Tag Archives: fondant

The flow must go on

Except it doesn’t ūüôĀ

And once the summer nectar flow is over, the honey ripened and the supers safely removed it is time to prepare the colonies for the winter ahead.

It might seem that mid/late August is very early to be thinking about this when the first frosts are probably still 10-12 weeks away. There may even be the possibility of some Himalayan balsam or, further south than here in Fife, late season ivy.

However, the winter preparations are arguably the¬†most important time in the beekeeping year. If you leave it too late there’s a good chance that colonies will struggle with disease, starvation or a toxic combination of the two.

Long-lived bees

The egg laying rate of the queen drops significantly in late summer. I used this graph recently when discussing drones, but look carefully at the upper line with open symbols (worker brood). This data is for Aberdeen, so if you’re beekeeping in Totnes, or Toulouse, it’ll be later in the calendar. But it will be a broadly similar shape.

Seasonal production of sealed brood in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Worker brood production is down by ~75% when early July and early September are compared.

Not only are the numbers of bees dropping, but their fate is very different as well.

The worker bees reared in early July probably expired while foraging in late August. Those being reared in early September might still be alive and well in February or March.

These are the ‘winter bees‘ that maintain the colony through the cold, dark months so ensuring it is able to develop strongly the following spring.

The purpose of winter preparations is threefold:

    1. Encourage the colony to produce good numbers of winter bees
    2. Make sure they have sufficient stores to get through the winter
    3. Minimise Varroa levels to ensure winter bee longevity

I’ll deal with these in reverse order.

Varroa and viruses

The greatest threat to honey bees is the toxic stew of viruses transmitted by the Varroa mite. Chief amongst these is deformed wing virus (DWV) that results in developmental abnormalities in heavily infected brood.

DWV is well-tolerated by honey bees in the absence of Varroa. The virus is probably predominantly transmitted between bees during feeding, replicating in the gut but not spreading systemically.

However, Varroa transmits the virus when it feeds on haemolymph (or is it the fat body?), so bypassing any protective immune responses that occur in the gut. Consequently the virus can reach all sorts of other sensitive tissues resulting in the symptoms most beekeepers are all too familiar with.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

However, some bees have very high levels of virus but no overt symptoms 1.

But they’re not necessarily healthy …

Several studies have clearly demonstrated that colonies with high levels of Varroa and DWV are much more likely to succumb during the winter 2.

This is because deformed wing virus reduces the longevity of winter bees. Knowing this, the increased winter losses make sense; colonies die because they ‘run out’ of bees to protect the queen and/or early developing brood.

I’ve suggested previously that isolation starvation may actually be the result of large numbers of winter bees dying because of high DWV levels.¬†If the cluster hadn’t shrunk so much they’d still be in contact with the stores.

Even if they stagger on until the spring, colony build up will be slow and faltering and the hive is unlikely to be productive.

Protecting winter bees

The most read article on this site is When to treat? This provides all the gory details and is worth reading to get a better appreciation of the subject.

However, the two most important points have already been made in this post. Winter bees are being reared from late August/early September and their longevity depends upon protecting them from Varroa and DWV.

To minimise exposure to Varroa and DWV you must therefore ensure that mite levels are reduced significantly in late summer.

Since most miticides are incompatible with honey production this means treating very soon after the supers are removed 3.

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Once the supers are off there’s nothing to be gained by delaying treatment … other than more mite-exposed bees ūüôĀ

In the graph above the period during which winter bees are being reared is the green arrow between days 240 and 300 (essentially September and October). Mite levels are indicated with solid lines, coloured according to the month of treatment. You kill more mites by treating in mid-October (cyan) but the developing winter bees are exposed to higher mite levels.

In absolute numbers more mites are present and killed because they’ve had longer to replicate … on your developing winter bee pupae ūüôĀ

Full details and a complete explanation is provided in When to treat?

So, once the supers are off, treat as early as is practical. Don’t delay until late September or early October 4.

Treat with what?

As long as it’s effective and used properly I don’t think it matters too much.

Amitraz strip placed in the hive.

