Bee keepers have something to do almost all year. We have tried to summarise some key events and duties throughout the year :
On Sunny days in February, when the temperature creeps up over 6C, you will see your bees making cleansing flights or maybe collecting water from nearby sources. If the temperature creeps up a little more to 8C or above, the bees will seek out early flowering plants like Aconites, Snowdrops, Hellebores and winter flowering shrubs like Mahonia and Vibernum. You will notice pollen starting to be collected, workers appearing and more comings and goings.
This activity is a good sign that brood rearing is well under way but if this rearing activity is going to expand unhindered there must be good reserves on honey and pollen stored in the hive.
Heft the hives weekly by lifting them at each side (or weigh them with a spring balance) and feed only if they feel light or are losing weight. If the hive is well provisioned and pollen is going in, leave the hive alone.
More colonies are lost from starvation during March that any other time. This is due to the increased requirement for honey and pollen to feed the developing brood, so it is worth doing regular checks.
Any feeding is best done on a warmish day to reduce the risk of chilling the bees and brood. The feed should be placed directly on top of the frames as the bees are reluctant to leave the brood box to go up into feeders at this time of year. Slabs of fondant in polythene bags can be slit and placed, slit down, on the frames and a 50 mm eke used to give the required spacer. The bees will quickly find the fondant through the slits and start to move up into the void they create as they consume the food. Don’t forget to provide a water source for the bees if there isn’t one close at hand.
Check that entrances are clear of dead bees. Remove the mouse guard and rake out any bees that are blocking the entrance and re-secure the guard.
It should be clear, when observing the activity at your hives, if there are any weak or even dead colonies. Any suspect dead colonies should be examined and it your fears are confirmed they should be closed up to prevent robbing and removed for cleaning as soon as possible.
By the end of February, the colony’s brood rearing will benefit from an extra protein in the form of pollen substitute laid on top of the frames in the same way as the fondant. Modest feeding with 1:1 syrup will also help in the expansion of the colony especially if your intention is to take the bees to the rape, but it has to be done carefully. At this stage of colony development it is important to have empty cells for the queen to lay at her optimum rate. If you feed too much, the bees will fill the cells with syrup to the detriment of egg laying and restriction of the brood-nest. This situation could trigger the bees into preparing for early swarming.
Check for Varroa by looking at the tray under the brood box (assuming you have a Varroa floor) and work out a daily mite fall. If the daily mite fall is greater than 5 Varroa, you should act quickly and treat to reduce mite numbers. At this time of the year Apivar strips are the most appropriate, but only if you are sure you will not need to put supers on for six weeks.
For those beekeepers with solid floors, think about replacing them with clean floors at the end of March.
Check that you have equipment prepared for the nectar flow and swarm prevention. Supers filled with drawn comb or foundation, preferably at least two for each colony. Spare frame filled brood boxes, floors, crown boards and roofs to perform ratification swarms. Remove mouse guards and fit appropriate entrance blocks. Keep a water supply nearby.
Over the winter months you have been hefting your hives for stores and if light, feeding with fondant. On a fine day in March you may have lifted the roof and checked out stores replacing consumed fondant and using a pollen substitute to give the bees a supplement to help feed any early brood in the hive.
Over winter you should have had some thoughts on, and plans for, your hives(s). Will you try to increase the number of hives in your apiary; do you want to build up the size of your colonies into brood and a half or even double brood chambers; do you need to replace your queens/s this year; are you after lots of lovely honey.
Whatever your plan is, make sure you have the equipment to hand to fulfil those plans. Brood boxes and super boxes with frames of foundation or better still drawn comb. Some spare hive parts like a floor, queen excluders and crown board. A nucleus box or a spare brood box to cope with emergencies is always as good idea.
Now we are in April and the task of beekeeping begins in earnest.
