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.
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 …
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.
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 …
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.
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†
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° N).
June started well, with clear weather and high temperatures.
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.
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.
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 …
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 …
Gradually equipment standardisation is starting to pay dividends. I ran out of almost nothing (I certainly didn’t run out of supers 🙁 ) 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.
All my colonies are scarfing‡ 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.
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 …
† 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.
‡ 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.
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”.
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 …
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 …
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).
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 …
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.
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
† 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.
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.
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† 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 …
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 …
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.
‡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 😉
The last colonies to be treated for Varroa this late summer (early autumn?) are those in the bee shed†. 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.
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,
Vapour spreads well …
Vapour leaks out …
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 😉
† Plus a recalcitrant swarm that’s on it’s second round of treatment due to the stubbornly high mite levels. Grrrr.
A little later in the year than usual due to work commitments …
375 kg of fondant …
Fondant mountain …
A spade’s a spade …
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:
Readily available†, pre-packed and very easy to store‡.
Ready to use … just unbox it, slice it open and add to the hive.
No spillages (during preparation or delivery) so far less risk of attracting wasps or getting into trouble in the kitchen.
No need for specialised equipment such as Miller or Ashworth feeders that need to be stored for the remaining 11 months of the year.
It’s taken down and stored better in cold weather (than syrup) as evaporation of excess water isn’t needed.
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:
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.
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 …
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 …
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 …
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 😉
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
Entrance reducer …
The very best way to protect colonies from robbing – either by other bees or wasps – is 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 …
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 …
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 …
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.
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 …
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…”
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 …
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 inwinter“.
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 …
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.
The precarious scaffolding plank bridge that straddles the burn near my apiary got partially washed away during the heavy rainfall and flooding over the last few months. As the bee season is fast approaching and I need to shift some additional equipment and colonies to the apiary, I took advantage of a break in the weather to rebuild the bridge. Or, more accurately, put the planks back in place … ‘build’ makes it sound more than a 20 minute job, which is what it took. It’s a natural crossing point over the burn, as indicated by the roe deer hoof prints (‘slots’) in the soft mud on either side. Whether they’ll risk using the repositioned bridge remains to be seen. Whether it’ll survive discovery by the H+S people also remains to be seen 😉
Roe deer slots …
The apiary occupies a sheltered and sunny corner of open woodland, access is restricted – not least because the bridge is still pretty precarious – and it’s not possible to get a car particularly close to the site. Therefore everything of any size has to be wheeled there on Buster, my (t)rusty hivebarrow. It’s easy to jump across the burn – after all, the deer do it all the time – but I need the bridge for the hivebarrow.
The apiary includes my bee shed, a 12 x 8 foot sturdy shed built onto a solid, level, slabbed foundation. The side of the shed that gets the morning sun has large bee-friendly windows. Inside, there’s a secure set of hive stands that are fixed, not to the shed, but to the underlying slabbed foundation. This ensures that vibrations caused by me wandering around inside the shed aren’t transmitted to the bees by the continued flexing of the floor. If you jump and land heavily on both feet in the shed the bees give a small roar of recognition/agitation. However, since I don’t normally pogo around my hives this isn’t an issue … during normal bumbling around the colonies they’re silent.
Feet through the floor …
I’m new to bee sheds, so am still learning … time will tell whether the modifications I’ve made to help house the hives – largely suggested by generous contributors to the SBAi, gleaned from the internet or simply guessed at – are suitable. For example, the hive floors are currently bolted onto the hive stands to avoid my inevitable engulfment in escaped bees if one were to get bumped inadvertently. In some bee sheds I’ve read the hive entrances are simply lined up with a hole in the shed wall. However, for a variety of reasons I and others want to be able to work in the shed without beesuits, so I have entrance tunnels that connect the floor to the shed wall.