Apiguard if it’s warm enough. Apistan if there’s no resistance to pyrethroids in the local mite population (there probably will be ūüôĀ ). Amitraz or even multiple doses of vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide such as Api-Bioxal¬†5.

This year I’ve exclusively used Amitraz (Apivar). It’s readily available, very straightforward to use and extremely effective. There’s little well-documented resistance and it does not leave residues in the comb.

The same comments could be made for Apiguard though the weather cannot be relied upon to remain warm enough for its use here in Scotland.

Another reason to not use Apiguard is that it is often poorly tolerated by the queen who promptly stops laying … just when you want her to lay lots of eggs to hatch and develop into winter bees 6.

Feed ’em up

The summer nectar has dried up. You’ve also removed the supers for extraction.

Colonies are likely to be packed with bees and to be low on stores.

Should the weather prevent foraging there’s a real chance colonies might starve 7 so it makes sense to feed them promptly.

The colony will need ~20 kg (or more) of stores to get through the winter. The amount needed will be influenced by the bees 8, the climate and how well insulated the hive is.

I only feed my bees fondant. Some consider this unusual 9, but it suits me, my beekeeping … and my bees.

Bought in bulk, fondant (this year) costs £10.55 for a 12.5 kg block. Assuming there are some stores already in the hive this means I need one to one and a half blocks per colony (i.e. about £16).

These three photographs show a few of the reasons why I only use fondant.

  • It’s prepackaged and ready to use. Nothing to make up. Just remove the cardboard box.
  • Preparation is simplicity itself … just slice it in half with a long sharp knife. Or use a spade.
  • Open the block like a book and invert over a queen excluder. Use an empty super to provide headroom and then replace the crownboard and roof.
  • That’s it. You’re done. Have a holiday ūüėČ
  • The timings shown above are real … and there were a couple of additional photos not used. From opening the cardboard box to adding back the roof took¬†less than 90 seconds. And that includes me taking the photos¬†and cutting the block in half ūüôā
  • But equally important is what is¬†not shown in the photographs.
    • No standing over a stove making up gallons of syrup for days in advance.
    • There is no specialist or additional equipment needed. For example, there are no bulky syrup feeders to store for 48 weeks of the year.
    • No spilt syrup to attract wasps.
    • Boxed, fondant keeps for ages. Some of the boxes I used this year were purchased in 2017.
    • The empty boxes are ideal for customers to carry away the honey they have purchased from you ūüėČ
  • The final thing not shown relates to how quickly it is taken down by the bees and is discussed below.

I’m surprised more beekeepers don’t purchase fondant in bulk through their associations and take advantage of the convenience it offers. By the pallet-load delivery is usually free.

Fancy fondant

Capped honey is about 82% sugar by weight. Fondant is pretty close to this at about 78%. Thick syrup (2:1 by weight) is 66% sugar.

Therefore to feed equivalent amounts of sugar for winter you need a greater weight of syrup. Which – assuming you’re not buying it pre-made – means you have to prepare and carry large volumes (and weights) of syrup.

Meaning containers to clean and store.

But consider what the bees have to do with the sugar you provide. They have to take it down into the brood box and store it in a form that does not ferment.

Fermenting stores can cause dysentry. This is ‘a bad thing’ if you are trapped by adverse weather in a hive with 10,000 close relatives … who also have dysentry. Ewww ūüėĮ

To reduce the water content the bees use space and energy. Space to store the syrup and energy to evaporate off the excess water.

Bees usually take syrup down very fast, rapidly filling the brood box.

In contrast, fondant is taken down more slowly. This means there is no risk that the queen will run out of space for egg laying. Whilst I’ve not done any side-by-side properly controlled studies – or even improperly controlled ones – the impression I have is that feeding fondant helps the colony rear brood into the autumn 10.

Whatever you might read elsewhere, bees do store fondant. The blocks I added this week will just be crinkly blue plastic husks by late September, and the hives will be correspondingly heavier.

You can purchase fancy fondant prepared for bees with pollen and other additives.

Don’t bother.

Regular ‘Bakers Fondant’ sold to ice Chelsea buns is the stuff to use. All the colonies I inspect at this time of the season have ample pollen stores.

