Spring cleaning at the apiary

In the past few weeks Ealing beekeepers have been busy improving the association apiary and preparing the bees for spring. Tom has been running easy-going monthly volunteering sessions fuelled by plenty of tea; jobs done so far have included pruning, cleaning, removing rubbish, organising the storeroom, putting in new fencing and planting wildflowers.

Below you can see the muscles getting stuck in to turn over the soil, ready for wildflower planting.

Digging

After the heavy work had been done, Elsa and I put down a mix of seeds and sawdust Tom had brought along. Then Kathy raked the top soil over to stop the seeds blowing away. Since the photo was taken Tom has put a lovely log border round the plot so that people don’t keep walking over the soil. It will be exciting when the flowers start coming up!

Raking seeds

Last weekend John Chapple and Alan Gibbs demonstrated a shook-swarm on a couple of colonies at the apiary, which a large group of beginner beekeepers came down to watch. Changing brood combs annually by doing a shook-swarm or Bailey comb exchange is a mandatory requirement for colonies kept at the association apiary. It’s a spring-clean for the bees, helping to combat diseases like AFB, EFB and nosema by removing the old brood comb and giving the bees fresh foundation to build from. Doing a shook-swarm also helps with varroa control.

Jonesy’s colony was small, so he shook-swarmed it into a poly nucleus hive to help the bees keep warm. You can see the nuc and new foundation frames on his right.

Jonesy shook-swarming

Once the queen and the rest of the colony have been safely transferred onto the new frames of foundation, the old brood frames and any brood can be burnt, killing off any varroa lurking in the brood in the process. Unless a nectar flow is on, colonies should always be fed with strong 2:1 sugar syrup so that they can draw out new comb. Below you can see Pat’s burner consuming the old brood frames, with Tom’s nice log border in the foreground.

Pat's burner

Pat’s burner

Emma and I inspected last weekend and found that Peppermint and Melissa’s colonies were weaker than usual at this time of year. They had very little brood and we weren’t confident that they would cope well with a shook-swarm, so we have decided to postpone comb changing till after Easter, when we will probably use the gentler (but more time-consuming and non varroa ass-kicking) Bailey comb exchange method. For anyone interested, information on both methods is available from the National Bee Unit’s Beebase fact sheets – see the ones on ‘Shook swarming’, ‘Care of colonies after shook swarms’ and ‘Replacing old brood comb’.

You may have seen Emma’s post last week, ‘The decay of spring‘, where she talked about the sad loss of one of our colonies recently. Pepper’s dead bees were found clinging to frames containing a small amount of very crystallised, hard honey – when a cold snap hit us in February it seems the colony just didn’t have enough energy to keep themselves warm.

In hindsight perhaps we should have given them less space overwinter – this time we left two supers of honey on, whereas usually we’ve left only a single brood box or brood box and one super. The larger the hive space, the more energy it takes the bees to keep warm. It also meant the cluster was further away from the soft fondant block over the crown board, which might have been easier for them to eat in cold weather than the crystallised honey.  This is the first time I’ve lost a colony since I started beekeeping in autumn 2008. I have been very lucky not to have lost any bees before – lucky and also I’ve benefited from great advice given by more experienced Ealing beekeepers. It is sad but you learn from it and hopefully avoid making the same mistake next time.

To end on a cheerier note, here are some pics of local bees visiting cherry laurel and crocuses. Cherry laurel pollen is the same creamy colour as its flowers, while crocus pollen is orange.

Tomorrow I will be 38 weeks pregnant, so the baby could arrive very soon! Amazingly both my bee suits still fit 🙂 Afterwards I plan to continue beekeeping, but Emma has kindly said she will do most of the inspecting this year. I hope to join her for inspections once or twice a month and will continue updating this blog. It will remain a blog about beekeeping rather than babykeeping, but occasional baby pictures may be included!

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!
This entry was posted in Colony management, Disease prevention. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Spring cleaning at the apiary

  1. disperser says:

    Best wishes for a smooth transition to beekeeping mother.

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  2. Rachel says:

    Looking forward to some baby pictures! All the best. X

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  3. How many hives are there in the apiary? There seem to be rather a lot from the picture. One of my frequently uttered phrases is that, apart from the beekeeper, the worst enemy of a hive of bees is another hive of bees! Left to themselves, given a choice of suitable cavities, they tend to space colonies about half a mile apart. I’m sure you’ve read Tom Seeley’s advice on the subject.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Not all the hives are occupied, but let’s see… I think twelve colonies now. An elderly member sadly died recently and his hives were brought down to the apiary, so that increased the numbers. I agree, hives spaced apart would be better for the bees, but in London the available sites are restricted. I only have a tiny shared garden so keeping bees at home is not an option for me.

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  4. A little honey baby – perfect! Take care! Love c

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  5. Barny says:

    Best wishes for the new arrival. Exciting times.

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  6. The Apiarist says:

    Perhaps climate change has resulted in Ealing having much better weather than I remember from my days in North London, but it still seems very early to be doing a shook swarm. I’d certainly be waiting until there were good numbers of new young bees for comb building before I started … and the colony in the picture with Jonesy (?) looks very small indeed.

    Shared apiaries can be a bit problematic, compounded by the variable quality of beekeeping colony density. The compulsory comb change is a good idea and the help available for beginners probably outweighs the issues with disease transmission. However, the brood break benefits may be transient unless all colonies are dealt with together because of drifting (http://theapiarist.org/the-drifters/) between infested and uninfested colonies … which probably explains the wide spacing between the feral colonies Tom Seeley studies in the Arnot forest (referred to by Chris Slade above).

