A sure sign that the beekeeping season is ending is when you finally ‘winterise’ your beehives; helping the bees through the winter months.
Bees don’t hibernate over winter, they cluster together inside the hive keeping warm and snacking on the honey they have produced over the summer. They have survived for millions of years without beekeepers but there are some things we can do to make their lives a little easier.
Across the front of the hives we place metal strips with holes drilled in them – called mouse guards. You don’t need to be a beekeeper to quickly grasp what these do. Mice like warm places, ideally with food – a wooden hive is both warm and has lots of food available. As surprising at it may sound mice can live in a beehive with the 10,000 winter bees snacking on both the honey and indeed the bees.
Oi!!!! mousy stay out!!!
The holes in the mouse guard are big enough for the bees to get in and out but just small enough to stop Mickey and his mates getting in.
Woodpeckers are a problem as well, Green ones in particular. The birds eat insects and some learn that these small, square and leafless trees have thousands of tasty bees inside; all they have to do is drill a hole to have lunch. To protect the hives, we wrap them in wire, keeping the woodpeckers at bay.
This transformation from charming beehives to something akin to a high security penitentiary is somewhat depressing to me. It means that the season is over and I’m making that transition from keeping bees to listening and talking about bees as I attend as many winter talks held by my local associations as possible
Most groups hold monthly meetings with guess speakers over the winter months, if you’ve never attended one I urge you to do so. Not only do you pick up all sort of useful tips and tricks but you also widen your circle of friends – which is never a bad thing.
As I wrapped my beehives in steal and wire two things cheered me up. Firstly there were bees still bringing in bright yellow pollen, a good indication that the colony was is decent shape.
Winter bee bringing in pollen
I was also, rather surprisingly, reunited with my long lost hive tool!
Behold - my lost hive tool!
I cannot express how delighted I was to find this, my first hive tool. The tool I cracked my first hive open with and that supported me through countless inspections. I lost it last year and at every inspection since I mourned its lost. Amazingly as I finished wrapping my hive in a winter coat of wire I spotted a glint of yellow under the hive floor and there it was my long lost friend
I’m taking this as a good omen for next season.
The Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) is one of many imported pests which plague European beekeepers. It landed in France early 2004 after a single queen caught a ride on pottery from China, from this lone queen the hornet has expanded across seventy percent of the country. Following rivers, it has migrated north into Belgium and Germany. Recently its southern migration has been confirmed with the hornet being found in Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Although smaller than our own European hornet the Asian’s hunting method of catching foraging bees returning to the hive can weaken the hive far more significantly that the odd foraging bee a European hornet may catch in the field.
There is also a risk to humans as the hornets build large nests, up to one meter in diameter, and are highly aggressive. This has led to many parts of the tabloid press inevitably labeling them ‘killer hornets’. The media often mistakenly printing pictures of the World’s largest hornet, the giant Asian hornet, alongside these articles. – I guess they look scarier.
Asian Hornet courtesy of http://www.nationalbeeunit.com : Giant Asian Hornet courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/justinlindsay/
As an English beek I know it is inevitable that these will one day make their way across the channel and become another problem I’ll have to deal with. However, research recently published demonstrates the impact of a lack of genetic diversity within the Asian hornet population – who all share the same mother from the original French landing in 2004.
The life cycle of a hornet colony can be split into two phases: growth and reproduction. From spring to the middle of autumn the hornet concentrate on building the colony producing predominantly workers. From autumn the colony starts to raise queens and male drones. Unlike honey bees the original queen dies in the colony at the end of the season but the young mated queens hibernate over winter then go on to establish new colonies in the spring. This research found two things:
- That Asian hornet colonies in Europe are raising male hornets far earlier that they are normally expected to do in their native habitat. Like honey bee drones, males do not contribute to the growth of the colony. The consequence of this is that the colony is expending resources unnecessarily creating males; this can limit colony development.
- It was also found that the males produced early in the season where diploid (for a primer on bee genetics go here) meaning they have a two sets of chromosome rather than the normal single set. Diploid drones are a common problem in heavily inbreed honey bee populations but are rare in wild populations with normal genetic diversity. Diploid drones are less productive in terms of reproductive performance. They have such a negative effect on colony performance that within honey bee colonies the workers will destroy any diploid drones they discover.
This phenomenon is well known as inbreeding depression in which a population which breeds extensively with its direct relatives becomes weakened and less competitive. One of the more famous examples of this in Britain is the plight of the moss carder bumblebee. In 2000 a study carried out at the University of Stirling demonstrated that the isolated populations of these bees lead to infertile males.
The Asian hornet will continue to be a challenge to beekeepers across Europe and undoubtedly at some point British beeks as well.
However, it nice to know they have their own problems as well.
I wonder. Is it only my Queens that seem to stop and have a rest at the end of September?
I’ve noticed over the last few years that this end of season holiday appears to be what my 13 year old son would call ‘a thing’
It is common for Queens to go off lay during varroa treatments such as apigaurd or MAQS. But, I’ve noticed it isn’t uncommon for the Queen to go off lay naturally just before the Ivy flow begins. You can’t really blame her, she’s been working damn hard since April and the poor gal deserves to kick back and relax for a while.