I cannot comment on the statements made about the anti-caking agents in bakers fondant being “very bad for bees” … suffice to say I’ve used fondant for almost a decade with no apparent ill-effects 11.

It’s worth noting that these statements are usually made by beekeeping suppliers justifying selling “beekeeping” fondant for ¬£21 to ¬£36 for 12.5 kg.

Project Fear?


Colophon

The title of this post is a mangling of the well-known phrase The show must go on. This probably originated with circuses in the 19th Century and was subsequently used in the hotel trade and in show business.

The show must go on is also the title of (different) songs by Leo Sayer (in 1973, his first hit record, not one in my collection), Pink Floyd (1979, from The Wall) and Queen (1991).

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¬įC.

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.


 

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 ūüėČ ).

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ

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.


 

That’s all folks

That's all Folks

That’s all Folks

It’s late August and the end of my least successful beekeeping year ever. That sounds very negative, so perhaps it should be qualified. It’s the end of my least successful beekeeping year in terms of honey production.

However, in terms of the satisfaction I’ve got from my beekeeping, it’s been a pretty good year. Let’s examine these two things separately, dealing with the bad news first.

Tell ’em about the honey, mummy‚Ć

My production colonies only generated about 25lb each of Spring honey. Some of this was clearly oil seed rape (OSR) as there were fields just about in range, but much of it was essentially mixed hedgerow and tree nectar, and none the worse for that. This was all extracted in late May or early June and is now stored, set, in buckets. Later in the year, once the temperature drops, I’ll prepare soft set honey for sale or distribution to friends and family.

25lb is firmly at the bottom end of the averages over the last few years though – in fairness – It’s only my second Fife Spring, so I don’t have much recently to compare it with. Colonies were doing well when I first inspected them, but in some cases that wasn’t until early May. The active beekeeping season is only 4-5 months long here (latitude 56.3¬į N).

June started well, with clear weather and high temperatures.

And then it started to rain. And continued for almost the entire month.

Lime can yield well in July

Lime can yield well in July …

None of my full-size colonies needed feeding, but most reduced their brood rearing. July nectar flows were poor. The lime yielded a small amount of very high quality honey, but for whatever reason – poor weather, colonies not strong enough, patchy flows – pretty-much nothing else. The summer honey was extracted in mid-August and is already disappearing fast.

I didn’t take any colonies to the heather as I was abroad for a chunk of July when I’d need to be preparing and shifting them to the moors. And, in all likelihood, they probably weren’t strong enough anyway.

And that was it … like last year, all over much sooner than expected.

There’s some balsam in central Fife along the River Eden that might give some late-season nectar and there’s ivy (but that is some way off flowering yet) but I usually let the bees keep anything they collect once the summer honey is extracted.

Flowering ivy

Flowering ivy

And the good news is

Beekeeping isn’t¬†all about honey. There’s also tremendous satisfaction to be gained from working with the colonies, improving your stock and feeling that – although perhaps not in complete control – you’ve got a pretty good grasp of what’s happening and how things are going.

In this regard, 2017 was a success.

I know I lost one swarm (actually a cast from the queenless half of a split). I got a call to say that the apiary was thick with bees but they’d long gone by the time I extricated myself from meetings and got home. In itself this wasn’t a success. However, I learned my lesson and managed to hive a second cast that issued from the same colony a day or two later. I also had success with my bait hives.

With a couple of exceptions my vertical splits went well, with the resultant queens both laying well and heading well-behaved colonies. The couple that didn’t work developed into (drone) laying workers and were dealt with successfully by uniting.

In retrospect, considering the weather in early/mid-June I’m astounded any queens managed to get out and mate. By late July colonies headed by these newly mated queens were developing well, with frame after frame of brood exhibiting a pretty respectable laying pattern.

That'll do nicely

That’ll do nicely …

Throughout the season I had a pretty good idea what was happening in most of my colonies. There were no big surprises …¬†“Oops, a virgin queen, where did she come from?”, or¬†“Grrrr … no queen, no eggs and no swarm cells, I’m stumped”.

