Continued from my 5th revision post for the British Beekeeping Association’s Module 1 exam, which covered apiary work from January to June. Timings based on the Greater London area.
“The Candidate shall be able to give a detailed account of:-
the year’s work in the apiary and how this is dependent upon the annual colony cycle and the timing of local bee forage;”
July is often the driest, hottest and sunniest month of the year here (during 2010 averaging a low of 13.6°C/56.5°F to a high of 22°C/73°F in London), so it feels like the height of summer to us humans. Yet the summer solstice has passed. The workers observe the days getting shorter and reduce the Queen’s food slightly so that she begins laying fewer eggs.
The varroa population in the hive is likely to have been doubling every three to four weeks during the spring and summer. As the amount of brood is reduced in July, this means that a high number of female varroa mites will be trying to enter a smaller number of brood cells in order to reproduce. By July the queen will also be producing few or no drones, so multiple mites will be entering worker cells, causing damage to the developing workers. Your supers will still be on, so it’s too early for Apiguard treatment. If you have an open mesh floor hive, what you can do instead is an icing sugar shake. This should be seen as a complimentary technique to other forms of anti-varroa control; it is not as effective at killing mites as Apiguard or oxalic acid but is a suitable technique to use in July.
Icing sugar treatment is easiest done in pairs. Get someone to hold each frame out horizontally for you and then sprinkle over icing sugar using a fine mesh shaker. This encourages the workers to groom each other, removing mites in the process. They will fall through the open mesh floor and be unable to climb up again. Put your varroa monitoring board underneath – with vaseline smeared on – before starting the treatment and check afterwards to see how many have fallen down. Just sprinkling over the tops of frames without pulling each one out is not effective enough, that way the sugar just falls down the gaps between the frames.
If the weather is good, the bees are usually still pinging in and out of the hive entrance frantically bringing lots of pollen and nectar in. On hot days they may also come back with water, which can be hung in the cells and evaporated through fanning to try and cool the hive down. The adult bee population is now at its height, with the foraging bees being those developed from eggs laid in the last fortnight of April and first fortnight of May.
You should be aiming to get your honey off by the end of July, when the main nectar flow will be over. Towards the end of the nectar flow, you can try swopping super frames around in the hive so that capped frames are in the upper supers and uncapped frames are nearer the brood. The heat of the brood nest makes it easier for the bees to reduce the nectar’s water content to the correct level (around 18-20%) and draw wax, so that they can cap the frames more quickly. In the Ealing apiary hives often only have one super, but you can still help the bees by moving the capped frames to the outside and putting the uncapped frames in the warmer middle positions.
At extraction time a Porter bee escape can be put on the super, which allows the bees to go down but not up. Make sure there are no holes which might allow wasps to get in while the super is undefended.
Some things for the beekeeper to do:
- Maintain regular brood nest checks for queen cells and colony health
- Monitor for varroa
- Icing sugar shake for varroa control
- Add an extra super at the beginning of July if necessary
- Harvest the honey supers at the end of the month
- Keep an eye out for wasps, which can become a serious problem. Traps by the hive can help reduce their numbers. Dr Beekeeper has a good post with some tips for keeping wasps out of hives and making a trap from a plastic milk bottle: ‘The battle of wasps attacking bees: here’s how my bees are winning‘.
- Also pay careful attention to anything hornet-like. European hornets are fine but the Asian hornet, Vespa vellutina, which can wipe out entire hives, is present in northern France and could easily cross over to the UK. If you suspect you have seen one tell your local bee inspector, try to get photos, or even better catch one, freeze and send to the National Bee Unit for identification.
Super frames (mostly) cleared of bees, ready for extraction
Once the main nectar flow stops the bees can become moody, so try to limit your inspections as much as possible now. When you harvested you may have found some frames which contained uncapped honey, which would ferment if extracted due to its high water content. Honey containing over 20% water also breaches UK Honey Regulations, so you would not be able to sell it.
