Amanda's Beekeeping Notes December 2020

Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar

While being largely confined indoors during this second lockdown, I have an inkling of how the bees might be feeling at the moment with the recent wet and windy, but mild, weather. It was apparently the wettest October since 2000 in the SE and although we did have a short spell of dry weather at the beginning of November, recently we have had a lot more rain so I should not have been surprised to see the river valleys of the Ouse and the Cuckmere flooded when I managed to escape from the house on a dry day this week,


The effect on the bees of this warm and wet is various; in terms of disease, food stores and humidity. Firstly, so early in winter the colonies are still large and being confined indoors while it is mild and they are active will result in more interaction. Damaged hairs present an opportunity for viruses to enter, and acarine and diseases to spread. I have never observed acarine in mine despite checking occasionally but there is always a first time, and acarine can kill colonies in winter. This is largely out of our control.

Secondly, being more active in the hive they may be using more food than normal at this time of year. The ideal temperature for minimum use of stores is 5-10°C.  The larger colonies should still be OK until the New Year assuming they were left in Sept/Oct, with the correct quantity of stores for their size. However, nucs and small colonies are unable to store as much and also need to consume proportionately more to maintain their warmth. When I hefted my apidea and smallest nuc mid November they felt significantly lighter than when last hefted, and a quick look while dusting them recently I could not see much in the way of sealed stores at the top of the frames.  I give the nuc a small pot of fondant over the crownboard hole and filled the cavities in the apidea roof with fondant. This was all consumed in 5 days. Unfortunately, once started I shall have to continue for some time or until they feel much heavier. The old advice was that they only use fondant if they needed it; but if you read David Evans’ The Apiarist blog, you will know he feeds his bees only fondant in the autumn and they seem to store it satisfactorily. I personally prefer syrup in September, would not like to rely on fondant although it may be very convenient in Scotland where he is based and the weather probably too cold for syrup, but it does have its uses occasionally, and at this time of year is the only appropriate method of feeding hungry bees. This got me investigating water balance and humidity, which is so important for them to get right in winter.

Thirdly humidity. Honey consumption generates water as a byproduct. Unripe honey or dilute syrup fed late in the autumn can result in the bees having too much moisture. If the weather prevents them going out to defecate, this accumulates in their hindgut. In dry conditions they lose water when respiring but when there is a high relative humidity (damp hive, humid weather, over moist food stores) this moisture accumulates to the point they can no longer feed. Researchers have found when 33% of their body weight consists of faeces they get dysentery and its downhill from there. To reduce the humidity in winter bees fan by ventilating downwards so the moisture condenses below the cluster, maximizing heat recovery and avoiding drips from above. This follows that top ventilation is not a good idea (the bees themselves try to seal up any holes at the top) and insulation above can help them manage heat loss. A further intriguing aspect I discovered was another reason for having brood in winter, apart from having young bees ready to work in the Spring. Rearing brood actually shortens the lives of winter bees and requires greater food consumption to maintain the 35/36°C needed, which increases the water byproduct. However, producing the brood food to feed one larva will effectively unload 3 workers of the excess of water stored in their bodies. Möbus tested this theory and found that colonies prevented from making brood (by caging the queen) developed dysentery within 3-4 weeks and became weaker. The best articles covering these aspects I found from Scientific Beekeeping eg in 3 parts. There is food for thought when stuck indoors while your bees endure the wet weather outside!

The heavy rain will have tested how waterproof the roofs are. Damp hives are something to be avoided at all costs so I checked all mine this week and had to change three roofs which were damp inside where rain was driven in at the corners of the metal lid with a thriving colony of woodlice and a hibernating queen wasp (ejected). Fortunately, it had not yet affected the crown boards.  Any new roofs I make up I add a squirt of silicon sealer into the corners of the metal before nailing it on at the sides. Second hand roofs I have acquired usually do not have this and these damp roofs will get a spell in the boiler room to thoroughly dry, then I shall remove the metal and use sealer in the corners and nail holes before replacing. This last check also revealed a small rapid feeder left on one hive and therefore it had no insulation directly over the crownboard. Oops! thought I had checked all that in October. Oh well, better late than never! Check entrances from now on as bees will be dying and they may build up behind the mouseguards or behind my 5.5mm high entrances, especially if it becomes too cold for normal flying.

I was wondering where my bees were getting the pollen they are bringing in, possibly Mahonia from another garden. I don’t think it is wild scabious still in flower in my meadow, which I have carefully cut round. I tried to find a bee drinking from moss to photograph, but instead found a female glowworm. One or two bees have been drinking so it appears some are still in water deficit rather than water excess mode, that’s a relief!


Enjoy your Christmas, whatever it brings.


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