Colonies behaved in a thoroughly predictable manner. Strong ones were caught before they swarmed, split and were merged back to a double brood box. Nucs developed pretty well, though they needed close attention and some emergency feeding through June. No drama, no panic.

The end of the summer season, other than the truly woeful honey yield, has left me with a good number of nicely behaved and generally very strong colonies. As always there’s one exception, but I’ll unite that weakling late this week if things haven’t picked up.

All the gear, no some idea

Split board ...

Split board …

Gradually equipment standardisation is starting to pay dividends. I ran out of almost nothing (I certainly didn’t run out of supers ūüôĀ ) and managed to mix’n’match as needed to leave colonies secure, watertight and with the proper bee space when needed. Homemade split boards ended up being pressed into service as floors and it’s clear I’ll have to make some additional kewl floors this winter.

Bamboo-strengthened foundationless frames were a great success. Furthermore, I prepared a second batch mid-season and never got round to using them, so have plenty to start the season next year. Result! However, it’s sobering to realise that one of the reasons they weren’t used was that the nectar flow simply wasn’t strong enough to get them drawn properly.

Finally, whilst we’re on the subject of equipment, I’ve used about half a dozen Abelo poly hives this year in addition to the usual Swienty boxes with homemade floors and roofs. First impressions of the Abelo boxes are pretty positive and I’ll write something up later in the year on them.

Season’s end … or the start of the new season?

Late summer and autumn is an important time in the beekeeping year. Some even consider it the start of the next season, as success in the subsequent year is very dependent upon the preparation in the preceding autumn.

Feed'n'treat ...

Feed’n’treat …

All my colonies are scarfing‚Ä° down large quantities of fondant at the moment. They’ll all get another few kilograms as the autumn progresses. Unless there’s good reason to, it’s unlikely any colonies will be inspected again until Spring.

Varroa treatment is ongoing and the mite drop from most colonies is reassuringly low. I count the mites from each colony over a two week period. Over the first 5 days, some dropped just single figures …

All colonies are coordinately treated to maximise decimation of the mite population at a time when bees have a tendency to drift more and/or rob adjacent colonies – both being well-documented routes by which¬†Varroa can be transmitted between hives. I’ve also helped a neighbouring beekeeper (with colonies within range of my own apiary) by loaning out my Sublimox so that, together, the mite population at a landscape-scale is reduced.

This is simple common sense. I don’t want my (nearly) mite-free colonies infested from neighbouring apiaries and I also don’t want the colonies I do have with appreciable mite levels (~50+ after 5 days treatment) to infest others.

2018

It’s far too soon for much serious thought about 2018. However, I already know there are going to be some major changes to my beekeeping. The local Council have just announced that they will shortly (Spring next year) build a new road literally through the middle of my bee shed and apiary … finding a new location and getting things rebuilt is my major focus at the moment.

And finally … it’s harvest time and raining again …

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …


‚Ƭ†Tell ’em about the honey, mummy was a catchphrase from a TV advert for Sugar Puffs breakfast cereal. The advert aired from 1976 to ’85 and featured the Honey Monster and¬†Henry McGee (from the Benny Hill show).

Henry is the one on the right.

They don’t make advertising like that any longer.¬†For obvious reasons.

‚Ä°¬†Scarf is American slang meaning to ‘eat voraciously’. It’s probably a bastardisation of the word scoff.¬†Scarf has other meanings and I strongly suggest you don’t look these up.

Colophon

That's All Folks

That’s All Folks

The phrase That’s all folks dates back to 1930 when it was used on the closing screen of a Warner Bros. Looney Tune cartoon.

Over the years many different characters used this line on both Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. Mel Blanc (1908-’89), the actor who voiced (stuttered) the most famous version …¬†Th-th-th-that’s all folks! has the engraving That’s All Folks on his gravestone.

There’s a 1949 Merrie Melodies cartoon called¬†The Bee-Deviled Bruin with the Three Bears, a colony of bees and a shortage of honey for breakfast. Typical slapstick ensues. It ends with¬†That’s all folks”.

