Amanda's Beekeeping Notes February 2022

Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar

I watched a National Honey Show video recently, Reading the Hive, by Kirsten Traynor of 2 million blossoms blog:

Often Americans do things in a different way to us and their timing is different. The weather on our little island is a little more variable and unpredictable than theirs and it would be wiser to look at our weather forecasts rather than going by flowering stages to plan shook swarms. Climate change has caused flowering times to alter by several weeks from what they were a decade or so ago. Otherwise she has a lot of very useful comments and tips and is well worth listening to. I was particularly interested that she uses boxes all of the same size, as I do, with the advantage that after honey extraction there are lots of lovely clean drawn frames to replace old brood comb with or help the brood area expand into.

Reading the hive and observing the entrance and asking yourself ‘what are they doing’ and ‘why’ is excellent advice, that way we can become more observant, learn and hopefully improve our bees. At this time of year reading the outside of the hive is about all we can do. According to the BBKA, UK winter honey bee colony losses seem to vary between 10% and 20% so everyone can expect some loss over winter. It is unfortunate if you only have one or two colonies, but if you have about a dozen as I generally do, including a nuc for rescue or replacement, then it is not a problem. In fact it is part of my philosophy of rearing from the best and culling the worst. So it was no surprise to make a decision to cull one last week on the basis of what I had seen at the entrance and on the insert. Culling before they die is so important to prevent spread of disease, and sterilizing equipment and hive stands equally important.

I have been checking the entrances to my colonies regularly all winter but only one colony has had a couple of dead bodies to remove from the entrance each week. However, all these bodies have been adult drones. Their legs and wings have been broken off and they look old and dried up. The full history is useful to determine what might be going on.  They started as a very promising nucleus in 2020, good tempered and expanded fast. There were some dead outside, more than I like, since last June, but low mites until a massive influx in September produced the largest number of varroa dropping (5200) of all my colonies by the end of the oxalic acid vapour treatments, also the odd Deformed Wing Virus pupa thrown out. Temper was variable last year and only 7lb honey crop produced; the lowest in the apiary. I cleaned dead drones off the mesh floor on 20th November. Only 4 seams of brown crumbs were on the insert in December (and only 1 mite after a week) and down to two seams this morning (23.1.22). I saw normal worker brood in September so my first guess was that they have had a virus brewing since the summer and they lost their queen sometime after September because of it. With that, their variable temper and poor crop I decided their number was up.

I was quite surprised when I opened them up this morning, armed with a bucket of soapy water, to find a densely packed cluster of 4+ seams the full width extending into 3 supers, there were eggs and sealed worker brood on at least 2 frames (I dug no further) and plenty of honey/syrup stores. So I reassembled them and they have a stay of execution until I can compare them all inside, in a month or two. I have previously noticed that the lines of brown crumbs on the insert underestimate the size of the cluster, on the rare times I am able to look inside at this time of year, probably because the outer layer of the cluster is insulation bees not actually busy working.  Maybe this one’s housekeeping is just a bit behind, I certainly did not see any drone brood.

Keep monitoring the insert for mites and lines of crumbs indicating they are active and alive. If there is no debris on the insert hold a torch and mirror to see if the mesh floor is blocked, to save getting muddy knees. Hefting is now even more important as stores are used up more rapidly to keep the new brood warm. If you have been obliged to put fondant on, do check it is still moist fortnightly; we have had a period of dry cold weather of low humidity and fondant can go very hard and inaccessible to the bees in these conditions. By the end of February the weather should allow more flying and by then with spring bulbs in flower they should be taking pollen in and brood rearing will accelerate further.


Air pollution, especially diesel fumes and ozone confuses pollinators and reduces pollinators by up to 70%, pollinator visits by up to 90% and pollination by up to 30%.

And elsewhere they have demonstrated that good diverse habitat and diverse pollen supply helps better colony growth in bumblebees and more offspring – but surely as beekeepers we know this already.


the long dead drone


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