If you are at all passionate about your bees you will have noticed that they now think that spring is here. Temperatures are now regularly above 8°C and the bees are flying out and collecting pollen. These pollen loads are in big round balls and in quantity which indicates that they are now raising brood. If you lift the roof off your hive the bees will come and take a look at you; they are active.
Unlike me, of course, you have cleaned up all your equipment, ordered frames for the new season and have put in place a plan for each hive according to the records that you have been keeping last year. It isn't a bad idea to put your inspection board in for a week now just to check that the varroa drop is non existent. If you have a count as low as five in one week at this time of year, you are going to have a problem this season.! Don't think that this is a low count for the month of February!!!!! Remember the brood rearing season has only just started so the count should be really really low or non-existent at this stage.
You need to assess what type of colony you have. Have you got a small colony that is struggling, or a medium-size colony or a humongous colony? Strategies for the next season will depend on your answer to the above question. What can you do now? February and March is the key cross over period for honeybees. Beekeepers who have been too greedy in taking honey from their charges may have caused a problem now. This is because the bees can run out of honey at this time of year. They are raising the temperature in the brood nest to 37°C and in order to do this they are consuming huge quantities of their stores. Did you leave your bees enough honey so that they could kickstart the colony back into life at this time of year?
Those who are organised among us will have regularly hefted their hives over the winter. They will be able to calculate what the state of play is and whether their bees have sufficient stores until a true nectar flow begins with the warmer weather. Those of you who are less organised can still lift your hive to ascertain how light it is. If it is light, feed fondant above the crown board. I personally have also given every hive a Neopoll pollen pattie. I rolled this out like the pastry and placed it underneath the crown board on top of the frames. On certain hives once this has been consumed I will have to put more candy (yes I was one of the more disorganised among you).
How does one decide on the strategy for the coming season? A humongous colony will need to be carefully managed and on this sort of colony a shook swarm would be entirely appropriate. You will be able to clean them up by doing a shook swarm and at the same time cut down on any varroa problem. This sort of colony will give you a honey crop later in the season and,of course, by doing a shook swarm you will prevent this sort of colony from swarming. On Thursday, 9 March Keith and I will show you how to do this. A small colony on dirty comb cannot be treated in the same way. Admit it, lots of you have a colony of this sort. Even if they are a medium-size colony you probably have not been changing the combs and they are filthy. There will be a build up of minor brood diseases and you are not letting the colony function at an optimum level because of the way you are handling them. A Bailey comb change is the answer. One places a fresh brood box above the old brood box. One places a queen excluder between the two boxes. One raises the Queen on a frame into the top box above the excluder and one places foundation next to that frame. Insolation dummy boards need to be used. And one feeds. Come and see how it is done on Thursday, 9 March. In this scenario you may get a small honey crop later in the season but you will have a fantastic colony in 2018. There will be fresh frames in your box and the bees will thank you.
A strategy must include some sort of swarm management. On 6 April Keith and I will talk you through once again how to manage the swarming season. This is a must if you are a new beekeeper or if you want to remind yourself of everything that you have to bear in mind when dividing a box of bees. I will also try and show you how to bank an old Queen as an insurance policy by using an Apidea.
I look forward to seeing everyone on 9 March and 6 April. Remember you have to let Rosemarie know. She may change the venue if lots if you say you are coming.
Malcolm Wilkie 22nd February 2017
> Swarming is still going on and yet not all is bad as those of you with well managed colonies will have supers that are currently full of nectar as prosperous colonies take advantage of the nectar flow. In two days a good colony can fill a super with nectar.
> However what I want to talk about this month are nucleus colonies. What I mean by a nucleus is a quarter sized or half sized colony. I have 14*12 brood boxes and I have some 'colonies' on about 5 or 6 frames and with between two and four frames of brood. The reasons for small units like this can be multifarious; a bought in nucleus, a nucleus you have made up yourself,a box of bees that has been split (and has then swarmed despite precautions taken ). I cannot imagine that I am the only one who finds himself with a quarter or half sized colony.
