ends. Not doing so leaves ever-reducing levels of Amitraz (the active ingredient) in the hive through the winter … a potential mechanism for selecting Amitraz-resistant mites.

Au revoir and thanks for the memories

Other than removing the Apivar strips in a couple of weeks there’s no more beekeeping to do this year. And that task barely counts as beekeeping … it can be done whatever the weather and takes about 15 seconds.

As stressed above, it is an important task, but it’s not really an opportunity to appreciate the bees very much.

It must be done, whatever the weather.

Last Friday was a lovely warm autumn afternoon. The sun was out, the breeze was gentle and the trees were starting to show their fiery autumn colours. The bees were busy, almost self-absorbed, and were untroubled by my visit. It was a perfect way to wrap up the beekeeping year.

Like Fred commented last week, these last visits to the apiaries are always tinged with melancholy. Even in a year in which I’ve done almost no beekeeping, I’ve enjoyed working with the bees. It’s at this time of the season I realise that it’s a long time until April when I’ll next open a hive.

And, when you think about it, the active part of the season is shorter than the inactive part in northern latitudes 🙁

It was reassuring to see strong, healthy colonies showing no defensiveness or aggression. My split them and let them get on with it approach to queen rearing this season seems to have gone OK. With 2020 queens in most of the colonies I’ll hope (perhaps in vain) for reduced swarming next spring. I’m pretty certain that the colonies that were not requeened this year (under non-ideal conditions) generated more honey because there was no brood break while the new queen got out and mated.

Securely strapped up for the winter.

I’m confident that the colonies have sufficient stores and are all queenright. The mite levels are low – some much lower than others as I will discuss in the future – and the hives are securely strapped up for the winter ahead.

There’s no smoke without fire

And now for something completely different.

I’ve acquired a third main apiary this year and, because of its location, cannot carry equipment back and forwards all the time. I’ve therefore had to duplicate some items.

A little smoker

I didn’t want to shell out £60+ on a yet another Dadant smoker so dug out my first ever smoker from the back of the shed. I think this was originally purchased from Thorne’s, though not by me as I acquired it (at least) second hand, and it’s not listed in their catalogue any longer.

It’s a bit small and it has a tendency to go out, either through running out of fuel or simply because the ‘resting’ airflow is rather poor.

Consequently I often have to relight it.

I’m a big fan of using a blowtorch to light a smoker. If you get an auto-start model they work whatever the weather.

Or, more specifically, whatever the wind.

Trying to relight a recalcitrant smoker on a windy day with matches in the presence of a stroppy colony is not my idea of fun.

Of course, my colonies aren’t stroppy, but if they were going to be it would be when all I had was a box of matches in a strong breeze 😉

Rather than buying an additional blowtorch I instead purchased a kitchen or chef’s blowtorch, designed to produce the perfect crème brûlée. It was a ‘Lightning Deal’ for under £7 from Amazon. Even at full price it’s still only half the price of a cheap DIY blowtorch.

Blowtorch

It’s easy to fill, lights first time and immediately produces a focused blue flame. In contrast, my DIY blowtorch needs to warm up for 30 s. to change from billowing yellow 7 to an intense blue flame.

The chef’s blowtorch is also small enough to fit inside the same box I store/carry smoker fuel in. There is a lock to either prevent inadvertent ignition, or to produce an ‘always on’ flame.

If it survives the adverse environment of my bee bag it will be money well spent.

If not, I’ll make some crème brûlée 😉

There’s no smoke without fuel

Thorne’s had a late summer sale a fortnight or so ago. My order was finally shipped and arrived during a week when I was away and it was raining (two facts that are not unconnected … I’d disappeared to check my bees on the other side of the country where the weather was better).

The order sat outside in the rain and looked rather forlorn when I returned. Nothing was water damaged, not least because of the huge amounts of shredded packing protecting the contents.

Drying tonight

This stuff makes good smoker fuel. You just tear a handful off and stuff it in the smoker. It’s easy to light, smoulders well and doesn’t smell too acrid.

At least, once it’s dry it has all those desirable characteristics.

It’s now laid out drying on top of my canoe in the shed. I’m not even sure how they got so much in the delivery box. It looks like several cubic feet laid out like that, possibly enough for all of next year.

Waxworks

Although I’ve singularly failed to cycle a lot of old dark frames out of my colonies this year, I have managed to accumulate a lot of frames that need melting down. Some are old and dark, others are all drone comb in foundationless frames, and some are from a colony with a dud queen. I’d also accumulated quite a bit of burr or brace comb during my few beekeeping days of the season.