Winter colony activity …
There are currently two colonies in situ. Both appear to be doing fine. Despite the temperature being appreciably warmer inside the shed (it’s unheated, but quickly warms once the sun is on it) they don’t fly if the outside temperature is too cold. On very cold days the colonies are tightly clustered. However, there are days when bees outside are clustered very tightly, but those inside are in a far looser mass. There’s also more evidence of activity within the colony – in terms of stores being uncapped and brood rearing. This isn’t to say that all similarly housed colonies would behave the same … the differences I see in the small number of colonies I’ve looked at might simply be due to genetic differences between the bees. Examination of the Correx Varroa boards shows the expected ‘stripes’ of wax granules from brood rearing and you can even see a few eggs that have been discarded and dropped through the OMF. The Varroa counts are very low. These colonies were treated by vaporisation about 8 weeks ago and have only dropped a couple of mites since then. However, I appreciate that mite drop counts are notoriously unreliable, but at least there aren’t hundreds 😉
Several of my colonies had still not finished with their fondant blocks by late into November. These blocks had been housed over a queen excluder in an empty super, underneath the usual insulated perspex crownboard. To avoid a dead space above the colony I filled the super with some of that ‘inflated’ sealed plastic bag wrapping often supplied with packages from Amazon or similar mail-order suppliers. Bubblewrap can be used in the same way.
Far better this stuff is used than just dumped into a landfill …
[to paraphrase Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore] … actually, I love the smell of propolis more or less anytime. During the quiet winter period the warm, spicy scent of propolis is a lovely reminder of hive inspections during warmer times. It’s one of the characateristic smells I associate with beekeeping, along with the lemony scent of the alarm pheremone – something best avoided – and the pretty rank smell of brood frames sterilised in the steam wax extractor (definitely best avoided).
Clearer boards …
A couple of night ago I extracted the summer honey collected by the bees since moving to Scotland. There were only a small number of supers to extract; many of the colonies I brought North were nucs and have only recently moved up into full boxes, coupled with it being a rather poor summer. I’d added clearer boards under the supers the day before removing them then stacked the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet for a couple of days until I had time to do the extracting. By keeping the supers warm – the temperature in the headspace above the top super in the stack was only about 30ºC – the honey is much easier to extract than when cold and viscous.
The other effect of warming the supers is that the propolis softens and then sticks to just about everything it comes into contact with. The frames in these supers hadn’t been moved for 6-7 weeks and were heavily propilised to the runners and each other. Inevitably, prising the frames out and manhandling them in and out of the extractor meant my hands got covered with propolis. Like cooking with onions, the smell of propolis lingers well into the following day, irrespective of how well you wash your hands.
It’s been a rather poor second half of the season and many of the frames were uncapped. However, the honey – even when warmed – couldn’t be shaken out of the frames indicating that the water content was low enough to not ferment (and when measured it was almost all about 17%). The honey was sufficiently runny to filter through coarse and fine filters directly into 30 lb honey buckets for storage before jarring. This is the first honey produced by my bees in Fife and I’ll have to get some new labels designed that correctly lists its provenance.
Fondant block and Apiguard
Finally, before disappearing for a few days to Andalusia I added a queen excluder and an empty super to every hive to accommodate a 12.5 kilo split block of bakers fondant. This is a really easy way to feed colonies up for the autumn. They take the fondant down more slowly than they would take thick (2:1 w/v) syrup which I think ensures that the queen has ample space to keep laying – these will be the important winter bees that get the colony through to the next season. It also doesn’t seem to encourage either robbing or wasps – perhaps because there’s nothing to spill. It’s also a whole lot easier to prepare … just slice a block in half with a breadknife. I simply add the fondant face down over the queen excluder, reduce the entrance if the colony isn’t at full strength, close them up and walk away*.
* I also added a tray of Apiguard to a couple of colonies as the first stage in autumn Varroa treatment. The majority of the colonies are going to receive vaporised oxalic acid but I wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of the effect on queen laying, so two colonies in one apiary received Apiguard.