But. Whilst her highness is perusing the bee edition of Vogue her keeper may be losing their mind.Those lucky to be blessed with a well marked and easy to find Queen begin to take on mannerisms of a expectant father; pacing, wringing of hands and heavy smoking persist until pearly white eggs are spotted glinting at the bottom of cells.
For the unlucky, cursed with an elusive and hard to find Queen it is a much more fraught experience. Feelings of doubt, worry and even panic can plague the poor Beek. This time of year many people are asking for spare Queens only the find theirs chilling out in the hive a few days later. Until recently I was firmly in the panicky chap camp.
I would like to claim that this insight as my own. That I, in a masterful piece of beekeeping analysis reviewing my meticulous records came to this Sherlock Holmes-like deduction.
I didn’t - one of the more senior association members at my bee club explained this little nugget of beekeeping goodness over some tea and cake.
It’s amazing how much I learn discussing bees over tea and cake – I wonder if it is alchemy?
When I first started beekeeping I was sure that there was a system, a methodology, some list of stuff I would have to do at predetermined times during the year. My adherence to this mystical list would result in a happy, productive and the calmest hives since Roger Patterson last popped a crown board.
What a numpty I was to think such a thing!
“bees don’t read books” - it’s a saying you hear often when recounting your latest beeking woes to friends, typically followed by knowing chuckles.
Although beekeeping does have a number of important activities which must be carried out during the season: disease monitoring, pest management and swarm control; it is more a tactical process than a strategic one.
Choosing the most appropriate tactics to overcome the many challenges keeping bees throws at you during the year is at the heart of the art of beekeeping.
Based on my experiences this season I’m going to be retiring some methods I’ve been using for the last few years:
- Artificial swarms – this is swarm control method I was taught when starting. I’ve had awful luck with it this year and compared to simply moving the old Queen into a nuc when I find swarm cells, artificial swarms are lot of box juggling for little benefit.
- MAQS strips – these are a great tool for Varroa control. However; I’ve found whilst strong hives can handle the treatment weaker ones can suffer. Next year I’m going to try some of the thymol treatments again so I can compare.
When I was a child my Mum would often say to me “you eyes are bigger than your tummy” as I piled roast potatoes onto my Sunday dinner plate. This weakness bit me on the arse this year when I took on two extra apiaries to help some people out. I like playing with bees so jumped at the chance to rummage in other peoples toy boxes.
Sadly my spare time wasn’t as accommodating as my enthusiasm. Keeping bees with no spare time turns into a frustrating series of dashes between sites over the weekend. I’ve managed to pass on one of the sites which should mean next year I return to a more relaxed hobby.
Next year I’m going to start learning how to raise queens using the grafting method. Spare queens raised from my own stock is very appealing to me and it’s something I’m keen to invest time into mastering.
As the season starts to wind down I’ve treated all my hives, fed them up and in the next few weeks I’ll be slapping the mouse guards on. My local association runs some great winter talks and if you’ve never attended any of these talks, I know a lot of people don’t bother, you should really make the effort.
Listening how other people manage their bees keeps me inspired during the winter and often influences my plans for the following season.
I’ve had a somewhat unfortunate start to the season. I’ve lost one hive and two artificial swarms have failed to produce a new queen. It has got me thinking about how I manage swarms and queens going forward.
I’ve reached the conclusion I’m probably done with artificial swarms. This was the swarm control technique originally taught to me when I started beekeeping and I’ve stuck to it ever since. It is still popular with many of my beekeeping chums but maybe just because I like a simple life I’ve found the box jungling becoming increasingly tedious. The nucleus method in which the old Queen is rehomed with bees and some stores requires fewer pieces to me moved around. I’m a huge fan of the Payne’s poly nucs, they are cheap and with the recent additions of feeders, broad as well as super boxes very flexible.
it has become painfully apparent to me that hanging your hopes of requeening on swarm control provides enormous scope to be disappointed. This year two of my hives have failed to raise a new queen. this has left me with the choice of buying a queen, putting more young broad into the next and hoping for the best or simply uniting them with a stronger hive.
With this in mind I’ve decided next year I’m going to start raising my own queens. I’ve seen several demonstrations as well as attended talks about the mysterious art of breeding bees; frankly it’s all been akin to black magic to me. However; the advantages raising your own queens provide is undeniable. The ability to replace failing or lost queens with daughters from queens proven to perform well on your own apiaries gives options which are invaluable.
To this end I’m going to be researching queen rearing over the winter break and acquiring the appropriate equipment. As one of my association members who is a keen queen raiser pointed out to me beekeepers have practically unlimited access to the raw materials to raise new queens. So there is plenty of opportunity to get it right.
I’m both exciting and nervous to start this next stage of my hobby.
Beautiful picture credit – https://www.flickr.com/photos/napafloma-pictures/