Everynuc feeder

I bought a few of these Ashforth-style feeders‚Ć 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¬† ūüôā

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 ūüôĀ ) 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‚Ć 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 Рbecause mite treatments were completed several weeks ago Рwill 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.

 

Seasonal changes

At the beginning of the season, after the wettest winter for 100+¬†years, I rebuilt the rickety scaffold-plank bridge I use to cross the burn to get to my apiary and bee shed. The herbage had been flattened by flooding and the general die-back of winter. Access was easy … if a bit squelchy.

Before ...

Before …

Seven months later the bridge, the burn, the shed and the apiary have all but disappeared behind the luxuriant growth of reeds and weeds. Over¬†the burn is an extensive patch of waist high nettles and long tussocky grass. If there’s been any recent rain the herbage remains damp and my¬†bee suit gets saturated … if for any reason I have to make repeated trips (such as removing full supers [in my dreams!]) the water runs down my legs and fills my boots. Lovely.

After ...

After …

Wildlife near the apiary

The overgrown little patch of woodland is a great spot for wildlife, with regular sightings of sparrowhawks jinking¬†through trying to catch the small birds unawares. All of the regular woodland and parkland birds are present, with increasing numbers of mixed parties of finches now we’re into early autumn. There are great spotted and, much less frequently, green woodpeckers to be seen and the presence of the latter might mean I have to protect my hives in the winter (although I had no problems on this site last winter it never got really cold which is when the yaffles‚Ć cause a problem).¬†Buzzards wheel overhead – incessantly mewing now¬†as the adults start to ignore their young and so force them to find their own territories.¬†Until recently the air was filled with swallows and martins. There were so many of them I was concerned about losing queens on mating flights. However, it was the June weather that was the biggest handicap, and I think I only had one mating nuc in which the virgin queen simply disappeared.

Common spotted orchid

Common spotted orchid …

I’m hopeless at plant identification but think this is a Common Spotted Orchid. The area around the apiary has hundreds of these in late June/early July. There’s an interesting Citizen Science survey (https://www.orchidobservers.org/) on how climate change is affecting the flowering period of orchids and they have a comprehensive identification guide¬†(16Mb PDF download … you have been warned), together with distribution maps. Finally, the¬†damp grassland and the nearby burn mean there are loads of frogs to be seen … which probably also explains the near-universal presence of herons.

On a balmy summer afternoon – not completely unheard of this far North – the air is filled with the sound of bees going to and from the hives, making this an idyllic spot.

End of the season

I usually reckon that the end of September is the end of the bee season. Certainly this year – my first full season in Scotland – it is. Honey supers were taken off in late August/early September and there’s been almost no nectar coming in since the middle of August. The ivy has yet to start properly and there’s no balsam in range of my main apiaries. Colonies have been treated for¬†Varroa – one repeatedly – and all have large blocks of fondant to keep them company for the next couple of weeks. All the hives are warm and watertight. There’s a few last-minute jobs to do … a final tidy of the bee shed,¬†stacking supers and drawn brood comb out of reach of wax moths and acetic acid treatment where appropriate to sterilise comb.

Since the bees are safely tucked away for the winter I can now relax …

Cheers

Cheers

ICE ICE baby ‡

This post was written a week or two ago as I’m currently at ICE 2016, the International Congress of Entomology, talking about our work on DWV. The scope (and number of attendees … ~6000) of this conference is huge and includes at least¬†10 sessions covering bees. If the jet lag doesn’t finish me off I’ll take some comprehensive notes and report on some of the more interesting talks in the coming¬†weeks. Normal service will be resumed by November.


† Yaffle is an English folk name for the green woodpecker (Picus viridis) derived from its laughing call, which also probably explains the wonderful alternatives of laughing Betsey, yaffingale, yappingale and Jack Eikle. Hearing the yaffle call is supposed to be associated with the onset of rain, which probably accounts for the other names of rain-bird, weather cock and wet bird.

