Tag Archives: spring

Completely floored

It’s still too cold to undertake a full hive inspection (it might not be with you as I discussed last week) but one task that should take place in early Spring – whatever the weather – is cleaning the hive floor.

Knee-deep in corpses

Bees knees anyway.

During the winter the colony is much less active. Low temperatures mean there are few opportunities for workers to drag out and dispose of the corpses of their half-sisters. Consequently, depending upon the attrition rate (which in turn is at least partly dependent on the level of virulent strains of DWV in the colony), a layer of dead and increasingly foosty bees can build up on the hive floor.

Winter debris ...

Winter debris …

On open mesh floors this usually isn’t a major problem. On solid floors, particularly when there’s a bit of damp as well, it can get pretty unsanitary. Whatever the floor type, in due course the bees will clear the floor once the season has warmed sufficiently. However, cleaning and replacing the floor is a 30 second task that causes very little disruption and gives the colony a hygienic start to the season.

(Almost) smokefree zones

Place a cleaned floor adjacent to the colony. Gently insert the flat of the hive tool between the floor and the bottom of the brood box and make sure they’re separate. Often this joint isn’t heavily propolised (in comparison to the crownboard) and is easy to split. Lift the brood box and gently place it onto the adjacent clean floor, remove the old floor and slide the colony back into the original position. The entire process takes longer to read than to complete.

You can replace the floor without smoking the colony, particularly on a cool day with little hive activity. However, a very gentle waft of smoke across the entrance will push the bees up and out of the way. If you’re quick, gentle and use a tiny puff of smoke it’s possible to swap the old floor out without a single bee coming out to investigate things.

A clean start

The removed floor needs to be cleaned. Scrape away the corpses with the hive tool. Assuming the floor is wooden, with or without mesh, it can then be scorched with a blowtorch before being pressed back into service. If the floor is poly the blowtorch is not advisable 😉 After scraping off the lumpy debris it needs to be scrubbed thoroughly with a strong washing soda solution.

Scorching ...

Scorching …

In a busy apiary it’s possible to spend a happy hour or so removing, scraping, scorching and replacing in a cycle, meaning that you only need one additional floor than the number of hives.

 

Too much, too soon

When does the beekeeping season start?

Some would argue that it’s the time of the year when you prepare colonies for the winter. After all, without good winter preparation there’s unlikely to be a beekeeping season. Others might consider it’s the beginning of the calendar year, just after the longest nights of the year when beekeeping is but a distant memory and all you can do is plan (and build frames).

Ribes sanguineum ...

Ribes sanguineum …

However, perhaps a more logical start of the beekeeping season is the first full hive inspection. This varies from year to year, depending upon the weather. Many consider the full flowering of Ribes sanguineum, the ornamental flowering current, to be a good indicator that the season is underway and that colonies can be inspected. However, the time this plant flowers appears to vary depending upon how sheltered its location is (and possibly the particular cultivar). There’s some in a very sheltered spot approaching the bus station in St. Andrews that was flowering in mid-February this year. Too early by far.

Macho beekeeping

It’s worth stressing here that not only is there season to season variation, there’s also geographic variation. It gets warmer in the South before the North (at least for the ~95% of the readers of this site who live in the Northern hemisphere). If you’re fortunate enough to live in the uncluttered, quiet, pollution-free, traffic-free and scenic (clearly I’m biased 😉 ) North, don’t be misled by the discussions on the online forums of 8 frames bursting with sealed brood in late March.

Not what it seems ...

Not what it seems …

Firstly, the poster might actually live in Northern Spain. You can be anything you want on the internet … and anywhere you want. Secondly, some contributors exaggerate when describing their activities and successes (or failures for that matter). Some who, while stressing the fantastic build-up of their Carniolan colonies, conveniently omit to mention they are an overseas breeder and exporter of – you guessed it – Carniolan queens. An omission, but also as the late Alan Clark said, somewhat economical with the actualité. Finally, there’s also a sort of chest-beating macho amongst some where the poster describes pulling colonies apart very early in the season – essentially bragging about the strength of the colonies and their beekeeping prowess.

Use your own judgement about when to open a colony in the early part of the year. Don’t blindly follow the recommendations of others (or me for that matter). The ‘when’ really needs to be informed by the ‘why’.

Not when, but why?

Opening colonies is disruptive. The propolis-sealed crownboard is removed and the colony – even with the gentlest manipulation – is disturbed. There needs to be a good reason to go rummaging through a brood box. That isn’t a justification to not inspect colonies. Just make sure there’s a good reason to compensate for the disruption.

