An unusually warm winter for the bees

Happy New Year everyone! December here in London was unusually warm, with a high of 16°C (60.8°F) recorded at Kew Gardens. This has caused the bees to go through their stores faster than usual and also encouraged them to go foraging when they should really be tucked up inside conserving their energy. Back on the 19th December I needed my bee suit as so many bees were flying and even returning with two colours of pollen!

Fondant

Above is a hole one of our hives had made in their fondant. It’s lovely to put your hand on the plastic over the cluster and feel how warm it is. By the way they do also have plenty of honey stores, but they seem to like to go up to the top of the hive where it’s warm. Our colonies do this every winter.

Jonesy's fondant

Jonesy’s hive had eaten up all their fondant in under a month! You can also see that they’d even started building a bit of comb in the empty packet.

Winter drone

The warm autumn/winter has caused more drones to be around than usual – I spotted this live one on the roof of a hive. He was in good condition so must have been expelled recently.

Dead drones

Another hive had all these ex-drones stuck in the mouse guard. They looked recently dead.

Snowdrop tips, December

Snowdrops were peeking through the earth at the apiary a month earlier than usual and daffodils have been spotted in London. There are pros and cons to all this for the bees –

Pros

  • A warm winter allows the bees to raise more brood – useful if you want to get a spring honey crop
  • The bees can take more cleansing flights which helps with hive hygiene and makes disease outbreaks less likely

Cons

  • Risk of starvation increases if we don’t keep an eye on them
  • Less likely to be a brood break to help keep varroa numbers down
  • Warm weather encourages bees to fly even though not much forage is available
  • Brood raising and foraging will reduce the usual longer lifespan of winter bees

Any others I’ve missed? Or any you disagree with?

Northern England has been suffering floods, so I know I’m lucky to have only warm weather to worry about. One beekeeper posted on the BBKA Forum “having to do emergency beehive move tomorrow now I can get to the hives, due to flooding and a stream breach……too dangerous to try to get to them before and also had a cowshed 2ft under water to sort out with 30 cows in it, which had to take priority”.  Thirty cows to worry about on top of potentially water-logged bees, can you imagine? At 1.05 on this video you can see a brief clip about the effect the floods had on a York beekeeping business: UK floods.

Cat in a ball

If I could ask my cat Bob what weather he likes best, I think he’d go with warm and cosy please. Me too Bob, me too.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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24 Responses to An unusually warm winter for the bees

  1. Lovely post Emily and nice to see Bob make a guest appearance. I prefer cold winters for the bees to have a break in the cycle of brood, foraging and so on, and also varroa. Although I hadn’t considered that a mild winter gives the bees a head start on spring. One beekeeper at our apiary shook swarmed his hives in late January during the mild winter, so the bees were really ready by the time March arrived!

    Another reason we might be seeing drones around the apiary could be that an overwintering queen has become a drone layer, or perhaps a laying worker. But our bees seem quite content popping in and out, no irritable workers buzzing around, so I’m sure they’re getting along fine. Perhaps they are getting used to the mild winters now?

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    • disperser says:

      In the US, a recent law change requires all drones be registered with the FAA . . . man, I don’t envy beekeepers.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Emily Scott says:

      Was that Alan who did the shook-swarm then? I’m always impressed by how well his bees do. You see these posts on Facebook warning that opening the hive during winter will cause instant death, they shouldn’t be opened up till April etc, but the seasons are changing and weather is so different across the country that I think we have to adapt with what nature sends us.

      Will try to include a few more photos of Bob – shame he’s too far from the apiary to guard the hives!

      Liked by 1 person

      • And so understandable when beekeepers post a question on Facebook hoping for a definitive answer where usually there can only be guidance based on personal experience. If you’re a beekeeper who did open a hive once on a bitter cold winter’s day and it perished soon after then you might feel that way. This is an El Nino year and perhaps the milder winter is a part of that, and keeping bees itself is part of an ongoing discussion. Mmm I wonder if many swarms get reported in winter? This might provide an idea of whether some more active beekeeping is required.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. solarbeez says:

    Another thing to worry about are the wasps. Our past spring started early and so did the wasps. In the 40+ years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen so many of them. Two of my hives were weak and the wasps (yellow jackets) soon took advantage. It was heartbreaking to see them running at will inside the hives. My wife and I got stung several times until we realized where their ground nests were.
    The wasps are good for the garden though. We didn’t have any trouble with the cabbage worms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Scott says:

      Good point about the wasps. I try not to be too hard on them as they eat other garden insects like you say, but it’s difficult to be fond of such a mean creature when they’re harassing your bees. I don’t know whether you’ve come across this Vita Hornet Trap: http://www.talkingwithbees.com/hornet-trap-installed which allows hornets wasps, wax moth and robbers bees in but not back out.

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      • solarbeez says:

        I don’t think my sweetheart would allow any trapping of wasps. When my very first hive got attacked by wasps the bee club ‘heavies’ advised a) pour soapy water into the ground nest to kill them, or b) set out wasp traps. I ran those ideas by my wife who was none too pleased that we would try to kill the native species (wasps) to favor a non-native species (bees). The hive would not have survived anyway (with a laying worker.) We let nature take it’s course.
        A question…one of my beekeeping friends says the wasps don’t eat the honey, they just go after the bees. Is that factual?

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        • Emily Scott says:

          I understand your wife’s feelings! We leave the wasps alone too as they haven’t been a big problem.