> So what does one do? Beginners find themselves in this scenario and always ask what do I do about feeding. At least if they are actually asking the question, they have begun to understand that what they do now is going to determine whether the unit they have becomes big enough to then go on and survive the winter. What beginners do not grasp is that the small unit they have has a gargantuan task ahead of them; they need to draw out all the frames in their new hive and at the same time increase their numbers. This is a tall order for a small unit. It is young bees that draw out wax and there are not enough of them to do do it quickly. So what can one do to help them?
> The first thing to do is not to give them too many new frames to work on. Put one frame of foundation on the sunniest side of the box (bees need to generate a lot of heat to draw out wax). Put another on the other side of your colony and then add a dummy board. This helps keep in the warmth. The ideal dummy board is one made from cellotex (wall insulation material). And then you need to feed and feed and feed. A plastic frame feeder that is within the hive itself with a wooden float is good (the advantage of a frame feeder is that the bees usually clean it out completely and so it does not need to be washed) or otherwise a small contact feeder (plastic container with a small hole covered by gauze). The later gives a slow continual feed to the bees. You can add some hive clean to the syrup to prevent mould taking a hold. The feeder needs to be washed out and cleaned each time it is refilled because the syrup will go mouldy. In my experience with a small contact feeder it may take them about two weeks to empty it . With a nucleus this is all an uphill struggle. What you are aiming for is to reach that elusive tipping point when the colony is big enough to be healthy and prosperous. They will need a steady trickle of syrup to draw out your frames. If going away on holiday get a fellow beekeeper to come round and top up the feeder. Missing out at this early stage of the summer may have a bearing on what sort of colony you have next year and whether you get a honey crop or not and even whether they then survive the winter. Remember a small unit inside a big box finds it difficult to keep itself warm over the winter period.
> If the nucleus is already large, then you may have to be careful not to encourage swarming. You may need to feed, and then stop feeding and then feed again. It will have to be your own judgement. Generosity at this stage will give you a prosperous colony next year able to take advantage of the nectar flows that will occur.
> I hope that those of you with a small unit will now be able to develop a strategy for you bees. I helped a beginner a few years ago by giving him a tiny nucleus in May. I told Richard he could play with it as I just did not have the time to look after it. He was bonkers about having his first box of bees and he fed it and fed it. He had a lovely colony by the end of the year but it was hard work. I called his bees ' the Vivaldi bees' because that is what he played on his car radio to them when he initially took them home.
> Malcolm Wilkie July 2016
> By now if your colony has been strong you will have been through the swarming scenario. This May has been good from the point of view of the nectar flow as there has been moisture in the ground and high temperatures, and those of you with strong colonies will have had supers filled with nectar which will now be being turned into honey by the bees.
> I personally am not in that category. If you do have a colony that has not built up as it should, then you need to ask yourself various questions. Firstly it may be the case that the brood frames in the colony are just too old and this is spreading infection into the bees and preventing them from building up as they ought. What is the brood pattern like? Is there evidence of chalk brood (this is a fungal infection and the spores may be killing off a lot of the larvae). Or it may be that nosema is present and this explains why some of the eggs are dying and that there is a spotty brood pattern. Nosema damages the bee's digestive system and shortens their life.
> In a previous email I explained that a colony needs to reach a tipping point in order to expand. It may be that debilitated by this microsporidian fungus the bees just cannot expand as they ought. This box of bees will no doubt dwindle as the summer continues and will die out in the autumn or winter. There do not seem to be any recommended treatments but 'hive alive' does seem to have some positive effect on colonies according to some.