The first inspection should be a quick progress check. Is everything OK? It shouldn’t be a full-blown inspection in which every frame is carefully scrutinised for signs of brood diseases. You’re simply trying to determine whether the queen is laying well, that she’s laying worker brood rather than drone brood and that the colony have sufficient stores and space to expand

All that can be determined in a couple of minutes. You don’t need to see the queen, though it’s not unusual to spot her as the colony is probably relatively sparsely populated. If the box is stuffed with stores consider replacing a frame on the side of the brood nest with a frame of drawn comb. It’s almost certainly too early to only provide foundation.

Outside and inside

Spring is appreciably later in Fife, Scotland than in the South of England. At the time of writing (~8/9th of April) it’s rarely been much above the low teens Centigrade. Colonies are working well during the warmest part of the day, but there’s still a chill in the wind and little point in opening the majority of hives.

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The exception are the hives in the bee shed. Based on my experience last year these colonies are 2-3 weeks more advanced than those outside. On a warm day – yesterday just reached 15°C – the temperature inside the shed was almost 20°C. Three of the colonies were giving me cause for concern. One was a poly nuc that seemed very active. The other two were hives headed by purchased queens from last season – these had gone into the winter well and had been flying on borderline days in midwinter. However, having been away for most of March, I’d noticed they were much quieter than other hives when I checked the entrances in early April.

The strong nuc was doing reassuringly well. It had nearly four frames of brood and last years’ marked and clipped queen laying well. The brood pattern was a bit patchy, but I’ll reserve judgement until later in the season when there’s ample pollen and nectar coming into the hive, together with a full complement of workers to support the queen.

In contrast, the two hives were almost devoid of bees. Both queens had clearly failed in the winter as there was no brood. There was no sign of overt disease (in the few remaining bees) and mite drop had been low in autumn and during the midwinter treatment. I suspect that the queens were poorly mated. Disappointing, but these things happen.

Looking back

I have yet to look in any other colonies. It needs to warm up significantly before I do. It’s interesting to compare the development of this season with previous years – and to have some notes I can refer back to in the future. As I write this (remember, it’s the 8/9th of April):

  • Fieldfares are still present, although clearly in reduced numbers and drifitng North.
  • I have yet to see any house martins or swallows (update – saw both mid-morning on Friday 14th, but still only 9°C).
  • Only about 5% of the oil seed rape is flowering (not necessarily a good comparison as different strains can flower at different times).
  • Primroses are at their peak but neither bluebells or wild garlic are flowering yet.
Primroses ...

Primroses …

Regional climatic differences are a significant influence on colony development. Remember this as you plan your early season inspections and – particularly if you are a relatively new beekeeper – when you compare how your colonies are doing with those reported by others elsewhere.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering the importance of relative colony development between colonies in the same apiary. A single colony that is developing slowly might be being held back because of poor weather. However, if you have two colonies to compare, one that is obviously retarded might be cause for concern … and should be checked for disease or a failing queen.

This is a good example of when it is beneficial to have two colonies to compare.


Too much, too soon

Too much, too soon was a 1958 biographical film about the actress Diana Barrymore starring Dorothy Malone and Errol Flynn. The film, based on a best selling book of the same name, describes the life of the alcoholic movie star and was pretty-much panned by the critics.

Not one to set the recorder for …

Beekeepers’ holidays

It can be tricky balancing the annual cycle of beekeeping activities with maintaining family responsibilities and domestic bliss. At least, I’m told I find it tricky 😉  Holidays, in particular, are problematic. I’m talking here about beekeepers’ holidays not beekeeping holidays, which are an entirely different thing. Many of the standard “family holiday” periods overlap with key events in the beekeeping calendar … and because the latter is influenced by the weather, it’s difficult to predict a few days ahead, let alone the 6-9 months that appear to be required to arrange a fortnight’s yacht charter in the Bahamas§.

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

With good weather, colony build-up is going to be full-on in April, and in a really good year you can be starting queen rearing at Easter if it is late in the month. May is when the swarming season starts … and ends in June, just in time for the “June gap” to start which (in a bad year) might require colonies to be fed. The summer months of July and August are busy with the main flow, preparing colonies for the heather or harvesting (and possibly more queen rearing). September means Varroa treatments should be applied and colonies should be fed syrup or fondant for the winter. And then midwinter is interrupted by oxalic acid treatment (or Api-Bioxal if you’re the type of beekeeper who can afford Bahamian cruises), checking stores etc. And almost all of the timings above can be plus or minus at least a fortnight to take account of the vagaries of the weather.