What you can do with the uncapped honey (and also with honey remains in wet frames you have put through an extractor) is feed it back to the bees. To get them to store it in the brood nest ready for overwintering, you can place an empty brood box above the crownboard, then place a super containing the uncapped frames on top of that, with the roof on top. Put a few slashes through the frames with a hive tool to help make the honey easy for the bees to get at. The extra empty space above the brood nest, and the resultant loss of pheromone smell above, will make the bees think of the super frames as not part of their hive, so that they go up and rob them. Some bee keepers feed back to the bees by placing frames in the middle of the apiary; this is not a good idea as feeding bees honey from other hives can spread disease and encourage robbing mayhem by bees and wasps alike.
Apiguard, a natural thymol based treatment, can be given in August once your supers have been removed (otherwise your honey will stink of thyme). The treatment works because the worker bees dislike the thymol stink. They start removing the gel to clean the hive and remove the foreign smell, distributing it round the colony and killing off varroa mites in the process. Starting Apiguard in August allows the hive to produce several generations of healthy bees before going into the winter.
Tape up your varroa monitoring board whilst treating so the fumes stay in the hive. Apiguard should be done while the weather is still warm, as it is most effective – 90-95% effective – in the optimum conditions of an external ambient temperature of more than 15°C and active bees. This is because distribution of the Apiguard gel depends on the bees transporting it round the hive during the process of hive cleaning, and this activity increases as the external temperature rises. So don’t wait till late Autumn to do Apiguard. Also do not be tempted to treat using your own home made thyme concoctions, which do not regulate the release of thymol in the way Apiguard gel does, and can overwhelm bees, causing them to abscond.
There is still plenty of late summer forage available for the bees – rosebay willow herb, ragwort, clover, thistle, lavender.
Some things for the beekeeper to do:
- Feed back wet super frames to the bees in the way described above.
- Once the bees have cleaned up the frames, store and protect from attack by wax moth.
- Ensure the hives have enough stores to survive in the brood box after extracting. If not, feed sugar syrup.
- Apiguard treatment for varroa.
- Unite any weak colonies with other colonies, so that they can survive the winter. Check that these weak colonies do not look diseased first.
- Put your entrance reducer in, as the main nectar flow is over for the bees and wasps may now start to become a problem.
Honeybee on a member of the thistle family.
The last sweat of summer. I have noticed a trend in recent years for what feels like lacklustre wet and cloudy Augusts followed by sunny, warm Septembers. In 2010 September averaged a low of 10.9°C/51.6°F to a high of 19.3°C/66.7°F in London.
September is the month to begin preparing bees for the winter ahead. At this time of year the colony begins producing bees that will overwinter until the following spring. These winter bees are physiologically different to summer bees. They develop fat bodies which are reservoirs of protein in their abdomen. These fat bodies allow the bees to produce brood food in their hypopharyngeal glands in the late winter and early spring at times when it is too cold to forage or even for the bees to move away from the cluster to reach pollen stores in other parts in the hive. To ensure that these winter bees have well developed fat bodies, make sure the colony is well provisioned with food to last well into the following spring. If bees suffer from poor pollen supplies, they age more quickly and will die sooner.
In our last feed of the year, Ealing association beekeepers treat against nosema using Fumadil B. Nosema is a parasite that multiples in the gut of adult bees; it has no obvious symptoms but its main effect is to shorten an infected bee’s life by about 50%, so dwindling colonies which are slow to build up may be suffering from it. Nosema spores can withstand temperature extremes and persist on contaminated comb, another good reason to change brood comb each year. Fumadil B is a naturally occurring antibiotic which is dissolved into sugar syrup and fed to the colony. You can use a microscope to test a sample of your bees for nosema first to see whether you need to treat or not.
Some things for the beekeeper to do:
- Carry out supplementary feeding to help the bees build up their winter stores. The bees will need at least 20kg/40lb of stored honey in the hive (just over one British national super’s worth) to survive the winter, especially if there is a wet spring.