There’s not a lot of wax in most brood frames and the wax you can extract is rather dark. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to trade in for fresh foundation and makes very satisfactory firelighters.

Thorne’s Easi-Steam in action

And, after you extract the wax and clean up the frames you can reuse them. Simply add fresh foundation and you save yourself the drudgery of frame making. Result 😉

Or, if you use foundationless frames, you can just reuse them. Even better 🙂

A couple of years ago I treated myself to a Thorne’s Easi-Steam. I bought it without the steam generator as I already had one from my earlier homemade wax extractor 8. With the help of a mate who is a plumber I got the right sort of brass connectors to fit my steam generator to the Easi-Steam and I was ready to go.

Frames and brace comb ready for extraction

The Easi-Steam consists of a metal roof, a deep lower eke and a mesh and metal floor that needs a solid wooden floor underneath (which isn’t provided). You put it all together, add a brood box (almost) full of frames and fire up the steamer … then watch as the wax drips out into a bucket. ‘Almost’ because the brass connector stands proud and fouls the top bars of the frames 9, so you need to leave a gap.

It works well and leaks less than my homemade extractor. The recovered wax is remelted, cleaned up briefly, refiltered and is then ready for trading in or turning into firelighters.

This is all small scale stuff. With an oil drum, a big heater and an old duvet cover you can do much more, much faster. But I don’t need that capacity, or have the space to store the gear for the 363 days of the year it’s not being used.

The finished product

Here’s some I made earlier

There’s a long winter ahead and I think the time invested in wax extraction is more than justified when I …

  • Return from Thorne’s of Newburgh with 200 sheets of premium foundation having ‘paid’ with a just few kilograms of wax
  • Ignite another pile of felled rhododendron logs with a homemade fire lighter
  • Use the time I would have been making frames to do something more enjoyable 10

 

Footnotes

  1. Three if you include robbing … but these colonies were not being robbed.
  2. At least they do under the conditions I use it … if they didn’t, I wouldn’t use it. They might not store fondant when fed it in the depths of winter … I don’t know because I’ve not tested it.
  3. i.e. not one of those tablet-sized monstrosities.
  4. An oft-quoted weight, though I’ve not checked this.
  5. Though it’s not impossible as the photo above shows.
  6. It’s worth noting that guidance to do this is in the instructions on every packet of Apivar … but how many people actually read those?!

    Read the instructions

  7. That burns all the hair from the back of your hand if you’re not careful.
  8. This worked pretty well. However, being made largely of wood it increasingly leaked steam from various joints and connections. In addition, the metal floor (made from the side of a fridge if I remember) had some razor-sharp edges and was an H&S accident waiting to happen … time for a change!
  9. At least, the one I have does and, since the roof is flush with the top bars, I think you always need to leave the central frame out.
  10. i.e. almost anything.

24 thoughts on “Late season miscellany

  1. Aline

    Such a helpful post as always – thank you. I have had such difficulty persuading fellow beekeepers that bees store fondant – did I read elsewhere that someone was also able to demonstrate this by colouring their fondant ? A reminder to check my amitraz strips for wax and propolis and perhaps I will put Thornes easi-steam on my Christmas wish list after all.
    Aline

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Aline

      The colour dye would work. In the war there was sugar rationing and they added dye to the sugar provided to beekeepers to keep their bees. The idea was that it stop the sugar being used instead for human consumption after being sold on the black market. There were stories of the bees producing green honey.

      The Easi-Steam works much better than my homemade contraption. I seem to remember the price they charged for the steam generator was pretty steep, so shop around. Christmas is also a good time to use it as there will be no wasps about.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. mare

        Hi,
        I’m from the states, Pacific Northwest we have climate similar to yours. I’m very interested in the fondant feeding. Couple questions though, what type of fondant are you using?
        Here in the states there are many types. There is a creme type that is made with cane sugar and corn syrup and comes in different ratios. 80/20 or 90/10. First number being cane sugar, second being corn syrup. This type I’m looking at is a Non-GMO which has no preservatives. It is the non rolling type, so doesn’t have gelatin or glycerol that regular fondant has for cakes. So the fondant rolls out smooth and doesn’t crack.
        High fructose corn syrup is bad for bees, so I’m still looking for one that states it doesn’t have that kind of corn syrup in it. Thanks for any help you can give.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello

          Have a look at the extensive comments and discussion on the article Weed and Feed. That included correspondence from beekeepers on your side of the Atlantic. I included a photograph of the listed contents on the fondant I use.

