Tag Archives: fondant

First hive inspection of 2015

Ribes

Ribes …

The first hive inspection of the year always involves a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Although observing activity at the hive entrance – foragers returning with pollen – or the use of clear crownboards gives an indication of how well the colony has overwintered, it’s only when the box is opened and the frames are inspected that a proper evaluation of the colony is possible. There’s little to be gained from inspecting too early however tempting it might be … until there’s a reasonable level of new brood it’s not really possible to judge overwintering performance. I wait for a settled, warm few days. With the exception of 2011 which had an unseasonably warm spring (I was queen rearing in mid-April) suitable weather usually coincides with the flowering of ornamental currants (Ribes sanguineum) which attracts lots of attention from bees.

Don't do this at home ...

Don’t do this at home …

Last Friday (10th April) the weather was warm and settled and I inspected a dozen colonies and overwintered 5 frame nucs. With two exceptions the colonies were in pretty good order, with about 3-6 frames of brood, no evidence of DWV damaged bees, reasonable levels of stores and sufficient space for the queen to expand the brood nest. One colony appeared to have a failing or failed queen … she was present, but there was almost no brood (though what was present was worker, so she wasn’t a drone laying queen; DLQ). This colony was very small and had a very large amount of stores left. I suspect the colony are doomed and that the queen was either poorly mated last year, or is otherwise unfit for purpose. A second colony had a blocked hive entrance which I’ll post about next week. Two further colonies were in great condition though the plywood brood box they were occupying had almost completely delaminated and will need replacing very soon.

The strongest colony, overwintered on a “brood and a half” (a brood box over a full honey super) had expanded up into the eke that had contained a block of fondant. The bees were beautifully calm as I tidied up the box for the coming season. Only one of the queens I found (10/12) was not marked and I suspect she was a late season supercedure last year. The last full inspection was mid/late August and there was ample time and good weather after that for the colony to have replaced her successfully. The final task of the afternoon was to find and scrub clean the Correx Varroa trays and put them in place for a week to count the early season mite drop (which isn’t really a particularly accurate way to determine Varroa infestation for reasons that will be covered later this year).

All around there were signs that the season was gathering pace … loads of foragers were slurping up water from dirty puddles in the track, presumably to help use crystallised stores, the apple trees in the hedgerows were covered in blossom and the oil seed rape (OSR) buds looked ready to break in the next week or so.

So lots to be excited about and no need for the apprehension 🙂

 

Isolation starvation

Early Spring in the apiary

Early Spring in the apiary

During the autumn I united all but one of the weaker colonies in my apiaries (uniting the small colony with a large, healthy colony … there’s little to be gained by uniting weak colonies together at that time of year). The one small colony that did go into the winter has recently succumbed during the extended cold period we’ve had. On a day when other colonies had flying bees bringing in early pollen this one was suspiciously quiet. I lifted the crownboard and found a classic case of isolation starvation. The small cluster of bees were stuck with their heads buried in cells, despite the presence of sealed stores no more than 15cm away. There was no sign of disease, just a pathetic little cluster of bees. My records from the autumn indicated I thought this colony was “a bit on the small side … we’ll see”.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

You can see in the image that the bees had started rearing brood – there are about 30 capped cells in the picture and a few on the adjacent frame. There were good levels of pollen in the frames and sealed stores around the edge of several of the frames. However, in the prolonged cold snap the clustered bees were presumably unable to relocate to the stores and so perished.

Strong overwintered colony

Strong overwintered colony

Although all my other colonies had flying bees I took advantage of the sunny afternoon to add a block of fondant to them all, under a reversible insulated crownboard. I use the leftover fondant from autumn feeding which I’ve kept wrapped in plastic in the garage in a big box. The fondant is chopped up and stuffed into “carry-out” plastic food containers and covered with a sheet of thick plastic with a hole cut in the middle. Don’t use cling film to cover the fondant as the bees chew it up and make a terrible mess. Adding the fondant takes moments … a quick waft of smoke at the entrance, remove the roof, take the insulation out of the crownboard, lift the crownboard (giving it a sharp bash on the side to drop adhering bees onto the tops of the frames), add the fondant block near the cluster, replace the inverted crownboard, add the insulation on top and replace the roof. It takes longer to write than to do.

It’s even easier to add fondant to the Everynuc poly nucs. These have come through the winter really well and are bursting with bees. It takes seconds to peel back the plastic crownboard and slide a big lump of fondant into the feeder.

The added fondant should keep them going until either they need another top-up or the spring nectar flows start. Not long to go now 🙂

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

 

Reducing winter losses

A guaranteed way of reducing winter losses is to only overwinter colonies that are strong and healthy.  Although colony losses can occur for several reasons (e.g. starvation) researchers in Switzerland have shown that high levels of the parasitic mite Varroa and deformed wing virus (DWV), which the mite transmits, are the primary cause of overwintering colony losses. It is therefore important to minimise mite numbers in the colony in early autumn, preferably by treating with a miticide early enough for the queen to have time to lay up more frames before the weather gets too cold. Many mite treatments (e.g. Apiguard and MAQS) stop queens laying.