          My knowledge of them is limited but I can tell you that if you bring a wet super into the apiary in September and the wasps catch the scent of honey they will go absolutely nuts. There will be wasps circling the supers for hours and they will even strip the wood off trying to get in.

          From what I’ve been told the reason is that in the spring and summer wasp larvae excrete a sugary liquid which the adults feed on. During this time wasps focus on insect prey, including any weak bees. Once the nest starts to produce less larvae and breaks up in late summer/Autumn, they’re no longer getting their sugar fix from their own larvae so turn to sources like decaying apples and honey (if they can get it!).

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  3. I also saw several bumblebees out foraging over the Christmas period, when it wasnt raining!

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  4. Last year I seem to remember you posted about a date in December that (perhaps the Bee Unit?) had been advised as a good date for treating the bees in the U.K. with oxalic acid. This was based on temperature readings of the year. Have you heard any advice for this year? Our bees are bringing in pollen, do you assume breeding or storing? Amelia

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Hi Amelia, you may be thinking of this post – https://adventuresinbeeland.com/2013/12/07/the-great-facebook-oxalic-acid-controversy/ – at the time Dr Karin Alton from the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex recommended between 10th Dec & Christmas for oxalic. I haven’t heard anything different this year.

      You asking this question has caused me to look at the LASI website and left me quite unnerved as I see a new study is to be published tomorrow – http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/?id=33537 – which advises against using the trickle method (which we currently use). “Professor Francis Ratnieks, head of LASI, says that beekeepers should cease using the other two methods (“trickling” and “spraying”, in which a solution of oxalic acid is used) as they are harmful to the bees and less effective at killing Varroa.”

      Not sure whether we can know if the bees are using the pollen for raising young or storing, but in a mild winter it wouldn’t surprise me if they did have brood.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bill Fitzmaurice says:

    Hi Emily

    I think concerns about the temperature this winter are overstated. In my experience, colonies benefit from mild winters and come through into spring as stronger colonies that, weather permitting, have a better chance of gathering a spring crop. They are, however, more likely to make earlier swarm preparations. Colonies consume their stores steadily and need to move within the hive to stay in contact with their food supply. Mild weather makes it easier for the bees to do this so the risk of isolation starvation, when the bees become separated from their food supply, is very much reduced. Colonies also benefit from fresh pollen and from unrestricted sanitation flights. My hives, so far, haven’t lost a great deal of weight, so the only one that’s been given a supply of home made candy is a 5-frame nuc that went into winter with limited stores.

    Who knows what the weather will do over the next couple of months! As always, keep an eye on colonies, learn to heft your hive, treat for varroa in late Dec/early Jan (there will still be a brood break), feed candy as necessary (try making your own) and hope for the best!

    Bill

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Bill. Out of interest, do you think the timing of the brood break (assuming there is one) is more likely to be based on colder temperatures or the winter solstice? Karin Alton in the past has said between 10th to 24th Dec is the time when there is least likely to be brood; as that’s not usually our coldest time of year I assume she said this because those are the days leading up to the solstice.

      I’m happy buying the fondant as it’s sold at the apiary and is less faff for me that way – but then I only have three hives to worry about at the moment.

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      • Bill Fitzmaurice says:

        Hi Emily
        My view is that day length is the most important factor in broodlessness – temperatures here in the UK are usually colder in February but brood nests are by then expanding rapidly. I know LASI has suggested 10 to 24 Dec for OA treatment. In my discussion at the time with researcher, Hasan, he said that he had not measured broodlessness early in January but thought that queens would, at most, only just have started laying, My experience over many years is that colonies are MORE likely to be broodless in early January than in late Dec. I haven’t done a scientific study, but ever since I’ve used OA (lactic acid spray on one occasion), I’ve checked for brood. Hence I always treat around the first week in January. We treated 23 hives today, it was cold enough for every colony to be in cluster. Ideal for assessing size of colony and delivering the OA easily. My main observation was the size of the colonies, definitely as big as last year so, all things being equal, I’d expect another busy year for swarm collectors!
        All the best
        Bill

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        • Emily Scott says:

          Thanks Bill, that is interesting data. There’s an article by a North London beekeeper in this month’s LBKA newsletter comparing the differences between wooden and poly hives, he says “The polyhives are normally broodless from September until late December whereas wooden hives are broodless from October to mid-January. The queen seems to stop and start laying earlier in polyhives than on a wooden hive and polyhives have a smaller initial brood pattern. I therefore did my oxalic acid treatment on 12th December on all my hives this year (rather than at new year as I used to do.”

          It seems like it’s quite hard to predict when colonies will go broodless as even in the same city people are finding different levels of brood when they look in their hives, I guess the only way to know for sure is to check for yourself.

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  6. beatingthebounds says:

    It’s mild here too, though not 16 degrees. Over the Christmas period we found blackthorn in blossom. That’s very, very early. I’d like a proper winter back, snow, ice etc etc.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Yes, me too. Love snow but not ice so much as it makes walking to the supermarket difficult. I once slipped so badly on ice near here that I fell on my back and banged my head. Wouldn’t like to do that while pregnant.

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  7. Hello from Canada. Those are neat fondant bags. I tried making some myself this year from syrup that was unused when the temperature was dropping with mixed success. Do you buy bakers fondant and then put it in the plastic bags? How do the bees have access? Just cut a hole?

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