> The frustrating thing for those of you with colonies that are similar, is that when queen cells are made, then a good proportion of them are not viable. We cut out queen cells that we do not want and there is nothing more frustrating than finding the queen cell is not alive. If you have done a split, then you probably can re-combine the two boxes and the old queen will continue as best she can. Or you could try buying in a queen. Sussex University (LASI) are selling hygienic Queens. You can buy a virgin for only £20 and she will be accepted by bees who have not been able to raise a new queen as long as you haven't left them broodless for a month. No need to remove the accompanying bees. Just break the tab so that the colony can chew out the fondant and accept your new queen with open arms, or perhaps I should say claws!
> It is also important to leave a little space around the Queen introduction cage so the bees in the colony can smell that there is a virgin in that cage. If you have brood, then place the Queen introduction cage next to the frame of brood. You can test whether your purchase will be accepted by placing the cage on top of the frames. Bees that have a virgin already in the hive will be aggressive towards you purchase. Bees that are hopelessly queenless will surround the cage and you will see their little antennae and heads pointing towards the cage showing great interest. If that is the case you are onto a winner. One caveat is that you should not try and introduce a Buckfast queen into a box of mongrel bees. Even if they accept her, they are likely to kill her in the subsequent weeks and raise Queens cells. For some reason they don't seem to speak the same language!
> Beginners find it very difficult to gauge whether a split they have made is queenright or queenless. Once you have calculated the date of the emergence of a queen cell, go in a day or two later and check the queen cell you have marked has been opened. The virgin,if emerged, won't be taking mating flights for a day or two. If you have missed this window then examination should be done in the morning to avoid disturbing a virgin going out on a mating flight. Or alternatively after 6 PM. If the queen cell is still there, don't do anything. Go back in another two days time and check. At that moment carefully open it up. If there is a dead body, then you are going to need to either recombine this unit or get hold of a virgin queen or a mated Queen. Both will be accepted. If you are into not spending any money and you have a second colony, you can give them a frame of eggs. Or you can cut out a section of eggs and young larvae and place it in one of the frames of the queenless colony. However if your queen cell was not viable, perhaps the next ones they raise will not be viable either! A headache! However, you need to do something!
> Some colonies are expanding rapidly still. Add supers so that they can store the nectar for you. Put a frame or two of foundation above the brood nest. They are likely to draw out wax in this warm spot and fill it with nectar. It is good to keep a prosperous colony busy making wax and collecting nectar by putting in some frames of foundation among the frames of drawn comb, but they find it easiest to draw out wax above the warmth of the brood nest. A big colony however will draw out a whole box of foundation for you. Lucky you if you are in that scenario!
> Good luck with your honey production this month. As I speak the rain is falling and that means that if temperatures go up again the nectar flow will continue. Just remember to check the supers and give them space.
> Malcolm 31st May 2016
I can now declare that we are into the swarming season. Helen has been over to Hartfield where one of our members has Carnoleon bees and the biggest hive had queen cells in it and she carried out a split. Temperatures are gradually going up this week and the pollen from trees is at a high level. Conditions are becoming ideal for a strong hive to want to divide. My own strongest hive has seven frames of brood in a 14 x 12 box. There are a lot of bees but due to chalk brood my colony is not quite as strong as it might be. However I intend to do a shook swarm on this colony and one other next Saturday. The super I have on each of these hives, and in which there is a little nectar, will be removed and then given back to them once they have drawn out the wax foundation and built a brood nest.
Despite there being wild garlic, bluebells and blackthorn at the trout farm (and therefore a source of nectar) I will still put a rapid feeder on them and keep feeding them syrup until they have drawn all the wax out. Bees need a lot of syrup to draw out the wax foundation. A queen excluder will be put below the brood box for three days so they don't abscond. One needs to take this precaution as because there is no brood ( you are removing and burning it), there is nothing to anchor them to your box. The drones will be caught inside the hive but after three days, once the bees have committed to stay, I will remove the excluder and let the drones fly out. This is important because many of the drones will impale themselves on the queen excluder in their eagerness to get out and mate. Obviously this stresses the bees!