On a really warm, calm day make a full inspection of your hives. You are looking for brood at all stages and trying to spot the queen. If she isn’t marked/clipped or the workers have cleaned her up and the marking is not very visible, now is the time to re mark her with her year colour and maybe clip one wing. The relatively low number of bees in the colony should make the task of spotting the queen so much easier. Once found, marked and returned to the brood box, a clean excluder should be added above the brood box if you still have a super of stores on the hive. Check to see if any old comb needs to be replaced. Brood comb darkens over the years and now is a good time to replace old frames for new. You can clean off the old comb and spruce up the frames for reuse. “Use the Bailey method to remove old brood frames” Remove the mouse guard but leave the entrance block in place.
In warm spring weather, blossom from flowering trees may yield lots of early honey, Keep an eye open and be prepared to put on supers to harvest this bounty. Conversely if the weather is unkind, feeding may have to be continued with syrup.
Prepared by Steve Fulton.
May is the month when the colony really starts to expand and regular, weekly inspections are necessary as swarming becomes a real possibility. Lack of brood spacer and the formation of queen cups will give you early warning and you should have a plan to deal with this situation. Watch out for oilseed rape crops in the foraging range of your hive(s). The honey from the oil seed rape will crystallize rapidly in the frame and cannot be removed by the bees. The answer is to harvest it early.
Keep an empty super on top of the brood. The extra spacer to store honey allows more brood space in the brood box and lessens the chance of a swarm. As the colony numbers increase, the entrance block can be removed, allowing the bees easier access. Keep monitoring the varroa mite levels and treat as necessary. The mite can slip into the hive on the back of visiting drones and bees robbing other infected hives and the increasing population of brood in the colony is an ideal breeding ground. Colonies infested with varroa can appear completely normal, lulling you into a false sense of security.
When population levels of the mite build up, damage can occur suddenly and swiftly, it will rapidly damage and may even wipe out a colony and catch you by surprise. It certainly will reduce your honey crop if not treated. The failure to appreciate this fact is the main reason beekeepers lose colonies even after they know they have varroa. Check monitoring boards regularly, counting fallen mites after a seven day period and establishing a daily drop. If the daily drop is over 5, act immediately by treating the colony with one of the recognised methods for this time of year.
(I’m going to try the icing sugar shake method to monitoring my bees this year. Go onto www.youtube.com and search varroa mite, there are lots of videos to help) Since the mite has a preference for drone brood, a super frame placed in the brood chamber can cause the bees to draw out larger drone cells on the bottom of the frame. When this is sealed, remove drone brood from the frame, inspect it for mites (volumes) in the cells and destroy. This will give you an indication if further treatment is necessary. Regular inspection of your colonies will help to ensure that the plans for your bees are met. As you are aware there are a number of other problems/diseases around today in beekeeping so keep an eye out for anything different in the brood chamber, if you are not sure about it contact the association committee (contact via our web site) or another beekeeper for help.
Remember May/June are the big swarming months so keep a close eye on your bees i.e. queen cups could be an indicator, worker/scouts searching in old hive equipment could also be an indication.
Enjoy your beekeeping and don’t be shy in asking for help.
Prepared by Steve Fulton.
Harvesting this year’s honey
Unless you have your bees on the heather this should have been completed, albeit this year there has been a late nectar flow, especially from the balsam plants due to the fine weather, but you should have it extracted by now and into your jars returning the supers to the hive/s to clean up. The bees could still be busy in October with the ivy nectar flow, but this should be left with them for their winter stores.
Treating for varroa
Varroa treatments should now start (with your supers off) you have a number of choices in this area. We at our apiaries have chosen to use Apivar but this is only available from The Bee Vet (on line). Two strips to be placed in each brood box which must be removed after 6 weeks. You can use thymol based products like Apilife-var, Apiguard and others which are very effective and available at various sources such as Thornes.
