The new year always bring challenges and one, for me at least, is changing the format of our website www.norfolkbee.co.uk to a new, more modern style as I am convinced it will not work for some inexplicable reason that I will take an age to fathom out! As it is, the new site is being worked on in the background to get the links and such-like working before the old site is ditched completely. So if the old site goes, then please check back later and with luck technology will be doing as it’s told – unlike bees that don’t always!
If you are looking for a nucleus colony of bees to get you started in beekeeping there are a few ways of doing it. However if you want to start in spring, then the best way in our opinion is to obtain a nucleus colony of locally reared bees that has overwintered. The queen will be from the previous summer and will be in her prime and it’s fair to assume that there is a decent chance of getting a small honey crop in the first season – at least a few kilos for the breakfast table. Of course you could buy bees from national suppliers which are often imported or using imported queens, or you might be able to get a swarm, say by joining your local beekeeping club or association.
However, overwintered local bees are always in short supply and if you don’t secure your bees early, there will be a delay until May or June the current years queens are ready. So contact us or a supplier of your choice and get your name on a list as nucs are usually supplied on a first come first served basis.
Writing this in January, the days have started to get ever so slightly longer and this hasn’t gone un-noticed by the bees – even if we humans are still unhappily getting up in the dark to get to work on time. During this month the queen bee will start to lay or start to increase her brood nest if there is some small amount of brood already. It’s the old bees that have to manage this work – ones that have been in the hive for some months so as they work to move the brood nest up to around 35 degrees and as they feed the young, some will die off so bee numbers in the hive reaches a low point around the end of February; i.e. before there are enough young ones to take over brood-rearing proper. And it’s in February/March when food stores can run out – with disastrous consequences – if the bees were not furnished with enough food during the previous autumn. In some years it’s often well into April before the amount of forage coming in is greater than the food being consumed as the colony munches through it’s stores and tries hard to grow the nest size with a growing amount of brood and young bees and less of the older foragers as these are rapidly dying off.
It used to be that by November 5th or Bonfire Night as we called it, all the leaves were off the trees and as kids we would rake up the leaves to put on the bonfire before lighting it with an effigy of Guy Fawkes; the man that tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, on the top. A month later than that in December 2019, there were still leaves on the trees indicating that the country has warmed up. Does this mean that bees stop brooding in the winter? I don’t usually check but it’s the time of year that colonies should be broodless or have little brood and a good time to treat with oxalic Acid as this treatment only works for the mites that are not in the cells – phoretic mites – as they are called. Once the shortest day is over and we are into January, the queen will start to lay so I took the opportunity to dribble oxalic acid onto my colonies this week to remove as many varroa mites as possible. All colonies were alive which is comforting; even the small nuc shown in the picture below. It’s got an old queen in it and rather than let them die out, I have fixed three mini-nucs together – rather inelegantly I have to admit!
There is an option to ‘vape’ oxalic acid however this is a lot more time consuming and I have trickled the stuff for quite a few years now and I have never seen any harmful effects as have been reported. So if the winter over the next couple of months is mild, there’s a fair chance that the colony will get through. I’ll be checking the weight of all hives by ‘hefting’ over the next few months to ensure they don’t starve and with luck spring will be with us soon!
So, the honey has just about come off now and we are in the process of treating for varroa. With brood in the hives Oxalic Acid is not suitable so our usual product is thymol based treatments – either as Apiguard (Why did they stop selling it in buckets?) or Apilife Var. Neither of these should cause any resistance in the mites, although it does stink and will taint honey. I am not a fan of chemical treatments such as Bayvarol or Apistan as mite resistance develops. Amitraz based treatments are now widely available, and it’s assumed that mite resistance will build up with this product too.
August is a month of very little forage so some colonies – especally nucs – are being fed to get them up to strength for winter.
Honey will not be as much as last year which was a bumper crop for many, I guess I would describe the season as ‘average’ – but I’ll know more when the process has finished and I do a count-up.
Bees swarming is a natural thing and although beekeepers can breed from their less swarmy bees, not all do. However colonies will swarm, even with the best bred bee. I was called to look at some bees by a gardener who found bees flying out of a concrete box on the grass which was hiding some gas pipes. Here’s a couple of pictures from what is generally called a “cut out” where the colony had comb and brood already in the cavity they made their home. What seems to work is putting existing comb into frames and fixing them in with masking tape. It sounds easy but it can be a bit awkward to do. If the bees are well-behaved, as these ones were, it helps! After a couple of weeks the tape has been chewed through, by which time the comb has been well and truly fixed to the frame. Simples!
As usual I receive calls concerning swarms. More often than not, it’s bumblebees that I am called about and my advice is to leave them be. They do no damage and will disperse in late summer or autumn. This year I have been asked to collect a couple of honey bee swarms. They are generally well-behaved to start with and their behaviour – or temper – exhibits itself after a couple of weeks or so. One turned out to be more lively than I would like so they currently have a virgin queen in from one of my own. The second was hived OK and after a few days a quick check revealed that there were eggs in the hive so I had a mated queen in there. After a week I opened up and started to look through the colony. After the third frame I noticed something rather odd. A dead queen that looked like it was hiding – or trying to – under some comb. Amazingly she was a big laying queen – but with her sting chamber open as you can see. I can only assume that she was in a fight and lost. But who with? Did a virgin go with the colony when it swarmed? Was the swarm actually two together, both with mated queens? Very unlikely that idea. Did a virgin or newly mated queen fly in from a mating flight? Or did she just swell up after dying? In any case I will have to look in a few days and see what’s going on. Here’s a photo of her.
Answers on a postcard please!
The weather has been kind enough and queens have started to come into lay. Usually it’s in the smaller colonies and mini-nucs that the queens start to lay in first. One colony appeared to be queenless – and checked by a test-frame to confirm*. Another has, I suspect after a quick look, a drone laying queen. Never an easy one to find, I will need to spend time looking for her.
And some new grafts have been distributed; the queens should emerge in a day or two.
*You can check for queenlessness by inserting a test-frame from another colony. The test-frame needs to have eggs/young larvae from which the colony could make a queen. If there is no queen present, the bees will start to draw emergency queencells. More information on how to check is here
Mating is never 100% reliable which is why having just one colony can result in disaster. Having a second one allows the beekeeper to pop in a test-frame so the colony can make another queen or unite the queenless colony to the queenright one and then split them later on in the season. Note that unless there are disease issues, you can put in a test-frame and always remove it and put it back if, for example, you have only a small second colony that can’t really afford to lose the test-frame.