‚Ä° Ice ice baby is a hip hop song by Vanilla Ice from ’89/’90 … coincidentally¬†it’s about South Florida, which is where the ICE 2016 conference is being held. I can’t stand hip hop ūüėČ

Varroa control in the bee shed

The last colonies to be treated for Varroa¬†this late summer (early autumn?) are those in the bee shed‚Ć. These have had consistently low levels of mites all season … levels were so low that we uncapped two full frames of drone brood (individually) from one of them in June without finding a single mite.

Nevertheless, because …

  • mite levels can rise dramatically from low levels if not tackled – for example, see the modelled expansion of the Varroa¬†population.
  • reduced queen laying at this time of year means mites have fewer pupae to target resulting in elevated infestation levels in the critical winter bees (and why this is important). In recent sampling of pupae we’ve seen an increase in the number of mites in capped in cells which we assume is due to this.
  • we need to keep these colonies with the lowest practical mite levels.

… they were treated anyway. I’m reasonably¬†confident that sublimated oxalic acid (which is the active ingredient in Api-Bioxal) does little or no harm to the colony, and am sure that the mite reduction is always beneficial. I’d therefore prefer to treat than regret not treating at a later stage in the winter or early next season.

Expose the bees to the vapour … not the beekeeper

There’s nothing fundamentally different about treating colonies in the bee shed than those outside. Using a Sublimox vaporiser is very straightforward. However, two points need a little more care than normal.

The first is the sealing of the colony. To be effective the vapour must be evenly spread throughout the hive. Because of the ‘tunnel-like’ entrances there are more potential gaps from which the vapour can escape. I therefore do my best to push the hive tightly against the entrance tunnel after sealing the latter with a block of foam. The floors on these hives were built by Pete Little and have a commendably leakproof Varroa¬†tray, making them ideal for sealing the open mesh floor. As an aside, don’t try squirting the vapour in from the entrance … direct inspection through the Perspex crownboard suggests that (at least in my setup) the vapour only poorly permeates the hive if administered like this. Been there, done that. The goal¬†is to get the oxalic acid crystals spread evenly and thoroughly throughout the hive, ensuring maximum exposure to the mites, and maximising the duration of activity¬†against,

The second point relates to the ‘leakiness’ of the hive and the fact that it’s in an enclosed space (the shed). There’s therefore no chance of standing upwind and allowing escaping vapour to drift away safely. Operator protection is particularly important as the shed is liable to fill with oxalic acid vapour. Eye protection and a suitable particle mask rated for acid particulates¬†are essential. It’s a case of “lighting the blue touch paper and retiring to a safe distance”. With a Sublimox you can simply invert the machine – into the ‘delivery’ mode – and leave it hanging out of a hole through the sidewall of the floor (see photo above right). There’s a couple of seconds before sublimation starts which you can use to¬†step out into the fresh air, only returning once the vapour has cleared.

Finally, if you run your vaporiser off a generator it should also be left outside the shed. Don’t gas the bees when you’re gassing the bees ūüėČ


‚Ć Plus a recalcitrant swarm that’s on it’s second round of treatment due to the stubbornly high mite levels. Grrrr.

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‚ĄĘ.

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.


‚Ć 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.

‚Ä°¬†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 ūüėČ

What was that?

Zoom. Having moved back to Scotland in mid-2015¬†this is my first full season keeping bees here. The season has been¬†very short. Some colonies weren’t inspected until the end of April and now, about 14¬†weeks later, it’s turned distinctly autumnal over the last week or so in Fife. Nectar flows have pretty much dried up, nights are much cooler and thoughts turn to preparing colonies for the winter.¬†However, good winter preparation with strong, disease-free colonies and low¬†Varroa levels means that, should Spring 2017 be early, the bees will be ready to take advantage of it.

The immediate priorities are to:

  • protect colonies from¬†robbing
  • ensure colonies have enough stores
  • remove any honey for extraction before the bees use it

Robbing b’stards

Entrance reducer ...

Entrance reducer …

The very best way to protect colonies from robbing Рeither by other bees or wasps Рis to keep them as strong as possible. Wasps can be very troublesome in the autumn. Smaller colonies and nucs are particularly susceptible to attack and can be devastated in just a day or so if not properly looked after. A block of foam or wood can easily be pushed into place on a full hive, reducing the space the bees need to defend. The underfloor entrance of kewl floors (right) have the added advantage of a narrow L-shaped tunnel that can be defended on the landing board and/or immediately below the frames.