- Feed sugar syrup in the evening in a large feeder, using the stronger 2:1 sugar-to-water ratio, not the weaker 1:1 mix used in spring. The sugar must be white granulated sugar, never brown which upsets the bees’ digestive systems.
- Remove the queen excluder, clean and store it ready for the next season.
- Remove empty Apiguard trays.
- Treat with Fumadil B in the last sugar syrup feed in late September.
- Many beekeepers have problems with wasp robbing at this time of year, so it may be worth setting wasp traps by the hive.
September is drone kicking out time, when any unmated drones are forcibly removed from the hives by their worker sisters and left to starve. The little fellas below, photographed in September 2011, will be long gone by now.
Hopefully colonies will be well on their way to being prepared for the winter following autumn feeding, Apiguard and Fumadil B treatment to help get the winter bees as healthy as possible. Colonies should now have the required 20kg/40lb of honey stores. The weather will soon be getting too cool for the bees to process sugar syrup into stores; check if syrup in feeders is being consumed and remove it if not. If the syrup is not being eaten remove it, otherwise it will ferment and go mouldy in the feeder. Consider making a hole through the middle of your frames so the winter cluster can easily pass through them and reach their remaining stores (rather than having to go up and round frames). Heft the hives to get a feel for how heavy they are before going into winter.
It is a good idea to cut back foliage growth such as hedges, bushes and trees in the apiary at this time so that the hives receive plenty of sunshine and air. This is because hives that are in light conditions are less likely to suffer from isolation starvation, which can occur when bees reach the top of their stores and become too cold to move around the frames and find unused stores. Airy conditions help to reduce dampness, which is a greater enemy to bees than cold.
Hives should still be monitored for varroa every few weeks using a monitoring board (smeared with vaseline, so that the mites are stuck to the board and don’t fly off in a gust of wind the second you try to count them). The National Bee Unit’s varroa calculator – https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/beebase/public/BeeDiseases/varroaCalculator.cfm – can help in assessing how bad an infestation is and which treatments can be applied at a particular time of year.
Now is the time to start thinking about winter pests like nesting mice and woodpeckers after a meal. Putting on a mouse guard is standard essential protection in the UK; chicken wire to deter woodpeckers is also a good idea, especially if they’re a known problem in your area. Woodpeckers are beautiful creatures but they can reduce your hive into a pile of wooden splinters. Weigh down your hive roof with a brick or stone. If you do not have an open mesh floor, tilt it slightly forward so that any water blown into the hive entrance will run out.
Ivy is a very important late autumn forage source, providing the last nectar and pollen flow of the year, between the end of September to October. It produces a bitter honey which very rapidly granulates in the comb, so some beekeepers disapprove of it as winter stores as it can dry out and become difficult for the bees to feed on.
Some things for the beekeeper to do:
- Put on mouse guards.
- If green woodpeckers are around, protect hives with a chicken wire cage placed at least 300mm away from the hive.
- Trim back foliage.
- Make holes in the middle of frames for the winter cluster to pass through.
- Clear the roof ventilator mesh of propolis.
- If you don’t have an open mesh floor, put a matchstick under each corner of the crown board for ventilation.
- Take off feeders if the bees are no longer taking sugar syrup down.
- Enter a honey show! The long-running National Honey Show is held in October while the first London Honey Show was held in October 2011. The most outstanding winner of the National Honey Show to date is the late Mr Jim Watson of Warwickshire who won the cup on ten occasions, in 1973, 1975, 1981, and then for seven successive years 1983/89. The stuff of dreams – just one win would do for me!
Autumn gloom sets in
Often November brings the first really cold frosts of winter. It will be too cold to open up the hive; it must now be left alone till March. Some insulation can be put in the top of hives between the crown board and the roof, although this is a controversial subject. Some beekeepers feel strongly that no insulation is necessary while others feel equally passionately that it is. Emma and I put bubble wrap and jiffy bags in the top of ours this winter.
Make sure the entrance remains clear of bees, use a small stick to poke out any little bodies caught in the mouse guard.