High levels of DWV

High levels of DWV …

I completed Apiguard treatment of my colonies by mid-September but noticed that one still contained lots of bees showing the characteristic symptoms of DWV infection – atrophied wing development, stunted abdomens and a generally dark coloration. In the photograph (right) there are at least 5 bees visible with these symptoms, one of which also has a phoretic mite attached (lower right hand corner). This colony had failed to build up after a mid-season setback. It was only taking limited amounts of fondant down and the flying bees were bringing back only small amounts of pollen (in marked contrast to neighbouring colonies that – now the Apiguard is off – are piling in huge amounts of pollen for the winter). There were also signs of sacbrood virus which often requires re-queening to eradicate. The queen was still laying, but there was only a frame and a half of sealed brood.

At this stage in the season there is no real chance this colony could build up sufficiently to overwinter successfully. It’s not simply dependent upon the size of the colony, it’s also the vigour. After all, it’s reasonably straightforward to overwinter Apidea or Kieler mini-nucs with a bit of care. These have far fewer bees present than the colony photographed above.

Shake them out

Shake them out …

If the colony had been healthy, but small, I would have united it with another over newspaper. However, I wanted to minimise exposure of other colonies to the brood so instead removed the queen, moved the colony to another corner of the apiary and shook all the bees out. The healthy flying bees should be able to get accepted by another colony. The symptomatic bees would be lost. Although there was a risk that bees carrying phoretic mites would get back to other colonies I carefully checked the frames before shaking them out and saw almost no mites. In due course I’ll treat these remaining colonies with oxalic acid. I subsequently uncapped a frame or so of brood and found almost 50% of capped pupae were mite-associated.

Figures collected and published by the BBKA indicate that, on average in England, ~20% of colonies are lost each winter. In particularly hard winters, such as 2012/13, losses can be significantly higher than this, reaching over 50% in certain regions of the country.

Annual colony losses

Annual colony losses

Aside from ensuring adequate stores are present in late autumn, with hives in good condition to provide protection from the elements, the best way to minimise overwintering losses is to not try and overwinter weak or diseased colonies. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind …

Buy!

Nasdaq sugar futures

Nasdaq sugar futures

Sugar prices are set on the world commodity futures markets and can vary significantly. These variations eventually filter down to influence the price we pay in the supermarket. This was obvious when I was stocking up on fondant at BFP Wholesale today. This time last year I paid about 15% more for 12.5 kg blocks … today they were under a tenner. Therefore now is a good time to stock up (and going by the graph the prices may drop further, but I’d run out so had no choice). Fondant keeps quite well in a cool dry place as long as you keep it wrapped up and out of the reach of mice.

Although the one-off cost of 25 blocks is not insignificant, it’s a relatively small outlay when you compare it to the value of the (stolen) honey it’s being used to replace. I’ve not yet done the sums, but have probably averaged 75-100 lb of honey from each production colony this year. It’s been a very good season. Each colony will get 1 – 1.5 blocks of fondant over the next month or so to keep them going until next Spring, with additional being used for overwintering nucs.

312.5 kg of fondant

312.5 kg of fondant …

 

Feeding fondant

Feeding fondant

Feeding fondant …

With the season nearly over, now is the time to feed the colonies well and treat for mites so they have the best chance of overwintering successfully. I almost exclusively use fondant blocks for autumn feeding. I prefer feeding fondant to using syrup or Ambrosia for several reasons:

  • I don’t have to spend hours over the stove making syrup from hot water and granulated sugar or collecting gallons of Ambrosia from our co-operative purchased tanks
  • I don’t need any specialist additional equipment (such as Ashforth or Miller feeders) which need storing for 11 months a year. Fondant is simply added under the crownboard (see below).
  • Fondant appears to attract fewer wasps and doesn’t encourage robbing by other bees, possibly because there are no spillages using it.
  • I think fondant encourages later brood rearing as the bees take it down more slowly than syrup, so the brood nest never gets packed out with stores leaving the queen nowhere to lay.

I first heard about autumn feeding with fondant from Peter Edwards who provides excellent justification and instructions. Most of my colonies have perspex crownboards with an inbuilt eke on one side. The 50 mm gap isn’t enough to accommodate a big block of fondant, but addition of a simple eke from 46 x 22 mm softwood provides sufficient space, and the eke (unlike the Ashforth feeders) is both inexpensive to make and has lots of other uses.