It’s not unusual to have 2-4 frame nucs in mid-August, either being prepared for overwintering or with ‘backup’ queens while re-queening other colonies. If the colonies aren’t really strong enough to defend themselves they need to be given all the help they can. Reducing the entrance space¬†to a single bee width helps a lot, particularly when the entrance is as cavernous as the design on the Thorne’s Everynucs that I use.

Reduced entrance ...

Reduced entrance …

Stores

There’s still sufficient time for strong nucs to be built up to occupy a full hive, but they need to be given sufficient space for the queen to lay and will probably require feeding unless there’s a good late-season nectar flow. This nuc (below) started the first week of July on just a frame of emerging brood, a frame of stores and a new queen and is just about ready for a full hive. Although not obvious from the picture, the feeder on the left contains¬†a large block of fondant which the bees are busy with. This was added as soon as the flow stopped and before the nuc got dangerously light. The bees might have survived but the queen would have slowed or stopped laying eggs and development of the colony would have been retarded. This nuc is fast running out of space and will be moved into a full hive in the next day or two.

5 frame nuc ...

5 frame nuc …

The ¬†integral feeder on these Everynucs has space for about a kilo of fondant. Here’s another nuc¬†started a fortnight ago¬†with a ‘backup’ queen that¬†was¬†also light on stores. The parent colony were showing signs of replacing the queen so I removed her and a couple of frames of emerging brood and left them in the corner of the apiary with the entrance stuffed with grass (to deter the flying bees from returning to the original colony). After a couple of days I removed the dried grass and they’re now ticking along nicely. As they’re a smaller¬†colony and contain predominantly young bees they lack a strong force of foragers and so need regular feeding. If the original colony successfully rears a new queen I’ll have a spare for overwintering.¬†If not I’ll unite them back together at the end of the month.

Nuc with fondant ...

Nuc with fondant …

This is the same nuc as shown in the top image with the reduced width entrance. One of the advantages of feeding fondant is there’s no chance of slopping it about and leaving spills to attract wasps to the apiary.

The image above also shows a ‘crossbar’ I add to the Everynuc feeders; this prevents the frames sliding backwards when the nucs are in transit between apiaries. The integral feeder is useful, but it means there’s no ‘stop’ against which the end of the frame topbar can rest. There¬†is a stop fitted across the bottom of the face of the feeder (shown in a previous post) but my experience is that the inevitable jolting of a car journey means the frames lift above this and then can slide about too much with the risk of crushing bees.

Supers off

I’m resigned to it being a poor summer for honey this season – a combination of a late spring and consequent slow colony development, variable weather during the summer and an extended queenless period for many colonies due (again) to lousy weather for queen mating. Clearers are now on the majority of colonies with filled supers.¬†I’ll retrieve all the filled frames for extraction and make up new supers with the leftovers (incompletely filled or too high water content). The latter will go back onto strong colonies, either in the hope of a late season top-up from the himalayan balsam or for winter stores.

Clearers on ...

Clearers on …


The opening video clip was from the second series of Fawlty Towers¬†first shown in 1979. Immediately before it Basil and Sybil are discussing their early married life …

Basil Fawlty … “Seriously, Sybil, do you remember, when we were first manacled together, we used to laugh quite a lot?”

Sybil Fawlty …¬†“Yes, but not at the same time, Basil.”

Just retrieving the clip from YouTube means I’ll now be spending half the evening chuckling over other bits of this classic series.

Basil Fawlty …¬†“Well… may I ask what you were expecting to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeeste sweeping majestically…”

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 Рmite drop numbers are notoriously poor at giving a proper measure of mite infestation levels). Since the 23rd of February Р62 days ago Рthe two colonies in the shed have dropped 3 mites each in total. These colonies only received vaporised oxalic acid treatment last season Рas 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 Montalb√°n in the 1949 film¬†Neptune’s daughter – see the clip from the original film at the top of the page.