Malcolm’s Topical Tips

If you drive down country roads at the moment you will see that the pussy willow is in flower. This is a great source of pollen for honeybees and they will collect that pollen in quantity. As a beekeeper I breathe a great sigh of relief once I see yellow pollen going into a hive in quantity. It means that my queen has come through the winter and that the colony is expanding. March is always a tense time because winter bees that have survived for over five months are having to raise brood: it is a crossover point for the bees and is stressful for them. If temperatures are not good, or if the weather is too wet, or if the beekeeper did not feed them properly last September this can adversely affect the colony at this time of year.

The $64 million question for each beekeeper, however,  is when do I put my super onto the bees. As with everything in beekeeping it all depends. If you have your bees in an ordinary national hive then you will be adding a super sooner rather than later : they are going to need the space. 

Otherwise one has to assess the size of the colony. If they are covering eight or nine frames of comb in the brood box, then it is a good idea to add a queen excluder and a super. If they need the super they will soon go upstairs into it.  If you have a very small colony, though, you need to wait otherwise the bees won’t expand outwards in the brood box. The difficulty for all of us is that bees naturally want to put more brood above the brood they already have. Why is this? It is simply because the warmth and heat from the brood below will help heat the brood above and the bees instinctively know this. The trouble is you have put a Queen excluder between the brood and the super and inadvertently you may find that the bees will feel congested because they can’t expand the brood upstairs. Perversely they don’t always seem to expand outwards if there is space above the brood. Come on you all know Beekeeping is never straightforward. 

A beginner will just have to accept that if they have a small colony they will have to wait until that colony has become big enough before they think about honey (in other words before adding that super). It is very frustrating because all of us want a spring honey crop. However it is only once one successfully can build up a colony over winter and that you have a large foraging force that you will be able to collect a spring honey crop. Not all my colonies collect me a spring honey crop! And certain strains of bee just do not build up quickly in the spring and are probably only going to give you a honey crop in July. Learn to work with the bees that you have.

The second $64 million question is when is it appropriate for me to open up the hive and examine the frames? Ideally it needs to be about 15°, a still day and bright sunshine. I myself will open up a hive quickly when it is only 13° as long as it feels warm, the hive is in the sunshine and the bees are flying strongly. Beekeepers who don’t work are at an advantage because they can choose their moment.

The following videos will give you some pause for thought

1. A nuc box last Sunday. Every beekeeper should overwinter a nuc of bees in a polystyrene nuc box. They will quickly expand and give you a summer honey crop. Notice the amount of pollen going in and the enthusiasm of the bees. There is evidently a queen and from the bees enthusiasm I know she is vigorous.
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2. A picture of what happens if you don’t get a super on early enough. These were very vigorous bees. If only I had taken a peek three weeks earlier I would have known they needed space from the number of bees above the crownboard. I could have popped on a super and Queen excluder without even going through the brood box! As a beginner I was always nervous about lifting the roof off. Not the case any longer. I enjoy watching the bees munch my fondant and pollen patty! 
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3. No reason really for this video except I’m trying to rival Rob Gore and his wonderful photographs.
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Malcolm Wilkie – 16th March 2021

Tomorrow temperatures may go up as high as 15°. There will be sunshine and no doubt early Crocus will open and display those lovely orange anthers with nutritious pollen for the bees to collect. One might be very tempted to open up a hive of bees and see how they are doing. A word of warning, however.

It is still very early in the season and these temperatures are exceptional at this time of year. The danger could be that if you open your hive and take out frames in order to see if you have a queen then you may inadvertently cause the collapse of your colony. Why is this? Because if you are unlucky and crush your queen at this time of year then your colony will be unable to survive. They may possibly make a new queen but there is very little chance she would be able to get mated because there are no drones about. My advice would be to wait until March before examining the brood nest. Mid March with a sunny still day and temperatures of at least 13 degrees.

However I myself will be lifting off the hive roofs tomorrow.  All my colonies have both fondant and pollen patties on top of the crownboards surrounded by an eke. If the colony is alive there will be hundreds of bees munching on top of the crownboard.  The number above the crownboard will give me an indication of how strong the colony is. That is all I need to know at the moment. If on Saturday there are no bees milling about on top of the crown board and you cannot hear anything when you put your ear to the hive wall, then you could go in and take a look. If there is a gentle hum but no bees flying you could put in your inspection board for a few days and the debris that falls out of the hive will give you an indication of what the bees are doing. In this latter scenario it may be that you might consider rolling out some fondant with a rolling pin and laying that directly on top of the bees so that they can access some food : if the cluster is tiny they won’t go up and fetch the food above the crownboard and it needs to be directly in contact with them. Then gently replace your crownboard above the rolled out fondant, or if you need to create space because the fondant is too thick add an eke and place the crownboard above the eke.

