Clare's Bee Blog

Sunday March 25th

Still feeding the bees! We are running out of fondant and so have switched to feeding them inverted sugar syrup. We are using improvised feeders so that the food is easily accessible to them. I was concerned that some of the colonies wouldn’t make the journey up into a rapid feeder as sometimes they need a bit of encouragement to use these. I don’t trust contact feeders when the temperature is fluctuating so much as sometimes the vacuum is breached and they flood. I didn’t want to put frame feeders in because it would have meant fiddling around in the brood box in order to get it close to the nest………………….so!

You can buy bags of food like this with Ambrosia or Invertabee already loaded in it but as we have made our own from strong sealable plastic bags filled with syrup. We placed these on the crown boards (empty super also) and pricked lots of tiny holes in it with a mounted needle. A compass point or any other sharp pointy instrument will do the trick such as plastic mounted drawing pin. Peter Guthrie who sells us the syrup uses the” crown of thorns” queen cage used to trap the queen on the comb for marking her.

The bees were up gobbling up the last of their fondant but some of them went instantly to the syrup bag. We had squeezed it a little to release a bit of the syrup onto its surface. It was amazing to watch them stick their proboscis into the little holes so that they could suck up the sweet liquid. Clever girls!

I think that we have some more cold weather on the way and I feel relieved to know that the bees have had a chance to get some food stashed in the combs close to any brood which they may have started.

Sunday 11th of March

Rain is pouring down and I’m just about to go out to pop some fondant on the bees in the Home Apiary. A quick peek under the roofs this morning revealed that some of them had finished the stuff Martin and I put there last Tuesday.

If you are a beekeeper check your colonies for food and that they have access to it. What do I mean by that?  Make sure that they have their food stores near to the brood nest and that this food is not just Ivy honey. We lost a colony (Clare she was called) due to isolation starvation last week. Her brood nest was in the bottom box. The super above this, which had previously been full of stores, was completely empty apart from some ivy honey. We had put fondant on the crown board above this as an insurance but the bees would not leave the brood nest to access the fondant in the extreme cold. The brood was sealed and needed a layer of bees on it to incubate it and these bees needed food to keep warm. The queen was among them. They all went together and it was a pitiful discovery which left me feeling very sad. 

How has this situation arisen? Probably a combination of factors as always is the case when tragedy strikes.
This is what I believe happened: because we have had a mild winter (until the Beast from the East hit us) many colonies have got a bit ahead of themselves and have more than a bit of sealed brood. This is comparable to the very early frog spawn. Then the freezing temperatures came from Russia and both the bees and the frogs were caught out. I hear that many frogs and their spawn have perished. Most colonies have been okay but of the ones which died the scenario was the same: the brood nest was remote from the food and the colony was too small to span both areas. We left plenty of food on the bees and supplemented this by feeding them syrup. I reckon that each colony had a full super of stores (around 40 lbs in our Langstroth boxes). In a straight forwards winter this would have been perfectly adequate and any shortfall would be taken up by fondant supplements placed on the crown board.  However, the bees have been pretty active this winter because it has been relatively mild for the most part and brood rearing began early. This means that stores have been used up more quickly. Fondant feeding should have helped (and has actually helped most colonies) but one or two of them have fallen through the safety net because they have got cut off from their food supplies.

So what now? If I can see the bees feeding on the fondant, I feel that she is doing okay but am taking care to replace it as soon as it is nearly gone. If I suspect that any super is empty or ivy bound (dig your hive tool into the top of a super frame without taking it out- if it is solid white honey, it’s ivy) I will remove them so that fondant supplements will be close to the bees and so they won’t have to traverse a distance in order to get it. Smoke any bees down and take it off. Alternatively, you can scratch this up with your hive tool and wet it with water so that the bees can use it. They will not take syrup until the temperature warms up but a colony which has become moribund due to starvation will recover if you spray them with warm syrup or drizzle it over and around them.

The following was the advice given out by the national bee unit in 2013. I believe that this advice it very pertinent now.