Preparing for the winter months
Plan your hive structure for the winter i.e. single brood box, double brood box, 1.5 brood and super or super and brood etc. Close down the entry and apply the mouse guards. I Suggest that the frames are placed in a brood box the warm method, that is hanging across the entry not front to back. You may wish to use insulated dummy board making them up with 50 mm PU/PIR insulation boards available from most builders merchants. Remember to keep the entry free. Some of the experienced bee keepers such as Enid Brown, insists her best results are using a double brood i.e. 8 on 8 frames with dummy boards filling the blank spaces. This is easy to rectify in the spring no matter where the queen lays. Last year I used the 1.5 structure with the store filled super under the brood box, queen excluder up top to feed fondant and it was easy to apply oxalic acid in January (varroa). With the empty super on top, the space above was insulated and this worked well. I know it is used a lot down south but care does need to be taken regarding the condensation risk. We at the apiary used a structure, queen excluder on the stand, empty super lightly filled with straw, open mesh floor (without varroa board) with the brood box (full of stores) placed over this. The brood box had a crown-board on top initially, covered with 50 mm insulation and the roof, but when the fondant was fed a 50 mm eke was placed on the brood box with the fondant directly on the frames with crown-board, with insulation and roof on the top. There were small variations to this method when using the poly hives. There are a number of methods used but at the end of the day it is your choice.
The time to feed for winter is here so ensure that you have your feeders all cleaned up for use. Now is the time to feed your bees to ensure they have enough stores to see them through the winter. Thick sugar syrup (white granulated not brown, 1 litre water/2 kilos sugar) during September. (note over time syrup will begin to ferment in open air so it is best to make small quantities). Sometimes bees will not take this syrup down. If this happens, rub a little honey from their stores around the feeder entrance to get them started. As it gets colder it is best to use Apisuc or Ambrosia syrup in the feeders as required, ( you can use this product from the start but it is a little more expensive). After you are sure they have enough stores on board to last them the first few months of winter, they can be left in peace. If, however, you find the hive to be light when checking later in the year, or at oxalic acid trickle time, a pack of fondant can be given directly above your brood/super frame using an eke to give space for the pack of fondant.
December / January
As we approach the end of December it’s time to consider treating colonies for varroa with Oxalic Acid whilst there is no brood present. Some beekeepers use the vaporisation method and others the trickle method but there is a general feeling that the latter is easier and safer for the hobby beekeeper. Oxalic Acid solution for trickling can be bought from the equipment suppliers, along with a syringe applicator or dosing bottle. The job is best done on a bright, dry day at the end of December with a temperature around 5oC.
For those unsure about treating their bees, the Association is prepared to help members by treating their colonies and instructing the member for future treatments. Any member interested in using this service, please contact the Secretary, Treasurer or Apiary manager by e-mail (listed elsewhere on the website) to make arrangements for a visit when there is a good weather window.
Check colonies every two weeks and heft or weigh each one to estimate food stores. If any are light, add a slab of fondant on top of brood frames using an eke to give the space needed below the crown board and insulation.
Check stored combs and remove any signs of wax moth and any larvae found. Keep frames of comb in super or brood boxes in a cool place. If you have several boxes they can be stored in the apiary on a stand, covered top and bottom with a queen excluder to keep out the mice and topped with a sound roof. For small numbers of supers it is easier to store supers of empty comb on the hives above the crown board and insulation.
It is a good time to review the performance of your colonies over the past year and make plans for the coming year. Hopefully your hive records will give you good indications which are your best hives and good enough for development and queen rearing in the coming year. Maintenance and repair of hardware is best done in the winter. The construction of new brood and super boxes, frames and boards can be completed if you are intending to expand your apiary.
By the end of January, healthy colonies should be starting to expand very slowly as the queen starts to lay in a small way through January. It is important that stores are maintained in close proximity to the cluster so continue to add fondant if required.
HINTS & TIPS
One of our members has successfully deterred slugs from entering his hives by putting a band of copper tape around the hive base. It is the kind of adhesive tape sold in garden centres to deter slugs from climbing flower pots, etc.