    I know that bee suits are ‘generously cut’, perhaps to help save the blushes of some of the more generously proportioned beekeepers, but still fitting at 38 weeks is pretty extreme. Best wishes for the new arrival.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      In Ealing most of us do the comb change in March/April each year, with the exact timings adjusted depending on the weather and free time. It probably would be more effective to do all the colonies simultaneously, but as they are owned by several different people some flexibility has to be allowed, everyone has different schedules. I can’t remember any of the colonies being lost after a shook-swarm and most bounce back very quickly. I’m not worried about getting honey, but for those beekeepers that are, delaying the shook-swarm too far into April/May can affect honey crops.

      Buying generously cut bee suits is definitely worth it… a loose fit makes it harder for the bees to sting you, as well as accommodating growing baby and beer/cake bellies 🙂

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  7. Mark says:

    I find the annual comb change an interesting idea. It would never be universally accepted here. There’s always argument about the enegetic cost to bees to draw new comb, beeks who will never feed syrup and so on. It’s a moot point for me, however, since my hive is going to a new home and I’m hanging up my suit. I’ll continue to read some bee blogs because I’ll always find the art interesting. Best of luck with your own little brood!

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Mark. Sorry to hear that you’ll be hanging up your suit. I have noticed that US beekeeping practices are quite different sometimes and using very old brown/black comb is considered ok if there have been no EFB/AFB outbreaks. With regards to the energy required by the bees, in the wild bees swarm more often and older comb naturally breaks off within nests, so the bees would be regularly drawing out new comb. Creating new comb will slow their honey production, but I’d rather that than lose the colony to disease. For beekeepers who are really against feeding syrup, they could carry out the shook-swarm during a nectar flow.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s very good to plant wild flowers, what did you choose?
    Best wishes for the birth of your baby.

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  9. I really like to see the bees visiting crocus. It is why I plant the flower for those early visitors. Not much else is available around our parts at this time of year.

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  10. mcfwriter says:

    I was thinking the same thing (early in the year for shook-swarm and even inspections) but it’s still very damp and chilly here in Seattle.
    Best wishes with your new baby! There are so many cute bee-themed baby items – I’m sure he’ll be outfitted properly!

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  11. Exciting times, when the moment comes – relax and think about bees.
    I had not realised until now that in the U.K. you change all the brood combs. It is so different to what is taught over here and written in our text book. Here they advise to change the brood combs every three years. It seems tough on the bees to have to start anew every year but I understand the theory now and I now understand what you mean by shook swarm. In fact, it is as if you are starting from a new swarm every year.
    I am looking forward to seeing the results of the seeds at the apiary.
    Amelia

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    • Emily Scott says:

      “relax and think about bees” – thank you Amelia, that made me chuckle! It may well work! I plan to take some of my bee books to the hospital with me as a distraction 🙂

      Not all UK beekeepers change their brood combs annually… we all do things differently and some people will go many years without changing their combs. But the National Bee Unit inspectors do recommend annually. Left to their own devices in the wild, colonies usually swarm annually, so as long as they have sufficient food and warmth building new comb from scratch is a situation they’re ready to cope with. The Asian honey bee swarms/absconds more frequently than Apis mellifera, which is one of the reasons it copes better with varroa.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It does make me think how much pressure beekeepers can exert on their hives by always pushing for the maximum return of honey. By changing the combs annually this would necessitate large colonies (or combined small ones) to draw out enough brood comb before putting on a super and so delay and reduce honey collection. It would be more expensive to change combs annually but we do not intend to sell our honey so perhaps this is a better idea.

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        • Emily Scott says:

          It does depend on your priorities and also how many hives you have, for beekeepers with a large number of hives I can see why they wouldn’t want to spend time changing combs annually. It is more expensive but the outlay is not huge – here about £1.30 – £1.50 a frame to buy them from major suppliers or less if you go foundationless. With eleven brood frames per colony that is a small price to pay compared to buying in new bees if you lose a colony to disease.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. So happy to hear your news!

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  13. thelivesofk says:

    Thank you, Emily, yet again for a very informative blog.
    As Amelia has mentioned earlier, here in France the recommendation is to replace about three frames each year so that in three years we have a complete new set of frames. I write the date with indelible pen on each frame.
    I wish you and the baby all my very best and hope that your bees gain their strength as the weather improves. – Kourosh

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks very much Kourosh. Replacing a few frames at a time is easier, but the advantage of replacing all the combs at once is that there is less potential transfer of diseases such as nosema spores between the old and new combs. I also write the date on the top of each frame, as I’m very forgetful!

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  14. Wendy says:

    That is interesting about your apiary’s preparations for the new season, especially as I’m thinking about a shook swarm soon. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of the colony.
    This is exciting news about the baby. All the best Emily and look forward to seeing the baby pics (as well as all your future bee-posts!) Take care x

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  15. Emily, what is the coldest temperature in which a honeybee can fly? Is it true “at temperatures below about 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) the bee will lose heat faster than it can generate it and will become unable to fly. Below about 50 degrees F (10 C) the bee will become comatose and eventually die.” My friend saw honeybees at 40°F nectaring on snowdrops. I thought honeybees don’t generally go out to forage below 50°F. We need your advice and answer.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Hi Donna, I’m away from my reference books at the moment, but I know that around 12-13C is the minimum temperature for nectar collecting – because most plants don’t produce nectar at lower temps than that. Pollen is produced at lower temperatures and I have seen honey bees foraging for snowdrop and crocus pollen at lower than 10C. They can raise their body temperature to fly by shivering their flight muscles. However honey bees are not as hardy as bumbles, which will forage with snow on the ground.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Shane Floyd says:

    I love your blog! I just cannot wait till we are able to get bees on our homestead. So in the meantime I will live through your posts 🙂 Come on by sometime: https://floydfamilyhomestead.com/

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