Amanda's Beekeeping Notes February 2020

Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar

Firstly, I hope none of your bees suffered or drowned in Storm Brendan and the heavy rain a few days later. Last month I mentioned threats to all pollinators being climate change, pesticides and habitat loss; I should have included other threats being the way we manage our honey bees and pests and disease; I address that now.

While the weather was very mild for several weeks; I had only rare opportunities for checking on colonies because it was so wet and windy. Now we are in a bright, dry spell but I am probably even less able to check them than before because it is so cold with it and I wish I had made more use of the 12 deg C days. I did manage to investigate the colony with drones, which I mentioned in my last article.  I am sure even beginners will know that drones in the middle of winter spells bad news. Deformed wing virus (DWV) may indicate high varroa, although in this case was a legacy rather than actual varroa as they were mostly removed by the Oxalic Acid vapourisation in November, but DWV can kill a colony without varroa being an issue. Fortunately, I only saw two DWV drones. Drones can either mean queen loss and subsequent drone laying workers, or a poorly mated queen laying unfertilized eggs. Last year this colony had been trying to supersede from before I was given it in early July until late August when I saw some eggs at last. My mistake was not checking a few weeks later that it was in fact normal worker brood as I could have merged it then, but maybe she reverted to drone laying later as there were a good number of worker bees present and only a few adult drone even though the brood was now all drone. It was clear from the brood pattern that it was a drone laying queen and I quickly found and removed her and merged the colony on top of a strong nuc next to them on 27th December.

If you follow the blog called The Apiarist by David Evans (who is writing this year’s BBKA News, Readers Questions Answered) you will have seen the blog in January was about queen mating, polyandry and colony fitness (basically the more drones she mates with the better) and he reminds us that queens mating in as early as July to early August may suffer from reducing drone availability and those drones which are around are ageing and may not be up to the job, so that was probably what happened here.

I have hefted all mine and found them heavy and had the inserts in for a week around the new year and now have a good idea of size and mite drop (mostly zero) and have estimated the percentage reduction in size since my last full inspection end of August. I was delighted to see some of my nucs were the about same size. One colony felt lightish, had the greatest size reduction and I noticed a single drop of dysentery on the insert; all symptoms of concern. I inspected, knowing things were probably bad and sure enough I found drone laying workers, although they had plenty of stores. So culled them, and will sterilise everything. They had had the worst Chronic Paralysis Virus in the summer and may not have got over it completely.  One discrepancy became apparent after assessing the colony size from the seams of debris on the insert. This drone laying colony indicated 4 seams from the debris, had 4 highly agitated seams when opened. Another colony appeared to have suffered quite a size reduction, although otherwise symptom-free, had debris indicating 5 seams; on opening there were 7 calm seams and healthy brood. I realise the outer insulating layer of bees are not working the seams and so produce no debris, so maybe healthy clusters are larger than they seem (seam – sorry, pun!).

If you suspect a colony has a problem; please check it and cull before it has a chance to die or drift to other colonies or others rob it when the weather warms up and sterilize the equipment and sterilize or burn the frames before other bees have an opportunity to access it. I saw some research recently and they found that 63% of the flowers visited by honey bees have honey bee parasites on them and 78% of wild bees which visit these flowers have honey bee parasites and diseases. Cull sick colonies before this can happen, especially if you are someone who does not treat. Otherwise you are doing no-one any favours. Try to analyse what killed them so you can learn for next time. I have lost two so far and am satisfied I understand why. I am happy to look at photos of comb if you like. I saw someone’s colony recently, which had appeared to die of isolation starvation – but it had been very large last year; very small when it died; had two supers of stores; there were dysentery spots on the frames, brood cells were empty and dead bees all over the floor. (Four floors I have checked so far in my apiary have been spotless; no dead bees.) My interpretation is that they had a disease; probably a virus; killing bees; the rest too weak or depressed to clean them out.  The cluster reduces to a size below the threshold for survival and is unable to move to the stores and the survivors eventually die of starvation. I am aware of a number of new beekeepers’ colonies, which have died of Parasitic Mite Syndrome because the mite load was allowed to get too high. New Year’s resolution anyone? Monitor, monitor and treat if when necessary.

In the last few days I have had a huge boil up of frames, which I have spent the last few weeks scraping clean – I got a bit behind at the tail end of last year. Still more to do though, plus the culled colony and I should be able to remove a further 5 boxes of dark comb for recycling at the first inspection as my bees move up into their stores (the advantage of running on one frame size!). I have been through my records and know which colonies I shall rear queens from. It is time to get supers ready, with wax foundation put in at the end of February as mid March normally sees some of mine requiring a super.

A satisfying mountain of clean frames

This article has been mainly about disease – I am sorry - but things are looking up; my snowdrops and crocus are out in the sun. Most of my bees seem to be more interested in collecting water still but on 19th Jan I saw two colonies taking in pollen. It is going to be a bit cold for the next few weeks, just as their brood rearing increases, so I have put some extra insulation on the nucs this week to help them. One thing I must do before March is to make up new solitary bee tubes from canes. The old canes sealed with cocoons inside I shall transfer to a nuc box to hatch out, which I shall put near the new cane containers in early March. This is because they accumulate parasites (parasitic flies and beetles can kill most of them; parasitic bees I can live with) and it is best to give them new canes every year, and as soon as they are sealed with young solitary bee brood then put them in fine mesh or stockings to prevent the parasitic insects getting to them and keep them in a cool place until March when the mesh is removed and they are allowed to hatch out.

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