“New Year tasks” – by Malcolm Wilkie

In the last missive that I sent out to you I recommended that those who have wooden hives wrapped those hives in breathable roofing membrane. I am glad that I made this recommendation as November and December have been really really wet! Bees can put up with cold but wet always seems to lead to lots of fungal infections in the brood nest.

Colonies (unless they are very large) will have had a brood break. This has enabled those who were unable to get varroa under control in August, to do so now by sublimating the bees or trickling oxalic acid onto them. Those who have done this will have seen a huge drop.

It has been unseasonably warm and yesterday with the Sun shining the bees have been extremely active.

Not a lot of pollen has been going into the hives but the bees are all over Mahonias (‘Charity’ or ‘Winter Sun’ are good forms) or early flowering camellias (‘Cornish Snow’ is the best as it produces a myriad of smaller flowers at this time of year each with a pollen and nectar reward). If you are going to plant these in your garden, make sure that the Sun at this time of year will be hitting the blooms and a sheltered site out of the wind is always preferable – it really does make a difference to the bees!

Mouse guards (if you have used them) need to be checked regularly. You can see from the following video that my bees are able to go in and out of their entrances easily.

 Sometimes (in fact frequently)  bees die in the entrance and block it up, and if this happens you will need to remove the corpses. if you have an entrance block with several settings, then it may be sufficient just to use the smallest setting and no metal mouse guard.

This time of year is also good for assessing where you have sited the beehive/s. On a sunny day like yesterday it was clear which nuc boxes and which hives were being warmed by the weak winter sunshine. I have unfortunately placed two nuc boxes too close to each other and the front one shades the back one. Notice how few bees are coming out of the nuc box in this next video.

And then compare this video with the number of bees going in and out of the nuc box which is being sufficiently warmed by the sunshine.

It is amazing just what you can tell by watching the activity at the entrances of your hives. If you look closely at the bees, they look active and furry. This is an indication that they are young and this bodes well for next year.

What else can you do at the present time? Well now, it is a good idea if the hive is at all light to add some fondant. I always buy this from a bee farmer as they add something to the sugar which makes it soft and it doesn’t dry out too quickly. This makes it easier for the bees to eat. If you make your own fondant or buy it from a baker, make sure you wrap it in clingfilm, leaving a portion open for the bees to access the sugar.

Beginners always ask me how to put this on the hive. As with almost everything in beekeeping, it depends. If you have a national hive, then add an eke and place half a packet of fondant next to one of the holes in the crown board. Obviously the exposed sugar should be nearest the hole. If you need to feed a nuc box, then make sure you remove the centre part of your feeder, so that the bees can actually access the fondant that you are giving them. Each feeder has a different system so use your common sense. Below is a picture of what I have done with a Paynes nuc box.

If you have a national hive but a gabled roof, you do not need an eke. The gable of the roof gives you enough space to put your fondant on top of the crown board. With this scenario you will have no problem getting the roof back on the hive.

For the moment I have no other advice. Keith would recommend you hefting your hive, perhaps fortnightly. Fondant would need to be added if the weight of stores falls below 10lbs. This happens in March if you are not keeping a close eye and that can lead to a colony collapsing due to starvation.  Above all this would be something to watch out for if we had a particularly cold and wet March. As I have so often said every beekeeper needs to keep an eye on the weather and make decisions based on their observations of their own garden and what is happening to nature in their neck of the woods. If you have not ordered a pollen pattie (neopoll is the best in my opinion) for February, do so now. If February proves to be wet and cold a pollen pattie really does make a difference to the colony.

Finally you should be cleaning equipment and making up frames now (don’t add foundation yet as it will go stale). You do want to begin the season with equipment ready to be used. Don’t get caught out! Do as I say, not as I do! I really do need to get into that garage and start cleaning......

Malcolm Wilkie December 30th 2019

Christmas is nearly here

Christmas is nearly here and finally it is a quiet time in the apiary for the beekeeper. Autumn has been wet and like many of you I have wrapped my hives in a breathable roofing membrane. This keeps my wooden hives dry but lets out any moisture that the bees are producing.

