Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar
Its time to assess the quality of your colonies based on the notes you have taken throughout the year. Factors such as health (no obvious disease seen during the year), those with lowest varroa, most rapid and sustained growth (need to be healthy to grow well), temperament, honey crop are the most important for me, but the calculation of which is your ‘best ‘ colony is not straightforward and you need to look at all the factors. For example the honey crop is going to be significantly linked to whether you managed to control any swarming they attempted and maintained a large colony. The disease level has been found to be linked to how defensive they are. I will tolerate a certain amount of feistiness in the expectation that it comes with better health and one of many reasons I steer clear of Italian bees and their poor adaptation to our long damp winters. Instead I favour colonies which have hardy native bee habits such as reducing to a smaller compact economical size in winter than Italian strains, yet are willing to fly in winter to collect water and make use of winter flowering shrubs. I have overcome the concern I had in my early beekeeping days when I saw my colony populations rapidly declining in the autumn and staying small in winter, as they make very rapid growth in the spring. Levels of chalkbrood and sacbrood are linked to how regularly you change comb, and how good your beekeeping hygiene is. Swarminess, often linked to low honey crop unless quickly managed, depends on your strain of bee, the space they are given in time ie management technique. I rate highly, those colonies which supersede rather than swarm and have selectively reared queens from those colonies for many years. In my experience beginners’ Buckfast queens seem to want to swarm in their first year, with dire consequences for their confused owners. Although, some of the problem may be that beginners do not recognize the bees’ requirement for more space in time. So by Spring, when I need to hit the ground running, I shall already have decided which my ‘best’ colonies are and that will dictate which method I use to control any swarming attempts and whether to take advantage of any queen cells to make up nuclei.
By now the queens will be laying again, or beginning to lay more in larger colonies which might have had brood all the time. This increases their food usage. The National bee unit sent round a warning concerning stores recently and on Boxing day I hefted all mine. Hefting is not a very accurate method and I find I usually underestimate their stores (better that than over estimating) but it gives an idea. It is difficult to compare colony weights if they have different numbers of boxes on and my roofs have different weights so if one feels too easy to lift, I usually remove the roof and heft again. I try to lift the hives just a few mm off the stand, at one side then the other and then at the rear, as the stores may not be evenly distributed. Several of my larger hives I could not even lift a side off the stand so they have loads of stores. My smaller colonies felt lighter even taking into account they only had a couple of boxes so will keep an eye on them but they don’t need anything just yet. My 5 frame nuc, which I have already given a couple of dollops of pollen substitute to, seemed particularly light so will give it a plastic pot of pollen sub and fondant over the crown hole. Nucs often need a bit of a top up. It is going to be very mild next week and wet and windy but New Year’s Day is threatening a hint of sun and 13 degrees, so I shall earmark that day for feeding it. I shall also lift all the roofs to ensure none is leaking and damp underneath, after all this rain. I regularly check the entrances are not blocked with dead bees, which can happen if the weather is cold or wet for a prolonged period preventing them from doing any housekeeping. I had the insert in for a week recently and was happy to see most had dropped zero or 1 mite in that time.
Although now is not the time to be opening your hives and doing disease inspections, these dark damp days with a perhaps a bit more time on your hands are perfect to revise and refresh your knowledge. It is particularly important if you have not been keeping bees long enough to be confident of what you are seeing when you start opening them in the spring. A good clear video ‘Learn how to diagnose brood disease’ is worth watching, from the Dyce laboratories of Cornell University https://youtu.be/MAnFr0htfOk or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAnFr0htfOk
An international research team have discovered a specific type of gut bacteria in bees that can improve memory in bees. More evidence that diet and the appropriate beneficial gut organisms can influence animal behaviour.
Apart from a few snowdrops and a crocus on Boxing day, the Vibernham bodnantense is in fragrant flower just waiting for a bit of sun for the bees to visit. A large Mahonia Charity is also in flower in my neighbour’s garden and I have at last got round to buying a young plant for my own garden to bring a bit of cheer and pollen at this time of the year. My Coronilla is still in flower and was visited by some queen bumblebees last week. It is of the pea family and I distinctly heard the bee use buzz pollination, which suggests she was after pollen as well as nectar as her tongue was extended.
Happy New Year all.
queen bumblebee performing buzz pollination on Coronilla glauca var Citrina. She might even have collected a bit of pollen on her back leg.