March 2013 - Starvation Risk from Cold Weather 
March 2013 Starvation Risk. Important Information about Colony Food Levels.
With the continued poor weather looking to persist through to the end of March, colonies may be starting to run out of food (if they haven’t already). It would be advisable to check the food levels by opening the hive and making a very quick observation on their store levels. Key points to remember are:

• The colony may still have stores available which are at the other end of the brood chamber to the cluster of bees. If there are ‘empty’ frames between the two then the bees could still starve, despite food being in the chamber. Move the frames of food directly next to the outer frame where the cluster resides, ensuring that you score each frame of food (not excessively, but enough to stimulate feeding). Be sure not to knock or roll the bees when doing this and to be as quick as possible.
• If the colony has little or no frames of food then give them a block of candy or fondant. You want to aim for about 2.5 kg per hive and although this may seem to be a great expense, it is far less than the money you will have wasted should the bees die.
• Mini plastic bags that are used to store loose fruit in from the supermarket are perfectly acceptable for holding the fondant and cost nothing. Pack the candy in the bag and then pierce holes in the appropriate place once you get to the hive. If the bag seems fragile then you can double bag it (just be sure to pierce both bags).
• At this time of the year we would usually start feeding sugar syrup but with these temperatures it is still too cold. Place the fondant directly above the bees, turning the crown board if necessary so that one of the porter bee escape holes is above the cluster.

Please be aware that this should be done as quickly and carefully as possible and although it may seem too cold to open the hive now, it is far better to do so knowing the bees are ok than not to and find later that they have died.

Sunday 4th March

Well the weather people were right! I guess the bees weren’t out foraging the catkins and the cherry plum blossom for a couple of days. As I write the temperature is about 9 degrees and it feels positively balmy with a massive thaw underway. Lots of water around. For us it seemed to be a major event but to the bees it was just weather which they avoided by staying inside and keeping warm. Such is life. Maybe there are lessons which we can learn from our eusocial friends?

Sunday 25th February 2018

What have we done this week? The weather people have forecast very cold conditions for next week and so we have been around all of the bees to check their food levels. Fondant has been distributed to colonies which were active and up near the feedhole
Bees keep warm by eating. They form a cluster (cuddle up) inside the hive in cold weather and the bees on the inside eat honey which gives them the energy to vibrate the middle section of their bodies, the thorax, by dislocating their flight muscles from their wings. This activity generates heat in the thorax and it’s shared out to the bees within the cluster. There is a mantle of bees (2 or 3 bees thick) which insulate the cluster and keep the heat in. These are generally the older bees which prefer cooler conditions. The temperature is maintained at around 30 degrees centigrade within the cluster and it is raised to 34 degrees when brood rearing begins (when the queen begins to lay eggs again after her winter rest).
We had a look at the observation hive in the Education centre this week and the queen has already been busy because we saw some sealed brood which will begin to produce new bees in a week or so. When the larvae is 5 days old the bees cap the cell with a predominantly wax lid so that the larvae can undergo metamorphosis – we beekeepers call this sealed brood. Our observation hive in the bee barn is showing no signs of eggs or larvae yet on the outside combs but maybe there is some in the inside surfaces which we cannot see yet. Seeing the first sealed brood is very exciting for BEEKS (beekeeping geeks). We live very sheltered lives.
Martins “Very interesting and surprising bit of information” from the Somerset lecture day last week came from Professor Michael Keith- Lucas from the University of Reading. He is a pollen specialist and can tell what flowers the bees have been working on by identifying the microscopic pollen grains in honey. Bees make honey from nectar which is the sugary secretions exuded from flowers. They collect pollen as a separate product and it is processed and stored in the wax cells as a protein rich and probiotic ingredient used to make royal jelly to feed the queen bee and to make food for the babies (larvae). There are always traces of pollen in honey in much the same as you will get traces of nuts in food which has been produced in a factory that also handles nuts! Anyway he found that in analysing hundreds of jars of honey that the most common pollen grains found were those of oilseed rape. No surprise there as many beekeepers take their bees to the rape to cash in on the abundance of high sucrose nectar. The next most common pollen was a real surprise though. Dandelion came in third place (we probably knew that). Dandelions are ultra-important for our bees. The second place goes to………………forget-me-nots! I was gobsmacked. Then I did a bit of research (from a book not on the internet) and found in Plants and Beekeeping by F N Howes that the forget- me- not pollen is so prevalent in honey because the forget-me–not flower tube which the bees stick their tongues down to suck up the nectar is so narrow that the bee cannot help but dislodge large amounts of the pollen which then gets mixed up with nectar. The pollen is absolutely miniscule and so gets processed into honey by default much more than the pollen of other flowers. So there! Just an example of how statistics can be totally misleading.
Not to say that forget-me-nots aren’t important for pollinators If you want to sit in your garden and watch and hear bees: forget-me-nots are still good value for money and they are easy peasy to grow and maintain. We will be putting them in the home apiary this spring.