Some things for the beekeeper to do:
- Put in insulation, if approved of.
- Check entrances are clear.
- Continue to use the monitoring board to monitor for varroa, but do not leave it in for weeks at a time as ventilation is needed. For one week during the month or every other week for a couple of days is sufficient.
- Visit the apiary occasionally to make sure hives have not been blown over, attacked by predators or vandalised.
Even if the weather is too cold to collect nectar, the bees will often still be finding pollen in November. Below is a pic of some of my November 2011 winter bees finding pale pollen.
Bees are likely to only be flying on nice warm days for cleansing flights. English December temperatures tend to be between 2°C/35.6°F to 7.4°C/45.3°F, but temperatures are often slightly higher in an urban environment like London and the overall trend in recent decades has been towards rising temperatures.
Oxalic treatment should be carried out once either in December or January whilst brood levels are either non-existent or low. Oxalic treatment is carried out by trickling over the frames so the hives need to be opened up very quickly. If the bee cluster is at the top of the frames this can indicate a shortage of stores, so if this is the case and you haven’t already supplied fondant (also called bakers’ candy) do so now. I usually put a slab of fondant on over the crownboard at the beginning of December. For emergency feeding to particularly light hives the fondant can be put directly on top of the frames so the bees have more direct contact with it.
Some things for the beekeeper to do:
- Oxalic acid treatment while brood is low and varroa mites are overwintering on the adult bees
- Heft to check weight of stores; feed candy/fondant if stores are light and keep an eye on their levels
- Make sure the hives have not been vandalised or attacked by woodpeckers
- Check dead bees are not building up in the hive entrances and blocking the exit of live bees
- If it snows, clear the snow away from the hive entrance. Bees tend to fly up towards the light, the intensity of which they monitor using the three simple ocelli eyes on top of their heads. The light reflected from the snow can confuse them, causing them to fly into it and freeze.
- Check stored super combs each month during winter for wax moth damage. As long as the combs have never had brood in them they should be safe, as wax moth larvae need protein in their diet so can not survive on beeswax and nectar alone.
- Produce beautiful Christmas presents from your wax and honey products.
- Gratefully wish the bees Merry Christmas and a happy, honey-filled New Year.
- BBKA News incorporating the British Bee Journal (2011 issues)
- Bee Craft Calendar 2012
- Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper (2010)
- Keeping Healthy Honey Bees, David Aston & Sally Bucknall (2010)
- Module 1 Study Notes, Mid Bucks Beekeeping Association
- ‘Flower power‘ by Dr Sally Bucknall, p11, BBKA News November 2013 – an article on the benefits of ivy for bees. Dr Bucknall explains that because of its high glucose content, pure ivy honey crystallises easily in the comb and is not useful to the colony when stored. However, if the honey contains a mixture of nectar from other late flowers such as Himalayan Balsam, it may not crystallize.
Sigh… Reading all of this makes me feel just a touch desperate for spring. I’m ready. Very ready.
On other news, my city is meeting to review the urban beekeeping ordinances. Here’s hoping that they leave it as is (5 to 10 hives depending on lot size) or even expand it. A neighboring community just put added restrictions on beekeepers, so…. The local association is, of course, armed and ready to go, and I’ve already received assurances from one of the seven council members that he intends to vote in favor of maintaining the current ordinance. That’s good news.
Me too…we have just hit the coldest patch we’ve had all winter. Will be keeping a close eye on the ladies.
Good luck with the ordinances. Your lots are obviously bigger than the typical London garden – most gardens here would barely be suitable for one hive.
Emily, you really have me wanting to keep bees. There is an awful lot to learn, but it is so worth it. Like Dave, seeing your post make me wanting to see the bees in Spring now. Do you suggest bee keeping for those of us that are allergic? I only was ever stung once in my life and it was wasps that stung me, but I hear the next time is much worse.
Do you know for sure that you’re allergic? Only a very small percentage of the population is, and also being allergic to wasps doesn’t mean you’ll be allergic to bees as the sting substances are different. If you haven’t been stung by a bee yet then you won’t know till you are!