The month of May is the busiest season for our bees and for the beekeeper. However if you have plans of doing anything with your bees the month of May is the ideal time to do so. Our French colleagues say that any manipulation done in May usually works, even when done badly or wrongly.
Let me also take this opportunity to remind everyone about the Heathfield bee market on Saturday, May 14. Paynes and also the Pratts will be there selling equipment and giving advice if you need to ask experienced bee farmers any challenging questions. Keith will be there and Helen also will be there. There is usually a bee inspector or two as well! The Association has a plant stall and there will be lots of bee friendly plants on sale. Maggie Whittaker will have her own table. She used to work at RHS Wisley and if you want to buy interesting varieties of tomatoes or zucchini or possibly something interesting for the garden Maggie is your woman! She is also a beekeeper and a member of our association and will certainly be able to advise about plants.
There is a talk by Dave Goulson about bees and pesticides. He is a fantastic speaker and this will be worth going to. I have heard him speak and he is brilliant. It will be interesting not just for beekeepers but partners or friends of beekeepers.
In the afternoon there is the auction. Certainly worth a look but don't get carried away and buy things more expensively than if you bought them brand-new! If you have recently joined the association or are just a new beekeeper learning on Keith's course, then it is worth coming along and getting a feel for what is on sale and what beekeepers are doing.
A final word of warning. Someone's bees always seem to swarm on the day of the Heathfield bee market. Make sure those are not your bees! I look forward to seeing people and offers of help on the day on the plant stall will be gratefully received. Even if it is just to go and get those of us behind the stall a cup of coffee.
May 2016 Malcolm Wilkie
> Many of the association members attended the session held at the Rose and Crown last week about swarming. All of us, even those who are more experienced, can always improve how we manage our colonies. I hope the session proved thought provoking and those who were present will now correctly carry out the artificial swarm technique. Beginners so often misunderstand what it is they have to do!
> If you think that you have mastered what is required of you to do an artificial swarm, I will show you at bee banter on 26 April how you can use the artificial swarm technique to clean up your bees. To clean up the box with the old queen, the foragers and the fresh frames of foundation a simple Biotechnical method can be used (gosh that sounds complicated but it is so simple you will be amazed).
> The technique to clean up the old brood box and all the emerging bees is a little bit more complicated however. You may only want to use this method if you consider you have a high varroa count. So, of course, you need to be monitoring your inspection boards now in order to make the decision about whether your colony has a high infestation or not (and you are all using the varroa calculator on bee base, I hope). I have been searching for the last year or two for something that I can do at this stage of the season which does not involve putting oxalic acid onto the bees. The reason for not putting the chemical on them is that the emerging virgin queen may somehow get damaged or be affected later in her life and that I do not want to risk.
> The solution has come from an eminent beekeeper in Sussex called Jonathan Coote. If you think I have an attention for detail, you haven't yet met Jonathan. He is a bit of a maverick and taught himself beekeeping and has, in consequence, come up with really interesting ideas. He uses a solution of dilute lactic acid which he sprays on to the bees. This is quite a benign procedure. It certainly won't damage the virgin queen. The reason for this is that the dilute solution is so weak that you can even put it on your own tongue without it causing any problems. I am quite prepared to put it on my tongue for you! Jonathan says that it's acidity is like lemon juice.
> The reason why it works is that the varroa mite has very delicate mouthparts. Once the solution has been sprayed onto the bees they evaporate off the moisture and this concentrates the acidity of the solution and damages the varroa. I will show you how to use this and Helen is going to bring up to bee banter several bottles of the dilute solution which will be sold at a very cheap price. Jonathan's Association all use lactic acid. However it is not a recognised product. Perhaps it should be,though, because it is such a weak, dilute solution that is actually sprayed onto the bees by the beekeeper.
> So if you do have a varroa problem you might like to come to Bee banter on Tuesday 26th April 730pm Rose and Crown Mayfield
> Malcolm Wilkie April 2016