Sunday 18th February 2018

This week Martin and I have been busy on every level: practical and cerebral! On Monday we   recycled old brood and super frames. These are the wooden frames which have been used by the bees to hold their wax combs for storing honey and for housing larvae and pupae before they hatch out to become bees. We melted out all of the old wax earlier in the year and refined it by filtering it through old pillow cases in our amazing Apimeltor machine. This has been sold to a local furniture restoration company to be made into polish. The manky old wooden frames were then boiled up on Monday in in a soda solution. Br Adam used to have a massive cauldron heated by electricity to do this job but those facilities are now history so we did our job outside by building a fire and chocking up a large metal drum on breeze blocks above it. Frames were boiled up in batches. It took all day but we cleaned and sterilised more than 500 frames ready to be used again this spring. Replacing the old and well used combs is an important part of our hygiene and husbandry programme needed to keep the bees healthy. We had to wear all of the safety gear which was uncomfortable and arduous but absolutely necessary. We only do this once a year and I loathe the actual day but am so pleased when it is done. Martin loves it! Something to do with men and fire………

We moved some bees from the teaching apiary to a new apiary site at Dean Prior. This site is only for a few hives but gives us some flexibility for placing nucleus hives during queen rearing.

We both attended bee conferences on Saturday: Martin went to Somerton for the Somerset BBKA Lecture day and I trolled down to the Eden Project for the BIBBA (Bee Improvers and Bee Breeders Association) conference: Sustainable Beekeeping: A future Without Imports. I will get Martin to summarise his experience tomorrow but my day was great. I love listening to everyone’s point of view about bees and the Dark European honey bee conservation people really do have some valid points. A much stated aspiration from many of the black bee brigade is to stop importation of queen bees from abroad. These mass produced queens come from all over the world in their thousands every year and many think that they are not only unsuitable for our climate and the amount of forage we have to share but also make it difficult for the native “Black bees” to remain pure. Others love them! Certainly they are cheap and are often gentle and prolific in the first couple of generations when they are displaying “hybrid vigour” but thereafter they can become aggressive and very average. Not sustainable for the beekeeper but very nice for the dealers who then get to sell more to replace the not so nice F2 generations.
I loved Norman Carreck’s view (Sussex University) that there is no such thing as a ”perfect bee” and that locally adapted bees are best because they build up immunity to the local strains of disease and pathogens. Did you know that chalk brood or EFB has regional variations?

It is a very hot potato and I have friends who have polar opposite views on this situation. I can see both sides but have to say that here at Buckfast we work with what we have got and try to select from our best colonies rather than doing any kind of specific hybridisation.

Celandines are just coming out (lesser) and the first cherry plums are blossoming. Hurrah! Today I saw bees working the gorse and the bell heather and we saw the corresponding orange and buff coloured pollens going into the hives at the community apiary.

Sunday 11th February 2018

Well I’m just about fed up with winter now and I’m eager for spring to begin in earnest. This time of year seems to me to be infuriatingly erratic with tantalising glimpses of sunshine sandwiched between indelicate slices of cold winds and rain. During the warmer moments the bees are dashing out for a comfort break (they have to be desperate to have a poo inside the hive) and to gather nectar and pollen from some of the early spring flowers such as the beautiful snowdrops and crocuses which have appeared all around the home apiary. They are also working back their winter stores which will undoubtedly contain a fair bit of ivy honey. By now this will be solid in the cells and the bees need a water source nearby in order to work it back. They do this by squirting water on the surface of the honey and then scrubbing it up with the little brush which they have on the end of their tongues so that they make a kind of syrup which can be sucked up and used as a food. Water is collected by bees and stored in their honey sac (a kind of internal pocket) in the same way as nectar is stashed for transport. They prefer to suck water from wet soil or moss rather than to risk drowning in a river or deep pond. They like it too be warmed up as well so the beekeeper can help a lot by creating a water source in a spot that gets a bit of sun during the day.

We are checking our colonies weekly for food stores now by “hefting” them. This technique of lifting one side of the hive up from the stand gives us an idea about how much winter stores the bees have left. If we are not sure we err on the side of caution and give the bees a slab of fondant for them to snack on until the weather allows for more reliable foraging. This bit of extra care can make the difference between life and death for a colony and although it isn’t as nutritious as food which they have made for themselves they generally only take it if they need it so it is a brilliant insurance.