Swelling up, even a lot, is a perfectly normal reaction to being stung which most people have. When I got stung under the eye last summer I couldn’t see the next day, but I’m not allergic. Anaphylaxis on the other hand isn’t a normal reaction – see http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Anaphylaxis/Pages/Symptoms.aspx. If you get stung by a bee and have that kind of reaction, then the advice is not to keep bees as being stung could be fatal. Treatment to remove your allergy is possible but involves long-term regular injections, so is not something to undertake lightly.
Thanks Emily. My brother almost died from a bee sting when he was a kid and I have been very lucky to not have been stung to find out. He had all the symptoms your link cited. I was assuming I was allergic to bees due to the wasp stings which got me close to going to the hospital myself. Dizzy, swelling and breathing problems was the main problem, but it subsided before they (my landscape workers) were getting ready to get me to the hospital. I had no idea you can be made non-allergic. That is pretty amazing medicine, I am guessing it is like with snake venom, where they develop a tolerance.
That is awful Donna. If you’re interested in the subject I can recommend a pamphlet called ‘Insect Bites and Stings: A Guide to Prevention and Treatment’, sold by the International Bee Research Association (IBRA) for £2.95: http://ibrastore.org.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1_2&products_id=26.
This booklet says allergic disorders run in families. It also has some info on the immunotherapy, which apparently involves a series of venom injections starting with a very minute dose followed by gradually increasing doses, given once or twice weekly, until the equivalent of a full sting is tolerated. This may go on for two or three months, followed by monthly maintenance doses for perhaps two years. If you ask your GP about it they may be able to refer you to a hospital that offers this treatment.
Wow – you guys have quite an organized and rigorous testing & certification system! I spent some time checking out the link you provided, and it appears to be very organized.
After reading the post, it appears that your beekeeping season runs on a schedule that is similar to ours in BC.
Put me in the camp that isn’t too concerned about insulating the hives. Moisture is the main concern, so as long as the hives are well ventilated the bees can usually maintain the temperature at an appropriate level. However, insulating the top of the hive (as you mentioned doing) has been shown to provide the best over-winter results (when compared to thoroughly wrapping hives, and to doing nothing). I would think that using plastic (bubble wrap and jiffy bags) might help trap moisture in the hive though, have you found it to work effectively as insulation this winter?
The exams certainly are testing! My hand was aching after I came out of the last one.
That’s interesting that insulating the top has been shown to have the best wintering results. I’ve heard it said that cloths are a bad idea as they absorb moisture. I haven’t noticed the bubble wrap causing any problems. We’ve now added a layer of polystyrene below the bubble wrap, see https://adventuresinbeeland.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/l1030358-e1328885403820.jpg.
Will be so relieved once we’ve got the bees through winter!
“Get someone to hold each frame out horizontally for you and then sprinkle over icing sugar using a fine mesh shaker. This encourages the workers to groom each other, removing mites in the process. They will fall through the open mesh floor and be unable to climb up again. Put your varroa monitoring board underneath – with vaseline smeared on – before starting the treatment and check afterwards to see how many have fallen down”
They will be able to climb up again if the gap ‘twixt mesh and floor is too shallow. Aim for 2″. I doubt whether vaseline is very effective at sticking them down if it is covered with icing sugar. Always look at fallen mites, whether before or after dusting. Observe and record the proportion of mites that appear to have been damaged by the bees. This may be something you will wish to take into account when selecting queens for breeding.
‘You should be aiming to get your honey off by the end of July, when the main nectar flow will be over.’.
I leave mine on until well into September. This allows the bees, in anticipation of approaching winter, to pack their reduced broodnest around with stores of their own gathering and choosing, both nectar and pollen. Then I regard everything above the queen excluder as mine, usually overwintering on a single National brood box. I haven’t routinely fed syrup to my bees for many years and it is rare to lose one to starvation (unless isolation starvation in the midst of plenty. If I do lose one, then that’s Darwin for you!