February and November might be provisionally free … which creates another weather-related problem. Firstly – if honey sales have gone well during the year (and they’ll need to have been good as the 90m Athena is an eye-watering $350,000/week) – you’ll not want to be going island-hopping in the Bahamas in November as it’s still the hurricane season. Secondly, if your knees are as bad as many beekeepers’ backs, skiing in February might be a non-starter even if snow is available.

Less is more …

… likely to avoid you losing a swarm. The duration of the family holiday is also an issue. Inspections really need to be conducted at 7 day intervals during the main part of the season – say late-April to late-July. A fortnight away can mean missing the development of queen cells which are capped on the ninth day, at which point the prime swarm with your queen and foraging workforce disappear over the apiary fence. Not only do you return to a rather emptier hive, but your chance of a good honey crop has just been significantly reduced. You can increase the inspection interval to 10 days if you clip your queens, but that’s still four days short of the fortnight.

Queen rearing, from colony preparation, through grafting, cell raising and getting the virgin queens mated, takes about a month and – although not hugely time-consuming – is very-much time-critical. Getting to your cell raiser a day late might mean you have a box with one virgin running about and a pile of virgin queen corpses.

Apiary in Andalucia

Apiary in Andalucia

Nevertheless, with a little preparation, an appreciation of colony development and your fingers firmly crossed it is possible to get away during the beekeeping season without too many problems.

Holiday solutions

It seems to me that there are three obvious solutions …

  1. Go between late autumn and early spring, to the southern hemisphere if you’re after some warm sunshine. Or to Aspen or Whistler for the skiing if your knees are up to it.
  2. Get a friend to look after your colonies and go whenever you want. Depending how well behaved your colonies are, or the state you find them in on your return, this might only work once per friend 😉
  3. Accept that some beekeeping activities will be interrupted, prepare well and go for a week.

My knees are a bit dodgy and I get more than enough long-haul with work commitments so option 1 doesn’t work for me. I’ve avoided option 2 as I either have too many colonies to think it’s reasonable to foist upon a beekeeping friend, or they’re so badly behaved I’m too embarrassed to ask. So option 3 is the only choice … which is why I didn’t post anything last week as I was enjoying the walking in the Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca.

Benjamin Franklin was right

Bait hives ...

Bait hives …

By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail. Sneaking off for a week just as swarming period was kicking off, with the best weather of the season predicted to arrive and the OSR in full flower, might have been asking for trouble. However, a little time spent on preparation helped avert disaster. Bait hives were put out near the apiaries. Remaining overwintered nucs were unceremoniously dumped into a full hive. Any colonies looking even vaguely crowded were given lots of additional space and almost all were on double broods by the time I left. Every full colony was given one additional empty super. Where necessary, one or two frames stuffed with stores were removed and replaced with foundation or drawn comb. Finally, all colonies were checked for queen cells and other obvious signs of swarm preparation the day before I left.

Nine days later I returned … none of the bait hives had been occupied, none of the colonies had swarmed, almost all of the colonies were doing precisely what they should have been doing which was building up strongly and filling the supers. Two in the bee shed were doing particularly well, having almost filled several supers. Pretty much everything was under control with the exception of one queenless colony that, the day before my departure, had been given a frame of eggs and young larvae but had failed to make any decent queen cells.

During my absence the weather in Fife was excellent … in contrast, I walked into this lot in the Tramuntana …

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca, Mallorca …

Despite not going on a beekeeping holiday, it’s still possible to see – and sample – some of the local beekeeping activities, as shown in the photos at the top of the page from Mallorca and Andalucia taken in previous trips.


§ I wish

 Just in case you’re thinking of buying bees from me please note that this is a rather poor joke 😉

As an aside … I’ve never seen an area with more hornets that this region of Southern Spain

Baby, it’s cold outside

Beekeepers in Scotland (and possibly elsewhere) should be aware that the continuing cold weather will mean that strong colonies may have dangerously low levels of stores. Brood rearing has started in earnest by now and the increased number of larvae mean that stores are depleted at a very much higher rate than a week or two ago. For exactly the same reason, colonies in which the queen fails in the winter or early Spring (see the post in a few days) can often be identified by significant levels of uneaten fondant or stores, even before you open the colony and properly inspect them.

I checked two colonies in the bee shed this morning. One is very strong; they’re already at 8+ frames of brood and even managed to store a little nectar in the super during two warm days last week. There are drones already present and more sealed drone cells on the way. There are even a couple of ‘play cups’ in evidence, but no charged queen cells.

