January Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar
Temperatures and clusters
At this time of year, we cannot see what the bees are up to except by observing the entrance or briefly lifting the crownboard. The 20 colonies I am currently looking after are all reacting differently, probably related to their genetic make-up, colony size and disease states. In the course of ridding them of mites by dusting, and therefore opening most of them twice a week in November I have seen some in a tight quiet cluster, others are loosely clustered and active. Some are low down in the hive and I have to take the heavy super off to find them. One large colony is right at the top and is active throughout the top box. It does not feel as heavy as I would like so it is the only one I have put fondant on. Randy Oliver suggests that colonies awake and active under the lid in winter, have a problem, whereas a tight cluster in the lower box are more successful. See colony build up and decline part 13c on his Scientific Beekeeping website. He also suggests that the long lived winter bees are the ones in the outer shell, not doing much apart from insulating the inner. The inner bees, heater bees and those feeding brood will wear out more quickly. The least efficient temperature is 13-16 deg outside, not warm enough to forage, too warm to cluster, but warm enough to have to maintain a brood nest. The last couple of weeks it has generally been between 3 and 8 degrees, so I am hoping they will have been in a quiet, energy conserving cluster. Yesterday (20th December) the weather changed to about 10 degrees and the forecast is this for the next few days. Mine were all noisily flying round their entrances this morning, apart from one which I will take a look in tomorrow. It is a small one which always seems to be in a tighter cluster than the others so I expect they are OK, just have a different light/temperature threshold for activity. Do check the entrances are free of dead bees as they will not have been able to do any housework for a few cold weeks, but will now be trying to tidy up the inevitable casualties and could block the entrance as they have trouble getting them through mouseguards sometimes. Colonies with many mites and viruses may show up with more dead on the floor or in front of the entrance.
Although the recent weather up to now has been rather too cold or wet and or windy to open the bees to do any oxalic acid treatment, I trust you have monitored and know whether they require any mite treatment. The queen will probably at minimum laying level after this cold weather but by mid January, regardless of the weather, she will increase her laying and their food requirements will increase as they will need to generate more heat. So now it is important to monitor food levels by hefting (lifting one side then the other an estimating weight of stores), help them keep the brood warm by putting a bit of insulation over the crownboard, and getting your oxalic treatment done soon if they need it.
Apart from some frames to scrape and boil up and my smoker, most of my equipment is clean and sterilised. I must check through all my drawn supers though, to catch any wax moth.
Research and in the News:
Homebase have finally agreed to stop using neonics on their plants and stop selling them by the end of 2018. All the top ten garden centres have banned them (or will have by end 2018) so don't rush out and buy plants yet!
On 12/13th December EU member states should have voted on whether to extend the ban on outdoor uses of 3 neonics, unfortunately the vote has been delayed until new year now. Meanwhile 88% rivers in the UK have been found to be chronically polluted with neonics, which lingers in the soils so will be years before the levels decrease.
While it has been known for a while that fungicides, esp chlorothalonil (an organochlorine pesticide) act synergistically with insecticides to harm bees, recent research has demonstrated that it specifically relates to increases in the bumblebee pathogen Nosema bombi, and is linked to range contraction of several bumblebee species in the US.
Breaking news; flowers have been found to have heat patterns, which bumblebees and probably other bees can detect. This increases further the sophistication of the relationship between plants and their pollinators. Already known are the electrostatic fields which bees use to navigate round flowers, fragrances and colours and UV ‘honey guides’ plants use to attract their pollinators. All these senses are ones which, apart from colour, we are pretty useless at detecting.
So this month is a rush for me, getting the last of my recycled frames boiled, getting the garden weeded (weather permitting) ready for all the bee flowers I will want to plant, preparing for bee courses and bat care courses starting in Feb, that I hardly have time to stop and admire my snowdrops and crocus, some violets, celandines and hellebores all waiting for a bit of decent weather for the bees to be all over them. The Viburnham tinus and V. bodnantense still have white and pink flowers on respectively. I have seen a lot of bees out gathering water to dilute their stores, rummaging deep in the grass after rain.