Amanda's Beekeeping Notes February 2021

Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar

Crocus with bee

As I write this, the sun is shining after Storm Christoph with frost still in the shade, but the colonies in full sun are all out playing even though the shaded ones are not. The crocuses are open and the bees are vigorously collecting pollen from them. On the last dry, sunny day, at ~6°C I was able to confirm what I found on the insert a week or two ago, that most of the colonies were alive and flying. So far so good, except for my little Apidea which has died. I have only once managed to keep an Apidea alive all winter. It depends on many things; weather etc but the principle one is the difficulty in removing varroa, even though I have made a mesh floor for them. I did have to dust it for a moderate level of varroa in November, so it was no great surprise they have succumbed. It is very important, I think, to try to determine why our colonies die, in order to learn from our mistakes. We can expect, from surveys over the last few years in the SE to lose between 9% and 25% of our colonies over winter. As soon as you realize they have died, remove and sterilize or at least block up the entrance until you can, in case disease was involved and other colonies investigate them.

When I examined my Apidea I found just one seam of dead bees clustered on an end frame, with one dead varroa on a bee. There was no recent brood, no queen, no obvious disease and no stores on that or adjacent frames, although the box above was heavy with stores. There was a dead queen wasp on the floor along with half a dozen dead bees. At first glance they died of isolation starvation, but the question should be why had they become so small that they were unable to move up? It would not surprise me if they had suffered losses due to varroa-related disease because a few frames away there were some abandoned perforated brood cappings. But at what stage did they lose the queen, her loss would have prevented them out-growing the problem? Was it because of varroa, disease or did the wasp have a part in it? All too often the death of nucs and small colonies is blamed on isolation starvation, but really it was something else which caused the numbers to fall so low that they could not maintain heat to rear brood or to move to where the stores are.  If you find a dead colony, look at all the forensic evidence, poke around the remains for signs of disease, varroa, stores, queen, brood etc and if still in doubt, take some photos. I am sure there are lots of experienced beekeepers, including myself, who would be happy to look at the photos and offer suggestions as to the cause of death.

Abandoned apidea frame with perforated cappings

As I suggested last time, it is still too cold to inspect bees for a while. Just once in my 19 years of beekeeping has the weather been balmy enough to do a first inspection at the end of February, in 2012, the following year it was too cold until April. Normally I give a first quick look in March, so will discuss first inspections next month. However, now is the time to heft them regularly as the queens should be laying steadily and food requirements could be double what they needed in late November at brood-minimum. Hefting can be difficult to judge, lift each side and the back; I invariably underestimate their remaining stores, give the lightest a small pot of fondant in case, only to find at the first inspection they have loads. Use the insert to determine the location of the cluster. For example, if they appear to be small and on one side and the hefted weight seems to be the other side, it might be an idea to lift the lid briefly on a calm day and move a full frame of stores next to the cluster, or put a pot of fondant over the cluster, moving the crown board so the hole is above them. Better a brief chill than death by starvation in a couple of weeks.


In the news

We have all heard of the cheap honey coming out of China for years, which is adulterated with syrup and drives down the sales and price of honest, real honey.  It is still a big problem in Europe, UK and Mexico from an article I read this month. Tests in 2015 in European indicated 14% of samples of honey imported from China were adulterated, in 2018 in Canada, nearly 22% were. It has been difficult to test a variety of honeys consistently; previously the C4 tests for 4-carbon sugars found in Maize and Sugarcane have been used, but the fraudsters have got round this by using syrup from 3-carbon sugar plants which bees normally collect but also can be obtained in bulk from Sugar beet. So an arms race is happening as different tests are developed and got round.

However, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) is the technology that could change everything. It works by bathing samples in a powerful magnetic field, causing the atoms to resonate. The results are compared with samples of genuine honeys. In trials in the UK in 2018, 10 out of 11 honeys including Tesco own brand (which was selling at £1.35/lb – how can we compete with that?) failed the battery of tests and not one passed all the authentification tests. In 2020, in another trial, none of the samples passed all the other tests and all failed the NMR test. So the technology is there but the UK government FSA and other organisations are delaying for various reasons. Meanwhile genuine, small quantity, honey producers are going out of business in Mexico and probably elsewhere and their land is no longer protected against environmental degradation. I found it an interesting and eye-opening article; read the rest at (paste into browser, the link may not work).

With all this wet, indoor weather, you might be interested in the effect of climate (increasing rain!) on wild bees

Elsewhere some novel research into the publication of 10 million news stories found that there is definitely not enough information getting out about the problems our pollinators are experiencing. They found ~ 1.4% mentioned climate change, just 0.02% referred to pollinators in general and just 0.007% to pollinator declines. So here is some bedtime reading for you all on the causes of decline of insects generally, if we are to inform others and prevent total disaster for the next generation. Of course, the news that neonicotinoid pesticides are to be allowed again is a blow, thank goodness we don’t have much Sugar beet in Sussex.

Finally some research into why queens are failing suggests that the failing queens, which have fewer viable sperm, have higher levels of sacbrood and black queen cell virus and the level of a certain protein lysozyme linked to the immune system. There might be a trade off between maintaining sperm viability or being able to fight off infections, not both. Unfortunately they could not say what was putting such strain on the immune systems of the queens; nutrition, pesticides, disease, but anything we as beekeepers can do to reduce the stresses on our bees, the better.  So lets get all our equipment clean and sterilized before the season starts, replace those dark disease infested combs and use strict hygienic practices such as not transferring supers etc between different colonies. I will be washing my polystyrene apidea in washing soda and then soaking in bleach before using it again.

Sarcococca confusa, just opened, very fragrant. Not sure whether bees visit it, but someone pollinated the flowers last year to produce the black berries



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