Late April weather

Late April weather …

However, the most important thing that wasn’t present was stores. With the low temperatures predicted to continue for at least the next fortnight there’s a real danger of the colonies starving. I replaced one of the outside frames with a full frame of sealed stores to tide them over for a bit (alternatively I could have added a block of fondant or some thin syrup, but I keep frames of sealed stores for just this type of eventuality). When I next check them I’ll almost certainly give them a second brood box with some drawn comb and a couple more frames of stores. That way the colony can continue to expand without starving and I can use the extra brood to make up nucs for queen mating once the weather improves.

The National Bee Unit have also recently released a warning about the April double-whammy of low food levels and high mite levels … this includes the sentence “Some of you may not have gotten round to treating your colonies with oxalic acid as the weather was so mild in winter“.

Gotten? Really?

Anyway, their advice usefully includes ways to control high mite levels at this time of year. This includes Apistan and Amitraz-containing compounds (though resistance to the former is widespread) whereas treatments that are temperature-dependent for efficacy, such as Apiguard and MAQS, should be avoided. Alternatively, three treatments with vaporised oxalic acid would be effective.

Varroa tray ...

Varroa tray …

The mite levels in the colonies in the bee shed are very closely monitored using Varroa trays in sealed floor units (so none blow away or get dragged off and eaten by creepy-crawlies – mite drop numbers are notoriously poor at giving a proper measure of mite infestation levels). Since the 23rd of February – 62 days ago – the two colonies in the shed have dropped 3 mites each in total. These colonies only received vaporised oxalic acid treatment last season – as early as possible after the honey supers were removed and in midwinter.


Frank Loesser wrote Baby, it’s cold outside in 1944 and it was performed by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán in the 1949 film Neptune’s daughter – see the clip from the original film at the top of the page.

 

 

Ribes sanguineum

Ribes

Ribes …

It’s often said that the flowering of the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a good indicator of when to conduct the first hive inspection of the year. The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping and the excellent Get Started in Beekeeping by Adrian and Clare Waring (I consider the latter is one of the very best books for beginners) both contain this information. Of course, the advice is qualified by saying it should be a ‘shirtsleeve’ sort of day. I’ve even posted on this before, together with an image of the plant in full flower taken on the 11th of April in the Midlands. Today, more than a fortnight earlier than that photo was taken, I walked past a long row of them in full flower in St. Andrews.

Perhaps there are different strains of the flower as it still feels far too early to inspect colonies. The month has been consistently cool, with temperatures rarely into double figures, even in sheltered locations. Most colonies are starting to get busy, taking pollen in during the warmest couple of hours of the day. However, inspection of the bottom boards shows relatively little brood is being reared yet, with the characteristic darker nibbled wax cappings from only 2-3 frames at best. So … despite the indications of the flowering currant, I’d usually prefer to leave them in peace until they’ve built up a bit more.

Spares ...

Spares …

Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous day and the bees were flying strongly when I checked on them at the bee shed. It was just over 10°C outside in the sun, but a balmy 19°C inside the shed. I fired up the smoker, popped on a jacket and had a brief look through one of the colonies. Ample stores, ample space and – most encouragingly – about 5 good frames of brood with the queen calmly sauntering about looking to fill in the gaps around the edges of the frame I found her on. Lovely. I switched a couple of frames of partially used stores to the outside, swapping them for drawn comb, so the colony could expand into the space, and quickly tidied up and closed the colony. I was finished in less than 5 minutes.

While the smoker cooled down the few bees that had escaped made their way out through the windows, the colony settled quickly and I re-stacked some piles of spare equipment for the season ahead. It’ll still be a week or three before I open up other colonies, particularly those ‘outside’, but it’s good to be beekeeping again.

Going over

Two images from the last week showing the oilseed rape (OSR) going over. The first – from the last day of May – nicely sums up the weather we’ve enjoyed this Spring. The OSR is already fading fast.

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

The excellent Bablake School weather station recorded May 2015 as having more rain, less sunshine and colder temperatures than the 30 year average for Coventry. The average maximum temperature was 15.2ºC (1.4ºC lower than average) explaining the slow build-up of colonies. The OSR was in full flower before most colonies were able to fully exploit it and even strong colonies were hampered from foraging by the weather.

Yellow path ...

Yellow path …

And a week later (7th June) it’s gone. Typically, colonies that have been foraging on OSR get bad tempered once flowering is over. It’ll be interesting to see whether this happens this year when they’ve hardly had the opportunity to use the OSR. In the photo above it’s not clear why the only OSR flowering is along the footpath … I suspect these were slightly lower growing plants which were a bit more sheltered. Some of the sheltered field margins also had flowers lingering. However, there were almost no bees on the flowers and it’s effectively over for the year.