          Good luck
          David

          Reply
  2. Steve Riley

    In storing fondant, do the bees have to convert it to a liquid form, then seal it? If so, is that an extra process versus syrup water?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Steve

      Presumably they ingest it rather than just carving off chunks and packing it into cells. Whether there’s the same handover from forager to cell packer I don’t know. However, the key difference is the water content. Fondant is ~78% sugar, honey stores is ~80% … but syrup is ~66% so they definitely have to evaporate off the excess water or the stores will ferment.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Frazer

        Hi Guys,
        I recalled Brother Adam had a comment about feeding. I checked, and he said he did not want late syrup feeding to prevent fermentation.
        Thanks for the stats on moisture David. Im guessing that fondant reduces the probability of fermentation, and I am also guessing that it is harder for bees to reduce moisture content in certain (Scottish) climates. I am now in Kent, but was once in Wigtownshire.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello Frazer

          I’m not aware I’ve ever seen fermentation of stored fondant, or rather, stores that have been generated from fondant (though I’m not entirely sure I’ve looked carefully). Most of my feeding is completed by mid-October. Feeding syrup later than this may be a problem simply in getting the bees to take it down, let alone ripen it sufficiently for storage. Interesting comment re. Brother Adam. I think I’ve heard that some late season heather honey may not have been ripened enough and can require artificial drying. Whether the bees would have completed the task if the honey had been left on the hive is unclear.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  3. Tim Masters

    On the subject of late foraging at the start of lockdown this spring the only seeds I had for flowers in our borders were evening primrose. Although they were supposed to be low growing the “primrose hedge” has even today been visited by bumble and honey bees loading with pollen and nectar. Photos taken don’t do justice. Still sitting with 2+ empty hives and a neuk pending the restart of our local society’s learners beginners course to hopefully acquire next year…. Anyway greetings from Ladybank.

    Tim

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Neighbour (almost!)

      I would hope beginners courses might be able to run in some form next season …

      Perhaps set out a bait hive in April next year … you might just catch a swarm. I know there are a few beekeepers in the area, though not a huge number. Other than this year (I’ve been away and set out no bait hives) I have never failed to attract swarms to my Fife bait hives and – before you ask – none are swarms from my hives 😉 In 2019 I had two in successive days to a bait hive on the same site, and three in total to that bait hive as well as another I collected from a bush nearby which was probably en route but got lost in the last few metres.

      It won’t be my bees visiting your evening primrose, so it shows there are some nearby.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Phill Rogers

    Hi David. Thanks for the post. I’ve tried feeding all my colonies fondant this year: I used 1 box (5x 2.5kg packets) per colony and, like you, I noticed that after 6 weeks they’ve taken it all down. Given the weight of the BB I concur that they’ve not feasted on it and must’ve stored it.

    I tried the v notch last year and it wasn’t ideal, so this year I’ve used cocktail sticks, which seemed fine and allowed me to remove the strips really easily, too.

    Cheers
    Phill

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Phill

      Yes, cocktail sticks would certainly work fine. None of this is rocket science but it’s always useful to find a slightly better way of doing things. If you keep doing the same thing every time then, by definition, nothing changes. Of course, just changing things for the sake of change isn’t necessarily wise.

      If your fondant blocks are Ambrosia (which I know are 2.5kg) then you might consider changing to bakers fondant next time … and having a month in the Maldives on the savings 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Phill Rogers

        Hi David

        I got mine through my club’s bulk purchase. Worked out at £14 for a12.5kg box (5x 2.5kg packets) all in. I believe that’s almost comparable with your baker’s fondant? Your method also has 2 other advantages (particularly if you run more than a few colonies – I run 25):

        – only 1 packet, rather than 5 small ones need be manipulated.
        – rather than working precise feed quantities you give 1 block per colony,

        Cheers
        Phill

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Phill

          I was paying about £10.50 for 12.5 kg this year (and last if I remember). Single blocks certainly have advantages with a reasonable number of colonies, and reduce the waste packaging. I use the fondant boxes for honey deliveries – a single box takes 16 x 454g or 20 x 227g jars.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  5. vince poulin