Rolling out fondant is messy so use plenty of fresh icing sugar!

If you do go in because things aren’t looking good, ask yourself whether they have died due to isolation starvation, for example? Sometimes people have left a whole super full of honey for the bees but they have never gone up and fetched it. It is as if they didn’t recognise that that was part of their hive, even though Queen excluders were removed last Autumn.  Or (God forbid) did they die because you never fed them enough last autumn and you didn’t put on fondant early enough. If this is the case then you will find your bees dead with their heads in the comb as if they were trying to suck out the last drop of honey that they had stored. Only you can judge what has happened.

Enjoy the Bees tomorrow but be careful what you do!

Malcolm Wilkie – 19th February 2021

I treated all my colonies in August. Most colonies were treated with Apiguard (2 trays of thymol in each colony over a period of a month. A further note of warning to everyone – if you use a product you must follow the instructions carefully as if a full treatment is not done you will not kill the number of mites needed and numbers will just build up again). My nucs and one colony were treated with varroa med. So of course I was feeling virtuous. A case of hubris, I am afraid. I have just checked three of my colonies. The one treated with varroa med had a natural mite drop of over 154.

 (Beginners sometimes become confused and assume that this is the number of mites in the colony itself. This, of course, is not the case. An open mesh floor enables you to calculate the natural mite drop. That is to say the number of dead mites that  have come to the end of their lives and are falling off the bees onto your inspection board).

 That means the colony contains over 1500 mites and is in imminent danger of collapse. The other two colonies in the same apiary both had drops of 54 and 45.  So according to the varroa calculator on Beebase they contain 540 and 450 mites each. And that is not good either! So that is why I am concerned with the weather. A cold snap is beginning and that will encourage the bees to cluster and the Queen to stop laying. A brood cycle lasts three weeks. Today is November 30th so I am going to apply an Oxalic acid treatment on December 21st or 22nd, thereby hoping to treat my colonies during a broodless period. Why do I do this? It is because when a colony is broodless all varroa mites will be phoretic and if I can treat when this is the case I will kill the maximum number of mites.

 For a beginner it is probably best to apply oxalic acid mixed into sugar syrup. A syringe and gloves need to be used. You take the roof off the hive, remove the crown board and trickle your warm syrup mixed with the correct dose of OA onto each seam of bees. The acid damages the mouthparts of the varroa . Some bees are damaged but it will be for the greater good of the colony in the long run.

For those who are more proficient bees can be sublimated with oxalic acid but one needs to wear a mask as the fumes can damage your lungs if inhaled. I refer you to my past article about sublimation.

Be warned if you do trickle acid onto your bees, keep a record as a queen should never receive a second dose in a subsequent year. In fact legally any medication that is used needs to be recorded and the document kept (Look on our website for a copy of that document). However for some reason colonies and queens can be sublimated several times without any harm being done. Gasing the bees with OA seems less damaging than tricking OA onto the bees. I do both.

 In conclusion, put your inspection boards in again and ascertain how many mites you have in each colony. The window for treatment is about to open but it won’t last long! If you need to treat, order Apibioxal now so the treatment can be done just before Christmas. Order a syringe and gloves if you are using the trickle method.

 Finally the weather has turned cold. I am relieved for my bees as it is high time that they started to cluster and stop munching! In my last missive I told you I was worried about stores and whether the bees would have enough to get through the winter. It seems the National  Bee Unit agrees with me! Those of you who are signed up to Beebase will have got an email alerting them to a risk of starvation.

 The other reason I am looking at the weather is I am trying to calculate when would be the best time to put a varroa treatment on any colonies that need it. My prediction is that this year you are all going to have a major problem with varroa. Why is this? It is because the bees have continued to raise brood well beyond the time I would expect them to do so in a normal November. A warm November means more brood cycles and more brood cycles mean more varroa mites.

These photos were taken last week. I found these bees just chucked out of the hives so I just knew I had a problem.

Refer to my previous tip about sublimating the bees with oxalic acid.

 Malcolm Wilkie – 30th November 2020

The weather has turned unseasonably cold for this time of year. I myself have had to feed some of my hives copious amounts of sugar syrup so that they could gain weight ready for the onslaught of winter. The BBKA recommends there should be 40lbs of stores. This is for a really big box of bees and the hive, if it weighs 40lbs, will feel as if it is nailed to the hive stand. Some of you will find your site is so good that you don’t need to feed, for others the converse will be true.