Fondant (often called Bakers fondant) can be purchased from places likes BFP Wholesale who have depots around the UK and offer competitive pricing – particularly if you purchase ten or more 12.5 kg boxes at once. At the very least you are likely to need one 12.5 kg block per colony. Prepare the fondant by cutting a block in half along the long axis. Cover the cut faces with a single sheet of clingfilm (if you don’t do this they ‘fuse’ back together and are tricky to separate again), reassemble the block and put it back in the box for easy transport.

Insulation in place

Insulation in place …

Feeding with fondant is simplicity itself … having removed the supers to extract the honey I leave the queen excluder in place. I add the shallow eke and place the block of fondant with the cut face down on the queen excluder. I replace the perspex crownboard inverted, and balance the insulation block on top, before replacing the roof. You can use an empty super in place of the eke and inverted crownboard but – with luck – they’re all full of frames ready to extract if it’s been a good season. I add Apiguard at the same time, rather than feeding and treating for mites at different times. There’s little late season forage here, so not a lot to be gained from delaying feeding.

The colonies take the fondant down over the next days and weeks. This happens at very different rates. Some of my colonies have already taken at least a quarter of a block (3+ kg) in about a week, with others barely touching it yet. However, by mid-late October I expect most to have emptied the blue plastic bag the fondant is supplied in. I then remove the ’empties’ and the queen excluder on a warm day and wrap the hives in DPM to prevent woodpecker damage. If the bees haven’t finished the fondant it can be left on overwinter, with any remaining being dissolved to make a stimulative 1:1 feed in the spring. Fondant has a long shelf life. If kept wrapped, cool and away from mice it will keep well over a year.

Hivebarrow and fondant

Hivebarrow and fondant

Hivebarrow

Hivebarrow

The nuc box is empty 😉

Beekeeping involves a lot of lifting and carrying. In a good season this hopefully includes removing supers full of honey for extraction, each weighing perhaps 30 lb or more. Carrying these any distance is hard work, and carrying them over rough ground in a full beesuit on a hot day is crippling. Carrying a full hive, alone, any distance is also a thorough test of back, shoulder and arm strength. To make these tasks easier you could:

  • avoid apiaries you can’t get near to in a car
  • buy a Landrover
  • recruit a strong friend to help

All highly commendable, but not necessarily achievable. An alternative is to build a hivebarrow.

Wheelbarrow

B&Q wheelbarrow

Beg, borrow or steal a wheelbarrow (or even buy one, in which case get one with a galvanised frame). The condition of the tray is immaterial, but the frame should be sound. For rough or muddy ground a wheelbarrow with a large pneumatic tyre is preferable. Finally, if you have a choice, get one in which the attachment points of the tray are horizontal when the barrow is standing (why will become obvious later). I bought a galvanised one with a plastic tray from B&Q for about £40.

Front edge only

Front lip only

The precise construction details are dependent upon the wheelbarrow frame you’ve acquired. I built the platform from a single piece of 18mm thick exterior plywood, 52cm x 52cm. I braced this underneath using two pieces of 46mm x 21mm softwood. You should only fit a ‘lip’ at the front – to stop boxes sliding forward when it’s in use – omit them from the sides and the back as this makes lifting boxes on and off easier and allows you to transport items wider than the platform (such as paving slabs). Finally, I fitted four pieces of 9mm stripwood on the top – this again makes lifting boxes easier and means you don’t have to recess the heads of the bolts holding the platform to the frame. Over time I expect these to get damaged but they can easily be replaced if necessary.

M8 bolt and cross brace

M8 bolt & cross brace

M8 nut and washer

M8 nut & washer – top view

I bolted the platform to the frame using M8 bolts, with large washers to spread the load and standard and nylon lock nuts so they don’t shake loose over time. I then gave it several coats of preservative and, before use, took the axle apart, greased it well and reassembled it. You will need to use ratchet straps to stop hives or stacked supers from shifting during transport. Use two, front to back and side to side, and strap them down tight. Believe me, over rough ground, one is not sufficient! Finally, for those “more than three feet but less than three miles” moves (such as across the garden) you can use a hivebarrow with a horizontal platform as a temporary stand, simply moving the colony a few feet every few days.

Oh yes … I’ve named my hivebarrow Buster after the Viz cartoon character, Buster Gonad.

More poly nucs

Paynes 8 frame poly nuc

No space for a divider 8-(

The poly nuc marketed by Paynes can be usefully converted into an eight frame box by getting rid of the internal (infernal) feeder as previously discussed. I’d hoped to divide these into two, adding a second entrance, to use for queen mating. Two or three frame nucs take more bees but need less maintenance than mini-nucs. However, the eight frame box is fractionally too narrow to split down the middle to create two four frame nucs, even using a thin sheet of Correx. The central entrance – at least in the original versions of these boxes – is also poorly designed and would have needed modification.