Above is what Helen did for her bees at the end of October. You have to cut out a section so you don’t block up their entrance, of course. Keeping the bees dry really does make a difference as wet hives encourages fungal infections to grow on the bees and colonies will suffer. Even at this late stage this is something you could do on a dry day. I just fix the membrane on with drawing pins and crudely cut a section for the entrance.

If you have a WBC hive or a poly hive then this is not something you have to do (the outer skin of the WBC keeps the inner boxes dry and a poly hive sheds water, unlike wood which can retain moisture even if you have been careful and treated it with linseed oil).

All may be quiet with the bees (although these exceptionally mild temperatures are encouraging them out ) but there is still something you can do to help colonies. Bees often decide to take a brood break between mid-December and very early January. Because this is so this enables one to treat a colony with bad varroa with oxalic acid, either by the trickle method or by sublimating them. Please refer to my article last January if you are going to sublimate them, and make sure you have the right mask. By doing it now when there is no brood you will kill 96% of the mites. There is no real difference in efficacy between the two methods although if you are using the trickle method a Queen can only be treated once in her lifetime so write down in your records what you have done in case you are tempted to use this method again next year. With sublimation the number of times a Queen is treated does not seem to matter.

I have found boxes of bees that have been treated with either method have done really well and have romped away in the Spring. Keith would encourage you to monitor your natural dead mite drop for a week and then to go on bee base and use the varroa calculator as he does not like bees just being treated prophylactically. And he is absolutely right. Count the drop, do the calculation and then only treat if you need to.

If you decide on the trickle method it would be best to buy oxalic acid already mixed in to sugar syrup. Let the bee farmer get the correct concentration for you as otherwise you could kill your bees. The trickle method works because the bees pass the syrup containing the oxalic acid between themselves via trophallaxis. However some bees will get a higher dose as they will have come directly into contact with your syrup and so inevitably there will be some casualties. But for the greater good of the colony........

Colonies should be going into winter with 40lbs of stores. You can heft your hives using luggage scales if these are robust enough. If each side registers 20lbs or more, you will be fine. The hive should still be difficult to heft as it will be heavy. If this is not the case, feed fondant above the crown board as although this is not as good as their own honey it will keep them going. No syrup though as this will give them runny tummies and the bees will suffer.

Finally an idea for a Christmas present. If you have been keeping bees for a year or two and have not read Bill Turnbull’s novel ‘The bad beekeepers club’ then you should ask to be given the novel for Christmas. It is hilarious. I suspect most of us will recognise aspects of our own beekeeping in what he recounts or even things we may have done ourselves. However on no account should it be given to the wife or husband of the beekeeper unless they have a good sense of humour!

Happy Christmas everyone and happy beekeeping.

Malcolm Wilkie - 30th November 2019

“The High Weald Beekeepers Association conquers the World” - by Malcolm Wilkie

Nothing wrong with a bit of hyperbole now and again. Our Honey Queen, Helen Hadley has won a first for her lovely medium honey in an open class of 67 competitors at the National Honey Show in London. This class (class 5) is open to beekeepers from around the world and if you look carefully at the photo of Helen the range of honeys can be seen behind her. Not only that but one of our beginners (Victoria Chesterfield) was awarded a third for her ‘lovely’ light honey in the same class.

Amazing that the HWBKA should be classed first and third in such a huge World class. We surpassed ourselves.

A person standing in front of a store

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Now our dominance is not yet complete. Several of us entered the Sussex classes (which for many years have not attracted many entries). The honey Queen won a first for her soft set, Lesley Francis a second for her soft set, Rob Gore a second for his light honey and a second for class 252, which is a novice class. I got a VHC for my medium honey, John Miller a third for his medium honey and Lesley a highly commended for her medium honey. Kirsty Cable a second for her dark honey.  I got Lesley to enter cut comb honey and I did so myself. I have never made cut comb before! She got a first prize and I got the second prize. Thank you, Helen, for all your advice and guidance. On top of that Lesley entered her naturally crystallised honey and that won another first prize.

The surprise is that as Lesley did so well in so many Sussex classes, she was awarded The Crawley Cup.

This cup is awarded to the person in Sussex with enough points to be placed second overall in all the Sussex classes. She strongly believes this is in no small part due to the fact that the High Weald did so well in the Sussex classes that the usual contenders (the same names appear on the cups year after year) were denied points thus enabling her to win this prestigious cup. Thank you, therefore, all of you who entered and won prizes.