    David – sounds to me you put away the fondant myth and storing. I think key is the weight of the hive boxes. You know the stuff went some where and with no nectar coming in that weight had to come from the fondant. Last fall I added frames to my hives that allowed me to feed bees hard sugar – moist sugar pressed into blocks and dried. I built the frames in September and got them in place just after mid-month and filled them with the first sugar blocks I made. These were NUC’s that lacked adequate stores for winter making supplemental feeding essential. Interesting – but quickly I found piles of sugar on screened varroa boards in each of the hives. The bees pretty much chewed up the equivalent of one block before I realized they were not eating the sugar but turfing it out the hive like newspaper. That did not stop until temperatures dropped and bees no longer flew. Hard sugar is not fondant so yours being a totally different process. Your was stored. The hard sugar blocks I fed my bees were eaten much like cows licking a salt block. Sugar just slowly disappeared. When a block was consumed enough another block was inserted. We fed all the hives this way through winter.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      I know a trick some beekeepers use if they find a hive that’s starving is to pour a cup of water into a hole torn in a 2 lb packet of sugar, let it soak in and then invert it over the feed hole in the crownboard. I’ve done some something similar with starving nucs. I also used to feed queen mating mini-nucs with granulated sugar dampened with water. In all cases the bees use the moist sugar happily. Perhaps it was the fact that it was dried that caused them to chuck it out?

      When fondant dries hard the bees use it at a much slower rate.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Arnaud Ludet

    David. Thank you for the post. Always interresting to read you.
    One question on my side , are the bees able to eat the fondant after its been stored ? Doesnt it get too dryed out for them ?
    Best regards.
    Arnaud from France

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Arnaud

      They certainly are able to eat the stored fondant. If they couldn’t they would probably starve. I’ve used this method of feeding bees during the winter for a decade and see no problems in doing it.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. vince poulin

        I think in my case they didn’t accept the hard sugar until they really needed it. That was once they stopped flying and spent full time in the hive. A quite unexpected outcome was seeing honey frames left in the hive unused. Had I been more scientific (more David-like) I would have kept better notes on weight of honey stores but because they were single-NUC box hives I only had space for 2-frames (8-frame boxes) of capped/uncapped honey. Those were placed in positions 1 and 8. In all cases most of that honey remained in spring. They fed nearly exclusively on the sugar bricks provided over-winter. What you did with your hungry NUC’s is similar – dry sugar just wetted-down for easier use. The dry fondant would be very close to my dry sugar blocks. What’s worthy to know here is that bees will eat the stuff making possible a range of ways to get bees through winter when honey is not available. David – one of your posters wondered about bees being able to “eat” your dried fondant – with our hives last year all 4 were fed hard as hell sugar bricks. They survived on that sugar. They “licked it” – slowly taking it away. In our case bees were observed to cluster immediately on top, over and under the sugar. They did not travel but centimeters to reach it and why I think they left most of the honey provided in frames 1 and 8.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Vince

          When they use hard “dry” sugar sources they’ll need water. Sometimes they will get enough from condensation on the inner hive walls. At other times they have to send foragers out to collect it. I know (from observation) that they use dried fondant only very slowly and I’d not want to rely on it as a source of stores if the weather was freezing hard – I’d worry they’d get insufficient water to use it.

          Don’t get the impression I weigh and record honey stores in the colonies – 90% of the hives are just hefted to determine they’re heavy enough. I just happened to look in that colony I discussed. I’ll be having a sneak peek in another couple in about a fortnight when the Apivar strips are removed.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  7. Archie McLellan

    Hello David

    Until I read about the ratio of stores to brood in your colonies, I would have been concerned that the amount of fondant being stored was leaving insufficient room for brood. But you seem quite happy with such small areas of brood at this time of year?

    22kg of stores is, I imagine, more than enough. Do you find in spring that you sometimes remove frames of unused stores to make space for the queen to lay? And if so, could these frames of stores be kept aside and used later in other hives, eg when creating nucs for swarm control?

    Thanks as always. I’ll buy you a coffee.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Archie

      Thank you for the coffee 🙂

      I usually reckon the bees know best. I’d expect winter bees in my hives to be reared from late August on. The bees are all local mongrels … they’ve been doing OK here for several years and I see no reason why they won’t continue doing so. The colonies are strong, so there’s no shortage of bees.

      I do exactly what you suggest at the beginning of the season. I remove frames of stores if I estimate they’re not needed, replacing them with drawn comb if I have it. The removed frames are stored and used for nucs. This year I made up 15+ nucs and none needed additional feeding; all just got ‘saved’ winter stored frames. If you’re going to store frames like this it’s worth taking care of them – make sure the location is bee, wasp and rodent proof. They also sometimes ‘weep’ a bit so I stand the boxes on something absorbent like newspaper.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. George

    David,

    Love reading you blog every Friday! Science made so practical. A nail works great for hanging the apivar between the frames.

    George

    Reply

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