The final product

The final product

Until 2014 there were no generally available National poly nucs other than the Paynes offering (this is in the UK; Thorne’s have recently introduced one). I therefore purchased some Langstroth poly nucs from ModernBeekeeping in the sales. These are very high quality poly nucs. They are the Paradise Honey Bee Box’s, made out of very dense poly, with a separate removable open mesh floor. They also have a good thick roof – far superior to the Paynes box. They have the additional advantage of being designed to be divided, with lugs in the end panels, a shallow slot in the floor and twin entrances at opposite ends. The only drawback to these boxes is the sculptured exterior which makes painting them tiresome. I used 2-3 coats of thinned masonry paint.

Internal fittings

Internal fittings

I wanted to retain the option to use these as standard 6-7 frame nucs in the future, so designed a removable divider that (non-destructively) created two x three frame nucs. Being Langstroth’s, they’re significantly bigger than a National box. However, with a little ingenuity, this extra space can be used to create an internal feeding compartment for fondant or sugar. In the first boxes I converted I blocked the top of the feed compartment with a removable scrap of perspex and drilled through the end panel. I’m going to try some this year without the perspex … simply allowing the bees to clamber over the end panel to access the fondant.

Perspex cover

Perspex cover

I used these boxes for queen mating late in the season in 2013. I divided a colony – with the addition of a few frames of stores – to create five three frame nucleus colonies, four of which were queenless and housed in these three frame poly nucs. The queen from the donor hive went into a dummied down standard nuc with a frame of stores and brood. I moved the poly nucs to a separate apiary, added a sealed queen cell and got them all successfully mated. These small colonies were appreciably stronger than a mini-nuc and were better able to defend themselves against wasps (Kieler mini-nucs in the same apiary were robbed out by wasps). The bees did well in these boxes, soon built up and were moved on to larger colonies. Since it’s possible to overwinter colonies in Kielers, I see no reason why a strong three frame nuc – or rather two of them – wouldn’t be OK in anything but the harshest winter in one of these modified hives.

Construction

Glued and screwed

Glued and screwed

Construction is relatively simple, requiring little more than a sheet of 6mm ply, some offcuts from the scraps box, some softwood, a couple of G clamps, wood glue, screws and – inevitably – Elastoplast. I used the central divider as a sort of spine, to which I attached 15mm ply end panels, spaced the correct distance apart to fit a National frame. The easiest way to do this is to add some 8mm – beespace – softwood to the sidebars of a brood frame and then just mark where to attach the end panels to the divider. The four end panels need to be glued and screwed in place, using a set square to ensure they are perpendicular to the divider, and clamped until secure. It is easiest to make all the modifications (below) to these end panels before fitting them in place. The top edge of the divider is widened by the addition of two thin strips of softwood (3mm x 15mm) which extend to create the lugs that separate the original frame rests of the box.

Access to feeder

Access to feeder

The ‘entrance’ end panel must be clear of the floor, the other one must reach all the way to the floor. The entrance end panel also needs 6mm softwood spacers on the back to protect the small poly lugs that hold the central divider in place. The other one can have a hole drilled through it and covered with a scrap of queen excluder (though see additional comments above as to whether this is necessary – work in progress). Both end panels will need frame rests on the upper edge – those horrible plastic ones provided with Thorne’s second quality supers are just fine. The original boxes are top bee space and this is the way I’ve arranged mine.

Correx entrance block

Correx entrance block

Running two colonies side by side is straightforward, but you need to ensure that each side is bee tight and that you can work with one colony without disturbing the other too much. I use a thick plastic crown board, fitted to the central divider with drawing pins. The bees can’t propolise this stuff down too easily, I can see enough through it to see colony expansion and it’s easy to peel back and hold down with you hive tool when you need access. Once it gets too mucky it can easily and cheaply be replaced. Don’t purchase the entrance reducers from ModernBeekeeping (as they’re a daft price) … use Correx offcuts instead, with different colours to help the bees orientate back to the colony.

 

Leftover fondant

Fondant

Fondant

If you feed fondant rather than syrup in the autumn, or provide underweight colonies fondant in the spring, or use fondant to feed mini-nucs for queen rearing you’ll inevitably end up with leftover lumps. Some of these will be dry and pitted, some will have bits of bees embedded, some will have brace comb or lumps of propolis adhering. All can be used.

Just mix these leftovers 1:1 by weight with hot water to make syrup for spring feeding or – in my case – for Bailey comb changes. Fondant is about 85-90% sugar, so a 1:1 mix is actually a  bit thin, but it saves doing the maths accurately and will all be used. By mixing with boiling water from the kettle everything should be sterilised.

Just remember that all that wax and propolis will melt in the hot water and will form a scummy ‘tidemark’ around the edge of the saucepan. Ideally use a saucepan dedicated for the task or, like me, discover that a half cup of washing powder and some elbow grease will restore the pan to its original condition.