So how was all this achieved? Runny honey should have no Incipient granulation (sugar crystals beginning to form). Heat the honey either in a warming cabinet, an oven or in a Bain Marie on the hob. Lesley left her honey overnight in the oven at 45 degrees (an accurate Miele oven), Helen used a Bain Marie. She brings the water with the honey jars in it up to the boil and switches the heat off. She repeats this until the honey clears. I have a warming cabinet. I mistakenly left Alan Rough’s honey in the cabinet for 3 days at 43 degrees and the judges’ comments were very complimentary! It certainly cleared the honey. One of Victoria’s jars showed IG and in desperation I shoved it in the oven for half an hour. Not so hot that I couldn’t lift if out the oven with my bare hands, but I would have been unable to hold it for long. Sorry but I don’t have an accurate oven. That did the trick, though I thought I might have sunk her chances as the jar had already been labelled and the label looked somewhat grubbier after it had been in my oven. Sorry Victoria (giving me your honey to prepare is a bit like Russian roulette; you never quite know what is going to happen). Still, Victoria, third in the world isn’t bad!

The cut comb was a fiasco. Last year on Helen’s advice I had purchased some Manley frames and this year I bought thin wireless foundation. At extraction time these went into the freezer to stop granulation happening. A week before the show these were defrosted, and I butchered the frames. I made a template and cut round this only to find that my wretched square of comb did not weigh enough (minimum 200g). Lesley was the beneficiary of my experience and when she prepared her own a plastic ruler was used and a more generous piece cut out. That could have ended in tears as having left the piece of comb to drain overnight, her mother pops round, enters the kitchen, sees the cut comb and promptly prods it! Ban family members where honey preparation is taking place! Fortunately, no damage done this time. As I assumed, I might be disqualified for underweight cut comb I drizzled a little honey into my box to achieve the requisite weight. That could have backfired, but it didn’t!

A big personal thank you to Helen for her advice (cut comb, soft set honey) and also to Maggie Pratt for her talk on preparing honey for show.

Now we have our own honey show on the 23rd of November. It is your bees and not you that are being judged. This is the comment that Jo Gore made to me about making soft set honey: ‘you know, Malcolm, I thought that if you were able to make soft set honey then I would have no trouble making some too’. She’s right, none of the above is very difficult.

So, if you have any honey, enter it. It has not been an easy year and you should be proud. All beginners should bring along their own honey in whatever sized jar they have. We all taste them all and vote for our favourite. It’s good fun.

Some links to Malcolm’s “Topical Tips” from previous years:

2018 Honey Show (includes some tips)

2017 Honey Show (includes a lot of preparation tips)

N.B. A word about heating honey

  • Enzymes
    Honey should not have been heated in such a way that the natural enzymes have been either destroyed or significantly inactivated (Enzymes start to break down at temperatures above 45°C).
    Heat to 50°C until liquid and clear (this can take from 1 to 3 days depending on the amount and type of honey)
  • Breakdown products
    The chemical composition of honey slowly changes over time. These changes are accelerated by heating.
    The most important breakdown product is hydroxymethylfurfural – HMF (formerly known as hydroxymethylfurfuraldehyde). Allowable limits in honey are 40 ppm (40 mg/kg).

Malcolm Wilkie 29th October 2019

“Feeding – and Asian Hornets” - by Malcolm Wilkie

At present you have a window, but that window is fast disappearing

I am talking about feeding your bees. In August you will have done your autumn treatments if you discovered that there were a lot of varroa on your bees. Now once those treatments are finished, is the time when you should calculate the stores you have on your hive. In a 14 x 12 deep national brood frame, there can be 7 pounds of stores. But that is a brood frame crammed, stuffed, chockablock with honey. In an ordinary national brood frame, there can be 5 pounds of stores but it has to be a really full frame.

An ordinary colony needs 40lbs of stores in order to overwinter successfully. That is quite heavy and it should be difficult to lift the brood box because of the weight.

