Beekeeping in Godmanstone in the Cerne Valley in 2015

from a local beekeeper –

The year started well, if slightly late. The flowers and the bees were about 3 weeks behind last year, but the rape flowered well and the bees collected some honey, though not a lot, as it was too cold to fly too far. I removed about 120lbs of rape honey, but then things went downhill.

All but 2 of my 13 colonies attempted to swarm and although I prevented the loss of a lot of bees, it resulted in over 17 colonies of some size or other. Then things deteriorated; the weather in May, June and early July might have been sunny, but it was dry and quite cold at times, so the flowers had little nectar and when the main forage plants came out, Bramble and Clover in July, there was precious little nectar. The result was that I only extracted 40 lbs of summer honey. This might also have been a result of my mismanagement, as I should have united some of the 17 hives using the new queens to produce large colonies capable of collecting lots of nectar. It requires removing the older weaker queens before putting the 2 boxes together. Owing to my lack of mobility this summer I wasn’t able to go through all the colonies in enough detail to do this, so I have learnt from my mistakes.

It also meant the colonies were starving, so when I opened them up in early September, I found one had died of starvation and most of the rest had precious few stores. Since then I have fed them 140kgs of sugar syrup which I hope will see them through the winter;  now that the Ivy is flowering and we have settled weather, they are out collecting pollen and nectar to top up their stores. Some are also visiting the Charlock which is a weed in the brassica family that looks like rape, with yellow flowers and grows on the organic arable fields near the apiary. This gives lots of yellow pollen seen on the bees back legs and nectar much like rape. So I’m hoping the fine Indian summer will carry on for a while yet, to guarantee my remaining 13 colonies survive through the winter and thankful that last year’s bumper harvest will store forever and provide honey till the next harvest.

I have also treated them for Varroa, as I always do in September with an organic thymol based product that reduces their number to a minimum. I don’t think any beekeeper can entirely eradicate this nasty pest, but keeping their numbers in check reduces the chances of the bees succumbing to other viruses, notably DWV or deformed wing virus which always seems to appear in weak colonies with high levels of Varroa.

Apart from removing the sugar feeders in the next few days, I won’t open up the colonies now till next Spring when the first warm days in March/April arrive. If the winter is mild, then they will pop out to visit the Mahonia in my garden to collect pollen, or on cleansing flights, as a  bee rarely defecates in the hive, they can hold it in for up to 6 weeks. Often they target my washing to suck up water and relieve themselves at the same time! (Brown spots on the sheets). Water is essential to dilute their honey stores to eat, they consume sugar/water in a ratio of 50:50, but honey is 80:20 sugars to water, so they need water in late winter and early spring.  A cold winter is actually better as they go into a cluster and move very little, just pumping their wing muscles gently to generate enough heat to keep the queen and the cluster warm enough. If the queen is laying in the centre of the cluster then inside the temperature must be 30’C +, otherwise 18-20’C is fine no matter how cold the external temperature drops.

Next year for the bees, I hope for a wet winter, warm spring and a summer of mixed rain and heat.

Bees Don’t Read Textbooks

From a local beekeeper….

Bees are supposed to stay in a “cluster” in winter, neither asleep nor dormant but in an immobile state;  merely pumping their wing muscles to generate enough warmth to keep the queen in the centre of the cluster warm.

bees on hive DecHowever in my apiary the temperature is sometimes secondary to the presence of sunshine.  If the air temperature is above about 6oC and the sun shines on the hives, then the workers come out, either to forage on the nearby Mahonia flowers or for a toilet trip (bees can hold it in for up to 6 weeks!).   It must be a short trip, for if their body temperature falls below 8oC then they die.

A bee on Mahonia

A bee on Mahonia

I’m trusting they are all OK inside the hives, as I won’t open them up  till late March when the temperature is above 15oC. The problem with bees flying in winter is that they use up their stores of honey, as flying requires more food than clustering, so bees are more likely to starve in a mild winter than a freezing cold one.

I’m hoping for cold weather now, not in March and April.