Leaving supers on till September delays when the Apiguard can be done would be my worry with leaving them on till then. Mine overwinter on a single brood box too. I don’t follow how leaving the super(s) on till September encourages them to pack the broodnest more though?
‘Add an extra super at the beginning of July if necessary’.
You should always add supers BEFORE it is necessary. If they run out of space they may decide to swarm. I once collected a swarm on 4th September.
Sadly it’s rare that hives in our apiary need extra supers. Probably too many beekeepers about chasing too few flowers.
‘Apiguard should be done while the weather is still warm, as it is most effective – 90-95% effective – in the optimum conditions of an ambient temperature of more than 15°C and active bees. This is because the temperature needs to be high enough for long enough to release the thymol vapour, so don’t wait till Autumn to do Apiguard. Also do not be tempted to treat using your own home made thyme concoctions, which do not regulate the release of thymol in the way Apiguard gel does’
If you cut out draughts it should be that temperature or more above the brood area well into the Autumn. Peter Edwards who runs about 200 colonies in the Midlands has only used neat thymol crystals – about a teaspoonful in a honey jar lid – and finds it works for him. It’s a lot cheaper than Apiguard. The late Ron Brown O.B.E. used to empty tea bags of their contents and replace the tea with thymol and place them in the hive. I tried that once and got tea bags encased with thymol flavoured propolis!
The manufacturers Vita-Europe recommend the >15°C external, not internal, temperature. I think I may have got the reason for this wrong though – the idea is that the colony will be active and not beginning to cluster at these temperatures, so that they will distribute the gel around the hive effectively. I’ll change this bit of the post to explain that.
Our local bee inspector advised against home made thymol concotions. I expect the beekeepers you mention are more experienced than most! Wonder if there is a market for thyme flavoured propolised tea bags 🙂
‘In our last feed of the year, Ealing association beekeepers treat against nosema using Fumadil B.’
I used that once; in 1979 I think! It is doubtful whether treatment with Fumadil B is legal as it is an antibiotic, but nobody is going to bother to chase you for using it. It isn’t currently registered and as the registration process is so expensive, a 6 figure sum I think, it is most likely that the manufacturer won’t bother as the market is so small.
If you do use Fumidil it will prevent Nosema multiplying but as soon as the colony expands in Spring the bees will become reinfected from old comb, so it is a pointless exercise unless accompanied by comb replacement as soon as possible with either foundation, starter strips or old comb that has been fumigated with 80% acetic acid fumes. The easiest way in my experience is a Bailey comb change.
I heard about the worry that Fumadil B might be coming off the market. We do comb replacement each spring, either a shook-swarm or the Bailey comb change.
‘Ivy is a very important late autumn forage source, providing the last nectar and pollen flow of the year, between the end of September to October. It produces a bitter honey which very rapidly granulates in the comb, so some beekeepers disapprove of it as winter stores as it can dry out and become difficult for the bees to feed on.’
This is the scrummiest of honeys for those with a mature palate. I have customers who ask for it. I overheard one of them asking another whether she could detect the citrus overtones. Our bees have been overwintering largely on it since the end of the last ice age and so should be able to cope without a problem. I don’t know whether ivy grows in Italy though.
The bees shown foraging in December are dark, whereas those in the earlier photograph are much yellower. Were there yellow bees flying on the same day? Is it by chance that Apis mellifera mellifera, the dark bee favours northern latitudes? Perhaps the dark colour enables better use of radiated heat enabling foraging and cleansing flights in colder weather.
Well spotted. My bees are the December ones. The yellower bees in the September photo were actually from another colony in the apiary, which had an imported New Zealand queen. That colony was the strongest during the summer in terms of size and honey production but have sadly died off this winter, they had a severe varroa infestation which was treated but it seems they couldn’t cope with it. They were still producing a lot of drones late in the season so that probably didn’t help with the varroa.
I like your dark bees favouring northern latitudes theory.