The problem for beginners is that they often don’t have a large, prosperous colony. They won’t have a 14 x 12 brood box crammed full of bees. They still need to feed, however. But there is one proviso. Be careful that you don’t feed so much that the bees stuff the brood nest with your sugar syrup and put the Queen off lay. A better strategy for those of you with only six or seven seams of bees is to feed some syrup every other day. This will mimic a natural nectar flow. But you had better get on with it now. The window of weather is fast disappearing and before you know it temperatures will be too low for the bees to be able to convert your sugar syrup into stores.

There is another benefit to feeding regularly at this time of year. Ivy has started to flower and ivy honey granulates rock hard in the comb. The Ivy honey will therefore be mixed with your syrup and will be much easier for the bees to access during winter.

But what about my super, I hear you cry? Remove it (if you are wanting the bees to have it over winter) store it , feed and then put it back on. That will guarantee that your sugar syrup is put directly into the brood box.

You may even decide to under super. This isn’t at all difficult as long as there are two of you. The advantage of under supering is that the bees will probably take the honey up into the brood nest, which is where you want it during the winter. If you leave the super above the brood nest that probably will be fine as long as the brood box contains sufficient stores. Have you been through and calculated? You will need to remove the queen excluder (ALL Queen excluders should be put in the shed!), and you will need to be vigilant. As soon as it warms up in March you will have to pop that queen excluder back in, making sure that your queen is downstairs and not upstairs.

If you need to do a winter treatment because of varroa, it is much better not to have a super on the bees. Margaret Mawson who runs colonies on 14 x 12 boxes never leaves a super on the bees. Why is this? It’s all about managing them and giving oneself options. So much easier if there isn’t a super because then if you need to treat you will be able to do so. You won’t, however,  if the super is on the hive, or if you do treat them any honey in that super will not be fit for human consumption. I myself never leave supers on the hives. I have 14 x 12 boxes and an additional super is a hell of a large volume for a colony. Our president, Peter Coxon, who does not treat his bees always leaves his super/s on his hives. He whips the supers off in March/April and extracts the honey. But he did have a problem this year because a lot of ivy honey wouldn’t come out of the combs. BUT he does not treat.

Finally I want you all to look at this video.


One of our members has already been informed by the Yalding Association that there are Asian hornets in Ashford. In order to cope with this exotic pest we will all need to keep large colonies. I don’t think I have very many large colonies myself and all of us are going to have to decide what we need to do to ensure that our colonies are large, prosperous and capable of coping with the harassment from this very nasty hornet.

This Asian hornet was caught by Kate Lawes in Normandy during our visit to French beekeepers there. Forgive my enthusiasm, but I was delighted that we had actually seen one and seen it hawking. Apparently if there are five Hornets hawking outside the hive, then the bees no longer go out and forage, and no longer collect pollen, and that is why colonies collapse. I’m sorry but I cannot feel sorry for this Asian hornet. Asian Hornets are going to prove a headache for us all and I suspect many of you may even give up beekeeping.

Malcolm Wilkie 11th September 2019

“The National Honey Show”

Just a reminder to everyone in the Association that there is the National honey show at the end of October which is held at Sandown Park racecourse in London.

There are a program of lectures and workshops and all you need to do is google “the National honey show“ to find out what is on offer. Bookings for workshops start on the 1st of September and you need to be quick if you want to get the workshop that you would like to do. If you are interested in soap making Sarah Rob has a workshop called pampering potions but you definitely need to book that one up on the 1st of September. There looks to be a good workshop by Phil McAnespie on swarm control and that will get booked up very quickly.

Apart from the lectures and workshops there is the trade Hall. Helen and I buy our jars for the next season, frames that we will be able to make up and there are just thousands of other items that can be picked up at reasonable prices. For instance I bought a really good 6 frame mating hive   with a division board allowing me to raise two queens. I purchased a sheriff bee suit and that was specially adapted for me as I have extremely short legs! Measurements were taken at the show.

Beginners who come on Saturday have a program of lectures specially for them and these are held by master Beekeepers and are always useful.

If you are only intending to go for one day, then Friday is probably the best day before all the best bargains have disappeared.

I am hoping to be able to enter some of my honey. If you are thinking of doing so, then perhaps read some of my past articles about preparing honey for showing. If you are busy and cannot get up to the show then lectures are recorded and you will be able to listen to them at home on your computer or iPad. But you won’t get those bargains, of course.

Malcolm Wilkie Aug 20th 2019