Malcolm’s Topical Tips

Below you will see a picture of the pollen supplement that I use to feed my bees. Now is the time of year when Queens are beginning to lay eggs and there is some brood hatching. Colonies are desperate for fresh pollen but with this wet weather they cannot get out to forage. This is particularly the case if you have your colony in a cold, or windy, or exposed, or damp site.

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Below you will see a picture of how I prepare my pollen patty. Unlike fondant, which I place above the crown board, I roll out my pollen patty as if it were pastry.

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Try and get the patty as thin as possible. This is because I am going to remove the crown board, smoke the bees down and lay the patty directly onto the frames. I then squidge the crown board down and replace the roof.

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I roll out the pollen patty on top of parchment paper. I liberally sprinkle the parchment paper with fresh icing sugar and this enables me to use a rolling pin without too much of the patty getting stuck to the pin.

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If you have a small colony or a nuc they will not cope with a whole patty. Don’t bother to separate the parchment paper from the patty - the bees will chuck it out themselves. 

Colonies do vary in size and you will only be able to make the correct decision about how large a patty to give once you remove the crown board. The colony below is not as large as I would like and did not get a whole patty.

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The nuc below is not one that I thought would be doing well. The bees chucked out Lesley’s marked queen only a month ago so I am assuming that perfect supersedure happened in the autumn and that there have been two Queens in this small nuc. When we last looked in September the only brood was a small circle and there were barely 2 frames of bees. So the picture below is amazing considering....

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Of course I did not look through the colonies. But with the nuc above I did put the cellotex dummy board to the outside of the nuc and I placed the outside frame next to the bees. It looks like they might need the space! A polystyrene nuc box placed in a good sunny sheltered site with a young vigourous queen seems to overwinter well.

No doubt many of you will be curious why I bother to roll the pollen patty out and place it on top of the frames. With a super strong colony there is probably no need to do this. However with a small colony like the one pictured above, or with a nuc, it really makes a difference. The uptake of the patty if done this way is always excellent.

Finally if you were really mean with your bees last autumn and did not feed them, then you must heft your hive and must put on fondant.

Below is a picture of my bees munching on fondant. Colonies collapse in March if there is no food in their box!

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Malcolm Wilkie - 25th February 2020

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.

Video 1

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.

Video 2

 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.

Video 3

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.

Video 4

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 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

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.

Our Honey Queen

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.

Class 5

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.

Leslie receiving The Crawley Cup

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!

Butchered comb!

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.

Maggie Pratt with Leslie, Rob and Jo

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).
Bertie Bear

There are two sessions organised by the HWBKA for our members. Both of interest to everybody.

The first session is on Thursday week (26th of September). Maggie Pratt has agreed to talk about preparing honey for showing. The session is useful because it teaches you how you should present your honey for a judge. Lessons learned by doing so will help you to present your own honey for sale. The session will also cover how to make soft set honey. This is something that every beekeeper in our association should know how to do. Out of a less than decent honey you can make a superb product.

Then on October 15th we have Mike Cullen talking about the BBKA exam system. His talk will centre around the basic assessment.

I suspect a lot of you will just think that this is not for them. How wrong you are! Once you have been a beekeeper for one or two years, it is very difficult to know how to progress any further. Sitting the basic (a purely practical exam) will help everyone of us to improve . You open a hive with an experienced well qualified beekeeper and have a chat about things like swarming or honey labelling.

This exam is for anyone who has kept bees for a full year and has extracted a honey crop. It is straightforward and not at all difficult. But it helps you to centre on what is important. In a sense it is more like a chat and an exam. And you always learn something!

 I am very keen that as many of you as possible sit this exam. So in the New Year Peter Halford and myself will run a session about the exam and then afterwards (for anyone interested) in people’s apiaries or at Slab Castle, small groups can take a mock exam.  You will then be able to sit the basic sometime in the summer.

This is not only for people who have done the beginners course but for anybody in the Association who keeps bees and has kept bees for a year or two. You will be a much better beekeeper in consequence. Come to the talk! He is a wonderful, experienced, competent and nice master beekeeper. And he has said that he will concentrate on the basic exam and what is required for that. You should all come and find out.

Sign up for both sessions by following the links below:

Malcolm Wilkie 18th Sep 2019