Bait hive – fail

The year continues to be unseasonably cool, with daytime maximum temperatures being at least a couple of degrees (ºC) below the thirty year average for this region. Nevertheless, colonies are building up reasonably well and some are starting to make preparations to swarm – drone brood levels are rising, the number of ‘play cups’ are increasing and one or two had queen cells at the last inspection.

Bait hives deployed

A small swarm

Swarm

In the hope that the temperature will increase and that swarming will occur I always put a few bait hives out in likely locations, including odd corners of my apiaries. Although my queens are all clipped and marked (I think) there’s one I’ve yet to spot this year and she just might have been superseded late last season. Clipping doesn’t stop swarming, but it stops the queen and the prime swarm disappearing over the fence to someone else’s bait hive or, worse, chimney. However, there’s a high density of beekeepers in this area and – going by the number of swarms and successful bait hives in previous seasons – some don’t practise effective swarm control. Last season I caught four swarms, though one was little more than a tiny cast, in bait hives.

Swarmtastic

I always have a bait hive in my garden. The sight of a swarm arriving is one of the truly great experiences in beekeeping and I’m far more likely to witness it there than the corner of a field. A day or two in advance the scout bees check the hive, repeatedly visiting in increasing numbers. They fly around the entrance, going in and out to determine the size of the cavity, then flying round and round the hive checking suitability. Many dozens can appear, standing around on the landing board (if there is one) seemingly discussing whether it is a ‘des res‘. They then disappear altogether. This is either because they’ve chosen a different site (other scout bees have been checking different locations and, as Tom Seeley describes in Honeybee democracy, they reach a consensus for the swarm) or because they’re busy leading the swarm to your bait hive.

Suddenly the sky fills with a whirling mass of bees that descend in a seemingly chaotic yet organised manner to the bait hive, ‘bearding’ at the entrance and gradually entering. This can take an hour or two and is a fantastic sight.

Epic fail

Although I’d seen no scout bees I periodically check all of my bait hives. I also top up the lemongrass oil, adding a couple of drops to the top bar of a frame. The bait hive in the corner of the garden was occupied … by a wasps nest attached to the starter strip in a foundationless frame.

Despite the beautiful architecture and the presence of a dozen or so wriggling larvae, they had to go. In late August this lot, or their progeny, would be terrorising my mini-nucs containing late-mating queens, robbing out weak colonies and causing a general nuisance during the honey harvest.

And the hawthorn is flowering …

Hawthorn

Hawthorn

Oilseed rape 2015

Almost exactly two months ago I photographed a farmer spraying the oilseed rape (OSR) crop. At the time it was about 5″ tall, with perhaps 4-6 leaves. Here’s an image (below) from the same gateway – it’s now in full flower and should be providing an orgy of nectar and pollen opportunities for colonies within range. However, the spring has been cold and many colonies have yet to build up properly. Our local weather station reports that last week was 2.6ºC below the average temperature for the 18th week of the year.

Oil seed rape

Oil seed rape

Yesterday was warmer, but ended in rain and it’s chucking it down as I write … it looks like the OSR won’t give a bumper crop this year. However, it looks set to reach 15ºC or more next week and a bit of warm and settled weather – although it might be too late for the majority of the OSR – means some of my generous neighbours might be donating some swarms for my bait hives 😉

In addition, the hawthorn is preparing to flower … this can be a good source of pollen and nectar, but beekeepers often apparently mistake it (not the tree, but the source of nectar being collected) for sycamore which flowers at the same time.

Hawthorn ...

Hawthorn …

So much for my queen rearing plans … that’s on hold for another week at least until the cell raisers are ready. In the meantime, I have identified some well-behaved colonies as a source of suitable larvae.

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 🙂

 

Sign of the times?

Spraying oil seed rape

Spraying oil seed rape

Farmers are complaining that the current ban on three neonicotinoids by the EU is making the crop more susceptible to pests and diseases (of which there are no shortage), so necessitating additional pesticide spraying with pyrethroid-based chemicals. Yesterday was a lovely day, with the bees flying strongly for the first time this year. Just over the hedge from one of my apiaries the farmer was out spraying. The crop looked healthy enough to me and there was no real risk to the bees as there’s nothing in the field to interest them at the moment. However, in a few weeks this field will be dazzling yellow colour and will be full of bees* … I hope that if additional spraying is necessary, for example to suppress pollen or flea beetles, the spraying can be done late in the evening to minimise spray damage to my bees.

* and should yield many supers-full of honey.