Many of us have smaller units and I myself have only one or two hives that have achieved this weight!

A more accurate measure of the hive’s weight can be ascertained by using luggage scales. Lift one side of the hive with the scales and take a reading. Then lift the other side of the hive and take a second reading. Add the two figures together. Then allow for the weight of your floor, brood box and roof (if you are weighing the hive with its roof on) and this will give you a rough estimate of how heavy your hive is.

Do I do this myself? Well yes I do sometimes but I also just heft the hive. If I can lift it easily then I know I should be concerned and I proceed as follows.

In early September I feed thick syrup. If I feel the weather is not warm I might consider feeding invert sugar syrup which can either be purchased from a bee farmer or as Deborah Park pointed out to me can be made yourself by adding lemon juice to the syrup. I don’t know how to do it but she assures me it is straight forward. BUT I am keeping an eagle eye out for what the weather is doing. And unfortunately the weather is not good at present. Bees are programmed to collect and so they may well take an offering of syrup and place it into the combs in the hive. However if temperatures do not rise sufficiently then you may inadvertently create a problem for your bees. That syrup, if it cannot be converted to stores, may sit there in the frames and it may turn alcoholic. This in turn will upset the digestive system of the honeybee and nosema (a microsporidian fungus) will invade the digestive tract of the bees. This will give them a runny tummy. In the depths of winter when bees cannot get out to do cleansing flights this can cause a serious problem. Bees are designed in winter to allow faeces to build up in the abdomen and then on a warm day they will fly out and void this away from the hive. Or if you are unfortunate over your neighbour’s washing! However if nosema sets in bees have to void the faeces in the hive. Other bees then clean up the mess and the problem then worsens as this spreads nosema throughout the hive. In Spring you can tell this may be a problem as the landing board and front of the hive will be spotted with ‘bee poo’.

A word of warning however. Bees do recover from nosema particularly once the weather warms up in Spring. However hives that have suffered from nosema often have the problem of black queen cell virus. BQCV is a curse because if you are doing a split and you as the beekeeper choose to leave only one queen cell in the parent hive and that one happens to be dead, you then render your colony queenless.

So if your hive is light now you may consider your best option is to add fondant. Fondant can be purchased from a local baker if ordered in quantity but in my experience this turns rock hard more quickly than fondant purchased from a bee supplier. That makes it more difficult for the bees to use. Keith always told me that the best way of overwintering bees was to have lots of bees and stores around those bees so as to guarantee that the bees are well insulated from the cold. But fondant is definitely better than nothing else if the hive is light.

If you have wooden nationals or deep nationals your hives will also benefit from being wrapped in breathable roofing membrane. This keeps the hive dry but allows the moisture out! Remember it is not cold that kills bees (think of the temperatures in Canada over winter) but wet. Last winter proved to be particularly wet but I had wrapped my wooden hives and this kept the bees dry.

Keith also recommends using two crown boards. This is because condensation will form on the upper crownboard and drip onto the crownboard below and not onto the bees themselves!

Below are some pictures of a hive Lesley and I wrapped yesterday. Make sure you leave the entrance free for the bees to go in and out and don’t block it with the membrane!

I won’t be putting on mouse guards yet as the ivy is still in flower or coming into flower and I don’t want pollen knocked off the bees corbiculae as they enter the hive.

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Hope this helps. Bee banter tomorrow on zoom so we will all be there to answer questions.

Malcolm Wilkie – 28th September 2020

“Disease Inspection” - by Malcolm Wilkie

By now most of you will have taken your summer honey crop off your hives. You will have given the supers back to the colonies so that they can lick out the wet frames and a couple of days afterwards you will have removed those supers.

Your records will show the quantity of stores in your brood box and it may be that you will have to feed so that the colony can gain a bit of weight. However it is now very important to ascertain the disease status of your colony. This is because from August winter bees which contain more fat bodies are being raised. These are the bees that will survive for five months and so they need to be super healthy.

Last week I put in my inspection trays in order to count the natural mite drop of varroa. It is also a good idea to thoroughly examine your colony and shake the bees off the brood frames and have a good poke about. This will give you an idea whether you need to do something now. A lot of treatments depend on temperatures being high enough and you will only have a window through August and into early September if you do need to treat your bees against the varroa.

Below are a set of short video clips. I went and helped Mark (one of this year’s beginners) and we did a full disease inspection of one of his colonies. I hope this gives you some ideas what you’re looking for.

N.B. It is best to put the Queen in a Queen clip before doing these manipulations:

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Malcolm Wilkie – 5th August 2020